By David Waters
In a speech last week, Sarah Palin promoted belief in God as a form of patriotism, dismissed notions that “America isn’t a Christian nation,” and denounced a federal judge’s ruling that it’s unconstitutional for government to declare a National Day of Prayer.
“God truly has shed his grace on thee — on this country. He’s blessed us, and we better not blow it. And that’s why I talk about politics,” Palin told the 16,000-member choir at a Women of Joy conference in Louisville, Ky., last Friday.
“Lest anyone try to convince you that God should be separated from the state, our founding fathers, they were believers,” she continued. “Hearing any leader declare that America isn’t a Christian nation . . . It’s mind-boggling to see some of our nation’s actions recently, but politics truly is a topic for another day.”
Here at Under God, politics is a topic for any day, especially when it’s mixed with religion.
Palin’s reference to “any leader” was a clear reference to President Obama, who in a 2006 speech said, “Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation — at least not just — we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of non-believers.”
Those comments — especially the truncated sound bite “We are no longer a Christian nation” — were deployed across the Web to depict presidential candidate Obama as a non-Christian or an anti-Christian.
Palin isn’t the first 21st Century politician to proclaim America a Christian nation. In a 2007 interview with Beliefnet.com, presidential candidate John McCain said: “The Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.” (His campaign later clarified the remark.)
Of course, the U.S. Constitution expressly did not establish America as any sort of religious nation.
As Newsweek editor and On Faith co-moderator Jon Meacham (author of “American Gospel“) and others have repeatedly pointed out, the Constitution expressly did not establish the U.S. as a Christian nation.
A treaty the U.S. signed in the 1790s declared that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Andrew Jackson resisted bids in the 1820s to form a “Christian party in politics.” Abraham Lincoln buried a proposed “Christian amendment” to the Constitution to declare the nation’s fealty to Jesus.
And so on. And yet the notion persists.
According to a Newsweek Poll last year, 62 percent of Americans consider the U.S. a Christian nation (down from 71 percent in 2005).
Brent Baker, vice president for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center, says the media is making too much of Palin’s comments. “(She) never said anything about an ‘official’ religion, so (she) could just mean that as a practical matter the nation is Christian since it was founded on Christian principles espoused (by) the majority of the Founding Fathers, that nearly all current elected officials pay homage to Christianity no matter their level of faith, and that the vast majority of Americans who are religious adhere to a Christian faith.”
Maybe we’re focusing on the wrong question. If a majority of Americans believe this is a Christian nation, maybe the more relevant question — and a good question to begin the 2012 presidential debates — for Palin or Obama or any other politician is this:
What do you mean when you say that America is (or is not) a Christian nation?
Do you mean that a majority of Americans claim to be Christians? Do you mean that America is a Christian nation in the way that Iran is an Islamic nation? Do you mean that the primary purpose of America is evangelical, that the primary allegiance of every American is to Jesus? Or do you mean something else entirely?
What do you think they mean?