The Old Chestnut: Is America a Christian Nation?

I was at a breakfast gathering a few weeks ago, and while there I heard a familiar claim: our Founding Fathers were Christians.  By implication, America is a Christian nation.  End of story.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a discussion of America’s mytho-religious origins, I’d be a rich man right now.

This said, the speaker did have some evidence on his side, especially with regard to Benjamin Franklin.  I had come to believe the man was pretty consistently a nominal Deist throughout his life, but our speaker pointed out that it was he who implored the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to consider the importance of prayer:

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?

Some take this to be evidence of his turn towards orthodox Christianity later in life.  Others probably feel it proves nothing.  I’m not sure it matters.

After years studying American religious history, I’m rather tired of arguing back and forth about the Founding Fathers.  The assumption seems to be that if we can just prove the religiosity of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams one way or the other, then we’ll know something important about our world today.  But that’s the past.  The dead past.  And while it is a worthwhile discussion to have, there’s no use arguing over it forever.

The truth is, even if the Founding Fathers were all orthodox and committed Christians, all that means is that they were committed Christians.  But they lived in a much different world than ours and had their own human flaws and foibles.  Besides, they did not institute a theocracy, but rather a democracy that enthroned no one faith as oversee of a State Church, but rather allowed for a freedom of religion.

To be sure, the earliest Puritan settlers of America did come forth to establish a “City on  Hill,” but after a few generations even they (in 1700!) looked back to their past as better or more holy.  It has become an American tradition to bewail the present and assume that returning to the past is the way forward.

I can tell you this, though: at no point has America ever been perfect.  The Puritans actively persecuted those who didn’t believe as they did.  The Founding Fathers were dedicated to freedom, but only as long as you were a white property-owning male.  After tolerating and supporting it for 70 years, American Christians helped abolish slavery…and then countenanced Jim Crow for decades.  And when the Islamic world calls American “Great Satan” today for its purveyance of moral decadence, sometimes questionable military interventionism, and economic imperialism and globalization, can we completely disagree?

Don’t get me wrong: there are many great things about the United States of America and it does much good in the world.  I am a very thankful American and considered us to be a blessed land and people.  But I also want to be an honest citizen, and that means being straightforward about where we need to think hard about our decisions as a nation and the way in which we currently operate.

More important than our mythic origins,therefore, is the question of what we are doing RIGHT NOW.  It is a question not of simple identity but rather current purpose and trajectory.  Forget whether or not Benjamin Franklin fits our model of appropriate Christianity, and ask instead: is the United States of the America as currently constituted acting in a Christian manner?  This is a question I wouldn’t mind thinking–and acting–on right now.

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8 comments on “The Old Chestnut: Is America a Christian Nation?

  1. Very well said. I especially appreciate the sentiment that what they thought then doesn’t really matter all that much now.

  2. Jim Mladic says:

    When I have heard the argument that the US started as a Christian nation, it is generally a precursor to arguing that the US should have more Christian-based laws and governance. That usually leads to some pretty specific recommendations about specific laws – abortion, homosexual marriage, prayer in schools, etc. But most issues of Christianity in government are not so simple, such as war. Doesn’t Jesus tell us to love our enemies, and pray for them? How ’bout people who disagree with Christianity – Muslims, atheists, people like that? The government the founding fathers created is expressly built to protect the rights of minorities, particularly the freedom of religion. Is that a Christian precept?

    What the founding fathers really wanted was to protect against the government proscribing religion, even Christianity, and especially Christianity if they had any historical knowledge of why early settlers came across the Atlantic. I do think that many Christian commandments should be law, but they can be justified as laws in the thought process of rights and freedoms. And I think it makes sense for a government to allow certain things that are sinful – divorce, for example. That means that a Christian community will have higher standards than their country. I’m ok with that.

    I worries me when people say that America is a Christian nation for 2 more reasons. First, I get visions of government becoming Christian – I do not want any sort of government, whoever might be in charge, telling me what constitutes Christianity, and what does not. That’s actually somewhat appalling.

    Secondly, in the worldly perspective, this is a ridiculous idea. When people say Iran is a Muslim nation, they mean they have a theocracy. When Americans say we are a Christian nation, that does not mean nearly the same thing. I had a friend in seminary that came from India – his name was Abu. He found the America he expected and the America he encountered to be wildly different places, mostly because America claimed to be a Christian nation. And it was not, and is not. When we claim to be a Christian nation we perpetuate a worldly image that is incorrect, and that contributes to our hostile relationships with Islamic nations. Our relationship with Israel and Palestine is a complex situation, but labeling ourselves as a Christian nation does not help that situation.

    I understand why people want to claim the US is a Christian nation, but I think that era is over. As a Christian community, we need to have a thought process as a large majority of a non-theocratic republic. It makes so much more sense, and is much more productive, to work within those confines. Worth noting is that American Christianity is not a monolithic thing – we Christians have many different perspectives on a lot of different topics, so we can’t assume everyone who is Christian agrees on one particular topic.

  3. Viletta says:

    Very good article, Dr. Zeifle! I’ve never been ‘thrilled’ with the founding fathers, simply because my ancestors likely came over on a slave ship.

    I remember when our daughter received an award (recommended by the counselors at her middle school) for being a good citizen, my husband (whose ancestors were probably Puritans) was a little hesistant for her to accept. It was given by the “Daughters of the American Revolution”

    Your point about what we are as a nation TODAY is so good!

    As my husband often asks, “Why are people blaming us White guys for slavery? I didn’t live back then.”

    The same question can be asked, “Why are people talking about Founding Fathers’ religion? What are our leaders doing today?”

    Thanks for sharing this very relevant topic. I love my country. I vote in elections. However, I don’t think that God only blesses America. It’s not all about us. God’s people are everywhere and I would venture to say there are more of them in other countries than in America.

  4. Jim Mladic says:

    Worth noting on the “truthful citizen” brigade: Our country basically committed genocide on Native Americans. Also: old-timey colonists liked to burn witches.

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