Is America a Christian Nation?
Believe it or not, this is a more complicated question than one might imagine.
On the one hand, those who argue against the proposition point to several key pieces of evidence. First, many if not most of the Founders of the country cannot be described accurately as Christians but as Deists, persons who believe that a benevolent Creator set the world in motion but no longer intervenes in it. Indeed, Washington would never publicly admit to being a Christian and Jefferson was regularly accused of being hostile to Christianity and famously took his scissors to the Bible to cut out any incidences of divine interaction.
Further, the United States has always been home to a multitude of faith traditions and, indeed, was imagined from the beginning to be a religious haven. The first of the Amendments to The U.S. Constitution, collectively known as the “Bill of Rights,” states clearly that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This not only guaranteed freedom of belief but also ensured that no single religion would be given privileges over others.
So on both historical and constitutional grounds, you can argue strongly that America is definitely not a Christian nation.
At the same time, though, it’s difficult to contend that any faith has exercised even close to the amount of influence that Christianity has. The first universities in the country – including most of what we now call the “Ivy League” – were established to train Christian clergy. An overwhelming number of welfare institutions from hospitals and orphanages to immigration and refugee services were established by churches. For many years, church attendance was considered a cultural value, and while that has waned in recent decades in some parts of the country, belief in God – and usually this means the Christian God – still runs high.
Further, whatever the current church-going habits or religious beliefs of the population, Americans adorn themselves in religious imagery and language, from the motto “in God we trust” on our money to the “so help me God” that Washington improvised in his acceptance of the presidency. Indeed, it’s hard today to imagine a candidate for our highest office closing a major speech with any words other than “God bless America.” As Darrin Grinder, author of The Presidents and Their Faith, says in a recent CNN interview, “It’s going to be a long time before anyone who openly admits that he or she is an agnostic or an atheist is elected.”
For these reasons, those who support the notion of a “Christian America” can convincingly argue that the de facto stance of this country has been to privilege the belief of, if not simply Christianity, at least what’s often called “the Judeo-Christian tradition” because of its central place in this nation’s evolution.
Beyond how one answers this question, however, two elements of the debate are worth noting. The first is the energy, even ferocity, behind the answers people on either side of the divide give. There is much at stake, it would seem, in identifying America as either Christian or pluralistic. This seems particularly, and somewhat paradoxically, true of believers who want to “keep God in America,” but overlook Jesus’ words “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) or his admonition to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:7, Matt. 22:21, Luke 20:25). Given their belief that God founded America and indeed has given it a privileged place in the history of the world, conservative Christians often act as if a pluralistic America is tantamount to sacrilege. Christian belief and American identity are for many interwoven so tightly that we might with good reason describe the prevailing religion of this country “Americanity.”
Those who oppose identifying the United States as Christian are hardly less vehement. Such an identification runs the risk not only of betraying our constitutional heritage, they argue, but of inviting a theocracy in which the rights of persons who hold “minority” faiths or no faith at all are jeopardized. Influenced by Jefferson’s more absolute sense of “the wall of separation between church and state,” they take the first amendment not as admonition to protect religious freedom from the interference of government but instead to protect government from religion.
Beyond the passion each position exhibits for their views, however, what interests me even more is the tendency of both sides to overlook the biblical implications of claiming God’s divine providence. Throughout the Bible, Israel enjoyed not only special favor but significant responsibility because of its relationship with God. The promise made to Abraham, the principal forebear of both Judaism and Christianity, involves both blessing and duty: “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2).
While Presidents invoking God’s blessing on America may neglect the biblical sensibility that we are always “blessed to be a blessing,” early religious leaders in the United States did not. John Winthrop, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, preached a sermon in which he imagined America as a “city set upon a hill.” But while Presidents since, most particularly Ronald Reagan, took that image to establish a divine exceptionalism for this country, Winthrop himself believed that America would be blessed by God only to the degree that it followed God’s ordinances.
And what are those ordinances? The prophet Micah answers as clearly as any: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). Israel is again and again admonished to care for the poor and warned that they will be judged not simply, or even primarily, on their religious practices but on their treatment of the vulnerable. Indeed, religious practice apart from acts of mercy is rejected by God as false piety. As Amos warns those who “lie on beds of ivory and…eat lambs from the flock,” while others go hungry (6:4-6):
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:21-24)
Here is religious devotion more than ample to satisfy the pious cravings of anyone from the right that is simultaneously anchored in a social consciousness that would warm the cockles of the heart of anyone on the left.
So perhaps on this Fourth of July when we celebrate and give thanks for the liberties and luxuries that citizenship in this nation affords, the question both religious and secular alike might ask is not, “Is America a Christian nation?’” but rather, “What would it be like if America acted like one?”
Post image: Chaplain Jacob Duché leading the first prayer in the First Continental Congress at Carpenter’s Hall, Philadelphia, September 1774; artist unknown.