On July 4th, the owners of Hobby Lobby, known for being strong evangelical Christians and conservative supporters, took out a full-page ad that appeared in newspapers across the country. Reading it, I had to shake my head in bemusement. As happens so often with arguments of this sort, the ad uses selected quotes from past historical figures to try to prove that the U.S. is, or should be, a “Christian nation” (whatever that might mean).
It’s common for those who cannot make a good argument for a point of view to rely on selective facts and quotes, and the Hobby Lobby ad is no exception. Two things need to be taken into consideration when reading such selective evidence, whether those quote are taken in context, and the actual actions of those quoted.
As to the first part, the context of the quotes, well, there are too many to refute here (which is the point, actually: everyone pays attention to quotes taken out of context, but very few take the time to read the long and often ponderous work of explicating what each person quoted actually meant, or whether they changed their mind). It is the rhetorical equivalent of yelling “wolf”, without knowing whether there’s actually a wolf there.
As to the second point: if, as the ad wants us to believe, so many of the Founding Fathers wanted the U.S. to be a nation ruled by “Christian” law, why didn’t they do it? If they wanted every office-holder to be a Christian, why did they specifically make such a thing illegal under the Constitution? At the time of the constitutional convention, many states required that those holding office be Christian; all of these laws were nullified when the new Constitution was ratified.
And why, if the the U.S. was to be a “Christian nation”, would many of those same Founders ratify the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, Article 11 of which specifically says that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion”? The treaty was negotiated under the administration of George Washington, and passed unanimously in the Senate under the administration of John Adams. There was little to no dissent noted, likely because it held true to the vision for the nation held by these Founders.
And what they believed was that the American people would mostly be Christians. If you read them carefully, this is what the out-of-context quotes in the ad are referring to. Christianity was the dominant religion of the early Republic; of that there is no dispute. But the Founders wanted the government itself to be secular, not controlled by any specific faith or creed, Christian or otherwise. This is why they agreed to the wording of the treaty, why they forbade religious tests for office, why the first sentence of the First Amendment proclaims that the “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” It is why there is no reference to any deity in the Constitution to begin with.
This goal of this misleading ad is quite simply to distort American history and to create a justification for theocracy. The creators of the ad can use all the quotes they want, but they cannot change the past. The Founders did not want the U.S. to have a “Christian” government, where religious leaders made decisions for the rest of us, but wanted sensible people of good faith to participate democratically in the building of the nation. To state otherwise is a betrayal of those Founders’s vision for our nation.
An earlier version of this piece is available at the Gainesville Sun, and will be published in the July 18, 2021 print edition.