A Christian Nation?
The January 28, 2008 issue of the Nation featured a disturbing article entitled “Christianizing U.S. History.” Its author, Chris Hedges, reported on the latest maneuvers to (mis)represent the Founders—even the skeptical, unorthodox Jefferson!—as conventional, even evangelical, Christians. Political campaigns include similar rhetoric. Mike Huckabee has been running for president as “a Christian leader.” And John McCain has joined the many evangelicals who believe that the Founders intended for the United States to be “a Christian nation.”
Although he must have attended law school, Judge Roy Moore, who wanted to post the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, confused our complex legal system with a rather simple moral code. He seemed to know nothing of Anglo-Saxon law, with all its attention to property rights and other matters that lie outside the realm of morality. Yale Law School has an interesting site on the subject at here.
I went to high school in the state where Judge Moore made national news. When I took Civics, I was not introduced to John Locke, Roger Williams, the Federalist Papers, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, or the Bill of Rights. Instead, our class was assigned to read issues of U.S. News & World Report -- Time having been discontinued as “too liberal.” What I mainly remember about the class is that our teacher would say to the boys, “you are cruising for a bruising.”
Ignorance of science and of intellectual history is endemic in this country, but it is exacerbated by home-schooling and religious schools, with their “Christ-centered” curricula.
The Christian-nation myth can be debunked by a little reading of original texts. In one of his letters Benjamin Franklin tells how he found the Calvinism in which he had been raised incomprehensible, so he abandoned it. He tried another church, was unimpressed by the sermon, and decided to spend his future Sundays reading at home. Franklin was not an atheist; he believed in a God and in an afterlife in which evil would be punished and good rewarded. He expressed some doubts about the divinity of Jesus, but said he was agnostic on the subject. And of course, unlike our evangelicals, Franklin was fascinated by science.
Jefferson, who belonged to a younger generation, was not an atheist either, but he took a harder line than Franklin. Famously, he did disbelieve in the divinity of Jesus, making his own version of the New Testament. He wrote a friend of his “creed of materialism,” dismissing all notions of miracles, angels, and other supernatural beings.
On the subject of religious orthodoxy. Jefferson’s letters are often scathing. To a Mrs. Samuel Smith, he wrote on August 6, 1816:
I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another's creed. I have ever judged of the religion of others by their lives ... for it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. But this does not satisfy the priesthood. They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested absurdities. My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest.
Like Franklin, Jefferson rejected Calvinism. On November 2, 1822, he wrote, “The blasphemy and absurdity of the five points of Calvin, and the impossibility of defending them, render their advocates impatient of reasoning, irritable, and prone to denunciation.” He complained that Presbyterians were meddling troublemakers, and stated that he looked forward to the day when all Americans would be Unitarians.
In a burst of eloquence, he wrote to Joseph Priestly in 1802:
The Gothic idea that we are to look backwards instead of forwards for the improvement of the human mind, and to recur to the annals of our ancestors for what is most perfect in government, in religion and in learning, is worthy of those bigots in religion & government, by whom it has been recommended, & whose purposes it would answer. But it is not an idea which this country will endure.
In 1819, James Madison expounded on religion in a piece entitled “Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, Ecclesiastical Endowments.” In it Madison praises Virginia’s 1786 statute of religious liberty, written by Thomas Jefferson. “This act is a true standard of Religious liberty: its principle the great barrier against usurpation on the right of conscience.” (The act can be read here .)
In his reference to “conscience,” Madison is echoing John Locke, arguably the thinker who exercised the most profound influence upon our Founders. Locke’s famous essay, “Letter on Religious Toleration,” can be read here.
Madison proceeds to remind his readers of “the danger of a direct mixture of Religion & civil Government.” He launches into a long argument against congressional chaplains. If their salaries were paid by the federal government, congressional chaplains would constitute “a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.” If members of Congress want chaplains, Madison writes, they should pay for them out of their own pockets.
Alluding to the long-standing theological differences between Christian sects, Madison asks rhetorically, “Could a Catholic clergyman ever hope to be appointed chaplain? To say that his religious principles are obnoxious, or that his sect is small, is to lift the evil at once and exhibit in its naked deformity the doctrine that religious truth is to be tested by numbers, or that the major sects have a right to govern the minor.”
This passage articulates a primary concern of the Founders: to prevent what Alexis de Tocqueville later characterized as “the tyranny of the majority.” “Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many,” warned Alexander Hamilton at the Constitutional Convention. “Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few.”
Madison then embarks on a critique of presidential proclamations of thanksgiving, prayer, or fasting. “Although recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.” (There's a sentence for Huckabee to ponder.) Madison points out that such recommendations “tend to narrow the recommendation to the standard of the predominant sect.” Americans live, he observes, in a nation of “various sects, some alienated widely from the others.”
The last observation refers to a bloody history that contemporary evangelicals overlook. In Europe, Catholic and Protestant monarchs made war upon one another. They ordered executions and permitted, or even encouraged, massacres of members of the religious opposition. Furthermore, Protestants persecuted one another. In England, the Anglicans regarded Dissenters (Puritans, Anabaptists, Seekers, etc.) as heretics. Calvinists and Lutherans had serious theological differences.
Our separation of church and state was intended to prevent religious disputes in the public sphere.
Madison alludes critically to a proclamation of John Adams that “called for a Xn [sic] worship.” He mentions a more general proclamation of George Washington which, because of its very generality, annoyed certain Christian denominations “for not inserting particulars according with the faith of certain Xn [sic] sects.”
Most importantly, James Madison observes that presidential proclamations of thanksgiving or prayer “seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion." (His italics.)
That’s the smoking gun. The fourth president of the United States, the man known as the “Father of the Constitution,” Thomas Jefferson’s chief ally, and a co-author of the Federalist Papers, declares the idea of a national religion to be “erroneous.”
HNN Hot Topics: Is the United States a Christian Nation?
Copyright Carol V. Hamilton
comments powered by Disqus
W. Lane Rogers - 3/29/2008
Indeed, the founding fathers cared not a whit about American's beliefs--Native Americans, that is.
Alan Roy Davis - 3/18/2008
This argument bothers me. I had a professor last fall who liked to wave this in every Christians face during class. Yes, it's true, our founding fathers were enlightened men who were well educated. Many were believers in the Lord, but they also put science and philosophy above all. That doesn't mean the nation was not a Christian nation at the time of being founded. Those who were not highly educated did not have their faith clouded by books.Our fathers might not have set this country up as a Christian nation. However, Christianity was the dominate belief of the people during that time, as it is today. If they were true representatives of their people, they would have took that into consideration. Unless you believe our founding fathers could have cared less about American citizens beliefs. Unlikely.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/25/2008
I think you will find that every President of the U.S. has publicly professed to believe in God and to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, whatever he may have confided to people privately, right from George Washington to George W. Bush. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that anyone would have been elected president who had not made such public professions.
On paper we may be a secular state, but in practice we have always been a Christian nation and remains one to this day.
Earl D. Quammen - 2/23/2008
"The first question is answered at once by recurring to the absolute necessity of the case; to the great principle of self-preservation; to the TRANSCENDENT law of nature and of nature's God, which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim, and to which all such institutions must be sacrificed."
- James Madison, Federalist No. 43
“Afforded us by God & Nature”
“Agreed to found our Rights upon the Laws of Nature....”
GOD IN AMERICA
GOD IN AMERICA II
“...Which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them...”
Jim Good - 2/21/2008
All of the colonial charters were rejected and superseded when the United States was founded as a nation. And in 1797, the Treaty of Tripoli confirmed that the United States was not founded on Christianity:
"As the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."
Joel Barlow, US Consul at the time, wrote the treaty. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering approved it, President John Adams signed it, and the Senate unanimously ratified it. Many of the men we call Founding Fathers were members of the Senate at the time. And it was actually drafted while Washington was still president. Odds are high that all of these men read the treaty in its entirety because it's only a few pages long. It was customary to read the text aloud in the Senate before the ratification vote and to print copies for all the Senators. Plus, treaties carry the force of law so, in effect, there has been a US law on the books for 210 years that says the US was not founded on Christianity.
Jonathan Dresner - 2/18/2008
That the Colonies had a religious character is fundamentally irrelevant: the whole point of the American Revolution was to stop being colonies and determine our own destinies. The fallacy of origins is always a problem in constitutional debates, but this is absurd.
John Lofton - 2/18/2008
The realization that our country was indeed founded as a Christian nation must begin with the understanding that our founding began 150 or so years before the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. And a superb, well-documented argument for our Christian origins is a little book I have only recently acquired by a former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, David J. Brewer, titled “the United States As A Christian Nation” (John C. Winston Co.,, 1905). As Brewer notes:
The first colonial grant, made to Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584 authorized him to enact statutes for the government of the proposed colony provided that “they not be against the true Christian faith now professed by in the Church of England.” The first charter of Virginia, granted by King James I in 1606, commenced this grant invoked “the providence of Almighty God…in propagating the Christian religion to such people as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God.” The Mayflower Compact of 1620 says that they the Pilgrims did what they did “for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.” And the charter of New England, granted by James I in 1620, expressed the “hope thereby to advance the enlargement of Christian religion, to the glory of God Almighty.”
The Massachusetts Bay charter, granted in 1629 by Charles I, vows to “win and incite the natives of the country to their knowledge and obedience of the only true God and Savior of mankind, the Christian faith…[which] is the principle end of this plantation.” This declaration was substantially repeated in the 1991 Massachusetts Bay charter granted by William and Mary. The fundamental orders of Connecticut, under a provisional government instituted in 1638, stated that its purpose was “to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, also the discipline of the churches, which, according to the truth of the said gospel, is now practiced amongst us.” And the preamble of the Constitution of 1776 specifically says that among the things due to ever man in his place and proportion are “civility and Christianity.”
In 1638 the first Rhode Island settlers organized a local government and agreed to “submit our persons, lives and estates to our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and to all those perfect and most absolute laws of his holy word of truth, to be guided and judged thereby. Exod. 24:3,4; II Chron. 11:3; II Kings 11:17.” The 1663 Rhode Island charter speaks of its petitioners as “godly edifying themselves and one another in the holy Christian faith and worship as they were persuaded.” The charter of Carolina granted this same year by Charles II says its petitioners are “excited with a laudable and pious zeal for the propagation of the Christian faith.” In the preface of the frame of government prepared by William Penn in 1682 “the Lord from heaven” is mentioned as the “highest attainment” at which men on earth may arrive. And the laws prepared to go with this frame of government called for the keeping of the Sabbath Day as did “the primitive Christians…to worship God according to their understandings.”
In the charter of privileges granted in 1701 by Penn to the province of Pennsylvania and its territories (later including Delaware) “Almighty God” is said to be “the only Lord of Conscience, Father of Lights and Spirits, and the author as well as object of all divine knowledge, faith and worship, who doth enlighten the minds and persuade and convince the understandings of the people.” Vermont’s 1777 Constitution also called for observance of the Sabbath and for “some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God.” The 1788 Constitution of South Carolina declared that “the Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed and is hereby constituted and declared to be the established religion of this state: and “that the Christian religion is the only true religion; that the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament are of divine inspiration, and are the rule of faith and practice.”
Within 100 years of the landing at Jamestown Christians established three colleges: Harvard, William and Mary and Yale. The first seal used by Harvard read “In Christi Gloriam,” its charter saying that among its purposes was “through the good hand of God” to educate the English and Indian youth “in Knowledge latter observing: “But it would scarcely be asked of a court, in what professes to be a Christian land, to declare a law unconstitutional because it requires rest from bodily labor on Sunday (except works of mercy and necessity) and thereby promotes the cause of Christianity.”
Commenting on all of this, Associate Justice Brewer says: “You will have noticed I have presented no doubtful facts. Nothing has been stated which is debatable. The quotations from charters are in the archives of the several States; the laws are on the statute books; judicial opinions are taken from the official reports; statistics from the census publications…I have said enough to show that Christianity came to this country with the first colonists; has been powerfully identified with its rapid development, colonial and national, and today (as of 1905 – J.L.) exists as a mighty factor in the life of the republic. This is a Christian nation, and we can all rejoice as truthfully we repeat the words of Leonard Bacon:
O God, beneath Thy guiding hand
Our exiled fathers crossed the sea,
And when they trod the wintry strand,
With prayer and psalm they worshiped Thee.
Thou heardst, well pleased, the song, the prayer –
Thy blessing came; and still has power
Shall onward through all ages bear
The memory of that holy hour
Laws, freedom, truth, and faith in God
Came with those exiles o’er the waves,
And where their pilgrim feet have trod,
The God they trusted guards their graves.
And here Thy name, O God of love,
Their children’s children shall adore,
Till these eternal hills remove,
And spring adorns the earth no more.
- 2 conservative groups are leading the fight against the new AP standards
- The secret of successful history departments
- AHA president suggests older historians should consider making way for younger historians
- Niall Ferguson Joins Schwarzman Scholars as Distinguished Visiting Professor in China