The United States was not founded as a Christian nation. Nothing in the Constitution grants Christianity favored status. In fact, Article VI bans religious tests for federal office, and the First Amendment bars laws "respecting an establishment of religion" while protecting "the free exercise thereof" – for all faiths.
It's good to hear political leaders remind us of this fact from time to time, as President Barack Obama did yesterday during a press conference in Turkey.
"I've said before that one of the great strengths of the United States is – although as I mentioned we have a very large Christian population – we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation, or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation," Obama said. "We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."
A few second later, Obama went on to praise the concept of "a secular country that is respectful of religious freedom, respectful of rule of law, respectful of freedom, upholding these values and being willing to stand up for them in the international stage."
That remark really lifted my spirits.
Lately I've been doing some research into the views of Newt Gingrich, who appears to be attempting to remake himself as some sort of Religious Right leader. In recent remarks to the media, the former House speaker drips with sarcasm as he criticizes the West for being secular. The contrast between Obama's forward-looking vision and Gingrich's regressive one could not be starker.
Gingrich isn't the only one playing that game. How many times have you heard Fox News Channel blowhard Bill O'Reilly rail against "secular progressives"? Gingrich, O'Reilly, et al, believe "secular" is a dirty word because they insist on conflating it with hostility toward religion. It's not. In fact, the idea of government neutrality on questions of theology is the platform upon which religious liberty rests.
In 1797, the U.S. Senate endorsed -- and President John Adams signed -- the Treaty with Tripoli, a document stating forthrightly, "[T[he government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion...." It was reminder to the Muslim states of North Africa that religion need be no excuse for conflict.
Today, some Religious Right leaders would have us assert a mythical "Christian nation" lineage and confront the Islamic world in some type of new crusade.
Gary Bauer seems to be among them. Bauer, formerly the president of the Family Research Council, yesterday sent a remarkably ignorant message to supporters of his American Values organization, criticizing Obama for his remarks and even invoking Thomas Jefferson.
But Bauer's efforts to draft Jefferson as an ally in his new crusade fail miserably. Jefferson sought to understand Islam, not attack it. Jefferson was probably one of just a few Americans who owned a copy of the Quran in the early 19th century. He also supported the right of Muslims (and indeed people of all faiths and none) to live freely in America.
When Virginia lawmakers passed his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and rejected a provision to limit its protection to Christians only, Jefferson rejoiced. The bill, he wrote, would include "within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslims], the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination."
Obama's remarks in Turkey reflect the best of Jefferson's thinking and rebuke people like Gingrich, Bauer and O'Reilly.
Americans United has disagreed with some of the president's recent decisions. We still hope he will reform his "faith-based" initiative and end all forms of taxpayer-funded religious discrimination. But when it comes to understanding and analyzing America's core value of religious freedom, Obama gets it – and he explains it eloquently.
For that we're thankful.