Putting to Rest the 'Christian Nation' Myth
David R. Koepsell
The following Op-Ed is from Free Inquiry magazine,
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
Koepsell is the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism
and an associate editor of Free
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