Is America a Secular Nation?

To some it seems self-evident. America is a secular country. It does not officially or legally endorse any particular religion. This must make it secular—– right? Actually, this is incorrect in almost any way you could analyze the situation. Let’s take the situation de facto first. As any recent Gallup poll will show you, Americans are a profoundly religious bunch. Some polls show us that somewhere close to 85% of all those polls consider themselves religious or very religious, spiritual or very spiritual, and an even higher number believe in God. Indeed, one of the things Europeans or Australians most note about America in contrast to their country is how very religious Americans are. This was noted by Lafayette back during the American Revolution and it is noticeable today as well.

This has not changed about America during its entire history. Nor did it change at the beginning of the 21rst century. During any given weekend, most Americans are in a church or a synagogue or a mosque or some religious building. There is nothing very secular about the de facto state of the American soul. It has become more religiously pluralistic in my lifetime, but it has not become less religious.

But what about those founding documents— the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Didn’t they set up a secular society for America? Didn’t they set up ‘a separation of church and state’? Look hard— can you find any clause that uses that phrase in our founding documents? Basically this incorrect. You will fail to find a pronouncement that sets up some Berlin-like wall between the secular and the sacred in these documents.

It is quite true that the Founding Fathers intended to avoid the mistake of setting up an official state religion. They saw the problems with this in Europe and elsewhere. What they did not do is :1) codify some kind of rule that would prohibit the church from influencing the state. Indeed, they were more concerned with protecting the church from influence by the state. Think about it for a moment—why exactly are churches and synagogues and other entities tax exempt entities? Because, of course the Founding Fathers wanted these entities to survive and thrive in America, and they believed they had the ability to do all kinds of good for our society. And they were right. 2) they did not go on a campaign to eliminate God language from our public buildings, our seminal documents, or indeed even from the day to day existence of the House or the Senate. To the contrary, not only is the President sworn in on a Bible, there is a chaplain of the Senate and the House. Indeed, one of my friends, Richard Halverson was the chaplain of the Senate about 30 years ago. 3) Not only have we not been in the habit of electing secular persons to be the leaders of our land, we have often gone out of our way to avoid it. Note that every President we have had was either a Protestant or in the case of JFK a Catholic of some description.

What makes Mitt Romney stand out like a sore thumb is he is the first Mormon to even come up for consideration for President. And no, Mormonism is not just another Christian denomination, whatever mixed messages you may have been receiving on the matter in the last year or so. But this hardly means that Romney is a secular person. To the contrary, he gives every appearance of being devoutly religious (he’s even been the Mormon equivalent of being a bishop).

Now it is true that there is a small minority of Americans who are atheists or agnostics who have been on a mission to try and set up a separation between church and state, and indeed, to even remove God language and Biblical influence and quotations from various public venues on the assumption we are and ought to be a secular society, and they have certainly had some success in changing American laws, and public displays of Nativity scenes and the like.

This however is not because we ‘really’ live in a secular society, or because this is more in accord with what the Founding Fathers had in mind. It is because we live in a democratic society where strong advocacy and strenuous efforts and zeal often get you somewhere, and it is true to some extent that ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’.

To religious people of various stripes of course this development is disturbing, not least because it gives the lie to the notion that ‘the majority rules’ in a democracy. Not true. If the majority doesn’t vote, doesn’t care, and doesn’t act, the minority rules. Indeed, this often happens. What can one say about a society that crows about its freedom and democracy, and yet even in a national election only a slight majority of potential voters actually vote? It would be nearer the truth to say that America is a narcissistic ‘who cares’ society when it comes to politics than to say it is a secular society. And then there is this….

The word secular comes from the Latin ‘saeculum, saeculorum which simply means of the age. Thus for example in ancient Rome, the ‘secular’ games were games which ended a particular era, a particular period of time. In medieval Christian circles it refered to Christians not bound by the vows of monks or nuns. In other words, it meant laity who had not committed themselves for a particular period of time to a monastery or a nunnery. Even the origin of the word has nothing to do with some ‘sacred’ vs. ‘secular’ (in the sense of non-religious) distinction. And dat’s all I got to say about dat.

  • Gwen

    Thanks for keeping up such an interesting, diverse and entertaining blog. It never disappoints. “And dat’s all I got to say about dat.”

  • Jon

    The “separation of church and state” phrase was used in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, wasn’t it? So when you say “founding documents”, are you talking about the declaration of independence and the constitution? Because some might argue that this letter is a “founding” document since it was written by a Founding Father.

    I assume that you do not consider this letter to be a founding document? :)

    Great read! Thanks!

  • Jon

    Hi Dr. Witherington,

    The “separation of church and state” phrase was used in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, wasn’t it? So when you say “founding documents”, are you talking about the declaration of independence and the constitution? Because some might argue that this letter is a “founding” document since it was written by a Founding Father.

    I assume that you do not consider this letter to be a founding document? :)

    Great read! Thanks!

  • Ben Witherington

    Jon I am talking about our legal documents…. a letter from Jefferson doesn’t count. BW3

  • Oscar

    Jefferson’s “wall of separation” is often used to justify scrubbing “God” references from public life. But an honest look at that phrase will show that a “wall” is constructed to either keep something “in”, or to keep something “out”. So the real question is which was Jefferson referring to? Was he trying to protect government from “God and Church” or was he trying to protect God and Church from “State”?

    Here is a link to the Library of Congress ( site that has a brief history of the letter and its implications, as well as facsimiles of that letter.

    When parsing the meaning behind the words it is important to exercise the same rigor one would in interpreting ANY ancient document, such as the Bible. This includes understanding the times, the culture and the character of the letter writer.

    But I guess that is too difficult or tiresome for some who would just want to make a political point.

    Read it and have fun…

  • Danny Dawson

    It seems there are three camps:
    *Those who think that America is a religious nation from its foundation and that religious influence, particularly Protestant, not only has a place but a right to influence above others (citing their religious interp of the Founders). Many of these people think ‘secular’ voices are wholly incompatible with the America experiment.
    *Those who think America is strictly a ‘secular’ nation with a wall of sepaaration meaning that church is not foundational to the state (citing, among other things, the Treaty of Tripoli) and that the church/religious influences should stay on the sideline. Many of these people think religious voices are wholly incompatible or a hindrance with the American experiement.
    *Those who think that almost any voice has a reasonable point of influence, whether it be ‘secular’ or religious, as opposed to any one group holding greater purpose than another as established in the laws of our country (citing that many Founders were strictly Christian, many deists or similar, and that America took many points of influence, with classical and religious being among them).

  • Ernest

    I think a lot of what was done by our founding fathers was to give us the freedom of religion vice setting up a system based on Christian principles. They wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights as a direct response to and counter Europe. But to say that America is a “Christian” nation is both arrogant and untrue. It also attempts to disprove total depravity. If you want to say that the founding fathers were Christian then that’s one thing, but I don’t neccessarily believe that either. I think that Americans put way too much stock on these “Founding Fathers”. What Christian nation would say that blacks are considered “property”? What real christian would own slaves? What kind of Christian would drive out Indians and claim to discover something that was already occupied? What Christians ignore the commandment to “feed the poor” and completely disregard grace that we are supposed to extend to others (unMERITed) because grace was given to us, and decide to put more value in empowering the rich and neglect the poor by setting up a conservative system. Did God say that traditionalism was a good thing?

    Going back to total depravity – If you truly believe in total depravity then you should agree that no time in history was anyting better or worse. If there was a revival somewhere there was genocide somewhere else. So with that in mind, America is just a nation filled with believers and non-believers, that happens to be free. It is very misleading to think that America was once pure, or to think that things were so much better 30, 40, or 100 years ago.

    Any logical person would not make a “majority wins” arguement to prove that this is a Christian nation. It’s true we have a ton of churches but how many actually preach the true gospel? How many churches are complimentarain as opposed to Egalitarian. These views are profoundly different. One view, if you follow it consistenly would lead you to believe that apartheid is justifiable, the other view is consistent with the view that there are no “roles”, a man does not have dominance over a woman, and we are all equal have have something to offer both to society and ministry.

    Seperation of Church and State. This was necessary. For this reason both the Church and the government are protected from each other. The Church (whether false or Biblicaly grounded) are tax exempt, and the State is free from possible false influences which could’ve led to a plutacracy or oligarchy years ago. Look at the Vatican. There’s a lot we could learn from that.

    Sorry, but it just rubs me the wrong way when conservative influence gets in the way of answering these very important questions.

  • Brad Johnson

    I believe the separation of church and state is a judicial decision interpreting the first amendment much after the fact.

  • bryant

    Dat might be dat, but a can of worms you have opened; of course I think you knew that would happen, it usually does, does it not. I believe the bottom line in the entire hubbub is basically a matter of orthodox Christian values disorientated by all the pluralistic ideas of what Christianity is really not. I would not dare to venture too deep in the dialogue hear, since this is or can become another sounding board on practical theology for Christian values, (did I say that already, Christian values.) Values that often fail to realize God’s grace to humanities sins thru Christ’s sacrifice for who would believe. A simple statement, but very often ignored because of all the rhetoric, how sad, really. I am digressing a bit so I’ll leave it be.
    The truths about Jefferson’s views are not somewhat heretical, though I believe deism can count. But rather the support he gave to the Baptists cause in the Old Dominion for freedom of religion from a majority religion. I believe it was the Methodists not sure, but they were a remnant of a state sponsored/not owned type of church. I think that was the argument and Jefferson pushed the bill thru and the rest is history as they say. The fact is most of our protestant brethren came to see America as the new Israel, New Jerusalem and as such escaping the perils of religious persecution abroad. That would to me be the founding idea of religious freedom as they encapsulated the idea of religion, a religion of Christian values, nothing else. Look at this country now and you can almost feel God’s wrath awaiting. We should pray for his mercy…

  • Danny Dawson

    “The fact is most of our protestant brethren came to see America as the new Israel, New Jerusalem and as such escaping the perils of religious persecution abroad. That would to me be the founding idea of religious freedom as they encapsulated the idea of religion, a religion of Christian values, nothing else.”

    Assuming this is true, just because we make up some idea of New Israel, is God bound to honor that? And to the point of bringing wrath if we were to stray from the idea of America being a New Israel? Did God have a special and unique relationship and purpose for the United States? America is not the first place to have nonJewish people claim a special mandate from God to create such a place, and I’m not sure there is much from the Bible or elsewhere to justify saying that God has a special wrath when straying from such claims, at least anymore than His typical wrath against sin.

  • bryant

    No not at all. I said the people not God saw America as new Israel/Jerusalem. God would be judge of all not particular of any country including the USA. My point was and is that America is falling from the blessings of God among other things. One thing (actually several) that takes a government out of the proverbial game is power, sex, and money. I believe that covers America from corporate/political level. At any rate judgment escapes no one

  • David Weinschrott

    There was no “tax exempt” status for churches or any other “non profit” because there was no tax on income. From 1791 to 1802, the United States government was supported by internal taxes on distilled spirits, carriages, refined sugar, tobacco and snuff, property sold at auction, corporate bonds, and slaves. ( The first income tax was imposed during the Civil War then formalized in 1913 with the 16th amendment to the constitution. Tax exemption followed the enactment of the federal income tax.
    The notion of separation of church and state appeared first in the House of Burgesses, the governing body in Virginia. Madison and Jefferson agreed that there should not be a requirement that all individuals be forced to contribute to the support of the Anglican Church – so a law was passed to forbid the requirement in Virginia. This idea was then discussed further in correspondence between Madison and Jefferson who was, at the time, in France. Based on their agreement, the same (or similar) language was included in the draft of the Constitution.

  • Doug Indeap

    Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of “We the people” (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day, the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

    That the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, to some who may have once labored under the misimpression it was there and, upon learning they were mistaken, reckon they’ve discovered a smoking gun solving a Constitutional mystery. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to name one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    To the extent that some nonetheless would like confirmation–in those very words–of the founders’ intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it. Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that were the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    While the First Amendment undoubtedly was intended to preclude the government from establishing a national religion as you note, that was hardly the limit of its intended scope. The first Congress debated and rejected just such a narrow provision (“no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed”) and ultimately chose the more broadly phrased prohibition now found in the Amendment. During his presidency, Madison vetoed two bills, neither of which would form a national religion or compel observance of any religion, on the ground that they were contrary to the establishment clause. While some in Congress expressed surprise that the Constitution prohibited Congress from incorporating a church in the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia or granting land to a church in the Mississippi Territory, Congress upheld both vetoes. In keeping with the Amendment’s terms and legislative history and other evidence, the courts have wisely interpreted it to restrict the government from taking steps that could establish religion de facto as well as de jure. Were the Amendment interpreted merely to preclude government from enacting a statute formally establishing a state church, the intent of the Amendment could easily be circumvented by government doing all sorts of things to promote this or that religion–stopping just short of cutting a ribbon to open its new church.

  • Neil P

    It’s also important to note that the First Amendment applied only to the federal government until the Fourteenth Amendment. (I’ll leave aside the issue of whether the 14th Amendment incorporated the Bill of Rights.)

    So states could and did have established churches. Congregationalism was the state church of Mass. until 1833.

  • Neil P

    I’d add that when the founders advocated a “separation of church and state,” it was also a separation in terms of the federal government and the states. It is a prohibition on the federal government from interfering in state support of religion.

    Jefferson, as governor of Virginia, advocated some support for religion on the state level, although he would have opposed the equivalent for the federal government. (He did, however, as president, support providing money for Indians in Illinois to build a church.)

    In fact it was proposed during the Constitutional Convention to make the Bill of Rights binding on the states and it failed.

  • David Gibbs

    But does the fact the America is still a religious nation mean antything significant to God. Saudia Arabia is probabaly even more religious a nation than the US. So what? The more significant point may be whether America is a Christian nation. Just asking.

  • Danny Dawson

    “My point was and is that America is falling from the blessings of God among other things.”

    What blessings does God afford a nation? I’m not sure He has this kind of relationship with a coutnry.

  • JamesT

    It seems we Christian Americans sometimes get the Bible confused with the U.S. Constitution, the Flag with the Cross, and the Pentagon with the power of Almighty God.