It’s election season again, and this means that more than usual you will be bombarded with utter nonsense about What This Great Nation Of Ours Was Founded Upon.
It has been my sad experience that whenever someone utters any variation of that sentence in any context outside of a university classroom – and, frankly, most contexts within one – I am about to be sold a bill of goods. That phrase is almost invariably the prelude to a version of American history that at best can be described as “misleading” and at worst (i.e. usually) can be described by such terms as “mendacious,” “distorted,” “hallucinatory,” and “possibly drug-induced” in some combination up to and including “all of the above.”
It is surprising to me how often this revolves around the idea that the United States is somehow a “Christian nation,” given the clear prohibitions that Christianity makes against bearing false witness and rendering unto the Lord that which is Caesar’s. I will leave the implications of that regarding the faith of those making such a claim as an exercise for the reader.
For the record, the United States is not a “Christian nation.”
The Founding Fathers were very clear about this, and anyone who takes the time to study the reality of this nation’s founding is also very clear about this. Whenever you hear someone rattling on in favor of the whole “Christian nation” idea, you can be sure you are dealing with someone who is at best reality-deprived, and at worst lying to you in order to sell you something.
There are a lot of such people out there today, unfortunately, many of whom seem to be running for office. And to judge from the rest of the platforms these people unashamedly present to us for our approval, most of which seem to be drawn from more contemporary sources such as that noted Christian devotee Ayn Rand, all of the descriptions above apply – they are phenomenally ignorant, completely cut off from reality, and desperately trying to sell you something that you don’t (or at least shouldn’t, if you have an ounce of patriotism or self-preservation) want.
Don’t listen to them.
Now, this is not to say that religion in general and Christianity in particular can be ignored when studying American history. While the United States is not a “Christian nation” in the sense that is generally implied by that phrase, it is most certainly a nation made up overwhelmingly of Christians, and some of the most zealous, committed, and partisan Christians on earth no less. It has been from the early stages of European colonization, and nothing since has lessened that.
You cannot hope to understand American history unless you also understand the history of American religion.
If you want to understand history, you need to understand why people did what they did. It’s not enough to know what happened – you need to gain some insight into why they thought that was a good idea at the time. When the majority of Americans are and always have been religious – often deeply so – any movement that affects that aspect of their behavior is going to have a profound effect on pretty much everything else they do. A lot of the reasons that Americans thought this or that was a good idea at the time, in other words, get back to their interpretations of Christianity – mainly Protestant Christianity for much of our history, but many different shades of it and other flavors (Catholic, Orthodox, Mormon, etc.) as well.
Much of the impetus for colonization and immigration here was religious, for example. Not all of colonization was religious, of course. Commerce and trade played a big role from the beginning. And particularly as you move into the 1800s the sheer desire of people to get out from under the thumb of heavy-handed governments or out of the way of warfare comes into play. Furthermore, not all of the religious motivations were even remotely compatible, even if you ignore the fact that there were Muslims, Jews and Catholics here from the very beginning and just focus on the many and varied Protestants. But that doesn’t remove the importance of religion to the colonization of what eventually became the United States, and it doesn’t reduce the importance of that factor in bringing people here even after the country was set up officially.
Even if you limit your focus to the actual founding of the United States – the period between 1763, when the colonies began their slide into revolution, and 1815, when the American Revolution was finally secured after the Second War of Independence (usually referred to as the War of 1812, for creatively challenged reasons), religious motivations were there in force. The “Christian nation” people are right about that. Where they are wrong is in their assumption that those religious motivations were the defining characteristic and guiding impulse of the new nation.
What these “Christian nation” types either don’t know or refuse to accept is that the main reason the Founding Fathers were so adamant that the new republic not be considered a Christian nation was precisely because of the strong religious motivations and feelings of the American people. The religious motivations of the Revolutionary Era were so many and so varied that the Founders understood – in a way that modern Americans forget, even if they can grasp it at all – that these motivations had to be kept out of the final product or the end result would be the kind of religious civil war that had plagued European nations since the Reformation.
The Founders were better historians than most modern Americans that way.
They remembered the Thirty Years War, which killed more people than any European conflict prior to World War I and whose barbarity retains the power to shock even in this jaded era. They remembered the English Civil War of the mid1600s, which set England back a generation and cost it more in blood and treasure than any conflict between the Wars of the Roses and the Napoleonic Wars. They remembered the civil wars in France at the end of the 1500s, when the streets literally ran red with the blood of the massacred on Saint Bartholomew’s Day. All that bloodshed, chaos and destruction in the name of the Prince of Peace, all that warfare waged by supporters of competing visions of salvation, and nothing accomplished other than the perversion of both faith and politics.
The Founders did not want that, and they made sure that their new nation – a nation founded upon the ideals of the Enlightenment in so many ways – would be insulated from this as much as possible.
They quite deliberately took Christianity out of the Declaration of Independence. There is only a passing reference to a "Creator" and “Nature and Nature’s God” in that document, blandly non-denominational statements that could have been written with equal justice by a Wiccan.
They quite deliberately took Christianity out of the Constitution. There is only one reference to religion in the original text of that document as passed by the Constitutional Convention and ratified by the states that founded the Union, and it is negative – a prohibition on religious tests for public office that modern politicians would do well to remember. The Preamble, which sets out the basic definition of the Union, starts out “We the People of the United States.” It doesn’t mention the states at all, not that this bothered Southern traitors three quarters of a century later. Nor does it mention Christ or any version of God.
Believe me, people noticed that last one at the time.
A fair amount of the opposition to the Constitution during the ratification debates of 1787 and 1788 came from precisely the people who felt that this omission was sinful and mistaken – ministers, mostly, from established churches who hoped to continue living off of the taxpayers of the new nation as they had done before independence. Many of them did, in fact – until the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of religion applied only to the federal government, not the states, and several states forced their taxpayers to pay for churches into the 1820s or 1830s – but that wasn’t enough. They wanted a theocracy. They wanted a “Christian nation.”
And they didn’t get one.
The Founders wouldn’t give it to them. They knew the problems it could cause if they did. They created a secular republic instead, one which would rule over its deeply religious population as a sort of neutral referee, leaving matters of faith in the hands of individuals, where they belonged. They did not feel it was the province of the new nation to tell its citizens what to believe, and in this they have been proven correct. We are one of the few Western nations that has never experienced a religious civil war and one of the few where church and state are separate, and this is not a coincidence.
In creating this secular republic they were supported not only by the sort of Enlightenment-minded gentlemen who made up the political elite of the new nation and thus largely mirrored the Founders themselves, but also by the leaders of the emerging evangelical sects that would dominate the United States in the nineteenth century but who, when the Constitution was written in 1787, were on the outside of political power looking in. Those leaders understood that if the United States were to be founded on Christianity it wasn’t going to be founded on their version of Christianity and they would be crushed in much the same way they had been suppressed in Europe. They supported the separation of church and state in eloquent and – in light of present positions – ironic prose. Read Isaac Backus sometime if you don’t believe me.
Backus was a Baptist minister, one of the many converts made during the First Great Awakening in the mid-1700s. In 1773, as the colonies spiraled toward revolution and independence, he made his case for the separation of church and state in a pamphlet entitled, An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, Against the Oppressions of the Present Day. “[I]t is needful to observe,” he wrote, “that God has appointed two kinds of government in the world, which are distinct in their nature, and ought never to be confounded together; one of which is called civil, the other ecclesiastical government. … Now who can hear Christ declare, that his kingdom is, not of this world, and yet believe that this blending of church and state together can be pleasing to him?”* Backus and his followers continued making this argument throughout the ratification period for the Federal Constitution of 1787 – Backus himself was a delegate to the Massachusetts convention that ratified the Constitution and voted in its favor, noting with particular approval the rejection of religious tests for public office – and it is their views, not the “Christian nation” views, that won.
You can see this victory codified into federal law with the Treaty of Tripoli, which was negotiated under George Washington’s administration, approved by the Senate in 1797 and signed into law by John Adams. The treaty flatly states that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.“
On the one hand, it is entirely possible to make too much of this. It was one throwaway line in a treaty that lapsed eight years later.
On the other hand, when the treaty was sent to the Senate, that line sparked no debate whatsoever. In other words, the men who were there when the United States was created and who were in a position to know firsthand what the nation was really founded upon – and, since it was only a decade prior, presumably to remember those facts – saw nothing controversial about that statement. It was seen as a simple restatement of obvious fact, not an assertion that needed proof.
Trust me - I’ve studied this period intensely. This was an era of vitriolic politics, where each side saw themselves as the only true and proper defenders of the republic and where everyone involved feared that a single misstep could doom the new republic. Anything that would have been seen as even remotely debatable would have launched barrages of rhetorical artillery that would leave marks visible even today. The line itself is not as important as the fact that nobody at the time saw it as controversial.
The United States is not a “Christian nation.” It is a nation made up overwhelmingly of Christians. But these are not and never have been the same thing.
Keep that in mind, this election season.
*Italics in the original.