Some founders were Christian; nation is not – Nicole White

white nicoleNicole received $2,000 for her essay.

With America’s beginnings founded on the desire for religious freedom, it is a disconcerting irony that the majority of Americans today believe the U.S. Constitution establishes America as a Christian nation. Yet the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by President John Adams in 1797, says otherwise: “[T]he Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Nonetheless, the myth is understandable: “In God We Trust” is emblazoned on coins and currency; children recite “one nation, under God” every day before class; and pandering politicians reinforce the misconception for political ends.

An example of the latter involves Sen. John McCain, who asserted that America is “a nation founded on Christian principles” in an interview during his run for presidency. When a presidential candidate makes such claims, it is not hard to understand why so many Americans are confused.

Some argue that because most of America’s founders were Christian, the government must have been founded on Christian ideals. But on the contrary, these men subscribed to a diverse mixture of belief systems and philosophies that influenced the language set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Gregg Frazer maintains that many founders followed “theistic rationalism, a nondenominational belief system that borrowed from Christianity and from deism,” which enabled the founders to “describe the projects of the Revolution and the Founding in terms that did not offend popular religion.”

Both documents contain ideas from several Enlightenment philosophers, including John Locke’s “consent of the governed,” Thomas Hobbes’ contract theory of government and Charles Montesquieu’s theory of balanced forces.

The founders were educated, thoughtful men, many of whom believed religion was integral to a successful society. But they were careful to protect religious freedom, including freedom from religion: “[T]he insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Muslim, the Hindu and Infidel of every denomination.” (Thomas Jefferson on the failed vote to insert “Jesus Christ” into the Constitution’s preamble.)

Lawmakers today continue to push the Christian agenda with legislation that stunts progress toward equality and separation of religion from public education. It’s also shameful that closed-mindedness, coupled with religiously motivated laws such as the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, have prevented gay couples from enjoying the same benefits afforded to straight couples for so many years.

The dangerous attitude that made such discrimination possible is encapsulated by Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s not-so-eloquent presidential campaign ad in which he complained that “There’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military” while “kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas.” Perry then promised to end the “war on religion,” claiming that “faith made America strong.”

There are also laws that impose on Americans the “creationism” narrative that God created humankind in its present form. Despite there being “no controversy in the scientific community about whether evolution has occurred,” a 2012 Gallup poll shows that 46% of Americans believe in creationism.

Creationism is allowed to be discussed alongside evolution in several states’ public schools. The Louisiana Science Education Act, for example, lets teachers use “supplemental textbooks” in order to “help students understand . . . and review scientific theories” such as “evolution and the origins of life.”

While the law states it “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine,” critics scoffed as Louisiana teachers began incorporating creationist texts into their lectures, with one school district adding a “critical thinking and creationism” section to its science courses. 

As a freethinking group, many of the founders would be disappointed that their religious views have been misconstrued to enable the discrimination of a sexual identity and the restriction of scientific inquiry in schools. With over 70% of Americans today identifying as Christian, the founders’ beliefs are often misrepresented on the technicality that they were Christian, while the wildly changing religious landscape over nearly three centuries is overlooked.

Sidney Meade captures it best: “Societies create their concepts of the attributes and character of the god they worship in the likeness of the pressing practical problems of their time.” In the Declaration of Independence, the founders proclaimed that every citizen is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This “Creator” is not the Christian god: That god is incompatible with the founders’ views on religious freedom and consent of the governed. Rather, the god they are referring to is human-made.

This god embodies the qualities suitable for their new republic, a republic that can stand up to the “tyranny of the majority,” for “what is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.”

Nicole White, 22, Lee’s Summit, Mo., has a B.S. in economics (mathematics minor with specific interest in statistics and probability) from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She’s pursuing an M.S. in business analytics at the University of Texas-Austin, with a goal of becoming a statistical programmer for a major Web-based company. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation