I recently attended a lecture hosted by the Secular Coalition of America, whose topic proposed to explore the spread of religiosity in American politics. As could be expected from the very name of the group, the discussion turned into a denunciation of the mixing of faith and politics, of church and state, and into the glorification of ‘the scientific method’ over irrationality, even of atheism over faith. The Coalition is not alone in this, and is but a representative group at the state and federal levels of a segment of American society–that segment which advocates an absolute separation of Church and State, as in the French Republic for example. To them, the United States is a country founded not on Christianity, but on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The other segment takes the opposite position: to them, the United States is a country founded on Christian values, and the faith of the Founding Fathers is a witness to it. In the first part of this post, we will see in what historical context American political institutions were created. In the second part, we will see that, as a Western country, these institutions, as European institutions, carry the legacy of Western history.
If we want to consider the place of Christianity in America, we must first remember that the country was not born in isolation, but in the frame of the European Enlightenment, and therefore and more generally, it is a component of European civilization. The problems that are are affecting the US today are problems common to both Europe and North America. The differences between them are not differences of culture but minor differences that arise out of a separate development for about two centuries. If it is wrong to treat the Founding Fathers as Christian zealots–the Jefferson Bible witnesses against it–they were no atheists either.
One of the most important dates in US history is the landing of the Mayflower pilgrims on the coast of New England in 1620. These pilgrims were Puritans who sought separation from the Church of England, seen as corrupt and oppressive. The Americans colonies were a haven for the persecuted, and those persecuted for religious reasons found there a land where their communities could flower and bloom in tranquility. Religious plurality is therefore a characteristic of early America. It is important because we have here an aspect that will later find its way into the Constitution.
In the 18th century, the Enlightenments reached their climax in Europe. By that time, Christendom had relinquished much of its religious fervor, and substituted for it a rationalist fervor. Yet, we would be mistaken in seeing even in this period a complete abandonment of any religious belief. Rather, this was a gradual process, that began not even with the Renaissance, but that progressively, slowly took shape. In the Renaissance, the principal topic for painters were taken from the Scriptures. Copernicus was also a priest and Newton had an interest perhaps as great, if not greater, in theology than in science. Darwin certainly had no intention of destroying Christianity to replace it with scientific reason. What all these exmaples show, is that while religion in general, and Christianity in particular, were not necessarily the target–this came later, and once again progressively–the interest was no longer on God but rather on the natural world.