I don’t want to knock an entire region of the country, but folks in the South really need to get over their “Christian nation” fixation.
I know, I know. Not everyone there believes it. In fact, I just got back from a trip to North Carolina where I talked with Americans United activists in the Research Triangle area. They’re good people working hard to shore up the church-state wall in trying times, and they certainly know better than the swallow the Religious Right’s revisionist history.
Unfortunately, it looks like many of their neighbors are buying into it. A recent poll by Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., found that half of Southerners and a whopping three-quarters of Southern white evangelicals believe the United States “was founded as an explicitly Christian nation.”
The poll’s director, Scott H. Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop, noted that many Southerners have embraced Christian nationalism and believe that the government should base public policy on “Christian” values. The problem with that, of course, is that they define that faith in a narrow, conservative way. (Huffmon says this may also explain President Donald Trump’s continued popularity in this part of the country.)
Many scholars have debunked the “Christian nation” thesis over the years, and I am indebted to their work. A few years ago, I wrote a piece for Free Inquiry titled “Five Reasons the United States is Not a Christian Nation.” I won’t summarize the whole thing here, but I do want to make two points:
Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution does it say that we are a Christian nation. If a Christian nation had been the intent of the founders, our Constitution would say that front and center. It does not. In fact, the words “Christian,” “Jesus” or “God” appear nowhere in that document. Our First Amendment bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion” and protects “the free exercise thereof.” Thus, the First Amendment protects all religious and nonreligious expression and gives no preference to Christianity.
The “no-religious-test” clause in Article VI definitively debunks the “Christian nation” idea. Article VI of the Constitution contains language at the end stating, “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The language is fatal to Christian nationalists. If an officially “Christian nation” had been the intent of the founders, why on earth would they have put language in the country’s governing charter guaranteeing that federal office would be open to people of all faiths and none?
The “Christian nation” myth is malicious and un-historical. Worse, its persistence prevents us from telling the real story of America. That’s a story of how a nation whose early settlers included (among others), a small band of avowed theocrats in Massachusetts, eventually became the diverse and vibrant beacon for religious freedom that we know today. (Spoiler: None of that would have been possible without the wall of separation between church and state.)
The “Christian nation” myth also feeds the pernicious idea that some Americans are better than others because they’re part of the “in crowd” and that it’s all right to treat entire classes of people like second-class citizens because of what they believe (or don’t believe) about God.
I am aware that it’s not just people in the South who cling to the “Christian nation” myth. The idea has fans all over the country. But the fact that some Americans believe it doesn’t make it true.
It’s long past time for this myth to die.