As perhaps the loneliest Christmas in living memory approaches for many, the whole “War on Christmas” seems to be rather muted given all the hubbub surrounding Biden’s upcoming inauguration and Trump’s continuing truculence on the election results and of course the depressing reality I mentioned. Given that this time of the year is upon us, I am covering a topic I have been keen to discuss, and that is the relationship of America and Christianity. Particularly the question, is America a Christian nation? Some groups and people have answers for this question:
Americans United for Separation of Church and State holds, “The U.S. Constitution is a wholly secular document. It contains no mention of Christianity or Jesus Christ. In fact, the Constitution refers to religion only twice in the First Amendment, which bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, and in Article VI, which prohibits “religious tests” for public office. Both of these provisions are evidence that the country was not founded as officially Christian” (Americans United for Separation of Church and State).
The 1517 blog, which is explicitly Christian, states, “A person, not a nation, can be a Christian because only a person can be saved by grace through faith in the work of Christ” (Voorhis).
Professor Mark David Hall (2011), writing for The Heritage Foundation, holds, “Christian ideas underlie some key tenets of America’s constitutional order. For instance, the Founders believed that humans are created in the image of God, which led them to design institutions and laws meant to protect and promote human dignity. Because they were convinced that humans are sinful, they attempted to avoid the concentration of power by framing a national government with carefully enumerated powers. As well, the Founders were committed to liberty, but they never imagined that provisions of the Bill of Rights would be used to protect licentiousness. And they clearly thought moral considerations should inform legislation”.
It is also important for us to think about what this question means. Does it mean that the United States was founded on Christian principles and should thus morally operate on said principles? Does it mean that the people of the United States are Christian? Does it mean national customs and traditions are Christian? Additionally, we must consider how much value this has in an increasingly pluralistic society.
Some pieces of evidence have been accumulated for the “yes” and “no” position here. These are, starting with the “yes” position:
People v. Ruggles (1811) (New York State Supreme Court Decision) states, “the people this state, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity, the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity” (Barka).
Updegraph v. Commonwealth (1824) (Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Decision) states, “Christianity, general Christianity, is, and has been, a part of the Common Law of Pennsylvania…” (Barka)
Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer declared in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (1892) that America was a “Christian nation”. In 1905, he published The United States: A Christian Nation, a series of lectures which used historical examples and official references to Christianity, but held that the United States wasn’t a Christian nation in the sense that it had an official religion or that the government pushes people to be Christian.
Article I, Section VII of the Constitution reads, “If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law” (Barka).
Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland stated in United States v. Macintosh (1931), “We are a Christian people, according to one another the equal right of religious freedom, and acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God” (Barka). The central finding of this decision was overturned in 1946, but there was no comment on this sentence.
As for the “no” position:
The 1797 treaty with Tripoli states that the United States “is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion”.
Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists includes this sentence: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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 prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State” (Jefferson).
Opponents of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution condemned it as a “godless” document, as it lacked and still lacks reference to God.
Certain important Founding Fathers were Deists, as opposed to Christians, and the way others practiced religion wouldn’t be recognized today.
A few words on some of the evidence presented:
The Jefferson letter is widely considered one of the most powerful pieces of evidence for the notion of a strict secularist approach to government. This letter has been cited in over 50 Supreme Court cases, and in Reynolds v. United States (1878) the Supreme Court declared the “wall of separation” was “almost an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect” of the Establishment Clause. However, there are those in the legal community who have argued that this letter has been misused to further a secularist agenda, including the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Potter Stewart. Additional controversy on the matter came when in 1998 the Library of Congress released an analysis of the letter by James H. Hutson, chief of the library’s manuscript division, which stated, ”The Danbury Baptist Letter was never conceived by Jefferson to be a statement of fundamental principles; it was meant to be a political manifesto, nothing more” (Goodstein).
The judicial decisions can be said to be opining on the state of the American people and possibly the motives of the Founders themselves, but not necessarily holding that the United States is in any legal sense a Christian nation.
The Tripoli treaty seems quite good as a legal document but the language can also be interpreted as diplomatic language to ensure the Muslim nation of Tripoli that religious differences are of no relevance.
For the “Sundays Excepted” provision, why mention Sundays excepted unless regarded as an exceptional day? Sunday is of course the Christian day of rest, and at the time there were numerous laws prohibiting travel and business transactions among states and towns in the young nation. While it can be said that the reason for such laws existing and Sunday thought of as a day of rest is based in widespread Christian belief and practice, the provision in the Constitution is an acknowledgment of society as it existed then. The colonists of the young United States were approximately 98% Protestant, with most of the remainder being Catholics (Hall, 2011). Thus, those who would be thought of as citizens of the United States were almost entirely Christian. The cultural traditions and customs that exist are also based in Christianity. That Easter and Christmas are recognized as public holidays is evidence of the Christian heritage of the United States, but the “Sundays Excepted” provision does not indicate any more than an accommodation of common legal and business practices. There in fact are better things in the Constitution to cite if one is looking for Christian influence. For instance, the Founders’ negative views on human nature influenced the “checks and balances” structure of American Constitutional government, which is itself influenced by the Bible. In Federalist No. 51, James Madison wrote “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external or internal controls on government would be necessary” (Hall, 2011).
What is to be said here? America is and isn’t a Christian nation. America is not a Christian nation in the sense that Christianity is an established religion, the government compels people to practice Christianity, or that the Constitution favors Christianity over other religions and that this was the intent of the Founders. It is a Christian nation in the common morality, culture, and traditions of its people. It can also be said that Christian belief influenced the founding of the United States as it heavily influenced the Founders’ mistrust of human nature (hence separation of powers and checks and balances) and that few of them were as unorthodox as Jefferson and Franklin in their beliefs. As Professor Hall (2011) writes, “These individuals, without exception, called themselves Christians, and a good case can be made that many were influenced by orthodox Christian ideas in important ways”.
This argument is made as well in broad strokes by Barry Alan Shain in The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought. It also receives interesting empirical support from Donald Lutz, who examined 15,000 pamphlets, articles, and books on political subjects published in the late 18th century. His study found that the Bible was cited far more often than any other book, article, or pamphlet. In fact, the Founders referenced the Bible more than all Enlightenment authors combined” (Hall). Additionally, Thomas Jefferson himself stated on religion, “Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious disciple, has been delegated to the General [i.e., federal] Government. It must then rest with the States, as far as it can be in any human authority” (Hall). However, this may not mean agreement with the notion that America’s founding had inspiration in Christianity. As historian John Fea writes, “Just because John Adams and George Washington quoted from the Bible or made reference to God does not mean that they were trying to construct a Christian nation. Granted, the Founding Fathers were the products of a Christian culture, but most of them were never comfortable with the beliefs that defined this culture. Very few of them would qualify for membership in today’s evangelical churches” (Fea).
Even with the affirmative answer common morality, culture, and tradition it is less so than it used to be. America is considerably less Christian than when Justice Brewer wrote about America being a Christian nation over 100 years ago and far less than at the time the Constitution was ratified. Demographically, 65% of Americans today are Christian if the definition applies to Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons. 26% are unaffiliated, 2% are Jews, and 1% each are Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Robert Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State goes as far as to say about the 19th century, “the unpleasant truth is that nineteenth-century America was a mild form of Protestant theocracy. In this period, Protestantism was America’s de facto established religion” (Barka).
American Christians are painfully aware of the decline in belief, and the challenge presented for them is not the single digit percent populations of other religions rather the whopping 26% of those who don’t identify with a faith. While the umbrella known as Christianity is still the majority, the second largest group is the unaffiliated, which means atheism, agnosticism, or some belief in a higher power independent of religion has a significant minority…they even outnumber Catholics. These people are more likely to go for a “freedom from religion” as opposed to a “religious freedom” perspective and support a strict secularism based on an expansive interpretation of the “wall of separation” in Jefferson’s letter. The American people of today are dealing with a document and traditions that come from a time in which the country was extremely Protestant, so we must consider how a more plural nation ought to address the country’s Christian heritage.
Barka, M.B. (2011). The Christian Nation Debate and the U.S. Supreme Court. European journal of American studies, 6(2).
Fea, J. Is America a Christian Nation? What Both Left and Right Get Wrong. History News Network.
Goodstein, L. (1998, September 10). Fresh Debate on 1802 Jefferson Letter. The New York Times.
Hall, M.D. (2011, June 7). Did America Have a Christian Founding? Heritage Foundation.
Is America A Christian Nation? Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Jefferson, T. (1802, January 1). Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists. Library of Congress.
Voorhis, D.V. (2019, August 14). Is America A Christian Nation? 1517.