The United States as a Christian nation
| I fought the law|
and the law won
It is a common assertion among American wingnuts and figures on the Religious Right that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. This is not simply referencing that the majority of Americans were, and many still are, Christians (albeit of a rather large variety of denominations), but rather, the state and its institutions should openly embrace and promote Christianity and (in some cases) the Old Testament legal code (which is a terrible foundation for laws). This is, of course, a textbook example of negationism.
The English Puritans, known for coming over to New England in tiny numbers (and for being, well, puritanical), are cited as precedent in this case, as noted below. The argument is that the legal and social systems of these New England Puritans, which were indeed very theocratic and repressive, are the quintessential example of American tradition.
By this logic, of course, the U.S. should give up its sovereignty and restore British Imperial rule,[note 1] since the Puritan states were based on royal charters. Of course, the modern UK is far more liberal than many right-wing nuts would like, but that's not the point.
This also overlooks that the first successful British settlement was Jamestown (from 1607) and the purpose of that colony was much closer to the true American tradition: making loads of dough (and not the kind you use in bread — although "making lots of bread" is also an apt description of its purpose).
Not only the Puritans, but the reaction against them, are important to understanding the American Revolution; the reality is quite a bit more complicated than the "United States as a Christian nation" narrative suggests. The Puritans who did not go to America in exile mounted an ultimately successful insurgency that resulted in a Puritan victory in the English Civil War, the execution of King Charles I, and the establishment of a republican Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. The excesses of this dictatorship led to a monarchist reaction, but the result of this reaction was the firm establishment under English law of the principle of Parliamentary supremacy over the monarch, as codified in the Bill of Rights 1689 following the replacement of James II with William and Mary.
The "Whig" ideology that emerged from these events was quite influential on the debates that led to the American Revolution. They included the notion that the government was subject to its own laws, and the rejection of the divine rights of princes. They also included a deep suspicion of the kinds of religious and sectarian radicalism that they viewed as responsible for the war, the excesses of the Puritan regime, and the resulting social unrest. John Locke's Two Treatises of Government was one manifestation of this Whig ideology that influenced the American Revolution.
The Founding Fathers
Rather than address explicit constitutional provisions (which, through omission, contradict their position), American fundamentalists often like to quote-mine the Founding Fathers in order to divine their intentions and "prove" that they actually envisioned the new state as a Christian nation. They primarily target George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the first three Presidents of the United States, and claim that they were deeply devout Christians whose actions were to a large degree inspired by their faith.
This notion is patently false: Jefferson's deistic convictions are evident from his writings, and he was a high-profile critic of established Christian dogma; he even wrote his own version of the New Testament, the Jefferson Bible, expunging the Gospels of all references to the supernatural. Washington never attended communion services at his church and took great pains to refer to his god by deistic terms like "Great Author" and "Almighty Being" in his inaugural address. While Adams credited religion in general with bolstering public morality, he was personally a deist, if churchgoing, Congregationalist and later a Unitarian (yes, the kind that eventually became Unitarian Universalism), and consistently argued that the United States had been founded on rationalist and Enlightenment principles and rejected the notion of divine legitimation for political leadership.
It is also interesting that these eminent figures were heavily criticized for their lack of religious devotion in times past. Rev. Bird Wilson had this to say about them in a 1831 sermon:
As an aside, the thirteen colonies were not entirely Christian (there were about 3000 Jews at the time of the revolution), and it has been documented that 160 Jews and two Muslims fought on the side for independence. Haym Solomon, a Jew, was a personal friend of George Washington and was a key financier of the Continental Army.
A common argument is that the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was intended to mean different denominations instead of different religions, because the idea of non-Christians living in the United States would have been unthinkable at the time (George Washington's 1790 letter to the Jewish Congregation of Newport notwithstanding).
This is of course not paying attention to the fact that several of the founding fathers were deists, and the Christian ones were almost all secularists. There was generally a liberal feeling throughout the Christian establishment in the U.S. at that time. The New England Puritans had really lost their steam by that point (indeed, a great number of Congregational churches would become Unitarian over the course of the next half-century, including, as mentioned, John Adams' congregation); the Anglicans were, well, Anglicans; the Quakers were quite a liberal bunch as usual; other groups had insufficient political clout to do anything but support a completely secular state under which they would not be persecuted — and of these, the Baptists (oh, the irony!) were the most vocally in favor of absolute secularism.
There is positive documentation that mere non-sectarianism was not what was meant by "free exercise of religion." In his Detached Memoranda, James Madison recounted the following occurrence during the passage in 1786 of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was specifically intended to guarantee at the Virginia state level what the U.S. Constitution did at the federal level:
“”In the course of the opposition to the bill in the House of Delegates, which was warm & strenuous from some of the minority, an experiment was made on the reverence entertained for the name & sanctity of the Saviour, by proposing to insert the words "Jesus Christ" after the words "our lord" in the preamble, the object of which, would have been, to imply a restriction of the liberty defined in the Bill, to those professing his religion only. The amendment was discussed, and rejected by a vote of agst [against].
|—James Madison, Detached Memoranda|
In the same document, Madison opined that it was an encroachment on separation of church and state to "exempt Houses of Worship from taxes," and in response to a proposed measure to provide state support to all Christian ministers, he warned against the very concept that was being put into his mouth:
“”Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?
To showcase a prime example of how deeply the "Christian nation" mythographers stick their heads in the sand, Christine Millard, the owner of a Washington, D.C. touring outfit called "Christian Heritage Tours," actually quoted the above statement of Madison's and then, in a jaw-dropping non sequitur, concluded that Madison was talking only about freedom for Christian denominations.
Treaty of Tripoli
The most obvious falsification of this myth is the Treaty of Tripoli, a peace treaty signed with the Ottoman possession of Tripoli in 1797. Tripoli being a Muslim state, and accustomed to the hostility shown to Muslims by the established Christian states of Europe, the U.S. wanted to demonstrate that its religious policy was not of a similar sort, and so inserted the following language in the treaty:
“”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 Mussulmen.
The text of the treaty was printed on the front page of many newspapers without any sort of public outcry.
In the face of such a smoking-gun falsification, the best that the "Christian nation" mythographers have been able to do is assert that this was mere politics designed to keep the Ottomans happy and to harp on the point that the treaty no longer holds force of law, having been superseded by later treaties; the latter a neat example of moving the goalposts.
Gary North, the son-in-law of the Dominionist kook R.J. Rushdoony and a noted dominionist kook in his own right, has written against this idea as well, complaining that the U.S. Constitution, democracy, etc. was the result of an apostasy from the Calvinist Puritanism espoused by such figures as the pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony (which was responsible for such holy happenings as the Salem witch trials). In his own words:
“”Peter Leithart is correct: "Antinomian revivalism shifted the basis for social theory from the theocratic and authoritarian Puritan emphasis to a democratic one." A common-ground, religiously neutral political order became the new ideal. Thus was born the American civil religion. The pietist-humanist alliance became law.
Neo-Confederates have their own spin on this idea, which dates back to the time of the actual American Civil War. Some claim (as part of the Lost Cause of the South mythos) that the Civil War was a theological war between the heretical North and True Christian™ South. They then use this to argue in favor of secession to establish the South as a separate
dominionist Christian nation.
- Chris Rodda, a researcher with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has written extensively about attempts to recast the Founding Fathers as theocrats. Apart from her main work on the topic, Liars for Jesus, she has also published a series of videos dealing with the arguments of Glenn Beck's favorite far-right revisionist David Barton.
- Ed Brayton, The Other Fundamentalist Perspective, part 1, 2, 3, 4
- The Myth of a Christian Nation, Charlie Rose interview with Pastor Gregory Boyd
- Sehat, David. The Myth of American Religious Freedom
- We will let the reader decide whether such a development would be a bad thing.
- See generally, and e.g., Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Oxford, 1972; ISBN 0-85117-025-0)
- Lee Ward, The Politics of Liberty in England and Revolutionary America (Cambridge, 2004; ISBN 0521179637)
- Opposing Views: Let's look at what some of the Founders wrote
- Citizens for Better Government: Was the United States founded as a Christian Nation?
- Opposing Viewpoints: But wait, there's more!
- Secular Web: The Cristian Nation Myth
- John Remsberg, Six Historic Americans, via infidels.org.
- Jack Wertheimer. Imagining the American Jewish community. UPNE, 2007. ISBN 1-58465-670-0.
- Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History. https://books.google.com/books?id=owZCMZpYamMC&pg=PA561&dq=Yusuf+ben+Ali+and+Bampett+Muhamed&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Db25U_DTLLD60gWezYDwAg&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Yusuf%20ben%20Ali%20and%20Bampett%20Muhamed&f=false. Retrieved March 5, 2015.
- George Washington (August 21, 1790). "Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport". http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-to-the-hebrew-congregation-at-newport/.
- James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance
- Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary Annals of Congress, 5th Congress
- Does the 1796-97 Treaty with Tripoli Matter to Church/State Separation? by Ed Buckner, Ph.D.
- Gary North, Millennialism and Social Theory, p.242.
- Edward H. Sebesta and Euan Hague. The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South. Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 32, no. 3, 2002.