U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is America a Christian nation? A proof

I am teaching a course for elementary education majors on United States history. It is a broad course that deals with the politics of the classroom as well as the content these future teachers will need. We dealt with the idea of religion and the American constitution recently, discussing James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” as a way to defuse the emotionally charged contemporary issue of America as a Christian Nation.

So here is my question: can we write a proof that provides students with a way to deal with the logic of that statement? Here is my attempt.

If America is a Christian nation then it does not possess a civil government. Because if it had a civil government whose existence depended on Christianity then it would no longer be civil.

If this is true then its opposite true, that if American is a Christian nation, then Christianity in America depends on the government’s support of it and without such support Christianity would not survive.

But since we know that Christianity would exist without government support, then America’s government can neither be a support for it nor exist because of it. Thus American is not a Christian nation.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I don’t believe the U.S. is Christian nation, but I also don’t think that “Christianity in America depends on the government’s support” is logically the opposite of that proposition. The argument strikes me as fallacious on its face.
    I’m not sure logic games are the best way to approach this. As a historian, I find it useful to situate the evidence that both sides tend to cherry pick, and it becomes unmoored and forced “upstream”. Or, if logic is what you want, does it logically follow that if a Founding Father held a belief that it is a useful or ethical one for us now (classic example being slavery)?

  2. I tend to agree with Demothenese: logic games are not the way to go here. They won’t convince anyone who’s not already interested in them, and those who are so inclined might not accept the premise that he/she cites. Also, it sounds like you’re trying to convince your students of the black-and-white truth of a statement that, in my view, at least, is eminently debatable.

    If you want to remain philosophical, though, I think a more fruitful avenue might be to employ the techniques of American pragmatism and ask what the question itself actually means. In some senses, the United States is obviously a “Christian nation”: that particular faith has unquestionably exerted an outsized effect on the nation’s culture, and even today speakers and writer assume a familiarity with Christian texts and doctrines among a literate audience. In other obvious senses the country is not Christian: the U.S. lacks an established church, for example, and formally preaches a doctrine of religious pluralism. So the answer to the question depends on what the definition of “Christian nation” would be. There is no right or wrong definition of the term, but asking that question might help you and your students figure out what exactly is at stake with this question.

  3. Fair enough. The class and I indulged in an exercise that tried to take Madison’s argument for a more definitive statement regarding division of religion from the state as a model and apply to what was a historical question rather than a specific law. I do indeed agree that Christianity played and continues to play a significant role in understanding America. I also agree that we need place the relationship between the nation and religion in its various historical contexts. I wonder, though, what is the opposite of stating America is a Christian nation. If we took Christianity out of the equation, what would be significantly different about the form of civil government that was founded?

    I ask this as I am also writing about Richard John Neuhaus and his argument, taken from John Courtney Murray, that the United States would not exist as it does without a substantial debt to natural law, which, of course, Neuhaus identified as first and foremost a Catholic doctrine.

  4. It seems that the US has always been a culturally Christian dominated nation. But more specifically, an Anglo-Protestant nation. And even more, a secular Anglo-Protestant nation.

    I have learned, when politically conservative Protestants and/or nationalistic Anglo-Protestants keep insisting that “America is a Christian nation” it is usually followed by justifying a rejection of a public policy of some sort, or it imagines a nation in the past that shares the faith of a modern Evangelical mega-church.

    At most liberal mainline Protestant churches I attended, seem to a have more nuanced view of the role of secularism and Anglo-Protestant chauvinism and triumphalism, in US history.

    Black churches, my father attends, usually assume the person who is claiming the US was a Christian nation, is really attempting to say “The US used to be a respectful white nation.”

    At the Roman Catholic University I attended, most of the RCs, assumed the speaker is attempting to say that the US used to be a good Protestant nation. Although, many of the young Republicans (who were very RC) would use the “Christian Nation” phrase, assuming everyone would understand it as universal Christianity.

    Luther Perez

  5. Ray, I know that you have read David Sehat’s book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom. If you take David’s argument seriously, then the history of U.S. jurisprudence (and presumably, legislation, though he doesn’t address this as directly) would be substantially different: it would be less restrictive and punitive toward those who espouse other faiths. Additionally, though this is hardly a scientific claim, I can’t help but assume that the Civil War, Cold War and civil rights movement (to name prominent, but by no means exhaustive, examples) all might have looked substantially different had Christianity not been the presupposed moral lingua franca among the political elites.

    Another interesting aspect of this question is that, in addition to frequent claim that the U.S. is a Christian nation, I’ve known conservative Christian evangelicals to argue that the U.S. is not a Christian nation. By that they mean that true Christians are an embattled minority, and that the secular, hyper-sexualized, Darwinist culture is hostile to them and their values. I’m not sure if the same people would say both things, or if they would say them at the same time. But it does seem like a difficult circle to square.

  6. A great document I have used with my high school students to engage them in conversation about America’s religious roots is the 1797 treaty between the United States and Tripoli that was signed by John Adams. Specifically, the eleventh article of the treaty states:

    “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

    What makes this interesting is using it in conjunction with some of Adams’ letters where he clearly shows his affinity for religion. One in particular to Thomas Jefferson includes the following statement:

    “Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell.”

    Ironically, he states in the same letter:

    “Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, ‘This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!’”

    I have never approached this debate with my students from the premise that a definitive answer needs to be enumerated. All we can do is look to the primary evidence and engage our students in a critical conversation.

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