Was America founded with the express intention of being a Christian nation? Is it a Christian nation now?

Conservative Christians have long argued yes to both of these questions, while secularists have advocated for the opposite view. Last month someone posted this entertaining video about it:

While I’m a strict advocate of the separation of church and state, and should therefore be inclined to cheer at this video, not everything in it is perfectly accurate. For example, the figure of 80% of early Americans not attending church doesn’t take into account the logistics of how many of them even had access to a church in the eighteenth century. It’s just not a fair comparison — to say nothing of the fact that it’s not like Gallup was galloping around the circuit at the time, taking polls.

Historian John Fea argues that the truth is more complicated than either side's acolytes seem willing to believe.

Historian John Fea argues that the truth is more complicated than either side’s acolytes seem willing to believe.

And according to John Fea’s award-winning history book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, the issue of the “godless Constitution” is more complicated than this video makes it seem. Yes, there is absolutely no mention of God in the U.S. Constitution. However, this was primarily because the founders had decided that religion was a matter that needed to be left up to the individual states. And of the original states, Virginia was the only one that, like the federal Constitution, had a firm separation of religion and government. The other states all “constructed republics that were, in one way or another, explicitly Christian” (p. 162).

So the question about whether America was meant to be a Christian nation depends quite a lot on how you define nationhood. If it’s defined by the will of our foundational federal document, then no: the framers of the Constitution did not establish America as a Christian nation. However, if nationhood is defined by the will of the people as expressed in the various state constitutions and laws, then it gets rather murky.

What I find, though, is that people on both sides of the issue don’t want to examine these historical nuances. In the video, Mrs. Betty Bowers (a Colbert-like persona who appears to advance neocon ideology while satirically demonstrating that position’s logical flaws) won’t allow “pesky facts” to get in the way of her idea that America was and is a Christian nation. But the wholly secular thrust of the video ignores other important facts as well.

On this Independence Day, maybe one of the ways we can best honor our country is to recognize that historical truth is more complex than our slogans can ever capture.

 

7 Comments

  1. David Thompson

    The question is: Is America a Christian Nation? The answer to that has be a resounding I don’t know. Legally it’s not, but It seems like it is turning into a theocracy at the same time religious beliefs are declining. It’s those obnoxious evangelical-fundamentalists that are ruining the nation. They are evil incarnate.

  2. I don’t know if America was a Christian nation way back when — I wasn’t there anyway — but it’s a certainty that it is NOT a Christian nation now.

  3. Charles Humfree

    A large majority of U. S. citizens declared themselves Christian in the Pew Forum poll published in 2012: approximately 82% of Republicans, and 66% of Democrats. Almost 20% of Americans said they were unaffiliated, the “nones”. How many of the Christians are the ones shouting that the U. S. is a Christian nation and pushing for a theocracy, I don’t know. However, a decent guess would be about 33% since that is roughly the percent of the population who are evangelical/fundamentalist Protestants and Catholics. These people are highly motivated and organized, and have taken over more than their proportions of Congress, governorships, and state legislatures. This is somewhat frightening to the rest of us. I don’t want a nation run by religious fanatics who attempt to install their morality on all of us. This would amount to the same personal constrictions so evident in Middle Eastern countries today. I hope all of you think about these issues when you next go to the polls in 2014.

  4. America was not founded as a Christian nation. It was founded by non religious people mainly as a free state with freedom of religion. If anything, we are a Masonic state, since many of them were masons and their views coincide with masonic views.

  5. Raytmond Takashi Swenson

    Even the Founding Fathers who were skeptical of particular denominational beliefs were nevertheless steeped in the culture of Christendom and the Bible. They all spoke the language of the Bible, and were familiar with the narrative of Christ and the apostles, and with the political vicissitudes that fell upon Israel, Egypt and Babylon because they became nations disobedient to God. Even if they disagreed with the doctrines of Episcopalians and Catholics and Baptists, they nevertheless had read the Bible and knew what their neighbors believed and could speak a common tongue that applied the categories of divine providence, both blessing and retribution, to the fortunes of the new nation. That was clear in the belief of many of them that America was more successful in its rebellion against Britain than it could reasonably have expected to be, and thus America itself was evidence of a beneficent Deity. Furthermore, this belief in God as the Sovereign of the nation underlies the Declaration of Independence, and was expressed by most of them repeatedly on occasions where the American civil religion was displayed, including the inauguration of the president.

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