This following is a paper I wrote this spring for my History of Christianity class.
One of the ongoing debates in the American “culture wars” revolves around the question of whether or not the U.S. is a “Christian nation.” As is so often the case, the American political scene wants to reduce this to a binary choice, either yes or no. But, as John Fea points out in the preface to his Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, the answer is not quite so simple: “Though I am skeptical of the idea that any society on this side of eternity can be truly called Christian, it does seem that a society can reflect, in a limited sense, Christian principles…” The question of whether or not the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” or whether it was founded as such, has no easy answer.
In order to critically assess the variety of ways in which one can speak of the U.S. as a Christian nation, it is helpful to attempt to answer four questions: first, is the U.S. now a Christian nation? Second, was the nation founded on religious ideals? Third, was the U.S. once united by Christian ideals? And fourth, has Christianity made the U.S. a force for good in the world? While there should be no expectation that critical engagement with these questions will provide a firm answer to our overarching question, certainly tangling with each can give us a clearer understanding of the role of Christianity in the forming and shaping of the United States and its civic arena.
The first question – is the U.S. now a Christian nation? – seems to answer itself by a simple perusal of our modern political and civic sphere. While Christians certainly do play a large, majoritarian role, there is no doubt that non-Christian voices – Jewish, Islamic, secular, and in a more limited way, Buddhist and Hindu – are present and are increasingly making themselves heard. The Pew Religious Landscapes Survey made huge waves recently with its news that people who are religiously unaffiliated had reached their highest numbers in the history of the survey. That same survey also showed growing numbers of adherents to faiths other than Christianity.
On the other hand, the fact that the Pew survey also showed that upwards of 70% of Americans still identify as Christian, in one form or another, went largely unnoticed. Additionally, it is hard to observe the public sphere of American life and not see that Christianity still has the loudest and most prominent voice out there. In 2016, 81% of white Christian evangelicals -who make up a quarter of the electorate- famously voted for Donald Trump for president, the highest support they had ever given one candidate, likely providing the winning margin.
Beyond the obvious forms of Christian civil engagement, so many American institutional ideals are forged upon a Judeo-Christian framework, much as capitalism, patriarchy, and whiteness also provide support for American institutions in many instances. Many of the so-called “Blue Laws” across the nation, restricting activities on Sundays, as well as a variety of legal prohibitions – regarding things like alcohol, drugs, sex and other “vices” – have their roots in Christian temperance and public morality movements. As Kee et al. write, “Disestablishment meant that the religious orientation of the government would be unofficial, an endorsement of Christianity in general.” It is also Christian voices who continue to oppose the women’s choice movement and LGBTQ+ equality, fights that are still successful in implementing across large swaths of the south, midwest, and mountain west. These displays of public and legal morality still shape the political discourse in much of the U.S., determining the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable. Even public holidays are shaped by Christianity: Christmas and Easter are much-longed-for time off opportunities for working Americans of all stripes, celebrated in secular forms by all but a few.
In a more positive sense, some Christians have also led the way on justice issues, especially around race and war and peace issues. As Kee et al. point out in Christianity: A Social and Cultural History, Christians played important roles in the civil rights movement, and the activism against the Vietnam war. That legacy has carried over into the 21st century, with Christians playing important roles in the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as against military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and other global hotspots. Christians have also led some of the response to economic stagnation in the wake of the 2009 recession, the most public form of which has been Rev. William Barber’s Moral Mondays movement.
So, is the U.S. at this time a Christian nation? The question is hard to answer, because the nation is simultaneously at a low-point in individual Christian self-identification, while also seeing Christians on both sides of the political divide driving the conversation on a variety of civic and political issues. Kee et al. quote Paul Tillich, who wrote that “religion is the substance of culture and culture is the form of religion,” an assessment that seems to fit the interplay between American civic culture and the dominant form of religion in America. The U.S. in 2018 is a place where the separation of church and state is certainly being honored more and more, where a variety of forms of religious (and non-religious) expression are increasingly a part of the national conversation; at the same time, Christianity still plays a leading role in much of the country.
Our second question, was the nation founded on religious ideals, sheds more light on the role of Christianity in the United States. Claiming that the Founders were unequivocally Christians, and that they used Christianity in writing the founding documents of the country, is a favorite claim of those who advocate for an understanding of the U.S. as always and forever a distinctly Christian nation. Yet, the historical record is much more mixed than this simplistic account.
Certainly, the Founding Fathers of the Revolutionary generation lived in a cultural milieu that was unmistakably Judeo-Christian culturally. Even for men like Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, none of whom were overtly religious, used language like Creator and God in their writings and speeches. In writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson used overtly religious language, even as he personally flirted with deism. America at the time of Revolution was certainly a religious place; in the northern colonies, Congregationalists were predominant, the descendants of the Puritans; in the middle colonies, Anglicans, Quakers, and Catholics were common; and in the south, Anglicans were also prominent, but newer strains of Christianity like Baptists and Methodists were gaining power. Kee et al. point out that all these various groups of Christians played a role in the revolutionary atmosphere, whether as supporters of separation from Britain, or as loyalists to the Crown.
After the revolution, the question of church and state became a central concern of the Framers of the Constitution. In 1779, Jefferson had drawn up a bill for establishing religious liberty in his home state of Virginia. In it, he wrote into law that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, not shall be enforced, restrained , molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by arguments to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” This same spirit of religious toleration carried over into the drafting of the federal Constitution and its attendant Bill of Rights. Kee et al. write, “The federal Constitution, unlike most of the state constitutions, outlawed any religious test for office, did not mention the word ‘God,’ and rested authority upon ‘We the People.’ In response to complaints that the document needed a Bill of Rights, the new government passed the First Amendment: ‘Congress shall make no law establishing religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’”
It is hard to assess all this, and to believe that it is just coincidental, that despite the plain words written by the Founders of our nation, to then assume they all meant for the U.S. to specifically be a Christian nation. The Establishment and Free Exercises clauses were not written by mistake. While many Founders were indeed practicing Christians, and some even argued for a distinctly religious understanding of the nation, in practice, they embarked on the first grand experiment in total religious toleration by an entire nation. Culturally, the U.S. at the time of its founding was Judeo-Christian, without a doubt. But, legally speaking, religious neutrality was the rule. The later inability of many politicians and commentators to adhere this ideal does not invalidate the intent of the Founders. Surely, James Madison, the drafter of the Bill of Rights and a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, wasn’t being misunderstood when he wrote, in defense of religious freedom, “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”
Our third question, was the U.S. once united by Christian ideals, is closely related to the second. This assertion takes it for granted there was once a halcyon period of Christianity in America, when all Christians were of similar opinion in matters religious and political. A cursory understanding of American history disproves this simplistic understanding of earlier Americans and their beliefs.
For instance, one only has to look at the Civil War period to see not only the intense split that occurred in American Christianity at that time, but also the preceding fissures that led to that moment, and the groundwork it laid for the divisions that persist to this day. Besides splitting the nation regionally, the war also split northern and southern Christians. For the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War, the nation was consistently split on the issues of slavery and its spread, a split that extended naturally to churches. Several denominations, including Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians, split into northern and southern iterations during the years leading up to war, splits that persist for the latter to this day. Many Christian clergy, including Lyman Beecher, were ardent abolitionists, while some southern clergy were themselves slave owners. Following the war, and into the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, many southern churches became leaders in the efforts for segregation, while black churches, like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, became leaders in the fight for desegregation and equal rights.
Besides issues of slavery and race, the supposed unity of American Christian thought can be perceived in the attitudes of the majority to Catholic immigrants. Opposition to Irish, Italian, Eastern Europe, and Mexican Catholics arose over religious issues as much as ethnic and cultural ones. Especially in the late 19th and early 20th century, the growing presence of the Catholic church in America induced Protestants into fears that the papacy would soon be in control of the levers of democratic governance in America. These fears persisted until at least the 1960s, as it became a prominent talking point for those opposed to the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic president.
Throughout these episodes of American history, a thread runs through: American Christians were anything but united, and certainly not united in setting a single cultural tone for the country. American Christianity has been marked by denominational and doctrinal divisions since the start, to say nothing of cultural and political ones that invariably seeped into churches. As Kee et al. write, “If in government the United States went ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (from one many), in religion is began with many and went to more. The idea of the U.S. as simply a Christian nation falters greatly in light of the history of disunity in American Christianity.
The final question, has Christianity made America a force for good in the world, puts a sharp point on the question of whether or not the U.S. is a Christian nation. In fact, a variety of episodes in American history should make those who proclaim to follow the words and example of Jesus Christ and his message of love want to disassociate the faith with the U.S. For instance, the already-cited example of slavery is a culture-defining institution in American history that is surely as un-Christian as any can be, despite the best efforts of antebellum southern clergy to associate the two. American history is in accordance with the history of any imperial nation, and is thus full of moments of violence, imperialism, war, injustice and human suffering. Whether one looks to the continued legacy of racism, the propensity for the U.S. to initiate preemptive wars and military actions overseas that result in the suffering and deaths of millions of innocents, or the nation’s addiction to guns and violence in the culture, there are a variety of episodes that disprove any notion of the U.S. as Christian in the sense of Jesus (although it could certainly be said to perfectly embody Constantinian Christianity.)
This is not to discount the many good aspects of the U.S., or the variety of positive moments and influences it has had. The U.S. has long been the leading voice for democracy and liberty in the world, if not always in action, at least in word. It has been a leading pioneer in medical advances and the eradication of a variety of diseases around the world, in addition to raising the level of wealth in the world to unprecedented levels (even if that wealth has often failed to trickle down to the world’s neediest.) None of this is deniable, but neither is any of it explicitly Christian, or uniquely rooted in the Christian witness. America did not become a beacon for democracy because of Scripture; instead, democracy in America arose from Enlightenment ideals, many of them rooted in secularism. The rise of technology and improvement of living conditions around the world as a result of innovation are certainly in line with Christian social thinking, but the impetus for this achievement in America was the capitalist ethic, an institution that, despite its great achievements, has also proved itself extremely limited in bringing about just outcomes for the majority of world citizens. Christianity is about more than positive social outcomes, even if some on the far Christian left have reduced it to just that. As Dr. Richard Beck has pointed out, “Cruciform, self-donating love is way, way more than liberal tolerance.”
So, is the U.S. a Christian nation? In the wake of our critical look at the four important questions that make up this query, the answer is still not firmly yes or no. Institutionally, in the sense of establishment, the question is easily no. America was not founded as a Christian nation. Our founders were not writing from a place of Christian witness when they formed our civic sphere. Christians in the U.S. have a long history of disunity and the inability to agree on almost anything, making their ability to claim the U.S. as just Christian nonsensical, just as much as calling it a “Baptist nation” or a “Presbyterian nation” would be.
On the other hand, there is no denying the dominant role Christianity, in its broadest sense, has shaped American culture, both for good and bad. Christians of all different stripes have played central roles in American history, and many have tried to impose their worldview on the nation as a whole. Luckily for us, they failed, but not for a lack of trying. Especially when it comes to the worst instincts of many Christians with regards to worldly power, it is easy to see the influence in the political sphere. America is not a Christian nation, but it has long been gripped by a dominant Judeo-Christian culture, one that is slowly being loosened, against the ardent efforts of those who still insist we are, and always have been, distinctly and solely Christian.