One of the most persistent popular themes of American history is that the United States is a Christian nation. It was explicitly founded to be a Christian nation, the story goes, and its laws and values are based on Christianity. This is what the founders of the nation intended. Therefore, Christianity deserves a privileged position in U.S. law and public policy.
A recent poll of U.S. adults found that 61 percent of Republicans — but only 17 percent of Democrats — support declaring the United States to be a Christian nation. This was true even though some of those Republicans admitted such a declaration would be unconstitutional. The term “Christian nationalism” is much in the news these days, as a growing number of conservative politicians and voters identify as Christian nationalists. (Here is a good article at Christianity Today explaining Christian nationalism and why it’s not necessarily a good thing for Christians, or the nation.)
What the Founders Intended
The Constitution does not mention God or Christianity. Religion comes up only twice in the Constitution, in fact. Article VI, clause 3, provides that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” And the First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion, but it also says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This literally means that the federal government cannot establish an official state religion and must maintain neutrality among religions.
Historians have exhaustively studied the debates of the Constitutional Convention and the speeches and papers of the founders. Arguments on behalf of a republican government were drawn from secular sources, not the Bible. Several of the founders were Deists, which means they had broken with Christian orthodoxy in their personal beliefs. In other words, there is a huge disconnect between the popular belief in the Christian nation and historical reality.
The record reveals that the founders were more concerned about the potential dangers of religious factionalism than they were about fulfilling divine purposes. They remembered Europe’s devastating religious wars, in which soldiers and civilians slaughtered each other over whether nations would be Protestant or Catholic. For this reason, the federal government would be denied the power to establish a state religion or enforce religious practices. Instead, religion would be respected as a matter of personal conscience outside the reach of government.
The Religion Problem
The provision in the Constitution forbidding a religious test as a requirement for office was hotly debated before the Constitution was ratified. It was a point of objection for those opposed to the Constitution. A New Hampshire critic complained that “according to this [provision] we may have a Papist, a Mohomatan, a Deist, yeah an Atheist at the helm of Government.”
Others were disturbed that no mention was made of God at all. It was proposed the preamble be changed to begin “We the people of the United States, in a firm belief of the being and perfection of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governour of the world, in his universal providence and the authority of his laws: that he will require of all moral agents an account of their conduct, that all rightful powers among men are ordained of, and medidately derived from God …,”
But these arguments were rejected by the majority, who argued that the “no religious test” clause was necessary for preventing religious tyranny. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton also defended the secular nature of government in several passages in the Federalist Papers. For example, in Federalist 10 James Madison wrote, “zeal for different opinions concerning religion” had “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other.”
In his book Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding (Oxford University Press, 2015), historian Steven K. Green says the Christian nation story “arose incrementally, not as a comprehensive account, over a forty-year period, roughly from 1800 to 1840.” It arose as Americans struggled to define themselves and their new nation. “In short, the idea of America’s religiously inspired founding was a consciously created myth constructed by the second generation of Americans in their quest to forge a national identity, one that would reinforce their ideals and aspirations for the new nation,” Green writes.
Especially after George Washington died in 1799, popular sentiment rushed to sanctify Washington and the other founders. They weren’t just brave and forward-thinking men; they were divinely guided, fulfilling God’s purposes. This period of time coincided with the Second Great Awakening (roughly, 1795 to 1835). The Awakening was a Protestant religious revival that spread throughout the nation. During this time of heightened religiosity the notion took hold that the United States had been formed by God’s guiding hand for a special purpose. Further, many wished to believe that Christianity provided the basis of its laws and principles.
This writer does not presume to know what God’s guiding hand has been up to. However, it’s a simple fact that that there is no special connection between Christian doctrines and U.S. laws and principles. See, for example, The Ten Commandments and the Origins of Law.
Reinforcing the Myth
Since the early 19th century, the belief in the U.S. as a Christian nation was reinforced in popular culture and in how U.S. history was taught to schoolchildren. The standard story of the nation began with the Pilgrims and other Christian refugees who came to the West for religious freedom. Many such groups established inclusive communities that allowed no other religious views, but that part was left out. The Jews who settled in colonial America also tended to be overlooked, as were the many people who came — or were brought — to the U.S. for nonreligious reasons.
Today there is a growing Christian nationalism movement that has been called a threat to democracy. Christian nationalism is being promoted by groups who advocate a more authoritarian form of government. At the same time, a Christian conservative majority on the Supreme Court seems determined to dial back separation of church and state. Those who disagree with these trends are being portrayed as being controlled by Satan. “The religious right has long supported conservative causes, but this current wave seeks more: a nation that actively prioritizes their particular set of Christian beliefs and far-right views and that more openly embraces Christianity as a bedrock identity,” wrote Elizabeth Dias in the New York Times (July 8, 2022).
This is exactly the sort of religious factionalism the founders wanted to avoid.
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952). Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.