IS THE UNITED STATES A "CHRISTIAN" NATION?

By Richard Packham

            The United States is a "Christian" nation in one sense, and in one sense only,   A majority of its adult citizens identify themselves as Christians, according to a 2001 survey (the American Religious Identification Survey, or ARIS, published by the U. S. Census Bureau), specifically, 159,506,000 out of a total adult population of 207,980,000, or approximately 76%

            Some Christians also contend that the nation was "founded by Christians, based on Christian principles" and that our success as a nation is because of its Christian origins, its Christian principles, and its Christian majority, and that national setbacks and problems are due primarily to the perceived neglect or abandonment of Christianity by the nation.

            It is certainly true that most of the Europeans who settled America in the early days were nominally Christians,   All Europeans at that time were nominally Christian, with very few exceptions.   Some of them were especially devout Christians who came to America primarily to be able to practice their version of Christianity in freedom.   The Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Plymouth Colony, and William Penn's colony are examples.   However, just as many or more early settlers came primarily to pursue wealth, to seek adventure, to have more opportunity to better their situation in life, or to escape political (not religious) persecution: the Spanish colonists, the Virginia settlers, the Georgia settlers and others.   Their Christianity played very little role in the establishment or governance of their settlements.   The Massachusetts model certainly had little influence on the later American constitution, since it was notorious for its persecution of fellow Christians whom it deemed heretical.

            Because many of the founding fathers were members of Christian churches, some Christians conclude that the documents they wrote establishing our system of government are "Christian," i.e., based on Christian principles.   Actually, at that time in America most of the colonies (later states) required membership in a Christian church in order to vote or hold office.   Several states even had official, "established" churches.   That is, everybody in public life was required to belong to a church.   Therefore, it is no surprise that the authors of our founding documents were nominal Christians.   It does not follow from that that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are based on Christian principles.

            The many references to "God" in the writings of the Founding Fathers are taken by some to be evidence of Christian influence,   However, the term "God" was used by non-Christians as well, especially Deists such as Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Paine, and others, who were often fervently opposed to Christianity.   It is dishonest of Christians to interpret Deist writings as supporting Christianity.

            The primary problem with those who claim to be able to prove that America was founded as a Christian nation and based on Christian principles is that the evidence they present is mostly quotations from early Americans who simply say that the country is based on Christian principles.   (Their opponents, I admit, all too often are guilty of the same, quoting early Americans to simply say that it is not.)

            We rarely hear enumerated what those "Christian principles" are, and no one can point out where they are found in our Constitution or governmental system.

            Insofar as our country is a society, its rules and customs are those of any civilized society, whether Christian or not, and even if they may be similar to some principles of Christianity, they are not necessarily derived from them.   A ban against thievery, for example, is an essential part of any society, and has been since the beginnings of civilization, long before Christianity (or its parent, Judaism).   The commandment "Thou shalt not steal" is merely the Jewish codification of an ancient rule that all societies find essential.   The same can be said for rules against murder, lying, adultery, and other harmful practices, or the commands to be kind to the widow and orphan and the oppressed.   In fact, most of the moral principles which Christians espouse and label "Christian" are not even Christian in origin.

            But our nation is also a system of government, not just a society.   The Constitution is about government, not about society.   One would be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the Bible the governmental principles on which our Constitution is founded.   Basically, they are:

  • power to govern comes from the governed, the people;
  • the government is the servant of the people;
  • the people elect those who govern;
  • almost all who govern serve for a limited, stated term (some judges are an exception);
  • the laws are made by the representatives selected by the people;
  • the government treats all equally;
  • the individual enjoys personal freedom of speech, religion, association, etc.;
  • the three branches of government act as checks on each others' power.

            Searching for these principles in the Bible, or among "Christian principles" one comes up empty-handed, and yet these are the very fundamental principles of American government, without which America is unthinkable.

            Can we find governmental principles in the Bible?   Yes.   The "Kingdom of God," supposedly the ideal form of government, is based on these principles:

  • power to govern comes from God;
  • the people are the servants of God;
  • those who govern are selected by God;
  • God's governing representatives serve as long as they obey God;
  • the laws are handed down from God, through his appointed representatives;
  • no one is allowed to object to any law;
  • non-believers will not be tolerated; "every knee shall bow..."
  • speaking against God or his representatives will be punished (blasphemy)
            The actual sources for the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are well known and generally recognized by anyone who has studied Western history: ancient Greek, Roman and Anglo-Saxon law (all pagan), Greek and Roman philosophers (all pagan), and eighteenth-century philosophers, especially Hume and Locke, none of whom wholly endorsed the Christianity as it was practiced in their day

            I think Christians would be hard put to name any single principle of Christianity (and exclusive to Christianity) which is an essential part of the Constitution or the American system.   I have searched histories and treatises dealing with America at the time of the founding of the United States and the rise of our democratic system, and can find none.   If there is such an exclusively Christian element, then what is it?

            Actually, the history of governments which ARE based on Christianity is a long list of abuses which are in direct opposition to most of those principles which Americans hold dear.   Christians, justified in their minds by their religious principles and the Bible, have, throughout their history, persecuted non-Christians (and fellow Christians who differed on particular theological points), enslaved other peoples, established theocracies (Calvinistic Geneva, Mormon Utah), waged wars of aggression, burned books, impeded scientific discovery, held women in a subservient position, and squandered countless amounts of human effort in doctrinal quibbles.   It is thanks to Christians who were exercising the Christian principles of government enumerated above that we had the Spanish Inquisition, the slaughter of the Crusades, the massacres of native Americans and Africans, and centuries of religious wars and intolerance, right down to the present day.

            This is the main reason that the founders tried to give religion absolutely no role in official American life.   Contrary to what some contend, America is probably the first Western system of government that is NOT "based on Christian principles."

            The most insidious corollary that some Christians draw from their view of America as a Christian nation is that the majority (the Christians) should be able to determine the laws and enforce their views of morality on the non-Christian minority, using the power of government to do so.   "The majority rules!" they say.   Actually, the most important part of the American system is the protection of the minorities from the overweening power of the majority.   John Stuart Mill, in his essay "On Liberty," demonstrated the dangers of the "tyranny of the majority." For excerpts, click here.

            The claim that disregard of Christian "values" is the cause of our nation's societal ills is ably refuted by Sam Harris, in his "Atheist Manifesto":

The level of atheism throughout the rest of the developed world refutes any argument that religion is somehow a moral necessity,   Countries like Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom are among the least religious societies on Earth.   According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report (2005) they are also the healthiest, as indicated by measures of life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate and infant mortality.   Conversely, the 50 nations now ranked lowest in terms of human development are unwaveringly religious.   Other analyses paint the same picture: The United States is unique among wealthy democracies in its level of religious literalism and opposition to evolutionary theory; it is also uniquely beleaguered by high rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, STD infection and infant mortality.   The same comparison holds true within the United States itself: Southern and Midwestern states, characterized by the highest levels of religious superstition and hostility to evolutionary theory, are especially plagued by the above indicators of societal dysfunction, while the comparatively secular states of the Northeast conform to European norms.   Of course, correlational data of this sort do not resolve questions of causality--belief in God may lead to societal dysfunction; societal dysfunction may foster a belief in God; each factor may enable the other; or both may spring from some deeper source of mischief.   Leaving aside the issue of cause and effect, these facts prove that atheism is perfectly compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society; they also prove, conclusively, that religious faith does nothing to ensure a society’s health.

            So it appears that claims that America is a "Christian" nation are unfounded.   Thank God for that!


See also the article "A Pious Delusion: The American Trinity" here


Comments?   Questions?  (Please, no preaching, testimonies, or hate mail!)   To send a comment or ask a question, click here.

©  2006 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included

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I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

- Thomas Jefferson

  This famous quote, inscribed in large letters above Jefferson's statue in the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., is from a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800. What is not generally known is that he wrote that comment in response to Dr. Rush's inquiry about his views on religion. He obviously included religion among the forms of tyranny.



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