On one side of the debate are those who argue that we were founded by mostly Christian men with the purpose of being a Christian nation. They point to the religious language and Bible references of the Founding Fathers as evidence. Consequently, the solution to all our problems is to return America to her traditional Christian foundation. The other side of the debate finds those who either deny or downplay the role Christianity (and even religion) played in America’s founding and history. At best, some may acknowledge the religiosity (usually deism) of the founders, but insist that they wanted to establish a religiously neutral nation. I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle. I agree with church historians Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch, who argue that America has not been and is not presently a “uniquely, distinctly or even predominantly Christian” nation, if one means a “state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture.” This does not mean, however, that Christian values were absent from the founding of the country and our history. These positive Christian aspects must be recognized, for they make, these scholars argue, the United States “a singularly religious country.”
Therefore, the extremes to be avoided are an idealized Christian past on the one hand and a tale of pure sinfulness, oppression, and exploitation on the other. These extreme errors, according to Noll, are committed by both secularists and “Christian traditionalists” because neither makes a careful study of the past. The secularists pick out “bare phrases” from the founding documents, from the Constitution, and from later court decisions to make their case. The Christian traditionalists pick out “bold assertions” from the founders as proof of their Christianity and of God’s providential action in the establishment of America. Both take quotations from earlier generations and use them to prove their respective points “without context, without evaluation, without understanding.” The historical truth is little more complex than either side is willing to admit.
So, is America Christian or not? Well, the answer is both “yes and no.” America was not God’s new chosen nation, a “new Israel,” if you will. Historically, there have been many nations that thought of themselves this way, claims that now seem absurd. We can, however, make the argument that many of our political and social structures and institutions come closer to Biblical principles than those of other nations. On many occasions we have, as a nation, practiced well those principles, for we have pressed for (albeit imperfectly) the dignity and freedom of human beings. We have taken part in the liberation of many nations from the grips of tyranny. We have been a nation quick to respond compassionately to disaster, famine, and have certainly led the way in the global missionary movement. Overall, we are a generous and giving people. In the broadest sense, we were founded and have been a Christian nation. We need to be careful, however, not to claim too much. As a nation we have been responsible for much good, but we cannot escape responsibility for the evil in our history: Native American genocide, slavery, out of control materialism and consumerism, several wars of choice, political corruption here and abroad, and more. If we do have a generally religious and a specifically Christian foundation, we certainly have not always lived up to it.
What can we conclude about the religiosity of America? Were we and are we a Christian nation? We need to answer by considering context, definition, and behavior.
One, we must remember the Christendom context in which the founding of America took place. For centuries the average Westerner saw no major distinction between Christianity, the state, and society in general. For the European, state churches were the norm, which is what our forefathers were trying to avoid. As to society in general, the average Westerner believed and accepted it was “Christian,” whether that individual was any kind of practicing believer or not. In fact, for most “Christian” Westerners, the conquest of pagan lands entailed no real distinction between civilizing, Christianizing, and conquest. The settling and founding of America challenged some of these Christendom assumptions to a significant degree because the Enlightenment had as much influence on the Founders as the Bible did.
We see, therefore, that both sides in the Christian America debate are correct to a degree. Our founding was the confluence of Biblical Christianity with both “state church” and Free Church flavors and Enlightenment ideals which questioned the authority of Scripture, the nature of God, the Deity of Christ, and elevated the autonomy of man. Both of these worldviews are found in the writings of our forefathers and in the founding documents. Since Christendom was the dominant environment, the average person, and especially the educated moralist, had no problem in quoting Scripture, referring to Deity, and appealing to the ethics of Jesus. That was just the way people were then, whether orthodox practicing believers or not
Two, taking it a step further, however, and something that is not done often enough in the ongoing debate, is defining what each side means by “Christian.” If America was and is a Christian nation, what does that mean? Does it mean that the majority of the Founders were believers? The majority of the general population? Most church historians note that the latter was not true; that is, the general population at the time of the Revolutionary was only about 5% church attenders, a percentage that changed significantly only after the Second Great Awakening. Still, the general population operated under a general Christendom worldview. They would probably have claimed belief in God and may even have had some Biblical knowledge. Does that qualify them as Christian? Are we a Christian nation because some of the principles upon which we were founded are Christian? Are we a Christian nation because the Founders were a majority Christian, or at least Deists?
It appears to me that the meaning of “Christian” in the debate is either left undefined or is assumed to be so broad as to mean nothing. If all it takes to be a Christian nation is a broad cultural Christianity, identified by some Biblical values and principles, or for certain founders and leaders to refer to Deity and the Bible, then every European nation with a state church is a “Christian” nation. They certainly believed they were (and still are in some cases) – remember Christendom. And what does that mean for predominately Roman Catholic countries, including Latin American countries? They are not Protestant or of the Free Church tradition, as the majority of our Founders were, but they claim to be Christian, claim the authority of the Bible, believe in the Deity of Christ, and are guided by some Christian principles. In fact, it could be argued that some of the Roman Catholic countries were more Christian than many of our Deistic Founders who quoted an emasculated Bible and believed in a purely moralistic gospel
Taking the argument even a step further, what is the relationship between Christian claims and Christian behavior? As evangelicals we often argue that an individual’s claim to be a Christian needs to eventually give evidence or show fruit. We know that sanctification is a life-long journey, but that there should be some evidence of growth and progress. Does that apply nationally? Does our national fruit give evidence that we are a Christian nation? Of course, our history is a mixed bag. That is precisely the argument from the Christian Nation perspective: We don’t give evidence anymore and we need to get back to what we were. Our crime rates, the disintegration of marriages and families, abortion, pornography, and so forth give evidence that we need to return to what we were. The mixed bag of history, however, reminds us of racism and slavery, genocide and wars of choice, abuse of children in the marketplace, and the absence of civil rights for numerous groups. It is true that many of the activists who attacked those social ills were Christian and were driven by Biblical truth – something the secularists conveniently overlook in their version of history. But, are we getting better or worse? Are we becoming less Christian, or in some senses, more Christian? Perhaps part of the answer lies in our definition of Christianity and Christian action, and that only increases the debate. In the end, Mark Noll is correct in his assessment – yes, we are a Christian nation is some respects; no, we are not in others. Without a doubt, we have been and continue to be a religious country. Next Article – America: A Christian Nation? Part 2