One of the major debates in recent years, and in fact for the entire history of the United States of America, is whether this is a Christian or a secularist nation. Arguments have been made on both sides, and the conclusions are generally based more on the political position of the author than on actual evidence.
Why is it so difficult to decide whether or not this is a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles? It should be an easy question to ask. But the truth of the matter is, the Founding Fathers were in many ways just as divided on the subject as Americans are today.
The Basis of the Arguments
Generally speaking, those supporting the idea of a Christian nation will point out the Christianity of those who first settled in the Americas, as well as the Christianity of the Founding Fathers. They will point out quotes by the Founding Fathers supporting religion, and the importance of religion in the government. They will also show the role that religion played in the founding process. They also point out the Christianity of the state governments that was missing in the national government. These will be discussed in more detail below.
On the reverse side, those supporting the idea of a secularist nation will point to the First Ammendment, which declares freedom of religion. The Treaty of Tripoli, signed by the 2nd President and Founding Father John Adams is another important point. They will also show points from the Founding Fathers that show an antipathy towards religion, particularly by Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. This of course includes the famous quotation by Thomas Jefferson on the wall of separation between church and state. These will also be discussed in further detail below.
Support for the Christian Argument
The Christian argument starts with the foundational documents of the original colonies, focusing on the Mayflower Compact. This was the Compact made by the Pilgrims when they first settled in Massachusetts. Since the Pilgrims were Puritans moving to the Americas to escape persecution by the Anglicans in England, it only makes sense that this would be a very religious document, as were most of the founding documents of the other colonies.
We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc., having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.
From the Mayflower Compact
I. That the Scriptures hold forth a perfect rule for the direction and government of all men in all duties which they are to perform to God and men, as well in families and commonwealths as in matters of the church.
From the Constitution of Connecticut 1639
Even more important than that is the fact that prayers opened up each meeting of the First and Second Continental Congresses. The first act of the Congress was to open up the meeting with prayer, then have prayer open up the next day’s meeting as well. Both the Congress and the Senate to this day traditionally open up with prayer, in fact there is a House Chaplain and a Senate Chaplain for this purpose. The Armed Forces also have and had from the very beginning of the Revolution their own group of chaplains to serve the troups.
Another important premise of the Christian argument is that while the First Ammendment kept the national government from establishing religion, this was not the case in the states. In fact, four of the thirteen states had in their Constitutions requirements of statements of faith in Christianity in order to hold government office, eight mentioned Christianity specifically and ten made some reference to religion. The primary reasoning of the Founders in creating the First Ammendment was to protect the right of the states to establish religion as they saw fit, and not face interference from the national government.
“That no person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.”
From the Constitution of North Carolina
“And each member [of the legislature], before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz: ‘I do believe in one God, the Creator and Governour of the universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked, and I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine Inspiration.”
From the Constitution of Pennsylvania
On the same day as the First Ammendment was ratified, a national day of prayer and fasting was approved by the Congress. For those supporting the Christian nation argument, this shows that religion was still a part of the government even though the First Ammendment specifically denied the establishment of a national religion.
One of the more popular quotes supporting the Christian argument is one made by John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States and son of Founding Father John Adams: “The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.”
So according to the Christian argument, that should be it. This is a Christian nation, plain and simple. Unfortunately it is not quite that simple.
Support for the Secularist Argument
Those who believe this to be a secularist nation will first point to the Constitution. Within the United States Constitution, there is no direct mention to God. While in the date given to it there is a mention to the “Year of Our Lord” this is a matter of dating (Year of Our Lord being the English Translation of Anno Domini, AD), and not a matter of declaring Christianity.
The First Ammendment of course makes it clear that the national government shall not have anything to do with religion. This was discussed previously, however, that the states did have certain religiousnous established in their founding documents, so this is not as strong a point for the secularist as they might wish it to be.
A stronger point for the secularist argument is the Treaty of Tripoli. This was composed during the second term of President George Washington, and was ratified by the Senate under John Adams, who also signed the treaty. It states in Article 11:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan 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.
This is certainly a strong statement against the idea that this nation was founded as Christian.
Secularists will also point to Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, who was one of the more anti-religious of the Founding Fathers. He did not continue with the national days of prayer and fasting that had been started during the Revolution, as he saw it counter to the ideals of religious freedom.
In his letter to the Danbury Baptists, he made his famous statement on the “wall of separation between church and state.” This is the basis of most arguments for restriction of religion in government.
Another clue into Thomas Jefferson’s view on the religious nature of the United States was his discussion in his autobiography on Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom:
Where the preamble [of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom] declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting the words “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.
This certainly sounds the same as much of the argumentation used today by secularists. By using Christian language in government, it alienates those of other religions. This goes straight to Jefferson, certainly a major figure of the founding of the country.
James Madison also made statements on the importance of not making Christianity an official religion. In addressing the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1785:
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute threepence only of his property for the support of any one establishment may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
Madison is rightly called the Father of the United States Constitution. He was the primary force behind it, and his words hold quite some merit when discussing how it should be interpreted. Here are his thoughts on the Congressional chaplains and the First Ammendment:
Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them, and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does this not involve the principle of a national establishment … ?
This certainly blasts a major hole in the Christian argument, as the driving force behind the Constitution feels that something as integral to their argument is actually against the founding ideals of the Constitution.
The Strength of the Arguments
There is much more to both arguments, although this is a basic demonstration of the basic elements. Much more support could be given to both sides, and both make very good points.
Standing in favor of the Christian argument is the fact that the majority of Americans at the time of the creation of the nation, as well as today, were Christians. However, it seems clear that the Founding Fathers (at least some of them) wished to protect the rights of all religions within the United States, and saw a secular state removed from spirituality integral to that end.
The fact remains, however, that religion was a fundamental part of the individual states at the time of the formation of the Union. And although Madison felt it went against the Constitution, there were and still are chaplains which are authorized by the United States government, with taxpayer monies.
But what of the Treaty of Tripoli? It said straight out that this nation was not founded on Christian principles. This seems to be strong proof in favor of the secularist argument. Obviously the Founding Fathers did not feel that strongly about the idea of Christian principles in government if they had no problem writing this into a major treaty early on in their history.
Considering the amount of evidence to be seen on both sides, it is difficult to come to a conclusion on the nature of this country. Obviously Christianity played a role in the founding of the nation. Certainly this was true in the original colonization, as well as the Revolution and the events to follow thereafter.
The Founding Fathers realized, though, that the establishment of an official religion would be devastating to the ideals of freedom that they espoused. This was not to be just a nation for Christians, it was to be a nation for everyone of all creeds. In order to provide this freedom, religion must be kept as much as possible out of the government. However, just exactly how much religion should be kept out of government has had different interpretations.
The reality is that this is a secularist government with some of the Christian religion incorporated into it. This has been kept fairly minor, but interpretations on just how much religion can be accepted and how much cannot differ. A balance between protecting religious freedom while allowing for the religious practices of the majority of those in the government. However, as the religious face of America continues to change, it seems logical to assume that the religious aspects of the United States government should lessen as the Christianity of the nation lessens. There is nothing inherently Christian in the United States government.