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Austin Cline

Majority of Americans Believe Founders Intended America to be a Christian Nation

By September 14, 2007

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Falsehoods and fallacious arguments from the Christian Nationalists appear to be causing real harm to the fabric of America's democratic, liberal culture: there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of people who think that freedom of religion extends to all religions, not just their own. To be fair, there have always been such people in America — but they are increasing.

Also consistent with Christian Nationalist rhetoric is the fact that 55% of Americans think that the Constitution actually establishes America as a Christian Nation while 65% believe that America's founders intended America to be a Christian Nation. Neither is true and neither is supported by any evidence, but Christian Nationalists repeat the lie so often that people believe it.

As bad as all that is, though, it's just the tip of the iceberg of ignorance which infects Americans about their own liberties. According to the First Amendment Center's State of the First Amendment 2007 survey, 25% of people mildly or strongly agree that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it protects.

On Privileging Christianity

  • 65% mildly or strongly agree that America's "founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation" and 55% mildly or strongly agree that the "U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation."
  • 39% mildly or strongly disagreed with the idea that others "should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups."
  • 28% of people said that the protected freedom of worship "was never meant to apply to religious
  • groups that the majority of the people consider extreme or on the fringe."
  • The above numbers are all about privileging the views, beliefs, and religion of the majority — even though when a majority believes something, it is well-protected through the legislative process. You don't need a constitutional amendment to protect someone's right to express a popular view that everyone agrees with; constitutional protections are necessary for the unpopular views that few people accept.

    I wonder how many of those who agreed that the Constitution "establishes" a Christian nation are aware that "establishment" is in fact one of the things which the Constitution specifically forbids. The U.S. government simply isn't authorized to establish any churches or religions as having any official status in American politics, culture, society, or government. That, however doesn't stop Christian Nationalists from trying to find ways to get the government to favor their beliefs.

    The inclination towards repression and authoritarianism may be demonstrated mostly strongly in agreement with the idea that if people can label a group "extreme" or "fringe," then they can no longer benefit from First Amendment protections. Anyone who doesn't belong to the majority could readily be labeled "extreme" and "fringe" by those who lack respect for liberal freedoms.

    On Religion in Public Schools

  • 43% of people said that public schools "should be allowed to put on Nativity reenactments with Christian music."
  • 58% mildly or strongly agreed that "teachers and other public school officials should be allowed to lead prayers in public school."
  • 50% of people mildly or strongly agree that a "public school teacher should be allowed to use the Bible as a factual text in a history or social studies class."
  • It's been over forty years since the Supreme Court ruled that state employees — which is what public school teachers are, as are all public school officials — do not have the authority to lead public school children in prayers. This would entail choosing what sorts of prayers to say, how to say them, what sort of deity to pray to, and so forth — all theological issues that are completely outside the scope of competency and authority of any government bureaucrat, elected official, or officer of the state.

    When someone is hired to teach history or English, they are not thereby given a license to also serve as pastor over the students entrusted into their care. They aren't permitted to lead students in prayers, pick out scriptures for reading, or promote any religious beliefs whatsoever. Christians who favor such behavior seem to assume that their form of Christianity will always be the one being favored, but how likely is that?

    The holiday question is about exclusively Chrisitan displays and programs — people had the option of saying that schools should be allowed to have programs which include Christian religious elements, but where the religious elements don't dominate (31% chose this), and the option to say that school programs should be exclusively secular (18% chose this). There's no way to look at that but as an expression of people's desire that public schools, run by the state, should single out Christianity for special privileges, favoritism, and endorsement.

    The third question isn't about people thinking about the use of the Bible in religious studies classes — before answering to the above, people were first asked what they thought about using the Bible as a form of literature in English classes (80% agreed) or as a text in a comparative religion class (88% agreed with this). The people agreeing with the above thus knew that they were agreeing that the government should present the Bible to students as historical and political fact.

    Related Questions

  • 74% of people mildly or strongly disagree that public school students "should be allowed to wear a T-shirt with a message or picture that others might find offensive."
  • 28% of people mildly or strongly disagree that "any group that wants to should be allowed to hold a rally for a cause or issue even if it may be offensive to others in the community."
  • 42% of people mildly or strongly disagreed that musicians "should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that others might find offensive."
  • 37% of people mildly or strongly disagree that newspapers "should be allowed to freely criticize the U.S military about its strategy and performance."
  • Although these questions weren't specifically about religion, I do think that they are related in a number of ways. First, people are showing support for the idea that minority views and unpopular views should not be protected as free speech. It's hardly likely that these are different people from those who support the idea that minority faiths shouldn't receive the same protections or privileges as Christianity. What we have, then, is the confluence of political and religious authoritarianism: authoritarian beliefs in religious matters are matched by authoritarian beliefs in political matters.

    Second, people are showing opposition to criticism of the state — and above, we saw people agreeing that the state was founded as "Christian" in nature. What this means, then, is that people are opposing criticism of Christianity as well. For authoritarians, blending church and state is advantageous because it allows each to protect the other: criticism of the church becomes a crime while criticism of the state becomes a form of blasphemy.

    First Amendment Center Senior Scholar Charles Haynes offers some good commentary:

    While the survey shows Americans highly value religious freedom, a significant number support privileging the religion of the majority, especially in public schools. ...The strong support for official recognition of the majority faith appears to be grounded in a belief that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, in spite of the fact that the Constitution nowhere mentions God or Christianity. Of course, people define "Christian nation" in various ways — ranging from a nation that reflects Christian values to a nation where the government favors the Christian faith. But almost one-third of respondents appear to believe that the religious views of the majority should rule: 28% would deny freedom to worship to any group that the majority considers ‘extreme or on the fringe.

    As depressing as it is, we shouldn't be surprised that some people actually welcome results like this. Take Debbie Schlussel, please:

    I'm glad most Americans see us as a Christian nation. That means that, likely, most still believe strongly in Christianity. And that's why our country is not yet in the position of Europe a/k/a Eurabia (a term coined by Bat Ye'or). Our strong Christian heritage is what has kept our country from heading down the Islamist path (so far). ...

    Once we lose our Christian identity, we will lose our country. And I will lose my right to practice my Judaism freely.

    I do believe the founders intended a Christian nation, where I can freely practice my non-Christian religion. I don't believe they intended a European-style vacuum to be easily dominated and replaced by an extremist religion (Islam), which will not allow anything else to live, let alone flourish.

    Some readers might remember Debbie Schlussel from her appearance on the Paula Zahn Now show, where she expressed some pretty vile anti-atheist bigotry. For example, she insisted that "That's the one reason our country has not become like Europe because we have strong Christians and because atheists are not strong. And I think that's a good thing." When challenged by atheists to defend herself, the best she could come up with was "So to you hate-filled atheists a/k/a future Muslim extremists (redundant), your e-mails have no effect on me."

    What Debbie Schlussel fails to notice in her above column is that if the founders really did intend America to be a Christian Nation, they probably would have mentioned it somewhere. Why isn't it in the Declaration of Independence? Why isn't it in the Constitution? Why isn't it in the Federalist Papers, all written for the purpose of explaining in detail what the Constitution as meant to do and not meant to do?

    Debbie Schlussel's freedom to practice Judaism isn't based on the Christianity of other Americans. The long history of Christian anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews should be more than enough evidence to dispel such a myth. People's ability to practice minority religions is based on the presence of strong protections for religious liberty which apply to all religions equally and which require all religions to be treated as equals. The above survey reveals, however, that many Americans don't believe in those protections and would favor privileging their religion over others — a situation which would endanger the freedom of Jews, not enhance it as Schlussel seems to imagine.

    As a sign that her own historical ignorance matches that of the so many people surveyed, notice how Schlussel compares America as a "Christian Nation" to atheistic Europe. Apparently it has escaped her notice that when America was founded, European nations were all much more explicitly Christian, with Christianity favored to a great degree and freedoms for other religions restricted. There were, for example, national Christian churches, a situation which America's founders very specifically wanted to avoid even coming close to.

    There is nothing about America as a country which requires a "Christian" identity — there is nothing about believing in the ideals behind the founding of America or believing in the principles established in the Constitution which in any way require that a person be a Christian. To suggest otherwise is nothing more than rank bigotry, though it is a popular bigotry among those who can't imagine morality or decency outside their supernatural superstitions.

    Comments
    September 14, 2007 at 12:16 pm
    (1) tracieh says:

    I got the link to this article on an e-mail list, and it was disturbing. Have we just stopped teaching American History? I can’t explain it. I was raised as a fundamentalist Xian, but even I understood the difference between church and government–as a small child. I never confused the Constitution as being a religious document. And if a religious child can grasp this–what is the excuse for these Xian adults? I have no idea.

    September 14, 2007 at 1:04 pm
    (2) Gotweirdness says:

    Say what? I recall my own research to conclude that the Founding Fathers were mainly Deists not Christian. While they believed in some sort of deity, it certainly wasn’t the Christian notion of it. Thomas Jefferson was particularly scathing in his remarks to organized religoion though he did recognize that people did have a right to have whatever religion they wanted to or not.

    Apparently the “In God We Trust” on money and “One Nation Under God” in the pledge has severely affected people’s thinking that somehow the US is Christian. Unfortunately, neither money nor the pledge establishes the framework for judicial, legislative, and executive branches along with the powers each branch has and what they can to counter the other branches. I think the only thing that can be argued is that most Americans are Christian given the majority of churches are dedicated to a denomination of Christianity. Nothing in the Constitution indicates this since the only references to religion are no religious test for public office and Congress shall not establish a religion from the First Amendment.

    “Once we lose our Christian identity, we will lose our country. And I will lose my right to practice my Judaism freely.”

    This lady is way off her rocker. What makes her think that the idea of Christians in power will protect her worship of Judaism? Is she not aware of what happened in Europe when Jews were given a choice to leave or convert in the primarily Catholic dominated nations of Spain and France? Or even in WWII when Hitler (never excommunicated from the Catholic church) had six million Jews along with other undesirables such as homosexuals, gypsies, Communists, disabled, etc. killed off in death camps? So what exactly about a Christian dominated nation will help her in practicing Judaism again?

    September 14, 2007 at 7:51 pm
    (3) Steven Jones says:

    Even if the founders really did intend for the U.S. to be xian, so what?
    Australia’s founders intended the country to be a penal colony, does that mean that all law abiding Aussies should leave?

    September 17, 2007 at 4:25 pm
    (4) John Hanks says:

    Don’t expect much from teachers. Most of them are just crooks (coaches) suckers (fans) or lazy cowards (parents). My understanding of the founding fatheads was that the important ones, like Jefferson, had a healthy sense of human rottenness and insanity, so they wrote the constitution to create a perpetual gridlock. Then they gave themselves a healthy tip by doing nothing about property or wealth. They mainly left religion alone or deplored it.

    September 18, 2007 at 2:46 am
    (5) Paul Buchman says:

    It has been said that if fascism comes to the USA it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.

    September 21, 2007 at 6:44 pm
    (6) Lyle G says:

    It would seem that the groups ‘fundamentalist Christian,’ and ‘unchurched,’ are both growing. I’m wondering if we are in for a religious civil war in the US

    September 21, 2007 at 8:55 pm
    (7) John Hanks says:

    History is quickly forgotten when it doesn’t feed false pride and the heroic myths that foster. Of course, real history is pretty much a rap sheet. No heroes. Just crooks, suckers, and lazy cowards, with a few smarty pants ***holes seeing through come of the endless cons.

    September 27, 2007 at 10:47 am
    (8) tr says:

    Assuming the bible is allowed in schools and taught as literature then I would also recommend mythology along with that book of stories. The book that really isn’t a book but a collection of plagiarized beliefs from Egyptian and Sumerian cultures. Students should be taught comparative creation stories such as the Enuma Elish and the Egyptian ones to begin with.

    People seem to think this book came from some great writers, in fact they were not great (most of them were illiterate and could not write so much as a simple letter in their alphabet), but were pretty good at swaying the populations of 2000+ years ago (these were simply a prophets[?] viewpoint), and as such the stories were changed many times before they were written down – not as a book – but as pages for reference stories – so our ancestors could go to and learn from the priests. They were decided upon many centuries later and put into a book form.

    They should do comparative analysis with the laws of Hammurabi, stories of Sargon the Great, some of the Egyptian beliefs [The Book of the Dead], then proceed to read the 5 stories [of the Torah] which were supposed to be written [which is doubtful] by Moses. Next, read some other stories that were not included in this book of stories – some from the Dead Sea Scrolls and do a comparison. They should also be well versed in scientific theories, such as the big bang and other theories that help us to understand this universe and the possibilities of others, along with Darwin’s theory.

    Next stage: The NT – stories that have Mark, Luke and Matthew [as the writers? - doubtful] and compare them side by side. You will find that they are no more than stories of different savior gods which amalgamated into one person, that which is now called a savior(?). And that Paul person, well – that would take a very long, not very pretty site to talk about him, and all of his nonsense. [Apostle – ha, self proclaimed !]

    After all that has been completed – I believe it could take 4 or 5 years more or less – to proceed with the classics such as: “The Inferno” and “Paradise Lost” to name but a few. After which perhaps five or so years of homework on how all this ties into one gigantic misbelieve system, which would hopefully put people on the right track. Of course, this is only my view.

    Just because it has a front and back cover does not mean it is a book (of truths – as dictated by some great god – living in a cloud) then written in book form – as writing a book is understood today. Of course, this will never happen, it’s much easier to go to a church [or worse, watch Pat Robertson or the other money grubbers] – TITHE, and be told what they THINK the stories mean, THEN believe their nonsense,

    And – - so go the Xians.

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