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Is the United States a Christian Nation? Democracy, Not Theocracy

Science, philosophy, politics, and religion are frequent topics for writer and public speaker Catherine Giordano.

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.

Is the United states a Christian nation?

Is the United states a Christian nation?

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.

A potter's wheel is a metaphor for the deist concept of a Creator who creates the world but takes no further interest in His creation. It excludes organized religion and worship of any kind.

A potter's wheel is a metaphor for the deist concept of a Creator who creates the world but takes no further interest in His creation. It excludes organized religion and worship of any kind.

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.”

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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.

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."

A painting of the founding founders at the Constitutional Convention.

A painting of the founding founders at the Constitutional Convention.

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.

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.

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?

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.

The words of the original official United States  Pledge of Allegiance do not include the words  "under God."

The words of the original official United States Pledge of Allegiance do not include the words "under 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?

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?)

© 2015 Catherine Giordano

I welcome your questions and comments.

Chief Usti on October 08, 2019:

The U.S. was formed claiming the doctrine of discovery and provided the use of manifest destiny and has been supported by law via U.S. Supreme Court to the current time.

Gammareign on December 16, 2018:

The United States is neither a theocracy or democracy. It's a republic. A democracy means mob rule, but a Republic is set up to protect the rights of the individual. A theocracy is set up to bow to an imaginary friend.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on June 12, 2018:

Elijah A. Alexander, Jr. I'm glad you liked my article. I'd be happy to allow your comment if you remove the links. Comments are not the place for self-promotion, especially when they are not connected to my topic, or at best, only very tangentially connected.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on July 16, 2017:

The reason this issue is important is that the Christian-Right in the U.S. tries to get away with saying the U.S. was formed as a Christian country. They think that this gives the the right to discriminate against other religions and to impose laws on everyone according to their version of Christianity.

jonnycomelately on July 16, 2017:

What if any is the importance of this question, whether not America is Christian?

It seems to me that those most vocal about being Christian can be the more hypocritical people and more likely to dabble in "breaking the rules behind the scenes."

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on July 15, 2017:

Sanxuary: There are two definitions of Christian nation.. One is a nation where the majority of people are Christian. The other is a nation where the law imposes Christianity on it citizens by law. The U.S. is the former, and there should never be even a trace of the latter. I agree with you about how so many Christians and even many Christian churches do not adhere to the purported teachings of Jesus Christ. They are hypocrites. Given how you feel about this, I think your decision to leave the church is a good one.

Sanxuary on July 14, 2017:

When we no longer recognize evil and no longer condemn it we are no longer a Christain nation. Right now just about everyone believes are churches have become conservative and political. They are more or less in bed with Trump and a supporter of Republicans who represent nothing of value. I hope its not true but you will not see me in church anytime soon. I do not have to be a member of any party to recognize evil and do not have to pick sides. I will however never support evil and hope all who deny the truth that they will soon be called out. With the truth approaching i will remind anyone who denied the truth of the lies they once told and the fools they have become. They will have no such high standing with me. I hope they have a fresh look at hell.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on July 06, 2017:

timothious: Usually I limit comments to two per person; extended back-and-forths get tedious. BTW, I have written a very popular essay on logical fallacies You are engaging in the logical fallacy of argument from authority. Just because you have a degree in American History does not mean that you are right. Just because I do not have a degree in American History does not make me wrong.

I was going to let you have the last word, but I have to address your point that there was a sizable Jewish community in the 1770's. Jews make up 4% of the population of the U.S. today; I doubt that it was larger back at the time of the founding of the country. The Jewish community was the proverbial drop in the bucket. Back in the 1770's, slaves were converted to Christianity. Their African religions and languages were prohibited. Some modern day African-Americas have converted back to Islam, but back in the 1770's it is highly unlikely that religious freedom for Muslim slaves was on the mind of Thomas Jefferson.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on July 06, 2017:

jonnycomelately: Yes, we must continually strive to form a more perfect union.

Timothius from Jasper, GA on July 06, 2017:

Actually, There were large Jewish populations in the the United States since the 1730's also, many of the slaves at that time were Muslim. The slaves collected in Africa brought with them their traditions and beliefs. When slaves earned their freedom in the 1860's, many of which went on to form Islamic groups toward the end of the 19th and early 20th century. I recommend reading "Muslims in America" by Edward Curtis. It is a short read. In addition, all the founders, especially Thomas Jefferson were well educated in Islamic belief and Jefferson even believed that one day, we would receive an Islamic migration. The founders kept other religions in mind when forming this government.

I'm well aware of religious history in America. I hold a bachelor's in American History and culture and have taken many courses on religion in America. What I speak of isn't my perspective solely but the perspective of many Historians even those Historians that have atheist leanings.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on July 06, 2017:

jackclee lm: The founders never tried to legislate religion out of people's lives. They just didn't want to legislate it INTO people's lives. They thought they should draw up a government and leave church and family up to each individual.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on July 06, 2017:

Timothius: Multiple religious perspectives? I think at the time, the only religious perspective was Christianity, although there were different sects of Christians. And I think you are understanding the founders through the filter of your own beliefs. I relied on what they said and wrote. Thomas Jefferson created what is known a The Jefferson Bible. He cut and pasted removing all references to miracles and keeping only the oral teachings.

jonnycomelately on July 06, 2017:

Dexter Rogers has spoken his truth in the Huffington Post regarding the hypocrisy of America's Independence Day. Afro-Americans were not regarded as 100% humans, therefore they were not included in the Constitution.

Timothius from Jasper, GA on July 06, 2017:

We are only saying partially the same thing. No, there isn't any mention of God in the constitution and that's for good reason but, our government was designed around a populous that's religious. It was designed without God's mention because they didn't want to identify with a particular religion and because they believed religion to be an individual's choice without any governmental influence. They believed religion was necessary no matter what religion for the sake of moral guidance. Without religion, you don't have the moral restraints for our governmental design to work because human faults will always surface regardless of education or social status. The founders understood human nature. They were highly read people.

People often mistakenly believe that the founder's didn't include God in the founding documents because they didn't want it to be a part of government. That is true to a certain extent. They wanted it to be a part of government ONLY in the way a society or people relate to their government in a democracy; through a filter of moral thought. They wanted diverse opinions and strong morals from multiple religious perspectives without the government being swayed to the opinion of one group. Before a government designed to be "self governed" can be established, you have to look at the characteristics of our species and create methods to elevate our species strengths and restrain our faults. This is what the founders did. They simply created a neutral playing field in the best way possible for our species.

Jack Lee from Yorktown NY on July 06, 2017:

Cathrine, we will have to agree to disagree. You can't legislate faith and religion either in or out of peoples lives. It is intricately tied to our political and social and economic systems. The three pillars of society are government, church and family. Can you name any successful country past or present that does not contain a portion of all 3 elements? I use church in the broadest sense including any religion that worship god or gods...or the supernatural.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on July 06, 2017:

jackclee Im: I don't agree on your views on religion and I don't agree with your views on sociology either. However, this is not the place to discuss sociology, so I will leave it at that. I will restate once again that the United States Constitution makes no mention of God and that alone makes the intent of the founders clear even without the First Amendment If you think they made a mistake, maybe when you found a country, you can put religion into your constitution.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on July 06, 2017:

timonthius: I don't think you are saying anything different from what I said in the essay. I really liked your apple-bucket analogy. The founders wanted religion in the United States to be a matter of individual choice. They did not object to citizens practicing religion, but they did not want religion to be part of the Constitution or the goverenment. There is no mention of, or reference to, God in the Constitution.

Jack Lee from Yorktown NY on July 05, 2017:

Cathrine, why is it unfortunate? From my point of view, it is when we replaced the religious state with the secular state that many of our social problems escalated. We did not have problem with teen pregnancy and unwed mothers until the great society experiment of the 1960s.. when welfare provided free housing and childcare and food stamps... to single mothers. That broke the family unit and lead to gang violence and kids dropping out of schools and illegal drugs use...

Timothius from Jasper, GA on July 05, 2017:

It does not matter whether you are educated or not, you are still a human with human faults. The founder recognized the human condition and used the principles of religion to cushion and check to our faults. Our nation is secular but, the individual people that make up the nation are not. This includes the leaders of our government. You can't fill a bucket full of apples and call the bucket and apple too.

No, the founder's did not want religion in government but, they realized it was needed for the individual; educated or not.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on July 05, 2017:

Timothius: I agree that the founders wanted religion to control the "passions of the people." It was a bit of snobbishness on their part--the masses need religion; we educated people don't. However, whatever their feelings about the uses of religion, they did not want religion to be part of the government. Unfortunately, the ink was hardly dry on the Constitution, before the people of the newly-formed United States, started adding religion to their government. This practice continues to this day. Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment.

Timothius from Jasper, GA on July 04, 2017:

No, the founders did not want religion and government to mesh but, they did want religion in the nation and found it very important in the design of the government. Just as the founders designed the different branches to check each other, religion was supposed to check the passions of the people.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on December 17, 2016:

Jason Dupea: You and I may mean that Christianity is the majority religion of the United States, but many others mean that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation and that our laws are based, or should be based, on Christianity. They say so loudly and openly.

I have to disagree with you about Christian precepts underlying the Constitution and laws of the United States. I haven't seen anything in the New Testament (or Old) about liberty or equality.

Jason Dupea on December 17, 2016:

One big straw man. When people say the US is a Christian nation, they don't mean that Christianity is the state religion. They mean it is a nation of mostly Christians (nominally) and founded upon Christian precepts, such as the moral value of liberty and the equal value of all men at their creation.

Jack Lee from Yorktown NY on July 24, 2016:

Austinstar, don't think you know my background. I was born into a Buddist family, I immigrated to the US when I was 10, I converted to Catholicism when I was 45 and have been a Christian ever since.