The Myth of a “Christian Nation”

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It’s one of those things that people just know because they just know: the United States was founded by and for Christians, and all others should go promptly to hell, do not pass Go. Period, no questions asked. Few beliefs are more enduring — it’s been with us for a couple of centuries or so. Few beliefs are more widespread — anywhere from roughly a third to roughly half of Americans believe it. Few beliefs are more harmful — it can lead to the legitimization of brutal oppression and persecution (remember witch hunts?), and to government policies that plunder the environment and engage in reckless foreign policy inspired  by biblical “prophecy”. And as we’ve seen all too well, it helps unscrupulous demagogues manipulate the public with affectations of piety.

Yet the irony is that few beliefs are more easily discredited.

Actually, it’s correct in a sense to say that the U.S. is, or has been, a Christian nation. It has been so by default but not by design.  Which is to say that traditionally, Christians have far outnumbered everyone else in the country’s population, and therefore have been able to get away imposing their will on everyone else and injecting their beliefs into the legislative and legal processes. This has resulted in such practices as forced school prayer, inserting “God” into the Pledge Of Allegiance, using a Bible in official oaths, and establishing ministers as officiators at weddings.

But these things are not, as the government has finally, finally, finally begun figuring out, particularly American. (They are also not particularly Christian, but that’s another story.) First, though, let’s look at the justifications people often cite for buying into the Christian Nation myth.

1. The national motto

Yes, the official national motto is “In God we trust”. But God doesn’t necessarily mean a Christian God, or even necessarily a religious God. (As we’ve discussed before, there are many concepts of just what God means). More important, a national motto has no regulatory power; it’s essentially just ornamental, like the national seal. The latter incorporates the likeness of an eagle, but that doesn’t mean we are required to own, or even like, that particular bird.

By the way, this phrase did not become the official national motto until 1956, at the behest of President Eisenhower, who also had “God” inserted into the Pledge Of Allegiance. The constitutionality of both is highly suspect. In any case, the motto of the Great Seal of the United States, which dates back to 1782, is E pluribus unum. And the spirit of plurality and unity embodied in that phrase is quite incompatible with the theocratic implications of the later motto.

2. The Founding Fathers prayed.

Yes, they did. They also wrote with goose quills, wore powdered wigs, owned slaves and got bled when they were sick. That doesn’t mean they intended it to be incumbent upon us to do any of the above.  Furthermore, prayer is not a specifically Christian exercise, nor is it necessarily even a religious exercise.

3. The Founding Fathers were Christians.

Even if this claim were perfectly true, it would not mean that they wanted to impose their own religious convictions on all posterity. But it’s not perfectly true. Many, if not most of the founders, were immersed to some extent in Deism, a popular rationalist movement in the Eighteenth Century that was connected to Christian tradition but not strictly a form of Christianity, and indeed not strictly a religion at all. Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence, dabbled in Deism and called himself a Unitarian; his religious views were so unorthodox that he often was considered an atheist.

4. The Treaty of Paris

This agreement, signed by King George III of Great Britain and representatives of the American states in 1783, formally ended the Revolutionary War. It begins with the phrase

In the name of the most holy and undivided Trinity.

Aha! Surely we have here an explicit Christian reference in an official document. Apparently so. But what we do not have is a declaration that the “most holy trinity” shall be a guiding force for future generations. In fact, there is no declaration at all (more about that shortly). Furthermore, the United States Of America as we know it did not officially exist yet. It would still be 6 years before the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

5. Allusions in the founding documents

The Declaration of Independence contains a few indirect references to a deity of some sort: “Nature’s God”, “Providence”, “Creator” and “Supreme Judge”. None of these is by any means an explicit invocation of Christianity.  Indeed, these references sound almost more fitting to pantheism than to Christianity. The Constitution itself contains no such allusions. However, Christian apologists have seized upon the manner of stating the date as being “in the year of our Lord” as conclusive proof that the Founders wanted all future generations to bow down before Christian dogma.

I surely don’t have to tell you that such a phrase was an arbitrary convention for framing dates. In fact, that convention (begun in a long-past era when Christianity really did rule the world with an iron fist) has carried over into modern times even among staunch atheists. Until very recently, it was standard (and still is among many people) to specify dates as being either BC or AD.

It was also customary at the time to speak in formal, stilted, sometimes bombastic prose. Such superlatives as invoking a deity were a part of this convention, and didn’t always signal sacred sentiments. Even today, all of us take our leave by saying “goodbye” which was contracted from “God be with ye”, and we think nothing of it. Look at the opening of the Declaration Of Independence. Exactly what purpose does the phrase “in the course of human events” serve? To distinguish human events from equine or porcine events to avoid confusion? It’s mere padding, but it has a ring to it. So does “Supreme Judge”.

Another holdover from this heritage is the habit of designating Sunday as a day of rest. Thus, Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution specifies:

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.

Apologists in desperation have latched onto this as “proof” that the U.S. is a Christian nation. But this clause does not mention “the Sabbath” or any other religious connection. It just recognizes that government workers, like anyone else, need a little time off.

Note that none of these references (with the exception of the newly minted national motto) is a complete statement. All are merely words and phrases. They may mention a “Creator”, but they do not declare that the “Creator” shall be recognized as the supreme authority of the land. Let’s look at some passages that are complete sentences and actual declarations of policy. They are not nearly as friendly toward the theocratic position.

1. Jefferson’s wall

Thomas Jefferson’s famous utterance about the “wall of separation between church and state” also does not carry any regulatory sway, as it appeared in private correspondence rather than an official document. But it does provide a key insight into the position of the founders, particularly the one who had such a strong hand in founding the new nation.

2. Article 6, Section 3

After the first few U.S. presidents, every one has been a Christian. As have a nearly unanimous majority of other elected officials, national, state and local. Some people think that should be a requirement — in at least one presidential debate, the moderator asked the candidates point blank if they were Christians. But that’s not quite the way the Constitution spells it out. Article 6, Section 3 clearly states:

…but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

So how do you propose having an official Christian nation if its official governing document officially prohibits requiring official officials to be officially Christian? The article also states that the Constitution (not the Bible or any other religious authority) “shall be the supreme Law of the Land”.

3. The First Amendment

Even more specific is the opening of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

This section of the amendment is famous for enshrining the right to freedom of religion; but before it gets around to doing that, it first notes that true freedom of religion must necessarily encompass freedom from religion. Religionists often focus on the second part, but totally bury the first part. Sometimes they even maintain that the wording of the phrase (“respecting”) could be construed to mean that Congress can’t pass laws prohibiting the establishment of a religion. But since the wording definitely does designate that Congress can’t pass laws that do establish a religion, such an interpretation is automatically rendered null and void.

Another manner of tap dancing around this amendment is the old “what they really meant” tack. What they really meant, the religionists argue, is that no Christian denomination should be favored over another. That may have been the concern that provided the original impetus for the amendment, but the framers of the Constitution soon saw that the issue was much broader than that. They certainly knew the difference between “religion” and “sect”, and it was the former, and not the latter, that they mentioned in the amendment.

4. The Treaty Of Tripoli

Even though this one’s a bit problematic , it’s still worth including in the mix. Article 11 of this treaty explicitly states:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion…

Here the objectors have said that Christian government is not the same thing as Christian nation. Quite so. That’s why we have drawn the distinction between default and design. A Christian nation by design would necessarily have a Christian government.

Another objection is that the original treaty was in Arabic and did not include the above passage. Even so, this is the version that the U.S. Senate read and signed off on. This was in 1797, after the Constitution was adopted. And it was passed unanimously by the Senate. Evidently, the statement that the U.S. government was not founded on Christianity was, at the time, quite uncontroversial.

But now, there are many people who know better. They just know because they just know. And they just know that if you fail to acknowledge the infallibility of what they just know, then you are being very un-American, and are persecuting and oppressing Christians.