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The Truth About Religion in America: The Founders Loathed Superstition and We Were Never a Christian Nation

The claim that America was founded as a Christian nation -- a favorite of Right-wing Christians -- is just not true.

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The obvious conclusion is that it’s a stretch to call the leading founders “Christians,” particularly of the evangelical sort. Most of them may not have been contemptuously anti-Christian (although Paine certainly was, with Jefferson a close second), but neither did they have much use for Christianity. They had so little regard for its central tenets, in fact, that they couldn’t square it with their consciences to salt their public statements with even an occasional Christian phrase. In this way they displayed an integrity that few vote-hungry politicians in our day feel moved to emulate. Revealingly, only a handful of their contemporaries seemed particularly bothered by their obvious indifference to Christianity, and those who made a big deal of it generally did so more for political reasons—as when Federalists attacked the “infidel” Jefferson in the presidential elections of 1800 and 1804—than from any sense of outraged orthodoxy. Then as now, what pretended to be a religious battle was often a political one.

Perhaps the most obvious way in which the founders intentionally used non-Christian language is in their drafting of the nation’s two defining documents, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. In the Constitution, no mention whatsoever of God is made except in the document’s date (“Done ... in the year of our Lord ...”), an inexplicable oversight if its framers intended it to lay the foundation for a Christian nation. The Declaration of Independence  does use religious language, but the religion is obviously Deism rather than Christianity. God is referred to as “Nature’s God,” the “Creator” of the physical “Laws of Nature” in addition to the “unalienable [moral] Rights” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To interpret the document as even suggestively Christian is sheer fantasy or worse. On the contrary, both it and the Constitution clearly serve as precedents for the famous passage in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli—one which the Christian Right loves to hate—which affirms that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The treaty, which sealed a routine diplomatic agreement between the U.S. and the Muslim state of Tripolitania, was unanimously ratified by the Senate and publicly endorsed and signed by President John Adams. That it was passed without debate or dissent attests to the fact that neither the president nor senators found its denial of a Christian foundation to the nation objectionable.

The claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, therefore, just doesn’t ring historically true. But as with all counterfeit coins, there’s enough genuine metal mixed in with the paste to fool unsuspecting consumers. To deny the obviously false claim that the founders of the United States intended it to be Christian doesn’t imply that certain sentiments and values held by Christians played no role in the nation’s founding. As we’ve seen, the Puritans endorsed equality and self-government. Baptists and Quakers, probably because of their sometimes savage persecution by Puritans, championed the separation of church and state. Deistic nominal Christians, such as Bishop James Madison, embraced the political ideals of tolerance and republicanism. But none of these beliefs are uniquely Christian, and in fact they’re much more obviously at home in Enlightenment liberal thought than eighteenth-century orthodox Christian theology. One  could have held them as a Christian, but holding them didn’t necessarily mean one was a Christian. Such beliefs could just as well have been held by a Deist or even a thoroughgoing secularist. Nonetheless, to the extent that some Christians held them, it is undeniable that Christian-owned principles were part of the convergence of beliefs that defined the new nation. This is, however, a far cry from saying that the nation was explicitly built upon Christian principles.

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