Is America a Christian Nation?

What words are missing from our most famous documents?

by Fred Wallace

At the outset I wish to note that there is a strong tradition among Protestants in America that one does not become Christian by association. By this line of thought no one may claim to be a Christian by referring to their family's church membership, or to their own citizenship. Rather one becomes a Christian though a conscious individual act: by reaching the age of accountability and then freely confessing publicy one's faith in Christ. By this standard, a nation doesn't have a religion. Thus rightist assertions concerning the "Christian" nature of America are necessarily at odds with the views of a good many professed Christians.

Another problem for those who maintain that American is, or was founded as, a Christian Nation: Sixteen of the Presidents have been Freemasons, including George Washington. Nearly all fundamentalist Christians denounce Freemasonry for being inconsistent with Christianity.

Anti-abortion extremists, Christian Reconstructionists, White Supremacists -- across the political spectrum of the extreme right wing runs a common thread: today's "patriots" claim to be the religious and political heirs of the Founding Fathers.

In the reactionaries' view, the United States could be formed and win independence from the rule of the King of England only because the American patriots held precisely the catalog of "religiously correct" beliefs that survive to this very day in the hearts and minds of "Christian" extremists.

If this proposition were true, we would expect to find ample support for it in the text of the two most cherished documents of American history: the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence.

Using a search engine, search through the text of both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence for the word "Bible" or "Scripture." Can it be mere oversight that neither document refers directly or indirectly to the Bible? Fundamentalist Christians observe certain practices in referring to the Bible. When quoting a passage, they identify it by book, chapter and verse, so that their listeners can locate the passage and confirm that it is being read correctly. Referring to the Bible or to a particular passage in the Bible by simple paraphrase is not sufficient among these believers. There are certainly no citations by chapter and verse in the body of either the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.

Here is a further test for the validity of our reactionaries' claim that they hold the same correct views as the Founding Fathers:

Look at the text of the Constitution. Using either the search engine provided by lcweb, or the search feature of your web browser, search the text of the Constitution for the following words: "Jesus," "Christ," "Savior," or "Redeemer?" Did you get any hits? All I got was this message -

No records were found for the search.

Your search was for:

Christ 

Now try to imagine a roomful of devoted anti-abortion activists, listening to a stirring sermon from one of their leaders. Suppose this sermon ran rather long, maybe even as long as the text of the Constitution. Could such preaching never contain the words "Christ," "Jesus," "Savior," or "Redeemer?" Any preacher who did that would be excused from his post right away. Thus, by comparing a pivotal text of our Founding Fathers with even the everyday utterances of modern reactionaries, one must fairly conclude that the beliefs that the Founders expressed in the Constitution of the United States are not identical with the beliefs of modern-day reactionaries.

There are several references to God or a higher being in the Declaration of Independence:

" . . .the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God. . ."

" . . . all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . ."

". . .with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor. . . "

While Christians may reasonably claim that these are references to the God of the Bible, we must ask why none of the more specific and definitive words occur ("Jesus," "Christ," "Savior," etc.) Furthermore it is equally persuasive to assert that these quoted phrases are also in the vocabulary of the Deists, people who believe in a Creator God, whose existence is proved through the evidence of Nature and Reason, and not by revelation through Scripture. The best known contemporary Deist was the patriot Thomas Paine.

Why would the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence not be aggressively and exclusively "Christian?"

To answer this question, we must first consider how various parties are using the word "Christian." The extremist anti-abortion, anti-gay, insurrectionist right-wingers reserve the title "Christian" for themselves alone, condemning the rest of the human race to eternal damnation, whether or not they claim to be Christians.

Undoubtedly the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution were overwhelmingly Christian, in the sense that most of them belonged to one or another congregation that called itself "Christian." Yet they must have found that their great task of overthrowing English rule and establishing a new country necessarily left them little time or inclination for sectarian squabbles. Among the fighters for Independence were also Deists, Freethinkers, and people much influenced by the spirit of the Enlightenment. Within this minority, a number of people declared themselves not to be Christians.

From the wording of both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence we may conclude that the majority of delegates had no desire to take unprincipled advantage of their numbers and compel agreement on any narrow, sectarian principles. Instead they chose to honor the unity and commitment of all who fought together for the freedom of their new nation.

An Afterword on other American Documents

One of the earliest historical documents that fundamentalists cite as supporting the notion of a Christian Nation is The Mayflower Compact, issued in 1620, some 156 years before the Declaration of Independence. A one-paragraph statement, the document does clearly refer to "the Christian Faith." On the other hand it is quite incompatible with later claims of independence of the colonies from England, since the signers of the Compact declare themselves to be "the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, France and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc."

Here is a knotty task for those who propose that the Deity issues and withdraws endorsements of the legitimacy of the rule of earthly states. "When did English royalty and the Church of England become apostate?" And a related question: "If English state and Church fell out of God's favor by trying to deny the American colonies their independence, have the English rulers and church sometime since regained God's Favor? If they have indeed done so, by what means and at which date?"

The First Thanksgiving Proclamation - June 20, 1676  Issued by the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts. It does indeed conclude with a specific reference to faith in Jesus Christ. But it also contains a reference to being thankful "when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed." This refers to the colonists' battles with the Indians, and the belief that God favored the white folks over the "heathens." This makes a rather embarrassing contrast with the image of Pilgrims and Indians sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner. Further, citing this proclamation fails to explain why the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution do not specifically refer to Christ.

The Thanksgiving Proclamation of the Continental Congress, 1782,   sometimes cited as further evidence of the Christian orientation of early American lawmakers, is a short statement, where the clearest references to the Deity are the uppercase spellings of "GOD" and "ALMIGHTY GOD." The single oblique and formulaic reference to Christ is found in the flowery description of the date as "year of our LORD one thousand seven hundred and eighty-two."

George Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation  nowhere contains any specific reference to Christ or to the words that exclusively refer to Christ. Washington was content to refer instead to "God" and to "Almighty God."

Abraham Lincoln's Proclamation of Thanksgiving refers to "Almighty God" and "Most High God" and "the Almighty Hand." Once again, there is one indirect reference to Christ, but not by name, in citing the date as "The Year of our Lord."

Granted, the Proclamation is another short formal statement. Yet Lincoln was concerned to express himself about "iron and coal [and] the precious metals," while not going into detail about the Redeemer.

In fairness, I must note that John Adams' Thanksgiving Proclamation does indeed contain the terms "Most High God," "Great Mediator and Redeemer," and "His Holy Spirit." So there is at least one official text that mentions all three aspects of the Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

When President George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island on August 17, 1790, the Jewish congregation of that city welcomed him with a proclamation, some of the words of which he quoted in his reply to them. The welcoming proclamation and Washington's reply are in the custody of the Library of Congress. The texts can be seen at To Bigotry No Sanction (Memory): American Treasures of the Library of Congress. In the Library's opinion: "These two letters . . . became the first presidential declaration of the free and equal status of Jews in America."

Washington declared: "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support"

Washington's words do not align precisely with modern-day "Christian" reactionaries, who hold that the best officeholders must necessarily be Christians. In acknowledging Jews and Christians to be on an equal footing as citizens, Washington distinguishes himself from modern reactionaries who view Jewish people as "completed" only if they convert to Christianity.