Dispelling the myth of a ‘Christian nation’

(Brandon Thibodeaux — GETTY IMAGES) Culture warriors, pseudo historians and opportunistic politicians have spent the last several decades peddling the … Continued

(Brandon Thibodeaux — GETTY IMAGES)

Culture warriors, pseudo historians and opportunistic politicians have spent the last several decades peddling the myth that America was founded as a “Christian nation.”

The propaganda appears to be working.

A majority of the American people (51 percent) believes that the U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation, according to the State of the First Amendment survey released last month by the First Amendment Center.

Because language about a Christian America has long been a staple of Religious Right rhetoric, it’s not surprising that acceptance of this patently false interpretation of the Constitution is strongest among evangelicals (71 percent) and conservatives (67 percent).

But even many non-evangelical Christians (47 percent) and liberals (33 percent) appear to believe the fiction of a constitutionally mandated Christian America is historical fact.

Forgive me for being snippy, but read the Constitution.

Nowhere will you find mention of God, Christ or any intention to found a Christian nation.

On the contrary, the only reference to religion in the Constitution before the addition of the Bill of Rights comes in Article VI:

This means that political power in the United States may never be limited to people of one faith a necessary condition for a “Christian nation” but must be open to people of all faiths or none.

Barring a religious test for office sparked widespread outrage in 1787, especially in states with religious tests designed to make sure that only Protestants or Christians would ever be allowed to hold elected office.

But in their wisdom, the Framers in Philadelphia knew that the time had come to break from the precedents of history and bar any religious group from ever imposing itself on the nation using the engine of government.

Even this wasn’t good enough for Thomas Jefferson and other founders who wanted to prohibit any and all entanglement of government and religion in the new nation.

In 1791, the opening words of the First Amendment “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ” were added to the Constitution, further ensuring a fully secular state with a guarantee of religious freedom for all.

Of course, some of the founders (not unlike some Americans today) worried that “no establishment” might lead to a breakdown in Christian values in American culture. Alexander Hamilton, for example, contemplated the creation of a “Christian Constitutional Society” to promote Christian virtues and principles among the people.

But in spite of this anxiety, drafters of the Constitution took the radical step of founding the first nation in history with no established religion.

Truth be told, they had little choice.

Religious divisions among the many Protestant sects in 18th century America were deep and abiding. Anglicans, Quakers, Baptists, Congregationalists and many others fought bitterly over what it meant to be “Christian” although almost all could agree that “Papists” (Roman Catholics) were followers of the anti-Christ.

In other words, religious diversity at America’s founding made a necessity of religious freedom because no one group had the power or the numbers to impose its version of true faith Christian or otherwise on all others.

It is worth remembering, however, that principles as much as practical politics inspired many of our founders to define religious freedom as requiring no establishment of religion.

Roger Williams, to cite the earliest and best example, founded the colony of Rhode Island in 1636 out of his conviction that only by erecting a “wall or hedge of separation” between the “garden of the church” and “the wilderness of the world” would it be possible to protect liberty of conscience as required by God.

Religious freedom, Williams argued, is itself a Christian principle.

Any attempt to establish a Christian nation, therefore, always has been and always will be unjust, dangerous and profoundly un-Christian.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington.

Written by

  • salero21

    Yes absolutely, it is a myth, a fable an old wives tale, a pretension, a tall tale but that is so American anyways.

  • B-Reasonable

    Christianity was designed for those First Century followers who (erroneously) thought the world was going to end in their lifetimes. Real New Testament morality prescribes that you give away all you have, take no thought for the morrow, repudiate your family if they do not do the same, be wholly passive in all dealings even with nasty people, love everyone indiscriminately, and don’t have sex if you can help it. Where exactly are those principles in the Constitution? In point of fact, the New Testament never once mentions democracy, nor any of the values embodied in our Constitution or Bill of Rights, nor any of what most of us consider “American” values. There is absolutely no mention of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, freedom from self-incrimination, the right to a trial by a jury, or the equal protection of all people under our laws. The Gospels likewise make no mention of the establishment of separate executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, of checks and balances, of “states’ rights,” or of elections or voting. They make no mention of capitalism, free markets or property rights. They make no mention of the importance of family and, to the contrary, Jesus was often disrespectful to his mother and demanded that his followers abandon their families. There most assuredly is no mention of freedom of religion in the New Testament. Tell me, how is a Constitution which explicitly says that you are free to worship (or not worship) any god you choose — a flagrant rejection of the First Commandment — consistent with the idea of a Christian nation?

  • jeb_jackson

    Seems a reasonable approach. “Free exercise thereof,” however, seems to be in vogue for all religions except Christianity.

  • B-Reasonable

    “Free exercise thereof” does not mean that you can commandeer our government, its personnel and its properties for the purpose of proselytizing your religion. Is that really so hard to understand? The fact is that there are MILLIONS of Christian churches, Christian homes, Christian businesses and other parcels of Christian real estate where you can preach or erect your crosses or your 10 Commandments monuments. MILLIONS! That means that when you nonetheless insist on preaching in our legislative bodies and in our public schools, and in erecting your religious monuments in our public spaces, the rest of us have to ask, why? Why are you insisting on doing that? Aren’t your millions of other Christian spaces enough? Is it is just to prove to the rest of us that since you’re in the majority, you can do whatever you want, wherever you want? Because that’s the way it looks to the rest of us. It looks like sheer, unadulterated bullying.

    I’m sorry, but when non-Christians finally stand up and resist being bullied, it does not constitute “persecution” of Christians.

  • pjs-1965

    Why is western culture mostly Christian? Why do so many people believe in this stuff? My thought is that the Roman emperor Constantine was facing an empire that was falling apart politically and culturally. So in an expedient political move he chose Christianity, a popular religion at the time, to hold the empire together. Getting people to believe in the same thing is powerful. Whether he personally believed in it is questionable.

    Then he appointed a committee to nail down certain canons that were floating around to create a single standard which he then distributed throughout the empire. Some decades later, emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the official religion of the empire and effectively banned the old pagan religions.

    Because of these things, millions of people today believe that Jesus is their lord and personal saviour. Had Constantine chose something else, Christianity and Jesus might have long been forgotten and they would just as fervently believe in something else.

  • edbyronadams

    This is an interesting question. The first seeds of religious tolerance were planted in the West after the Thirty Years War and they grew through the troubles in England before and after the civil war there. They fully bloomed in the establishment clause of the Bill of Rights. That said, I doubt that the adopters of the First Amendment really thought it applied to anything other than Christian sects. We benefit from their lack of imagination.

    Recognizing the long and bloody history in the West that gave rise to religious tolerance should make us wary of cultures that have not yet learned that lesson however.

  • Joe Painter

    Someone commented that England has a state religion – not anymore. But my favorite error is Jefferson and the First Amendment – again not true. Jefferson was in France at the time of the Bill of Rights. James Madison wrote the religious clause with assistance of a Baptist Pastor from Virginia.

    Why do we have Chaplains in the military? Why has “In God We Trust'” been on our coins since 1868″? One of the verses to the “Star Spangled Banner” in “God be our Trust”. Why is it you heathen want try to argue so poorly. I do not claim to be a genius (education – Ph.D. & J.D.)(none framed).

    I read not only the Bible(I have 18 translations), I also read books from different eras (100 B.C. up).

    I have come to the conclusion that the only acceptable form of discrimination is that of Christians. Anyone who disagrees with be have scales.

    I am a devout Christian (Episcopalian. There goes the “Bible Thumber” line.

  • B-Reasonable

    Why do you Christians argue (and write) so poorly? So many errors, so little time:

    1. Jefferson and Madison corresponded on the Bill of Rights while Jefferson was in France and, in fact, the 1st Amendment was inspired by and modeled on Jefferson’s Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.
    2. In God We Trust has not been on our coins “since 1868.” It first appeared on a two cent piece in 1864 during the Civil War when, just like every other country in war time, we wanted to claim that God was on our side. It was used intermittently on various coins after that, and has appeared consistently on all coins only since 1938.

  • B-Reasonable


    3. The Star Spangled Banner is a song, not a legal document. Our important legal documents, such as the Constitution, do not contain any substantive mention of “God,” and certainly not of “Jesus.” Indeed, the only reference to religion in the Constitution as originally adopted was a negative one, expressly prohibiting any religious test for holding public office.

  • Hildy J

    Since no one answered me yesterday, I’ll ask you to name one judeo-christian value that is enumerated anywhere in either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights?

    The only one I can see that even comes close is “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”.

  • tatooyou

    I ask asked the same question and got no answer either. Oh well ….

  • larryclyons

    just another drive by troll.

  • B-Reasonable


    4. I almost forgot to add that the Church of England is still the official state church of England.

  • Catken1

    We have chaplains in the military from all sorts of religious persuasions, to provide religious and spiritual support and counsel to soldiers of all religions, not just Christian. At the moment, people are working to have humanist chaplains accepted and permitted for soldiers who follow that philosophy, and I think that’s only fair.
    There is still, and should not be, no religious requirement for military service. Chaplains are provided as support for those who want it, not as religious enforcement officers.

  • pastorjimleavitt

    B-R as a Baptist minister, let me tell you that you are correct. Not allowing someone to impose their interpretation of their holy scripture is not persecuting that person or group. Further, I would say that if a person or denomination feels that they have to impose their will on everyone, in the way that the Roman emperors did in expanding Christianity through their conquest of other peoples, then I have to wonder how strong and true to the teachings of Jesus, is their so-called faith. It is not up to me as a minister, my church, my denomination or my faith, to impose its tenets on all. Rather it is up to me, through the way I live my life, and treat and speak with others, to invite others to learn about my faith and through that have a desire to learn more and live out that faith themselves.

  • northernharrier

    Mr. Haynes is correct, but I would add that attempts to establish a Christian nation are not just unjust, dangerous, and un-Christian – they are also unconstitutional, as the 1st amendment bars laws based on religion.

    Note that the prohibition on religious law is worded carefully to prohibit laws based on religion – any religion – it does not just bar laws based on one particular religion or biased in favor of one sect over others. The establishment clause was worded carefully to bar law based on religion – any and all religion. Jefferson and Madison even said this is what they meant – they called for a “wall of separation” between religion and the state (Jefferson’s words). Accordingly, the recent interpretation of the establishment clause as barring only laws favoring one religion over others is clearly incorrect.

  • tatooyou

    All the so-called Christian denominations represented in the military’s chaplain service of all armies of the world, fail as Christian clergy and pastors as Christian spiritual leaders. Didn’t JC say to love one’s enemies and turn the other cheek ? I don’t remember JC or his followers being in Caesar’s armies.

  • northernharrier

    Ridiculous. Insisting on being treated equally is not in any way the same as discriminating against other beliefs. You, and many other Christians, act like it oppresses you to have other peoples’ beliefs treated with respect. Pure nonsense, and pure hypocrisy, as well.

  • Hildy J

    For everyone’s enlightenment, the context of Jefferson’s “altar of god” quote:

    “The delusion into which the X. Y. Z. [sic] plot shewed it possible to push the people; the successful experiment made under the prevalence of that delusion on the clause of the constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro’ the U. S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

  • northernharrier

    Thanks Hildy – good context.

  • Hildy J

    We beat our swords into predator drones, the better to smite the heathen.

  • tatooyou

    One man’s heathen is another man’s hypocrite.

  • alltheroadrunnin

    pjs – Ah, a historian, at least the best truth of history that we can know. My wonder today is, why all this fear at Christianity — whatever it is and whatever its forms? There is no doubt that it saved the Roman empire, in it’s new form, for another thousand years. Every founder of the USA was raised on Christian teaching, the most interesting of which was the promotion of science, and the an openness to more liberal political ideas. If one wants to really understand “Reason,” read Voltaire and Montaigne — not their critics, their actual words. I notice nobody does that, anymore. And, for History, one might start with Will Durant, and his eleven volume, “The Story of Civilization.” But first, read Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy,” for some background. After that, one can get really into more of the college stuff, by which one will now see the agendas, and understand the ruling of human nature is not an easy rule.

  • Catken1

    “My wonder today is, why all this fear at Christianity — whatever it is and whatever its forms? ”

    Because we’ve seen what happens when religion – any religion, but there are numerous examples featuring Christianity – takes over a government?

  • Catken1

    And many of us remember some of the things that Roman Empire did in those thousand years, particularly to those who didn’t want to believe the “right” doctrine or obey the “right” religious rules….

  • pjs-1965

    alltherorad wrote “There is no doubt that it saved the Roman empire, in it’s new form, for another thousand years.”

    Well, that’s kind of my point, isn;t it? Constantine needed something to shore up the empire and it did indeed work, for another 1,000 years (at least in the east).

    “Every founder of the USA was raised on Christian teaching, the most interesting of which was the promotion of science, and the an openness to more liberal political ideas.”

    Read Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason” to get an idea of what some of those Founding Fathers really thought of religion, especially Christianity. It might melt your eyes right out of their sockets.

  • pjs-1965

    “Every founder of the USA was raised on Christian teaching, the most interesting of which was the promotion of science, and the an openness to more liberal political ideas.”

    And exactly how is this? Christian thought, then as it is today, has been a stumbling block toward progress, liberal ideas and science. Examples like Giordano Bruno and Galileo come to mind.

  • Catken1

    No, your saying so does not make it so. And no, I’m not going to give you extra clicks and publicity so you can tell me I don’t belong in the country you think your religion owns.
    Non-Christian Americans are every bit as American as you. And there is NO religious test for American citizenship or officeholding, nor do Christians deserve special privileges from government for being of the “right” sort of faith.

  • Eddo1

    Our country was not founded as a Christian nation —- that’s why you don’t see any references to God or the Bible on any of our government buildings in Washington.

  • larryclyons

    By law and treaty the United States is not a Christian nation. In terms of laws treaties have precidence over statutory laws and is just below the Constition. In its first treaty aside from Britain, the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797, it was strongly affirmed that the US isn’t a Christian nation:
    Article 11:
    As the Government of 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 Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan 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.

    It was submitted to the Senate by President John Adams, receiving ratification unanimously from the U.S. Senate on June 7, 1797 and signed by Adams, taking effect as the law of the land on June 10, 1797.

    Now many of the original signers were in Congress at the time. IF the founders considered the United States to be an exclusively Christian nation, wouldn’t at least some of those in the Senate had objected to that section?

  • HoosYourDaddy

    It seems to have become popular to whine about your oppression as a Christian. Christ never whined about his and he was more oppressed than any Christian today could ever imagine. I wish the majority of the Christians out there would heed his example.

  • Jonfromcali

    Unfortunately, for conservative Christians the very notion of “the free exercise” of their religion means imposing their narrow values on everyone else. So, regardless of whether the “Christian nation” lie is perpetuated via false readings of (or refusals to read) the Constitution, there is no doubt that conservative Christians will continue to use the pressure of their loud and arrogant voices to deny rights and force bad policies on the rest of us. Just look at North Carolina and Texas for examples of what happens if you give these people an inch – they take society back 60 years.

  • Neal Reau

    America if anything is a Masonic nation. The list of Masons who founded this country has all the big names on it. There are some great old drawings and photos documenting this. Also, look at the symbolism at the capital and other government locations throughout America, it’s Masonic.

  • leibowde84

    It would most certainly take a whole lot more than “references to God or the Bible” to push the notion that somehow the US is a Christian Nation, when in Article 11 it clearly says that we are not.

  • mormonpatriot

    I agree completely that “religious freedom is itself a Christian principle”. There is no Christian justification for combining political and religious power – quite the opposite; “Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17) A related principle is that every man be responsible for himself, and left as free and unconstrained as possible (while still protecting individuals from each other’s excesses) to direct his own life and follow his conscience. As one of my favorite hymn states, “God will force no man to heaven.” If God will not, surely a nation should not try.

    So in summary, I don’t know what the author and the article in general is defining as a “Christian nation.” But in the ways mentioned above, and probably many others, this nation is built upon Christian principles. Perhaps a better definition of “Christian nation” as used in the aforementioned poll would help the discussion here.

  • mormonpatriot

    While the Establishment Clause certainly prohibits the combination of governmental and religious power, we must remember that individuals are indeed motivated by religious reasons, and they are protected in the exercise of their religious beliefs in all aspects of life, including the political. Therefore, on an individual level, every member of any church in the United States has both the right and responsibility to vote for laws which seem the best to him according to those principles which are most important to him, including religious principles. In other words, a vote and a person means as much to the government regardless of their religion or religious motivations.

    To say otherwise is to invite secularism (absence of faith in the Divine) to be the only fundamental driving force behind our laws. Let’s remember to thoroughly examine the consequences of what we’re saying. The avoidance of one religion gaining political power over the others does not mean proscription of the individual right to religion and his freedom of conscience.

  • USWarrior

    I don’t think anyone with a reasonable amount of intelligence disputes the fact that America isn’t a Christian Nation. I would argue however that America was founded by Christians who learned from their experiences in England that you cannot force your particular belief system on “everyone” as the King did, hence the departure of the 150 souls for the new world in 1620. These folks were smart enough to know a new system was required, so they put their own beliefs aside for the greater good and penned the Constitution granting freedom of religion for all.

  • Athenaea

    The better question here is : What do you define a Christian nation as?” I am sure from your writings here that it differs greatly from mine. Also Is FREEDOM a word encouraged or supported by any religion over any other? Were the founding fathers atheists? What religious group of people were the greatest number of settlers of this country during the first 100 years? (even before 1776)

  • Athenaea

    The better question here is : What do you define a Christian nation as?” I am sure from your writings here that it differs greatly from mine. Also Is FREEDOM a word encouraged or supported by any religion over any other? Were the founding fathers atheists? What religious group of people were the greatest number of settlers of this country during the first 100 years? (even before 1776)