Why America Has Never Been A Christian Nation

[Updated from the archives.]

Happy Birthday, America!

Monday marks 240 years since the Second Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia to draft and sign the Declaration of Independence. To commemorate the day, let’s remember this:

The United States is not now and never has been a Christian nation.

How do I know? Because the founding document that provides the framework for all laws, rules, decisions and regulations ever passed, enacted or handed down by the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government nowhere mentions Christianity.*

It doesn’t even mention God. Not once.

The only time the Constitution of the United States – adopted September 17, 1787 – mentions religion at all is in the negative:

… no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. (Art. VI.)

Religion comes up again in the 1st Amendment, proposed by Congress in 1789 as an additional article to the Constitution and ratified by the States in 1791, and again it’s in the negative:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … .

So if the original text of 1787 said religion has no place in the qualifications of people holding office and if the 1st Amendment leads off with a prohibition on the government establishing any religion, Christianity or otherwise, then how does someone come to the conclusion that the United States is a Christian nation?

Wishful thinking perhaps. Or living in a state of denial. Or blissful ignorance. Or worse, they do it to pander to people and take advantage of them.

In any case, none of these are good models for Christians to emulate. Jesus said we live in a world where there are two governments to live under.

“Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

… “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Mark 12:14-17.)

Paul reiterated the distinction between the two governments:

For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. … Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. (Philippians 3:18-20.)

Neither Jesus nor Paul promoted a Christian nation of any sort on earth, and the U.S. Constitution doesn’t try to establish one either.

This is a wonderful country to live in, with a constitution that provides more for the benefit of its citizens than most people could ever imagine possible. But while these are blessings from God when carried out to help people, that doesn’t make this a Christian nation.

After all, nations aren’t believers in Jesus. People believe in Jesus. And that’s how God builds the kingdom of Christ. Through his people.

What a great way to constitute his kingdom.

***

*The Articles of Confederation of 1777 – the governing charter of the United States before the Constitution – did not establish a Christian nation either. The only mention of religion is in Article III:

The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defence, the security of their Liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretence whatever.

The inclusion of religion alongside “sovereignty, trade, or any other pretence whatever” reflected the times: wars of religion were part and parcel of European history. This article did not endorse any religion but did stand to promote religious liberty by pledging aid for religiously based attacks.

***

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6 Responses to Why America Has Never Been A Christian Nation

  1. Pastor Bob says:

    Support for, respecting of, honoring of, seems woven in, but NOT expressly stated.
    To directly state would cause some conflict in understanding.
    It looks like the tension created by “establish” vs “prohibiting the free exercise” was needed.

    Did not Hamilton remark about the Constitution being for a moral people?

    • Tim says:

      I think they all spoke of morality back then. It was considered a necessary quality for leadership too. I’m not so sure it is so widely held a value for selecting leaders now.

    • Bill M says:

      The quote Bob may be thinking of is from John Adams “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

      Adams also echoed the title of the post “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,”, and that was in his thoughts on the Treaty of Tripoli, 1797, Islam which is now a modern day bogey man.

      While religion has had a large impact on the development of our institutions there has often been the fear of a godless mob stamping out religion, Hamilton feared such an outcome similar to the French revolution that bathed itself in violence and attempted to extirpate religion. More recently the communist fears of he 50s.

      There is the reality that some are hostile to religious impulses and oppositely some want to establish us as a christian nation, what ever that means. Luckily, even with many terrible leaders we have had, we as a people have had the good sense to stay clear of either extreme, so far.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for the link. I’ve heard a bit about the Metaxas book, including some criticism of how he argues America was a Christian nation. As the post you link points out, it’s an unfortunate aspect of the book which is “Minimally encumbered by evidence.”

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