The Christian States of America?
There has been much debate on this site and across the web over whether the United States is a Christian nation or a secular nation. The debates can be categorized into three distinct questions: Is America currently a Christian nation? Was America founded as a Christian nation? And finally, should America be(come) a Christian nation? On the extreme sides of this debate are fundamentalists and atheists. Fundamentalists who desire a ‘Christian America’ often are of the opinion that the nation was founded as a Christian nation but an encroaching anti-Christian sentiment has made it a secular nation in need of reformation. On the other hand, atheists who believe America should be secular are of the opinion that America was founded as secular and has been growing increasingly Christian in recent times. Both sides feel they need to save the country from the other group. Which group is right about which questions and to what extent? This article attempts to detangle the noise surrounding this debate and argues that the nation was founded as, is still, and should remain secular.
Question one: Is America currently a Christian nation? First it is important to define exactly what is meant by ‘nation’. According to About.com, “Nations are culturally homogeneous groups of people, larger than a single tribe or community, which share a common language, institutions, religion, and historical experience.” We clearly meet this definition with respect to language, institutions, and historical experience but what about religion? Clearly, Christianity is the majority religion with approximately three-fourths of America’s population identifying themselves as Christian. Despite this seeming hegemony, only 40% of these say they and everyone in their household do not regularly attend a church. Furthermore, only 36% of US adult population identify themselves as ‘born again’, and only 9% as evangelical. These statistics indicate that even within the majority religion, there is a vast diversity of beliefs and practices and that the more extreme the form of Christianity, the smaller the group. Not surprisingly, it seems that the largest ‘religious’ group in the United States consists of those who are nominally (non-practicing) Christian or moderate Christian. The only way such diversity can thrive is if the country is largely secular in behavior. Further evidence for this fact is that the United States has no official religion and certainly no state-sponsored religion (although it can be argued that Bush’s "Faith-Based Initiatives" are changing that).
Question two: Was America founded as a ‘Christian nation’. As demonstrated above, it is difficult to even define what a ‘Christian nation’ is due to the large diversity of beliefs. Again, from the Barna Poll, we can see that one-third of born again Christians believe abortion is morally acceptable, about one-half believe that Satan is "not a living being but is a symbol of evil, and over one-fourth believe that Jesus sinned during his lifetime. With such differing opinions, it is difficult to even define what a ‘Christian Nation’ would look like.
A similar type of diversity existed among the founding fathers. While pretty much all of them are associated with various Christian denominations, they held diverse opinions about theology and morality. In particular, two of the most influential founders, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin had beliefs that would be considered ‘non-Christian’ by today’s standards. They, in fact, considered themselves Deists and doubted all miraculous events depicted in the Bible including the divinity of and resurrection of Jesus.
To answer the questions, we can look at whether the founders intended the government to be a Christian one. Often and especially online, this argument takes the form of a battle of quotes where each side takes things said by the founders out of context and uses them to support their own agenda. Both sides of the argument are guilty of this. Compellations of quotes in support of and against the notion that America was founded as a Christian nation can be found all across the web. This article will not use this method but instead rely on historical context and the founding documents as proof that the nation was founded as a secular one.
The founders were eager to be rid themselves of European authoritarianism. They distrusted any kind of authority, including religious. This attitude is clear from the fact that not one of the three main founding documents, The Declaration of Independence, The Articles of Confederacy, and The Constitution, endorse Christianity. Furthermore, only the Declaration of Independence has any reference to God whatsoever. The three references are "Nature’s God", "their Creator", and "Divine Providence". The language they chose probably seems a bit odd to modern day Christians. This is because these terms are more similar to the modern day "life force" or "higher power". The scarcity and vagueness of reference to God clearly indicates a non-Christian basis for government.
Many Christians point to the fact that "In God We Trust" appears on our currency as evidence that the US was founded as a Christian nation. The fact is, though, that the motto was not used on our currency until about a full century after the founding. Also, it did not replace the old national motto, E Pluribus Unum, until mid 1956, during the height of the McCarthy scare. The change was made in order to further differentiate the democratic US from the communist Soviet Union, which promoted atheism. The same legislation that changed the motto also add "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Looking at the most important founding document of all, the Constitution, in the section that defines and defends individual rights, the first ten amendments, the importance of not having a national religion can be seen by the fact that the first few words of the first amendment read, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…". England and, indeed, all of Europe had been torn apart by fighting over which form of Christianity should be the official religion, Catholic or a Protestant, over the century leading up to the American Revolution. The founders wisely chose to set aside their own Christian beliefs to prevent such strife by ensuring that no national religion was possible. Overall, it can be said that The United States was founded by Christians, but not as a Christian nation but a secular one.
Question three: Should the United States become a Christian nation? Very little time will be spent answering this question as it has already been answered in the previous two sections. The US should remain secular. One reason is that there is no consensus over what it means to be Christian let alone what it means to be a Christian nation. Furthermore, a national religion would inevitable lead to internal conflict. Christianity was the dominant and official religion of all the European nations yet many wars were fought over which version of Christianity should be the official one. In England alone, you had the English Revolution that was precipitated as a result of King Charles I imposing the Anglican liturgy on the largely Presbyterian Scotts. This was well after the bloody wars that displaced Catholicism in that country. It was also the English governments religious intolerance that lead to the Puritans freeing persecution (from other Christians) leaving Europe for America. The only way to avoid such religious conflict is to not have an official religion of any kind.
In conclusion, despite some of the claims put forth by many atheists, the founders were overwhelmingly Christian. Yet despite their religious beliefs, they chose reason over faith. They knew that endorsing Christianity as the official religion would lead to conflict that would tare apart the fragile new nation. They knew this through their knowledge of history of the influence of religion on government. For this reason, they left religion out of the founding documents, most importantly, the Constitution, which is the official basis for the United States. Having been founded as secular nation, the United States has thrived for over 200 years as a secular nation populated with mostly Christians. If we are to continue to thrive, we must remain secular lest we let our differing religious beliefs lead to conflict.