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Putting to Rest the 'Christian Nation' Myth

David R. Koepsell

The following Op-Ed is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 25, Number 3.

The Council for Secular Humanism, its spokespersons, and Free Inquiry's editors and authors are often forced to respond to theists enraged over court decisions and legislation that aim to ensure the separation of church and state. Consistently, we have sought to uphold the establishment clause of the First Amendment in its most literal sense. Our arguments in favor of the clear separation of church and state are based upon sound constitutional and historical grounds. The opponents of separation have often focused on two claims: (1) that the United States is a "Christian nation" because it was "founded by Christians" and (2) that the United States is a Christian nation because its civil and criminal laws are "Judeo-Christian in origin." Both claims are illogical and historically inaccurate. Our Constitution only refers to religion where it seeks to actively exclude it from the government. The secular nature of the United States is clear.

There is a substantial body of literature deconstructing the faiths of our nation's founders. It leaves little room for doubt that the founders, while by and large Christian, were generally only nominally so. Even the more pious were liberal Christians, far different from the strain of fundamentalist, born-again Christian that has recently emerged as a major class of proponents for the Christian nation myth. It is certainly true that part of the revolt against the British involved distaste for the imposition of an Anglican bishop over the colonies, which, according to William Livingston, was a greater affront to liberty of conscience than the "deservedly obnoxious Stamp Act itself."1 Because of such vocal opposition, no Anglican bishop ever arrived in the colonies. But to understand the roots of the guarantees enshrined in the First Amendment that secured disestablishment, we must look to Virginia under the governorship of Thomas Jefferson.

In his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, drafted in 1777, Jefferson first proposed a radical disentanglement of state and religion, which the more conservative legislature was not yet ready to adopt. Staving off a challenge by Patrick Henry that would have denuded the bill and allowed for the establishment of Christianity as Virginia's official religion, James Madison gathered signatures for a "Memorial and Remonstrance" against Henry's proposed bill. Among Madison's arguments was that such a bill would not prevent future Virginians from establishing a particular sect of Christianity over another in the future.2 In 1786, Jefferson's bill was finally adopted, titled the Statute for Religious Freedom. It stated: "Be it enacted, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs." It is no accident that the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," is credited to Madison and Jefferson. In commenting on the First Amendment, Jefferson described it in 1802 as "a wall of separation between Church and State." Jefferson described the spirit of the Revolution in general as a struggle against all "Lords Temporal or Spiritual."3 The faith of our Founders was clearly tempered by liberal sentiments and has been described as largely deistic. Deism is an outgrowth of the French Enlightenment that rejects notions of a personal, involved god and instead ascribes to a god at most the status of Aristotle's "unmoved mover" or equates God with the natural laws of the universe itself.

Surely, this view is reinforced by many of the statements the Founders left behind. George Washington rarely mentioned God by name, referring instead to "the Grand Architect," a "superintending Power," the "Governor of the Universe," or the "Great Ruler of Events." John Adams understood Christianity's greatest contributions to be introducing people to "the great principle of the Law of Nature and Nations: Love your Neighbour as yourself, and do unto others as you would that others should do to you." And Jefferson said that if he were to found his own sect, it "would be the reverse of Calvin's: that we are saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power."4 These notions of an impersonal, detached deity and a universe guided by reason and natural law bear the stamp of Enlightenment rationalism. Imported from Britain and France, rationalism lies at the roots of the American Republic. Specifically absent, and disdained, is Calvinistic dogmatism, embraced by the Pilgrims but rejected by our founders both privately and publicly.
But even had the Founders been Calvinists, or fundamentalist Christians of a modern variety, for purely logical reasons the United States is not in any sense a Christian nation. According to the U.S. Department of State, "Turkey has been officially secular since 1924, although well over 95 percent of the population is Muslim."5 Turkey is officially secular because its constitution proclaims it so. It is not an Islamic state. The First Amendment accomplishes the same for the United States, making it officially secular. Even if we were to imagine that the Founders were fundamentalist Christians, they created a secular state, in which no religion, despite its majority status, has any special privilege or status compared with any other religion or with atheism. So, America is not a Christian nation, by virtue both of its history and the logic of its founding documents.

Setting all of that aside, the nation is in any case becoming less Christian day by day, by virtue of its changing demographics. Perhaps much of what lies behind today's desperate attempts to recast the United States as a Christian nation is the declining percentage of self-identified Christians in it and the fear this must provoke for those who foresee the day when Christianity is no longer the majority religion. Since the 1990 census, the percentage of Christians has declined from roughly 86 percent to 76 percent, while the numbers of minority religionists and the religiously nonaffiliated have doubled, according to both the U.S. census and recent polls, to nearly 16 percent! What should the champions of the Christian nation myth draw from this fact? It should encourage them to embrace America's secular roots, because it is minorities that the Constitution protects. These modern-day Calvinists forget that their ideological progenitors fled a nation in which the established religion and the religious majority persecuted them. It was their loathing of that history and a desire to protect freedom of conscience and belief, even nonbelief, that caused our founders to establish this secular, democratic republic-so that when today's Christians once again become a minority, they won't be relegated to second-class status as they now seek to do with members of minority religions and nonbelievers.

1. Edwin S. Schmidt and Leigh E. Gaustad, The Religious History of America (San Francisco, HarperSan Francisco, 2002), p. 123.
2. Ibid., pp. 124-25.
3. Ibid., p. 127.
4. Ibid., pp. 133-34.
5. The U.S. Department of State's Web site (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3432.

David R. Koepsell is the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and an associate editor of Free Inquiry.

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