America: A Christian Nation or Not?

America: A Christian Nation or Not? June 15, 2011

For some people, this question has already been asked and answered: Yes. For others: No. But it takes a historian to answer this kind of question. Unfortunately, more often than not, it is politicians (seeking votes) or pastors (seeking affirmation) who tend to ask and answer this question. The Tea Party knows, and the Progressive/Liberals know — and both of them have simplistic answers because they aren’t seeking to know history but to propound a point of view.

If you are asked or were to be asked, what would you say to this question: Was America founded as a Christian nation? What is your primary evidence or argument for your view?

Instead of asking the politicians or pastors, we need to ask the historians. The historian who has written what is perhaps the best readable treatment of this topic is John Fea, professor of history at Messiah College, and in his newest book he takes a professional and judicious and cautious and balanced approach: Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. John is a fellow Patheos blogger, and a former student, a man of unusual dignity and insight, and since this topic seems to blurt out on the news at times and at other times when folks ask me questions in churches, I was keen on reading his new book.

History involves five Cs: Change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity. John tackles this question — Was America founded as a Christian nation? — with this historical approach at work, and he does so admirably. Details, points and counterpoints, a variety of texts and factors … and he comes to what is almost certainly the right and reasonable answer:

It was and it wasn’t.

But he had to learn this. In an interview, John was asked what he learned in writing this book. Listen to his answer:

To be honest, I came into this project with the perception that it would be easy to show that the Founding Fathers were not out to create a Christian nation. But then I read the state constitutions written between 1776 and 1780. Almost all of them had very strong Christian qualifications for office-holders. For example, in the state of Pennsylvania civil rights were afforded to anyone who, among other things, upheld the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments. This led me to wonder how we define nationhood in the 1780s—the time between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It is clear that during this period political power was invested in the states (under the Articles of Confederation), and most of these states (Virginia was a big exception to this rule that cannot be ignored) had Christian religious establishments or Christian qualifications for office-holding. Did the founders want to create a Christian nation? It depends where you look and how you define your terms.

Those who think America was founded as a Christian nation have “a good chunk of American history on their side.” That is, in the 19th and 20th Century, and into the 21st, many Americans think just that. While the Constitution prevents us from making America a Christian nation, the religious culture that gave rise to it and that carried it forward was evangelical Protestantism. Perhaps, he suggests, the Civil War was about what kind of Christian nation we would be. The culture war between conservative evangelicals and liberals was contested on Christian grounds — disputed to be sure. Then Catholics entered the story with a slightly different approach. Then the Christian Right, responding to the 1960s erosion in morals (read: departing from Christian morals), advocated a return to a more American/Christian way.

John investigated the American Revolution in particular. He contends it is difficult to argue that the leaders of the Revolution were driven by overtly Christian values. The Declaration of Independence is hardly a Christian document, and the same must be said of the Constitution.

But, and this is so vital for this discussion, we have both federal and state governments, and our states are not the same. “When it comes to the individual states, today’s defenders of Christian America have a compelling case.” Nearly all of our states have constitutions that recognize both God and Christianity. Some required office holders to be Christians. Some maintained Christianity as the official and established state religion into the 19th Century!

The founders, what about them? They were clearly an eclectic group — some were Christian, some said so but rejected fundamental articles of faith, others clearly did not behave as Christians. Many did believe religion was needed to maintain a morally ordered society. John was asked about the founders’ faith in that same interview:

Most of the major Founding Fathers were not orthodox. John Adams was a Unitarian who rejected the Trinity. Thomas Jefferson rejected the resurrection. Benjamin Franklin did not believe in the deity of Christ. George Washington is a tough one to nail down. He was probably an orthodox Christian, but did not spend much time reflecting on matters pertaining to religion and theology.

But there is a larger issue here. It is illogical to assume that the personal religious beliefs of a founder automatically translate into his understanding on the role of religion in government. Recently Peter Lillback wrote a 1000+ page book defending the idea that George Washington was not a deist. Fair enough. I agree with him that Washington was not a deist. But I am not convinced that Washington’s personal faith meant that he wanted to create a Christian nation.

Browse Our Archives