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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.

Once they begin  to circulate, falsehoods—like counterfeit currency—are surprisingly tenacious. It doesn’t matter that there’s no backing for them. The only thing that counts is that people believe they have backing. Then, like bad coins, they turn up again and again.

One counterfeit idea that circulates with frustrating stubbornness is the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. It’s one of the Christian Right’s mantras and a favorite talking point for televangelists, religious bloggers, born-again authors and lobbyists, and pulpit preachers. Take, for example, the Reverend Peter Marshall. Before his death in 2010, he strove mightily (and loudly) to “restore America to its traditional moral and spiritual foundations,” as his still-active website says, by telling the truth about “America’s Christian heritage.” Or consider WallBuilders, a “national pro-family organization” founded by David Barton, whose mission is “educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country.” Called “America’s historian” by his admirers, Barton is a prolific writer of popular books that spin his Christian version of American history. And then there’s Cynthia Dunbar, an attorney and one-time professor at Liberty University School of Law. She’s another big pusher of the Christian America currency. Her 2008 polemic One Nation Under God proclaims that the Christian “foundational truths” on which the nation rests are being “eroded” by a “socialistic, secularistic, humanistic mindset” from which Christians need to take back the country.

Unlike some of the wackier positions taken by evangelicals—think Rapture—the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation has gone relatively mainstream. This is the case largely because the media-savvy Christian Right is good at getting across its message. A 2007 First Amendment Center poll revealed that 65 percent of Americans believe the founders intended the United States “to be a Christian nation”; over half of us think that this intention is actually spelled out somewhere in the Constitution. Conservative politicians sensitive to the way the wind blows are careful to echo the sentiment, or at least not to dispute it, even if they’re not particularly religious themselves. Recent GOP presidential aspirants Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry championed the claim with gusto. Even John McCain, who usually left the Bible-thumping to his Alaskan running mate, jumped on the bandwagon in his failed 2008 bid for the presidency by assuring a Beliefnet interviewer that “this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles” and that he personally would be disturbed if a non-Christian were elected to the highest office in the land.

So the notion that America was founded as a Christian nation is widespread. In the currency of ideas, it’s the ubiquitous penny. But like an actual penny, it doesn’t have a lot of value. That so many people think it does is largely because they don’t stop to consider what “founded as a Christian nation” might signify. Presumably the intended meaning is something like this: Christian principles are the bedrock of both our political system and founding documents because our founders were themselves Christians. Although wordier, this reformulation is just as perplexing because it’s not clear what’s meant by the term founders. Just who are we talking about here?

There are three primary candidate groups, and each is regularly invoked by the Christian Right. Some say that the founders of the nation were the Puritans, the “original settlers” of the New World. (Never mind that they’re not the original English settlers; that honor goes to the ragtag and much less prudish Jamestown lot.) Others contend that the real founders of the country were the people who actually lived in the colonies at the time of the revolution. But the most widely recognized candidates are the men at the center of the struggle for independence and the subsequent formation of the republic who have since been enshrined as the “Founding Fathers.”

Puritans as Founders

Cynthia Dunbar is among those who believe that the Puritans who began migrating to New England in the first half of the seventeenth century are our nation’s founders. In her One Nation Under God, she applies John Winthrop’s famous 1630 city-on-a-hill rhetoric about the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s destiny to the United States. “We as a nation were intended by God,” she writes, “to be a light set on a hill to serve as a beacon of hope and Christian charity to a lost and dying world.” To clinch her argument, Dunbar appeals to the Mayflower Compact, a covenant signed by slightly fewer than half of the original Mayflower Pilgrims in 1620. Quoting the part of the Compact that reads, “Having undertaken for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith ... a voyage to plant the first colony,” Dunbar comments that “this is undeniably our past, and it clearly delineates us as a nation intended to be emphatically Christian.”

No less an authority than Alexis de Tocqueville shares her sentiment, although in a less heavy-handed way. In his Democracy in America(1835 and 1840), he argued that the basic principles upon which the American experiment is based—equality and democracy—were inspired by Puritan covenants such as the Mayflower Compact. They established communities in which local independence, the “mainspring and lifeblood of American freedom,” could flourish, thus preparing the way for a “completely democratic and republican” form of national government.

This sounds good on a first run-through. But the problem is that both Dunbar and de Tocqueville miss important points. The Mayflower Compact that Dunbar thinks establishes the nation on a Christian footing is clearly more political than religious. She quotes from the document’s preamble, which in fact does contain conventional references to God, but ignores the purely secular meat of the document. Signatories bind themselves “into a civil body politic” for the sake of enacting “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”—period. The Mayflower Compact may ceremonially invoke God, but its substance is religiously neutral. And even in its opening reference to God, there’s not a breath of anything specifically Christian.

De Tocqueville gets it right when he claims that the Puritans established self-regulating local communities. But he overplays his hand when he says that these are prototypes of democratic and republican forms of government, because the sorry truth is that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was more theocratic than democratic. Repression of religious dissent—including the public execution of Quakers and harsh restrictions on dress, behavior, and “secular” forms of entertainment—are representative of the oppressive bigotry that characterized Puritan settlements. It’s difficult to see any common denominator between Puritan polity and the principles of the early Republic except the bare fact that both advocated “just and equal laws.” But the salient point of comparison is not, of course, the mere advocacy but rather the contentof those laws, and the theocratic drift of the Puritan ones obviously clashes with the republic’s careful separation of church and state. The conclusion is obvious: the Puritans may have founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which historically preceded the United States, but they didn’t found the United States. To claim otherwise is to fall victim to one of the oldest fallacies on the books, post hoc ergo propter hoc, the hasty assumption that because A precedes B, A causes B.

Christian Majority as Founders

So much for the Puritans. What about the second candidate group, the people who actually lived in the colonies when the United States was born and consented to its creation? Weren’t they by and large Christian? And if so, wouldn’t the general will have been that the new nation reflect prevailing Christian beliefs and values? (Televangelist D. James Kennedy once threw his weight behind this assertion by bizarrely arguing that because the colonial Jewish population was so small, the Christian population had to have been overwhelmingly large.)

This is a reasonable question. But the answer isn’t as apparent as some members of the Christian Right believe, because the issue is more complicated than they allow. (The tendency to oversimplify is one of the movement’s defining characteristics.) It’s not obvious that most late-colonial residents were “Christian” in the narrow sense meant by present-day evangelicals. In the final quarter of the eighteenth century, American religious sensibilities were in flux. Because membership in religious denominations was voluntary—a welcome reaction to the earlier Puritanical repression of religious choice—inherited membership and denominational allegiance were weak. Laypeople hopped from one sect to another in such numbers and with such frequency that Richard Hofstadter calculated in his 1974 Anti-Intellectualism in American Lifethat upwards of 90 percent of Americans were unchurched during the revolutionary and early republic years. Historian James MacGregor Burns agreed, noting in his 1983 The Vineyard of Liberty that the years immediately following the Revolution were a “wintry season” for Christianity in America.

What this suggests is that it is misleading to speak of Christian belief from that period as a uniform, monolithic set of principles and doctrines (just as it’s misleading to so characterize modern-day Christian belief, by the way), because people either migrated from denomination to denomination or rejected affiliation altogether. Adding to the confusion was the plurality of Christian interpretations that they had to choose from. There were Quaker, Dunker, Baptist, Moravian, Methodist, Lutheran, Shaker, German Reformed, Anglican, Congregationalist, and Roman Catholic beliefs. Moreover, there was a spectrum of theological opinion within each of these denominations, ranging from the extremely conservative to the extremely liberal. Quakers, Moravians, Baptists, Shakers, and Dunkers were explicitly leery of attempts to marry religion and politics, but even those denominations that accepted in principle a connection disagreed on its specific parameters. In short, Christians’ attitudes about the role their faith should play in the governance of the new nation were all over the map.

To illustrate just how ambiguous the label “Christian” could be, consider the example of James Madison, who was consecrated Episcopal bishop of Virginia in 1790. (No, not that Madison. The bishop shared a name with his cousin, the fourth president of the United States.) Even though he shepherded one of the most populous Episcopal dioceses in the country, Madison was criticized even during his lifetime for being something of a freethinking Deist. Clearly influenced by the Enlightenment era’s emphasis on natural science—he taught the subject for years at the College of William and Mary—Madison, as one of his fellow bishops delicately put it, was thought to “philosophize too much on the subject of religion” to be entirely orthodox. Despite his Church of England connection, Madison was also a patriot during the revolution, ardently championing political equality and democracy. But it’s difficult to tell whether his reasons for doing so are attributable to Christian conviction or his study of political theorists such as John Locke. Both influences are intermingled in his writings and sermons.

Madison was by no means unique. Many of his formally Christian contemporaries held similarly heterodox views that would be quite unacceptable to today’s Christian Right. As I argued in my 1998BenjaminFranklin and His Gods, Americans in the late colonial and early republic years were often caught in a worldview clash between Christianity on the one hand and the Enlightenment on the other. Some reacted by clinging to their Christian faith and blasting Enlightenment “infidelity” with jeremiads, while others, as Jonathan Edwards grumbled in 1773, “wholly cast off the Christian religion and are professed infidels.” College students at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, King’s (present day Columbia), William and Mary, and Dartmouth gleefully embraced, at least for a while, the Enlightenment’s anti-biblical religion of Deism. In the 1790s, thanks largely to the efforts of Deist crusader Elihu Palmer, militant Deism—which rejected miracles, revelation, the authority of Scripture, and the divinity of Jesus—enjoyed a spurt of rather astounding popularity. But many people who lived at the founding of the nation tried to steer a middle course that combined, even if awkwardly at times, elements from both Christian and Enlightenment worldviews. This made for any number of nuanced possibilities when it came to Christian commitment, all of them much more complex than the Christian Right would prefer to acknowledge.

Christian Founding Fathers

Since colonial and early republic Christians were no more uniform in belief than today’s Christians are, we can dismiss the claim that the United States was intended to be Christian because the general population at the time of independence was Christian. But what about the position that the leaders in the struggle for independence—names that every American kid immediately recognizes—were Christian and intended the republic to reflect their religious convictions? This is the argument to which the Christian Right most commonly appeals. Marshall, Barton, and Dunbar champion it with gusto, as do dozens of other evangelical authors such as John Eidsmore (Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers, 1995); Tim LaHaye of apocalyptic Left Behind series fame (Faith of Our Founding Fathers, 1994); and Gary DeMar (America’s Christian Heritage, 2003). As we’ve seen, it’s also received wisdom for a majority of Americans.

The problem, as scholar after scholar has pointed out—how often must it be repeated before the reality breaks through the myth?—is that it simply isn’t true. The Founding Fathers weren’t all Christian. Some, of course, were: Patrick Henry (Episcopalian), John Hancock (Congregationalist), John Jay (Episcopalian), and Sam Adams (Congregationalist), for example, were all devout and pretty conventional Christians. But the big players in the founding of the United States—such men as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and probably Alexander Hamilton—weren’t. Each of them was much more comfortable with a deistic understanding of God than a Christian one. For them, the deity was an impersonal First Cause who created a rationally patterned natural order and who was best worshiped through the exercise of reason and virtue. Most of them may have admired the ethical teachings of Jesus (although Paine conspicuously did not), but all of them loathed and rejected the priestcraft and superstition they associated with Christianity.

Despite this, the Christian Right insists on adopting these men (aside from Paine) as Christian founders. The usual justification is that each of them (again, except Paine) belonged to an established Christian denomination. But as we’ve already seen, formal membership by itself wasn’t then (or now) a fail-safe measure of an individual’s religious beliefs. As David Holmes compellingly argues in his 2006 Faiths of the Founding Fathers, other factors—such as the way in which the founders referred to God, opinions they expressed in personal correspondence, and their involvement in church life—must be considered as well. None of the founders, for example, used conventional Christian language when writing or speaking about God. Instead, the terms they favored—Supreme Architect, Author of Nature, First Cause, Nature’s God, Superattending Power—were unmistakably deistic. (One of the Christian Right’s most telling blind spots is its failure to pick up on the founders’ obviously non-Christian nomenclature.) Another indicator of their lack of conventional Christian commitment is the fact that while all of them had been baptized as infants, an initiation that of course made them nominally Christian, none who were members of denominations that offered the sacrament of Confirmation sought it as adults. Moreover, they generally did not take Communion when it was offered, nor did they typically involve themselves in church activities. Even when they did, it was no clear signal that they were orthodox Christians. George Washington, for example, served on the vestry in several Episcopalian parishes. But he avoided Confirmation and Communion, never used give-away Christian terms such as Lord or Redeemer, and rarely even referred to Jesus by name. Finally, none of them gave the slightest hint in their personal letters or diaries that they considered themselves committed Christians.

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.

But let’s concede, just for the sake of the argument, what is patently false: that the nation in fact was founded on Christian principles and intended by its founders to be Christian. The obvious perplexity that then arises is why the Christian Right is so convinced that a “socialistic, secularistic, and humanistic mindset” has jerked the nation up by its Christian roots. The founding documents framed by our “Christian” forebears are still venerated today. The same protection of religious liberty endorsed by our “Christian” founders is still fiercely championed by political leaders and the courts. So what’s been uprooted? What’s been lost that our “Christian” founders put in place?

The answer, of course, is that nothing has been lost, and the Christian Right knows it. What evangelicals really want is something that never was, and that’s an explicitly sectarian statement of commitment to Christ worked into the warp and woof of national law and public policy. What they want is the Christian theocracy that the founders explicitly rejected. For all their political thundering against the intrusive ways of “big government,” what evangelicals yearn for is strict legal codification of their version of Christian values. What never occurs to the Christian Right is that if the founders in fact had been Christians intending to create a commonwealth faithful to Jesus’s teachings, the United States today would be a nation quite different from what evangelicals think it should be. There would be no standing army, no divide between rich and poor, no ethnic hatred or closed borders, no persecution of religious dissent, no national chauvinism, a lot less holier-than-thou finger-pointing, and a lot more forgiveness and compassion.

Now, that would be a shining city built on a hill.

Kerry Walters, William Bittinger Professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, is the author or editor of twenty-five books, including Revolutionary Deists: Early America’s Rational Deists, a 2011 Choice Outstanding Book; a critical edition of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason (Broadview, 2011); and Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2010).
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