Is the United States a Christian Nation? Democracy, Not Theocracy
Democracy, not Christianity
The dominant religion in the United States is Christianity, but the United States is not a Christian nation by law. The clear intent of the founding fathers and the framers of the Constitution was to create a secular democracy governed by the rule of law where God and religion were left to individual conscience.
Were the Founding Fathers Christian?
The founding fathers were Christian (sort of). The founding fathers were nominal Christians, not devout Christians. Even if they had been devout Christians that does not necessarily mean that they intended the United States to be a theocracy or a Christian nation.
The Christianity of the founding fathers and the framers of the Constitution was definitely not the same kind of Christianity we see today among evangelicals. They were what we might call CINO’s today—Christians in Name Only. Some followed the social conventions of their day to an extent with respect to church attendance, but religion was not an important part of their life.
George Washington was an Episcopalian. He attended church regularly, but he refused to take communion or kneel when he prayed.
Thomas Jefferson called himself a Christian, but he did not accept the divinity of Jesus Christ. He created his own version of the New Testament by cutting and pasting pages from the Bible together. Jefferson’s Bible removed all mention of miracles, including the resurrection.
Benjamin Franklin supported the Presbyterian Church all his life but rarely attended services.
The founding fathers were not Christians, but deists.
What Is Deism?
Deism is the belief that God set the world in motion; but He is not a personal God who performs miracles and answers prayers.
They saw God as the “Prime Mover” who is revealed in the “Laws of Nature.” The age of Reason (16th and 17th centuries) and The Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries) had changed the world view of scientists and philosophers. God was not a miracle-working father figure who dwelt in Heaven—he was” Divine Providence,” “The Universal Sovereign,” “Nature’s God,” “The Supreme Being” “The First Cause” or “The Creator.” (Nowadays we have added a new term—“Higher Power.”)
Deists believed that one could understand the Creator by the application of reason and the study of the laws of nature. They rejected the supernatural, miracles, dogma, and the “revealed truth” of organized religion.
Why Is the Word “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence?
Any who claim that the fact that the word “Creator” is in the Declaration of Independence proves that the founders intended the United States to be at Christian nation is utterly mistaken. It proves exactly the opposite.
Kings claimed that they ruled by “Divine Right.” God had placed them on the throne and to oppose the king was to oppose God.
When the founders wrote the Declaration of Independence they wanted to use God for their own purpose. When they said "endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights" they were telling King James that while you claim that God has set kings upon their thrones, we claim that "all men are created equal" and that God gave humankind rights that even a king can not take away. Essentially, they were saying, “We have God on our side.”
They used a vague term like “Creator.” They could have said Lord, or Jehovah, or Yahweh, or even just God, but instead they used an abstract term like Creator. They were saying that people are created with these rights; just like we are created with brains and arms and legs. The king does not give us these rights, and he cannot take them away.
Even if the word Creator was an exact synonym for God, it would not prove that the founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation. There is no mention of Christ, or “Our Lord and Savior, or "Our Redeemer” or any of the other terms used for Christ. Surely if they had intended the United States to be a Christian nation, they would have mentioned Christ.
They solidified their argument with these words: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” They were saying government comes from people, not from God.
Declaration of Independence
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Were the Founding Fathers Anti-Religion?
The founding fathers were a product of their times. They probably could not imagine a world without religion. They may also have been a little elitist. They were upper class and educated gentlemen; they did not need religion—they had “good breeding.” It was different for the masses—they needed religion to encourage moral behavior and to constrain bad behavior. The founders were not against religion; they just wanted to keep it out of government.
On a personal basis, the founders had a live-and-let- live attitude toward religion as shown by this statement by Thomas Jefferson.
“But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” ~Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782.
The founding fathers were not alone in their objection to mixing religion and government. Even religious leaders of the time were opposed to inserting religion into government and vice versa. In 1773, the Reverend Isaac Backus, a very prominent New England Baptist minister, stated
"When church and state are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued."
Does the U.S. Constitution Mention God?
There is no mention of God (or Creator or any other term used for God or a God-like entity) in the Constitution. This was not an inconsequential accidental omission; it was a deliberate important omission.
Religious wars had wreaked havoc upon Europe for centuries. The monarchs of Europe used God as an excuse to wage war and to fight bloody battles of succession. Protestants and Catholics were slaughtering each other for political power.
Many of the earliest settlers came to the "New World” to escape religious intolerance and bigotry. (Ironically, they would often display that same intolerance and bigotry to members of other religions.) The New World was a refuge from the oppression of government-sponsored religion. Speaking about religion, John Adams said, “Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced.”
There is only one mention of religion in the Constitution of the United States. It is in Article VI Section 3 and it specifically excludes using religion as a requirement for public office. Surely if they had intended the United States to be a Christian nation, they would have stated that office holders must be Christian.
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin is reported to have suggested that meetings begin with a prayer. The meetings were very contentious and Franklin thought prayer might help unify the delegates. The proposal for prayer was voted down.
Not only is God not in the Constitution, he was not even allowed in the debate room. The United States Constitution was written without any official prayers. But nowadays your local zoning board can’t seem to hold a meeting without an official prayer.
Article VI Section 3
"No Religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
What Does the Bill of Rights Say about Religion?
The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in 1791. The framers used the first amendment to be more explicit about the role of religion in public life.
The final wording explicitly states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof... " This gave citizens both freedom of religion—the right to practice the religion of their choice as they saw fit—and freedom from religion—there would be no state church and government would never force religion upon the people.
It is instructive to look at how the wording was decided.
Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson was the model. It declared, “All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion on matters of religion.”
James Madison expanded it to “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief of worship nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or any pretense, infringed.”
It seems pretty clear that rather than establishing a Christian nation, the founders' uppermost concern was protecting citizens from religious oppression and zealotry.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
What Other Evidence Do We Have About the Intentions of the Founding Fathers?
The founding fathers intended the United States to be a secular country—at least as far as government was concerned.
On June 7, 1797 when the Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Tripoli, making peace with the Barbary pirates of North Africa, they stated that the United States had no quarrel with the faith of any Mehomitan (Muslim) nation. The treaty stipulated that “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”
There it is in black and white. The United States was not founded on Christianity. Could it be any clearer?
In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of the United States and the country's third president said, “Religion is a matter which lies between man and his God.” He declared that the first amendment had erected a "wall of separation between Church and State."
There it is in black and white. A wall of separation. Could it be any clearer?
Treaty of Tripoli
"The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”
New York Times bestselling author Jon Meacham tells the story of how the Founding Fathers viewed faith, and how they ultimately created a nation in which religious beliefs are a matter of choice.
The book is well-researched and Meacham is an engaging writer. I found it to be a very balanced presentation of the words and deeds of the people who have shaped the spiritual life of the U.S.A. from the time of the Founders through to the present day.
Why Does the Presidential Oath of Office End with “So Help Me God”?
It doesn’t, or rather it didn’t when the Constitution was written. The Constitution gives the oath as: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
In 1881, when Chester A. Arthur who succeeded President Garfield after his assassination, was being sworn in as the 21st president (1881 to 1885), he added the words "I will, so help me God." It has been traditional ever since to say “So help me God.” One day I hope to see a president take the original and correct oath of office. But it seems that presidents are either motivated by religious piety or too afraid not to show religious piety to adhere to the oath as written in the Constitution.
It has also become customary to swear the oath of office on a Bible, but it is not always done that way. John Quincy Adams, the 6th U.S. President (1825 to 1829), for instance, swore on a book of law to symbolize his fealty was to the rule of law.
Why Does It Say “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance?
It doesn’t. Or rather the original pledge did not include those words.
The Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892 by the socialist Baptist minister Francis Bellamy. Bellamy intended for the pledge to be used by citizens in any country. It was intended to foster patriotism among children.
In its original form it read:
"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
In 1923, the words, "the Flag of the United States of America" were added.
It was recited at schools and public events, but it was not an official pledge until it was formally adopted by Congress in 1942.
In order to distinguish the United States from the communist Soviet Union and because of pressure from religious organizations (particularly the Catholic fraternal organization, The Knights of Columbus), President Eisenhower encouraged Congress to add the words "under God." Congress passed the legislation and Eisenhower signed it into law in 1954. Bellamy's daughter objected to this alteration.
Today it reads:
"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Inserting the words under God kind of negates the word “indivisible” since it divides the word “nation” and “indivisible.” Of course, it also divides those who believe and who don’t believe in God.
Why Is “In God We Trust” the Motto of the United States?
In 1782, the Great Seal of the United States was created. It included what was then the unofficial motto of the country, e pluibus unum which is Latin for "from many, one."
In 1956, Congress passed a law declaring “In God we trust” to be the official motto of the United States and President Eisenhower signed it into law. Like the insertion of “under God” into the pledge of allegiance, religious fervor and anti-Communist sentiment was behind it.
“In God we trust” first appeared on coins in 1864 after the Civil War. The phrase appears to have been taken from the fourth stanza of "The Star Spangled Banner" written during the War of 1812. The phrase is: "And this be our motto: In God is our Trust.” Religious leaders pushed for a new law allowing the phrase to be stamped on coins.
"In God We Trust" first appeared on paper currency in 1957.
Is the United States a Christian Nation?
Officially, the United States is a secular nation, a nation of all religions and a nation of no religion. Religion should not intrude on government and government should not intrude on religion.
Unofficially, that wall of separation has crumbled far too often under bombardment from religion. The word "God" has seeped into some acts of Congress, but still no official mention of Christ or Christianity.
The United States is a Christian nation in one sense of the word—the large majority of its citizens are Christian. (About 70% self-identify as Christian according to the 2014 Pew Poll.) But most of the time when people say "America is a Christian nation." they are not talking about population statistics; they mean it in the same way as "Israel is a Jewish nation."
Christians may be the majority, but that does not give Christianity the right to try to impose its religious beliefs on the country. The majority cannot take away the rights of the minority.
Let me rephrase. The majority can try to take away the rights of the minority, but it will be a sad day for the United States of America if they succeed.
The United States is NOT a Christian nation. It was never intended to be a Christian nation. Hopefully, it will never be a Christian nation.
What do you think?
Did the founding fathers intend for the United States to be a Christian nation?
For Further Reading
Kevin M. Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton and the author of One Nation Under God.How Corporate America Invented Christian America.” In this article for the New York Times, A Christian Nation, Since When, he discusses the history of Christians claiming that the United States is and/or should be a Christian nation.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a non-profit organization that includes members of all faiths. It is dedicated to the preservation of the Constitution’s religious liberty provisions. The Executive Director is the Revered Barry Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ,
The Encyclopedia Britannica addresses the issue of the religious beliefs of the founding fathers. This article, The Founding Fathers, Deism, and Christianity, explains how deism influenced the thinking of many of the founding fathers despite their membership in, an attendance at, various Christian churches.
There are many other articles and books you can read on this topic. I googled and just picked a few of the top ranked articles from authoritative, fact-checked sources. If you want more information, I suggest you google the topic yourself or read one of the many books on the subject. I included one book above, but there are many others. Follow the amazon link, and amazon will provide you with other titles on this topic.
N.B.: It is not incorrect to call the United States a democracy.The country is a democracy, albeit a representative democracy, an indirect democracy, a constitutional democracy, or a democratic republic all of which re more precise terms. (The Washington Post: Is the United States of America a republic or a democracy?)
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© 2015 Catherine Giordano