It is not at all uncommon to hear Christians, both ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’, proclaiming that the USA was founded as a ‘Christian nation’, based on the Bible and Christian principles. Is this true, false, or both (depending on what is meant by ‘Christian nation’ and its ‘founding’)? I opt for ‘both’. If by ‘Christian nation’ one means that the predominant religion in the USA was Christianity when it was settled, when the national government was formed, and even up to the present day, then it’s true that we are a ‘Christian nation’. But if one wishes to assert that the government of our nation was based on the Bible and Christianity, then it is false that we are a ‘Christian nation’.
First of all, there can be no doubt that it was religion, and Christianity in particular, which motivated the first European settlers to move to this continent. The ‘pilgrims’ and ‘puritans’ had ‘religious liberty’ as their primary motivation in coming here. They were fleeing the religious oppression and suppression of the State Churches, who simply couldn’t find it in themselves to allow beliefs and practices not in strict accord with the ‘official’ position. It’s a shame that these ‘pilgrims’ and ‘puritans’ didn’t practice the principle of religious liberty themselves! But they found themselves unable to do so because their desire for liberty was counterbalanced by their intention of establishing ‘the Kingdom of God and of His Son Jesus Christ’ in the earth, and to them that meant that both politics and religion would be under the sway of Jesus Christ. The problem was that the Roman Catholic Church had one idea of what the Kingdom of God meant, the Church of England had another (though similar) conception, and the Puritans and Separatists had still another. All of these were incompatible with each other, and were collectively incompatible with all non-Christian ideas. Yet each felt they had the freedom and the right to establish and practice their own ideas of the Kingdom. So our Puritan settlers soon began practicing the very same religious intolerance from which they fled. Baptists and Quakers in particular experienced persecution from the Puritans who originally settled here. In general, anyone who disagreed with the Presbyterian and Anglican forms of Church government and ritual which were ‘established’ in various parts of the forming nation faced political/governmental oppression, and wound up having to flee to another area or face legal punishments. By the time of the American Revolution, a large majority of the populace had become fed up with this religious intolerance, and were delighted to set up a civil government that sought to guarantee a true liberty of conscience and religion to all of its citizens. They desired to have a nation where each citizen could freely and openly practice his own version of the ‘Kingdom of God’, or could in fact deny any concept of a ‘Kingdom of God’. No one could be coerced into taking part in any religious worship or practice he didn’t personally believe in.
But how could such real liberty of conscience and religion be established? Up until the American Revolution, religion and government had been so intertwined in thought and practice that any other way of doing things was simply unheard of! And where religion and government go hand-in-hand, religious liberty is impossible. The government will always wind up enforcing the prevailing religion. That’s why the governmental concepts that were produced by men such as George Washington, John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were so revolutionary! These men, and others, contributed to an idea of government in which Church and State were conceived of as two entirely separate entities, each having its own government, and neither interfering or cooperating with the other. Because this concept was indeed revolutionary, not all of the ‘leaders’ in the war with England were completely in favor of this ‘radical’ idea. Some, like Patrick Henry, were not in favor of a complete separation between Church and State. Mr. Henry was in favor of establishing ‘Christianity’ in general as the State Religion, (and many Christians today still promote this idea – as in the “Christian nation” controversy), without establishing any particular denomination of Christianity. But men like James Madison argued against this, pointing out that if ‘Christianity’ was established, then it would become necessary to define what constitutes ‘Christianity’, and soon some versions would find themselves excluded – leading again to religious persecution. Besides, what about those who openly proclaimed that they were not Christians (Thomas Paine for instance, who was one of the leaders in promoting separation from England)? It was in the best interest of religion, Madison argued, to leave it entirely free from State interference, and leave every individual free to make his own decision in the matter. This is the ‘radical’ position that prevailed in the forming of our national government; so that we do not have a ‘Christian nation’, but a government which is entirely separate from religion in order to guarantee the absolute freedom of the citizens in religious matters: to be of any religion, or no religion.
Next I’ll give some quotations from the official documents of our nation (USA), and from the political leaders in its formation, to show that I’m not making this up or ‘rewriting’ history. All of my quotations are taken from Quotations that Support the Separation of Church and State.
The 2 primary parts of the Constitution itself which are relevant to this discussion are: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the freedom of press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”. (Amendment 1, The Constitution of the United States); and “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.” (Article VI, Section 3, The Constitution of the United States). It should be noted right away that the second quotation, from Article VI of the Constitution, is the direct denial by the ‘founding fathers’ of the assertion quoted in an article a relative sent to me: “Joseph Strong stated in 1802 that our fathers adhered to the principle ‘that none ought to be elevated to public office except those whose opinions and behavior were strictly Christian’ and that ‘righteousness exalts a nation.’” The ‘founding fathers’ were very much aware of such sentiments among some Christian leaders, and deliberately repudiated them in the name of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. In fact, the leading ‘fathers’ were themselves not ‘Christians’ in any sense acceptable to evangelicals then or now. They were Deists and/or unitarians. (At that time at least, all Deists were unitarians, but not all unitarians were Deists. They were similar to Deists in most respects, though). These 2 portions of the Constitution established a clear “wall of separation” between Civil and Ecclesiastical governments:
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” (Thomas Jefferson, as President, in a letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, 1802; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 369).
“Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history. (See the cases in which negatives were put by J. M. [James Madison] on two bills passd by Congs and his signature withheld from another. See also attempt in Kentucky for example, where it was proposed to exempt Houses of Worship from taxes.” (James Madison, “Monopolies. Perpetuities. Corporations. Ecclesiastical Endowments,” as reprinted in Elizabeth Fleet, “Madison’s Detatched Memoranda,” William & Mary Quarterly, Third series: Vol. III, No. 4 [October, 1946], p. 555. The parenthetical note at the end, which lacks a closed parenthesis in Fleet, was apparently a note Madison made to himself regarding examples of improper encroachment to use when the “Detatched Memoranda” were edited and published, and seems to imply clearly that Madison supported taxing churches. )”
Some Christians want us to believe that Thomas Jefferson was speaking as a ‘lone wolf’ when he made his ‘wall of separation’ statement, and did not reflect the meaning of James Madison who drew up the Constitution. But the quotation given from James Madison himself (“separation between Religion and Govt in the Constitution”) repudiates that notion. This distinct and strong separation between civil and ecclesiastical powers was the deliberate intent of the framers of the Constitution. They recognized that it was the only real way to guarantee freedom of conscience and religion to all citizens of the U.S.A. Notice this comment of Jefferson about the Preamble to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which served pretty much as a precursor to the U.S. Constitution’s position:
“Where the preamble [of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom] declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting the words “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.” (Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 363).
I believe it was Patrick Henry who proposed the insertion of the words “Jesus Christ” in that Preamble. I know that I have read that he wanted to have Christianity in general made the established Religion of the State of Virginia, with all Christian clergy being supported by the State’s taxes; but he was opposed by James Madison, and of course the arguments of Madison prevailed.
Article II, section II of the U.S. Constitution provides that the President, with the support of a 2/3 majority of Congress, may make a Treaty with another nation, which becomes part of the supreme law of our land (along with the Constitution itself and the laws passed by Congress). A treaty can be declared null and void by the Supreme Court if it rules that the treaty violates the Constitution, just as the Supreme Court can invalidate laws passed by Congress; but the Treaty is valid unless and until it does so – and it never has so far. Consider then this statement from the Treaty of Tripoli, signed into law by President John Adams on June 10, 1797 (John Adams was our second President):
“As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion–as it has itself no character of enmity against the law, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims]”, … (“Article 11, Treaty of Peace and Friendship between The United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary,” 1796-1797. Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America. Edited by Hunter Miller. Vol. 2, 1776-1818, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1931, p. 365. From George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 45. According to Paul F. Boller [George Washington & Religion, Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963, pp. 87-88] the treaty was written by Joel Barlow, negotiated during Washington’s administration, concluded on November 4, 1796, ratified by the Senate in June, 1797, and signed [see below] by John Adams [2nd U.S. President] on June 10, 1797. Boller concluded that “Very likely Washington shared Barlow’s view, though there is no record of his opinion about the treaty …” [p.88].
John Adams, in ratifying the Treaty, made the following statement: “Now be it known, that I, John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said treaty do, by and within the consent of the Senate, accept, ratify and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof”. (“Treaty of Peace and Friendship between The United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary,” 1796-1797. Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America. Edited by Hunter Miller. Vol. 2. 1776-1818. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1931, p. 383; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 45.)
Note this statement – that “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” – was made by the very men who were present at, and instrumental in, the writing and ratifying of our Constitution. While I can understand the desire of Christians to maintain otherwise, it is much too late. The ‘founding fathers’ have made explicit statements on the matter; and those Christians who proclaim ‘Christian Nation’ principles are in fact guilty of ‘historical revisionism’.
Great pride was taken by most of our ‘founding fathers’ in the fact that our Constitution was based solely on the use of reason applied to nature, rather than being based on ‘revelation’ (whether ‘scriptural’ or personal). There was a very good reason why the Declaration of Independence referred to ‘the laws of nature and of nature’s God’ rather than ‘the laws of the Bible and the Bible’s God’! Consider this statement of John Adams:
The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.… (John Adams, “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” [1787-1788]; from Adrienne Koch, ed., The American Enlightenment: The Shaping of the American Experiment and a Free Society, New York: George Braziller, 1965, p. 258.)
In order not to overly extend this article, I’ll close with noting that Baptists and Quakers at the time of the founding of our nation were very much in favor of the ‘separation of Church and State’. They had experienced persecution from the very ‘churches’ that had come to this land supposedly for ‘religious freedom’. James Madison started his career as a lawyer by defending 7 Baptist ministers who had been arrested for having the audacity to preach and form congregations in Virginia, whose ‘state church’ was Anglican (Episcopalian). The ministers were subject to public flogging for their ‘crime’. It is not surprising therefore to find such statements as the following from Baptist ministers:
Isaac Backus, Separatist minister turned Baptist – “Religious matters are to be separated from the jurisdiction of the state not because they are beneath the interests of the state, but, quite to the contrary, because they are too high and holy and thus are beyond the competence of the state.” (Isaac Backus, An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, 1773, as quoted by Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, compilers, The Great Quotations on Religious Liberty, Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 7.).
John Leland – “Is conformity of sentiments in matters of religion essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear–maintain the principles that he believes–worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse or loss of property for his religious opinions. Instead of discouraging him with proscriptions, fines, confiscation or death, let him be encouraged, as a free man, to bring forth his arguments and maintain his points with all boldness; then if his doctrine is false it will be confuted, and if it is true (though ever so novel) let others credit it. When every man has this liberty what can he wish for more? A liberal man asks for nothing more of government.” (John Leland, “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, and Therefore Religious Opinions not Cognizable by Law” [a pamphlet], New London, Connecticut, 1791. Reprinted in Mortimer Adler, ed., 1784-1796, Organizing the New Nation: The Annals of America, Vol. 3, Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1968, pp. 447-448. Leland was a Baptist minister who refused to support the Constitution until Madison persuaded him that the Constitution would not undermine religious liberty.)
And again from John Leland: “The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks [Muslims], Pagans and Christians. Test oaths and established creeds should be avoided as the worst of evils.”
If someone wants the USA to be a ‘Christian nation’ in a political sense, with the establishment of religious tests ensuring that only strict Christians are eligible for public office, he (or they) will have to overthrow the Constitution we have, instituted by men who loved liberty. And I just don’t think that’s going to happen.