Is America a Christian Nation?
All religions welcome here
Is the United States a “Christian nation”? Some Americans think so. Christian nationalist activists and right-wing television preachers often claim that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation. Even some politicians agree. If the people who make this assertion are merely saying that most Americans are Christians, they might have a point. But those who argue that America is a Christian nation usually mean something more, insisting that the country should be officially Christian. The very character of our country is at stake in the outcome of this debate.
Religious extremists say American was founded on Christian principles. This is a myth.
Religious extremists and their allies insist that the United States was designed to be officially Christian and that our laws should enforce the doctrines of (their version of) Christianity. Is this viewpoint accurate? Is there anything in the Constitution that gives special treatment or preference to Christianity? Did the founders of our government believe this or intend to create a government that gave special recognition to Christianity?
The answer to all of these questions is no. The U.S. Constitution is a wholly secular document. It contains no mention of Christianity or Jesus Christ. In fact, the Constitution refers to religion only twice in the First Amendment, which bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and in Article VI, which prohibits “religious tests” for public office. Both of these provisions are evidence that the country was not founded as officially Christian.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”—First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
The Constitution is a secular document.
The Founding Fathers did not create a secular government because they disliked religion. Many were believers themselves. Yet they were well aware of the dangers of a powerful state backing or requiring an official religion. They had studied and even seen first-hand religious wars and persecutions in Europe. During the American colonial period, alliances between religion and government produced oppression and tyranny on our own shores.
Some colonies had officially-established churches and taxed all citizens to support them, whether they were members or not. Some limited public office to Christians, and dissenters faced imprisonment, torture, and even death.
These arrangements led to bitterness and sectarian division. Many people began agitating to end compelled support for religion. Those who led this charge were not anti-religion. Indeed, many were members of the clergy and people of deep piety. They argued that true faith did not need or want support from the government.
Respect for religious pluralism
Respect for religious pluralism gradually became the norm. For example, when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he spoke of “unalienable rights endowed by our Creator.” He used generic religious language that all religious groups of the day would respond to, not narrowly Christian language traditionally employed by nations with state churches.
While some of the country’s founders believed that the government should espouse Christianity, that viewpoint soon became a losing proposition. In Virginia, Patrick Henry argued in favor of tax support for Christian churches. But Henry and his cohorts were in the minority and lost that battle. Jefferson, James Madison, and their allies among the state’s religious groups ended Virginia’s established church and helped pass the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty, a 1786 law guaranteeing religious freedom to all.
“We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities. “—Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty
Christianity does not appear in the Constitution.
Jefferson and Madison’s viewpoint also carried the day when the Constitution and, later, the Bill of Rights were written. If the founders wanted an officially Christian nation, that concept would appear in the Constitution, and it does not. Instead, our nation’s governing document ensures religious freedom for everyone.
Some delegates to the Constitutional Convention argued for formal recognition of Christianity in the Constitution. Still, they did not adopt that view, and the Constitution did not give the government authority over religion. Article VI, which allows persons of all religious viewpoints to hold public office, was adopted unanimously. Through ratification of the First Amendment, observed Jefferson, the American people built a “wall of separation between church and state.”
Pastors who did favor church-state union were outraged. They delivered sermons asserting that the United States would not be a successful nation because its Constitution did not give special treatment to Christianity. But many others welcomed the new dawn of freedom and praised the Constitution and the First Amendment as true protectors of liberty.
The separation of church and state is good for all faiths.
Early national leaders understood that the separation of church and state would be good for all faiths, including Christianity. Jefferson rejoiced that Virginia had passed his religious freedom law, noting that it would ensure religious freedom for “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination.”
Other early U.S. leaders echoed that view. President George Washington, in a famous 1790 letter to a Jewish congregation in Newport, R.I., celebrated that Jews had complete freedom of worship in America. Noted Washington, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”
Washington’s administration even negotiated a treaty with the Muslim rulers of north Africa that stated explicitly that the United States was not a Christian nation. The pact, known as the Treaty with Tripoli, was approved unanimously by the Senate in 1797 under the administration of John Adams. Article 11 of the treaty states, “[T]he government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion….”
“The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” U.S. Treaty with Tripoli, 1797
Throughout our history, Christian nationalists have fought against church-state separation.
Admittedly, the U.S. government has not always lived up to its constitutional principles. In the late 19th century especially, officials often promoted a de facto form of Protestantism. Even the U.S. Supreme Court occasionally fell victim to this mentality.
Throughout our history, a determined faction of Christian nationalists have fought against America’s wise and time-tested policy of church-state separation. In the late 19th century, they even tried to amend the U.S. Constitution to add references to God, Jesus Christ and Christianity. Their efforts failed because they were not in keeping with the founding spirit of our country.
Similar theocratic proposals resurfaced in Congress sporadically, but all failed. Today, America’s religious demographics are changing, and religious diversity has greatly expanded since our nation’s founding. The number of Jews has increased, more Muslims are living in America than ever before, and now America is welcoming high numbers of Hindus and Buddhists. In addition, the fastest growing segment of Americans say they have no religious faith or identify themselves as atheists, agnostics or Humanists. According to some scholars, over 2,000 distinct religious groups and denominations exist in the United States.
Christian nationalism is not synonymous with Christianity.
Also, even though most Americans identify as Christian, this does not mean they would back official government recognition of the Christian faith. Christian denominations disagree on points of doctrine, church structure and stands on social issues. Many Christians are staunch supporters of church-state separation and work with Americans United to secure that principle.
Only the principle of church-state separation can protect America’s religious freedom. The individual rights and diversity we enjoy cannot be maintained if the government promotes Christianity or if our government takes on the trappings of a “faith-based” state.
The United States, in short, was not founded to be an officially Christian nation or to espouse any official religion. Our government is neutral on religious matters, leaving such decisions to individuals. This democratic and pluralistic system has allowed a broad array of religious groups to grow and flourish and guarantees every individual American the right to determine his or her own spiritual path or to reject religion entirely. As a result of this policy, Americans enjoy more religious freedom than any people in world history. We should be proud of this accomplishment and work to preserve the constitutional principle that made it possible: separation of church and state.