One last Fourth of July thought: Are we a "Christian" nation?

Besides our current President, the other factor that has done perhaps the most to drive me from the Republican Party over the last decade has been its falling under the sway of Christian fundamentalists who want to impose their view of morality, religion, and Christianity on the nation as law. Of course, our current President is simply the culmination of nearly three decades of the party's courting them and using them to attain power, and now moderate Republicans are shocked--shocked, I say--to find out that these folks mean what they say when they assert that God claimed the U.S. over 200 years before the Declaration of Independence and that our government should "submit" to an "absolute authority," namely God, in how it governs. They base these claims, of course, on the concept that the U.S. was founded as a "Christian nation."

But are we?

While it is true that the vast majority of the people in this country are Christian, it does not follow from that that we were founded as a "Christian nation." There is, of course, no doubt that religion, and in particular various flavors of Christianity (mostly Protestant), were very important in the history of the U.S. No one can argue that they weren't. However, this nation was formed specifically as a secular nation, because our Founding Fathers were acutely aware of how freedom is trampled when the power of government is fused with the power of the Church, as it was in so many nations in Europe at the time, including England. As Thomas Jefferson put it:

The legitimate powers of government extend only to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.


Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only. Had not the Roman government permitted free enquiry, Christianity could never have been introduced. Had not free enquiry been indulged, at the era of the reformation, the corruptions of Christianity could not have been purged away. If it be restrained now, the present corruptions will be protected, and new ones encouraged.


Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves. But every state, says an inquisitor, has established some religion. No two, say I, have established the same. Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments? Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all. The experiment was new and doubtful when they made it. It has answered beyond conception. They flourish infinitely. Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all sufficient to preserve peace and order: or if a sect arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it. They do not hang more malefactors than we do. They are not more disturbed with religious dissensions. On the contrary, their harmony is unparalleled, and can be ascribed to nothing but their unbounded tolerance, because there is no other circumstance in which they differ from every nation on earth. They have made the happy discovery, that the way to silence religious disputes, is to take no notice of them. Let us too give this experiment fair play, and get rid, while we may, of those tyrannical laws.

Can you imagine any political candidate writing something like this today and actually getting elected to high office?

What Jefferson understood then, but that the Christian right seems not to understand now, is that religion flourishes when the state stays out of it. Indeed, if you read the U.S. Constitution, the law upon which all other laws and our government are based, you will find that neither God, the Trinity, nor Jesus is mentioned, not even once. The government's legitimate power derives from "We The People," not God. What you will find is this:

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.

Sadly, although it's in the Constitution, in practice, this is not entirely true; it's unlikely that a Muslim, Buddhist, or an atheist will be elected to the Presidency in my lifetimeand only marginally more likely that a Jew could be elected. Indeed, it was only 46 years ago that the first Catholic President was elected, even though a significant fraction of the U.S. population was and is Catholic. Even then, there were dire intimations among John F. Kennedy's opponents that he would be beholden more to the Pope than to the best interests of the U.S., forcing him to state that he most definitely would not be.

And, of course, in the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment reads:

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 press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

So, on this Independence Day, we should remember that, although the citizens of our nation are overwhelmingly Christian, the government was intentionally not formed as a "Christian nation." Rather, in order to try to prevent the horrific tyranny that had resulted from the unholy alliance of church and state so common before the American Revolution, the government of the U.S. was intentionally designed to be secular and to show no favoritism to any religion. The United States was not founded on Christianity or on the basis of the power of God, but rather on the principles of the Enlightenment, including reason, free inquiry, and freedom of belief. We should remember that on this Fourth of July.

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The treaty of Tripoli is another great example. It was approved by President John Adams and Congress and reads, in part:

As 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 tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

Further pertinent quotes:
Rev. Doctor Wilson, in an 1831 sermon protested that it almost seemed as though God had been deliberately excluded from the origins of the new government: "... the Constitution was framed and God was neglected. He was not merely forgotten. He was absolutely voted out of the Constitution. The proceedings, as published by Thompson, the secretary, and the history of the day, show that the question was gravely debated whether God should be in the Constitution or not, and after a solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it ... There is not only in the theory of our government no recognition of God's laws and sovereignty, but its practical operation, its administration, has been conformable to its theory."
Justice Brewer (1837-1910) wrote a book in 1905 to correct the record, titled "The United States: A Christian Nation". He explains: "But in what sense can [the United States] be called a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or the people are compelled in any manner to support it. On the contrary, the Constitution specifically provides that 'congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.' Neither is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either in fact or in name Christians. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within its borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all." "...Nor is it Christian in the sense that a profession of Christianity is a condition of holding office or otherwise engaging in public service, or essential to recognition either politically or socially. In fact, the government as a legal organization is independent of all religions."

Of course this country was not founded as a Christian nation. It was the enlightenment and many of the founders were deists, a few overt or covert atheists. They were all born less than a century after the end of the English Civil War between Catholics and Protestants. Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson (Lincoln, too) did not attend church. The Adams father and son were more conventionally religious, but Unitarian in their church membership. Madison and Monroe were lukewarm Episcopalians, at best.

Christianity and the belief that the U.S. is a "Christian nation" and the strong identification of the Republican party with religion has been around longer than you or I. However, the party leadership was dominated by areligious northeastern liberal and moderate Republicans when I was a child and people like my educated midwestern parents fit in. With the conservative revolution, the moderates have been driven from the party (or converted -- Pete Wilson was a "liberal Republican" when he was mayor of San Diego, but had become a "conservative" by the time he became governor) leaving only the fundy conservatives. The religious Southern Democrats kept their religion and changed parties bringing the Southern Baptist religion along as the de facto party religion.

Interestingly, I grew up in a Republican family. My father's non-religious, business conservative family either were "born again" in the 80s and continue to identify themselves as "conservative" or saw the light and became non-religious Democrats. There are no non-religious conservatives left.

Also, it's worth pointing out that one the most prominent of the founders, Benjamin Franklin, was highly regarded in Europe as a great scientist. TJ was also a sort of gentleman scientist. There was more science firepower amongst the founders than religion. I think that we could make the claim that we are a "scientific nation" much more readily than a "Christian nation".

One of the less well known signers of the Declaration of Independence was Benjamin Rush, M.D. for whom my own medical school, Rush Medical College was named.

As has oft been said. Organized religion has less to do with religion than with power (acquiring it, keeping it, or expanding it). It's only natural. Any organization wants to expand. Most do it for benevolent reasons; for the good of the members or the benefit of an industry (AMA) or a group (NAACP). Many political organizations (Dems, GOPers) feel that their ideology is for the good of the country or just the right thing to do. But organized religion is almost unique in the righteous fervor that it instills in its members.

You are partly right when you say "religion flourishes when the state stays out of it". Yes, religion in general but to simply exist and to share power and living space with a multitude of other religions is not and has not been what the Christian religions have sought since after the fall of the Roman Empire. A religion really truly flourishes when it is officially adopted by the state. And once it becomes officially sanctioned it then tends to turn on and suppress or destroy all other competing religions/beliefs much the same way that animal species tend to kill off all rivals once they become head of the pack.

Jefferson knew this. European history in particular is chock full of examples of the official state religion using its power to suppress or kill off other belief systems. What's even worse is that when you are righteous you tend to overlook certain things like basic human rights, democratic rights, etc. So Jefferson and the other FFs knew that not only would an official state religion be a threat to freedom of religion, it would be a threat to democracy itself! It's little wonder that "freedom of religion" is the first right mentioned in the first amendment coming even before freedom of speech! I think that the FFs were more concerned with protecting a fledgling democracy than in protecting the rights of the Christian majority.

So the answer to the question, "why don't Christian theocrats understand that they are better off without an official state religion", is that they don't want to have freedom of religion. They don't want to share power. They want to be the one's in control. When you really truly know that your religion is the only true religion then "freedom of religion" is just some sort of heretical, misguided, pipe-dream.

The concern over JFK being a Catholic is always slightly amusing from a Canadian perspective given how many of our Prime Ministers came from a Catholic background, 9 of the 22.

It is actually against my state constitution (NC) for non-believers to hold any office of public trust, from governor to notary. While this clause is now ignored as being patently against the US Constitution, it still remains in the state consitution.