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May
27
2009
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 21 issue 2

The United States Is Not a Christian Nation

David Koepsell


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 21, Number 2 (Summer 2005).


Council for Secular Humanism Executive Director David Koepsell debated Stephen M. Crampton, chief counsel at the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy, after they discussed the role of politics in religion on the show “Faith Under Fire” for PAX TV, which first aired in December 2004, and on subsequent radio programs. The following is adapted from Mr. Koepsell’s opening statement.

–Eds.


Mr. Crampton has stated that the United States is a Christian nation. We have to address this question honestly, from a historical and cultural perspective. We have to decide what this assertion means, its implications if true, and whether we want the United States to be a Christian Nation after all.

One of the initial problems with this assertion, that the United States is a Christian nation, is its vagueness. First, let’s look at the ways which the assertion can be interpreted.


Interpretation #1

The United States is a Christian nation because its founding documents and body of organic laws make it so. This claim is the easiest to refute. The Declaration of Independence, the text most often cited to support this proposition, does indeed refer to “our creator” who endowed us with certain inalienable rights–among these, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration also says that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. These sentiments point not to any Christian foundation, but rather to Enlightenment notions. Nowhere in Christian dogma do you find liberty or the pursuit of happiness expressed as a God-given right. Rather, the expression “Nature and of Nature’s God” points not to the existence of the Christian God, as referred to by today’s fundamentalist Christians but to the god of deism, the predominant faith of our founders. This is not the personal, involved God to which Dr. James Dobson of Mr. Crampton’s organization refers. At best, the god of the deists is the unmoved mover, or the first cause of Aristotle, who sets the universe in motion and then leaves it alone. If Mr. Crampton admits that his view of Christianity is deism, then perhaps I can agree that this deistic conception in the Declaration is a nod to Christianity.

Even so, the structure of the government expressed by the Declaration, where the authority comes not from a god or a king but rather from the consent of the governed, is radically different from the Christian government the founders left behind. The Magna Carta states clearly the divine basis of authority for the king and the government, with such prominent phrases as: “Know that before God…. To the Honour of God and the exaltation of our holy Church … first, that we have granted to God …,” etc. Let’s face it: if the founders wanted to make explicit the Christianity of this new country, they could have used the clear Christian language of the Magna Carta, rather than the vague, deistic notions they chose.

But there is another problem with asserting that the Declaration of Independence, with its mild, deistic references to God, somehow makes ours a Christian nation. Simply, the Declaration is not law. It was the basis for our separation from England, but it has no legal status. It imparts no code of behavior, no rules, no punishments, no rights or duties. So, even accepting the inherent, perhaps Christian, deism of the Declaration does not lead to the conclusion that the United States is a Christian nation.

Let’s now look at the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which are the first essential pieces of our organic law and the ultimate authority for all legal questions in the United States. There are three explicit references to religion in the Constitution. One is the prohibition of any religious test for public office, in Article VI, section 3, which, even before the Bill of Rights, begins to express the desire of the Founders to allow for freedom of conscience, distinct from theocratic, Christian England where members of minority religions and religious sects had been persecuted. Another is of course the First Amendment, which, following the lead of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson and supported by James Madison, ensured that Virginia would not establish an official religion. That Virginia statute, by the way, was passed with the support of Baptists, who when they were a minority suffered greatly due to the establishment of state religion. The First Amendment clearly states: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This disestablishment is eventually applied more clearly to the states with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. The intent is clear: there shall be no established religion or church in the United States. Thus, the United States cannot be a Christian, a Jewish, or an Islamic nation.

Many people who support the notion that we are a Christian nation refer to the dating convention used in the Constitution, which states that it was signed “in the Year of our Lord …,” but this argument is weak. Many atheists use “A.D.” and “B.C.” without changing their opinion about the existence of God simply because it is a convention. Moreover, the preamble to the Bill of Rights states that it was completed Wednesday, the fourth of March, 1789. The month of March is named after the Roman god of war, Mars, and Wednesday is named after Woden, or Odin, the chief of the Norse or pagan gods of the Saxons who settled in England. Is it proof that our founders were establishing pagan religions by using those conventions for dates? Of course not.

If more proof were needed that the founders never intended to, and did not, create a Christian nation, let’s look at a law passed and signed by the president of the United States contemporaneous with the nation’s founding. In 1796, at the end of George Washington’s last term as president, Joel Barlow, the American counsel to Algiers responsible for treaty negotiations and chaplain under George Washington in the revolution, was negotiating the Treaty of Tripoli. In the negotiations, he drafted an amendment that stated in article 11 of the treaty:

As the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Musselmen; and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

The treaty with this wording was approved by Congress in 1797, endorsed by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and President John Adams, and finally ap proved by the Senate on June 10, 1797. According to the U.S. Constitution, article VI, section 2, this treaty had the force of law.

Finally, many argue that the common law of the various states derives from Christianity and therefore proves the United States’ status as a Christian nation. On February 10, 1814, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Thomas Cooper, stating:

For we know that the common law is that system of law which was introduced by the Saxons on their settlement in England, and altered from time to time by proper legislative authority from that time to the date of the Magna Charta, which terminates the period of the common law…. This settlement took place about the middle of the fifth century. But Christianity was not introduced till the seventh century; the conversion of the first Christian King of the Heparchy having taken place about the year 598, and that of the last about 686. Here then was a space of two hundred years, during which the common law was in existence, and Christianity no part of it.

Jefferson, in the same letter, explains how the error that attributed the common law to Christianity came about, through a misinterpretation of the Latin term ancien scripture used in historical and legal documents to describe the common law. The translator Priscot misinterpreted this to mean “holy scripture” whereas, according to Jefferson, this term simply meant ancient scripture or writings.

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes common law as having Saxon origins and further states that “The nature of the new common law was at first much influenced by the principles of Roman law, but later it developed more and more along independent lines.”

Thus, the claim that the United States is a Christian nation because it is founded on Christian law or principles fails outright.


Interpretation #2

Let’s look at another interpretation: The United States is a Christian nation because its founders were Christians. I addressed part of this argument before when I discussed the deism of many of the founders. In fact, most of the founders were freemasons, at the time an organization that was a powerful proponent of religious freedom and that accepted into its ranks members of all religions. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Alexander Hamilton, and Lafayette were all members of the Freemasons. They were Christians of a very different, liberal sort than those who today would recast this country as a Christian nation.

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.” After his death, his friend Dr. Abercrombie, on being questioned by one Dr. Wilson about Washington’s religion, responded, “Sir, Washington was a Deist.”

John Adams understood Christianity’s greatest contribution 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.” John Adams was a Unitarian and therefore denied the notion of eternal damnation. He once stated in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind had preserved—the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!” Adams, in his Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787–1788), wrote:

Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of the whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.

Thomas 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.”1 He also wrote, in 1787, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god.” And finally, in a letter to Ezra Stiles, June 25, 1819, he stated: “You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” While Jefferson admired the morality of Jesus, there is no evidence he believed in his divinity. He rewrote the Bible, including only the moral lessons from the New Testament without the troublesome metaphysics.

James Madison, who has been called the father of the Constitution, wrote in his “Memorial and Remonstrance,” written in support of the Virginia statute authored by Jefferson and opposed by Patrick Henry, “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.”

Benjamin Franklin, an important figure of the United States Constitutional Convention, wrote in his autobiography:

My parents had given me betimes religions impressions, and I received from my infancy a pious education in the principles of Calvinism. But scarcely was I arrived at fifteen years of age, when, after having doubted in turn of different tenets, according as I found them combated in the different books that I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself.

He also wrote in his autobiography that “some books against Deism fell into my hands … it happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.”

The deistic 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.

There is little doubt that, while most of the founders were liberal Christians or at least deists, their faith did not encourage and, in fact, specifically argued against the establishment of a state religion. There is really very little in the founding documents to suggest that Christian notions, virtues, or beliefs were in any way interjected into our early form of government. Rather, our founders were freethinkers who understood that the role of government was neither to adopt religious principles nor to prohibit the free exercise thereof. Simply put, religion and the state were separate domains.


Interpretation #3

It is possible that, when people argue that this is a Christian nation, they simply mean that it is composed of a Christian majority. This is a weak argument for a number of reasons and a losing argument in the long-run. This argument is akin to saying that Ford is a Christian car company because its employees are largely Christian. By this logic, Nazi Germany was a Christian nation because its population was largely Christian. I am sure no Christian would accept the assertion that Nazi Germany was a Christian nation, or, for that matter, fascist Italy. If having a population majority of one faith makes a nation a Christian nation, or whatever faith happens to be the majority, then Turkey should be considered a Muslim nation, but it is not. Turkey is a secular nation and has been since 1924, even though its population is more than 95 percent Muslim. The U.S. State Department Web site even identifies Turkey as a secular nation. The United States is also a secular nation, even though 76 percent of the population identifies itself as Christian. That figure, by the way, is down 10 percent from the census of 1990. The percentage by which this country could be said to be Christian is dropping precipitously. The argument is a slippery one, then, for Christians. If current trends continue, in a few decades, Christians may slip into minority status, they will have to come up with yet another argument for why this is a Christian nation.


Interpretation #4

Proponents of the concept that the United States is a Christian nation mean that we act, as a nation, according to Christian principles. In some ways, I wish this were true; perhaps then we might be heeding some of the principles from the Sermon on the Mount, such as: turn the other cheek when stricken, humility, be meek, judge not (lest ye be judged), being peacemakers, agree quickly with an adversary (debates would be short indeed). Also, if sued for one’s coat, give him also your cloak, give to him who asks and lend to anyone who will borrow (rather than tightening bankruptcy rules). There are also principles like loving our enemies, blessing those who curse us, reserving our prayers for our closets and not the streets, seeking not after treasures, doing unto others as we would have done to us, rendering unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s (rather than lobbying for more tax cuts).

Even under the leadership of a self-professed, born-again Christian, this nation is not doing much “turning the other cheek,” or peacemaking. We are withdrawing from treaty after treaty, hardly the stuff of agreeing with our adversaries. We are becoming parsimonious and undoing our great system of social safety nets for the benefit of the wealthiest, leaving the very poorest to fend for themselves. These are hardly the works that Jesus advocated.

So, no, we are not a Christian Nation by deed, history, population, or by the faiths of our founders. What if we were a Christian nation of the sort that Mr. Crampton suggests? What would this mean for those of us who belong to minority faiths or no faith at all? What if this country insisted by law, culture, or tradition that Christianity is our national faith and that our laws and our citizens must abide by its precepts? Imagine you were one of the millions of persecuted religious minorities who flocked to our shores yearning to breathe free, to worship or not worship, as they pleased or as their god or gods require, finally without interference from a state religion? You might wonder, then, why the First Amendment was adopted in the first place.

Indeed, even as we encourage the adoption of secular, democratic forms of government to replace Islamic theocracy in the Middle East, those who choose to argue that this is a Christian nation threaten to create a Christian theocracy here. This is not a Christian nation, nor should it be. The founders created this as a nation that would accept members of any faith, or of none, and where secular institutions would protect human rights shared by everyone, for the benefit of everyone, including the right of conscience, which allows us to believe or not, as we choose, in whatever deity or deities, or in none at all, without interference by the government or fear of persecution by the majority, whatever that majority maybe now or in the future.

Note

  1. Leight Schmidt and Edwin Gaustad, The Religious History of America (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2002), pp. 133–34.

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