Is America a Christian Nation?

Religious conservatives in America often proudly proclaim that this country is a Christian nation, and some even go so far as to declare the separation of church and state to be a myth. Not only are these grossly incorrect assertions, but they are very dangerous postulations as well, especially with the Christian Right unapologetically attempting to dictate policy from an almost exclusively religious basis in the modern era. One need not do that much research to realize that the Puritan ancestors of our founding fathers came to America to avoid religious persecution. After England’s tainted past of divinely-appointed kings, and years of witch trials on American shores, it seems laughable indeed to consider that the founders would have embraced religion as the dominant political ideology for the land of the free.

Many Christians defend keeping “under God” in the pledge of allegiance and “In God We Trust” on currency, and perceive any efforts to change such things as attacks on their faith. Few seem to know that “under God” was not in the pledge until 1954,1 and the words “In God We Trust” were first printed on money as late as 1864 and did not become the national motto until 1956.2 It is not because atheists have some hatred for Christianity that we want to remove these mentions of god, it is because their inclusion is unconstitutional. As we will soon find, the evidence points only to the deliberate exclusion of Christianity from America’s founding documents.

I. Formation of the Constitution

It is not hard to imagine that religion was an issue of consideration as the founders were framing the U.S. Constitution. The Mayflower Compact and many of the other treaties and governing documents from around the same time were not shy about putting god at the top of their priorities. Even the Declaration of Independence features a few choice references to a creator, and yet the Constitution is practically devoid of religious language. How was it not a deliberate, political statement for the founders to exclude mention of god from the law of America?

The English common law had some considerable influence on the development of the Constitution, on which Thomas Jefferson had the following to say:

…the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced or knew that such a character existed. Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.

-Thomas Jefferson3

The preamble to the Constitution does not invoke any creator or god. Why is this significant when it is technically not the part of the Constitution that governs Americans? Because the preamble is like the introduction and thesis of an essay – it expresses what the founding fathers intended for the Constitution to mean and what they hoped to achieve in it. If their intentions were to establish the United States of America as a Christian nation, surely the preamble would be a perfect spot to make such a statement, and yet nothing of the sort is addressed.

In an 1831 debate between Origen Bacheler and Robert Dale Owen, Owen brings up a sermon delivered by a clergyman just a year before. The sermon seems to indicate that the clergyman had access to a record of the congressional proceedings that took place during the formation of the Constitution.

“…the proceedings as published by Thompson, the secretary, show, that the question was gravely debated in Congress whether God should be in the Constitution or not, and after solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it” that “the men whose arguments swayed to vote God out of the Constitution, to declare that there should be no religious test, and that Congress should make no law to establish religion, were atheists in principle.”4

The fact of the Constitution’s intentional omission of god is also confirmed after the fact by President (and founding father) John Adams. In 1797, Adams and Secretary of State Timothy Pickering signed the Treaty of Tripoli, which states in Article XI:

As the Government of 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 [Muslims]; and as the said States never have 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.5

It’s important to notice the reasons why the founders rejected the idea of forming a country based on one religion. It is not because they were immoral, god-hating atheists or even that they were non-religious, but it is simply because they envisioned a government where every person of every religious persuasion (or non-religious persuasion) would be able to exercise their right of conscience to believe, and practice those beliefs, as they saw fit. As the founding fathers correctly judged, a Christian nation would come into conflict with the beliefs of Muslims, and that would prohibit the freedom of religion for which their ancestors had fought.

II. The Declaration & the Articles of Confederation

The Declaration of Independence does make a few brief appeals to a god, using the terminology: “Nature’s God”, “Creator”, “Supreme Judge”, and “divine Providence”. Similarly, the Articles of Confederation – which was the original law of the land until the Constitution was ratified in 1788 – invokes the “Great Governor of the World”. Christians are quick to cite these examples without realizing just how nondescript they are. What makes them think the founders are referring to the Christian god? Why didn’t they call god by the name Yahweh, Jehovah, or Jesus Christ? A Christian’s faith centers around the character of Jesus, so why wouldn’t a so-called Christian nation specifically include the name of their savior?

However, it’s really a moot point, since the Declaration and Articles are not the governing documents of America. Their religious rhetoric is vague and inconsequential, but even if they made reference to Jesus, it would still not permit religion to take an authoritarian role in government. The documents also include the phrase, “In the year of our Lord”, but despite the giddiness this might produce in some Christians, it was merely the common practice for printing the date in those times. In “1776 A.D.”, for example, A.D. stands for anno domini, which is Latin that translates to “In the year of our Lord”. There is really nothing insightful to be gained from this regularity of the 18th century.

III. Locke, Montesquieu, and the Founding Fathers

As any student of philosophy and history must know, America’s founders were greatly influenced by the writings of the 17th century British philosopher John Locke. The idea of humans being endowed with natural rights by our creator is a concept owed to Locke, but it’s open for debate whether or not he was a Christian. He may have defended the religion in his work, The Reasonableness of Christianity, but Locke was also a critic of faith divorced from rationality, and quite a source of inspiration for Isaac Newton’s writings which railed against the Christian concept of the trinity.6

Yet perhaps the most important insight we can gain from Locke’s philosophy is his stand on the separation of church and state, which he spells out succinctly in A Letter Concerning Toleration:

For who does not see that these good men are, indeed, more ministers of the government than ministers of the Gospel and that, by flattering the ambition and favouring the dominion of princes and men in authority, they endeavour with all their might to promote that tyranny in the commonwealth which otherwise they should not be able to establish in the Church? This is the unhappy agreement that we see between the Church and State. Whereas if each of them would contain itself within its own bounds — the one attending to the worldly welfare of the commonwealth, the other to the salvation of souls — it is impossible that any discord should ever have happened between them.7

Locke was an unmistakeable proponent for the separation of church and state, he was not an orthodox Christian by any stretch of the imagination, and his ideas were of great impact on the minds of the founding fathers.

Another source of inspiration to the American founders was Charles Montesquieu, the early 18th century French political/social philosopher who dealt largely with the idea of a separation of powers in government. Montesquieu’s religious belief was even more nebulous than Locke’s, discussing god only as the architect of creation and its laws. In his work, The Spirit of Laws, he lays out his views on the interaction of church and state:

The laws of perfection drawn from religion have more in view the goodness of the person that observes them than of the society in which they are observed; the civil laws, on the contrary, have more in view the moral goodness of men in general than that of individuals. Thus, venerable as those ideas are which immediately spring from religion, they ought not always to serve as a first principle to the civil laws.8

Knowing about the influences that shaped the thinking of the founding fathers is critical to evaluating their own intentions with the Constitution and American government. But the full picture is not complete unless we take into account the very words of the founders themselves.

IV. The Separation of Church and State

The first words of the First Amendment are, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. In my own experience, I have met a handful of Christians who seem to think this passage means something other than what it says. It does not simply mean that the government cannot establish a state religion, but also means that Congress cannot legislate with respect to an establishment of religion such that no religion gets special treatment in our government. This passage is a symmetrical sort of agreement that religion will not interfere in government and government will not interfere with religion.

Is the purpose of the separation of church and state to keep religious people out of politics? No, of course not. Religious affiliation is a perfectly allowable reason to vote for a candidate, oppose a bill, etc. What the First Amendment declares, though, is that religious institutions cannot impose laws based solely on religious principles. You cannot ban abortion or criminalize adultery simply because the Bible says so, at least as you interpret it. One reason for this is that eventually some religion could wind up forbidding something that is crucial to the practice of another religion, and then the right to freely exercise our beliefs goes straight out the door.

I fail to comprehend why religious believers sometimes oppose the separation of church and state. It is not in place to limit personal faith, it is in place to protect it. Christians, consider what would happen if Muslims became the dominant political force in America and were allowed to influence government. How would you feel if the Bible were outlawed and crucifixes were banned, or if churches across the country were bulldozed to make room for more mosques? This is exactly why separation of church and state is critical, so that no religion can deprive the others of the rights they have as American citizens.

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their ‘legislature’ should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

-Thomas Jefferson9

V. What Christian Principles?

To anyone who believes that America is a Christian nation, I challenge you to name and describe the principles our country is founded upon that are exclusively Christian in nature. Peace and love or freedom of religion do not count, as they are not inherent only to Christianity. True to the history of their religion, fundamentalist Christians want to dominate and control the lives of others, or at the very least take credit for the freedoms and liberties we enjoy. However, the evidence speaks quite plainly, and it appears that there is no grounds for concluding that America was established on a specifically Christian foundation.

Were some of the founders Christian? Certainly, just as some were Deist, Unitarian, and other religious orientations. But it is precisely because of this variety of beliefs that the decision was made to found America on secular values that all religions could peacefully co-exist under. This is made abundantly clear by the Constitution, the writings of the founders, the context of the Revolutionary era, and many other aspects. To assert that America was established by any single religion is to do a great disservice to the breadth of freedom that was envisioned and enacted by those men who fought for our liberty. Freedom of religion does indeed mean freedom from religion.

 

Sources:
1. Pledge of Allegiance – Addition of the words ‘under God’. Wikipedia. Last retrieved June 2, 2009.
2. In God We Trust. Wikipedia.org. Last retrieved June 2, 2009.
3. Jefferson, T. (1814) Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Thomas Cooper.
4. Bacheler, O. (1831) Discussion on the Existence of God…. Google Books, p. 231. Last retrieved June 2, 2009.
5. Walker, J. (1997) Little-Known U.S. Document Signed…. EarlyAmerica.com. Last retrieved June 2, 2009.
6. Iliffe, R. Newton’s Views on the Corruptions of Scripture…. The Newton Project. Last retrieved June 2, 2009.
7. Locke, J. (1689) A Letter Concerning Toleration. Constitution.org. Last retrieved June 2, 2009.
8. Montesquieu, C. (1748) The Spirit of Laws. Book XXVI, Section 9. Constitution.org. Last retrieved June 2, 2009.
9. Jefferson, T. (1802) Letter to the Danbury Baptists. Library of Congress. Last retrieved June 2, 2009.