Debating America's Christian Character Religious conservatives are fighting the culture wars with new assertiveness. Many see a widespread nostalgia for America's early days, when most of the founders were Protestant and, some religious conservatives believe, Christian principles reigned.
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Debating America's Christian Character

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Debating America's Christian Character

Debating America's Christian Character

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The re-election of President Bush has encouraged religious conservative leaders. They're fighting the culture wars with new assertiveness, and today, we begin a new series of reports on Christians in the public square. We'll start with the debate over the past. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty found widespread nostalgia for this country's early days. The question is what those early days were really like.


It's an unseasonably cold day in Woodstock, Virginia. Still, they come to the corner of Court and Main streets to see a 5,000-pound slab of granite on a flatbed truck.

(Soundbite of horn; music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) God bless America...

HAGERTY: As patriotic hymns waft from a boom box, the faithful quietly climb the makeshift steps to the truck, pause reverently, then touch Judge Roy Moore's Ten Commandments monument. The monument has been crisscrossing the country since it was removed from an Alabama courthouse on January 20th, 2004. This is its 140th stop, and for Thomas Fennessey, what's happened to Moore's monument is a symbol of America's fall from grace.

Mr. THOMAS FENNESSEY: It's a travesty. It really is.

Now you know what these are, right?

CLAY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FENNESSEY: Those are the Ten Commandments. Those are God's divine law for us as his creation.

HAGERTY: Fennessey stoops over his seven-year-old son Clay. He tells the boy that mosaic laws are the basis of US law and he wants Clay to see them before the sacred text is, quote, "taken from our children and our country." Fennessey can barely hold back tears.

Mr. FENNESSEY: It's an emotional thing, you know. I love my God and I love Jesus and I believe that the Bible is very clear that when a nation follows God and obeys his commandments, he blesses that nation.

(Soundbite of music)

Singers: ...and come thy good with brotherhood from sea to...

HAGERTY: By noon, a hundred or so people have gathered in front of Woodstock's courthouse. The Way of Faith choir opens the rally, and for the next two hours, a pastor, a historian and a lawyer preach the same theme, that America was founded by Christian men steeped in religious principles and now it has lost its moorings. Janet Ferguson is a newspaper columnist and Christian activist.

Ms. JANET FERGUSON (Newspaper Columnist): Today, we remember and we celebrate the healthy union--the healthy union--of faith and freedom in our republic.

HAGERTY: Judith Jones echoes the comments of many here.

Ms. JUDITH JONES: This is a Christian country, it always has been, and it should remain that way. People come here of another religion. They know that when they come. They want to worship theirs, it's fine, but they shouldn't try to destroy ours.

HAGERTY: This is a sentiment that David Barton hears all the time. As president of a group called WallBuilders, Barton is at the forefront of the Christian heritage movement. He says with few exceptions, the founder spoke openly of their Protestant Christian faith and many including John Adams, Benjamin Rusk and John Jay wrote that American freedom was based on Christian principles.

Mr. DAVID BARTON (WallBuilders): So to say that America was founded on Christian principles would be consistent with what they themselves declared.

HAGERTY: Barton travels across the country telling churches, business groups, lawyers and politicians about the heritage he's uncovered. He spoke to 400 groups last year alone, often under contract with the Republican National Committee.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BARTON: The Capitol Building of the United States of America--what a majestic edifice.

HAGERTY: Barton also leads tours on video and in person of historical landmarks, including the US Capitol Building which he says was used as a Protestant church on Sundays in the 1800s. He's collected thousands of documents from the early days of the republic which he says proved that religion was at the center of America's early government.

Mr. BARTON: And, of course, these congressmen are shocked at that because of what they often hear from the courts today. So I'm going to say 90 percent of those guys are absolutely floored at what they see, and out of the 90 percent, half of them are angry. It's always been, `Why haven't I been taught this? Why didn't I know this? How come I haven't seen these documents before?'

HAGERTY: Some Christians are beginning to push back. Robert George, a political scientist at Princeton University, disagrees with the overtly Protestant reading of history, but he says this movement is tapping into an expanding sentiment across America, a longing for a culturally simpler time. Americans radically disagree on fundamental questions of life, abortion, euthanasia and even on the definition of marriage.

Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (Political Scientist, Princeton University): Now at a time when we have a lack of consensus about something as fundamental as marriage, are we surprised that people want to look back to our founding principles for guidance? It's when fundamental questions are being argued that people want to say, `What kind of people are we? Where do we come from?'

HAGERTY: But now according to Rob Boston at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, religious fundamentalists are fanning this into a dangerous social movement.

Mr. ROB BOSTON (Americans United for the Separation of Church and State): They feel oppressed. They feel that society insults their values. They feel the culture is hostile to them, so they've created this secret history, this lost history. `Well, we were a Christian nation and it was suppressed by the courts. We would not be the country we are today were it not for people like us.' This is what they tell themselves. Now the problem with it is historically it isn't accurate.

HAGERTY: Boston and others say the founders had the chance to create a Christian country and deliberately rejected the idea. The founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, do not mention Christianity. As to the idea that the Constitution derives from the Ten Commandments, Marci Hamilton, a church-state scholar at Cardoza law school, says all you have to do is visit the US Supreme Court.

Ms. MARCI HAMILTON (Cardoza): If you're sitting in the courtroom facing the justices and you look up to the right, there is a frieze of law givers, over 10 of them--Hammurabi, Justinian, Moses and others. So it is false as a historical matter to claim that there is a single source for government in the United States.

HAGERTY: Hamilton believes what's fueling the Christian nostalgia is not history but fear as America grows religiously diverse and Protestants slip into the minority.

Ms. HAMILTON: Part of this claim for the Christian culture or the Christian country is an attempt to reclaim what they thought they owned but, in fact, they don't.

(Soundbite of bell)

Unidentified Male Singers: Hosanna! Hosanna!

Unidentified Female Singers: Hosanna! Hosanna!

HAGERTY: Of course, not all Christians subscribe to this view of history. At Ravensworth Baptist Church in Annandale, Virginia, many of the 200 members are dissenters from the Southern Baptist tradition. These American Baptists say they're leery of imposing Christian beliefs on their neighbors.

Unidentified Man: Help us, oh, God, to walk with Christ this week and to pray the prayer that he taught us and to realize how he lived that prayer.

HAGERTY: Several members here say they can understand the longing for a simpler time when Christianity was more pervasive and culture was less crude...

Unidentified Man: OK. Here we go.

HAGERTY: ...but afterward, Hollyn Hollman, who's the general counsel of the Joint Baptist Committee, as well as a member here, says America needs a wall of separation between church and state to protect religion from government.

Ms. HOLLYN HOLLMAN (General Counsel, John Baptist Committee): And if we're going to continue to be the kind of nation where religion is free, we don't need the government taking sides on religious matters which they ultimately have to do. If you're going to post a monument to sacred Scripture, you're going to pick a version. You're going to necessarily favor some traditions over the others.

HAGERTY: For that reason, church member Kathy Baskin(ph) says she opposes prayer at football games, or the Ten Commandments in the courthouse, because it can offend non-Christians. Sure, they don't have to look. Sure, they can turn away.

Ms. KATHY BASKIN (Church Member): But to me that turning away is a metaphor of feeling excluded and alienated from my own public institution, and I guess I think that does do harm to a citizen, to feel that, `Gosh, this is a place where I feel my differentness.'

HAGERTY: And while many Americans may travel a middle road, they're being caught in the cross fire between those who believe that asserting Christian values is the greatest hope for America's future and those who see it as a threat.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can read what the Founding Fathers had to say about religion in public life at Part two of our series can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered" and tomorrow here on MORNING EDITION part three, a look at the creation of Christian law schools.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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