Is America a Christian Nation?
“America is a Christian nation!” is a phrase you hear thrown around a lot, particularly if, like me, you live in the southern United States.
Well, is it really? Is America a Christian nation? Most liberals and skeptics/atheists/freethinkers are quick to shout “No!” before quoting a mountain of writings from Thomas Jefferson and other non-believing Founding Fathers, and then reciting the First Amendment’s line on separation of church and state: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
So there we have it, America is not a Christian nation… right?
I think it’s a little more complicated, so we need to untangle the very idea of the phrase “Christian nation,” because it’s unclear what it actually means and what people mean when they use it. There are four possible explanations.
Explanation #1. America Is a Christian Theocracy
A theocracy is a state in which the government and the church are one and the same, in which the head of the government is also the head of the Church, and in which the laws of the land come directly from religious text. There is only one Christian theocracy in the world today, and it is a special case. Vatican City is technically a sovereign nation, and its legal system derives from canon law, which is the set of religious laws that govern both the Catholic Church and the civil and criminal laws of Vatican City itself. The Vatican is a special case because very few people live there (its population is 862) and it’s located in a tiny swatch of land within the city of Rome. The head of the Vatican government is the Pope, who delegates all responsibility to his government to negotiate treaties, issue passports, levy taxes, etc. in addition to their religious duties*.
*The Big Think blog has an excellent breakdown of the intersection of civil and religious laws in the Vatican, as well as the differences between Vatican City and the Holy See, which are separate and distinct but overlapping entities.
Even the most devout Christian will concede very quickly that America is not a Christian theocracy, but it is instructive to dive more into what a theocracy looks like to understand the role religion plays in other parts of the world.
Theocracies are largely extinct in the modern world (They thrived during the Middle Ages.), with the exception of the Vatican and a handful of countries in North Africa and the Middle East. These countries are Islamic States, and it’s important to note what “Islamic State” actually means. An Islamic State is not simply a country where Muslims make up the majority of the population (For example, the largest majority-Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, is not an Islamic State.); rather, it’s a country whose politics and laws are derived entirely from Islamic texts. This system is called Sharia law, and it encompasses all aspects of society: Civil, criminal, and religious rules all come from the Quran. In Islamic States, religious law even governs things like financial regulations, contract law, and dress codes. Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen are all Islamic States.
These are the only theocracies in the world today, and based on these criteria, the United States is obviously not a Christian theocracy.
Explanation #2. America Has a State Religion, and It Is “Christianity”
A few centuries ago, almost every country in the western world had one Christian denomination or another as its “state religion.” This could either mean that the country had created a church for use as its state church (such as the Church of England in Great Britain), or that it adopted and supported an external church as its state religion (such as the Roman Catholic Church in France). In both cases the state religion would receive support from the government via taxation, church officials would be appointed to government positions, and the church had a role in public education.
When the United States won its independence from Britain, it took the unprecedented step of doing away with state religion. Remember that one of the main ideologies behind the American Revolution was anti-monarchism; America didn’t just want its freedom from Britain, it wanted to create a country without a king. Kings and emperors were said to receive their authority from God; the state church would sanctify the king’s rule over the country, and the king was said to have a unique relationship with God, elevating him above ordinary citizens. One way to ensure America would never have a king was to never adopt a state religion.
State religions still exist in the world today, with Britain being the most obvious example. The Church of England is supported by the British government*, its supreme leader is the British Monarch (Elizabeth II, Defender of the Faith), and officials from the church have seats in parliament (in the House of Lords, the upper house of British parliament; these roles are largely ceremonial, however).
*It can get confusing, but it’s important to note that the Church of England is actually the state church only in England, and not in the rest of the United Kingdom. Scotland maintains its own state church—the Church of Scotland—as do Wales and Northern Ireland. But with England constituting the vast majority of the UK population, the Church of England dominates religion in that country.
It’s often wondered why the US is so much more religious than other advanced, wealthy countries. Why is the US so much more religious than Britain, for example, when those two countries are so similar in other ways? One explanation is that America’s lack of a state religion has opened the free market to all religions, allowing churches to flourish in competition for members. Another is that America has no history of state religion, and therefore has never viewed church as an extension of government, meaning the church’s popularity has never been tied to the government’s.
The US Constitution very clearly forbids the establishment of a state religion, and there has never been a serious effort in this country to create one. However, it is interesting to imagine what it would be like if America actually did decide to adopt a state religion. How would we do it? Would we invent a new church, the Church of America? Or would we just pick an existing one? Presumably Congress would decide all this, so I wonder what that would look like. Would religious denominations lobby Congressmen? Would churches make PowerPoint presentations in the House of Representatives about why they should be selected? Or maybe we’d bypass Congress and have a popular referendum, with everyone in the country getting a vote? In such a crazy-hypothetical scenario, it’s pretty obvious which church would be declared the state religion of the United States: the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is by far the most powerful religious organization in this country and in the world, it has the most members of any church in the US (even though there are more Protestants than Catholics here, those Protestants are scattered among hundreds of sects), and it has the infrastructure already in place to make such a move. Somehow, I don’t think the United States picking Catholicism as its state religion would sit well with the non-Catholics in this country, particularly the evangelical Christians in the South.
Explanation #3. America Was Founded on “Judeo-Christian” Values, and Is Therefore a Christian Nation
You’ve no doubt heard this exact phrase—“Judeo-Christian values”—said repeatedly many times in your life. It’s an unclear, amorphous phrase that has been in use since the 1950s to refer to the way Judaism and Christianity share many values and religious texts. Its entree into the popular lexicon, however, didn’t happen until television news networks started using it after 9/11.
“America was founded on Judeo-Christian values,” you are likely to hear a Christian relative of yours say, and you should hopefully retort with the following: “Like what?”
The phrase is a soundbite, an easy-to-digest catchphrase that seems to say a lot but doesn’t really say anything, so we must investigate it.
“Our laws come from the values and principles laid out in the Bible.”
This claim falls apart with a few seconds of thinking. Are we getting our environmental policies from Leviticus? Our zoning laws from First Corinthians? Do we consult the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas for his thoughts on toxic tort law, or John Calvin on marginal tax rates? Did Congress study the Bible for guidance when it wrote the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974?
“No, obviously. What I mean is that the authors of the US Constitution used the Bible to influence the laws they created.”
Well, like what?
“You know, like the Ten Commandments.”
Ah, so we’re talking about criminal law. The Ten Commandments must have shaped our criminal justice system. It makes sense, after all, for they are the only time that the creator of the universe felt so strongly about a set of rules that He wrote them down Himself, inscribed them on stone tablets for Moses to show to his followers. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t submit false testimony… all staples of our criminal law system. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, always honor your parents, don’t create a blasphemous image, don’t commit adultery, don’t be jealous of what your neighbor has, always honor the Sabbath… wait a minute, those things aren’t laws at all, are they?
They are not. The Ten Commandments (or anything resembling them) don’t appear anywhere in the Constitution, and neither does the word “God,” not even once. Let’s also remember that the Ten Commandments don’t contain anything forbidding slavery or rape, and equate women with livestock (see the Tenth Commandment). As a set of moral precepts, they are very poor. No wonder our laws aren’t influenced by them. If they were, we might see a law or two about businesses being closed on the Sabbath—after all, it’s the Fourth Commandment, God must have been super serious about it, right? Or maybe a law making adultery a crime (Seventh Commandment)? Or a law against worshipping any gods other than Yahweh (First Commandment)… wait, that might be a problem since we have that whole “freedom of religion” thing we’re so into.
“Yeah well, at least I got murder right.”
“And maybe some other stuff.”
Well, Leviticus 11:6 forbids the eating of rabbits. Maybe there’s a law making rabbit consumption illegal? And then Leviticus 11:10 forbids eating shellfish. Oh, and good old Leviticus also forbids shaving your beard (19:27) and tattoos (19:28).
“OMG but I love shellfish!”
“Well, the Founding Fathers were Christians.”
Eh. The late 18th century was a relatively non-religious time, especially compared to the super-pious 19th century, which saw an explosion of religiosity. The intellectuals of the day were students of the Enlightenment, a philosophy that was very critical of religion and was influenced by famous atheists like Spinoza, Hume, and Voltaire. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison were all important non-believing Founding Fathers (as their extensive writings attest), and others like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton frowned on open piety. The overall religious climate of the time was complicated and cannot be summed up easily (I recommend Brooke Allen’s Moral Minority for more information on the religious views of the Founding Fathers.), but suffice it to say that the 1780s and ’90s were not the most Christian-friendly period in American history. But that’s secondary to the obvious secular nature of the Constitution, a document criticized by Christians at the time for lacking God.
The larger point being, even if we can agree on what Judeo-Christian values are, it’s difficult to demonstrate how exactly we get from those values to our Constitution and our current legal system. Now, FULL DISCLOSURE: I am not a constitutional law professor. So I’m willing to be proven wrong on this, and will gladly read or listen to any sound argument showing how our laws come from the Bible. A scholarly paper, perhaps, or a law review article, with excellent evidence backing up its claims. That will persuade me. O’Reilly Factor clips will not.
Explanation #4. America Is a Nation, and Most People In It Are Christians
Well, this is certainly true, which would make the US a Christian nation the same way Australia and Canada are Christian nations—countries where the majority of the people are Christians. If that’s the case, then we’re just redefining our words to mean whatever we want them to. “Christian nation” in this sense doesn’t explain much and isn’t very helpful.
Because America is different from Australia, Canada, and other “Christian nations.” Though our Constitution forbids religious tests as a prerequisite for holding office (Article VI, paragraph 3), we’ve never elected an atheist to a high position in government (In contrast, Australia’s last prime minister was openly atheist.). We have a conservative Christian lobby that is extremely politically powerful. Our Supreme Court is very friendly to religious issues and that has allowed religion in general and Christianity in particular to creep more and more into the public sphere, albeit through baby steps like allowing city council prayers. We have a huge conservative Christian electorate that has always supported moves that are constitutionally questionable but which go through because they are popular—adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and “In God We Trust” to our currency in 1957 are great examples*.
*These both happened during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Public support for Christianity was equated with denouncing Communism, since the Soviet Union was seen by Americans as godless. Rarely has there been a political layup like expressing anti-Communist ideas in America in the 1950s.
Freethinkers and atheists debate how problematic this encroachment is. I’ve never been that concerned. I don’t think a city council saying a prayer before a session or the Pledge of Allegiance containing “under God” make even the tiniest difference (After all, did saying the Pledge of Allegiance as a kid make you more patriotic? Of course not. It was just something you did without thinking about.). And I’ve never been thrilled about using, “The government agrees with me, guys!” as an argument. If Christianity comes more and more into the public sphere, my guess is this will actually make people less Christian, if it makes any difference at all.
All of this to say: When people claim “America is a Christian nation,” then they are correct, if by that they mean either 1) “We are a majority-Christian country,” or 2) “We have a strong Christian electorate here in America.” If they mean anything else by it, they are profoundly wrong.