Is America a Christian nation? If one means by that question: Which religion is dominant in America? Then yes, one can rightfully say that America is a predominantly Christian nation, with a decidedly Protestant cast. But that’s not the way the question is usually asked. To put it more precisely, the question appears to be: “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 in recent years as the poles have become increasingly stark. In the course of these debates, there is a tendency to look to the Founding Generation for precedents. We ask such questions as: Were the Founders believers? Or, did they believe in the separation of church and state? Just as many Christians, left and right, seek to defend their own positions with biblical references, partisans left and right seek out historical proof texts that they believe will support their viewpoints. For some, George Washington is the epitome of Christian piety, while for others the Founders not only were skeptics, but even 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 much more complex.
Fortunately there are resources that help set the story straight. Books such as Jon Meacham’sAmerican Gospel (Random House, 2006), David Holmes’s The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2006), and more recently John Fea’s Was American Founded as a Christian Nation? (WJK, 2011), 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.
A noted historian and an Episcopalian, Holmes suggests that the first five Presidents, along with Benjamin Franklin, were Christian Deists. By his definition of Christian Deist, he means that these Founders 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 Dolley 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.
Excerpt from Faith in the Public Square (book under construction)