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America’s Christian Nation Debate

America’s Christian Nation Debate

Revisiting the Intentions of the Constitutional Founders

The constitutional system of the United States of America remains the envy of the outside world despite the growing unrest of our European allies towards our country’s Administration, and the continual provocation against it by terrorists and a few hostile Arab-Muslim nations.

Constitution_w-275_h-375Yet the greatest threat to our constitutional system comes from within, and particularly from a few overzealous souls who seek to reinterpret our nation’s constitutional history in a way that suits their own desire for raw political power.

This revolutionary threat is led by religiously-motivated revisionists who seek to recast our collective history as one that favors their viewpoints. Since the late 1980’s, beginning with the popular video productions by David Barton of Wallbuilders, Inc., and advocated by outspoken spin doctors who lay claim to populist credibility like Newt Gingrich, the late D. James Kennedy, Judge Roy Moore, Glenn Beck and Attorney Jay Sekulow, there has been an enormous amount of money, time, and energy put into blurring our national history to create the myth of an evangelical Christian foundation.

The first casualty in this struggle to create a history that supports their contemporary march toward power is the demolition of the distinction between the Puritan and Constitutional founding periods. This has caused many unwary American citizens to believe that the United States Government was specifically intended by our nation’s Founders to be constituted on the basis of a narrow form of Christianity and literal Scriptural commands.

Rather than honestly evaluate the past, a mythical history is developed that advances their interests with uncanny precision, and provides an incomplete and inaccurate history to support populist viewpoints. They have benefited from substandard public education in history and have used popular ignorance of key historical facts to reinterpret the Constitution, and to establish the Christian Constitution and Christian State they have always cherished. Rather than rewriting the Constitution, they simply say it means something else.

Recognizing that they may end up falling short of their goals, these radical revisionists, in misapplying Francis Schaeffer’s idea of A Christian Manifesto—should the government force secular humanism against the Christian community’s collective will—have even contemplated what it would take to influence “We the People” to abolish the Constitution altogether, as emphasized in a special edition of Richard John Neuhaus’ First Things journal in November, 1996.

One of the means that has been employed has been the proposal of so-called Constitution Reform Acts at the state level, including a Pledge of Allegiance Act at the federal level. It is an idea that has been promoted by Newt Gingrich, who is fed up with the amendment process as outlined in Article V of the Constitution.[1] These acts are specifically worded in a way that would bar state courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court, from ever hearing cases involving acts of religious expression in the public square that are sponsored by the government. They would give state legislative bodies and the U.S. Congress a blank check to pass whatever the popular will of the people wanted. This in turn would effectively limit courts from interpreting the Constitution over an entire realm of jurisprudence—namely church-state and religious liberty case law.[2]

According to Jack Rakove, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, such a move would strike at the very heart of Jefferson’s and Madison’s principled support for disestablishment and free exercise law: “ the radical conviction that nearly the entire sphere of religious practice could be safely deregulated, placed beyond the cognizance of the state, and thus defused as both a source of political strife and a danger to individual rights. By treating religion as a matter of opinion only, Jefferson and Madison identified the one area of governance in which the realm of private rights could be enlarged by a flat constitutional denial of legislative jurisdiction, thereby converting the general premise that all government rested on a delegation of authority from the people into a specific refusal to permit government to act over an entire area of behavior.”[3]

Efforts to eliminate judicial review oversight by legislative fiat would, if successful, radically affect our country’s constitutional separation of powers, separate individuals from the protection of the Bill of Rights, and effectively eliminate the constitutional separation of church and state. Arguably, with church and state bound together, radical historical revisionists would achieve their objective of full power over all branches of government, and indeed, of all faith.

The Christian Nation Debate

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 71% percent of Americans consider the United States a “Christian nation.”[4]

Demographic and Cultural Factors

Other polls show that secularism and atheism are on the decline while 82% percent of Americans claim to be Christian. The fact is America is a nation with a large Christian majority, but it is a nation of many faith groups and religions. America is predominantly Christian in terms of its population: 251 million Americans, out of a total population of slightly over 300 million, profess to be Christian. That’s roughly 82-83 percent of America’s population, with each categorized at varying devotional levels.[5]

Of this 82% percent cited, roughly 25% percent are conservative evangelical Catholics and 29% percent are evangelical Protestants. This means that 54% percent are conser-vative evangelical Christians, leaving approximately 28% percent in the mainline liberal Protestant churches.[6] All other people of faith make up 9% percent (i.e., Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.). The remaining 8 to 9% percent range from secularists with no particular antagonism to institutional forms of religion, to atheists, who make up less than 2% percent of the American population.[7]

From this, one could reasonably conclude that demographically and culturally America remains a predominantly Christian nation in the midst of a competitive and diverse religious landscape. Spiritually, however, Americans don’t view America as a Christian nation because of any real knowledgeable or passionate creedal commitment to Christianity. Instead, as Hugh Helco of George Mason University argues, “A noncreedal Christianity fits very well with the larger American culture that endorses individual choice, tolerance of different truths, and distrust of anyone’s party line about what morality ought to be.”[8]

More and more, Christians are developing a social faith that passionately transcends into shared cultural, moral, social, and political values, regardless of doctrinal differences. It may be an indication that middle ground is increasing as seen in a growing segment of younger evangelicals who are becoming concerned about global warming, AIDS relief, and economic relief for the poor and unfortunate, instead of the typical conservative hot button issues.[9]

But this does not diminish today’s cultural divide, where, as Christopher Clausen reminds us, pitched struggles over the proper place of religion in the public square—whether it be over the celebration of Christmas in public venues, God in the Pledge of Allegiance, prayer in public schools, the legality and propriety of same-sex marriage, courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments, and the notion of Intelligent Design—“spill rivers of ink and spawn endless litigation.” But this is not all: abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research are hotly debated. Evangelical Christians unite on these issues in a similar way, where their social faith transcends into shared cultural, moral, social, and political values, regardless of doctrinal differences.

Whether one is a liberal, conservative, or in-between, as Clausen argues, “War between the faiths, as well as between faith and government, is raging again throughout most of the world, and America is part of the picture.”[10]Secular liberals, often professed Christians, continually seek to deface religion in the public square, making it void of religious expression. On the other side of the divide, many evangelical Christians have been vigorously trying—through legislation—to constitutionalize (or enforce by law) the dominance of Christianity and Christian expression in the public square. As Clausen puts it, “the Left fears that fundamentalists have subverted the Constitution to establish a theocracy, while the Right complains of galloping secularism.”[11]

The Constitutional and Legal Question

So let’s ask the next logical question. Is America a Christian nation from a constitutional and legal standpoint? When reading the Constitution on a line-by-line basis, does it make biblical demands on us as citizens, or propose to organize our federal governmental system on the basis of biblically defined principles? Did America’s Constitutional Framers intend the Constitution to make Christianity the dominating religion or law of the land? Perhaps the closest our country came to becoming a Christian nation was when Alexander Hamilton proposed the creation of a “Christian Constitutional Society.” While Hamilton’s proposal was contained in an obscure letter to Congressman James Bayard of Delaware, and never saw the light of day, it represented a systematic plan for ensuring the election of “fit [Christian] men,” and thus ensuring the transformation of the American political system into a Christian consensus, affecting generations of legislation with a Christian intent. Hamilton’s proposal was, in some distinct ways, a precursor to the once vaunted Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition in our day—voting guides and all![12]

Despite such a narrow vision by Hamilton, we are fortunate that most of our nation’s Founders realized that a greater influx of immigrants would bring a corresponding increase in religious pluralism. With more and more faith groups escaping from a troubled European Continent where religious wars and religious persecutions were a frequent and well-known condition of those times. To anticipate an increasing flood of new immigrants meant establishing the new and fledgling Republic on a secure basis—on the basis of civil and religious freedom. To do this they would have to at once calculate, acknowledge, enunciate, and apply the radical principle of the separation between church and state in the new Constitution by preventing the establishment of a national church. It would also mean ensuring that the federal government was not involved in financially supporting, officially endorsing or sponsoring any particular religious activity—particularly denominational acts of worship or spiritual devotion.

Constitutionally speaking, then, the United States remains a secular nation with secular laws that are neutral toward religion, religious individuals and religious entities, where no religious belief system, tenet, or church is established through legal enforcement. If America was a Christian Nation by law, and Christianity was to dominate and suppress any other faith expression, and this was specifically spelled out as such in our Constitution, then our government would be no different than some Muslim countries whose Constitutions are based on Sharia law and Haditha writings—laws derived, interpreted and applied from the Koran, the sacred Scriptures of Islam. The only difference, of course, would be that our laws and the enforcement of our laws would derive authority, interpretation and application from the Holy Bible, the sacred Scriptures of Christianity. Given the ardor of power-seeking Christians today who leave little room for plurality or dissent, the practical application of those laws would shock many.

If America was a Christian Nation on a legal and constitutional basis, religious freedom in this country would be virtually non-existent. The nation might be tolerant of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Spiritists, and even some Christian minorities (i.e., Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, all American born religions), but religious groups that did not comply with fixed legal objectives would be at a distinct disadvantage.

This is why, in our country’s historical formation, Christian men like John Leland, an itinerant, hell-fire preaching colonial Baptist from Virginia, was motivated to write that “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever.” He argued that “Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”[13]In these words Reverend Leland echoed the thoughts and words of many other Christians of his day. Indeed, no reasonable historian could accuse Reverend Leland of being a modern secular humanist.

From this, a true American imperative emerges: the principled need for religious freedom in a diverse land of many people of varying faiths and faith experiences. John Tyler is one of the least remembered presidents in the history of the United States. Yet on July 10, 1843, he penned one of the most eloquent letters ever written applauding the American constitutional experiment in religious freedom. He wrote:

The United States has adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent—that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mahommedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the Constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political institutions…. The Hebrew persecuted and down trodden in other regions takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid…. and the Aegis of the government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried, and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it; our system of free government would be imperfect without it.”[14]

As Tyler so eloquently points out, religious and political pluralism—not a Christian nation—was the principled foundation that was chosen by America’s Constitutional Founders so that religious and political freedom could truly be lasting.

Revisiting the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom

Perhaps the most convincing proof that America’s constitutional Fathers did not intend to establish a Christian Commonwealth comes from the pens of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

Madison

Shortly before his death, James Madison addressed the threat of a Commonwealth in his day. In a September 1832 letter to the Reverend Jasper Adams, which was in response to a sermon pamphlet that Adams had circulated to key individuals, including Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, Madison objected to the central argument in Adams’ sermon: the idea that since the Christian religion was a cultural and moral force that pervaded the entire nation, it deserved to be financially supported by the Government through general taxation. This, Adams argued, would solve many of the nation’s moral ills.

For Madison, Adams’ argument, was more than just a suggestion to subsidize Christian churches, but an attempt to favor Christianity in an official and thus constitutional manner. This ran contrary to his original understanding, particularly when the Establishment Clause was largely drafted on the fresh experiences of defeating Patrick Henry’s funding bill—a bill that would have established “A Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion”—with Thomas Jefferson’s “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” which in 1777 became Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom and allowed for no such funding or favoritism.

In response to Adams, Madison wrote: “The simple question to be decided, is whether a support of the best and purest religion, the Christian Religion itself, ought not, so far at least as pecuniary means are involved, to be provided for by the Government, rather than be left to the voluntary provisions of those who profess it.” Madison’s rhetorical question had a quick and decisive answer: “On this question, experience will be an admitted umpire…. In the papal system, Government & Religion are in a manner consolidated; & that is found to be the worst of Governments.” Madison argued that this was because history had proven that such a system had neither been favorable “to Religion or to government.”[15]

Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson did a little reflecting of his own regarding the legislative battle over his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Mr. Jefferson, then retired at Monticello, noted in his Autobiography that even though “a majority of the legislature were churchmen…a great majority” rejected an amendment put forward by those who insisted on declaring in the preamble that coercion was “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.”[16]

While Jefferson had no personal problem with the theological correctness of such a statement, he had a problem with Virginia declaring that it was a Christian State when in fact it was more than a state that merely tolerated other religions, but instead gave them equal status with Christians of every creed and stripe. He observed that “The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”[17]In other words, all people of faith, including those who chose to refrain from faith altogether, were to be treated equally.

Derek Davis, Dean of the College of Humanities at Mary Hardin-Baylor University, comments that “Jefferson wrote this at a time when America was even more culturally Christian than it is today.” But, he argues, “this never meant that Virginia, let alone America, was to be Christian in a constitutional sense. The Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia could have easily included language in the Constitution declaring the nation to be ‘Christian’ had they wanted to. In fact, many citizens argued for this kind of expressly ‘Christian’ language at the state ratifying conventions after the document was presented to the states for approval. But the Founders weathered these proposals, choosing to remain true to their conviction that the nation would embrace a principle of religious pluralism whereby all citizens’ beliefs would be legally protected with none favored.”[18]

The Religion Clauses—Between Puritanism and Godlessness

After realizing the need to add a Bill of Rights to solidify their constitutional experiment, America’s Founders sought to uphold both the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment to a high constitutional standard against very real and powerful forces. Using this standard, the Founders meant to do more than just prevent the establishment of a national religion. They intended these clauses to be a powerful inspirational model to state governments: to disestablish their state supported churches and to be neutral toward religion and people of faith so that religion could thrive more than ever, with political freedom enriched in turn. They did, with Massachusetts becoming the last of the original thirteen states to disestablish its state supported church. In time, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Everson v. Board of Education (1947) concluded that government neutrality meant that religion and religious institutions must be allowed to thrive freely, but without its official endorsement.[19]

The First Amendment, in part, states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” But today, many evangelical Christians seek to reinterpret the no Establishment provision separating Church and State in ways that would require government to financially support their institutions and enforce their religious dogmas in the public square so as to solve the moral ills of the nation. They seek to restore America to a time—a pre-constitutional period—in which government directly supported the church, and thus by default established it. In this case, instead of establishing a particular Christian faith or creed or denomination, it seeks to establish Christianity and its values as a whole, constitutionally and legally.

With balance and reason, such a movement must be resisted if our beloved Country is going to survive the cultural civil-war within its midst.

This is because there are others, mostly on the Left, who seek to marginalize the Free Exercise of Religion in favor of placing a higher level of protection on lifestyles favorably by a society that is predominantly made up of moral and social traditionalists (i.e., evangelical Christians), specifically when it is perceived that any proposed religious freedom legislation competes with same-sex rights.[20]

The good news is that the nation’s Founders anticipated this tension, creating an internal check and balance within the very wording of the First Amendment in order to prevent America from being overrun by either extreme in the great church-state debate (a puritanical vs. godless nation). Remove this balancing safeguard and I believe Ameri-ca’s constitutional guarantees will be lost, and with it its civil and religious freedoms.
Conclusion

Today, we live in such a culturally and spiritually diverse nation—perhaps the most religiously diverse nation in the world. Yet it seems hard for any of us to imagine that a persecuting power in the form of a church-driven state could ever raise its ugly head again.

Yet it was Jefferson, who, shortly after America’s Revolution, warned that America’s constitutional experiment in freedom and republican forms of government could either revive or expire in a convulsion” depending on how long the memories of the people were in remembering and cherishing the bold experiment the Founders were bequeathing to them and to us.[21]

Certainly it can be said that how a nation interprets its own historical development—or tells its national story in the minds and hearts of its people—will determine its ultimate success or failure. This is how nations are sustained and how revolutions emerge.

National and international circumstances can change quickly. The history of peoples and nations has demonstrated this. That is why the responsibility to uphold religious freedom in America, and to value religious pluralism, is vitally important in this era of worldwide religious and political instability.

The United States was founded with the intent of serving as a beacon of freedom for all peoples, languages, and tongues, regardless of religious persuasion.

From a demographic and cultural assessment, America remains a predominantly Christian nation. But from the historical development of our country it is clear that the Constitutional Framers (as opposed to the Puritan Founders) resisted the temptation to establish a Christian nation when drafting the Constitution. With increasing immigration to the New World, they were realistic and wanted more. From a constitutional and legal standpoint, the Framers had the wisdom to adopt secular laws with the express intent of ensuring that all faith traditions would be welcomed and protected. Religious and political pluralism—not a Christian nation—was the principled foundation that was chosen by America’s Founders to perpetuate religious and political freedom for succeeding generations.

Our commitment to this important legacy that our nation’s Founders bequeathed to us could not be more needed than it is today.

Endnotes

[1] See Newt Gingrich’s 4th Chapter entitled “Bringing the Courts Back Under the Constitution,” in Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2005): 57-83.
[2] Larry D. Kramer’s book The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), is used by Newt Gingrich to justify his arguments for a Congressional scale back of the Court’s judicial review powers when it comes to deciding cases involving religious freedom and religious expression in the public square.
[3] Rakove, Jack. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996): 311-12.
[4] The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Many Americans Uneasy with Mix of Religion and Politics,” 24 August 2006. In 2006, 67 percent of Americans viewed the United States as a Christian nation, roughly four percentage points lower than in 2005.
[5] Ibid. Another recent survey by Newsweek confirms these numbers. With a few percentage points off here and there in other categories, the 82% percent margin for the number of Americans professing to be Christian is confirmed in this survey: Brian Braiker, “U.S. Poll: 90% Believe in God,” Newsweek 30 March 2007. See also Todd M. Johnson, “Christianity in Global Context: Trends and Statistics” prepared by Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2005. Mr. Johnson cites the fact that 251 million American citizens in the United States of America profess to be Christian. Out of a total population of 300 million, 82 to 83 percent of all Americans are therefore Christians in one various belief form or another. See also Janice D’Arcy, “Christian Conservatives Flex their Muscles in the Political Arena,” Baltimore Sun 27 March 2005, in which she refers to “our country’s Judeo-Christian roots and its roughly 80 percent Christian population.”
[6] After the 2004 Presidential Election, Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, observed that “when you get 25 percent of America, which is basically Catholic, and yet get 28 to 29 percent of America, which is evangelical, together, that’s called a majority. And it is a very powerful bloc, if they happen to stay together on particular issues.” See “Myths of the Modern Mega-Church,” an event transcript published by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life of its biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life, held in Key West, Florida, May 2005.
[7] According to Barry A. Kosmin, Egon Mayer, and Areila Keysar, in their 2001 American Religious Identity Survey, a mere 2 million of 208 million adult Americans claimed to be atheist, agnostic, humanist, or secular. This survey can be accessed at www.gc.cuny.edu.
[8] Hugh Helco, “Is America a Christian Nation?” Political Science Quarterly, Winter 2007: 71.
[9] Jim Wallis and Rick Warren, as well as a number of new advocacy organizations proliferating across the country, are leading this recent trend toward this larger “ecumenical and political big tent.”
[10]Christopher Clausen, “America’s Design for Tolerance: Religious conflicts in multi-faith America are mild compared with those in countries that have only one faith or virtually no faith at all,” The Wilson Quarterly (Winter 2007): 27.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Hamilton, Alexander. Letter to James Bayard, April 1802. Writings. (New York: The Library of America, 2001): 987-90.
[13] John Leland, “A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia,” as cited in Forrest Church, The Separation of Church and State: Writings On a Fundamental Freedom by America’s Founders, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004): 92.
[14] Cited in Bernard Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004): 331.
[15] See James Madison, The Complete Madison: His Basic Writings, edited by Saul K. Padover (Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1988): 311-12. See also Daniel L. Dreisbach, ed., Religion and Politics in the Early Republic: Jasper Adams and the Church-State Debate (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996).
[16] Jefferson, Thomas. Writings. Autobiography (New York: Library of America, 1984): 34-40.
[17] Ibid. When Jefferson refers to “the infidel of every denomination,” he is referring to himself. He wrote this in a “tongue and cheek” manner, recalling the presidential election of 1800 when he was falsely accused of being an infidel by Federalists and Puritans in Massachusetts and Connecticut who vigorously opposed his election.
[18] Davis, Derek H. “Why Keep Church and State Separate,” in “The Christian Nation Debate: Weighing the Founders’ Intentions,” Liberty Express, Signature Edition, 2007.
[19] Everson v. Board of Education 330 U.S. 1 (1947).
[20] State Religious Freedom Acts are regularly opposed by advocacy groups who seek to make religious freedom a second-tier right in America.
[21] Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII. Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1984): 283-87.

About Greg Hamilton

Greg Hamilton
Gregory W. Hamilton has served as President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA) for 19 years. His graduate work at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Constitutional Studies at Baylor University culminated in the work titled "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," which remains an original work of scholarship. The Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a nonpartisan government relations, and workplace mediation, program that champions religious freedom and human rights in the legislative, judicial, civic, academic, interfaith, ecumenical and corporate arenas, and is recognized as the premier religious liberty advocacy organization in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Greg’s abiding interest in U.S. foreign policy—specifically in U.S. international religious freedom policy—has led him to appreciate, as a pastor, how religion is a key component toward prophetically understanding how the world’s religious and political leaders seek to use religion to resolve major conflicts and bring about world peace.