Did the First Amendment make America a Christian nation?

Of course not.

However, as I have been examining, Bryan Fischer seems to think so. Fischer says that the First Amendment only protects the religious expression of Christianity. According to Fischer non-Christian religions have no Constitutional protect but may be tolerated.

Today, the Christian Post and Crosswalk published a more detailed treatment of the topic where I address the claims that the author of the First Amendment, James Madison, and the members of Congress only meant to protect Christianity. Although the dominant religion was indeed Christianity, the words of Madison and Jefferson make clear that the right envisioned was an individual right of conscience and not tied to a particular religion.

In the article today, I mention a book by William Lee Miller, titled The First Liberty. I highly recommend this book. In it, Miller examines the influence Rhode Island’s Roger Williams had on John Locke, who in turn influenced James Madison. Even more direct was the intellectual line from Williams to Baptists Isaac Backus and John Leland. Leland had direct influence on Madison.

Miller provides ample evidence of Williams commitment to religious freedom. For instance, according to Stephen Hopkins, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Williams was “the first legislator in the world…that fully and effectively provided for and established free, full and absolute liberty of conscience.”

Connecting the dots, Miller adds:

Williams name and conviction were carried into the period of the American Revolution and founding by John Leland in Virginia and by Isaac Backus in New England. Leland, as noted, was the most important leader with whom James Madison made his moral understanding at the time in 1787-1788 that the issue of ratification of the Constitution was being debated in the states — most significantly in Virginia. Leland gave voice to the complaint against the Constitution that it had no bill of rights, and in particular no explicit protection of religious liberty. Madison made with Leland his consequential moral agreement: You support the Consitution now; I will introduce a bill of rights as amendments in the first Congress. So that was one way the ghost of Roger Williams made its way into the founding documents.

Williams “free, full and absolute liberty of conscience” is much closer to what we have in the First Amendment than Fischer’s limited vision. The Constitution then, and now via the 14th Amendment and numerous Supreme Court decisions, provide protection for adherents of all religions and none.

The article after the break:

Did the First Amendment create a Christian nation?

For as long as I can recall, there has been a movement defending the notion of America as a Christian nation. Of late, one version of that idea has been expressed by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. His belief is that the First Amendment to the Constitution protects the free expression of Christians only. Adherents of non-Christian religions, on the other hand, may be tolerated but do not enjoy Constitutional protections for the free exercise of their faith. Fischer writes:

The leftwing political websites lit up over my column of last week in which I took the position that the First Amendment provides no guarantees to practitioners of the Islamic faith, for the simple reason it wasn’t written to protect the free exercise of Islam. It was written to protect the free exercise of the Christian faith.

Fischer defends this reading of the First Amendment by citing Congressional debate on the language proposed by James Madison in 1789. Several alternative suggestions were made, with some Representatives referring to “denominations,” “sects” and “societies” of religion. According to Fischer, these terms clearly point to intent to protect the various versions of Christianity. Indeed, at the time, most people professed allegiance to one Christian denomination or another.

However, a closer examination of the historical context reveals that the framers of the religious freedom amendment sought a broader respect for freedom of conscience than envisioned by Fischer.  Most states had established Christian denominations in the years before the passage of the Constitution but two states did not, Rhode Island and Virginia. Virginia, the home of Madison and Jefferson, is the most relevant to what would become the First Amendment.  In 1786, Madison succeeded in shepherding religious freedom protections through the Virginia legislature that in his words, “have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”

The law that gave Madison his ebullient hope was the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which reads in part:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

According the Thomas Jefferson, who had no small hand in the matter, some Virginia legislators wanted to direct the act toward Christianity by inserting Jesus Christ into a section of the Preamble. Jefferson’s account makes clear the extent of the freedom of expression which the Virginia legislature affirmed:

The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Islam], the Hindoo [Hinduism], and Infidel of every denomination.

Jefferson and Madison sought to get the state out of the business of “making laws for the human mind.” In so doing, according to William Lee Miller, Madison and Jefferson moved Virginia, and later the nation away from a national religion. Writing in his book, The First Liberty, Miller describes the importance of the Virginia law:

If some doctrinally specific multiple establishment had been worked out in law for the nation as a whole, there really would have been what thousands of preachers, some judges of the courts and a great many religious Americans have insisted either does exist or should be made to exist: “A Christian America.”

But that did not happen. Virginia moved away from having one of the most solidly established churches all the way to join little Rhode Island on the side of full religious liberty and the separation of church and state.

Madison followed up his success in Virginia with a proposed amendment to the Constitution in 1789 covering religious expression:

The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.

Through debate, Madison’s language was modified to the current First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Madison’s work in Virginia and his original proposal make clear that freedom of religious expression is an individual right and not meant for adherents of a particular religion, namely Christianity.

If the First Amendment’s application was as Fischer suggests — only for Christianity — then Christianity would have been established as the nation’s religion, a result which is clearly prohibited. Rather, the First Amendment forbids federal laws which interfere with a citizen’s free expression of religion and the Fourteenth Amendment extends the prohibition to the states. Happily, the actual state of affairs in our Constitution and the teaching of Christianity matches well. Christianity cannot be established by a political state or else it ceases to be Christian. James Madison said it best. In his remarks to the Virginia Assembly opposing funds for Christian teachers, Madison wrote:

Because the establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of the Christian Religion. To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world: it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them, and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence.

Christianity has no need of political establishment, special rights as it were. Christians should instead be the fiercest defenders of the rights of conscience and expression for – as Jefferson wrote – “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”

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  • Mary

    Hahahahaha! Should we not consider the branches of satanism that exist in this country? They are afterall part of the christian religion.

    Seriously, I don’t know how anyone can interpret the constitution to say that it is christian only.

  • stephen

    Yes. And Santa lives at the North Pole.

  • M. Burger

    Professor Throckmorton,

    I respect you work on sexual orientation issues, but your foray into constitutional law is not as sound. As someone who has written on the first amendment, establishment clauses, I would like to challenge your thinking on several points.

    1) Jefferson should NEVER be a source for a discussion of the establishment clauses as he had no hand in drafting either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights….he was in Paris with the ladies for most of this action.

    2) Founder’s intent is not a swamp one wades into for a couple paragraphs. To begin with, if you are going to choose one or two founders to cite, you must give a rational for why you did not cite opinions of the dozens of other framers’ who had a hand in the process. Moreover, you must answer the question of whether it is the intent of the founder’s that matter or how their work would have been most widely interpreted. I go on endless with consideration you didn’t make, but I hope you get the point

    3) Finally, there is a growing voice among Evangelical Christians (particularly those with a reformed bent), to distance themselves from the language of a “Christian nation.” While there may be good theological reasons for doing so or, at very least, clarifying what is meant by that term, these pundits never address the philosophical and legal implications of a complete abandonment of this terminology. Here’s what I mean. Certainly, from a theological state point, we should not view America as a nation “chosen” by God to have a theocratic government akin to ancient Israel. Yet we can desire to have a nation which is culturally Christian and looks to the system of morality and philosophy that naturally emerges from Christianity as the basis upon which its laws and theory of government rest. To do otherwise, would invalidate the entire theory upon which our Constitutional government has been founded, transforming a society of law into an arbitrary contest between political factions to get the most seats in Congress, the most positions on the Courts, etc….which is essentially where we’re at. There is no neutral position that determines that say polygamy is not allowed under the free exercise clause. Rather such a legal ruling is dependent upon shared notions of law and morality, which are only found in appeal to a common cultural understanding (i.e. Christianity). Therefore, the position of those who would throw off the mantle of “Christian nation” without regards to the underlying legal and philosophical implications for our Constitutional system do so most naively.

    4) Also Warren Lee Miller’s treatment of the topic is both dated and highly problematic in numerous ways. Better ACADEMIC works include:

    Dreisbach, Daniel L. (2002) Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between

    Church and State, New York: New York University Press.

    Green, Steven K. (2010) The Second Disestablishment:Church and State in Nineteenth-

    Century America, Oxford University Press.

    Hamburger, Philip. (2002) Separation of Church and State, Harvard University Press.

    Witte Jr., John. (2003) That Serpentine Wall of Separation. Michigan Law Review.

    May 2003, Volume 101, Number 6, pp. 1869-1905.

    Witte Jr., John (2005) Religion and The American Constitutional Experiment.

  • http://www.wthrockmorton.com Warren

    M. Burger: Thanks for stopping by. I hope you will provide links to what you have written on these issues.

    About your points:

    1. Jefferson – I am puzzled by this one. Several scholars I read on this including profs here at GCC acknowledge Jefferson’s influence on Madison and cite correspondence between Jefferson and Madison at the time on this very issue. Yes, he was in France but he and Madison corresponded and were of the same mind on the issues.

    2. This is a point which would require more space than I can devote in a blog post or op-ed. All I needed to do was counter Fischer’s argument which I believe I did. Also, it seems to me that providing insight into the man who offered the Amendment is more on point than discussion from Representatives. We apparently don’t have the Senate debate recorded which would have been interesting as well. While I agree that a fuller treatment would be a scholarly pursuit, I am not sure what you are arguing here. Are you saying that the Amendment was not meant to cover individual freedom of conscience for all?

    3. You are addressing a point I did not address. The role of Christian theology in the structure of the Constitution and the republican form of govt is not my interest in this piece. It seems to me that at least some of the Framers had a pretty strong belief in the rationality of man, in contrast to a strong reformed position which believes man’s understanding is darkened by sin. Some wanted a weak federal govt for theological reasons, and others perhaps for theological reasons wanted a stronger federal govt. However, I am not concerned with this matter in this op-ed; rather, I argue that Fischer believes the First Amendment established Christianity as a nation religion and then that, in fact, the First Amendment did no such thing.

    4. Miller’s book comes highly recommended by the First Amendment Center and has been updated as of 2003.

    5. Thanks for these references. Looks like some good summer reading material.

  • David Blakeslee

    This is where all the ambiguity and the arguing starts:

    Rather such a legal ruling is dependent upon shared notions of law and morality, which are only found in appeal to a common cultural understanding (i.e. Christianity).

    Shared notions of Law and Morality.

    Again, I vote for a Law Degree for Warren: Lets start a fund. :) .

  • http://wthrockmorton.com Warren

    Dave – I see your dollar and raise you a dollar :)

    I think your citation is on point. Within Christianity at the time of the founding and now, there is much diversity. How much are Quakers like Anglicans? How about Baptists and Catholics? John Adams once said that nothing would shake allegiance of Massachusetts to its religious establishment. There was still some persecution of various denominations and certainly there were religious tests. Washington (a master Mason), Madison, Franklin and Jefferson were men who wanted to find the common ground of all religions which is most certainly not the goal of the church.

    Even now, I don’t want the govt to rule according to the Christianity of Cindy Jacobs or Lou Engle or the Chalcedon Foundation. So we have to get to some broader consensus than referring to Christianity as if it was a coherent reference point.

  • Teresa

    So we have to get to some broader consensus than referring to Christianity as if it was a coherent reference point.

    Warren, excellent point. Catholicism was seen by a good many Protestants as NOT Christian, at the time of the founding of America … and, still seen by some Protestants as NOT Christian.

    Christianity is by no means a monolith of beliefs … not then, not now; although, there’s a move towards C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity view.

    I think there was a hotly contested debate between the Christians and the Deists (or whatever) at the Convention with ideas of Jefferson, Washington, Madison and several others prevailing.

    I suspect M. Burger would go out of his way to call our country a Judeo-Christian Nation … where’d that come from? Those Founding Fathers who were Protestant Christian would certainly not have used that term. Jews are not Christians; as rightly understood by the Deists, also.

  • Teresa

    @M. Burger:

    What’s culturally Christian, M. Burger? What is our shared Christian morality? Divorce, no divorce? Artificial contraception, no artificial contraception? Abortion, no abortion? Usury, no usury? Slavery, no slavery?

    Are Mormons Christian? Jehovah Witnesses? Christian Scientists?

    Would Washington have passed a Christian morality test as a Mason?

  • David Blakeslee

    We have two dollars, who is willing to double our investment? :) .

    Its for the good of the country darn it!

  • ken

    M. Burger# ~ Apr 6, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    Yet we can desire to have a nation which is culturally Christian and looks to the system of morality and philosophy that naturally emerges from Christianity as the basis upon which its laws and theory of government rest.

    Why should we want christian morality? And for whose particular version of christianity? Are you saying other religious (and non-religious) moral codes are somehow lacking?

  • David Blakeslee

    A Christian based constitution could include:

    Justice, regardless of status

    Forgiveness, following repentance

    Protection for the weak and vulnerable

    Encouragement of moral behavior that makes good citizens

    …embedded in our current constitution and even most recent liberal legal decisions are deeply held Christian values.

    Nothing to fear here.

  • David Blakeslee

    Should have added this at the beginning of my comment:

    So we have to get to some broader consensus than referring to Christianity as if it was a coherent reference point.

  • David Blakeslee

    Teresa,

    Judeo Christian values are clearly represented in the founder’s thinking…as well as Greco-Roman.

    It is this amalgamation (first advocated by the Catholics in the 15th century) that created the imperfect, but robust form of government that is ours and is an imperfect, but very good example to aspiring republics and democracies.

    Hard to remember that our revolution over two hundred years ago was one of the least violent. If you track similar revolutions in France, Italy, Germany, Russia, and China…many more dead and unstable. These revolutions were decidedly anti-religious.

    It appears that Monarchy’s which transitioned slowly to democracy did much better: England, the Netherlands.

    These are my guesses based upon limited information.

  • Teresa

    Judeo Christian values are clearly represented in the founder’s thinking…as well as Greco-Roman.

    David Blakeslee, the term Judeo-Christian, if I’m not mistaken, is a current term (current meaning the last 70 years); although, some Protestants used it in the earlier part of the 19th century to mean converts to Christianity from Judaism.

    The Catholic Church (until Vatican II) was definitely anti-Religious Liberty. The Catholic Church considers Herself the only, true religion, and pre-Vatican II popes, spoke adamantly that “error has no rights”. The Catholic Church would tolerate other religions practicing their religious exercises but NEVER evangelizing, proselytizing, etc.; and, only if, not allowing this would create a greater evil.

    The Vatican II Document, Dignitatis Humanae (Religious Liberty) created a firestorm in the Church which continues to this day regarding this issue of Religious Liberty. The encyclicals of Popes Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius XI, Pius XII detail the Church’s position regarding this issue.

    The Founding Fathers came from a background understanding all this implicitly. The Catholic Church was an arch-enemy of Religious Liberty; and, She never used the term Judeo-Christian.

    From Shalom Goldman:

    Along with other students and scholars of Judaism I had to come to realize that this irksome and quintessentially American term had considerable political value, if not intellectual or spiritual weight. Like many members of my academic generation I had been influenced by theologian Arthur A. Cohen’s brilliant essay “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” (first published in Commentary in 1969), in which Cohen pointed to the theological impossibility of a Judeo-Christian tradition. Referring to the origins of Christianity in its Jewish setting, Cohen pointed out that:

    The Jews expected a redeemer to come out of Zion; Christianity affirmed that a redeemer had come out of Zion, but that he had come for all mankind. Judaism denied that claim.

    A few years after the essay’s publication, Israeli Orthodox Jewish Theologian Eliezer Berkovitz put it even more succinctly:

    “Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism.”Along with other students and scholars of Judaism I had to come to realize that this irksome and quintessentially American term had considerable political value, if not intellectual or spiritual weight. Like many members of my academic generation I had been influenced by theologian Arthur A. Cohen’s brilliant essay “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” (first published in Commentary in 1969), in which Cohen pointed to the theological impossibility of a Judeo-Christian tradition. Referring to the origins of Christianity in its Jewish setting, Cohen pointed out that:

    “The Jews expected a redeemer to come out of Zion; Christianity affirmed that a redeemer had come out of Zion, but that he had come for all mankind. Judaism denied that claim.”

    A few years after the essay’s publication, Israeli Orthodox Jewish Theologian Eliezer Berkovitz put it even more succinctly:

    “Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism.”

    Mr. Goldman’s article below is well worth reading regarding this rather odd term, Judeo-Christian:

    http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/3984/what_do_we_mean_by_%E2%80%98judeo-christian%E2%80%99_/

  • Teresa

    Sorry for the repetition of the quote. I think you get the idea.

  • Ann

    Isn’t what Jesus taught often diluted and spinned by people who call themselves Christians? Sometimes there seems to be a very big divide between people who boast of Christianity as an identity and the example Jesus set, for those who believe in Him, to follow.

  • David Blakeslee

    Teresa,

    Thanks for checking in so thoughtfully.

    The Catholic Church was an arch-enemy of Religious Liberty; and, She never used the term Judeo-Christian.

    I don’t think I was trying to make this argument.

    I was making the argument that the Catholic Church had appropriated the value of Greco-Roman disciplines in science, politics and reasoning.

    And…that the founders had melded them with religious practice bold and religious tolerance when considering the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

    In that regard, the checks and balances are a direct affirmation of the fallibility of government, which is not allowed in a Theocracy (like the Holy Roman Catholic Church, The Church of England) and so on.

    Regarding Judeo-Christian…it is, I agree, a way too broad a term that implies too much consensus. But the fact that the word has only existed for 70 years does not mean the overlapping values between Judaism and Christianity were created just 70 years ago.

  • M. Burger

    Thanks for the response to my comments on your piece. I couldn’t help but make a couple comments on your comments.

    1) On Jefferson and Madison: It is true that Jefferson influenced Madison and that Madison was one of the drafters (perhaps even the driving force behind the clauses), but hear is where useful insights need to meet the reality of what we are talking about. Yes, perhaps Jefferson’s ideas can be used as a proxy (or to fill in) Madison’s on the topic of religious liberty, but niether man’s intent is a proxy for what the clauses mean, because the clauses where not the divine decrees of one or two men. Rather they were the product of many men and many intents and while it might be hard work to sort all that out and come away with a coherent picture of what the clauses “mean” it is not impossible. But as it is hard work, most scholars do not do it, on either side of the debate. Again, here is where I would recommend my previously bibliography for a sampling of scholars who do do the hard work of understanding the multiple streams of thought which gave meaning to the first amendment.

    2) It is true that we don’t have the Senate debates, nor the committee discussions which drafted the initial language of the amendments and upon which Madison sat, along with others it should be said. But we do have significant amounts of the House debate, recorded by Thomas Lloyd a newspaper reporter, which provide insight into the scope of what the founders did and did not intend the establishment clause to mean. And it is the later boundary (i.e. what it was NOT intended to mean) for which we can make definite claims and which has been largely abandoned in American jurisprudence.

    3) Finally, I understand that you didn’t address the role of Christian theology in the structure of the Constitution, but if you are as a Christian, advising Christian, about whether American is or is not a Christian nation, it seems prudent to make the clarifying statement I recommended, but the level of misinformation out there about what it means that American is or is not a Christian nation and a Christian’s response to it is voluminous.

  • Teresa

    but the level of misinformation out there about what it means that American is or is not a Christian nation and a Christian’s response to it is voluminous.

    As is the case, or so it’s thought, about a States’ Right of Secession. There’s voluminous information (and misinformation) concerning Secession.

    Isn’t this where SCOTUS becomes the final arbiter, unless and until, States decide to Amend the Constitution? What ‘scholars’ decide what was, becomes mere ‘opinion’ when faced with a SCOTUS Decisions.

    As the SCOTUS composition of the 9 Justices is currently aligned religiously: 6 Catholics, and 3 Jews, I suspect the First Amendment interpretation through the decades means exactly what Jefferson and Madison thought on the subject.

    If this were a Christian Nation only, Catholics were not considered Christian by most Protestant Denominations at the time; and, most Protestants, vehemently opposed Catholic ideas, papacy, etc., and Catholics themselves. Jews were also not considered Christian, of course. So, as SCOTUS now sits, it would be thoroughly unconstitutional via Fischer’s and others current views … although, they’d try to pretty it up, now-a-days, with the Judeo-Christian terminology, and giving Catholics a pass for being Christian.

    As with the Fire-Eaters in the South, the ideas that prevail are those of the most articulate, educated, wealthy (in relative terms), etc. Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Washington, Franklin, and several others’ ideas won the day … and, there idea was a secular nation, imbued with ‘natural law’ morals, depriving no man/woman of their right to believe and worship as they saw fit.

    And, that’s what SCOTUS has determined (many of them scholars) through the decades. If Fischer, Barton, and other scholars think differently, they have every right to draft an Amendment, and work it through each State’s Legislature.

  • http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com Timothy Kincaid

    D Blakeslee

    A Christian based constitution could include:

    Justice, regardless of status

    Forgiveness, following repentance

    Protection for the weak and vulnerable

    Encouragement of moral behavior that makes good citizens

    …embedded in our current constitution and even most recent liberal legal decisions are deeply held Christian values.

    Nothing to fear here.

    Well… not for you. Funny thing.. theology is never a threat to those whom it favors.

    But somehow I suspect (no, I know) that when it comes to my life, the “encouragement of moral behavior” would far outweigh justice or protection.

  • http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com Timothy Kincaid

    But I am awfully appreciative of the Christian influence on Western Society. I can’t think of any other place that comes as close to the ideals of freedom and equality and merit over birth as The West.

    Maybe if it were the United Church of Christ or even the Episcopal Church that spoke so favorably of a Christian based constitution, I would be less fearful of the notion.

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