The Myth of a “Christian Nation”


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.

The Christian Persecution Complex, and the Myth of the School Prayer Ban

Prayer in school

Christians really have it rough in America, don’t they? They have to purchase all their earthly goods using money with “In God We Trust” (the official national motto) emblazoned on it. They have to recite a Pledge Of Allegiance with “one nation under God” inserted into it. Most of their leaders at national, state and local levels are fellow Christians, and their president is sworn into office with his hand on a Bible. Milestone ceremonies such as weddings and funerals are almost always conducted by ministers. Witnesses in court swear to tell the truth “so help you God”. Christians control most of what kids learn in school and most of what citizens see and hear in the media — which just might explain why you hear so much about Islamic terrorists and almost nothing about the equally prevalent (and usually closer to home) Christian terrorists.

The nefarious War On Christmas limits their celebration of their favorite holiday to only three months out of the year– and even then, some wretched spoilsports insist on extending holiday good cheer to everyone instead of restricting it to Christians. Gays are trying to get married, which somehow would make Christians less married.  And oh yes, prayer has been “outlawed” in public schools. Which, as everyone knows, is why schools are failing so miserably, and kids have no moral compass, and the nation is rapidly going down the drain.

Except that the last named is a patent lie. Or, to be as charitable as possible, it’s at least a patent misconception. The continually falling crime rate suggests that Americans are finding their moral compass rather than losing it. More to the point, prayer has never been banned from schools, not by the Supreme Court, nor Congress, nor President Obama, nor Michael Moore, nor anyone else. What really happened was that the Supreme Court put a damper on (though by no means did it entirely eliminate) religious tyranny. And many Christians, deprived of their tyranny, feel that they themselves are being tyrannized.

To be sure, there are plenty of Christians who are perfectly decent human beings. Many of them even recognize the importance of separating church and state. But they, alas, are not the ones who have inherited the scepter and the megaphone.  It has often been the very worst representatives of Christendom who have risen to the upper echelons of society; consequently, mainstream Christianity, perhaps more than any other religion, has devolved with an arrogant attitude of unbridled entitlement; many Christians tend to feel that they have an unassailable right to control the world, to make their beliefs official policy for everyone– while at the same time whining about how much they are being persecuted and oppressed. We’ve already discussed how anyone who challenges their vendetta against gays is portrayed as being bigoted, hostile and anti-Christian.

Unfortunately, we already have a history — a very long and very bloody history — to illustrate what happens when the church is granted its desire for absolute domination. In the good old days when religion ruled the world with an iron crucifix, anyone who ran a little afoul of the official doctrine or lifestyle would be the recipient of a very special religious ceremony. It might entail, for example, having deep gashes cut into their limbs and chests, which then would be filled with hot lead. Or being skinned alive. Or having all their flesh ripped off by hooks. Or being dismembered at the rate of one joint per day. Or having all their bones broken and then being dragged through the streets.  Or, if they were very lucky, they merely had a hot iron mask placed on their face, leaving them blind and disfigured. Or were merely subjected to the heretic’s fork.

heretics fork

And this type of treat, mind you, was not reserved just for nonbelievers; quite often the victims were themselves pious Christians who happened to interpret the Bible in a slightly different fashion from whoever was in a position of authority at the moment. Cecco d’Ascoli, an Italian scientist, was burned at the stake in 1327 for calculating the date of Jesus’ birth using the stars. A  Spanish Protestant writing master was burned at the stake in 1676 for decorating his room with the (so-called) Ten Commandments. Nothing like a little fatal torture to teach people about the Love Of Christ and the Will Of God.

Incidentally, it’s another misconception that burning at the stake involved anything so merciful as merely setting someone afire. In reality, the “heretics” generally were slowly roasted alive. This became the preferred method of execution after some Christian or other began to worry that some Biblical passage or other prohibited the shedding of blood. So they came up with a prolonged and agonizing method of killing that didn’t spill a drop. Whatever it takes to keep God happy.

Note that the two incidents mentioned above occurred more than three centuries apart; so obviously, they weren’t just isolated outcroppings of a temporary hysteria. Christianity’s endorsement of torture and barbarism lasted nearly 1500 years — which rather neatly coincides with the era in which the church controlled government.  Fifteen centuries of unrestricted license to murder, torture, maim and commit the most vile acts the twisted mind can conjure up. And yet Christians today feel victimized because they no longer can force students to pray, and some people wish them “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas”.

This reign of terror more or less started winding down about the time the pious brought their faith to the New World, in a quest for religious freedom and tolerance — which included stamping out the native religions if not the natives themselves. In the Shangri-La of religious freedom and tolerance they founded, citizens might be horse-whipped or pilloried for missing a church service, and they might be hanged for being a “witch”, but at least they wouldn’t be burned a the stake for “heresy”. Maybe Christians so often feel persecuted because they so often have persecuted each other.

Eventually,  a more genteel social order developed in which a legal structure was in place to protect against these horrors; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that theocrats wouldn’t still do something comparable if they still could get away with it. They’ve still found plenty of other ways to lord it over the populace.

Those of us beyond a certain age (and mind you, I’m not all that old) grew up in an environment in which Christianity’s sway was still near-absolute and generally unquestioned. Church attendance was mandatory — sometimes literally so, as a judge could order people to attend church as part of their “rehabilitation”. Prayers and Bible readings were routine in school classrooms. Teachers could be fired for teaching scientific principles that the church did not approve of. Prospective graduates, in addition to attending a commencement ceremony to receive their diplomas, had to attend a baccalaureate to be given a final push toward a Christian life — just in case the previous 12 years of programming didn’t completely take.  Anyone who dared question any of this would become the target of relentless Christian bullying.

But this finally began to change in the Sixties, And the change was, in no small measure, the result of the actions of one incredibly courageous woman. It’s hard not to admire her sheer cojones even if you don’t approve of her actions.


Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995) was an army veteran, a respected social worker, and a devoted single mother of two. And oh yes, she was also an atheist.  And that one little thing, in the eyes of her community and indeed her nation as a whole, more than cancelled any of the good she may have done.  “Atheist” had come to be synonymous with pure evil — an attitude many people still possess today. Good Christians often utter the word with the same kind of snarl with which you’d expect them to say “traitor” or “terrorist” or “pedophile” or “liberal”. Not surprisingly, then, she and her two sons were not very popular in the city of Baltimore, where they lived. And it became much worse after she initiated the lawsuit that would make her “the most hated woman in America”.

That all began in 1960 when her 14-year-old son Bill* begged her to intervene because he was being forced to participate in prayers at school. So she launched a lawsuit which eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. And she won. And how did the Good Christians react? Here’s her account of what happened, even before the Court delivered its ruling:

I’d been a psychiatric social worker for 17 years, but within 24 hours after I started the case, I was fired from my job as a supervisor in the city public welfare department. And I was unable to find another one, because the moment I would go in anywhere in town and say that my name was Madalyn Murray no matter what the job opening, I found the job filled; no matter how good my qualifications, they were never quite good enough. So my income was completely cut off.

The second kind of reprisal was psychological. The first episode was with our mail, which began to arrive, if at all, slit open and empty — just empty envelopes. Except for the obscene and abusive letters from good Christians all over the country, calling me a bitch and a Lesbian and a Communist for instituting the school-prayer suit — they somehow arrived intact, and by the bushel-basketful. Hundreds of them actually threatened our lives.

(There were) anonymous phone calls we’d get at every hour of the day and night, which were more or less along the same lines as the letters. One of them was a particular gem. I was in the VA hospital in Baltimore and I had just had a very critical operation; they didn’t think I was going to make it. They had just wheeled me back to my bed after two days in the recovery room when this call came in for me, and somebody who wouldn’t give his name told me very seriously and sympathetically that my father had just died and that I should be prepared to come home and take care of my mother. Well, I called home in a state of shock, and my mother answered, and I asked her about Father, and she said, “What are you talking about? He’s sitting here at this moment eating bacon and eggs.” Obviously, that call had been calculated to kill me, because whoever it was knew that I was at a low ebb there in the hospital.

Then they began to take more direct action. My Freethought Society office was broken into; our cars were vandalized repeatedly; every window in the house was broken more times than I can count, every flower in my garden trampled into the ground all my maple trees uprooted; my property looked like a cyclone had hit it. This is the kind of thing that went on constantly,constantly, over a three-year period.

But it was just child’s play compared to the reprisals visited upon my son Bill. He’d go to school every day and hand in his homework, and a couple of days later many of his teachers would say to him, “You didn’t hand in your homework.” Or he’d take a test and about a week later many of his teachers would tell him, “You didn’t hand in your test paper. You’ll have to take the test again this afternoon.” This was a dreadful reprisal to take against a 14-year-old boy. It got to the point where he had to make carbon copies of all his homework and all his tests to prove that he had submitted them.

But that’s nothing to what happened after school, both to him and to his little brother, Garth. I lost count of the times they came home bloodied and beaten up by gangs of teenage punks; five and six of them at a time would gang up on them and beat the living hell out of them. Many’s the time I’ve stood them off myself to protect my sons, and these fine young Christians have spat in my face till spittle dripped down on my dress. Time and again we’d take them into magistrate’s court armed with damning evidence and eyewitness testimony, but the little bastards were exonerated every time.

But I haven’t told you the worst. The neighborhood children, of course, were forbidden by their parents to play with my little boy, Garth, so I finally got him a little kitten to play with. A couple of weeks later we found it on the porch with its neck wrung. And then late one night our house was attacked with stones and bricks by five or six young Christians, and my father got very upset and frightened. Well, the next day he dropped dead of a heart attack. The community knew very well that he had a heart condition, so I lay a murder to the city of Baltimore.

These were, one gathers, the actions of True Believers who felt that they were being persecuted and oppressed because of their beliefs.

But please note that contrary to what you so often hear, the Supreme Court’s ruling did not — repeat did not — ban prayer in schools. On the contrary, in several cases addressing the issue over the years, the Court consistently has affirmed that prayer on school property is a constitutional right — provided it is performed at an appropriate place and time. But the appropriate place and time do not include during class or in any manner that might constitute a government endorsement of religion. It was not until the year 2000 that the Court finally got around to figuring out that this eliminates official school functions such as ballgames.

Students and teachers, however, have the right to — and often do — still pray on campus. They may pray between classes, at lunchtime, before school starts, after school is over, etc. etc.– so long as it doesn’t dovetail with official school business and doesn’t drag in unwilling participants.  In short, it’s an arrangement designed to satisfy everyone.

But Christian extremists absolutely refuse to be appeased. They want a battle, they want an enemy, they want power. They will settle for nothing less than complete dominance. In the words of one of the leading icons of the “religious right”, Randall Terry, founder of the (so called) pro-life group Operation Rescue:

I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you… I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good… Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don’t want equal time. We don’t want pluralism.

For people like this “religious freedom” isn’t about having the right to pray; it’s about having the “right” to force other people to live by your beliefs.

We still have a long way to go before religious neutrality achieves anything like an equal footing with Christian authoritarianism; before nonreligious politicians have as much a chance to be elected to office as Christians do; before it is no longer the default mode for children to be indoctrinated into whatever religion their parents follow; before mainstream Christians are more concerned with following the teachings of Jesus than with demonizing non-believers; before the U.S. as a whole recognizes that true freedom of religion must necessarily include freedom from religion. But we have at least made some progress. And to fundamentalist reactionaries, that progress is construed as a personal affront. They no do doubt will even consider it a vicious attack to report the facts we’ve reported here; what they cannot do, however, is dispute that these are indeed facts.

Rather than acknowledge — and perhaps try to make amends for — the multitude of evils that have been done, and are still being done, in the name of their faith, they try to shift blame to their critics, portraying themselves as hapless victims of a secularist jihad. In doing so, they continually spread such dishonest narratives as the “War on Christmas” and the fabled “school prayer ban”.

(* Christians often delight in pointing out that as an adult, Bill converted to Christianity despite his atheist upbringing. The part of the story they tend to leave out is that he demonstrated his “Christian values” by abandoning his daughter Robin, whom his mother adopted and raised as her own.

Indeed, O’Hair may have been too generous for her own good. She made a practice of offering jobs in her organization to former felons — which probably made her considerably more charitable in that regard than most churches. In 1995, one such former employee and convict whom she’d fired for stealing from her enlisted two accomplices to abduct and extort O’Hair, Robin and O’Hair’s other son Jon Garth — both of whom were officers in O’Hair’s organization. All three eventually were murdered and dismembered. 

After learning of the crime, Bill responded by writing an article attacking his murdered mother, brother and daughter, with not a kind word for any of them. He characterized his mother — the mother who had bravely stood by him during his childhood years of being brutalized by Christian bullies, and had gone to bat for him in the courts at his own pleading and at great risk to herself — as the embodiment of pure unadulterated evil. He repeated as undisputed truth every unsavory rumor and allegation he could think of about his mother, including the accusation that she had a fondness for — horrors — pornography, and the suspicion that her organization was, like a good many churches, less than perfectly forthright with the IRS.)