Was the United States Founded as a Christian Nation?


Why do some Americans insist that the United States was founded as a Christian nation? And what does that mean anyway? How does a Christian nation act? Why does one segment—a very vocal segment—of modern American society insists that the United States be viewed as a Christian nation? Those are core questions and they have sparked a debate over the nature and direction of the United States in the twenty-first century.

The two most central founding documents of the American nation—the Declaration of Independence written and adopted in 1776 and the United States Constitution written in 1787 and ratified and put in place in 1789—both make much of the fact that laws are created by humanity.

There is quite a lot of mythology surrounding and the principle of church-state separation and it is important to counter the mythology and misinformation being perpetrated among conservative Christians.

There is a specific agenda at play in the argument made by some on the fundamentalist Christian right that the United States was founded as, and should reclaim its place as, a Christian nation. They seek to establish a privileged status for themselves and their belief system within the polity and laws of the United States. They seek protection from the state that are not accorded to other religions, asserting but never quite making a legitimate case based on history that the church-state separation of the present era is essentially a falsehood perpetrated on modern Americans by non believers. 

These efforts are an overt attempt on the part of the Christian right to overthrow the principle of separation of church and state in favor of a principle that may best be characterized as “state-church accommodation.” This would help to establish a primarily fundamentalist Christian perspective on every aspect of national life and polity. In essence, it would lead to an overturning of the democratic principles of the United States in favor of implementing theocratic ideals.

These assertions about the Christian nation theory are incorrect. They have been advanced by several fundamentalists, especially David Barton in a series of books on the subject. This position is at best a selective reading of the past, and sometimes contains deliberate distortion and falsification. The objective is to orient current policy toward a position advantageous to one—and only one—group of religious believers. 

I am flabbergasted by this  interpretation of history; it is incorrect at best and disingenuous at worst. It moves beyond the protection of “religious freedom” for everyone just as the founders sought to do, and ensures that no one received a privilege place for their religious belief system. My position is similar to that of Roger Williams upon the founding of Rhode Island in the 1630s. Williams, a Puritan minister banned from Massachusetts Bay colony for religious heresy, realized that the only way to ensure religious rights for any one group required ensuring religious rights for all.

In the contrary,  Christian fundamentalists have long insisted on their rights to practice their religion as they see fit, but now that they are a political power in the United States they are increasingly unwilling to grant those same rights both to other religious groups and to those not a part of any faith community.

The longstanding Constitutional provision of the separation of church and state was not so simple as some would believe today; George Washington as president wrestled with how to ensure religious liberty for all. This complexity was demonstrated in writings by Washington, Madison, and Jefferson with various religious groups, and it shows unmistakably that the only means of ensuring religious liberty for all was to guarantee that no one religion was privileged in American public life. For example, as president, George Washington responded in 1790, to a letter from a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, assuring all that their freedom of religion would be protected. “The Government of the United States,” Washington wrote, “which gives to bigotry no sanction…every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

While some might be lulled into self-satisfied complacency through these reassurances, some complexity to the story is offered by the addition of a letter from Thomas Jefferson on the very same subject. Jefferson cautioned about “the universal spirit of religious intolerance inherent in every sect, disclaimed by all while feeble, and practiced by all when in power.” American religious liberty required legal bulwarks, he insisted, and national “laws have applied the only antidote to this vice, protecting our religious, as they do our civil rights by putting all on an equal footing, but more remains to be done.”

Likewise, the “free exercise” and “non-establishment” clauses of the First Amendment are intended to protect the general population from anyone who might appropriate the power of the government to impose their ideas on others. There has always been a tension between belief and practice, of course, but the Founder’s intentions were clear. 

In my own religious tradition, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints/Community of Christ, which emerged out of the ideas of Joseph Smith Jr. in the first half of the nineteenth century, there has long been a strong belief in theocracy, essentially with the church controlling the state. We never used the term theocracy, of course; it was called theocratic-democracy, whatever that is, but the reality is that the this religious tradition has fundamentally believed that the democracy of the United States of America should be supplanted by a theocratic government. Woe to all should such a thing ever take place.

Joseph Smith Jr. experimented with this approach to governance in Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1840s with disastrous results. Brigham Young experimented with theocracy in the American West during the era of the state of Deseret, also with tragic consequences. I certainly do not want anything like that to ever be created again. Nor do I want a theocratic approach to governance implemented under the control of any other belief system.

To answer the question in the title of this blog post, no the U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation. And no, I don’t want to see one established now. What do you think?

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6 Responses to Was the United States Founded as a Christian Nation?

  1. This is one of those topics where passions tend to overrule reason and the historical record. The United States was founded as a secular Republic with the government remaining neutral in matters of religion. As you pointed out this was the intent of the Founding Fathers to protect each American in the matter of personal conscience and belief/non-belief in the supernatural. The Founders were not far removed from the ugly religious strife and conflict that was rampant in Europe after the Protestant Reformation. Being products of the Enlightenment and heavily influenced by Deism they realized that the only way to guarantee religious freedom was to keep the government out of religion and religion out of the government. This would protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Much to my chagrin I have seen the rise of conservative Christian revisionists led by the non-historian David Barton who have attempted to rewrite the history books to support their right-wing religious and political agenda. Over the past two decades Barton has been proven time and time again to either make up historical references or take them out of context to push his agenda. Yet he remains a hero to the far-right because he tells them what they want to hear rather than telling them the actual historical record. The reality is that America is a pluralistic culture with many sects of Christianity being followed by a majority of citizens. But we also have a large population of atheists, Agnostics, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, etc. We are a multicultural melting pot which has long been a source of strength for our country. This diversity has driven progress and a change for the better since our founding. The surest method of destroying our Constitutional Republic is to shred the Bill of Rights and establish a right-wing Christian theocracy. All we need to do is look to the Middle-East to see how theocratic regimes repress and abuse their citizens except for the powerful class of clerics who run the state. There is not a town or city in America where you can go more than a few blocks and see a church or other house of worship. Christians enjoy the complete freedom to follow their beliefs, attend the church of their choice and use their 1st Amendment right to voice their opinion about their beliefs. They are in error when they think their supernatural beliefs gives them the right to violate the civil liberties of their fellow Americans who do not share the same religious worldview. I respect their right to follow the dictates of their conscience but in our Constitutional Republic they must show the same respect for the dictates of my conscience. The government\’s role is to remain neutral in matters of religion. The government does not promote or support any religious belief nor does it oppose any religious belief leaving such matters to the individual. It is a shame that many on the right take this neutrality as being an attack on their religion. But as Benjamin Franklin so wisely stated, \”When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, \’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.\” I remain hopeful that this right-wing assault on our Constitution will fade into history as we advance as a society. Demographic changes will occur during the next 100 years where those white Christians now in the majority will find themselves in the minority. Like the Baptists of old they will seek protection under the same Constitution that they now attack demanding that their civil liberties be protected against the tyranny of the majority. http://freethought.mbdojo.com/foundingfathers.html

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  2. David Clow says:

    Those who insist that the United States was created as a Christian nation, or indeed upon any religious foundation, are willfully ignoring both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The latter, or course, explicitly separates Church and State, so it is baffling that religious advocates insist that the Founders intended the contrary. However, an even more fundamental statement of intent by the Founders is in the Declaration, and that one has been entirely overlooked.

    The Founders planted a bomb in the Declaration of Independence. It has exploded at least twice in our history, at the founding and 87 years later, and both times it nearly destroyed the nation it helped to create. Thanks to the elementals of our own era, it has detonated once again, this time right in the middle of ideological conservatism, where your question lives.

    Blame Benjamin Franklin for it.

    It was Jefferson who wrote the draft of the Declaration, of course. Before he stated the specifics compelling the separation of the American colonies from their King, he laid down some philosophical ideals that he felt the new nation should embody and that the old one, indeed the old world, did not: “that all Men are created equal & independent; that from that equal creation they derive in rights inherent & inalienable among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness….” He prefaced this list with the phrase, “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable…”

    Jefferson’s list survived more or less intact as the document was reviewed by Franklin and John Adams. However, knowing that anything sanctified by one person or one culture could be desecrated by another one, Franklin crossed out the “sacred and undeniable” fluff and inserted the steelier terminology of a scientist: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” And so, when the Founders signed the Declaration, they made the United States the first nation in history founded on the idea that there is such a thing as self-evidence—that there is such a thing as a fact. Franklin, perhaps knowingly, had lit the fire that inflamed three wars, the Revolution, the Civil War and our national crisis today.

    It sounds obvious, but implying the existence of self-evidence, or worse, leaving it out, would have invited chaos. Simply saying that life, liberty and so on were “sacred & undeniable” meant practically nothing. But stating them as facts without saying specifically that fact itself was factual and truth itself was true would have been writing on water. Instead, the Founders required themselves, as a matter of “sacred honor,” to pursue consensus in seeking and determining facts; to test themselves and their thinking against the most rigorous standards; and, with remarkable humility, to accept the conclusions so rigorously attained as “self-evident”. And they had to say it. What is “self-evident” is beyond mere opinion. It is timeless and universal, like the heliocentric solar system, like gravity, like any observable phenomena that were not only indisputable, of such demonstrable utility that questioning it isn’t only pointless; it’s wasteful and potentially damaging to try.

    They made the fact of fact the adamantine underpinning for the United States, the basis for its law and its economy. Upon that they could erect the idea of a nation in which some facts were timeless and unconditional. That the Founders said it in the first person, stating it as their deliberate personal commitment—“We hold—“, and signed their names to it in a mutual contract, was itself an act of extraordinary courage and modesty. Some of the greatest minds in the world were agreeing to agree that some truths were greater than men or men’s expediency. Authority was subject to fact, not vice versa. They pledged to die before kneeling any longer to kings, but they knelt to this.

    The progenitors of today’s schism introduced a pathogen into the body politic in 1861 by confronting that principle.

    For the secessionists to justify leaving the Union, they needed to attack the idea that all men are created equal, but first, they had to destroy the fact of factuality, the foundation upon which that idea stood. Faced with a choice between economic expediency and a truth that their predecessors had declared self-evident, the secessionists chose the former and endorsed another “truth”—the opposite one. They had to argue that all men were not created equal; that God intended some to be masters and other’s servants; and that this truth, not the one committed to by the Founders, was self-evident. In his March 21, 1861 speech to listeners in Savannah, Georgia, the one known thereafter as the “Cornerstone Speech,” Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the new Confederate States of America, explained,

    The prevailing ideas entertained by Jefferson and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically….Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

    Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.

    Slavery was the prize to be secured by secession, but the underlying cause of the breakup of the old Union was not slavery. It was factuality. The Founders weren’t wrong just about slaves, Stevens had to assert; they were wrong that any truth could be self-evident, universal and timeless. The secessionists chose to say that if a truth was self-evident in one place and time, it was not so in every time; it was not so in every place; it was never universal or unconditional; and therefore, nothing could be called self-evident. The secessionists were not fighting to establish the subordination of blacks as a universal truth, just as a local one. They were not demanding that the world, or indeed the northern United States embrace it. They were drawing a geographical boundary around their great truth, conceding that outside that border, another truth could be fundamental. If such a thing were possible, then there could be no facts. There could only be conditions of time, need, preference and power. Fact was subject to authority. It took only the power to make it so.

    In 1861 this must have been a thrilling opportunity for an individual who could use it. In our own era, it still is. Repeated and magnified in volume through mass media, that idea has been democratized and even raised to the status of policy: as an American entitlement, we have the authority to manufacture fact. In 2002 “a senior adviser to [President George W.] Bush” explained to the New York Times that a new secession had taken place. This one wasn’t geographical. It was a secession of the mind, and in that regard, an echo of the 1861 version: the writer, Ron Susskind, said, “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

    With hubris as intoxicating as that imbibed by their predecessors, these new secessionists presumed to talk of permanent majorities and empire—their empire. Their secession overthrew whole epistemologies. Boundaries of logic, divisions between types of thinking, distinctions between thought and feeling could be tumbled as one wished because one wished, shuffling reason, assumption, fact and faith indiscriminately to deal the thinker any hand he wished to play.”I am a religious conservative,” says a bio by a blogger. “I believe in God, and life after death.” Fair enough. “I don’t believe in evolution as it pertains to human beings.” That’s questionable. “I don’t believe in killing babies or global warming.” What? Is it a matter of belief that abortion and climate change are both matters of belief? For this conservative, of course. It’s required that they be. Nothing isn’t a matter of belief. One’s freedom to believe encompasses anything. One’s freedom to assume is without limit. It might be called doublethink—it was that before the Secession when the South was faced with affirming both that all men are created equal and also that they are not—but doublethink permits two mutually contradictory ideas. This permits as many as you like. It dismisses the very idea of mutually contradiction, and requires instead, absolute fidelity to the freedom to believe in belief.

    As during the Civil War, there was no going back, no reconverging the diverged when this thinking overwhelmed conservatism in our own time. The point was to break away. Once declared, it had to be total and permanent. That absolutism painted conservatism into a very small corner even as the outcome was inevitably the same as that suffered by the C.S.A.

    The dilemma facing today’s conservative movement is that today “history’s actors” aren’t just conservative leaders. It’s as many conservatives as want to think this way.

    Such sentiments among the rank-and-file conservatives as “Libs are trash” and “It is our intention to crush you. We will not debate you. We will crush you. We know who you are” discredit the conservative movement and taint its legitimacy, but they’re symptoms. The disease is the same one suffered by the 19th century secessionists. Authority makes factuality, but now the line isn’t drawn around a territory or a finite group of leaders. Authority is everyone’s, like the right to keep and bear arms.

    The rank and file conservatives have a personal stake in keeping it that way and they will not have it taken back. The foreboding felt by them today and the emotionalism that provokes “One medical procedure I will pay for is abortion of all Democrats” and “Bring it on, we are waiting for you…we are waiting for you. We need the spark that turns into the wildfire. The anger is at its highest. We long for you to make any type of fight back” are like the shouting of panicked people who sense their world shifting. They resent any possibility of surrendering the narcotic euphoria of unfettered subjectivity, but they feel the approach of something they cannot stop.

    Dr. Launius, as an historian of science you appreciate the value of fact in American history. Our unprecedented progress, wealth and power all come from our democratized understanding of, and application of, fact-thinking and empiricism in every aspect of American life. Those instances where someone attempted to politicize reality failed here as Lysenkoism filed in the Soviet Union. Thanks to the certainty that there are self-evident truths, the time it takes to seek and test alternatives has been eliminated from our national forward motion since 1776. The sheer disutility of any alternative to the “reality-based community” is obvious—there are no Catholic gear ratios or Protestant thermodynamics. A dollar, a kilowatt, a calorie, a pound and a rate of speed are the same for everyone, and no nation on earth ever turned those self-evident truths to its own advantage so rapidly or aggressively as did the United States. We are self-evidently a nation based on empiricism. Anyone’s insistence to the contrary is fundamentally un-American.

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  3. mike shupp says:

    I was raised in small towns in central Ohio in the 1950’s. Not exactly Bible Belt country, but close to it. And I sort of want to say that the notion that “The USA is a Christian Nation” would have been met with derision — but it isn’t true, because if that phrase had been invoked in my milleau it would provoked total incomprehension. The US simply wasn’t viewed as a Christian Nation, any more than it was viewed as a Buddhist Nation or a Hebrew Nation or a Shinto Nation. Yes there were Christians about — I don’t think I ever met someone who wasn’t a Christian before I go to 9th grade — but no one had the slightest idea that that meant the US government should, in some unexplained fashion, be “Christian” — whatever that might mean.

    What changed things? The latest Great American Revival, starting in the late 1960’s and still not out of steam. I suspect it’ll be shaping our social and political and intellectual culture for another 30 years.

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  4. Guillaume says:

    My favorite thing to do in class (I teach at a Methodist college; most students are secular, but still have a big church background) is to simply ask ho many times God appears in the constitution. The range of responses is amazing, and nobody ever got the right answer (one–“in the year of our Lord 1787,” a common expression at the time.) The other fun part to get them thinking beyond political rhetoric is to explain the “in God we trust” motto on the dollar bills. Several do not believe me (perhaps because I’m a foreigner.)

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  5. Shasiti says:

    Christians just cannot stand the proven facts that our founding fathers were anything but christians and that evolutuion is a proven fact, I read an article today stating that they feel they are being persecuted?? Huh?? They do not even know what the words mean, people are just giving them a taste of their own medicine when they were shoving it down our throats and we finally stood together and said were not going to take it, no were not going to take it,were not going to take it anymore. they call that persecution?? yeah right!!

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