The United States as a Christian nation
|I fought the law|
and the law won
“”Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance.
|—A favorite Bible passage (Psalm 33:12) among Christian nationalists:25|
American wingnuts and figures on the Religious Right commonly assert that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. This theory does not simply reference that the majority of Americans were (and many still are) Christians (albeit of a rather large variety of denominations), but claims as a corollary that 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.
Christian nationalists were active at the time of the founding of the United States, but in contrast to contemporary Christian nationalists, those of the mid-1800s and earlier believed that the US Constitution was an abomination because it lacked any mention of Jesus Christ rather than a Christianity-affirming document as modern Christian nationalists would try to have people believe. In 1789, the same year that the Constitution came into effect, George Washington received a message from Christian clergy that complained:
In 1793 pastor John M. Mason preached that the US would be punished by God for not having a Christian constitution.:123 When Thomas Jefferson, co-author of the Declaration of Independence, became president in 1800, he was accused of atheism and of being an infidel by Christian nationalist and Presbyterian William Lynn:
“”“Should the infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set in our holy religion, our churches will be prostrated, and some infamous prostitute, under the title of Goddess of Reason, will preside in the Sanctuaries now devoted to the worship of Most High.
“”The oath of the President of the United States [as embodied in the Constitution] could as well be taken by a Pagan or a Mohammedan, as by the Chief Magistrate of a Christian people; it excludes the name of the Supreme Being. Indeed, it is negatively atheistical for no God is appealed to at all. In framing many of our public formularies, greater care seems to have been taken to adapt them to the prejudices of the infidel few, than to the consciences of the Christian millions.
It was not until the 1840s when a few Christian nationalists began to claim that the Constitution was designed to perpetuate Christianity and that Washington and Jefferson were actually Christians rather than the deists whom they actually were. This remained an unpopular view among Christian nationalists for long afterward however. In 1864, ministers from 11 Christian denominations created the National Reform Association. The purpose of the Association was:
“”To secure such an amendment to the Constitution of the United States as well declare the nation’s allegiance to Jesus Christ and its acceptance of the moral laws of the Christian religion, and so indicate that this is a Christian nation.
Updated versions of the Christian nation amendment were proposed in Congress in 1961, 1963, and 1965, but never went very far. So after more than 170 years, Christian nationalists changed their tune from the US should be a Christian nation to the US already is a Christian nation despite failure to get their Constitutional amendment passed.
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: get rich quick.
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 in 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
“”For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
|—George Washington, August 17, 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island|
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.
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 an 1831 sermon:
The founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels, and that of the presidents who had thus far been elected [George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson] not a one had professed a belief in Christianity.
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.:561 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 the 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 occur 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 the 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.:242
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, which is utter bullshit. They then use this to argue in favor of secession to establish the South as a separate
dominionist Christian nation.
- Conspiratorial views of the 2021 U.S. Capitol riot
- Opposition to safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Opposition to any gun control measures
- Anti-vaccination movement
- Support for Donald Trump
- Support for anti-immigration policies
- Support for traditional gender roles
- Opposition to same-sex marriage and transgender rights
- Antipathy towards democracy and voting rights (especially for women and minorities)
- Alt-right & white supremacist beliefs
- Strong support for the NRA & backing the Blue when it fits their agenda
- Opposition to pornography & support for the War on Drugs
- Anti-Left wing sentiment
- Enforcement of Christian beliefs in education
- Opposition to abortion
- Ed Brayton, The Other Fundamentalist Perspective, part 1, 2, 3, 4
- The Myth of a Christian Nation, Charlie Rose interview with Pastor Gregory Boyd
- Rodda, Chris, Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American history. Volume 1 (2006) BookSurge Publishing. ISBN 1419644386.
- Rodda, Chris, Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American history. Volume 2 (2016) CreateSpace. ISBN 1523284137.
- Rodda, Chris, Liar For Jesus… And Guns: A Debunking of David Barton’s book on the Second Amendment (2019) self-published. ISBN 1087406757.
- Sehat, David, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (2015) Oxford University Press. ISBN 0190247215.
- We will let the reader decide whether such a development would be a bad thing.
- Attack on The Capitol: Evidence of the Role of White Christian Nationalism by Andrew L. Seidel (2022) Christians Against Christian Nationalism. Pages 25-40.
- Plunging Down The Rabbit Hole: Over The Years, Christian Nationalists Have Been Responsible For The Spread Of Some Rather Strange Ideas by Rob Boston (Apr 29, 2022) Church & State (Americans United for Separation of Church and State).
- Occasional Sermons, and Reviews and Essays by James Floy (1866) Carlton & Porter,.
- Separating Church and State: A History by Steven K. Green (2022) Cornell University Press. ISBN 1501762060.
- Proceedings of the National Convention to Secure the Religious Amendment of the Constitution of the United States by (1874) Christian Statesman Association.
- The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution by Christopher Hill (1972) Temple Smith. ISBN 0851170250.
- The Politics of Liberty in England and Revolutionary America by Lee Ward (2004) Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521179637.
- To Bigotry No Sanction, To Persecution No Assistance by George Washington, letter to Moses Seixas, August 17, 1790 (Today in History — August 17) The Library of Congress.
- Let's look at what some of the Founders wrote by ldguy (Sep 29, 2008) Opposing Views (archived from 7 Jul 2013 14:07:45 UTC).
- Citizens for Better Government: Was the United States founded as a Christian Nation? by Tex Browning (May 1, 2003) Citizens for Better Government.
- Let’s Look at What Some of the Founders Wrote by ldguy (Sep 29, 2008) Opposing Viewpoints (archived from 7 Jul 2013 14:08:10 UTC).
- Secular Web: The Cristian Nation Myth by Farrell Till, The Secular Web.
- Six Historic Americans by John Remsberg (1906) The Secular Web.
- Imagining the American Jewish community by Jack Wertheimer (2007) University Press of New England. ISBN 1584656700.
- Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History by Edward E. Curtis IV (2010) Facts on File. ISBN 0816075751.
- Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport by George Washington (August 21, 1790) Teaching American History.
- Amendment I (Religion): Document 64 by James Madison (c. 1817) University of Chicago Press.
- James Madison's July 14, 1826 letter to George Mason quoted in "Freedom of Religious Opinion" (November 18, 1826) Niles' Register, Volume 31, Page 189.
- The Rewriting of America’s History by Catherine Millard (1991) Christian Publications. ISBN 0889650926.
- James Madison – Father of the U.S. Constitution (Excerpted from, The Rewriting of America’s History) by Catherine Millard (1991) excerpted by Christian Heritage News.
- Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary Annals of Congress, 5th Congress (archived from August 17, 2003).
- Does the 1796-97 Treaty with Tripoli Matter to Church/State Separation? by Ed Buckner (1997) The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive (archived from February 13, 2006).
- Millennialism and Social Theory by Gary North (1990) Institute for Christian Economics. ISBN 0930464494. Archived from March 6, 2016.
- The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South by Edward H. Sebesta & Euan Hague (2003) Canadian Review of American Studies 32(3):253-284. Reprinted in Theocracy Watch.
- Christian nationalism and the January 6, 2021 Insurrection Section I: What Is Christian Nationalism by Andrew Whitehead & Samuel Perry (2022) Christians Against Christian Nationalism. Pages 1-3.