Is America a Christian Nation?

Should healthcare plans be required to cover birth control? Should abortion be legal? Should the government fund planned parenthood? Should Creationism be taught in schools alongside evolution? Should prayer be allowed in schools, football games, or the Oval Office? Should homosexuals be allowed to marry? Is being an atheist unpatriotic? Should the 10 Commandments be displayed in government buildings? Should public policy and law be based on Christian values? Is America, in fact, a Christian Nation? These are the tough questions our country is facing these days, and these concepts are being hotly debated across the land in committee meetings, courtrooms, social networks, and the public media. Divisive as they may be, these are issues that we will have to come to some agreement on before we can move forward together as a nation in this rapidly changing world.

The Separation of Church and State

These questions all revolve around the idea of separation of church and state. This phrase was coined by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 in a widely-printed letter discussing the First Amendment with the Danbury Baptists, a religious minority in Connecticut who were concerned about the prevalence of the Congregationalist Church in that state:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, 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.”

As an example of this separation, in 1796 the Treaty of Tripoli was signed under President John Adams to bring peace with North African Muslim pirates, and it intended to show that the United States was not like other nations, like England for example, who had established a State Religion of Christianity and were thus perceived as a threat to the Muslim faith. Article 11 reads:

“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 Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] 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.”

God in the Founding Documents

The Declaration of Independence was a document adopted by the Continenal Congress on July 4th, 1776 to declare America’s separation from England, and it was written almost entirely by Thomas Jefferson. God is referenced 4 times:

twice in the Preamble:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

and twice in the final paragraph:

“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,… And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

It is important to note that the Declaration of Independence was not, nor was it ever meant to be, a founding document to design the laws and regulations of our country. It was a moral plea to England justifying why America should be an independent nation, a self-evident right  (not referred to as a “Biblically-evident” right, by the way) that the founders believed came from God. It is also noteworthy that “religion” is not mentioned once, much less “Christianity”, and that the terms “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” and “Divine Providence” were all common Deist terms, and certainly not representative of Christianity alone.

The United States Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and was put into effect on March 4, 1789. God is never mentioned once, except in the signature section, where it says, “Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven,” which is of course was a common notation and not a religious reference. Religion is only mentioned once in Article VI where it states that “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” meaning that anyone could serve in public office regardless of their religion or lack thereof. It should be noted, however, that this applies only to federal office, and several state constitutions do require a religious test to hold certain offices, although this is rarely enacted.

The Bill of Rights consisted of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution and was presented to the First U.S. Congress by President James Madison and came into effect on December 15, 1791. The First Amendment states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The part about religion is called the “Establishment Clause,” and it specifically states that the United States government cannot establish an official religion or stop the free exercise of religion. This is the clause addressed by Jefferson in his “Separation” letter, and clearly shows that neither Christianity nor any other faith can be a national or official religion. This idea has been held up in many Supreme Court cases throughout our nation’s history. It is also important to remember that the Framers of the Constitution were just a few generations removed from the Puritans, who escaped to America to practice their religion freely, which they could not do under the official state-declared Church of England.

Was American’s Government Based On Christian Values?

So the founding fathers clearly established separation of Church and State and did not declare Christianity as the official religion, but did Christianity influence their ideas? Of the 55 delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, 51 were most likely Christian, which no doubt influenced their morality and worldview. Many of the early leaders held prayer during government meetings, declared religious proclamations, and attended church services at the Capitol and apparently did not see these as violations of the Establishment Clause.

However when the founding fathers set out to design a nation, they looked to Roman and Greek thought (as in Plato’s The Republic) as well as deist philosophers like John Locke and David Hume, among others. Deism and theistic rationalism were two schools of thought that developed out of the Age of Enlightenment, which helped influence both the American and French revolutions. Many of the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson, were clearly heavily influenced by these principles, which focused more on reason and observation as well as reverence for the natural world, and less on religious literalism, dogma, and supernatural claims. Jefferson even famously assembled the “Jefferson Bible,” which consisted of the New Testament Gospels, omitting nearly all supernatural claims including references to the Holy Trinity, angels, miracles, the Resurrection, and Jesus’ divinity, all of which were notably doubted as being factual by most deist thinkers.

It is also clear that democracy is not a Biblical ideal, since God’s chosen people were commanded to be ruled over by kings who earned their position through birthright, including Jesus himself, and not by popular vote.

In God We Trust

So if Christianity isn’t America’s official religion, and if its government wasn’t directly based on Christian principles, why is “In God We Trust” the national motto and on all of our money? Well, “In God We Trust” didn’t appear on U.S. coins until 1864, during the Civil War. Eleven northern Protestant churches, during a time of turmoil and deep religious sentiment, lobbied for a statement recognising “Almighty God in some form in our coins,” and Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, with an act of Congress, obliged.

E pluribus unum, latin for “out of many, one,” was our nation’s unofficial motto when the Great Seal of the United States (both sides of which can be seen on the back of a dollar bill) was adopted in 1782. In 1956, during the height of the Cold War, the official motto was changed to “In God We Trust” by Congress under President Dwight Eisenhower, in part to differentiate the U.S. from atheistic Communist countries. The phrase was added to paper money in 1957. Some secularists view these changes as illegal and a violation of the Establishment Clause since they favor monotheistic religions, but the language has been held up and reaffirmed by the government over time. It was also during the scare of Communism when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 by Congress, 12 years after the original secular version of the Pledge was first officially recognized.

A Christian Nation

The majority of Americans, between 76 and 80%, consider themselves to be Christian. I would say that alone defines America as a Christian nation. I think that it is also completely fair to say that most of the founders of our country, from the Puritans to the leaders of today, have been Christian or at least subscribed in part to Christian ideals. However, I believe that I (along with many others) have demonstrated that America was not designed around the Christian religion, and that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution intended for there to be a distinct wall of separation between church and state.

However, public attitudes have been changing about this Separation and what it means, primarily as a result of a movement that gained steam in the late 1970s called the Christian Right. This right-wing informal coalition, mostly founded around a core of white Evangelical Protestants, has had a growing heavy influence on governmental policy and social thought through political and social groups like the Moral Majority, The Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, the 700 Club, and the Family Research Council. Unfortunately, these groups have been shown to spread misinformation and harmful ideas, mainly through public figures like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson. Falwell and Robertson in particular have been criticized for their remarks blaming certain natural disasters and the 9/11 attacks as God’s punishment for homosexuality and secularism. Other proponents have declared that the theories of evolution and the Big Bang are the direct result of Satan’s influence. Some have even said that you cannot be a true patriotic citizen if you don’t believe in God.

Most people who agree with the views of the Christian Right believe that the Theory of Evolution is false and that Creationism/Intelligent Design should be taught in schools, that abstinence rather than safe sex should be taught to teenagers, that homosexuality is both a choice and wrong, that gay marriage should be illegal, that birth control should not be covered under health care, that abortion is wrong and should be illegal, that stem cell research is unethical, that morality comes from the Bible, that Christian teachings from the Bible should be reflected in U.S. law, that the conflicts in Israel and the Middle East are a sign of the End Times, and that Jesus will be returning sometime within the next 50 years to issue in the Apocalypse. Many people, both secular and religious, see all of these ideas as direct threats to reason, personal freedom, and national safety.

I personally hope to see a return to a more secular understanding of our government as the original founding fathers intended, one where our freedoms are not restricted by any one religion, and yet one where everyone has the freedom to believe whatever religion they choose, or to choose not to believe at all.

As John F. Kennedy famously said, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

For more information, start with the following: 

~ by christhehumanist on October 7, 2012.

3 Responses to “Is America a Christian Nation?”

  1. I hear you ….thanks for all of your energy and effort to clarify what we all need to understand about “God and Country” .

  2. Not a bad little encapsulation of the history. One error, though, is that you refer to the 1st Amendment’s religious clauses as “the establishment clause.” It’s actually the establishment clause and the free-exercise clause. Another is that “separation of church and state” isn’t really “coined” by Jefferson–he’s just the one most quote for having used the phrase.

    That points toward what could be perceived as another shortcoming in the piece; the lack of background on how these rights developed. This is, honestly, a small failing–it’s a brief article, and can’t include everything–but I’ve concluded that leaving any historical vacuum on the subject just leaves something that will be filled, by those of ill-agenda, with misinformation.

    Church/state separation began on American shores with Roger Williams. Exiled by New England theocracy, he founded Rhode Island on the concept, becoming the first government in world history to adopt it. There are, throughout American colonial history, various efforts at creating “toleration” regimes–that is, governments where there is a privileged, official religion, but one that doles out indulgences to those of minority religions. This set up a conflict with those who advocated religious liberty, which rejected the “toleration” idea, and held that every person has a fundamental right to his religious views, and that the state had no part in the matter. This conflict continued for decades after the founding, and is very much alive today, as the largest faction (broadly speaking) of the religious right agitate for “toleration” ideas, contrary to the founding (the other, smaller faction wants some harder-core form of outright theocracy).

    I have a page of my own that covers a lot of this in more detail:

  3. I pointed out that the “wall” metaphor wasn’t properly attributed to Jefferson, but didn’t say whose it was! Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, brought it into play in the 17th century, writing about a wall between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world. Later, both Richard Hooker and James Burgh used it, as well (Jefferson picking it up from the latter). The concept of religious liberty–with or without the “wall” metaphor for it–bubbled through Enlightenment thought for a long time.

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