It is a rather common perception that the United States of America is a "Christian Nation". Whether someone is a Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, or Anglican, they often believe that their denomination had a major, fundamental influence on our Founding Fathers and the establishment of the United States. Whether they were Christians or deists, the truth is that many of our founding fathers held some sort of religious belief. A deist is someone who holds the belief that reason and observation of the natural world can lead to the determination of a creator59. The creator built the universe but does not generally intervene in human affairs. A deist does not believe in the need for organized religion. Deism became prominent during the 17th and 18th centuries among those raised as Christians, but who couldn't logically believe in miracles, the innate "truth" of the Bible, and the concept of the Holy Trinity. Deists from that time period believed in a God but did not put their faith in the infallible word of the Bible. The people who tend to use the term "Christian Nation" do so under the auspices that Christianity is not just the largest makeup of our citizens, but that the country itself was founded by and for Christians. Here's where I take issue.
Instead of rhetoric, I'd like to look at real actions. There's merit in the cliche that actions speak louder than words. I'd also like to debunk some of the common myths that many Christian revisionists try to spread. Before we dial back our clocks and take a look at the initial history of our country, let's deal with some of the common misconceptions that the religiously-motivated often pontificate today to support their notion of a Christian Nation. During the many discussions I've had with Christians, they always offer up such things as our currency as proof that we're a Christian Nation. "In God We Trust" is on our coins and dollar bills. It's true. It's absolutely true. Look at the back of a twenty dollar bill and you will see those words. I can't argue that. What I can and will argue, and what these people never seem to recognize is that those words weren't always there. Those words began appearing on coins in 1864 and on paper dollars in 1957. For those who like to credit our Founding Fathers for establishing this Christian Nation, that's an awful long time after their deaths to support such "evidence".
I don't expect those words to be on there forever, however they will remain there for the time being. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling that said:
"It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency 'In God We Trust' has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise."
While Christian revisionists often assume that the words "In God We Trust" have always existed on our currency, they're incorrect. Even though the courts have said that it does not indicate that the government sponsors this for anything more than "patriotic or ceremonial character", our Founding Fathers did not intend to have this on our currency. If they did, they would have put it on there in the first place. All evidence to the contrary.
Another misconception offered up by Christian Revisionists deals with the Pledge of Allegiance. Perhaps you've seen the email forwards or heard someone make reference to it as part of their Christian Nation support. When Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge in 1892, it read
"I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all."
It went through 4 changes since Bellamy originally wrote it. In 1954, 62 years after he originally wrote it and 23 years after his death, Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge as a way to differentiate the United States from the concept of communist state atheism60. Just like our currency, the reference to God was not originally intended to be there. If Bellamy wanted a religious reference included in the Pledge, he could have put it there. All evidence to the contrary.
For many people who lay claim to the title of Christian Nation, they often forget about the world that our Founding Fathers lived in. They had fled England where the power of the government was derived from God, not the people. That is a pretty inconvenient fact for many Christian revisionists, but it's important to keep that in mind as a backdrop when discussing this topic. If we consider the actions of our Founding Fathers within the context of the world that they lived in, it becomes easier to understand why they did (or didn't) do certain things.
One would assume that if we were a Christian Nation, the Constitution should provide ample evidence to support such an assumption. The Constitution is perhaps the single most important document in our country's history. It is the underlying foundation for the rules that we as a society live by. Let's test this assumption. Do me a favor and put this book down for a few minutes. I'd like you to go to a computer and go online to the Internet. Do a search for "full text US Constitution". Google provided me with more than 59 million results, but we only need one. Take your pick and look for the words "God", "Jesus", "Christianity", "Divine", "Creator", or "Bible" within our Constitution. Take your time. I'll be here when you return.
Back already? Good. How many instances did you find of those words in our Constitution? None? Really? Perhaps you should read it again, because surely if we are a Christian Nation, our Founding Fathers should have included at least some of those words. How can we be a Christian Nation without any mention of Christ?
Article 6, section 3 refers to "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." This means that religion cannot be used as a condition for public office, which provides equal opportunity for those with faith and those without. We have even seen early state constitutions like those in Delaware (1776), South Carolina (1778), and Georgia (1777) where religious belief was a defined requirement for public office and many explicitly required the person to be a Protestant. Each of these would be repealed. If our founders wanted a Christian Nation, wouldn't it be in our best interest to make sure that our public leaders were Christians? Why would the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions explicitly ban Christian (or any religious) beliefs as a potential requirement? This seems detrimental to the belief that we were intended to be a Christian nation.
You'll also notice religion mentioned in the First Amendment where it clearly prohibits the government from adopting any religion as its own, nor can it promote one over the other. It cannot dictate what religion its citizens must adhere to. Citizens were able to choose for themselves. The First Amendment prevents us from elevating Christianity over any other religion. The Founding Fathers could have very easily made us an official Christian Nation if they wanted to. All evidence to the contrary.
Let's look at the Declaration of Independence. While it isn't a governing document like the Constitution, it is still a historical document of incredible importance. The Declaration of Independence was used to make a moral case as to why the colonies were severing their ties to England. The Declaration makes reference to "Nature's God" and the "Creator", but before you jump to any conclusions, consider the time period that our Founding Fathers were in and the term "deist" that I defined earlier. "Nature's God" and "Creator" were synonymous with deism and not specifically Christianity. What would prevent any other faith from claiming that "Nature's God" and "Creator" weren't references to their God? The Founding Fathers never once mention "Jesus Christ" or "Christ our Savior". It seems to me that if one wants to make a case for a "Christian Nation", one should find exclusive reference to Christ, or at least one reference to Christ at a minimum. All evidence to the contrary.
Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was a deist and any attempt to portray him as anything but is both wrong and insulting to the man's honor. Jefferson did not believe in any of the miracles of Jesus Christ, nor did he believe that Jesus was the son of God. He thought very highly of the moral teachings of Jesus which is why he took a razor, cut and pasted selected verses from the Bible, and created his own book called the The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Today we commonly refer to it as The Jefferson Bible and you can go online and purchase a copy of it yourself. You will not find any references to angels, prophecies, miracles, the Holy Trinity, or Jesus' divinity. In a letter to John Adams in 1813, he referred to these things as "nonsense". The book ends with Jesus dead in a tomb sealed with a great stone. No resurrection. Imagine the will, effort, and time it took for a man to painstakingly remove all of the "nonsense" from the New Testament. For a man who didn't believe in Jesus' divinity, why would anyone think that he was referring to Jesus Christ when he wrote the words "Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence? If Jefferson wanted to reference Jesus in the Declaration, he could have written "Christ", "Jesus Christ", or "Christ our Lord" instead of the more generic, deistic God. All evidence to the contrary.
So if the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence never make any type of reference to us being a Christian Nation, surely there must be some other evidence to support such a conclusion, right? The Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated during the presidency of George Washington and signed by President John Adams was very explicit about America and religion.
There's nothing to try and interpret here. It is very clear that we are NOT a nation founded on the Christian religion. The official treaty was read aloud on the Senate floor. Copies were given to every Senator. When the vote was taken to ratify the treaty, it was unanimous. Let me highlight that last part. When given the opportunity to vote on the treaty, not a single Senator voted "no". It was ratified unanimously. Our early government could have removed the reference to our lack of Christian foundation if they wanted to. If we were truly a Christian Nation, they would have said so. All evidence to the contrary.
It is not my intention to persuade anyone that religion, and Christianity in particular, hasn't played a role in our country and its development. I gladly offer that it has and it continues to do so to this day. President Harry Truman once wrote "This is a Christian Nation" in a letter to Pope Pius XII. Woodrow Wilson has made similar comments. We can find Supreme Court opinions that make reference to Christian values. Many of our Founding Fathers were Christians, but I have to ask, if they didn't see fit to officially make us a Christian Nation, why are we trying to rewrite history against their intentions? If they wanted us to be a Christian Nation, they could have easily done so. All evidence to the contrary.
Let's review where we're at. The Constitution makes no reference to Christianity or religion in general, except in exclusionary terms. The Declaration of Independence, written by one of the most influential people in the founding of our country who did not believe in Jesus' divinity, makes no reference to Christianity, but instead to a more generic "Nature's God". One of our earliest official treaties explicitly states that we are not in any way a Christian Nation. We do not find "Jesus", "Jesus Christ", or "Christ" in any of those works, which makes it awfully difficult to put the "Christian" label on any of them. None of these items are debatable. Christians can research and verify every example I've provided for themselves and I would encourage them to do so. So what else is there?
Christians not satisfied with the above information often resort to "Christian values". They will often argue that our founders, while not explicitly endorsing Christianity, used Christian morals as the underpinnings of our country. Harry Truman once said "The fundamental basis of this nation's laws was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings we get from Exodus and Saint Matthew, from Isaiah and Saint Paul."
I take no joy in disparaging a great American like Harry Truman, but our country would be a hotbed of intolerance and hatred if indeed he was even remotely correct. If someone wants to claim, as Truman did, that our laws were based upon Christian values, what values exactly are we talking about? President Truman made reference to Moses and the Book of Exodus. These references come from the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is very different from the God of the New Testament. The Old Testament God is capricious, petty, mean, jealous, and vengeful. He watches with indifference as people are murdered, enslaved, and raped. He himself is responsible for the murder of many! Jesus in the New Testament is quite the opposite. He's for the most part very loving, caring, and peaceful. If President Truman is to be believed, our Christian values would be associated with slavery, murder, and rape. If we overlook his Old Testament references and choose to base our definition of "Christian values" on the teachings of Jesus Christ instead, I think we would find more universally-accepted "values".
Using the New Testament as our basis for Christian values, we can use the following traits61 to help us identify the principles of Christianity and their relation to the notion of a Christian Nation.
1. -- Love of God --
"You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind"
2. -- Fidelity in Marriage --
"Whom God has joined together let no man put asunder"
3. -- Renunciation of Worldly Goods --
"Gather not your riches up upon this earth, for there your heart will be also"
4. -- Renunciation of Violence --
"If a man strikes you on one cheek, turn the other cheek"
5. -- Forgiveness of Sins --
"Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us"
6. -- Unconditional Love --
"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"
I'm confident that if I presented the list above to any Christian, they would universally agree that these are all qualities that describe "Christian values". I could even add broader qualities like love, family, charity, honor, and kindness. All of these seem logical in relation to Jesus' teachings.
In order to make the claim that these are Christian values used as the basis for a Christian Nation, these qualities need to be unique to Christianity, otherwise why bother with the "Christian" label? In that respect, we better not find any of these qualities in any non-Christian society or else they can't be claimed exclusively by Christianity.
Unfortunately, the values represented here are present in human societies throughout the course of history. Not a single one of them is unique to Christianity.
* "Love of God" is not unique to Christianity. Every religion with a deity lays claim to this one.
* "Fidelity in Marriage" is not unique to Christianity. Roman law was very strict on adultery. Adultery is a major violation of the Islamic marital contract and considered a sin condemned by God himself. Both Buddhism and Jainism clearly forbid it.
* "Renunciation of Worldly Goods" is not unique to Christianity and seems to contradict the capitalist society that the United States has become, doesn't it? How many Christian Americans, or more specifically Founding Fathers, can we name who have given up all of their worldly possessions? The concept doesn't belong solely to Christianity. The Qur'an says "Such are the possessions of this world's life; but in nearness to Allah is the best of the goals." (Surah Aali-'Imran: 14) The Prophet Muhammad once said, "What have I to do with worldly things? My connection with the world is like that of a traveler resting for a while underneath the shade of a tree and then moving on." Renunciation of worldly goods is the true mark of Hinduism and is the most direct way to find moksha (liberation).
* "Renunciation of Violence" is not unique to Christianity. One cannot read the news and give serious consideration to that value, particularly when it's used to support the founding of a nation that currently spends almost half of the world's military expenditures. The United States currently spends more on its military than the next closest 15 countries combined. Renunciation of violence can be found in Jainism and Hinduism as well. In Jainism, Acaranga Sutra 4.25-26 tells us "One should not injure, subjugate, enslave, torture, or kill any animal, living being, organism, or sentient being. This doctrine of nonviolence is immaculate, immutable, and eternal. Just as suffering is painful to you, in the same way it is painful, disquieting, and terrifying to all animals, living beings, organisms, and sentient beings." Imagine if Christianity actually operated like this!
* "Forgiveness of Sins" isn't unique to Christianity either. Hindus and Buddhists regularly preach this concept. Examples of the Prophet Muhammad's forgiveness can be found in the Hadith.
* "Unconditional Love" is not unique to Christianity nor was it a tactic used by our Founding Fathers. In Islam, unconditional love forms the basis for all morality. Unconditional love can also be found in Sikhism, Confucianism, Jainism, Taoism, and Buddhism.
* Finally, if using the generic concepts of love, family, charity, honor, and kindness, which of these are strictly Christian?
I would propose that none of the universally-accepted qualities that we associate with Christian values are uniquely Christian. In fact, the only thing that is unique to Christianity is the story vicarious redemption, but this is in direct conflict with both the founding of and the current existence of the United States. If I commit a crime as a US citizen today, my children and their future children bear no responsibility for my crime. The responsibility is mine. In Christianity, Jesus plays the role of scapegoat taking away the sins of his followers. In the United States, we are all held accountable for our actions. If I commit a crime today, someone else isn't responsible for paying my debt. There are no scapegoats. The responsibility is mine. Ultimately, there is no accountability in Christianity so I fail to see how the only real quality that is absolutely unique to Christianity has anything at all to do with a "Christian" nation.
The evidence would suggest that our Founding Fathers were clearly against the notion of a "Christian Nation", instead intending for our government to maintain a neutral position in this matter. The simple, non-debatable fact is that the United States is a democracy and not a theocracy. We are a secular country by choice with absolutely no room for divine authority. The people are the authority - not God. If someone truly wanted to live under a government that is based upon religious text, they always have the option to move to Iran or Saudi Arabia. Those countries truly do operate upon religious texts. One need only look at the case of Raif Badawi, the editor of a Saudi Arabian website critical of the role that religion plays in that country, who was cited in 2012 for blasphemy and apostasy which carries an automatic death sentence if convicted to realize the dangers of infusing government with religion. Imagine if a United States citizen could be put to death for the simple "crime" of changing religions. That is clearly not something that our Founding Fathers ever wished for us.
If our Founding Fathers did not call us a Christian Nation, and if the principles that we'd like to believe we were founded upon are not uniquely Christian, by what basis can anyone logically conclude that we are a Christian Nation? What other criteria exists that would overwhelmingly refute the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the Treaty of Tripoli? Once all of the rhetoric subsides and someone has given ample consideration to all of the facts, it becomes pretty clear that the United States was not based upon the values of any one specific religion. Our country is often referred to as a "melting pot". Our Founding Fathers were brilliant and made sure that there would be room for every religion, or even no religion at all. The basic concept for our country's founding had nothing to do with submitting oneself to God. The basic concept for our country's founding is that our citizens were capable of governing themselves. Throughout history, and with special focus on the Catholic Church, this type of openness and freedom of religion would have often been met with prejudicial intolerance.
It seems to me that we can't have Christianity without Jesus Christ, and considering the lack of references to Jesus Christ in our official foundation, it's hard to tie the two of them together without making an absurd number of assumptions and conjectures. There is simply no logical argument that can withstand the scrutiny in justifying the United States of America as a purely Christian Nation. The sad fact of the matter is that many Christians would have us believe that elevating Christianity is what our Founding Fathers wanted, and those who don't know the difference buy into it. If our Founding Fathers wanted us to be a Christian Nation, they could have created our country that way. All evidence to the contrary.