Are We a Christian Nation?
Author: Disciple of Oghma
“Whatever we once were, we’re no longer a Christian nation, ” then-candidate Barack Obama said during a June 2007 speech. “At least not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, and a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.” This speech stirred a great deal of dust in the religious, markedly Christian, circles. Are we a Christian Nation? Well let’s look at the Constitution, the framework for our Great Nation.
In response to widespread sentiment that to survive the United States needed a stronger federal government, a convention met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 and on September 17 adopted the Constitution of the United States. Aside from Article VI, which stated that “no religious Test shall ever be required as Qualification” for federal office holders, the Constitution said little about religion. Its reserve troubled two groups of Americans–those who wanted the new instrument of government to give faith a larger role and those who feared that it would do so. This latter group, worried that the Constitution did not prohibit the kind of state-supported religion that had flourished in some colonies, exerted pressure on the members of the First Federal Congress. In September 1789 the Congress adopted the First Amendment to the Constitution, which, when ratified by the required number of states in December 1791, forbade Congress to make any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”
The first two Presidents of the United States were patrons of religion–George Washington was an Episcopal vestryman, and John Adams described himself as “a church going animal.” Both offered strong rhetorical support for religion. In his Farewell Address of September 1796, Washington called religion, as the source of morality, “a necessary spring of popular government, ” while Adams claimed that statesmen “may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.”
Many Americans were disappointed that the Constitution did not contain a bill of rights that would explicitly enumerate the rights of American citizens and enable courts and public opinion to protect these rights from an oppressive government. Supporters of a bill of rights permitted the Constitution to be adopted with the understanding that the first Congress under the new government would attempt to add a bill of rights. James Madison took the lead in steering such a bill through the First Federal Congress, which convened in the spring of 1789. The Virginia Ratifying Convention and Madison’s constituents, among whom were large numbers of Baptists who wanted freedom of religion secured, expected him to push for a bill of rights.
On September 28, 1789, both houses of Congress voted to send twelve amendments to the states. In December 1791, those ratified by the requisite three fourths of the states became the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Religion was addressed in the First Amendment in the following familiar words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In notes for his June 8, 1789, speech introducing the Bill of Rights, Madison indicated his opposition to a “national” religion. Most Americans agreed that the federal government must not pick out one religion and give it exclusive financial and legal support.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the third and fourth presidents were less hospitable toward religion than their predecessors. Thomas Jefferson, in fact, was fiercely anti-church. In a letter to Horatio Spafford in 1814, Jefferson said, “In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes” (George Seldes, The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey Citadel Press, 1983, p. 371) . In a letter to Mrs. Harrison Smith, he wrote, “It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. By the same test the world must judge me. But this does not satisfy the priesthood. They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested absurdities. My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest” (August 6, 1816) .
James Madison, Jefferson’s close friend and political ally, was just as vigorously opposed to religious intrusions into civil affairs as Jefferson was. In 1785, when the Commonwealth of Virginia was considering passage of a bill “establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion, ” Madison wrote his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” in which he presented fifteen reasons why government should not be come involved in the support of any religion. This paper, long considered a landmark document in political philosophy, was also cited in the majority opinion in Lee vs. Weisman.
The views of Madison and Jefferson prevailed in the Virginia Assembly, and in 1786, the Assembly adopted the statute of religious freedom of which Jefferson and Madison were the principal architects. The preamble to this bill said that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” The statute itself was much more specific than the establishment clause of the U. S. Constitution “Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise [sic] diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities”.
Realizing that whatever legislation an elected assembly passed can be later repealed, Jefferson ended the statute with a statement of contempt for any legislative body that would be so presumptuous “And though we well know this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with the powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable, would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right” (emphasis added) .
On Final note; Signed and sealed at Algiers, January 1797, America made a treaty with Tripoli. In article 11 of that Treaty declares that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” This reassurance to Islam was written under Washington’s presidency, and approved by the Senate under John Adams.
I have come to the determination that we are neither a Christian Nation, nor are we an Anti-Christian Nation. In the architecture of the Constitution, the founding fathers made safeguards to ensure the free growth of personal religious freedoms by basing the nation’s framework on a secular foundation. In this way the rights and responsibilities of the people shall neither be shaped nor suspended by the popular religious Idea of the day. Ensuring the stability and nurturing the potential of our Great Nation. So while Christianity may be a largely accepted, popular, mainstream faith it is not the established faith of this nation. Therefore we are not a Christian Nation, but a nation of People.
Thanks to Alyson Grace (Profile ID: 275132) for the inspiration to write this article.