This is a paper I wrote for my class “American Religious History” explaining why America is not and has never been a Christian nation.  I mainly use our founding documents, but also bring in the founding fathers and current laws to help make the point.  Enjoy.

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The United States is not and has never been a Christian nation.  Of course one could argue the opposite using a plethora of definitions and requirements of “Christian nation.”  I will argue that these alternatives are insubstantial and impractical.  Then I will argue for a more proper and practical working definition.  Using this definition and its requirements I will show the United States to be substantially different than a Christian nation.  The founding documents and our peculiar version of religious diversity will be brought to aid me in this.  I use our founding documents, American law, and the early diversity of Christian denominations to support my arguments.

The most common way of using “Christian nation” refers to a nation which has a large majority of its population practicing or professing adherence to a Christian religious denomination.  There are no objective statistics but I imagine a population of about seventy-five percent Christian to be considered a Christian nation.  Under this definition the United States would be considered a Christian nation.  However, a nation is more than just it’s population.  America as a nation behaves itself much differently than its population and its laws are not, thankfully, based on the whims of a majority.

Another way people try to justify America as a Christian nation is quoting many past leaders exclaiming that the United States is indeed a “Nation under God!”  If this metric was used, we would switch often and abruptly.  For instance, we would have been a Christian nation just about a year ago under George Bush, who often thanked God for helping him lead, and would no longer be under Barack Obama who has said multiple times that we are a nation of citizens, not a Christian, Muslim, or Hindu nation.  Some point more specifically to the founding fathers.  To this Butler would reply, “…most of those preachers would almost certainly be horrified if any of the first four Presidents of the United States- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, or Madison- turned up in their congregations and said what they really thought about Christianity.  All were courageous and high-minded men, but none was a Christian in any conventional way”(Butler, 165).  Thomas Jefferson even believed that priests and ministers “persuaded people to ‘give up morals for mysteries’ and that they took advantage of people by cheating them of their hard-earned dollars”(Butler 166).

A Christian nation is a nation that specifically and obviously bases their whole system of government on the Christian religion. Iran is a famous example of a Muslim nation; there is virtually no separation of church and state.   Some people agree with this definition and argue that our laws are based on the ten commandments.  As it turns out, the only commandments that have anything to do with American law are the ones dealing with theft, homicide, and perjury.  Laws dealing with these have been around since ancient times and are definitely not reserved for religious morality.  It is fair to say that society would not deem it okay to murder a person if there weren’t a commandment for it- actually, it seems that religious texts are often used to justify murder, but I will not digress.  America is famous for being ‘material’; where would we be if we didn’t covet our neighbors’ houses?   This system of government must include the founding documents and laws of the country.  It is the laws and the founding documents that determine whether a nation can really be defined as a Christian nation or not, and it is our laws and founding documents that explicitly show us to be free from the title.

As Butler argues, “At its heart, the American Revolution was a profoundly secular event”(Butler 132).  It also happened to make way for the most profoundly secular governing documents of any country in history.  The Constitution, the golden standard of American law, never mentions God or even anything about religion (Butler 159).  This is considered “one of the most secular documents of the modern world” (Butler 159).  Article six must definitely contribute to this notion; it states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office of public Trust under the United States” (Butler 159).  Some argue that the Constitution is an explicitly Christian document.  In actuality, Article Six explicitly states that the United States must never be a Christian nation, or any other religious nation for that matter.  If this is not convincing, the First Amendment to the Constitution, passed by the first congress in 1791, should be “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (Butler 148).  Thomas Jefferson made clear his position that the First Amendment was in place to create a “wall of separation between church and state” (Butler 148).

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was also a very secular document.  Although religion did enter the Declaration of Independence its focus was clearly to address the offenses of British politicians.  No religious issues were included in the “history of repeated injuries and usurpations” section of the Declaration (Butler 133).  I do not believe this was an accident or that Jefferson somehow forgot to mention them.  The only religious phrases found in the Declaration of Independence are not specifically Christian.  As an example, the phrase “the laws of nature and nature’s God,” shows that Jefferson did not think our rights are not given to us by a divine being but rather by the natural law.  “Divine providence” is used to reference that which Americans would rely on for protection (Butler 133).  Also, a “Supreme Judge of the world” who would judge the “rectitude of our intentions” was also mentioned (Butler 133).  “God” or “Christ” were never mentioned.

If our founding fathers really wanted to set up a Christian nation one would think they would have said so in some important document, a founding document.  If America was meant to be a Christian nation, there was plenty of room in the federal Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence.  Yet what one finds is not just an exclusion of religion in government but safeguards against religious law- read “a Christian nation”- as well.

Many attempts have been made by the Christian Right and others to crush the accomplishments of our founding fathers.  As a matter of fact, they often proclaim that the United States is a Christian nation already.  In 1954, aided by McCarthism, they succeeded in adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and in securing “In God We Trust” to our money.  For reasons discussed above, these do not support the allegation that America is a Christian nation.

More recently the Religious Right has attempted to push their “morality” on the nation by involving themselves in social issues regarding abortion, gay marriage, immigration, and others.  Fortunately, extra safeguards have been passed in order to preserve the work the United States founders.  As an example, in 1971 the Supreme Court created the “Lemon test” to determine if a law works under the First Amendment religion clauses.  First, the law must have a secular purpose.  Second, it must have a primary effect which neither advances nor inhibits religion.  Lastly, it must avoid excessive entanglement of church and state.  While still subjective, it is another step to keeping America free from religious rule.

This revolutionary idea of separation of church and state was made possible in a big way by its religious diversity.  Thomas Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, believed that at the that, at the time of his presidency, “the young nation had become too diverse for the government to support one religion over another” (Butler 159).  There was so much religious diversity in America that there was no practical way of supporting one religion.  There were many other religions besides Christian present; but, ironically, it is the large amount of diversity withing the Christian faith made it impossible to create a Christian nation.

Protestants, Catholics, and Jews all had their disagreements between each other.  Then there were differences between Lutherans from different origins.  Before the Revolutionary war, there was such a rift between Quakers who wanted to fight and those who didn’t that there was a split.  So many different religions coming from just as many different countries combined with huge events like the Revolutionary War caused some religions to split, and many more to be created.  This kind of turbulence has provided a multitude of religions to choose from.

This extreme diversity in religion has opened the doors for many alternative beliefs.  After 1690 European immigrants brought beliefs of witchcraft and magic that lived on in Europe with them to America (Butler 85).  A similar mindset would find a 20th century America ripe for New Age beliefs.  Colonists’ susceptibility to magical beliefs may be a sign of their confusion with the baffling amount of religious choices before them (Butler 88).  This confusion was often paralyzing; people did not know which religion to choose.

This diversity has worked against creating a Christian nation throughout history.  Later, Catholics immigrated from Ireland, Germany, Poland and Italy.  They all had different ideas of how to practice and how to use the government.  The Irish were used to the government and Church helping out more than the others, so they pushed for more influence.  The Germans and Poles resented the Irish partly for this reason.  The Italians even had disagreements between those who emigrated from the north and those from the south.  Each group wanted to keep the other out of power.

America’s founding documents have nothing to say about Christianity (unless they are banning it from government), American laws are not Christian laws, America as a nation is not a Christian one.  This can be attributed to the ground breaking secular thought of America’s founding fathers and a more than healthy amount of religious diversity in early America.

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