Are we allowed to be either in today's multicultural society? In his book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden observes that recent trends in fundamentalist movements have “coopted the use of the word ‘Christian’ as an adjective.”[i] Marsden is making the point that since the rise of the Religious Right, and the anti-secular movement that has moved throughout evangelical circles since the 1980’s, there has been an increasing movement to label or claim certain aspects of culture and society as being defined by a uniquely “Christian” set of characteristics. So today, I want to consider the claim that America was founded as a “Christian nation.”
As Marsden noted, to label our country as a “Christian nation” is a radically different claim than to argue that it was a nation of Christian people. Attaching religious attributes to a particular person is completely reasonable, even in our postmodern society. It may be perceived by many as a demeaning statement, but nobody would argue that a person cannot be or should be legally restricted from being a “Christian man” or “Christian woman.” In the modern academic and popular debate about the founding principles of our nation, it is necessary to understand that the values and principles of the men that we call “Founders” were not always the same as the collective values encapsulated in the Constitution. If we are not very careful with how we use the word “Christian” in this debate, we allow a tremendous semantic advantage to those who seemingly claim that Christian values have no place in our pluralistic society. Let me be clear, we are not a Christian nation, but we are a nation founded by Christians who expected that those who followed them would also be allowed to be, and even protected from government interference of being, Christian men and women.
Almost to a man, the Founders were Christian men. Even oft referred to Founders like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were, at the very least, public Christians who employed Christian activities like prayers, even (and perhaps especially) as public figures employing their Constitutionally protected rights of freedom of speech and religion. Thomas Paine’s most famous work, Common Sense, incudes an entire section arguing against monarchy based on Biblical texts in Judges and 1 Samuel.[ii] Even if Paine was an atheist, he employed Biblical arguments to appeal to Christian individuals whom he was attempting to convince of the merits of republican government.
What is actually being debated most often is not whether or not America is a Christian nation, but whether or not America is a nation founded by Christians, who being informed by their Christian values, created a pluralistic society that respects everyone’s right to choose their religion. It is common belief among Christian sects, and even more particularly among evangelicals, that the Christianity is a relationship between God and an individual, and that this relationship is personal, and should not be achieved coercively by another person or group. In other words, the idea that each person is free to choose their own religious belief is utterly and totally consistent with evangelical Christian values. This principle is captured beautifully in the first line of the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom which opens “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free. . .”[iii] It isn’t coincidental that the principle of freedom of religion is derived from an explicitly Christian perspective.
When Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists[iv] advocating for the “wall of separation of Church and State” he was referring to an established state religion. This is obvious by his capitalization of both “Church” and “State.” He argued that the government should in no way force any individual to act in a way that violates their beliefs. Jefferson, then President of the United States, concluded the letter by “reciprocat[ing] your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common father and creator of man. . .” This is just one of a multitude of examples of the belief that while government should not force an individual to participate in any religious observance or practice (or penalize them for choosing not to), it also cannot prevent a citizen who is a part of that government, even the President himself, from expressing his religious beliefs, even when acting as a representative of said government. That this example comes at the conclusion of the very letter which is supposed to establish the precedent of public figures not expressing their personal beliefs is the very definition of "irony."
Unfortunately, in the popular debate today, it is often argued that since America was never intended to be a Christian nation, it also cannot be a nation for Christians. It is argued that the wall of separation of Church and State ought to also create a similar wall among the beliefs of those who are both private citizens and public servants. In other words, the words of the Constitution meant to protect all citizens from government interference of their religious beliefs are instead used to dictate to public servants what role their religious beliefs will play in their lives. Even more troubling in several recent court cases gaining national attention, this prohibition against allowing individuals to be Christians has extended to all aspects of their public lives, including their businesses. It has become an establishment of atheism.
The Constitution was meant to be a-religious, not atheistic. During the debate about the specific semantics of the 1st Amendment undertaken by the First Federal Congress[v], Peter Silvester (NY) was concerned that it might be construed as a positive mandate to abolish religion altogether. Benjamin Huntington (CT) echoing Silvester's concerns, feared that the anti-establishment clause would have the effect of giving special status to those who had no religion at all if not worded carefully. What cannot be found anywhere is the fear that government officials would act in ways consistent with their religious beliefs; it was taken for granted that they would. To the contrary, the fear on the part of representatives like Silvester and Huntington was the opposite: somehow an amendment meant to prevent government from interfering in people’s religious beliefs would instead force some form of religion (including possibly atheism) on those who did not want to participate. What can be easily seen in the transcription of this debate is the painstaking attention to semantics, in order to develop the exact terminology that would prevent establishment of a national religion while simultaneously preventing a misconception that the government is supposed to be set against religion. The Founders realized the critical difference between having a Christian nation and a nation of Christians. They explicitly rejected the first notion but took great pains to preserve the second. Perhaps it is time that we, likewise, insist that the government make “no law respecting the establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof”; not especially, but definitely including Christianity and atheism.
[i] Marsden, G. (1998-06-11). The Arguments for Silence. In The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. : Oxford University Press.
[ii] Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. Philadelphia: W&T Bradford, 1776. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/147/147-h/147-h.htm.
[iii] Jefferson, Thomas. Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. State of Virginia, 1786. https://www.virginiahistory.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/thomas-jefferson.
[iv] Jefferson, Thomas. "Letter to the Danbury Baptists." Library of Congress. Last modified January 1, 1802. https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html.
[v] The Congressional Register, 15 August 1789, in CHARLENE BANGS BICKFORD, KENNETH R. BOWLING, and HELEN E. VEIT, eds., Documentary History of the First Federal Congress 1789-1791, Vol. XI, Debates in the House of Representatives--First Session: June - September 1789 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), pp. 1260—1282.
Nathan Gilson is a Social Studies Teacher in South Carolina with over 10 years of experience in the public school systems. He has taught US and World History courses, and is currently working toward a Ph.D. in History from Liberty University.