Editor’s Note: Steven K. Green is the Fred H. Paulus Professor of Law and director of the Center for Religion, Law & Democracy at Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Oregon. Green, who served as legal director of Americans United from 1992—2001, is the author of several books on church-state relations, most recently Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding (Oxford University Press). Green discussed his new book with Church & State Editor Rob Boston recently.
Q. When did the “Christian nation” myth begin to take off in America, and why did it arise?
Green: The Christian nation myth, at least the precursor to the one of today, arose in the early decades of the 19th century as the second and third generations of Americans – those without direct, personal knowledge of the nation’s founding – sought to sanctify America’s founding and its Founders as part of establishing a national identity.
Essentially, these writers, politicians and religious figures wanted to exemplify American republicanism and distinguish it from the radical republicanism that had arisen out of the French Revolution. One way was to provide the American version with a higher meaning. They also sought explanations for the seeming miraculous events of the American Revolution and constitutional formation. After all, how else could a fledgling nation have defeated the world’s strongest power if it hadn’t been for God’s interposing providential hand? In this effort to define what America meant and why it was special, the Christian nation myth arose: America was specially ordained by God, and its Founders and founding documents had also been inspired by God.
This impulse also arose at a time of a massive religious revival during the first third of the 19th century, commonly called the Second Great Awakening. Evangelicals believed that America had been chosen by God to usher in the second coming of Jesus. That millennial belief also required the sanctification of the nation and its beginnings. By the second third of the century, this narrative of the Christian origins of the United States was firmly entrenched. Modern-day purveyors of the Christian nation account fail to understand that that perspective was not shared by the members of the founding generation and that they are relying on a narrative purposefully created by later generations.
Q. Why do you think the myth has such staying power?
Green: America in practice has always been at tension with the values expressed in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. How else can we explain slavery and the subjugation of women in the 19th century in contrast to the value of equality? In the same vein, even though the majority of early Americans supported religious disestablishment and various conceptions of church-state separation, many wanted (and still want) some affirmation of a special relationship between America and God. Many people still seek explanations for America’s successes (usually ignoring its failings) and desire to see America as unique and special. They view Christianity as having a positive impact on the culture and public policy and worry about the implications of secularism. Taken together, these people are uneasy about the implications of church-state separation.
The myth has such staying power because the idea of America’s religious origins can mean different things to different people. For some, it simply means that God showed his blessing on the Founding and continues to bless America today. For others, it means that religion played a leading role in the Revolution and constitutional formation, inspiring the actors in their tasks. For still others, it means that the basis for republican and constitutional principles is found in Christianity, and that the Founders consciously relied on those Christian principles in their work. Thus the myth has a protean quality to it and can appeal to a large number of people at least on an abstract level.
Q. Our Constitution is secular and doesn’t even contain a generic reference to God in the body of the text. Was that deliberate? How unusual was it to have a secular constitution in the late 18th century?
Green: I believe the omission of a reference to God was deliberate, although I would not go so far as to say the drafters intended to make it an anti-religious document. The drafters knew about the religious diversity of the new nation and understood the highly divisive nature of religion. James Madison wrote several times about the dangers of political and religious sectarianism for republican governments. The delegates to the Convention had a lot on their plate, seeking consensus on important issues of representation and balance of powers. Introducing religion into the Convention would have been highly divisive and possibly scuttled the enterprise. In addition, a smaller but not insignificant number of delegates believed that government and religious authority should be completely and permanently divorced. They knew the lessons of history and understood that they were charting a new course, one never undertaken before in western history. The secularity of the Constitution and government it established are best demonstrated by the no-religious test clause, a remarkable achievement for the time as it disabused old assumptions about the necessity of religion for good government.
Q. Most of the people who peddle the “Christian nation” myth are not historians and academics. (David Barton is an example.) How is the “Christian nation” thesis regarded in academic circles these days?
Green: I know of no reputable academic who embraces Barton’s conclusions or his “historical method” of proof texting. It is not history but propaganda masquerading as history. Unfortunately, Barton’s method and conclusions are so discredited that scholars tend to ignore him and disregard his influence in certain circles. In addition, Barton and other Christian nationalists gain mileage from a group of conservative scholars who promote a view of a more Christian-inspired founding and who argue that most of the Founders held more conventional Christian beliefs than is commonly argued.
Q. When we discuss the founders, one often hears a lot about Deism. This belief system has fallen out of favor today. What is Deism and how much influence did it have over the framers?
Green: Deism – the belief of a detached God who established rational laws of nature that could be deduced through reason, rather than revelation – was highly influential among members of the founding generation as it accorded with the prevailing Enlightenment thought of the day. That said, few if any of the Founders were actual “deists” – only Benjamin Franklin described himself as a deist – but were rational theists who sought to incorporate reason into their own belief systems. Usually this meant assessing scripture through the lens of reason, rejecting or severely limiting those miraculous and superstitious parts of the Bible.
Q. Let’s talk about some specific founders. George Washington is something of an enigma when it comes to religion. He is often depicted in pietistic ways in popular iconography. (The painting of him praying in the snow at Valley Forge is a good example.) Yet we know that his views were hardly evangelical. What has your research uncovered about Washington and religion?
Green: Washington was a humanistic latitudinarian – emphasizing those commonalities among various religions and abjuring sectarian differences. Though a member of the Church of England, he was a rational theist in his approach to Christian doctrines, likely denying many traditional doctrines such as the virgin birth and the miracles. Still, he believed in a general providence toward the nation (and sometimes a particular providence concerning himself). He was not orthodox for the day, and by contemporary standards, he may not have even been a Christian in the traditional sense.
Q. Thomas Jefferson is another founder whose views are often warped by the Religious Right. We know that Jefferson was not an orthodox Christian, and of course he coined the metaphor of the “wall of separation between church and state.” Yet we hear some conservatives today claim that Jefferson didn’t really support church-state separation. How do you respond to this?
Green: Any fair analysis of the body of Jefferson’s work should lead to the conclusion that he advocated a strong version of church-state separation. Jefferson believed that religion corrupted government, that government manipulated religion for its ends, and that institutional religion had corrupted the essence of Christianity. Certainly there are some inconsistencies in his actions (as there would be of any political figure), but those are seen mainly from a 21st century perspective. His actions and positions need to be judged by the standards of the day, and he needs to be understood for how far he had deviated from the status quo.
Q. Some Religious Right activists point to things like the national motto “In God We Trust” and “under God” on currency as proof of our country’s religious underpinnings. What do you think of this argument?
Green: Such declarations mean nothing more than the expressed opinion of the particular Congress that made them. Both phrases did not originate during the founding period, with the phrase appearing on coins during the Civil War, while its placement on paper currency, as well as the adoption of the national motto, occurred during the Cold War of the 1950s. These are not proofs of the nation’s religious underpinnings.
Q. I’m going to ask you to speculate a bit. The most recent Pew Forum survey shows the number of Christians in America at an all-time low (70 percent). At the same time, the number of people who say they have no religion is rising. How will the changing religious landscape of America affect the “Christian nation” myth? Will the time come when it can finally be discarded?
Green: I believe the idea is becoming less important for younger generations, and is even anathema to the increasing number of non-Christians in the United States. As religious pluralism increases, I hope the idea will die away, as it remains contentious and divisive. However, some conservative Christians will cling onto the idea even more fiercely when they perceive that they are on the losing end of America’s changing religious demographics.