Is the United States a Christian nation?

What is the definition of “Christian nation?”

The United States is a Christian nation in the sense that a majority of Americans are Christians, in the sense that United States is a country in which the Christian religion flourishes, in the sense that the United States is part of Western civilization, which is rooted in Christianity, the Bible and the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome.

But the United States is not a Christian nation in the sense that Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan are Muslim nations, Israel is a Jewish nation and the Dalai Lama’s Tibet was a Buddhist nation.  There is no religious test for American citizenship.

Declaration and Constitution don't mention Jesus

On this question, as in other things, we can look to our differing but complementary founding documents for guidance – the Declaration of Independence, a religious document, and the Constitution, a secular document.

The Declaration speaks of “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitle them, the inalienable rights with which people are endowed “by their Creator,” with inalienable rights, and “a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence.”

This is a religious statement— an ecumenical religious statement.  There is nothing in the Declaration to which any Christian would object, but the Declaration also is compatible with Judaism, Islam and many other religions, including “deism” – belief in God unconnected from any organized religious body.

The Constitution, on the other hand, does not mention God at all.  It only speaks of religion – that there shall be no religious test for public office, and that Congress shall pass no law regarding the establishment of religion nor limiting the free exercise of religion.

What I take these two documents together to mean is this.  It is assumed that everybody believes in God in some way, shape or form.  But this is not considered any of the government’s business.  Neither the Declaration nor the Constitution provide any justification for forcing religion on anyone, nor relegating anybody to second-class citizenship based on their religious belief or lack of belief.

I like what Thomas Jefferson wrote about the philosophy behind the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom many years after it was enacted in 1779.

Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed inserting the words “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.”  The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.

Now, the fact that Thomas Jefferson said something does not require anybody to agree.  The Founders disagreed among themselves, and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were compromise documents.  The question is not what Jefferson said, but whether he was right.

U.S. and Christian flags

Many Americans of Thomas Jefferson’s generation and for decades to come thought that the United States was not only a Christian nation, but specifically a Protestant nation.  Catholics and Jews were regarded as outside the national consensus, notwithstanding the fact that the Catholic Charles Carroll was a signer of the Declaration and many Catholics and Jews fought for American independence.  Anti-Catholic prejudice in the early 19th century was much more fierce than anti-Muslim prejudice is now.

Over time a majority of Americans came to think of the United States as a Judeo-Christian nation, in which Protestants, Catholics and Jews were entitled to equal respect.  Now we are moving toward an idea of the United States as a universal nation, which respects law-abiding patriotic Americans of all religions or no religion.  Some regard this as a falling away.  I think of it as an unfolding of Thomas Jefferson’s vision.

Jefferson’s vision is in no way hostile to the Christian religion.  Christianity is a universal religion, not limited to any one nation.  Christianity existed for centuries before the United States was ever thought of, and which no doubt will endure after the United States ceases to exist.

St. Paul wrote that in the church, there is neither Jew nor Greek, but all are one in Christ.   If he were writing today, he would say that in the church, there is neither American nor European, African or Asian, but all are one in Christ.

One of the world’s great evils is the union of religious faith with nationalistic pride.  This is easy for us Americans to see when we look at foreign countries, but we need to remove the beam (or even the mote) in our own eye before commenting on the foreigner’s eye.  When people make their nation not only an object of loyalty, but of worship, they are worshiping not God, but themselves.

If you treat Christianity as merely an aspect of American patriotism, you diminish Christianity without adding anything to American patriotism.   If you put the American flag above the Christian flag, you diminish Christianity, whose messages is aimed at all peoples and for all times.  On the other hand, if you put the Christian flag above the American flag, you relegate whole classes of people to second-class citizenship.   The Christian flag and the American flag belong on separate flagpoles.

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One Response to “Is the United States a Christian nation?”

  1. russell Says:

    well first you have to know what christian is before you can say america is not a christian nation because the united stats was formed on the covenant of God which is the separation of church and state.
    in just a little while religion will awake….

    Like

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