Friday, 1 October 2010

America: A Christian nation?

I found this exchange about the idea of America as a Christian Nation from a newspaper, it was between Bruce Gourley and Blake Dunlop.

Original letter by Bruce Gourley:

Don't cling to myth of U.S. as Christian nation (12/22/08)

I would like to second Tom Stonecipher's excellent comments on the myth of America as a Christian nation.

Many Christians in America today have forgotten their own history, both religious and national. In 2009 Baptists will celebrate their 400th anniversary. In the 17th and 18th centuries Baptists, heavily persecuted by colonial theocracies, led the way in embracing a pluralistic society and insisting upon full religious liberty and separation of church and state.

Baptists' perseverance in the face of religious and state persecution led to the founding of America as the world's first secular nation, including the adoption of separation of church and state in the First Amendment. England was so mortified, when the new nation left God out of its Constitution, that some English leaders accused America of being an atheist nation.

Why did Baptists (and some other Christian groups) insist that America be founded as a secular nation? Because they realized that true religion is voluntary, not coerced. This fundamental belief is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago. Christians of the late 18th century clearly understood that our country was founded as a secular nation (although not all were happy about the matter; some wished for a theocracy). Clinging to the historical myth of America as a Christian nation is historical dishonesty, as well as a slap in the face of our spiritual forefathers (and foremothers).

Bruce Gourley Churchill

Blake Dunlop's response:

U.S. is indeed a Christian nation (12/28/08) Bruce Gourley (Dec. 22 letter, "Don't cling to myth of U.S. as Christian nation") must think that if he repeats his "secular nation" mantra enough, he'll bludgeon people into believing it, but the idea that the early republic was a secular nation would have astonished our founders.

If Gourley were right, he'd have a hard time explaining, among other things, why the first Congress purchased Bibles for distribution in the Northwest Territory (most of today's Great Lake states), why Congress opens its daily sessions with a prayer, and why many states had established (i.e., tax-supported) churches, some persisting well into the 19th century.

Above all, Gourley would have to tangle with John Jay, who wrote approvingly in Federalist No. 2, "that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people--a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, ..." (Note that Jay's famous words were decisively no paean to "diversity," which many of our contemporaries seem bent on imposing as the national religion.)

The First Amendment, as originally understood, merely stipulated that there be no established national church--no denomination favored by the federal government nor supported by federal monies. And the Constitution's Article VI assures that there's no religious test to hold national office.

But the founding generation took it for granted that Americans were predominantly Protestants of various denominations, with a few Catholics and Jews mixed in. They didn't think America was a society of non-religious people, a "secular nation." Jewish writer Ilana Mercer understands all this: Recently, defending Christmas displays on public property, she referred to Christianity as "America's founding faith."

Indeed. Merry Christmas to all, from an atheist.

Blake Dunlop Bozeman

Bruce Gourley's response:

America was founded as a secular nation (1/1/09)Blake Dunlop's (Dec. 28 letter, "U.S. is indeed a Christian nation") assertion that America was founded as a Christian nation does not square with historical fact. Christians of the late 18th century would be astonished that contemporary Christians believe our nation was founded as a Christian nation.

Yes, theocracies existed at the colonial state level prior to the American Revolution (and persecuted Baptists, Quakers, and non-Christians). However, at the insistence of Baptists, Deists, and many others, our founding fathers rejected theocracy and chose a secular government structure. Yes, some states continued to collect taxes for churches into the early 19th century, because some Christians yet yearned for some degree of theocracy. And yes, people of all manner (not just Christians) in the late 18th and 19th centuries spoke to the vague notion of "providence." John Jay's reference to "providence" is akin to the deism of most of our founding fathers, as is the formal offering of prayer to a distant universal force or supreme being.

Baptist leader John Leland declared, in 1794, that the state has no reason to care whether "a man worships one God, three Gods, 20 Gods, or no God." Baptists as a whole helped ensure that America's founding principles, in terms of religion, were religious liberty, separation of church and state, and pluralism.

In short, America, like most other nations throughout history, has always been a nation of religious persons (as Tyler Mills in a Dec. 29 letter, "Why try so hard to downplay religion?", correctly notes). But unlike all other nations prior to the late 18th century, America is a secular nation that believes the best way to honor religious faith--and lack of faith--is to separate church (and mosque and synagogue) from state.

Bruce Gourley Churchill

Blake Dunlop's reply:

America substantively a Christian society (1/17/09)In his letters (Dec. 22 and Jan.1) about the religious character of the early Republic, Bruce Gourley hammers us with boilerplate--"America was founded as a secular nation"--as though sheer repetition will convince. His boilerplate is based on the false premise that the Constitution was co-extensive with America itself, so that if the national government was secular, then America was a secular nation. But the Constitution merely created a federal governing structure, leaving most of the substance of the society, including religion, to the states.

Further, it's not even correct to say that the national government was secular: Congress has always held daily prayers, and the First Congress mandated distribution of Bibles in the territories. So the correct description of our national government isn't that it was secular, but that it didn't establish one Christian denomination over others.

Gourley's underlying conceptual mistake is to characterize a polity without a religious establishment as "secular" and a polity with a religious establishment as "theocratic." Thus, nonsensically, he derides all colonies and states with religious establishments as "theocracies." A religious establishment doesn't mean that the government is run by God, saints, or holy men, as in a theocracy. "Establishment" simply means that one denomination is supported by taxes and that membership in it is required for public officeholders.

Also, I didn't say that the U.S. was "founded as a Christian nation," a phrase implying that the Constitution declared America to be Christian. I said that, in the Founding era, America was substantively a Christian society, its common beliefs, morals, and religious practices being Christian, and with Christian religious establishments in many states. The Constitution added atop this Christian society a national government that was barred both from establishing a national religion and from interfering with the states' religious establishments.

Blake Dunlop Bozeman

To say that America is not a Christian Nation is true in the sense that the federal government, or the Constitution, makes no direct mention of Christianity, and the First Amendment obviously prohibits any establishment of religion by the federal Congress.

A key point to remember though, which is constantly overlooked, ignorned or just forgotten, is that the federal government is not supposed to be considered the totality of the United States. The federal government is a system created to support the states, to help them handle certain indispensable governmental functions that the states could not handle themselves, the states thus delegate certain powers to the federal government. The states, which comprised the actual substance of what American society was and is, were certainly founded on religion and many of them even had established religions by this point. By contrast, the federal government was seen as a neutral voice and shell to hold together the disparate states. That's why the First Amendment prohibited any establishment of religion by the federal Congress, even as the states continued with their religious establishments. Since the states had different majority religions and different established religions, the federal government, in order to hold the states together, had to be neutral as regards religion.

In 1620 for instance, the Puritans made there religion the official faith of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

They made membership in their congregations a requirement to vote in civic elections. They charged all citizens – members of the congregations or not – taxes for the support of the clergy and the congregations. And they could arrest citizens who “absented themselves from the Ordinances of Publicke Worshipe,”.

The Pilgrims with there Puritan Congregational Church were aloud to tax, arrest, and expel Baptists, Catholics, Quakers and Jews with the appoval of there state.

It wasn't Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” nor the First Amendment, that changed this system. It was the peoples views on tax politics that eventually caused the change.

If you read the First Amendment carefully you will see that it says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

At the time the First Amendment was signed, Massachusetts was one of two states with what are called established churches – official state churches, supported by taxes. And the First Amendment was carefully worded so that Congress could not make any law that would interfere with those official state churches. The Congregational Church lost its preferential status in Connecticut in 1818; in Massachusetts (which for most of this period included what is now Maine) in 1830.

So as often as later legal decisions would cite the “wall of separation” phrase, this concept is simply not there in the First Amendment.

It comes from this passage from a letter Thomas Jefferson's sent to the Danbury Baptists Association in 1802:

... I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

His equating of non-establishment of religion with separation of church and state, was personally how Jefferson wished the Constitution had been conceived and how he wanted it to be interpreted, but it was not how it had been originally formed and agreed upon collectively amongst the founders.

As for the original intention. The United States Constitution, while "made only for a moral and religious [i.e. Christian] people ... [and] wholly inadequate to the government of any other," in Adams's famous words, is not formally or offically Christian. In the formal sense, the U.S. government is not founded on the Christian religion. But that government, as delineated by the Constitution, comes from an overwhelmingly Protestant Christian people, was made for an overwhelmingly Protestant Christian people, and would have been impossible without an overwhelmingly Protestant Christian people."

Further, even at the time that the Treaty of Tripoli was being made, written up and signed, the Congress started its sesssions with prayers, the Congress had Bibles distributed to the federal territories, and did other things that directly promoted and expressed a connection with the Christian religion. What the Congress did not do was establish any Christian denomination as a favored denomination, favour one over the other, which is what was and is meant by an the term "establishment of religion".

The prohibition against establishment of religion by the federal Congress was obviously later distorted, manipulated and then turned into a direct prohibition not only of establishment of religion in the states and localities, but a prohibition against any form of religious expression by the states and localities. The absence of any reference direct or indirect to religion or Christianity within the federal Constitution was ultimately turned into the idea that America as such was a secular country/nation and was designed to be one; and with the destruction of the states' reserved powers, the federal courts gained the power to impose secularism or at least a form of Anti-Christian secularism on the entire country.

Also to note is that the preambles of the Constitutions of all 50 states make some reference to God. Attempts were made in the 19th century to add language acknowledging God to the U.S. Constitution by amendment, but they failed.


  1. It has been my understanding that at the time of ratification six or seven (and merely two) States had established churches.

  2. You may be right. I've looked it up and its says several in the articles I've seen, which implies more than two, but it isn't specific.

    There's direct mentions of two though. Connecticut which had a state reilgion until it replaced its colonial Charter with the Connecticut Constitution of 1818; Massachusetts retained an establishment of religion in general until 1833. The Massachusetts system required every man to belong to some church, and pay taxes towards it; while it was formally neutral between denominations, in practice the indifferent would be counted as belonging to the majority denomination.

    I found this though:

    "Religious beliefs or the lack of them have therefore not been permissible tests or qualifications with regard to federal employees since the ratification of the Constitution. Seven states, however, have language included in their Bill of Rights, Declaration of Rights, or in the body of their constitutions that require state office-holders to have particular religious beliefs. These states are Texas, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Tennessee."

    Which is different from what were talking about but there is seven states where this applies.

  3. 1.

    Given the republican nature of our government, I agree with you that it is only natural and expected that the laws enacted by our government--in both the founders' time and today--largely reflect Christianity's dominant influence in our society. That said, there is no reason to suppose that Christianity or theism is an inherent aspect of our constitutional government. Indeed, any such claim is antithetical to the constitutional principle against government establishment of religion. In assessing the nature of our government, the religiosity of the various founders, while informative, is largely beside the point. Whatever their religions, they drafted a Constitution that plainly establishes a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity) and says nothing substantive of god(s) or religion except in the First Amendment where the point is to confirm that each person enjoys religious liberty and that the government is not to take steps to establish religion and another provision precluding any religious test for public office.

    You are quite right to note that the First Amendment constrains only the federal government and not the states and that, at the time of the founding, some states had established religions. The First Amendment reflects, at the federal level, a "disestablishment" political movement then sweeping the country. That political movement succeeded in disestablishing all state religions by the mid-1830s. (Side note: A political reaction to that movement gave us the term "antidisestablishmentarianism," which amused some of us as kids.)

    While the First Amendment undoubtedly was intended to preclude the government from favoring one Christian denomination over others as you note, that was hardly the limit of its intended scope. The first Congress debated and rejected just such a narrow provision ("no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed") and ultimately chose the more broadly phrased prohibition now found in the Amendment. In keeping with the Amendment's terms and legislative history, the courts have wisely interpreted it to restrict the government from taking steps that could establish religion de facto as well as de jure. Were the Amendment interpreted merely to preclude government from enacting a statute formally sponsoring a government church or religion, the intent of the Amendment could easily be circumvented by Congress and/or the Executive doing all sorts of things to promote this or that religion--stopping just short of formally establishing a church.

  4. 2.

    James Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to "[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government." Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., "the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress" and "for the army and navy" and "[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts"), he considered the question whether these actions were "consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom" and responded: "In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion."

    That was the circumstance until the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted after the Civil War. It guaranteed individual rights against infringement by states, including equal protection and due process of law and the rights and privileges of citizenship. In deciding what rights are encompassed by the Fourteenth Amendment, the courts have looked to the Bill of Rights, reasoning that there are found the rights we hold most fundamental, and have ruled that at least some of those, including freedom of religion and freedom from government established religion, are protected from state infringement. See, e.g.,

    Consequently, today no government, federal or state, can promote or otherwise take steps to establish religion. That hardly means, though, that religion has been purged from the public square. Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state--as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you.

  5. One can't help but wonder what certain persons imagine they're doing, given that they haven't the foggiest understanding of what they like to imagine they are arguing against.

  6. Is this where someone enthuses "Wow! Deep"?

  7. Apologies for the late reply.

    I should clarify my point was about the Founding of the American government, not about now or any time after the passing of the 14th Amendment.

    A lot of your points though, do seem to be based on misunderstandings of what I wrote. My main point was that, when the constitution was created, America was an overtly Christian country, with an overtly Christian people and culture, the founders new this, and believed it to be an important and necessary part of what America was, even if they did not explicitly mention it in the Founding documents and my other point was to show the separation between the federal government and the states in relation to how they can or at least could approach religion. The federal government couldn't get involved with religion or Christianity directly (though they did promote it as I pointed with there distribution of Bibles) because they feared that looking to support one denomination over the other would lead to civil unrest or sectarian violence, because of historical examples of this phenomenon, mixed in with there lockean sensibilities and philosophy.

    "That said, there is no reason to suppose that Christianity or theism is an inherent aspect of our constitutional government."

    My point wasn't that the constitution was in some way Christian (even though it was clearly influenced by Christian principles), my point was that the constitution wasn't supposed to represent all that is America, I was talking about the limits of the constitution in relation to religion. The Government acted in ways that overtly promoted Christianity even though they failed to mention it in the Founding documents, showing these limits.

    "Whatever their religions, they drafted a Constitution that plainly establishes a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity) and says nothing substantive of god(s) or religion except in the First Amendment where the point is to confirm that each person enjoys religious liberty and that the government is not to take steps to establish religion and another provision precluding any religious test for public office."

    The central Federal branch was designed to be secular, but the states were aloud to make decisions related to religion for themselves. As I pointed out in certain states there are religious tests for office and there were also state supported churches, proving this point.

  8. "Is this where someone enthuses "Wow! Deep"?"

    No, this is where someone suggests that someone else is conflating being "in over his head" for being "in deap."