A Christian Nation or a Nation of Christians?

By Scott R. Grubman

With approximately seventy-five percent of Americans identifying themselves as Christian (down from eighty-six percent in 1990), it is safe to call America a “nation of Christians.”  But can America also be called a “Christian nation”?  In a 2007 interview, then Presidential candidate John McCain expressed his belief that “the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.”  McCain is by no means alone in his belief that the United States – a nation founded, in part, in order to escape the dominance of the Church of England – is a Christian nation.  Also in 2007, the First Amendment Center, an organization associated with Vanderbilt University, conducted a survey in which it asked respondents, among other things, whether they believed that America was established as a Christian nation.  Fifty-five percent of respondents said that they believed that the Constitution established a Christian nation and sixty-five percent of respondents either “strongly” or “mildly” agreed that the nation’s founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation.      

According to Michael Lind, a columnist for Slate.com, there are four main arguments utilized by the Christian right in support of the argument that the United States is a Christian nation.  The first argument is anthropological:  “The majority of Americans describe themselves as Christians” and, therefore, the United States is a Christian nation.  But as Lind points out, the fact that the majority of Americans describe themselves as Christians is irrelevant to the question of whether the American government as an entity is Christian.  The second argument identified by Lind is that the Constitution is somehow “Christian in character.”  As to this argument, not only is there a complete absence of any reference to Christianity in the Constitution as one would expect there to be had the founding fathers intended to create a Christian nation but, as Lind explains, there are several parts of the Constitution that seem contrary to the idea of the Constitution establishing a Christian nation, including Article VI which states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust in the United States,” and the First Amendment which provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”   

The third argument identified by Lind is that while the U.S. government itself may not be formally Christian, the Lockean natural rights theory on which American republicanism rests is supported, in its turn, by Christian theology.”  As to this argument, Lind notes that the ideas of natural rights and social contracts “were inspired by themes found in non-Christian Greek and Roman philosophy,” and that idea of the social contract stretches back to the fourth and fifth centuries B.C., well before the time of Jesus.  The last argument that Lind discusses is that  

American leaders from the founders to the present have seen a role for otherwise privatized and personal religion in turning out moral, law-abiding citizens.  

Although our nation’s leaders may have used, and still do use, their personal religious beliefs as a basis for their political positions and beliefs, this does not mean that America was intended to be, or is, a Christian nation.  Further, the argument that our founding fathers were all Christian is questionable, to say the least.  Thomas Jefferson, for instance, is thought by most modern day religious scholars and historians to have subscribed to the schools of Deism and Unitarianism as opposed to Christianity in particular.  Benjamin Franklin described himself as a Deist and expressly rejected Christian dogma, although he did briefly belong to a Presbyterian church.  In a letter written just one month before he died, Franklin expressed that although he respected the system of morals preached by Jesus, he had “some doubts as to his divinity.”  John Adams was raised a Congregationalist and eventually became a Unitarian.  Although Adams believed in a higher power, he did not believe in the divinity of Christ. The religious affiliations of other founding fathers, including George Washington and James Madison, are less clear, although many scholars and historians argue that they were all more properly classified as Deists than as Christians.  In fact, the only major founding fathers that can definitively be classified as Christian are John Jay and Alexander Hamilton.  

There are several pieces of evidence that lend support to the idea that America was not intended to be a Christian nation.  One of the main pieces of evidence used to support this idea is the Treaty of Tripoli.  The treaty was ratified by the United States Senate on June 7, 1797 and signed by President John Adams a few days later.  Article 11 of that treaty provides:   

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,–as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],–and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mohametan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.  

Many scholars and historians argue that the unanimous ratification of the treaty by the United States Senate, including Article 11, is the strongest indication that the founding fathers did not intend for America to be a Christian nation.  It was, after all, entered into and signed by none other than John Adams, one of the leading founding fathers, and ratified by a Senate comprised of several other instrumental figures from the time of the founding.  Further, because it was unanimously ratified, the Treaty of Tripoli represents perhaps the most accurate statement of what the government as a whole perceived itself to be.   Another major piece of evidence cited by scholars as suggesting that America was not intended to be a Christian nation is an 1843 letter written by the tenth president, John Tyler.  In his letter, President Tyler wrote:   

The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent – that of total separation of Church and State.  No religious establishment by law exists among us.  The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment …  

While this letter may only represent the beliefs of one—albeit a very influential—man, it is another piece of evidence that seems to many scholars and historians to conflict with the idea of America as a Christian nation. To be sure, it would be difficult to argue that America was not built upon certain “religious” principles such as the belief in a deity.  It is also undisputed that, for all of American history including the present day, the vast majority of Americans have identified themselves as Christians.  It is questionable, however, whether the founding fathers intended that America be established as a “Christian nation.” One thing is for sure — whether America is a “Christian nation” or merely a “nation of Christians” is a question that will be debated for centuries to come.   

Further Reading:  

Michael Lind, America Is Not a Christian Nation (April 14, 2009), available at http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/feature/2009/04/14/christian_nation.

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