Having just celebrated our nation's birth and the issuance of the Declaration of Independence, here are reflections I gave several years back on the question of whether America is a Christian Nation. This was originally published at the Lompoc Record. It is republished from here.**********************
Faith in the Public Square
August 26, 2007
Is America a Christian nation?
If by that question one means, “Which religion is dominant in America?” then, yes, America is a predominantly Christian nation - indeed it has a decidedly Protestant cast. But that's not the way the question is usually asked. To put it more precisely: “Is America a Christian nation the way Saudi Arabia is a Muslim one?” That may be putting it a bit too starkly, but the way the question is usually asked concerns the role Christianity should play in determining the cultural, legal, and political dimensions of American life.
There are a great many Americans who believe that Christianity should have a privileged place in American society and that it should set the tone for American life. Others would disagree vehemently, even suggesting that religion should have no place in public life.
This debate has become increasingly bitter as we move into a hotly contested presidential election cycle. In the course of these debates, there is a tendency to look to the founding generation for precedents. Were the founders believers? Did they believe in the separation of church and state or not?
Just as Christians left and right seek to defend their own positions with biblical references, partisans left and right seek out historical proof texts that would support their viewpoints. For some, George Washington is the epitome of Christian piety, while for others the Founders not only were skeptics, they despised Christianity.
Much of what we hear and read, unfortunately, is more myth and legend than facts of history, and these myths are told and retold largely for political benefit. The truth, like America itself, is complex.
Fortunately there are resources that set the story straight. Among the more recent works are two books. Jon Meacham's “American Gospel” (Random House, 2006) and David Holmes's “The Faiths of the Founding Fathers” (Oxford University Press, 2006) tell a much more nuanced story, one that recognizes the contributions of Christianity to the nation's history, but which also acknowledge other important contributors such as the Enlightenment. While Meacham's book lays out the broader story of America's religious life, Holmes deals specifically with the founding generation, especially the first five presidents.
A noted historian and an Episcopalian, Holmes demonstrates that the first five presidents, along with Benjamin Franklin, were Christian deists. That is, they belonged to their respective Protestant churches but weren't orthodox in their beliefs or practices. Their God was largely disinterested in our personal daily lives, but this creator did guide the broad currents of history (providence). They believed in life after death and revered Jesus as a teacher, but they weren't Trinitarians nor did they believe in the divinity of Jesus. Their wives and daughters, on the other hand, tended to be quite pious - the exceptions being Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison. Still, this deism was balanced by other very orthodox expressions of Christian faith on the part of people like Samuel Adams (cousin to John), John Jay, and Patrick Henry.
Whether in their orthodoxy or in their skepticism, the founding generation recognized the need for religious freedom, and they also understood something that seems lost today - we can work together to accomplish great things, whether spurred on by faith or not, and our differences needn't get in the way. I'm a person of faith and my faith is the driving force in my life and in my political convictions, but I know that there are people of good faith who differ from me in their religious perspectives and their political perspectives. I should be able to work with them when and where it's appropriate.
So, is America a Christian nation? Only in the sense that Christianity is and has been the dominant form of religious expression, at least among European Americans, from the earliest days of settlement. David Holmes makes the point that contemporary American authors needn't “revise history to align the founder's beliefs with their own.” Rather we must tell the story, “warts and all,” for to do otherwise is to “be untrue not only to history but also to the founders themselves” (Holmes, p. 164).
America is, in my mind, bigger than these attempts to manipulate our history for political gain. We will be better off if we're willing and able to hear and abide the truth of our own history.