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?