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Freethought Today · October 2013

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Fourth-place graduate/mature student essay

The myth of a Christian nation

lewis 4th gradMax received $500 for his essay.

Is America a Christian nation? The answer depends upon what is meant by “Christian nation.” One prominent interpretation, which is promulgated by religious and political conservatives, is that America was founded on Christian teachings, but has subsequently turned its back on this tradition. But is this claim true?

An examination of America’s founding documents — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — shows that neither is based on Christian teachings.

The Declaration of Independence is sometimes thought to be clear evidence that America was founded as a Christian nation. This is because its authors make four references to a being that some think is the Christian god. 

First, they claim that “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” entitle Americans to “separate and equal station.” Second, they assert that all humans have “unalienable Rights” that are “endowed by their Creator.” Third, they appeal to the “Supreme Judge of the world” to determine the “rectitude of [their] intentions.” Finally, they affirm their reliance on the “protection of Divine Providence.”  

However, all these references are to the god of deism, a stripped-down form of theism inspired by the teachings of the Enlightenment. Deism’s god is a supremely intelligent being who is responsible for creating and governing the world, but who does not directly intervene in human affairs. This fact explains why god is referred to as “Nature’s God (emphasis added),” as the “Creator” of humankind, and as a source of “Divine Providence.”

Finally, the appeal to the “Supreme Judge of the world” is a reference to a god that judges people not on their religious belief, but on their actions. This is the god that Thomas Jefferson believed in.   

In addition to being influenced by deism, most of the drafters of the declaration rejected core teachings of Christianity (e.g., the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Jesus Christ and the divine inspiration of the bible). This fact explains why the declaration contains no reference to just “God,” the bible, Christianity or Jesus. 

When the Constitution does mention religion, it is only to specify limitations on its ability to influence America. In particular, it requires that there be no religious test for public office and that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” 

Thus, as Susan Jacoby writes, the Constitution is a secularist document both because of “what it says and what it does not say.” Jacoby also importantly notes that the Constitution’s rejection of religious tests for public office was unique for its time, both in America and worldwide.   

In fact, the Constitution’s silence concerning Christianity has repeatedly inspired religious groups to propose amending it. In both 1864 and 1946, evangelical Christian groups tried but failed to get references to God and Jesus Christ inserted in the Constitution.

The purpose of the Constitution is explicitly stated in its preamble: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” Nowhere does it mention Christianity or God.

Additionally, some of the governing principles found in these documents conflict with Christian teachings:

• The Constitution (Article VI) lists itself, along with treaties and federal statutes, as the “supreme Law of the Land.” This claim contradicts the Christian teaching that either God or God’s word is the ultimate authority.

•  The Declaration of Independence asserts that the government derives its power not from God, but from “the consent of the governed.”

• The 13th Amendment of the Constitution bans slavery, but the bible does not (Exodus 21:2-7, 21:20-21; Leviticus 26:44-46; Luke 12:47-48; Colossians 3:22). The biblical acceptance of slavery contradicts the declaration’s assertion that all humans have the unalienable right to liberty.

• The First Amendment holds that Congress cannot enact laws prohibiting religious exercise or freedom of speech, which conflicts with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17).  Freedom of religious practice contradicts the commandments to only worship the God of the bible, to not make or to worship idols, and to not work on the Sabbath.

Freedom of speech contradicts the commandment to not take the Lord’s name in vain. Neither document contains principles of governance that mention the other commandments, i.e., they are silent about honoring parents, murder, adultery, stealing, lying and coveting. 

Given our analysis, it should be clear that the principles that the founding fathers chose to govern America are not based on Christian teachings. Perhaps America could be considered a Christian nation under a different interpretation of “Christian nation,” but that is a question for another occasion.  

 

Max Lewis, 28, Boston, graduated summa cum laude from Brandeis University in 2009 with a B.A. in religious studies. In 2013, he earned a master of theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. He’s pursuing an M.A. in philosophy at Brandeis and is interested in normative and applied ethics.

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