Part 1 in the Series:
Is America a Christian Nation?
By Don Enevoldsen
American democracy works because America is a Christian nation.
Such is the passionate claim of conservative evangelicals, who see in the beginning of America a biblical foundation for law and government. Juxtaposed to this belief is the equally passionate conviction of many non-evangelicals that at least one of the reasons American democracy works is the separation of church and state, by which is meant the complete prohibition of government officials from any kind of religious expression.
Evangelicals behave as though America is doomed to extinction if the number of born again Christians in government ever falls below a divinely ordained minimum percentage. For them, the notion of a Christian nation is defined as a government that openly espouses the basic doctrinal tenets of Christianity.
Non-evangelicals behave as though America is doomed to extinction if government officials are not actively prevented from any expression of Christian faith. For them, the notion that America could ever be considered a Christian nation is a fatal flaw that will lead to a tyrannical theocracy.
Both sides of this argument have appealed to history as proof of their position, which has produced much rhetoric, but little agreement or resolution of the question. Evangelicals approach the issue with copious quotations from the Founding Fathers to demonstrate their obvious adherence to the Christian faith. Non-evangelicals counter with copious quotations from the same Founding Fathers to demonstrate their obvious dissonance with Christian faith. A couple of examples will illustrate the enigma:
• Thomas Jefferson, according to evangelicals: “The Christian religion is the best religion that has ever been given to man.”
• Thomas Jefferson, according to non-evangelicals: “I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology.”
• John Adams, according to evangelicals: “The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity.”
• John Adams, according to non-evangelicals: “The doctrine of the divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity.”
Similar discontinuities could be multiplied, not only for Jefferson and Adams, but for George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison. Of course, these five men were not the only Founding Fathers, merely the best known today. Many others, such as Noah Webster and Patrick Henry, would probably qualify today as evangelicals. Nevertheless, the names most consistently associated with the birth of the United States, including the first four presidents, display remarkably conflicting evidence about their Christianity.
Even Congress as a whole seemed unsure of itself. In 1777, in spite of a struggle to finance the war effort, the Continental Congress designated $300,000 for the purchase of Bibles to distribute throughout the colonies. After the war, they recommended and approved “the Holy Bible for use in all schools.” Fourteen years later, the same governmental body unanimously approved a treaty with the Moslem nation of Tripoli that stated, “the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religions.” Even in an institution known for inconsistency and irrationality, these actions seem a little schizophrenic.
Fortunately there is evidence available to help clarify the question, not as much in the quotes of leaders as in the mindset of the population. It is there we look in the next post.
Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.