America, the biblical (if not Christian) nation
The civic life of the United States was first defined by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and later modified by documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation. But whether religious or not, Americans have also been shaped by the King James Version of the Bible, which was published for the first time exactly 400 years ago, on May 2, 1611.
It was commissioned by King James of England, who faced a theological controversy between the establishment Anglicans and the reform-minded Puritans. James sided with the Anglicans, but extended an olive branch to the Puritans by supporting this new translation of the Bible, which took seriously the original Greek and Hebrew texts.
The King James Version is the most influential Scripture translation of all time, molding Christian faith and English literature for the past four centuries. It has also played a role in political and moral debate throughout the history of our country.
John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, spoke in 1630 of a “city upon a hill” — an image drawn on by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in their descriptions of America, with Reagan famously speaking of a “shining city.” This line is based on the King James Version, which says, “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14).
“Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof” is inscribed on the Liberty Bell and on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty (Leviticus 25:10). During the Civil War, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison changed the motto of his anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator to this verse from the King James Version. Facing the prospect of a nation half slave and half free, Abraham Lincoln said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (Matthew 12:25).
On the other side of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, said that slavery was established by God and “is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.”
Lyndon B. Johnson was fond of quoting Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, and let us reason together,” as he would attempt to build consensus. Not surprisingly, preacher and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted the King James Version when he said, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together'” (Isaiah 40:4-5).
More recently, President Obama has challenged us to treat others as we would like to be treated, and to be our “brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9).
“The Bible has played a prominent role in shaping American culture,” says John Fea, a historian at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and author ofWas America Founded as a Christian Nation? “Throughout American history the Bible has been used to justify war and peace, slavery and abolition, civil rights and political liberty, secession and union, and the idea that America is a Christian nation.”
The King James Version has been used in a variety of ways to justify a wide range of views — not all of them constructive or morally acceptable.
America is grounded in the Constitution, which never mentions God or Jesus, and forbids the establishment of religion. Because of this, we will never be a Christian nation. But our use of the King James Version has made us a biblical nation, and we will be such a country as long as we turn to this book for inspiration and guidance.
So what does it mean to be biblical but not Christian? In such a nation, we are inspired by lines of scripture such as the verse on the Liberty Bell, “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land,” as well as Reagan’s vision of America as a “shining city.” The Bible also persuades us to become a more just and compassionate society, as we rise to the challenge of the scripture-saturated dream of King and the ethical appeal of Obama to be our “brother’s keeper.”
Whether Americans pick up the King James Version or a more modern translation, they should feel free to use the Bible to inspire and persuade. It is a religious text that permeates our history and traditions, and offers a common language for the discussion of spiritual and moral concerns — as LBJ said, “Come now, let us reason together.”
But citizens in a country based on religious freedom must always be allowed to disagree with scriptural admonitions. The Bible should never be used as the basis of legislation. Sarah Palin was wrong, in May of last year, to challenge Americans to “go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant — they’re quite clear — that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments.”
God does not appear in our Constitution, and no more than three of the Ten Commandments would be appropriate for civil law — specifically, “thou shalt not kill,” “thou shalt not steal,” and “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20). The legislation of other commandments would either create an inappropriate and unenforceable law (“honor thy father and thy mother”) or violate the Constitution’s rule against making laws respecting an establishment of religion (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”).
I celebrate the birthday of the King James Version, and look forward to its continued use in public discourse, to inspire and to persuade. But I do not support legislation based on the Bible, or any effort to label America a Christian nation. And I say that as a proud and practicing Christian.
Our nation is well served by the Constitution’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion, which gives us unrestrained liberty to gather for worship and read the King James Version, or any other sacred text we want.
Henry G. Brinton is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia and author of Balancing Acts: Obligation, Liberation, and Contemporary Christian Conflicts.
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