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Many parts of North America were settled by Christians who devoted their communities to the service of God. Arguments and assumptions drawn from Christian theology were part of the background for the framing and ratification of the Constitution, as well as many of the great controversies of American history…

In 2010 the Texas state school board considered controversial new guidelines for social studies instruction. Promoted by a bloc of evangelical commissioners, the proposed standards included language asking students to consider the influence of “Judeo-Christian (especially Biblical law)” on the Constitution and suggesting that Moses was an inspiration to the Founders. Supporters of the changes denied that they were trying to smuggle theology into the public schools but insisted on the centrality of religion to American history. According to board member Cynthia Dunbar, America has always been “a Christian land governed by Christian principles.”

The proceedings in Texas provoked a national debate. Is this a “Christian nation”? Or a secular country that Christians share with adherents of other faiths—and those who profess no faith at all? The stakes in this debate are not merely scholastic. Although there is no movement to establish a Handmaid’s Tale–style theocracy, a majority of the public believes Christianity is essential to American identity.

The legal scholar Steven K. Green suggests that answers to these questions can be divided into three categories. The “secularist” view presents the Founding as a product of the Enlightenment. Developed in books with titles like The Godless Constitution, this interpretation holds that the Constitution was drafted by men of deistic inclinations and intended to limit the role of religion in public life. The “religionist” perspective rejects both claims. Most closely associated with popularizers such as David Barton but also defended by some reputable authorities, it asserts that the Founders were, for the most part, devout Christians who established a republican government with the aim of promoting piety among citizens. Finally, “accommodationist” scholars seek a middle course between these extremes. The historian Mark David Hall acknowledges the role of Enlightenment ideas but insists that “orthodox Christianity had a very significant influence on America’s Founders and that this influence is often overlooked by students of the American Founding.”

So which position is right? Let’s consider the secularist perspective first. Among other arguments, this literature emphasizes the influence of modern philosophers who advocated religious toleration, particularly Locke, and highlights the role of nonconformists like Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase “wall of separation” between church and state. For secularist writers, the absence of any reference to God or the Bible shows that the Constitution is based on a radically new conception of religion as a strictly private affair.

There is a considerable body of scholarship in favor of these conclusions, which dominated the legal and historical literature for decades. In recent years, however, it has become clear that the secularist interpretation is myopic in important ways.

For one thing, secularist arguments misunderstand the limited purpose of classic arguments for the separation of church and state. While they denied that government should impose specific beliefs or provide support to churches, advocates of secular government also placed religion at the core of human existence. Take James Madison, whom secularist writers often cite as a kind of patron saint. In the “Memorial and Remonstrance” against state funding for ministers that he published in 1785, Madison described religion as the “the duty which we owe to our Creator.” The phrase is borrowed from the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, an influential justification of the Revolution. In advocating a secular government, in other words, Madison was not promoting a secular society or rejecting the idea that rights come from God.

Secularist arguments also tend to place excessive emphasis on unrepresentative figures. They pay considerable attention to Jefferson and Madison, who both flirted with deism, but often ignore the likes of John Witherspoon and John Jay, both of whom expressed orthodox Christian views. Witherspoon and Jay exercised less influence on the rhetoric of revolution or the form of the new government but were probably more reliable guides to how these developments were understood by their contemporaries. The proceedings of the ratification conventions show that many Americans thought not only that religion, in general, was socially necessary but also that the truth of Christianity meant it alone could place this role.

The religionist approach is a valuable corrective to these defects. By shifting attention from a few outliers to the mainstream of American life, religionist writers remind us of the pervasive role of Christianity in the revolutionary and early republican periods. They also call deserved attention to the influence of Calvinist theology on Whig political thought. The work of Barry Alan Shain on this topic is of particular importance.

The problem is that a religionist interpretation of the Founding often replaces exaggeration with exaggeration. It does not follow from the fact that some of the Founders were devout that most or all were. Nor does the sincerity of those beliefs mean it was the only or primary influence on their political thought. Religionist writers are on thin ice when they rely on isolated quotes like John Adams’s statement in an 1813 letter to Jefferson that the “general Principles, on which the Fathers Atchieved [sic] Independence, were…the general Principles of Christianity.” Adams goes on to explain that the principles he has in mind are also found in Enlightenment philosophy and could be supported by “Sheets of quotations” from notorious skeptics including “Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Reausseau [sic] and Voltaire.”

The “accommodationist” school tries to avoid hyperbole while continuing to challenge secularist assumptions. Rather than claiming that America has been “a Christian land governed by Christian principles” since the Mayflower landed, its advocates try to show that the explicitly religious purposes and beliefs of many early settlers did not disappear but rather created a culture in which the moral and intellectual authority of Christianity was taken for granted. The confusing truth is that eighteenth-century Americans did not distinguish as sharply between religious and secular, faith and reason, as we do today. Locke was often read as a defender of revelation. The Old Testament was considered a work of political history comparable to Livy’s History of Rome.

Moreover, accommodationist writers argue that the Founders saw the promotion of religion as a legitimate civic purpose. They point out the Congress provided for the appointment of chaplains and that many states maintained established churches well into the nineteenth century. Although the state governments eventually severed their relations with these churches, it was not because they concluded that religion had nothing to do with politics. Rather, it was because the plurality of denominations made established churches politically insupportable.

So does this prove that America is a Christian nation? It depends, in the end, what “Christian nation” means. Many parts of North America were settled by Christians who devoted their communities to the service of God. Arguments and assumptions drawn from Christian theology were part of the background for the framing and ratification of the Constitution, as well as many of the great controversies of American history. And to this day, a majority of Americans profess to be Christians and see Christianity as an important part of what it means to be an American. In all these respects, it is not inaccurate to describe us as a Christian nation.

Yet it is impossible to deny that the Constitution created an extraordinary and in many ways unprecedented relationship between religion and politics. Without attempting to diminish the influence of religion on public life, it grounds political institutions on the consent of the governed and orients them toward the accomplishment of earthly purposes. And while virtually all the Founders were, in some sense, Christians, they also rejected the idea that any particular beliefs or affiliations are necessary to being an American. As George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport in 1790, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

In the Farewell Address he delivered six years later, Washington acknowledged that “the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure” might produce good citizenship without the aid of religion. On the whole, however, he concluded that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” A secular government for a religious people. That is the paradox the Founders bequeathed us.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the Intercollegiate Review (Spring 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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11 replies to this post
  1. Let’s not forget that the enlightenment could not have existed without Theologians. A point often overlooked and neglected. Aquinas, Voltaire, Rousseau, Bacon, Kant, Locke, Hume, etc were all Christians.

  2. Both the accommodationist and the religionist views of our nation present credibility problems for the Christian faith. Why? It is because both perspectives, to different degrees, associate Christianity with the negative aspects of our nation’s history. Those negative aspects revolve around, but are not reduced to, our nation’s treatment of Native Americans and Blacks.

    In addition, we should note that our nation’s past treatment of Native Americans and Blacks indicate that our nation was not just founded on the Christian faith. It was founded on a racially based form of the Christian faith. It involved a Christian faith that included a belief in white superiority over the other races.

    That we could call such a faith Christian does harm to the reputation of the Gospel. For such a faith has damaged and destroyed the lives of a countless number of people and thus is not seen as being trustworthy. In addition, it provides historical support for post modernism.

    So what do we gain by, even in part, calling our nation a Christian nation? If you are significantly concerned about the reputation of the Gospel, you gain nothing.

    • Your complaint isn’t that America isn’t a Christian nation, but rather that America isn’t a perfectly sinless Christian nation. Which is, of course, to demand the impossible.

      • Eric,
        When talking about America’s sins, it isn’t wise for you to to distract people by pointing the sins of non-Christians because it proves my point.

        There is a difference between being a Christian who sins from a person whose sin means they are not a Christian. We wouldn’t call those who endorse the Denver Statement over the Nashville Statement as merely imperfect Christians or Christians who sin.

        What I mentioned involves theft, murder, oppression, enslavement, persecution and such. If an individual Christian continually practiced those sins, we certainly would not call them a Christian. So why do the same for a nation?

    • Also, let’s not forget that these other groups were far from sinless themselves. Many Indian tribes were extremely cruel and some of them practiced cannibalism and other horrid behaviors. The Aztecs were so vicious that, when Cortez landed in Mexico, most of the other tribes in the area rallied to his side and were quite eager to help in the conquest and destruction of the Aztec empire.

      As for slavery, it was Arab Muslims who developed the African slave trade hundreds of years before the first Europeans set foot in sub-Saharan Africa, and of course tribal chiefs willingly sold their own people to the slavers.

  3. As a first generation American of African heritage and from a Muslim background, now a Believer in Jesus Christ, I find it fascinating that Americans of Caucasian heritage seem ever beholden to the belly-button of the Republic. This navel-gazing, granted as a synonym for introspection is desirable so long as it doesn’t degenerate into self-abasement. Sadly, that’s what it seems to inevitably spiral down into–what with the contentious parsing of texts and even the perceived thoughts of the Founding Fathers ad nauseaum. As someone looking in from the outside, but also on the inside, America’s fabric is unambigously dyed-in-the-wool Christian. And that’s precisely why it so accommodating and egalitarian–but also why agents of the greatest Christian apostasy (as C.S. Lewis, quoting the Church Fathers of the period said), Islam, love to hate America and are seeking to destroy her from the inside. It is in the nature of reality that your greatest strength is also the raison d’être for your greatest weakness. No other religious system–Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, New Atheist, Wiccan, etc–has a built-in factor that Christianity imparted to America at its founding, that has made it flourish as much as it has rendered it vulnerable to insidious attack: Live and let live/Leave and let live/Leave and let leave/Live and let leave. And it’s a quality found in no other system of thought in the history of the world other than something given from subscribing to the Old Testament (1 Kings 3:16-28) and the New Testament (Matthew 13:24-30a). While Muslim-majority countries, based on Islam’s Riddah Rule, prescribe death for renouncing that system of belief, it is my conviction that the Founding Founders operated from the mindset that no one who is truly an American would ever turn her back on America, a sentiment borrowed from 1 John 2:19 — “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.” (New American Standard Bible)

  4. Curt, none of the Christian views of this country cause problems unless you’re brainwashed into the PC drivel that blame America for all ills.

  5. “A secular government for a religious people” – very nicely summed up. But as that religious people becomes less religious, we increasingly realize just how many of our assumptions about morality, politics, and the world are based on beliefs that have now been rejected, and they begin to unravel. There is no system of belief to replace them, either – they just fragment and fall. What will fill the vacuum?

  6. The Truthful answer to the title’s question is best understood in its universality, that the answer applies not just to America, but to every nation, as in ‘every knee shall bow’. Nations come and go. Cultures come and go. What remains is that the good will prevail. All that is required is for all to cooperate with the good that dwells within.

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