5 Reasons America Is Not -- And Has Never Been -- a Christian Nation
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"The United States is a Christian nation.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this statement at a religious Right meeting or in the media, I wouldn’t be rich—but I’d probably have enough to buy a really cool iPad. The assertion is widely believed by followers of the religious Right and often repeated—and, too often, it seeps into the beliefs of the rest of the population as well. But like other myths that are widely accepted (you use only 10 percent of your brain, vitamin C helps you get over a cold, and the like), it lacks a factual basis.
Over the years, numerous scholars, historians, lawyers, and judges have debunked the “Christian nation” myth. Yet it persists. Does it have any basis in American history? Why is the myth so powerful? What psychological need does it fill?
I’m not a lawyer, and my research in this area has been influenced and informed by scholars who have done much more in- depth work. The problem with some of this material, great as it is,is that it tends to be—how shall I say this politely?—’dense.’ If I were a lawyer (the kind found on television dramas, not a real one), I would present the case against the Christian nation myth in a handful of easily digestible informational nuggets. Swallow them, and you’ll be armed for your next confrontation with Cousin Lloyd who sends money to Pat Robertson.
There are essentially five arguments that refute the Christian nation myth. I’m going to outline them here and then take a look at the history of the myth. From there, we’ll briefly examine the myth’s enduring legacy and how it still affects politics and public policy today.
1. The Text of the Constitution Does Not Say the United States Is a Christian Nation
If a Christian nation had been the intent of the founders, they would have put that in the Constitution, front and center. Yet the text of the Constitution contains no references to God, Jesus Christ, or Christianity. That document does not state that our country is an officially Christian nation.
Not only does the Constitution not give recognition or acknowledgment to Christianity, but it also includes Article VI, which bans “religious tests” for public office. Guaranteeing non-Christians the right to hold federal office seems antipodal to an officially Christian nation. The language found in Article VI sparked some controversy, and a minority faction that favored limiting public office to Christians (or at least to believers) protested. Luther Martin, a Maryland delegate, later reported that some felt it “would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.” But, as Martin noted, the article’s language was approved “by a great majority . . . without much debate.” The Christian nation argument just wasn’t persuasive.
In addition, the First Amendment bars all laws “respecting an establishment of religion” and protects “the free exercise thereof.” Nothing here indicates that the latter provision applies only to Christian faiths.Finding no support for their ideas in the body of the Constitution, Christian-nation advocates are left to point to other documents, including the Declaration of Independence. This also fails. The Declaration’s reference to “the Creator” is plainly deistic. More obscure documents such as the Northwest Ordinance or personal writings by various framers are interesting historically but do not rise to the level of governance documents. When it comes to determining the manner of the U.S. government, only the Constitution matters. The Constitution does not declare that the United States is a Christian nation. This fact alone is fatal to the cause of Christian nation advocates.