Examining the Evidence of the Christian Foundation of America
Periodically, a public person will refer to America as a Christian nation. This usually produces strong responses. When the governor of Mississippi referred to America as a Christian nation a few years ago, many in the media and academia responded in an apoplectic rage to what they consider an idea only recently propagated by "right-wing" Christian revisionist historians. They say America is not now, nor ever has been, a Christian nation.
Is America a Christian nation? Was America ever a Christian nation? Is there such a thing as a Christian nation? The answer to these questions depends upon how you define "Christian nation." As defined below, yes, there is such a thing as a Christian nation, America began as a Christian nation, and today we are in some sense still a Christian nation, but have been progressively moving away from our Christian roots while embracing humanistic ideas. To more fully understand these answers, let us define Christian nation.
To define a Christian nation, we must first state what it is not. A Christian nation is not one where Christianity is the established religion, nor one where every citizen is a Christian, nor one where a majority of the citizens are Christian. It is also not a nation that is without sin, for all men and nations have sinned.
During the time of American colonization, Europe had state established religion—state churches. Many who came to America fled the negative effects of such an establishment, though most of the early colonies had an establishment of religion. At Independence, 8 of the 13 colonies had a specific denomination as the established religion, and 4 others had general Protestant Christianity receiving preference. The national government under the United States Constitution had no such establishment. State establishments were gradually ended due to the advancement of Christian ideas of religious liberty; yet, Christianity remained "the great vital element" in our nation. If a Christian nation is one defined where Christianity is the established religion, then, on a national level, America was not a Christian nation.
The Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 1853 defined the first amendment clause, "an establishment of religion," as: "It was the connection, with the state, of a particular religious society, by its endowment at the public expense, in exclusion of, or in preference to, any other, by giving to its members exclusive political rights, and by compelling the attendance of those who rejected its communion upon its worship or religious observance." As defined this way, America had no establishment of religion.
If the definition of a Christian nation is one where every citizen is a Christian, then we were not a Christian nation, for all were not Christians (though 99% of early Americans embraced the Christian religion, at least verbally and culturally). Similarly, not all our leaders were Christian, even though laws in several states had this as a qualification for serving in government.
Some might define a Christian nation as one where a majority of the citizens are Christian. While this could have been the situation in early America (a vast majority claimed to be Christian, though God knows the heart), this is not an appropriate measurement of what should constitute a Christian nation.
So were we ever a Christian nation? The Founders certainly spoke of America as a Christian nation. Consider just a few quotes.
John Jay, first Supreme Court Chief Justice, proclaimed, "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."
Chief Justice John Marshall stated:
The American population is entirely Christian, & with us, Christianity & Religion are identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, & did not often refer to it, & exhibit relations with it.
The Legislature of New York declared in 1838:
This is a Christian nation. Ninety-nine hundredths, if not a larger proportion, of our whole population, believe in the general doctrines of the Christian religion.
In Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (1892), the U.S. Supreme Court said "this is a Christian nation" and presented much historical evidence in support of this declaration.
In the view of our Founders, having many citizens personally embrace Christianity is an important part of a Christian nation, but a Christian nation is more than this. A Christian nation is a nation that is founded upon Biblical principles, where Biblical truth and law are the standard for public life, law, and societal institutions. Defined this way, America certainly was a Christian nation, and in some sense still is, as the vestiges of these Christian principles still support aspects of the American society, though they have been progressively undermined during the last century or so.
Every nation is established upon some set of principles or presuppositions, which ultimately is rooted in the faith of the people. Thus all nations have a religious foundation. America was founded upon the principles of Christianity and, therefore in this sense, was a Christian nation. Let's examine some of the evidence.
Many have argued today against the idea that America was a Christian nation. Arguments have come from non-Christians, such as in the book Our Godless Constitution, as well as Christians (some pointing to early sins such as slavery, some to a lack of explicit declaration in the Constitution, others saying Masons were a predominant secret influence and hence we were not Christian). America was not an ecclesiastic nation (where the church ruled), nor one that had no sin, but Christianity was the unofficial religion of early America. The Bible was the foundation of our republic. We were founded on the precepts of Christianity as a Christian nation. The evidence of this Christian foundation is broad.
Quoting from just a few of the early charters shows the Christian motives for founding the colonies and the recognition of God as the highest authority and source of law:
In the Colonial Origins of the American Constitution, Donald Lutz includes 80 foundational civil documents written in the American colonies. Even a brief examination of these confirms that all 13 colonies embraced a Biblical view of law. In his outline of "some of the things that a reading of these documents together leads us to conclude," Lutz gives number one as: "Political covenants were derived in form and content from religious covenants used to found religious communities." He writes that one element of a political covenant is "an oath calling on God as a witness or partner."