Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

McCain: Constitution Establishes America as “Christian Nation!”

In an interview for Belief.net, Sen. John McCain (R-NV), a candidate for U.S. president, claims that the Constitution of the United States establishes the country as a “Christian nation!”  Needless to say, most Constitutional scholars would disagree with this and church-state separationists should worry about a McCain presidency.  In the same interview, McCain says that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is a “non-issue” (though most mainline and evangelical Christians consider Mormanism to be a cult), but that he would object to a Muslim president (not that any Muslims are currently running).  That seems to violate Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution which forbids any religious tests for public office!

It’s hard to tell how serious McCain is about this.  The man who castigated Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in 2000 as “agents of intolerance” has tried to reinvent himself for this campaign as someone more acceptable to the Religious Right.  Whereas previously, he had emphasized lifelong membership in the Episcopal Church (the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion), he has recently been claiming membership in a Baptist church–though never baptized as an adult, which is usually a prerequisite for church membership for Baptists.  This Belief.net interview seems to be more of the same re-packaging.

But constituencies such as the Religious Right do not merely have to be wooed in campaigning, once in office, they must see evidence that their trust in you was justified.  So those of us who believe for theological reasons that the very idea of a “Christian nation” is unbiblical have reason to be worried.  So do those who are members of other faiths (e.g., Jews, Muslims, Buddhists) or no faith (agnostics, atheists).  What violations of the First Amendment’s ban on laws “respecting an establishment of religion” could we expect in a McCain presidency?  Continuation of Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives wherein tax dollars are used for religious purposes? Probably.  But what else?  And would non-Christian believers find McCain violating the First Amendment by restricting their “free exercise” of religious faith and practice?

In the Belief.net interview, McCain’s views on Islam seem to reinforce the view that the so-called “war on terror” is actually a religious war on Islam–a view that makes it harder for us to get cooperation with Muslims in tackling terrorist groups.

A McCain presidency seems risky, to say the least, to this Leveller–for whom church-state separation is a religious imperative.

September 30, 2007 - Posted by | church-state separation, U.S. politics


  1. As a matter of history of course the culture was clearly broad protestantism. There was a tolerance of Catholics, Jews, atheists and Deists, but the ethos was clear. Muslims and other Asian faiths were hardly contemplated and people of those faiths would clearly not have been elected because of a religious test criteria that a Christian people would have applied instinctively to protect the ethos. Any group that wishes to do perpetuate itself would make such relatively harmless discriminations.
    The Constitution itself allowed for the states to have established state churches. They were Christian churches. Even someone like Jefferson understanding of Separation and toleration can be seen in his praise of the people of the U.S. who don’t care if it’s a Epscopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, or a Baptist who preaches in the courthouse on a Sunday afternoon. They wouldn’t have tolerated Muslims serving (much less preaching) in the courthouse and neither would he most likely. He supported the Christian ethos that tolerated all the sects, Catholics and Judaism. It was not abstract liberalism but the inheritance of British political turmoil over the two proceeding centuries.

    We are far from there now though. Any resurrection of this notion of Christian nation is almost impossible except for support of faith based initiatives which are so far from harmful establishment that the framers had in mind that it is laughable you oppose them. Here I think your anabaptism is too allied with a liberal view of the state.

    Comment by slim | September 30, 2007

  2. The influence of Puritanism and revivalism on the original 13 states is not denied, Slim. But Maryland was founded by Catholics; Rhode Island was a haven for (then despised) Baptists, Jews, Quakers, Catholics and people of no church. Deists and Unitarians managed to get elected, as did Lincoln who never joined any church and beat out Peter Cartwright, the most popular Methodist revivalist preacher of the day, for the presidency.
    The Treaty of Tripoli was with Muslims and, in negotiating it, George Washington assured the Muslims of what is modern-day Libya that the U.S. was not and would never be a Christian nation. The Senate ratified the treaty without any comment on that statement. Roger Williams and other Baptists DID take pains to assure Muslims (whom they called “Turks”) that their religious liberty would be protected.
    However, Native Americans were victims of religious discrimination everywhere but Rhode Island and Ohio. And you are right that the Constitution allowed for the states to have established churches–until the 14th Amendment applied those protections beyond the federal government to the states.
    You are wrong about Jefferson, though, and about Madison.

    You are right that there have always been popular, informal tests for religious office–although these have gotten stronger in recent decades. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were Deists–who clearly could not be elected today. John Quincy Adams was a Unitarian–again, who clearly could not get elected today.

    But they should be able to–and my Anabaptist is earlier than the rise of liberal views of the state. Don’t ever accuse me of constantinianism.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 30, 2007

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