Good news and bad news.
A poll released last week by the Pew Research Center on whether America should be a “Christian nation” is like most polls in that it contains some good news and bad news.
First, the bad news: Americans continue to believe that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation,” despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary and the fact that our Constitution says no such thing.
Pew found that 60% of American adults say they believe the founders “originally intended” for the United States to be a Christian nation. Furthermore, 45% of say they believe the country “should be” a Christian nation.
Is a Christian nation the same as a Christian nationalist nation?
And now for some better news: There’s great disagreement about what exactly being a Christian nation means, and a majority of Americans have not embraced the theocratic views of Christian nationalism. In a press release, Pew noted, “While some people who say the U.S. should be a Christian nation define the concept as one where a nation’s laws are based on Christian tenets and the nation’s leaders are Christian, it is much more common for people in this category to see a Christian nation as one where people are more broadly guided by Christian values or a belief in God, even if its laws are not explicitly Christian and its leaders can have a variety of faiths or no faith at all.”
Pew noted that a survey it conducted last year found that only 28% of Americans say that “the federal government should declare the U.S. a Christian nation.” A much larger number, 52%, agreed that the federal government “should never declare any particular religion as the official religion of the United States.”
Added Pew, “Similarly, among those who say in the new survey that the U.S. should be a Christian nation, only about a quarter (24%) said in the prior survey that the federal government should advocate Christian religious values. About twice as many (52%) said the government should “advocate moral values that are shared by people of many faiths.”
Most Americans agree there should not be a national religion.
“[T]he survey’s results,” Pew asserted, “suggest that most people who say the U.S. should be a Christian nation are thinking of some definition of the term other than a government-imposed theocracy.”
And, even as they buy into the fallacious “Christian nation” myth, most Americans are wary of mixing religion and politics. The survey found that 77% of respondents agree that houses of worship should not endorse candidates for political offices, and 67% said they believe religious institutions should keep out of political matters generally. These findings are in line with other surveys that found broad opposition to church intervention in partisan political campaigns.
Pew added, “And the new survey – along with other recent Center research – makes clear that there is far more support for the idea of separation of church and state than opposition to it among Americans overall” – a finding born out by Americans United’s own polling.
What do these poll findings mean?
So, what are we to make of these findings? I’m not a sociologist, but my guess is that most Americans believe that our national ethics must be moored to some type of moral system. In a country that is culturally Christian, it’s not surprising that folks would default to that system. But at the same time, most Americans are tolerant and believe good people can be found in a variety of belief systems. Relatively few call for blatant theocracy.
We have some work to do when it comes to our nation’s history and making clear that Christian nationalism is a threat to our democracy. Clearly, Christian nationalist attempts to push the “Christian nation” myth are having an effect. My colleague Andrew L. Seidel’s 2019 book “The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American,” handily debunks the Religious Right’s “historical creationism.” (Be sure to check out Andrew’s new book, “American Crusade: How the Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom” as well. You can read an except here.) For a short primer on why the U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation, see this AU publication.
We need a national recommitment to the separation of church and state. Join us to be part of it!