October 2001 Church & State | Featured

The National Reform Association's attempts to "Christianize" the United States is nothing new. In fact, the group has been at it for 137 years.

Founded in 1864 by a coalition of conservative Protestant ministers, the NRA's top goal was to add a "Christian nation" amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The ministers were convinced that the Civil War was God's vengeance on America for omitting religious language from the Constitution, and they sought to rectify that situation.

The remedy, NRA supporters believed, was to rewrite the Preamble to the Constitution. The group's proposal, put forth that same year, sought to add language "humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, [and] His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government."

Despite a heavy lobbying campaign, Congress remained skeptical. The House of Representatives rejected the amendment in 1874 and 1896. Recommending a vote against it in 1874, the House Judiciary Committee cited "the dangers which the union between church and state had imposed upon so many nations of the Old World...."

The NRA continued to advocate for the "Christian nation" amendment, but its influence began to dwindle after the turn of the century, and the group soon lapsed into obscurity. According to the Rev. Jeffrey A. Ziegler, current NRA president, the organization sealed its fate by endorsing Prohibition. Many of the Presbyterians who formed the core of the group were not teetotalers and drifted away.

In 1950, a brief flurry of activity temporarily resuscitated the organization, at that time based in Topeka, when Congress considered yet another "Christian nation" amendment. The proposal, introduced by Sen. Ralph Flanders, a Vermont Republican, would have added language that "devoutly recognizes the Authority and Law of Jesus Christ, Saviour and Ruler of nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of liberty."

The new "Christian nation" amendment was an even bigger bust than its predecessors, and it was never reported out of committee. Efforts to revive it in 1961, '63 and '65 were unsuccessful.

In the late 1990s, Christian Reconstructionists took over the ailing NRA and gave it a new shot of life. Today, however, NRA leaders do not consider passage of a "Christian nation" amendment a priority.

"From a political and practical standpoint, we are not there, and we won't be there for some time," said Ziegler. "It probably won't happen in my lifetime. That doesn't mean there aren't other things we can do in the meantime."