Friday, December 22, 2006

The United States as a Christian nation

A Muslim from Minnesota named Keith Ellison was elected to the US House of Representatives in November, and will take office in January. As I understand it, Congresspeople are not sworn on any book or document at the public swearing in, but sometimes repeat the oath privately on the book of their choice. Guess what Mr. Ellison will swear on? The Quran, of course.

A Representative from Virginia named Virgil Goode is denouncing Ellison's plans as antithetical to American values and using it to promote a bill he favors that would restrict Muslim immigration -- despite the fact that Mr. Ellison's ancestors crossed the Atlantic a long time ago, and he is in fact a pretty ordinary American who converted to Islam in university. The basis of Mr. Goode's stand is that the United States is and should remain a Christian nation.

There's a long debate on this question of whether the USA is a Christian nation. No one doubts that the vast majority of white settlers in the 13 colonies were at least formally Christian, or that the Angl0-Americans were formally Christian at the time of the Revolution. But there was little invoking of a specifically Christian God or of Jesus Christ in revolutionary rhetoric. Indeed in the backwash of the Revolution state-supported Christian churches were disestablished, and the First Amendment forbade the federal government from favoring any specific religion.

One interesting document relevant to this debate is the US-Libya treaty of 1797. The context as I understand it is this. There were still "Barbary Pirates" in the Mediterranean, Muslims raiding Christian shipping and occasionally Christian settlements (even in Iceland!) and enslaving sailors and others. Christian countries paid tribute to avoid such problems. But the new USA was not covered by those treaties and was vulnerable to piratic action. Establishing that the US would neither pay tribute nor allow its shipping to be preyed upon on the excuse of religious warfare was an early priority of the US government (see what you can find under "War with the Barbary Pirates") . Both military and diplomatic action was taken. On the diplomatic side we see the treaty with Libya which stated (quoting from Juan Cole):

...the Government of the United States is in no sense founded on the Christian religion.
In other words, holy war was no excuse for piracy against the United States.

This statement was made just a couple of years before Napoleon told the Egyptians (as he invaded their country) that the principles of the French Revolution represented "true Islam."

Now I think Napoleon would say anything to anyone for advantage, but the idea that the American Congress meant what it said is a bit stronger, I think. Even Napoleon was sincere in believing that his cause transcended earlier religious political theories. He thought that he himself was a unique historical force.

This Goode "crusade" does point out a certain confusion about what motivates supporters of the Iraq war. If Islam is so antithetical to American values, why are Americans fighting in Iraq to support a government whose core constituency favors Islamic government? How many people in the US military signed up to establish Shiism in Iraq? How much money is it worth to the American taxpayer to establish Shiite political parties as the dominant factor in Iraqi life?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess we care stuck supporting the largest faction in Iraq, whatever its nature, since we want to make them democrats. It so happens that is the Sunnites.

9:31 PM  

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