Fireworks For The Fourth: No, The United States Was Not Founded To Be A ‘Christian Nation’

All Americans should be equal in the eyes of the government, yet the Christian nation concept sends the message that there is a 'true' religion – Christianity – and all other beliefs are merely tolerated, at best.

Tomorrow is Independence Day, and many of us will be meeting up with family for cook-outs, picnics, reunions and other events.

While I’m certainly not recommending that you get into an argument with your Uncle Lou who watches too much Fox News, I acknowledge that it might happen. If it does and the topic of America as a “Christian nation” comes up, here is some information you might find useful.

Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution does that document state that America is a Christian nation. This is kind of the slam-dunk argument because it is fatal to the Christian nation advocates. If our founding document were intended to promote Christianity, it would say that front and center. It doesn’t.

It’s telling that Christian nation proponents rarely talk about the Constitution. Instead, they point to obscure 19th century court opinions, proclamations by politicians or comments by figures who lived years after the Constitution was adopted. Why don’t they talk about the Constitution? Because that document is wholly secular. Nowhere in the body of text do the words “Christian,” “Christ,” “Jesus” or “God” even appear.

Advocates of church-state separation rightly point to the First Amendment, which, through its language prohibiting laws “respecting an establishment of religion” and protecting the “free exercise thereof,” creates the separation of church and state. What’s sometimes overlooked is the language at the end of Article VI, which states that there shall be “no religious test” for federal office. Article VI makes it clear that public office is open to everyone, despite where they worship or whether they worship at all. That’s an odd provision for an officially Christian nation to make. 

Key founders did not support the Christian nation concept. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which is widely considered a precursor to the First Amendment, opposed anything like an official government-backed church. Jefferson’s protégé, James Madison, is one of the primary authors of the First Amendment. Like Jefferson, Madison was a strong opponent of church-state union, as his writings and his actions make clear. The writings of both men make it apparent that they were strong foes of the Christian nation idea.

Were there some founders who backed the Christian nation concept? Probably. But their views failed to carry the day. If they had won, the Constitution would look quite different.

At the time of its adoption, everyone knew that the Constitution was secular. Some clergy and political leaders of the day complained about the secular nature of the Constitution and its lack of Christian references. A few pastors went so far as to assert that the American political experiment would not succeed because the Constitution failed to acknowledge Christianity.

This type of carping continued into the 19th century. After the Civil War, a movement arose among conservative pastors to amend the Constitution by adding references to God, Jesus and Christianity. (Obviously there would have been no need for this if the Constitution had already set up a Christian order.) The movement collapsed, yet in the modern era the spiritual descendants of this drive began claiming, against all available evidence, that the United States was indeed founded to be a Christian nation.

Lately, some Christian nation advocates have gotten so desperate that they have taken to arguing that it was not necessary for the Constitution to explicitly mention Christianity because that document is obviously based on the Bible.

Really? Governments in the Bible are run by autocratic kings and emperors. Concepts like representative democracy, checks and balances and the separation of powers don't appear therein.

One more thing: The Christian nation idea is not a harmless belief. The myth of an officially Christian America sends a message of exclusion. Americans hold many religious and philosophical beliefs. Many are Christian (and even there we see great variety), but others are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, humanist and so on.

All Americans should be equal in the eyes of the government, yet the Christian nation concept sends the message that there is a “true” religion – Christianity – and all other beliefs are merely tolerated, at best. Adherents of these “lesser” belief systems are told that they are second-class citizens, that they are little more than guests in their own nation.

In short, the Christian nation concept doesn’t celebrate the remarkable achievement of this nation – a story of religious freedom resting on a secular state that does not presume to meddle in private matters of theology. Instead, it buries that success story under a pile of far-right politics wedded to often dangerous forms of religious extremism and nationalism.

It is counter to the ideas we celebrate on the Fourth of July.

(Note: This blog post is based in part on an editorial that appeared in the July-August issue of Church & State. Happy Independence Day!)