Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Christian establishment (?)

In the current issue of America, I review Frank Lambert's Religion in American Politics: A Short History.  You need to be a subscriber to access the entire review, but here's an excerpt:

In the book’s introduction, Lambert explains that a primary argument of the book is “that religious coalitions seek by political means what the Constitution prohibits, namely, a national religious establishment, or, more specifically, a Christian establishment.”  He claims, in fact, that “[w]hatever the grievance, politically active religious groups are inspired by a particular vision of America as a Christian nation.”  These sweeping introductory assertions are belied by the history he so ably recounts.

For example, he explains that Christian groups pushed both sides of an intense debate over the decision to drop atomic bombs on civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Just after the bombs were dropped, 85 percent of Americans approved of the decision, but over the next two years that percentage dropped to a bare majority.  The debate, in Lambert’s recounting, “triggered a broader discussion of American morals and values.”  The question is, how exactly does a religious coalition formed to challenge (or affirm) the moral propriety of dropping the atomic bomb amount to the seeking of a “religious establishment?”  And on what basis can we conclude that participants in such a coalition are motivated by their belief that America is a “Christian nation?”

Of course there have been many Christians in American history who leap into the public square in order to reclaim our nation’s purportedly Christian heritage or to more closely align state power with Christian identity.  (Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who erected a Ten Commandments monument in the state courthouse, then defied a federal court order to remove it, comes immediately to mind.)  But to suggest that politically engaged Christians are, by definition, inspired by a vision of the “Christian nation” is silly.  Politically engaged Americans of all religious and ideological stripes are inspired by the worldviews that shape their moral convictions and commitments.  As a Christian, my criticism of the decision to drop the atomic bomb is inescapably shaped by the teachings of Christ.  But I do not offer my criticism in order to bring the nation under the authority of Christ’s teaching; I offer it because I want to contribute to the common good. 

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Vischer, Rob | Permalink

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