Is America a “Christian Nation”?

THIS is a bit off-topic for us, but not exceedingly so. Creationism activists are often theocrats, and they frequently recite the talking point that the Founders established the United States as a “Christian Nation” — whatever that’s supposed to mean. It goes far beyond creationism. That’s just the first step.

We get the impression that it means something like the old monarchies of Europe, or maybe these days something like a Christian version of those countries that are explicitly set up as Muslim nations, e.g., the Islamic Republics of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, etc. Those countries have unequivocally religious laws, and they make no distinction between church and state. Those who advocate that the U.S. is a “Christian Nation” long for the same situation here — albeit Christian and not Muslim. Indeed, they frequently declare that there’s no such thing in the US Constitution as separation of church and state.

Let us be precise here. There is no question that the overwhelming majority of the American people consider themselves to be Christian, and therefore it’s entirely accurate to say that Americans are mostly a Christian people. But that’s not the issue.

What we’re talking about here is whether our government is a Christian institution. We will answer that in the negative. Of course, the American government is compatible with a Christian population. Were it otherwise, it would never have been established. What we shall specifically address here is the question of whether our fundamental laws established an explicitly “Christian Nation.”

Let’s look at the actual history. The “Christian Nation” advocates typically begin their spin by pointing out that the Declaration of Independence says we’re endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. Quite so. And then they usually go on to say that this is, in effect, a preamble to the Constitution. We’ll get to the “preamble” issue later on, but first let’s discuss the “Creator” issue.

As we wrote in Don McLeroy Spins the Texas History Revisions, such people are essentially quote-mining Jefferson. We said:

That’s why, when quoting Jefferson’s Declaration, he [McLeroy] conveniently leaves out the first sentence. You know, the one that says the American people were assuming “the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them.” It was in Jefferson’s second sentence that he started referring to the “Creator” — which had just been identified. But who or what is “nature’s God”? Does it sound like Yahweh? And why do people like McLeroy always skip Jefferson’s first sentence? We’ll leave that for you to ponder, dear reader.

Also, even if Jefferson actually were referring to the scriptural deity, which is dubious, the “Christian Nation” advocates fail to grasp the basic point that the Declaration isn’t the law of the United States. It was a statement made for the king, and for the world, announcing that the Americans were declaring their independence, and the reasons why they were doing so.

The Articles of Confederation — our first constitution — was drafted by another committee of the Continental Congress, and was presented to Congress for approval the same month as the Declaration — July of 1776. But it was voted down (it created “too strong” a government) and sent back to committee for re-drafting. It was finally ratified by the smallest of the thirteen states in 1781, but only after New York and Virginia gave up their Western land claims — which is where the Northwest Territory came from. Despite the ratification delay, we pretty much operated under the Articles from 1776 until the new Constitution was ratified and went into effect in 1789.

Did the Articles — drafted mostly the same month as the Declaration — create a “Christian Nation”? No. There’s no mention of religion — Christian or otherwise — in the document. Well, there is a vague (probably Deist) phrase in the signature section, which merely says, with bold font added by us:

And Whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union. Know Ye that we the undersigned delegates, by virtue of the power and authority to us given for that purpose, do by these presents, in the name and in behalf of our respective constituents, fully and entirely ratify …

Note that despite the pleasure of the “Great Governor of the World,” the document was signed pursuant to the authority granted by the state legislatures, and in the name of the signers’ constituents.

Okay, now let’s get to the “Preamble” question. Is the Declaration, with its out-of-context “Creator” expression, a preamble to the Articles? Or to the much later Constitution? No. The Articles of Confederation was drafted by a different committee and it has its own preamble, to wit:

To all to whom these Presents shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the States affixed to our Names send greeting.

Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

That’s it, and it’s not at all religious. For contrast, take a look at some of the Colonial Charters. Let’s use Connecticut as an example. Here’s the preamble to their charter of 1639 (almost 150 years before the Constitutional Convention), with bold font added by us:

For as much as it hath pleased Almighty God by the wise disposition of his divine providence so to order and dispose of things that we the Inhabitants and Residents of Windsor, Hartford and Wethersfield are now cohabiting and dwelling in and upon the River of Connectecotte and the lands thereunto adjoining; and well knowing where a people are gathered together the word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent Government established according to God, to order and dispose of the affairs of the people at all seasons as occasion shall require; do therefore associate and conjoin ourselves to be as one Public State or Commonwealth; and do for ourselves and our successors and such as shall be adjoined to us at any time hereafter, enter into Combination and Confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also, the discipline of the Churches, which according to the truth of the said Gospel is now practiced amongst us; as also in our civil affairs to be guided and governed according to such Laws, Rules, Orders and Decrees as shall be made, ordered, and decreed as followeth:

That‘s the way to declare the establishment of a “Christian Nation.” But observe, dear reader, that neither the Declaration, the Articles, nor the Constitution contains any language even remotely like that which had theretofore been employed in the beginning of such documents. There’s no way to get around it — the American Revolution was … well, it was revolutionary.

Nevertheless, the “Christian Nation” advocates claim that the Founders intended to create a Christian Nation. But if they did, then why didn’t they say so? Surely they knew how to express their thoughts, and they had the colonial charters to use as examples. Yet they rejected all the examples that had been used before and they followed a new course — inspired by the Enlightenment.

Many of you have memorized the preamble to the current Constitution, and therefore you know that it too contains no religious phraseology. It was drafted nearly a dozen years after the Declaration, and makes no reference to it. Thus the Declaration is in no way a preamble to the Constitution. Our independence was a prerequisite, of course, but that’s not the issue.

We’ve previously discussed some specific provisions in the Constitution that flatly negate the claims of the “Christian Nation” advocates, so forgive us if we repeat a bit of that here. Consider this constitutional language:

Article. VI, Clause 2: This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

Article. VI, Clause 3: The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Got that? A man-made Constitution is the “supreme law of the land,” and no religious qualifications shall ever be required. And what’s with that “Oath or Affirmation” phrase the Framers used all the time? Hint: Affirmation in law. That’s right — a religious oath wasn’t required of any office-holder.

Also, Hamilton and Madison, who explained the Constitution clause-by-clause in the Federalist Papers, did so totally without scriptural references. That’s because there was no scriptural basis for concepts like a decentralized federal republic, a two-house legislature, limited government with enumerated powers, representation based on population, checks and balances, prohibiting religious qualifications for holding office, allowing secular oaths, and providing that a man-made Constitution was the supreme law of the land.

Oh, what about the argument frequently heard these days that the phrase “separation of church and state” isn’t a part of the Constitution or any of its amendments? Well, that specific phrase isn’t there, but Madison — who drafted the First Amendment, used that phrase to describe its effect. We recently dealt with that here Ken Ham Unhinged: Creationism & Theocracy Too, so we won’t repeat ourselves.

That’s where we’ll leave this topic, at least for now. But in case you’re in doubt, our position is simple: No, we’re not a “Christian Nation” (i.e. a nation with an explicitly Christian government), and the Founders had no intention of creating a theocracy. Quite the opposite — they intended to suppress the impulses that motivate the “Christian Nation” advocates. For more on this, see Salem and Philadelphia: A Tale of Two Cities.

For more on this, see: WorldNetDaily: Thomas Jefferson, Theocrat.

See also: Creationism: The Last Great Awakening?

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

add to del.icio.usAdd to Blinkslistadd to furlDigg itadd to ma.gnoliaStumble It!add to simpyseed the vineTailRankpost to facebook

. AddThis Social Bookmark Button . Permalink for this article

25 responses to “Is America a “Christian Nation”?

  1. longshadow

    The Reconstructionsists/Dominionists are a tenacious lot; be prepared for them to proclaim the biblical references ARE actually in the constitution, but like the gambler Big Jule in Damon Runyon’s “Guys and Dolls” who had the spots removed from his dice “for good luck,” but remembers where they were, they, too, will claim it’s all there, but was secretly removed before publication, and they remember all the biblical references, and will restore them forthwith just as soon as they they are in charge of this country……

    ….. over my dead body.

  2. Longie says: “….. over my dead body.”

    You’ll regret that, when your blaspheming carcass is sizzling in the Lake of Fire, after having first been burned at the stake.

  3. The Christocrats remind me of a dog chasing a car. What’s he going to do if he catches one?

    The Christocrats want one thing very badly: prayer in school. That would be seen as a major victory in overthrowing “materialism.”

    Of course, in my day “materialism” was the notion that you spent too much of your life chasing “things” which led to unhappiness. But today “materialism” means philosophical materialism, a concept that what we see is what we get; the natural world is, well, natural and does not contain supernatural “things.” That’s bad because it squeezes God out of the picture.

    The theory of evolution is a natural (ha ha) target because it doesn’t require the supernatural as does creationism and “intelligent design.” Evolution leads to atheism, they say. Actually, evolution leads to thinking for yourself which leads to atheism, although thinking for yourself can be discovered by anybody.

  4. Excellent essay! I always wonder why those wanting a “Christian Nation” ignore the fact that some of our forefathers LEFT a “Christian Nation” because the government backed religion didn’t approve of their version of Christianity. They left because of government interference.

    It also seems to me that most of our forefathers came here for economic opportunity and not because they cared a damn about religion.

  5. RogerE says: “They left because of government interference.”

    Yes, it’s always failed before. But this time it’ll be different!

  6. SC, “Yes, it’s always failed before. But this time it’ll be different!”

    Repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. Isn’t that the definition of something? Insanity?

  7. Hmmm. I know it’s bad form to answer a question with a question, but I’m going to do it anyway:

    Is every person in the US a Christian? Is every person in the US required by law to believe in Christianity?


    Well, then. I suppose we aren’t a Christian nation then.

  8. LRA says:

    Well, then. I suppose we aren’t a Christian nation then.

    That’s an extreme definition. I think you’d agree that China is a “Chinese Nation” even though not everyone living there is Chinese.

  9. Depends on the definition of “nation,” no? A nation is NOT a government.

    “a large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own: The president spoke to the nation about the new tax. ”

    If one takes that definition, then one could arguably call the US a “Christian nation” with a (nominally) secular government.

    Your other problem is believing the Constitution, something that the courts, legislature, and president don’t bother doing.

  10. We can quibble over definitions but, the fact is that there is a segment of Christians that want to exert their will over everyone else and are using religion as the excuse.

  11. As for “intent,” just turn to the Treaty of Tripoli:

    “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

  12. James F says:

    As for “intent,” just turn to the Treaty of Tripoli

    That too, certainly. But I prefer to stick with the founding documents, because they’re what the creationists like to cite, even when a simple reading so clearly contradicts their claims.

  13. Curdge, if creationists were bothered by documents contradicting their claims, then you wouldn’t see them trying to throw the Bible at everyone. It can’t get through its opening chapters without contradicting itself and their claims about its inerrancy.

  14. waldteufel

    Thanks for this most excellent post, which has inspired me to re-read The Federalist Papers for the first time since the ol’ undergrad days.

  15. Albanaeon has a good point. Truth and reality are vague concepts to these people. Considering the contortions they go through to explain the Bible, they will have no problems contorting our founding documents to their way of thinking.

  16. Of course China is a Chinese nation. America is an American nation. But, check out these stats:

    “RCMS finds 140 million “religious adherents” claimed by 149 religious bodies.
    Half (50.2%) of all Americans are associated with one of the 149 religious groups who participated in this study.

    The three largest religious bodies in the United States, according to RCMS, are Catholics (62 million), Southern Baptists (20 million), and United Methodists (10 million). (Rankings available.)

    The 149 reporting bodies can be classified as
    • Protestant, with 66 million adherents in 222,000 congregations;
    • Catholic, with 62 million adherents in nearly 22,000 congregations;
    • Jewish, with 6 million adherents in 3,727 congregations (this data is based on different estimating procedures; see appendix of the book);
    • Mormon, with 4 million adherents in 12,000 congregations;
    • Muslim, with 1.6 million adherents in over 1,000 congregations (this data is based on different estimating procedures; see appendix of the book);
    • Eastern Christians (including Orthodox), with nearly 1 million adherents in 2,000 congregations;
    • Eastern religions, reporting about 150,000 adherents in 4,000 congregations. (Many Eastern religions do not have a concept of formal membership in local congregations, so the adherent figure is not completely comparable to the other religious families.)
    • Unitarian Universalist Assocation, with about 180,000 adherents in 1,000 congregations.”

    With only 129 million out of 300 million people in the US claiming to be Christian, you can bet that we are *NOT* a Christian nation, no matter what the neo-theocrats try to claim.

  17. retiredsciguy

    A beautifully written essay, Curmy.

    Now, I don’t mean to change the subject, but a line in RogerE’s post immediately above caught my eye:
    “Considering the contortions they go through to explain the Bible, they will have no problems contorting our founding documents to their way of thinking.”

    Unfortunately, this also seems to be the case with those who are fond of calling the Constitution a “living document”, meaning that it is malleable by the courts.

  18. retiredsciguy says:

    Unfortunately, this also seems to be the case with those who are fond of calling the Constitution a “living document”, meaning that it is malleable by the courts.

    Yes, and that bothers me. I dealt with it here: Open Letter to Sonia Sotomayor.

  19. LRA says:

    Of course China is a Chinese nation. America is an American nation. But …

    You’re trying to tease me today. Go ahead, I can handle it.

  20. This issue is related to the creationism issue in another way. Many of the same people pushing for creationism to be taught in science class also push for a Christian dominionist message being taught in history and civics class.

    For example:

    In this article, the Texas textbooks covering American history and the founding of the nation are being changed to include John Calvin as “founding father” instead of Thomas Jefferson.

    A shift away from teaching enlightenment values to teaching Calvinism is a significant re-writing of American history, not dissimilar to the re-writing of earth and life science curricula. So really, there’s more than just going on than creationism. Creationism is the tip of the iceberg. A lot remains submerged and its impact remains to be seen.

  21. LC says:

    Creationism is the tip of the iceberg. A lot remains submerged and its impact remains to be seen.

    Correct. Creationism is just the first step. Gotta cut ’em off at the pass.

  22. gmhentropy

    In this article, the Texas textbooks covering American history and the founding of the nation are being changed to include John Calvin as “founding father” instead of Thomas Jefferson.

    Now that’s scary.

  23. retiredsciguy

    Curmy says, “Yes, and that bothers me (with reference to calling the Constitution a “living document”). I dealt with it here: Open Letter to Sonia Sotomayor.”

    Better dust it off and address it to Elena Kagan. Word is that Obama’s going to announce her nomination 10 am Monday.

  24. “No, we’re not a “Christian Nation” (i.e. a nation with an explicitly Christian government), and the Founders had no intention of creating a theocracy. Quite the opposite — they intended to suppress the impulses that motivate the “Christian Nation” advocates.”

    But, but, but…. Sarah Palin disagrees!!!!1!!1!!11!

  25. LRA says:

    But, but, but…. Sarah Palin disagrees!!!!1!!1!!11!

    I put up with a lot when she was on the ballot. I defended her in spite of her creationism, because I thought she could keep it to herself. It’s beginning to get through to me that I may have been wrong.