A Case for a Christian America

Was America founded as a Christian nation? The debate rages on. Many who claim that America was not founded as a Christian nation appeal to the United States Constitution, a document that does not mention Christianity or God (with the exception of reference to the "Year of our Lord," a standard way of writing the date). The Constitution was never meant to be a religious document, nor did its framers set out to use the document to establish a Christian nation.

This prompts the question: Why did the framers leave God out of this most important of all American documents? There has been much historical debate over this issue, but two views have been most popular. Some have said that the framers deliberately omitted references to God in the Constitution because they wanted to create a secular nation. Others have argued, based on the political idea of "federalism," that the framers did not mention God because they believed that the relationship between religion and government was a subject that should be addressed at the state and not the national level.

The framers' belief in federalism has profound implications for the question of whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation. Although the federal Constitution does not mention God or require government officials to be Christians, many of the state constitutions do. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, for example, affirms religious freedom but requires that the governor "declare himself to be of the Christian religion." Members of the state legislature in Massachusetts needed to "believe the Christian religion, and have firm persuasion of its truth."

In Pennsylvania, that great bastion of religious freedom founded in 1681 by William Penn, only certain people were granted civil rights or the privilege of serving in the government. The 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution, which was the most democratic of all the state constitutions, required members to believe in a God who created and governs the world, a God who rewards the good and punishes the wicked, and the "Divine inspiration" of the Old and New Testaments.

Those who view Vermont today as a state on the front lines of progressive social change might be shocked to read the Christian language in the 1777 constitution of the independent state of Vermont. (Vermont would not join the United States until 1791.) The constitution affirmed a natural right to "worship Almighty God" as long as that worship was "regulated by the Word of God." Freedom of religion was a "civil right" afforded only to those who "profess the Protestant religion." The constitution also noted that "every sect or denomination of people ought to observe the Sabbath, or the Lord's day, and keep up, and support some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God." All members of the Vermont government had to testify to a belief in the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments and "profess the Protestant religion."

Similar constitutional requirements can be found in every state except Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were successful in removing any religious qualifications for office. It should also be noted that many of the religious requirements in these state constitutions were removed as the 19th-century progressed. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of the states at the time of the founding wanted their leadership Christian, if not specifically Protestant.

What should we make of these overtly Christian constitutions? Do they add up to a Christian nation? One could make a strong argument that they do. During much of the 1780s, the Articles of Confederation functioned as the document of America's national government. As most Americans remember from their history or civics classes, the Articles of Confederation provided for a very weak central government. Political power rested with the individual states and their own constitutions. As a result, the phrase "Christian nation" is problematic in this era, since it would be very difficult to call the United States a "nation" in the same way that we might use the term today. And even after the ratification of the Constitution, these states continued to maintain the power to shape their views on the relationship between religion and government.

So what does this mean for our understanding of whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation? Many inhabitants of the early American Republic lived in political communities where religion was such an important part of the culture that the framers of government thought it was necessary to sustain that culture by privileging Christianity.

A Christian nation? Perhaps.

3/16/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Evangelical
  • Confessing History
  • Federalism
  • History
  • Nationalism
  • State Constitutions
  • Christianity
  • Evangelicalism
  • John Fea
    About John Fea
    John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). He blogs daily at philipvickersfithian.com.