THE SPINE OCTOBER 9, 2007
John McCain has gotten himself into trouble with many of those independent liberals who cottoned to him because of his character: his patent honesty, his bravery, his idealism. And he has gotten himself into trouble for a few words, and these are, "the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation." Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek and a scholar who writes very well, has taken McCain to task on the op-ed page of Sunday's Times, arguing precisely that the Constitution does no such thing. Meacham is correct.
But it is something one cannot say of the Declaration of Independence which three times in the text avers to Christian faith, and to Christian faith for there was no other. The first allusion is to "Nature's God," referencing an expansive definition of the deity, though one short on specific dogma. The last asserts that the 56 signers possess a "firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence." The second is not a hint or an intimation but an affirmation of the belief that "all men...are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights." It is the most important statement about God because on it rests the entire justification of the revolution itself.
So the Constitution does not establish a Christian nation. But the Declaration and the Constitution emerge from a Christian society in whose states and their defining documents is often doctrinal argument, religious doctrinal argument. Now, Meacham tells us that at George Washington's 1789 inauguration in New York, Hazan Gershom Seixas of Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, the first (founded in 1654) and still flourishing Jewish congregation in America, was an honored guest. This tells us little. From state to state, in Massachusetts and Connecticut, Virginia and South Carolina, different formulae were employed to establish one church or another, or to make arrangements whereby two churches could co-exist, though not a third.
There was discrimination against Catholics and (less) against Jews. But ferocity ran through the intra-Puritan world, and it expressed itself in politics.
Perry Miller was one of those legendary Harvard professors of the American mind when I came there in 1960. (The others were Samuel Eliot Morison and F.O. Matthiessen, but "Matty" was already dead, having committed suicide when the McCarthyites and the Boston Herald went after him for...well, nothing that should have interested them.)
A collection of Miller's essays, Nature's Nation, was published after he died. He makes clear that the most absorbing intellectual and political conflict of the early era of the American nation was the one around God, a conflict of intensity that only could arise among believers. A similar book of his, Errand Into the Wilderness , makes a comparable point. The life of the mind in America was about God, even when it focused on slavery. Christianity of several varieties were the integral stuff of our society. Hillary Clinton reminds me of my readings in social action Methodism. Barack Obama of social action congregationalism. There is nothing wrong with recognizing that our past is a Christian past and that our future, or at least some of it, will be a Christian future.
I am, as my readers could not fail to know, a deeply committed Jew, not quite observant but with a burdened conscience for that. I do pray but off and on. I am constantly concerned about Jewish meaning in my life and in the life of my family. I read, write and speak Yiddish...fluently. My Hebrew is woefully deficient. I am also a Jewish nationalist. And an American patriot.
I am not troubled at all by the Christian roots and the Christian vectors of our nation. "Only in America," said my mother who came here from Levertov (near Lublin) in 1934...and said also my great aunt who came here, also from Levertov, in 1890 and who died in 1980 at the age of 107, still healthy. It is true: only in America, for those who came here freely. And, God willing, soon also for the descendants of those who came here in chains.
When I was a child, in the second grade in my public school in The Bronx, I played "the little star of Bethlehem" in the Christmas pageant. My Jewish roots were not shaken, and certainly not uprooted. All of my teachers, I think, were Catholic and they thought I was smart. They encouraged me.
So surely McCain is wrong philosophically and factually in saying that the Constitution established the United States as a Christian nation. But we are largely a Christian society, and ever more largely a tolerant Christian society. Aside from all of our rights which were guaranteed in the beginning because the polity believed that they were anchored in the will of Providence, many of our best traits survive and grow because we believe -- some of us only metaphorically -- that they are shaped by the Creator.