October 16, 2007
Browse the internet and you will find hundreds of sites and essays debating whether the United States is a Christian nation. Many claim that the mixture of religion and politics is volatile, and no aspect of their relationship currently causes more furor than this issue. Evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and secularists have all joined this heated debate.
The most recent cause of contention is John McCain’s statement in an interview on Beliefnet. Responding to a survey reporting that 55 percent of Americans believe the U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation, McCain stated that “this nation was founded primarily in Christian principles” and that he preferred “someone who has a grounding in my faith” as president. His remarks evoked a firestorm of protest from various groups. A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations complained that McCain’s comment violated “the traditions of American ... religious pluralism and inclusion.” The executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council accused McCain of being a “religious right mouthpiece.”
Those—primarily evangelicals—who argue that the United States is a Christian nation emphasize the Christian convictions of the founders, most notably Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Witherspoon, and John Jay. They point to the acknowledgement of God and the Christian language used in the constitutions of the first thirteen states. Advocates of this position frequently quote references made by Supreme Court justices to America as a Christian nation and the 1892 Supreme Court decision (Holy Trinity v. United States) that declared that the United States is “a Christian nation.” In addition, they contend that both the widespread use of the religiously-informed McGuffey Readers in public schools in the antebellum years and public pronouncements of numerous presidents affirming America’s religious heritage and values testify to the nation’s Christian commitment. They argue further that adding the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, adopting “In God We Trust” as the national motto in 1956, and printing these words on our money demonstrate that the United States is a Christian nation.
Opponents, led by the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, counter that America has never officially been a Christian nation. They stress that many of the founders, especially Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and John Adams, were not orthodox Christians. The Constitution, they argue, is a completely secular document that does not mention God or Christianity. Moreover, efforts to amend it to acknowledge Christ’s political authority have repeatedly failed. In addition, the Constitution prohibited the establishment of a national church thereby separating church and state. The Treaty with Tripoli, unanimously approved by the Senate in 1797, they point out, states that the “government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion....” Finally, they accentuate various Supreme Court rulings since 1947, all of which argue that the Constitution established a “wall of separation” between church and state and limits the place of religion in public life.
The historical evidence supports the conclusion that the United States was not founded as a Christian nation or state, but its culture and principles of government were greatly influenced by Christianity. Multiple ideological streams—Enlightenment, English Whig, and Christian—converged in the 1770s and 1780s to form the new United States. Moreover, the Christian heritage had previously absorbed many ideas from the non-Christian classical world. Because our nation’s roots are so diverse and the Constitution does not explicitly establish Christianity as the national religion, it is inaccurate to say that the United States is officially a Christian country.
Nevertheless, many of the nation’s underlying principles, while not distinctively Christian, are compatible with biblical faith. Principles drawn from both the Enlightenment and Christian worldviews, though rooted in very different assumptions, taught that humans crave power, that public virtue is necessary and possible, and that society and government should be based on transcendent standards. Because people innately desire power, the founders insisted, they must be controlled and restrained. These convictions led them to push for political checks and balances, religious liberty, and the independence of religious and civic institutions from each other.
During its history the United States has become increasingly diverse religiously, and today significant numbers of our citizens are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic, or atheist. Thus we must safeguard the right of all religious communities to worship as they please, insure that all groups have the same civil rights, and treat one another with civility.
Although the debate over our nation’s religious heritage is important, it is more important for people of faith to articulate and incarnate their values and apply them to public life. Poverty, hunger, unemployment, sex trafficking, environmental devastation, abortion, and AIDS all deeply affect our world. America’s religious communities should combat these social ills through their congregations, voluntary organizations, and the political activities of their members. As citizens of a democracy, we have the power to shape our laws and governmental spending to help remedy these problems. As religiously committed Americans, we have the responsibility to put our faith into action to help produce a better world.
Gary Scott Smith chairs the History Department at Grove City College and is the author of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2006).