Is the United States of America a Christian nation? There’s more than one way to answer that question.
According to statistics gathered by the Pew Forum, Roman Catholics and Protestants in the U.S. account for more than 75 % of our population. By the numbers, America is overwhelmingly Christian.
On the other hand, if one looks at our nation in terms of truly following Jesus Christ: loving neighbor, doing the right thing, ensuring dignity for all people, etc., the measurement is much harder to take. But what is certain is that the numbers aren’t so high.
So, is this a Christian nation? A third answer would begin with the intentions of our Founding Fathers, the men who gave our country its start.
I recently watched a new video series, now being shown to dozens of churches in the U.S., entitled, “The Silencing of God.” The subtitle reads, “The Dismantling of America’s Christian Heritage.” Among other things, I was told that people like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin fully intended to establish the United States of America as a decidedly Christian nation, and that the separation of church and state “is not a Constitutional concept.”
Of course, statements like these are part of a bigger picture, namely, the so-called “culture wars” currently taking place on American soil. Evidently, one of the many armies in this war has decided to advance the notion that our government should not be religiously neutral. Instead, they say, it should be positively Christian.
But did the Founders themselves ever speak to this question? They did.
For example, when John Adams was serving as our second President, the U.S. made a treaty with the Muslim country of Tripoli (now Libya). Article 11 of that treaty includes these words: “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Copies were distributed to the Legislature, and the treaty was read aloud on the floor of the U.S. Senate. In June of 1797, the Senate ratified the treaty by unanimous vote, and President Adams signed it into law.
In his book, Jews, Turks, and Infidels, historian Morton Borden writes, “What is significant about the Tripoli treaty is . . . its ready acceptance by the government. Not a word of protest was raised . . . Whatever their personal feelings on the question of religious equality for non-Christians in particular states, all concurred that Article 11 comported with the principles of the Constitution.”
Following its ratification, the text of the treaty appeared in several leading newspapers of the day. The public’s reaction was hardly a ripple. Why? Because the citizens of our new nation then understood something that threatens to become for us a forgotten truth: according to our Constitution, the United States of America was intended to be a federal republic where people can believe anything they like.
Only the rule of law, rooted in self-evident morality, would be enforced. Religious beliefs, provided that they did not lead to the violation of law, could be advocated, criticized or ignored. Either way, all of them would be tolerated.
For example, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, written in the early 1780s, Thomas Jefferson includes a short chapter on “Religion.” Regarding various religious beliefs, Jefferson observes: “[I]t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” One might think his neighbor’s religious ideas are nonsense. But what is the effect of attempting to coerce people to accept what you “know” is the truth? Said Jefferson, it makes “one half of the world fools, and other half hypocrites.”
Paradoxically, because the First Amendment to our Constitution prohibited the establishment of a national church, and any form of coercion, religion in the United States flourished. In those early years, devout Americans came to realize that they would have to do by persuasion what other countries had pretended to do by legislation.
And persuade they did. But not because they were somehow compelled by their Uncle Sam, but because they felt called by their Father God. As a result, the United States certainly is, in that sense, a Christian nation. In 1819, James Madison, commonly regarded as the father of the Constitution, observed that the religious devotion of the American people had been encouraged by what he called “the total separation of the church and state.”
I believe that when it comes to the political state and the church of God, Christians should remember what the Founding Fathers certainly knew: the first axiom of real religion is that it resonates in the heart. It cannot be coerced.
Furthermore, according to the Scriptures, the responsibility of training children does not belong to some “Christian nation” and its public schools commissioned to make all students sufficiently “religious” through state-mandated, teacher-led prayer and Bible reading. The responsibility for training children belongs to parents. To the Israelite nation, Moses said, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7 NIV).
Paul wrote to Christians, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
If the Bible provides for a partner in the training of children, that partner is the church which Paul referred to as “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
At present, even in the midst of a real or imagined “godless assault,” Christians in the United States face much less hostility and oppression than did the earliest Christians. And yet, at least some of them went everywhere preaching the Word, serving others, setting an example, bringing up their children in the instruction that comes from heaven. Who would argue that under our present laws in these United States, Christians are not free to do the same?
God has not been silenced. In these last days, he speaks clearly “by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (Hebrews 1:2).
A few credits: In writing this post, I've been informed and inspired by Richard T. Hughes' book Myths Americans Live By (which was reviewed by my long-lost friend Joel M. Solliday over at Campus Crosswalk); and also by a fine article, Joel Barlow and the Treaty with Tripoli, by church-and-state journalist extraordinaire, Rob Boston.