A Bad Attitude

The Myth of the Christian Nation

Dennis Mansker

Note: This article was originally published in the Thurston County Democrats newsletter July 2012. It’s being reproduced here at the request of individuals who want to link to it and were unable to do so using the .pdf of the original.

It's a statement that has been issued by the Religious Right with surprising regularity: The United States is a Christian nation.

But is it?

Much of the putative evidence for this extraordinary claim lies with the Founding Fathers of this nation. Admittedly many of them were deeply religious men, but many others, products of the Enlightenment, did not believe in a Christian concept of God. They were essentially Deists – that is, they believed in a First Cause, which could be considered a "god", but one who had essentially wound up the clockwork, set it into motion and then stepped back from the whole thing.

Even though they were certainly free to do so, the writers of the Constitution did not include a single reference to God or to Jesus or to The Bible in the entire document, which is an unfathomable oversight if they were intent on establishing a Christian nation. Instead the framers added the explicit First Amendment guarantee that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". Even more unequivocably, Article VI of the US Constitution provides that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." If we were truly intended to be a Christian Nation, would those words be in our founding document? Or would their opposite appear, i.e., a decree that only Christians could hold office?

The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated during George Washington's administration and passed unanimously by the senate during John Adams' administration, contains unequivocal language that the "government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…"

To an unbiased observer, then, it seems pretty clear that the founders of this nation went out of their way to set up a secular state unbound by religious doctrine in the administration of its laws.

So how did this whole America is a Christian Nation concept get started? Well, it started early, with many of the delegates to the constitutional convention arguing for a formal recognition of Christianity in the constitution, which one religious leader/delegate said was a necessity in order to "hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism". When this view was voted down and our secular document adopted, some pastors delivered outraged sermons to their congregations that we would never be a successful nation if we did not give special treatment to Christianity.

But the most outspoken of the founders, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams, believed that this "wall of separation" – Jefferson's words – between church and state would be good for the country and good for all religions within it. This has been borne out by the facts of the last 200+ years of this nation's existence. Today the United States has the most religious – and religiously diverse – population in the world.

However, if you take a quick glance at the letters to the editor of The Olympian or such talking heads as self-appointed and self-educated historian David Barton on Fox "News" you will see that the issue still has not been laid to rest. Representatives of the Religious Right continue to trumpet loudly their Christian Nation theory. If you ask some serious questions, though, and back them into a corner, they will generally fall back onto some vague statement that "the Constitution is based on Judeo-Christian values". Okay then, so what are those Judeo-Christian values?

The United States Constitution is a document that enshrines representative government with the concept that the people are sovereign. It also inculcates the ideals of separation of powers, personal responsibility and individual freedom, even though it may honor some of those freedoms in the breech. For example, when the constitution was adopted in 1789, slavery was tolerated – slaves were counted as only three-fifths of a person – and only white adult male property owners had the right to vote.

A cursory examination of European history shows that, for at least the millennium leading up to the American Revolution, governments were largely maintained, supported and controlled by the Medieval Catholic Church, with the consequence that they were all to varying degrees authoritarian, dictatorial, repressive, dogmatic and non-representative. For a long time, the Pope in Rome was the final arbiter of pretty much everything in Medieval Europe. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any Old or New Testament foundations at all for the kind of government that the Founders established here.

So where do we look instead? No further than the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois League, a confederation of Native American tribes in the Northeast who were pervaded by the concepts of liberty, equality and consensus government. Many of the Founders from New England, especially Benjamin Franklin, and their families had lived cheek-by-jowl with Indians for several generations. The ideals espoused by their neighbors couldn't help but rub off on the colonists.

Back to the original question: Is America a Christian Nation? Despite the shrill ranting from the Religious Right, the answer is still, as it always has been this: No, it is not.

While some of the Founders were deeply religious men and others were not, it was the genius of the framers of the constitution that they created a secular government establishing, among other things, a veritable wall of separation between church and state, and this was accomplished despite – and not because of – the individual religious beliefs of the men who wrote it.

To fight against the attempted takeover of our nation by the Religious Right, please consider joining such organizations as Americans United for Separation of Church and State who are working tireless to push back on the lies being spread by "historians" such as David Barton.