Is the United States a Christian Nation?
By David Koepsell
Many people believe that the United States is a Christian Nation and balk at the suggestion that it might be otherwise. Some believe that America began as a Christian Nation, but that it has recently, tragically, gone astray. Others believe the challenges currently facing the nation are the effect of a new secular agenda and think the best way to solve America’s problems is to return it to its Christian foundation. And still others think America was founded on secular principles. The latter fear the effects of religious influence on government policy and worry about protecting individual religious freedoms from state-enforced religious dogma.
Is the United States a Christian Nation? It is a critical question that should not be dismissed. We must address it honestly, from a historical and cultural perspective. We must decide what the assertion means, the implications if it is true, and whether or not we want America to be a Christian Nation after all.
There are several ways to interpret the statement that the U.S. is a Christian Nation.
- “The U.S. is a Christian Nation because its founding documents and organic laws make it a Christian nation.”
This claim is the easiest to refute. First, let’s look at the Declaration of Independence, because this is the text most often cited to support the proposition. Indeed, the Declaration refers to “our creator” who endowed us with certain inalienable rights, among these, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration also says that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. These sentiments point not to any Christian foundation, but rather to Enlightenment notions. Nowhere in Christian dogma do you find liberty or pursuit of happiness expressed as God-given rights. I’d be interested to see the scriptural bases for these rights. Rather, the expression “Nature and of Nature’s God” points not to the existence of the Christian God referred to by today’s fundamentalist Christians, but to the god of deism, which was the predominant faith of our founders. At best, this is not the personal, involved God to which most Christians refer. At best, the god of the deists is the unmoved-mover, or the first cause of Aristotle, who sets the universe in motion and then leaves it alone. If others will admit that this deism is today’s view of Christianity, then perhaps I can agree that this reference in the Declaration is a nod to Christianity.
Even so, the structure of the government expressed by the Declaration, where the authority comes not from a god or a king, but rather from the consent of the governed, is radically different from the Christian government the founders left behind in England. The Magna Carta states clearly the divine basis for authority for the king and government, with such prominent phrases like: “Know that before God…. To the Honour of God and the exaltation of our holy Church….first, that we have granted to God…,” etc. Let’s face it, if the founders wanted to make explicit the Christianity of this new country, they could have used the clear Christian language of the Magna Carta, rather than the vague, deistic language that they did choose.
But there is more to it. There is another problem with asserting that the Declaration of Independence, with its mild, deistic references to God somehow makes ours a Christian nation. Simply, the Declaration is not law. It was the basis for our separation from England, but has no legal status. It imparts no code of behavior, no rules, no punishments, no rights, or duties. So, even accepting the inherent, perhaps Christian, deism of the Declaration, it does not lead to concluding that the U.S. is a Christian nation.
Let’s look now to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which are the first essential pieces of our organic laws, and which are the ultimate authority for all legal questions in the United States. There are three explicit references to religion in the Constitution. One is the prohibition of any religious test for public office in Article VI, section 3. This expresses the desire of the Founders to allow for freedom of conscience and it distinguishes America from theocratic, Christian England where members of minority religions and religious sects had been persecuted. The second is of course the First Amendment, which, following the lead of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, authored by Jefferson and supported by Madison, ensured that Virginia would not establish an official religion. That Virginia statute, by the way, was passed with the support of Baptists, a minority at the time who suffered greatly due to the establishment of state religion. The First Amendment states clearly: “congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This disestablishment is eventually applied more clearly to the states with the passage of the 14th amendment, but the intent is clear. There shall be no established religion or church in the United States. Thus, the US cannot be defined as a religious nation - Christian, Jewish, Islamic, or otherwise.
Many supporters of the notion that we are a Christian Nation refer to the dating method used in the Constitution, which states that it was signed “in the Year of our Lord…”, but this argument is weak. This was a dating convention. Many atheists use A.D. and B.C. without changing their opinion about the existence of god simply because it is a convention. Moreover, the preamble to the Bill of Rights states that it was completed Wednesday, the fourth of March, 1789… of course, the month of March is named after the Roman god of war, Mars, and Wednesday is named after Woden or Odin, the chief of the Norse or pagan gods of the Saxons who settled in England. Is this proof that our founders were establishing pagan religions, because they used certain naming conventions for dates? Or course not.
If more proof were needed that the Founders never intended and did not create a Christian Nation, let’s look at a law which was passed and signed by the president of the United States contemporaneous with the nation’s founding. In 1796, at the end of George Washington’s last term as president, Joel Barlow, the American counsel to Algiers responsible for treaty negotiations, who also, incidentally, served as chaplain under George Washington in the revolution, was negotiating the Treaty of Tripoli. In the negotiations, he drafted an amendment which stated at article 11 of the treaty: “As the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Musselmen; and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” The treaty with this wording was approved by congress in 1797, and endorsed by the Secretary of State, Timothy Pickering, and the President, John Adams, and finally approved by the Senate on June 10, 1797. According to the US Constitution, article VI, section 2, this treaty had the force of law.
Finally, many argue that the common law of the various United States derives from Christianity and therefore proves our status as a Christian Nation. Let’s look at a letter from Thomas Jefferson for some insight into this argument. On February 10, 1814, he wrote to Thomas Cooper, stating: “For we know that the common law is that system of law which was introduced by the Saxons on their settlement in England, and altered from time to time by proper legislative authority from that time to the date of the Magna Charta, which terminates the period of the common law… This settlement took place about the middle of the fifth century. But Christianity was not introduced till the seventh century; the conversion of the first Christian King of the Heparchy having taken place about the year 598, and that of the last about 686. Here then was a space of two hundred years, during which the common law was in existence, and Christianity no part of it.”
Jefferson, in the same letter, explains how the error which attributed the common law to Christianity came about, through a misinterpretation of the Latin term “ancien scripture” used in historical and legal documents to describe the common law. The translator Priscot misinterpreted this to mean “holy scripture” whereas, according to Jefferson, this term simply meant ancient scripture or writings.
Finally, The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the common law as having Saxon origins and further states: “The nature of the new common law was at first much influenced by the principles of Roman law, but later it developed more and more along independent lines.”
Looking then to US law, the first interpretation that the US is a Christian Nation because it is founded on Christian law or principles, fails outright… so let’s look at another, somewhat weaker interpretation.
- “The U.S. is a Christian Nation because its Founders were Christians.”
I addressed part of this argument before when I discussed the deism of many of the founders. In fact, most of the founders were freemasons, at that time an organization which was a powerful proponent of religious freedom, and which accepted among its ranks all religions. Washington, Franklin, Hancock, Hamilton and Lafayette were all members of the freemasons. These were Christians of a very liberal, different sort than those who today would recast this country as a Christian nation. Now, let’s look at some of our founders and important historical American figures:
George Washington rarely mentioned God by name, referring instead to “the Grand Architect,” a “superintending Power,” the “Governor of the Universe,” or the “Great Ruler of Events.” Washington was also a practicing freemason, whose deism is apparent in his use of these terms in many of his public statements, rather than “god” or “Jesus Christ”. After his death, his friend Dr. Abercrombie, on being questioned by one Dr. Wilson about Washington’s religion, responded: “sir, Washington was a Deist.”
John Adams understood Christianity’s greatest contributions to be introducing people to “the great principle of the Law of Nature and Nations: Love your Neighbour as yourself, and do unto others as you would that others should do to you.” John Adams was a Unitarian and therefore denied the notion of eternal damnation. He once stated in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind had preserved – the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!” These are hardly the words of a “good” Christian. Finally he wrote in his “defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787-1788): “Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of the whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.”
Thomas Jefferson said that if he were to found his own sect, it “would be the reverse of Calvin’s: that we are saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power.” He also wrote, in 1787, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god.” And finally, in a letter to Ezra Stiles, June 25, 1819: “you say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” While Jefferson admired the morality of Jesus, there is no evidence he believed in Jesus’ divinity. He actually re-wrote the Bible using only the moral lessons from the New Testament and omitting the troublesome metaphysics.
James Madison, who has been called the father of the Constitution, wrote in his “Memorial and Remonstrance”: “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.”
Benjamin Franklin, an important figure of the US Constitutional convention, wrote in his autobiography: “my parents had given me betimes religions impressions, and I received from my infancy a pious education in the principles of Calvinism. But scarcely was I arrived at fifteen years of age, when, after having doubted in turn of different tenets, according as I found them combated in the different books that I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself.” He also wrote in his autobiography that “some books against Deism fell into my hands… it happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.”
The deistic notions of an impersonal, detached deity and a universe guided by reason and natural law, bear the stamp of Enlightenment rationalism. Imported from Britain and France, rationalism lies at the roots of the American Republic. Specifically absent, and disdained, is Calvinistic dogmatism, embraced by the Pilgrims but rejected by our Founders both privately and publicly.
There is little doubt that, while most of the founders were liberal Christians, or at least deists, their faith did not encourage, and in fact specifically argued against the establishment of a state religion. There is really nothing in the founding documents to suggest that Christian notions, virtues, or beliefs were in any way interjected into our form of government. Rather, our founders were freethinkers who understood that the role of government was neither to adopt religious principles, nor to prohibit free exercise. Simply put, religion and the state were separate domains.
- The U.S. is a Christian Nation because the majority of citizens is Christian.
This is a weak argument in the short term and a losing argument in the long run. This argument is akin to the argument that Ford is a Christian car company because its employees are mostly Christian. By this logic, Nazi Germany was a Christian nation because its population was largely Christian. Of course, I am sure no Christian would accept the assertion that Nazi Germany was a Christian nation, or for that matter, that fascist Italy was. If having a majority population of one faith makes the nation a Christian nation, or whatever faith happens to be the majority, then Turkey should be considered a Muslim nation, but it is not. According to the US government, Turkey is a secular nation and has been since 1924, even though its population is more than 95 percent Muslim. The State Department web site states plainly that Turkey is a secular nation, and it is because its constitution makes it so, just as our own constitution makes ours a secular nation, even while 76 percent of our population calls themselves Christians of various denominations and sects. That figure, by the way, is down 10 percent from the census of 1990, so the percentage by which this country could be said to be Christian is dropping precipitously. The argument for Christians, then, is slippery. In a few decades, if current trends continue and Christians slip into minority status, they will have to come up with another argument for why this is a Christian Nation.
- The U.S. is a Christian Nation because we act according to Christian principles.
In some ways, I wish this were more true. Then, perhaps, we might heed some of the principles from the sermon on the mount, such as: turning the other cheek when stricken; humility; being meek, judging not (lest we be judged); being peacemakers; agreeing quickly with one’s adversary; if sued for one’s coat, giving him also your cloak; giving to him who asks, and lending to anyone who would borrow (rather than tightening bankruptcy rules); loving our enemies; blessing those who curse us; reserving our prayers for our closets and not in the streets; seeking not after treasures; doing unto others as we would have done to us; rendering unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s rather than lobbying for more tax cuts; etc.
These were some radical moral lessons, which I dare say the United States is not heeding as a nation. And even under the leadership of a self-professed born-again Christian, this nation is not doing much “turning the other cheek,” or peacemaking, and we are withdrawing from treaty after treaty, hardly the stuff of agreeing with our adversaries, and we are becoming parsimonious and undoing our great system of social safety nets for the benefit of the wealthiest, leaving the very poorest to fend for themselves - hardly the works which Jesus advocated.
So, no, we are not a Christian Nation by deed, nor by history, nor by population, nor by the faiths of our founders.
And what if we were a Christian Nation? What would this mean for those of us who belong to minority faiths, or no faith at all? What if this country insisted, by law, culture, or tradition, that Christianity is our national faith, and that our laws and our citizens must abide by its precepts? Well, how would you feel? Imagine you were one of the millions of persecuted religious minorities who have flocked to our shores, yearning to breathe free, to worship or not worship as you please, or as your god or gods require, finally, without interference from a state religion? Now imagine your new home decides that, in fact, ours is not a haven for those like you who took the First Amendment seriously. Imagine that your children in their public schools are told that because this is a Christian nation, they should take part in a prayer to god, even if your religion does not worship the Christian god, or any god. Now imagine that you are told that because you are a mere minority, you must accept the adoption by government of Christian moral codes, even when they conflict with the moral codes of your religion…. You might wonder, then, why the First Amendment was adopted in the first place.
Indeed, even as we encourage the adoption of secular, democratic forms of government to replace Islamic theocracy in the middle east, those who choose to argue that this is a Christian nation threaten to create a Christian theocracy here.
This is not a Christian nation, nor should it be. The founders created this as a nation which would accept members of any faith, or of none. They created a nation where secular institutions would protect human rights shared by everyone, for the benefit of everyone, including the right of conscience, which allows us to believe or not, as we choose, in whatever deity or deities, or in none at all, without interference by the government, and without fear of persecution by the majority, whatever that majority is now, or in the future.