Is the U.S. a Christian nation? On the campaign, John McCain asserted that it is. Barack Obama has insisted we are not. But what does the phrase mean?
There are two concepts to which the phrase “Christian nation” can be applied. The first concept is one in which the government itself directly upholds the cause of Christianity. Many Christian groups, most associated with conservatism, have endorsed that interpretation. For example, the Family Research Council has claimed that “Our founders expected that Christianity—and no other religion—would receive support from the government as long as that support did not violate peoples’ consciences and their right to worship.” Dozens of conservative books and websites proclaim that the concept of a wall of separation between Church and State is a myth. Many conservative Christian leaders and organizations, based on that premise, have actively promoted a greater integration of Church and State, seeking to use government power to advance their agendas. Even such supposedly libertarian conservatives as Ron Paul have argued against the separation and in favor of a Christian connection to our government.
Like the FRC, Paul and others who subscribe to that first concept of a Christian nation invoke the Founding Fathers. According to these religious conservatives, these Founding Fathers, fellow pious Christians, wanted this nation to be explicitly Christian in character, and would be shocked at the secularization of the government.
While there are some few nuggets of truth in their claims, one must pan out a whole lot of silt to find them. The colonies were indeed largely established as explicitly religious communities—most of them one particular denomination (Pennsylvania being the exception). Deviation from that denomination’s religion was legally restricted, as Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Baptists, and other minority faiths sadly discovered. Many in the U.S. are inaccurately taught in school that the original European immigrants came seeking religious freedom. In truth, these immigrants typically came to establish their own religious dominions. The pilgrims were so fanatical in their religious oppression, The crown in England sent a letter to Massachusetts demanding that local authorities stop executing his subjects for heresy.
The founding of the United States of America was altogether different. Before I explain, I should point out a historical misconception. In political debate, we frequently try to present the Founding Fathers as some harmonious body. But these generalizations are far from accurate. The founding generation was as factious and fractious a bunch as any. The debates were intense, their relationships frequently bitter. Those who present a particular political point of view as that of “The Founders” are incorrectly ascribing some unanimity to this diverse bunch.
Some of the founding generation were certainly conventional and deeply devout Christians who wanted the nation to be expressly and innately Christian. Like Mike Huckabee, those men wanted to mold the nation’s governing charter to “God’s standard.” Many of these men were outraged when—and here is a key point—the Constitution did not once address God. Virtually all prior government codes and charters in the Western tradition had very unequivocally prevailed upon and recognized God. Yet in the final bargain the Constitution conspicuously declined any such invocation. There is nothing within the founding document which supports the conservative claims.
Christian conservatives like to take selected words of the critical founders out of context to give the impression that they share with today’s Christians a similar faith. Given the way founders are described in LDS circles, one might even believe them some sort of pre-Restoration LDS quorum. But research on the wider scope of their lives reveals that none of the men most prominent in the founding of the U.S. can accurately be associated with conventional Christianity. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison all scoffed at the idea of the divinity of Christ and other core theological principles of Christianity. Each was highly skeptical of the organizations which had risen up around those beliefs. Institutionalized religion was frequently a target of Franklin’s wit. Jefferson believed that it was religion—the hierarchical structures and the orthodoxy they enforce—which had perverted the simple and beautiful doctrines of Jesus by building up the superstitions of his divinity. Even Adams, more tolerant of religion as a necessary evil than the other two, caustically erupted numerous times over one religion or another in his private correspondence. George Washington was much more circumspect on religion than the others. He served on the vestry of his local Episcopal congregation, as men of his status in Virginia were expected to do. He frequently made reference to a higher power in his discourse, both civic and private—the private references often in the form of thundering expletives. But he rarely chose Christian phrases for God in public, preferring instead masonic or deist epithets. While he often attended services, it is well attested that he never took communion. Rarely did he make mention of Christ, let alone discuss Jesus as his Savior, despite the persistent urging of the Christian leaders of his era. Some call the faith of these men Theistic Rationalism. Whatever we may believe about their postmortal religious beliefs and affiliations (Journal of Discourses, vol. 19, p. 229), during their earthly probation their beliefs can hardly be considered akin to the religious right—whether conventional Christian or conservative LDS.
The extent to which these men believed government should be interwoven with religion varied. Washington and Adams were agreeable to a general collaboration between Church and State. Washington felt religious institutions useful partners to government in establishing order in society, though he was indifferent to the doctrine of those institutions. Adams, despite his personal theological heterodoxy, believed Christian organizations and their doctrines should be supported by the government for their role in restraining the less savory aspects of our humanity (the cantankerous Adams derided most religion, but he was even more dubious about the prospects for humanity without it). Under these Presidents, the ones who made “so help me God” an unofficial addition to the Presidential oath of office, federally sponsored days of fasting and prayer were not uncommon, and the wall between Church and State was fairly permeable. Even so, Adams signed an official treaty which noted that “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion… (Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, 1796, article 11).”
Things were decidedly different with the next two presidents, Jefferson and Madison. Unlike their predecessors, these two outraged the religious establishment by refusing to call for national days of fasting and prayer during their administrations, seeing such declarations as unconstitutional (see “Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Rev. Samuel Millar,” 01.23.1808). Jefferson was indeed very insistent that there be the “wall of separation” between Church and State. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, for which Jefferson had been the foremost architect, was to him such a crowning achievement that it was one of the three accomplishments he selected to list in his epitaph. As he put it
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 17,1782).
Even more adamant about the necessity to separate Church and State, Madison’s original proposal for what became the First Amendment was stunning in its scope before being watered down in congressional compromise.
The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner or on any pretext infringed (Amendments Offered in Congress by James Madison June 8, 1789)
Madison was not content to prevent government collusion with religion on a national level. States-rights proponents who list Jefferson and Madison as unqualified advocates of states supremacy over the federal government might be surprised to read the fifth amendment Madison submitted in his draft of amendments.
No State shall violate the equal rights of conscience, or the freedom of the press, or the trial by jury in criminal cases (ibid, emphasis added)
(Those same “states rights” absolutists should also note that Madison’s original “Virginia Plan” which he presented to the Constitutional Convention maintained that the federal government needed a “negative” power—essentially a federal veto—over state legislatures; see “Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson,” 24.10.1787).
During his administration, Madison opposed the common practice of government chaplains, whether for the military, state-funded universities, or Congress. If individuals or groups wished spiritual guidance, he determined that they should seek it out on their own and if necessary, with their own funds. He fought the government practice of incorporating church properties. When Christian groups petitioned to have the U.S. postal service closed on Sundays in observance of the Sabbath, Madison actively opposed their efforts. He resisted any government involvement with private charities connected with religion.
Madison’s stated belief is most stark in defense of religious freedom and a separation of Church and State.
We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society [ie, government] and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance (Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments; emphasis added).
Exempt from its cognizance. Often when describing issues touching upon the relationship between Church and State, the phrase “religious tolerance” is used. But Madison’s vision is not one of a Christian-based government practicing kindly tolerance of other faiths. He well knew “tolerance” was arbitrary and “a source itself of discord and animosity, (“Letter from Madison to Edward Everett,” 03.19.1823).” Madison proposed a government completely blind to religion, one which does not even recognize the existence of religion.
These two men most closely associated with our founding documents, these icons of the early American Republicanism which conservatives invoke, strongly favored a disassociate between Church and State. In claiming that there is no historical foundation for this separation, conservatives show a profound ignorance and lack of understanding about the founding of our nation, the men who were instrumental in that founding, and the document which governs the nation.
- Separation of Church and State IV: Religious and Moral Legislation