Thursday, November 09, 2006

But What About the First Amendment?

An essentially sympathetic friend perusing the blog comments that she could never think of herself as a Christian Democrat because “if the establishment clause means anything it has to mean my country is not a Christian democracy at its deep core.”

There is a lot in that pithy remark and I do not pretend to have a profound or complete answer. But I do have a superficial and partial answer.

Suppose for a moment a congress of Christian American leaders, belonging to diverse and disagreeing denominations gathered together to create a new governing document for our nation. What would be the first topic on their minds and what would they do about it?

Simple: The first topic, indeed the main point of such a congress would be to answer the question “how do we form a united government when we disagree profoundly on questions that go as deep as the relations of man with his Creator? How do we ‘e pluribus unum’?”

And the answer would be: “We pass the First Amendment.” It would be the first thing they would do, the thing without which they really could not expect to do anything else, democratically.

It was almost the first thing the Christians who founded this country did do, after agreeing on the basic machinery.

A people without strong religious feelings would never need the First Amendment. But a democracy of many Christian denominations could hardly do without it. Christians, at least American Christians, would want it for themselves even if there were not (which God forbid) a single non-Christian in the country. Christians would want the First Amendment even if they re-named the country (which good taste forbids) the United Christian States of America.

Now there are two narratives about how we got the First Amendment: the heroes of Protestant liberty narrative and the common sense prudential narrative (AKA the lawyers' story). Under the heroes of Protestant liberty narrative, of which Roger Williams is the usually the most heroic hero, not only religious liberty but non-establishment are understood to be invincible implications of at least Protestant theology and perhaps of the Gospels themselves.

If that narrative is historically true then the First Amendment is distinctly Christian as a matter of actual historical fact. But even if the heroes of Protestant liberty narrative is a mere latter day adornment to an eminently practical effort of law making, it remains true that the First Amendment is something a Christian nation, or at least a Christian America distinctly needs--at its deep core.


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