Today is the day, people. Donald J. Trump is officially the 45th President of the United States of America. I obviously had a lot of feelings throughout the inauguration ceremony and Trump’s speech (wtf was that about discovering the ‘secrets of space’ and eradicating all disease in four years — good luck with that). I was also taken back by the new White House website (which has some pretty interesting omissions – there is currently no mention of climate change, technology, or LGBTQ rights). BUT, what I want to write about doesn’t actually have anything to do with President Trump.
I want to talk about the role of Christianity in our government. Before I jump into my discussion, I want to lay a foundation about the make-up of this country. Despite shifting demographics, America is still home to more Christians than any other country in the world. According to Pew Research in 2014, 7/10 Americans identify themselves as some form of Christian (I’m including Catholics here, fyi). Approximately 23% of American’s are not religiously affiliated (agnostic or atheist). The remainder identify with non-Christian faiths.
The founding of America had a lot of roots in the Judeo-Christian faith. Well before the Revolution, the pilgrims colonized here to practice their Protestant faith free of persecution in 1620. The Spanish built missions and preached Catholicism up and down the West Coat, while the French established Catholic institutions in Louisiana. The vast majority of our founding fathers were very active in their respective Churches.
However, many key founding fathers (Jefferson & Washington) tended towards Deism (basically God exists, but doesn’t get involved with humankind, with a big emphasis on the importance of reason and logic). The Declaration of Independence uses religious references to justify the colonies right to self-govern free of Britain. The iconic ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ portion of the Declaration claims those rights are ours because they were ‘endowed [upon us] by the Creator’. While the majority of that document was used to tear into King George, and list all the grievances of the colonies, Jefferson ties it back to be grounded in Christian roots.
The Declaration is obviously important in establishing America, but it is not a legal document, and the Constitution is. The only mention of religion in our Constitution (1778) is the ‘No Religious Test Clause’- ‘but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States’. Basically, you can’t be excluded from holding office in our government on the basis of religion. Three years after the original Constitution was ratified (1791), we amended it to include the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment states, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’ The first two pieces of the First Amendment prohibit the establishment of an official church, and protect citizen’s abilities to hold whatever faith they’d like. Additionally, in 1797, President Adams signed a treaty into law which contained the following, ‘As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion’.
So why am I going on and on about the historic significance of religion in America? Maybe it’s because I classify myself in the 23% of non-religiously affiliated citizens, but it seems to me religious symbols are rampant in our Government. Obama’s farewell address ending with the following, ‘God bless you. And may God continue to bless the United States of America,‘ while Trump said the following in his Inauguration Address, ‘The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.‘ The very nature of these statements promote exclusivity to anyone who doesn’t share belief in God or the Bible. These statements are meant in a positive way, I’m sure, but the role of the President and of the United States Government is not religious. The role of our government is ‘To form a more perfect Union; To establish Justice; To insure domestic Tranquility; To provide for the common defense; To promote the general Welfare, and To secure the Blessings of Liberty.’
Our Presidents are sworn into office on a Bible. This seems a little misleading to me. Why are we placing a religious text in this position in our government? Don’t get me wrong, I am not attacking religion or any private citizens right to practice their faith, and uphold those principles how they see fit. I am questioning why a public servant to the United States of America swears to uphold the principles of a secular country on a religious text. The oath of office states, ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’ Why is that oath not being conducted with the Constitution or at least the American flag? Those are the symbols that matter in that moment, for that role, on that stage.
As the President (not as a private citizen), you are beholden to the Constitution of the United States above all else. It seems to me, that swearing to protect the Constitution on the Bible sends a mixed message. It seems to suggest Christianity is more important than the Constitution, and certainly more important that all other faiths. Which is not the most unifying message. That message is also at odds with the very fabric of what this country was set up to be. Symbols matter, and it’s my belief that we should use symbols in our most important ceremonial moments to reflect the role of Government.
So while we may not be one nation under God, we are one nation. We may not all be Christians, but we are all Americans.