On A Christian Nation

October 21, 2010 | By | 8 Replies More

Polls recently indicate that more and more Americans link being an American with being a Christian.  Yet the consensus on what this actually means is as nonexistent as ever.  We hear a lot about how this country was founded on “Christian principles” and that the Founders wanted this to be a “Christian nation.”  Yet with a few exceptions, most folks would likely chafe horribly should we actually try to return to anything close what that meant in 1787.

The question of what the Founders intended is an interesting one, since even cursory research produces conflicting statements on both sides.  Many of the most prominent clearly felt that what they had wrought in the Constitution was a device for keeping religion from distorting government.  They intended, it seems, that people as individuals should decide for themselves, within a private sphere, how to believe and subsequently how to worship.  The government, they claimed, should not be permitted to interfere with that.  The question, of course, is whether they intended this to be the case in the other direction.

In a way, it’s a ridiculous question.  How do you prevent an individual’s religious ideas from informing his or her political actions?  You don’t.  However the individual believes, that is what will be taken to the polls.  All such questions may be similarly addressed—what goes on within your skull is yours and the government cannot interfere with it.

But public displays,  judicial acts, and legislation ought to be free of overt religious sentiment.  Passing laws should be based on common welfare—if an exhortation to god is necessary to make a law seem “right” then that law is not Constitutional.  It has to make secular sense.

Nevertheless the issue is muddy, because the same Framers often talked about christian principles and the common bonds of christian community, at least in private, and often in speeches.  Is this a contradiction?

I believe not.  The problem is, the idea as currently framed and debated is simply out of context, not broad enough.  What did it mean to be part of a christian community in 1787?  That everyone went to church, prayed the same way, believed in the same god or description of god?

At that time, I suspect, “christian community” was a label for a total package of cultural markers.  One didn’t have to believe overtly in any specific christian doctrine in order to accept social ideas about what made a community.  Being a christian was a political, social, and economic condition as much if not more than a religious conviction.  (Hence, Manifest Destiny.)  While you might not pray in that church down the street, you would defend it and move easily in the externalized community around it.

What would this have meant in practice?  It would have meant holding a view in white European supremacy, in the notion that land required “improvement” (clearing, farming, etc), in a specific form of marriage, in disapproval of miscegenation.  It would have signified common greetings, modes of understanding the world, support of certain ambitions, judgments of certain failures.  It would have meant building in a certain way, dressing in a certain way, talking in a certain way.  In other words, “being christian” would have meant the same as being from Delaware or Virginia, of being white, of supporting certain forms of trade.  In some parts of the country, it would have meant owning slaves or at least agreeing that the “inferior” races should be subject to slavery.

It would have meant linguistic conformity, the suppression of native history as well as language, the conviction that your way was necessarily superior and right and that those who did not agree were somehow not civilized.

Image by Dreamstime.com (with permission)

Above all, it indicated that—Civilization.  In Europe, centuries earlier, “Christendom” was as much a political concept as a religious one, and that currency had not completely devalued.  Being a “Christian Nation” meant basically being Civilized, at least in the sense of what was commonly agreed upon.  God, the church, prayer—that was part of it, but in much the same way as political affiliation could be considered today.  Of course anyone civilized would be a christian, for most people the idea of doing without such a framework would have been lunacy.  Or, more fundamentally, the question would not even have occurred to them.

Because they paid it about as much attention as it is paid today.  The political and economic concepts that were then layered onto “Christianity” were not then and are not now supported Biblically.  The destruction of native Americans was nothing that could be condoned by so-called christian virtue, and some said as much, but their voices were shouted down by those who saw “being christian” as something much more than merely following scripture.  It was a question of identity and that identity had evolved culturally, not doctrinally.

So when today someone makes the claim that the Founding Generation built a christian country, they are not exactly wrong—but they probably don’t know what it is they’re claiming.   What that generation saw as essential to being a christian then was the product of centuries of social evolution and meant many thing that have nothing to do with religion at all.  (For a more modern reference, you might look at Germany’s political party, the Christian Democrats.)  Just as today we are living in a cultural milieu that has evolved to meet the requirements of changed social conditions and a recent recognition that many of things that a fundamental view of christianity offers are nothing we are willing to live with anymore.

In either case, I think the Founders would be appalled at how their intent has been so misinterpreted and maligned today—appalled, but I doubt they would be surprised.


Category: American Culture, Culture, Current Events, Education, History, ignorance, Politics, Religion

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (8)

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  1. Tony Coyle says:


    This 'cultural context' is how I see the US.

    The use of 'Christian' by the founders and their peers is parallel to the use of 'white' by the British and Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries (.That's awfully white of you, old chap!) when referencing anything 'culturally proper and appropriate' especially with regards to behavior.

    It is simply code for the dominant cultural context: how we do things. It is not religious. Just as the use of white was not, for the most part, ostensibly racist.

    I think the real problem is that many people are taught (poorly) to be literalist*, to bow to authority, and fail miserably when asked to interpret reality in relative terms. To these people, Christian means one thing only – personal subjugation to Jesus. This is, for them, an eternal and unchanging truth. Any historical reference to Christian is therefore interpreted through this current lens, not thorough the reality of the historical context.

    *O'Donnell's recent first amendment contretemps is a case in point, perhaps.

  2. Walter says:

    Tony, what is wrong with being a literalist? I believe the Founders meant what they said and said what they meant regarding the First Amendment and everything else, nothing more and nothing less.

    The Founders wanted all religions on equal footing. Not one dominant over another. It's apparent in the Declaration of Independence that the Founders were Christians. To Whom do you think they were referring to when writing "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" in the Declaration of Independence? What is so hard to understand about this?

    Mark, I think you're right that the Founders would be appalled with the misrepresentation of their intent, but not in the way you think. They would be appalled at how far away our nation as gotten away from God. Some people can't even bring themselves to say "one nation under God" when saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:


    I'm agree that the First Amendment would favor letting the plurality of religions into the spotlight, were any religion to be featured.

    Require all networks using the public airways to represent polytheistic and atheistic faiths equally with monotheistic ones. Or if not equally, at least in proportion to their worldwide representation. Or get all churches off the air.

    Insist that regions with Christian inspired blue laws also enforce the sabbatical and dietary restrictions of Muslims and Brahmans and Jews. Or stop legislating particular moralities.

    Legislate that polygynous and polyandrous marriages have equal footing with monogamous folks. I'd like to see gender-neutral marriage as well. But I don't know of any religion that supports homosexual pairing; just human and animal nature. Or get the government out of the marriage business.

  4. Walter,

    Then by all means , let us be literalists and take their silence as meaningful as well. In no part of the Constitution is god or church mentioned and I think Jefferson chose the term “Creator” very carefully to not be partisan or even philosophically limited. You assume he meant the christian view, but even then he could have meant the Judaic view, the Muslim view, Gnostic, Catholic, Protestant, or Masonic (and I assure you that those last three at that time were not interchangeable) or any other the rest of the faiths the promote the idea of a Creator. Jefferson was a polymath who knew quite a lot about the varieties of religions and he could even have meant a strictly Spinozan idea that Nature is the Creator, which is distinct from most ideas of a god…

    I think many of these people walked a fine line rhetorically to avoid rousing the ire of the equivalent in their day of the Moral Majority and managed to say just enough to not foment another rebellion. Some were devout Christians, some were atheists, all were concerned that politics not be muddied by intractable notions of ephemeral religiosity. Which is why I said reading from among their writings one can make the argument in any direction.

    Furthermore, religion by its nature is partisan and they did earnestly attempt to avoid the pitfalls of partisanship (and failed, they were not omniscient) and after two centuries we who are their heirs have learned (or should have learned) that public expressions of religious sentiment via state institutions are automatically both divisive and distracting. God is not on Our Side, nor on anyone else’s, and it is hypocrisy and borderline oppressive to try to pretend otherwise.

    As to the pledge of allegiance, I think they would be appalled at the very idea of such a pledge regardless of its phrasing. Loyalty oaths were decidedly loathsome to them, being far too nationalistic, certainly federalistic, and potentially tyrannical. It wasn’t their idea, we didn’t even have one till 1892, and even then it did not include the words “under god” which were inserted in 1954 at the height of one of our recurrent seizures of national paranoia.

    Literalism is a trap. If we are not willing to adapt ourselves to changed perspectives and realities, to acknowledge that we are different and the world is different from other times, and try to pretend that only one generation had a lock on truth and wisdom, we are little better than morons who require leading around by the nose. I think the Founders were smarter than that and knew what they wrote had to be flexible enough to allow for what they might have gotten wrong.

  5. Karl says:

    The term "Christian Nation" has nothing but a cultural meaning to those who do not understand nor believe the life, death and resurrection, aka the purpose for the incarnation of Jesus as the bearer of the sin of the world.

    Now the US culture applauds the freedom given to everyone to proclaim their differences, even to the extent of the very principles that have given us this freedom, are steadily being stripped away.

    There were principles very much related to religion and faith in God that brought forth this nation, no matter how secular or perverse someone wishes to proclaim it.

    The formation and structures of the US constitution and amendments, once made it possible for the government to permit the people to have differences in matters of religion/doctrine, yet still form a civil cooperative culture that permitted both the public and private proclamation and demonstration of the purpose behind the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

    The Constitution today is nothing more than a lap dog to those who want freedom from personal responsibility for both their own beliefs and social interactions as well.

    The continuing saga now includes whether the culture has changed to the point where it is no onger feasible to even state from any public arena that Jesus Christ could have been who he said he was, or if there even were a need of him.

  6. Walter says:

    Karl, very well stated. I totally agree with you. The Founders never meant to take religion out of the public and that is what is happening little by little today, so not to OFFEND anyone.

    Mark, have you never read any of the Thanksgiving Day Proclamations? Or the many statements of the Founding Fathers? Also, historical documents dated "In the year of our Lord", not in the year of Allah or Mohammed.

    Interpreting the Constitution and other historical documents is only difficult when you are trying to twist it to fit an atheistic point of view. Just take your interpretation of why "Creator" was used in the Declaration of Independence. That's a pretty far stretch of an interpretation. It wasn't added to be politically correct. The Founders knew who the "Creator" was.

    I would like for people to let the Constitution stand as it was written. The Federal Government wasn't created to have so much power. The power was to be held within the individual States and when the States couldn't handle something then the Feds would step in. Our country is turning into what our Founding Fathers were trying to get away from.

  7. Walter says:

    One more thing, President Dwight D. Eisenhower added the words "under God" in 1954. His statement for adding it was this. "In this way, we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war."

  8. Walter,

    I have read those. Likewise, the designation A.D. was most commonly used, even by "atheist" academics, until quite recently, as was The Year of Our Lord. Most of the people using either knew and understood (and accepted) what it stood for, but the point I was making originally was that they could also use it without thinking about it because it was a convention. A social convention as much as anything else.

    The current crop of rabid religioms so vociferously bent on shoving their god back into the limelight are disingenuous when they call upon the Founders as the example they wish to emulate, because I seriously doubt the Founders would have much patience for such over-the-top, patently egregious proselytizing, which is being indulged as a justification for political action, not moral rectification. They have conflated all manner of secular and political ideas into their version of American christianity, from second amendment fundamentalism to defense of capitalism as somehow Jesus' preferred economic model. They would have it done this way because who could gainsay laws made in the name of the Lord?

    My point was to withdraw the ahistorical revisionism they indulge from them by pointing out that what they mean by A Christian Nation and what the Founders meant are two very different things.

    You have chosen to call me on some points which are pretty much not what I meant, but as demonstration of where you fall on this issue I take your meaning very well. As far as it goes, you are right—the Founders probably never intended that religion or god be absent from public discourse and in some ways perhaps it is unfortunate that in order to make things fair we have gone a bit far. But in no way is the private practice of religion in this country any less than it was then. In fact, it is probably freer now than then, since community intolerance of outre religious ideas was common and often supported by local authority. I seriously doubt if the plethora of religions that can set up shop in the United States today would have lasted a year in 1800 America. Many didn't last long at all. We forget that the public accommodation issue affected Jews as much as blacks. By rendering our civil institutions strictly neutral, we have achieved a level of religious freedom that didn't exist even 50 years ago. Not that I'm altogether happy about that, but I'm not calling for a retrenchment of a "christian nation" in order to meet the threat of cults and alien creeds like many in the religious right.

    See, it sounds harmless when you're in the majority. Try being in the minority for a time and see how it feels to be the one singled out and treated differently. No, I do not believe we can do away with all that, but I see no good coming from reintroducing state sponsored religious singularism by asserting that we are a "christian nation."

    As for what Eisenhower said, this is true, but it is the purpose of politicians to put a palatable face on things that often stem from systemic fear. In 1954 we were terrified that the godless commies were going to brainwash our children into atheism. Better to indoctrinate them ourselves with our own brand of nationalism and god is on our side nonsense than risk the consequences of leaving it alone and seeing if our ideas might just be strong enough on their own to stand up to what was an essentially bad idea.

    One more bit. In the case of Jefferson, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the notion that he was more a Spinozan than any kind of "mainstream" christian. He had little use for churches and priests and was quite skeptical of the western concept of god. As widely read as he was I wouldn't put it past him to have slipped a little "natural law" gnosticism in.

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