Is America a Christian Nation?
Myth

America is a Christian Nation

Is America a Christian Nation?

America is not “a Christian nation” in terms of having a national religion. Despite a majority of Americans being Christian, the Bill of Rights ensures religious liberty for all.

The Bill of Rights ensures freedom of religionfreedom from religion, and the separation of church and state. Specifically it says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…Read the First Amendment. This can be further clarified by the rest of the founding Documents, specifically the Amended Constitution. This is true despite most of America‘s founders being Christian and the main debate of their time arguably being between types of Christianity. We explain this position below.[1][2]

FACT: Statistically, according to recent polls, about 75 – 80% of Americans are a type of Christian ( about 5% other, about 15 – 20% no formal religion).[3]

How to Understand Religious Rights and Liberties in America

We should immediately clarify what this does and doesn’t mean:

  • Freedom of religion (prohibiting the free exercise thereof): The freedom to choose a religion, the freedom to worship how one pleases, and the freedom to erect and/or attend a church of any domination.
  • Freedom from religion (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion; and general non-aggression): The freedom from aggression of other people’s religion. No religion can be forced upon a person, and no religious practices can be forced upon others. This IS NOT freedom from spirituality, morals, ethics, or what-have-you. It does however mean that it is the law which citizens follow, not the doctrine of the church.
  • Separation of church and state (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion): The church and state will be separate entities, the church has no power in government.

This long upheld principle of religious liberty isn’t a statement on the importance of spirituality in civil society, it is a statement on the importance of natural and civil liberties and rights within the state.

Thus, this is a comment on the founding documents, not on the importance of religion or personal tastes.

Now, with all that said, America is a Christian nation in one sense, in that the founders, many great Americans, and the majority of Americans today choose (as is within their liberty and is their right) to be one of many forms of Christian.

Below we will cite proof that America is largely Christian, but will also explain the founding documents and the history of liberalism and enlightenment to clearly show that the America’s founders intended for religious freedom and the separation of church and state.[4]

Separation of Church and State.

Christianity and America in Depth

The above justification is really all that is needed to know America is not and cannot be “a Christian Nation” legally speaking. The Constitution is the legal document that creates America, and this document leaves no room for a non-secular government.

With the above said, lets do a quick run through of history to better understand why we separate church and state, and then we will discuss religion in America today to better understand why the founders were correct to extend us this liberty.

From Sub-Roman Europe to Today – From Paganism, to Christianity, to Freedom of Religion

Back in sub-Roman Europe and other parts of the world, many of our ancestors were Pagans (see King Author for instance), or at least not Christian.

From about the 6th century on many of our ancestors converted to Christianity (true if you are Russian, European, South American, Native American, or essentially not Chinese, Jewish, Muslim, or Indian). After converting until about the 1700’s almost all European nations had a state religion, constant war, and Kings (save a few Maritime Republics). In most cases, people were oppressed based on religion and class, and many rights and liberties were often not extended to the average citizen.

Fast forward thorough the Crusades, Ottomans, and Mongols, and through the struggles between Protestantism and Catholicism, and also the hundreds years’ wars between France and Britain, and we get to the Enlightenment. It was here that philosophers like John Locke helped ensure what we today consider our rights.

Britain’s Bill of Rights (1689) was founded on a set of liberties, and about a hundred years later America’s founders echoed these same rights, encoding them into the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Given the history of religious war and persecution, perhaps no liberty was more important than that of religious liberty (in fact, many American’s came to the colonies for just such a reason, long before the Bill of Rights was even ratified).

After those centuries of oppression and bloodshed, we finally found ourselves here today, in America, in a melting pot, and with a predominantly Christian population (but that is Christian by choice, not by force of Constitution).

How Many Americans are Christian?

Statistically, according to recent polls, about 75-80% of Americans are Christians (5% other, 15-20% no formal religion). While this number has fallen over time, it is still rather high.

Why Do People Say, “America is a Christian Nation”?

The large numbers of Christians in America has led some to incorrectly say, “America is a Christian nation“. Although the majority of Americans are Christian, the wording “America is a Christian Nation” is troublesome.

That sort of absolutist statement conflicts with the God given human right of freedom of religion as ensured by America’s founding documents (and some would argue natural law itself).

This freedom wasn’t just meant to allow people the freedom to worship, but also the freedom to choose their own brand of Christianity (or other religion).

Given the many types of Christianity it is doubtful even the most staunch religious voter really wants a state-imposed religion, or any wording eluding to it in official documents. Historically people didn’t live in “Christian” nations, they lived in Catholic nations or Protestant nations, or another very specific form of religion (consider the wide range of Christian faiths in America, this would be a slippery slope).[5][6][7]

Why America is Predominately Christian, but Not “a Christian Nation”? – From a Legal Perspective

Now that we know why America isn’t a Christian Nation philosophically and historically, lets look at it from a purely legal perspective.

First, in my opinion the most important binding legal document of all time (in a civil sense) is the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Despite the large numbers of Christians in America, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights (which amends the Constitution and is thus the supreme law of the land) purposely ensures freedom of religion.

In fact, the very first line of the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”. This ensures first and foremost, before even ensuring freedom of speech, that Congress can’t declare a religion for America, and can’t stop anyone from practicing their chosen religion. Meanwhile the Democratic and Republican form of government established by the Constitution itself helps ensure the equally vital separation of Church and State.[8]

Looking back at Adams or Jefferson, or Cromwell’s Revolution / Civil War and the rest of British history, or the influential political philosophers of the Enlightenment, we can be very certain that the intention of human rights documents in the west from the Petition of Rights intended the right to freedom of religion (including freedom of religion, from religion, and the separation of church and state).

Constitution Lecture 9: Separation of Church and State.

Read in full: The Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights.

FACT: Did you know it is common for Americans to change religions during their life? See 10 facts about religion in America.

Religion and the Separation of Powers

It is important to remember that freedom of Religion isn’t about the importance of religion, faith, or morality. In fact, it is because these things are so important that freedom to practice religion must be ensured.

The separation of powers (both religious and political) and the corresponding system of checks-and-balances are fundamental principles of liberalism, on which the U.S. (and every Western democracy) is based. As noted above, this is rooted just as much in the importance of religion as it is in a stance against state-imposed religion, specifically the brand that was used to control the people (see the Divine Right of Kings versus “the consent to be governed” and Social Contract Theory).[9][10]

Constitutional Principles: Separation of Powers. The concept of separation of powers doesn’t just apply to the branches of government in America.

FACT: Many of the Founding Fathers were Christians, but not all of them. According to Britannica.com, “Whatever their beliefs, most came from similar religious backgrounds. Most were Protestants. The largest number were raised in the three largest Christian traditions of colonial America: Anglicanism (as in the cases of John Jay, George Washington, and Edward Rutledge), Presbyterianism (as in the cases of Richard Stockton and the Rev. John Witherspoon), and Congregationalism (as in the cases of John Adams and Samuel Adams).” [11]

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke: Two Philosophers Compared. One way to understand Social Contracts and the Divine Right of Kings is to compare Hobbes and Locke, Tom Richey does this well.

Understanding the First Amendment

The first Amendment in the Bill of Rights protects freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to assemble. It reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This means as sure as freedom of speech, and taking president before the right to form a well regulated Militia in defense of the state, the amended Constitution ensures “no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (the separation of church and state).

The symbolism of God on the dollar bill or the propaganda of a political group can be confusing. Whether it is the dollar bill or the Constitution, the Christian God is never specifically named. Under the constitution, an atheist is guaranteed the same rights as a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, etc.

So many while many Americans choose to be Christian, and many founding fathers were religious, America is not and can never be considered “a Christian nation” or “a nation of any religion” for that matter. The courts have since upheld this “separation principle” time and time again.[12]

America Is A Christian Nation. We know that the answer is technically not, as defined by the (amended) Constitution.

Is America a Christian Nation?

America has freedom of religion, the 1st Amendment makes this clear. America is therefore not “a Christian Nation” (but it is a nation with lots of Christians in it, including many of the founding fathers and great Americans). Source: pixabay.com

Is it Freedom From Religion or Freedom of Religion?

You have both freedom from religion and freedom of religion. Not one or the other, as “you do not truly have the freedom to practice your religious beliefs if you are also required to adhere to any of the religious beliefs or rules of other religions.”[13]

The state shall establish no law forcing religion upon you in any way, nor can it force you to choose a religion. Many have a strong faith, and this is their right. The non-aggression principle works well here. All the Liberal thinkers, including the Libertarians, agree, you don’t go mucking around in other people’s business. You might not want to have to a certain direction and pray X times a day, or be forced not to work on a Sunday, so you shouldn’t ask others to do your rituals either.[14]

Freedom of Religion: Crash Course Government and Politics #24.

Why freedom from and of religion? The full answer is complex, but the simple answer is this: All modern governments are based on John Locke’s “non-aggression principle”, natural rights, and a social contract. This all being a response to endless religious wars and a changing landscape in Europe in the 1600’s. To have freedom of religion you must have freedom from others pushing their religion on you. To ensure this you must ensure the long-held classically liberal tradition of separation of church and state. Thus, to have freedom of, you must have freedom from, and separation of. State imposed religion was one of the main causes of war in the west up until England’s “Glorious Revolution” of which Mr. Locke played the role of political philosopher with his Two Treatises of Government.



Conclusion

The First Amendment states clearly, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”. When we pair this with British history and American history it becomes very clear that freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and the separation of powers wasn’t just “important” but was actually one of the fundamental principles on which the entire west and modern era was founded.

It isn’t because people don’t like religion that we uphold this human right, it is because religion is so important that we defend this human right. It is so important it is literally the first line of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.


Citations

  1. Constitution of the United States” Archives.gov
  2. Bill of Rights” Archives.gov
  3. Gallup Percentage of Christians Drifting Down But Still High” Gallup.com
  4. Was America founded as a Christian nation?” CNN.com
  5. Percentage of Christians in U.S. Drifting Down, but Still High” Gallup.com
  6. America’s Changing Religious Landscape” Pewforum.org
  7. Poll: Most Americans Say They’re Christian” ABCnews.go.com
  8. Is America A Christian Nation?” AU.org
  9. Divine Right of Kings” Wikipedia.org
  10. Social Contract Theory” iep.utm.edu
  11. The Founding Fathers, Deism, and Christianity” Britannica.com
  12. Separation of Church and State” Wikipedia.org
  13. Freedom From Religion vs. Freedom of Religion Myth” Atheism.About.com
  14. Non-aggression principle” Wikipedia.org


"America is a Christian Nation" is tagged with: American Politics, Human Rights, John Locke, Liberalism and Conservatism, Liberty, Morality, United States of America


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Chuck Layne on

Confusing? We can not interpret the minds of our for-fathers; however, considering the European heritage of the time suggest a Christian oriented nation. The ‘freedom’ possibly protected the many sects of Christianity only. The Amendments do not imply freedom from religion.
The greatest aspect of the Amendments is for the American people to make changes to our Constitution. This is the most important gift given to us. As times change, the Constitution can be updated to reflect the values of our modern society. The world has changed. We must accept change in our own country in order to play a vital role in our world.

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

Thanks for the comment. I don’t expect this one to be easy to agree on, in fact I expect argument for and against. And to your point, no we can never truly say “the founders thought this” and be 100% right, but we do know a lot about each one. With this in mind, from in understanding:

Separation of church and state isn’t about religion (as in morality, faith, and ethics), it is about separation of powers (much like our three branch government). It is a reaction to the pre-1700’s when Kings and a single faith ruled them all. Make no mistake, nations weren’t Christian, they were a specific brand of Christianity forced on people by the state and used to justify monarchy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_right_of_kings).

The other concept is one that underlies Liberty, and that is that all people get to make their own choices. So we choose Pluralism instead of a single state imposed religion.

I don’t think most of the Founders would have called for us to abandon moral principles, in fact the Founding documents essentially read as summaries of moral philosophies.

Still, the Founders agreed on little. Hamilton thought the Constitution was perfect as is and hated Jefferson’s push to amend it. It was Jefferson who more than others wanted the separation.

If even the most moral Christian American or majority had a magic wand, i’d still urge them to respect the principle of separation and take pride in the fact that, despite this, about 75-80% choose not just an Abrahamic religion but a type of Christianity specifically.

More comments and debate urged and welcome.

Shannon on

When considering the argument that America is a Christian nation, can we not look at it as a simple “de facto” vs “de jure”?

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

I do agree there. Strong point.

I think, if one makes the claim “the United States is a Christian Nation”, then the comeback is “no, it is a nation of religious liberty”.

If however, one says, “the United States is predominantly Christian, despite our liberal values” or something to that effect, then of course I agree. The facts are the facts.

Mormons, Baptists, Shakers, Masons, Atheists, Catholics, Jews, Hindu, Muslim, Lutherans, Protestants, Evangelical or not… we have room for any who believe in Americanism and favor the Constitution. Christianity isn’t just one thing, and there isn’t just one valid religion. Taking the Constitution seriously means taking the first Amendment seriously.

Sure, it is more accurate to say “we are a Christian nation” than “we are a hindu nation”… as the latter makes little sense given the statistics and our history, but it is really, really, not OK for the religious-right to try to push their ideology on the nation. What about the Quakers? What about the religious left?

So, yes, 100% we don’t need to be so absolutist, unless we find ourself having to defend the 1st and counter an evangelical argument for us to recombine church and state. Now, I personally think modern western life needs to take spirituality and morality more seriously, but that is a different issue.

Hope that makes sense, really trying to stick to principles and not upset those with deep religious values (of any sort) here.