The United States is a Christian Nation.
Even some ostensible supporters of church/state separation think America is or was founded as a Christian Nation and this belief is very poplar among Christian Nationalists, Christian Supremacists and all opponents of church/state separation. The central problem with this claim is its ambiguity: what does "Christian Nation" mean? Christians who make the claim act like they know what they mean, but that's questionable. It seems more designed to express emotion, not empirical facts.
America Is a Christian NationThese are some of the senses in which saying "America is a Christian Nation" may be true, legitimate, and valid:
- Most Americans today are Christian
- Most Americans through history have been Christian
- American culture has been heavily influenced by Christianity
- America is part of "Christendom," the cultural and political region where Christianity dominates
All of these statements may be legitimate observations, depending on the context, but they don't have much relevance to the political, cultural, or legal contexts in which the claim "America is a Christian Nation" is actually made.
Even worse, the above statements would be just as true if we replaced "Christian" with "white" — America is a "Christian" nation in exactly the same way as it is a "white" nation. If people don't want to derive political implications from the latter, why would they try to do so with the former? If the latter is easily recognized as racial bigotry, why isn't the former recognized as religious bigotry?
America is Not a Christian Nation
These appear to be some of the intended meanings which people seem to have in mind:
- America was founded on Christian doctrines, beliefs, traditions
- America was intended to foster, promote, or encourage Christianity
- America has a role to play in Christian eschatology
- America is a nation where Christians are and should be privileged
- America is a nation where Christian beliefs and institutions are and should be privileged
To better understand the attitude and intention here, it might help to recognize that people are saying that America is "Christian" in the same way that a Methodist congregation is "Christian" — it exists for the sake of believing Christians and is supposed to aid people in being Christians. In effect, Christians are the only "true" Americans because America is only "true" when it is Christian.
Defending America as a Christian Nation
How do Christians defend their claim that America is a Christian Nation? Some argue that many who came here were Christians fleeing persecution in Europe. Aside from the irony of using past persecution to justify contemporary persecution, this merely confuses the context of how and why the continent was settled with how and why the United States, as a legal entity, was created.
Another argument is that the early colonies had established churches and the governments actively supported Christianity. This is not an effective argument because it was exactly this situation against which many early Americans fought. The First Amendment was specifically designed to prohibit established churches, and at the Constitutional Convention attempts to write in some sort of nominal support for Christianity always failed. In addition, people at the time were distinctly "unchurched." The best estimates indicate that only 10% to 15% of the population actually attended church services.
It is true that Ben Franklin proposed that delegates at the Convention open their sessions with morning prayers, and people who oppose the separation of church and state try to make a lot out of this. According to the records, Franklin suggested that "henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business."
Aside from the fact that such a prayer clearly isn't very Christian in nature, what is usually left unsaid is the fact that his proposal was never accepted. Indeed, delegates didn't even bother voting on it — instead, they voted to adjourn for the day! The proposal was not taken up the next day, and Franklin never bothered to mention it again. Sometimes, unfortunately, religious leaders will deceitfully claim that this proposal was accepted, a distortion which appears to have originated with Senator Willis Robertson, father of Christian Right leader Pat Robertson.
The delegates' refusal to base this nation on Christianity can also be seen in the fact that neither God nor Christianity are mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. Furthermore, as early as 1797 the government specifically said that it is not a Christian Nation. The occasion was a peace and trade agreement between the United States and Muslim leaders in North Africa. The negotiations were conducted under the authority of George Washington, and the final document, known as the Treaty of Tripoli, was approved of by the Senate under the leadership of John Adams, the second president. This treaty states, without equivocation, that the "...Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion...."
Contrary to the claims made by some from the Religious Right, America was not founded as a Christian Nation which was then later undermined by godless liberals and humanists. Just the opposite is the case, actually. The Constitution is a godless document and the government of the United States was set up as a formally secular institution. It has, however, been undermined by well-meaning Christians who have sought to subvert its secular principles and framework for the sake of this or that "good cause," usually in the interest of promoting this or that religious doctrine.