July/August 2015 Church & State | Editorial

The Religious Right’s claim that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation” has been debunked so many times by so many legitimate scholars that it’s amazing the assertion has any staying power.

Yet it does. Like a vampire in a cheap B-movie, the Christian nation myth keeps rising from the grave one more time – no matter how many times it is staked. It survives not because it has any basis in history but because it is a comforting counter-narrative to those Americans who cannot or will not accept the real story of our country’s origins – that we are an officially secular nation that extends religious freedom to all.

The Christian nation myth is to history what creationism is to biology. It’s a story that some people have latched onto because they are bothered by the facts.

For those who do care about facts, here are some that are relevant to this discussion:

Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution does that document state that America is a Christian nation. It’s telling that Christian nation proponents never talk about the Constitution. Instead, they point to obscure 19th century court opinions, proclamations by politicians or comments by figures who lived years after the Constitution was adopted. Why don’t they talk about the Constitution? Because that document is wholly secular. Nowhere in the body of text do the words “Christian,” “Christ,” “Jesus” or “God” even appear.

Advocates of church-state separation rightly point to the First Amendment which, through its language prohibiting laws “respecting an establishment of religion” and protecting the “free exercise thereof,” creates the separation of church and state. What’s sometimes overlooked is language at the end of Article VI, which states that there shall be “no religious test” for federal office. Article VI makes it clear that public office is open to everyone, despite where they worship or whether they worship at all. That’s an odd provision for an officially Christian nation to make. 

Key founders did not support the Christian nation concept. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which is widely considered a precursor to the First Amendment, opposed anything like an official government-backed church. Jefferson’s protégé, James Madison, is one of the primary authors of the First Amendment. Like Jefferson, Madison was a strong opponent of church-state union, as his writings and his actions make clear. The writings of both men make it apparent that they were strong foes of the Christian nation idea.

Were there some founders who backed the Christian nation concept? Probably. But their views failed to carry the day. If they had won, the Constitution would look quite different.

At the time of its adoption, everyone knew that the Constitution was secular. Some clergy and political leaders complained about the secular nature of the Constitution and its lack of Christian references. A few pastors went so far as to This type of carping continued into the 19th century. After the Civil War, a movement arose among conservative pastors to amend the Constitution and add references to God, Jesus and Christianity. (Obviously there would have been no need for this if the Constitution had already set up a Christian order.) The movement collapsed, yet in the modern era the spiritual descendants of this drive began claiming, against all available evidence, that the United States was indeed founded to be a Christian nation.

The Christian nation concept is not harmless. Belief in the Christian nation concept has had several negative effects. When it is taught to children, it denies them the ability to learn about the true origins of religious liberty in America – a fascinating story in its own right. The Christian nation concept has also been used to undermine the separation of church and state, and it has served to motivate a generation of Religious Right activists.

The belief in America as an officially Christian nation also sends a message of exclusion. Americans hold many religious and philosophical beliefs. Many are Christian (and even there we see great variety), but others are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, humanist and so on. All Americans should be equal in the eyes of the government, yet the Christian nation concept sends the message that there is a “true” religion – Christianity – and all other beliefs are merely tolerated, at best. Adherents of these “lesser” belief systems are sent the message that they are second-class citizens, that they are little more than guests in their own nation.

In short, the Christian nation concept doesn’t celebrate the remarkable achievement of this nation – a story of religious freedom resting on a secular state that does not presume to meddle in private matters of theology. Instead, it buries that success story under a pile of far-right politics wedded to often dangerous forms of religious extremism and nationalism.

The Christian nation idea is more than just wrong from a historical perspective; it is an insult to a great principle, the separation of church and state, which many people worked hard to pioneer and others laid down their lives to defend. For that reason alone, the Christian nation fallacy must be strongly opposed.