Is America now--or was it ever--a Christian nation?

“To acknowledge that England was Catholic in the fifteenth century and Protestant by the seventeenth century, and then to deny that America had a Christian beginning seems pretty naive.” Christian nation? Part 1: Mark Noll, George Washington, and revisionism

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iKuyper's picture

What does a "Christian nation" even mean? Is being a Catholic or Protestant nation equivalent to being a Christian one? I'm okay with saying that America began as a Protestant nation but to say that it was Christian nation is a little overreaching. Am I the only one with this mindset?

Ecclesia semper reformanda est

Charlie's picture

I can think of several different ways of understanding "Christian nation," which might alter the answer:

1a. A majority of the population identifies with the Christian religion.

1b. A majority of the population practices the Christian religion. 

2a. The founding laws, systems, etc. reflect a Christian influence.

2b. The founding laws, systems, etc. intentionally draw from Christian principles.

3a. Christianity is acknowledged as a state religion in such a way as to give it protected and privileged status.

3b. Christianity is acknowledged as a state religion in such a way as to exclude other religions entirely.

 

Furthermore, we have to divide "America" into some time units:

1. Pre-Revolutionary War, in which we have to answer the question differently for each colony.

2. Founding period (Articles of Confederation and Constitution)

3. Post-founding period to Civil War.

4. (Probably several more religiously significant phases).

 

Now, given all those factors, I imagine that 1a-3a were true at some point for at least some colonies. I don't know that 3b was ever true, and I don't think that 3a survived on a national level in the Constitutional period and after. 1a and 1b are constantly fluctuating. 2a and 2b are sometimes hard to pin down.

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Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

TylerR's picture

Editor

Outward piety and conformity does not equal regeneration. The culture of the times was soaked in Christianity, but was it a cultural Christianity, or a real Christianity? Contrary to the letter writer, I think it is ridiculously naive to believe ours was a "Christian" nation. Sure, there were notions and references to Biblical principles, and no doubt many of the founding fathers attended church "religiously." 

Was the Christian spirit of the times, particularly in New England, merely a product of culture or was it a heart-felt consensus that God be glorified? How much of the Christian rhetoric was merely an outward show for conformity's sake - a political gambit like we see so much of today? I believe much of the authentic "Christianity" in the colonial days is overdrawn today. 

My concern is that, so often, we seem to replace the Kingdom with America. This is blasphemous. America is not in Scripture. America has no earthly future in eternity. I love my country, and can honestly mouth all the syrupy platitudes that we're all so familiar with. However, I love God more. I value my place in His kingdom far more than my citizenship in America. Many preachers seem to have lost sight of that. 

So, yes, iKuyper - I agree with you. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Matthew Eastland's picture

In the end this entire question is really all a matter of semantics.

Does America have a Christian heritage in which the foundations of it are filled with people and principles of Christianity? Undoubtedly. Those that would deny that are either totally ignorant of history or pursuing some kind of agenda.

Has America ever declared Christianity to be the official religion or stated in some way that it is a "Christian nation." No.

The entire idea of the separation of the state from the church in keeping the state from having an official religion can in many ways be traced back to Christians within the colonies as they were establishing their new independent government.
Prior to the Revolution, the various colonies had official religions, and that led to issues. The first Baptist congregation in the southern states of the US was established when William Screven and his church members left the Massachusetts colony due to the opposition of the official state religion there. The Carolinas were a far more welcoming area toward Baptists, since they had been established by businessmen rather than churchmen and were fine with allowing freedom or religion as long as the taxes were paid. That's just one of dozens of examples of religious persecution within the colonies.
After seeing the problems caused by state churches in the colonies before independence, many advocated a position of the government refusing to call any religion the official one in an effort to avoid the persecution that had happened previously.

Jeremy Larson's picture

TylerR, I agree with this post: The US of Jesus is blasphemous. But pointing to heavy Christian elements at the forming of our country is not the same as conflating the two "kingdoms."

I like Charlie's assessment.

"There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!" ~Abraham Kuyper

TylerR's picture

Editor

The concept of American exceptionalism over Godly exceptionalism often follows an overly sentimental view of America as a "Christian" nation. That is my concern.

How many times have you heard sermons about America? Lines such as these are usually uttered with great fervor:

  • "America was founded as a Christian nation, but now (insert sin here) . . ."
  • "America was founded on (insert vaguely Christian virtue here), but now our country is (insert some social evil here) . . ."
  • If we're going to have revival in our country, we need to (insert Christian moral of your choice here) . . . 

I don't care if America was founded as a "Christian" nation when independence was declared by the colonies. It was probably more of a cultural Christianity by that point; I don't think anybody would really argue that the founding father's had John Winthrop's vision of a "city on a hill" in mind at that point. Our country has never been a Christian utopia. It never will be. It is ironic, however, when you run across preachers who are fiercely patriotic from a pulpit but have never served in the military . . .

Our citizenship is not of this world; we're merely strangers and pilgrims. The sentimental view of our "Christian" heritage is often inexorably linked to American exceptionalism, which inevitably leads to ridiculous "America" themed sermons and calls for national revival.  Christ is the center of Scripture and should be center of our sermons - not America or her "heritage." 

Pet peeve of mine. I apologize!

 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

paynen's picture

Tyler and to an extent Charlie are right. Charlie's 3b was actually true of all colonies except New Hampshire. As a Baptist, I have studied our history and we were discriminated in almost all the colonies, in fact many in Virginia were killed. America was founded on the principles of religious freedom and economical freedom primarily from the church of England. Yet to say that our country was established as a "Christian Nation" is I would say borderline blasphemous. I say this because a majority of those making the decisions in the formation of our Constitutions and laws were not Christian, but deists. Was America culturally "Christian?" Yes, it was. Yet you could even ask what does it mean to be culturally Christian? The primary influences of early American culture where replacement theologies, Catholic moral systems (most protestants still culturally followed this rigid way of life even though their doctrine had changed,) Cults, and politically by Baptists as far as freedom of religion is concerned. A Christian culture does not make a Christian nation, nor does it make a Christian. To say that is to draw a deep parallel to the Israel of the Pre-Church age New Testament times. Yes Israel was still a Jewish "nation-state" culturally, but there was no presence of what it really meant to be the chosen people of God. Saying that America as a whole was Christian at its foundation means nothing, as the people of America as whole where far to off of what it really means to be a Christian. The leaders of our young country where even more heavily removed from the truth of God. It is not just an argument of semantics, because there is true repercussions between us being a Christian nation and being a nation that in its foundation had many who called themselves Christians. Many use our nations heritage to try to argue for maintaining, returning to, or establishing a sudo-Christian moral ethic as LAW in America. Yet the view that adherence to a LAW creates righteousness is counter the truth of the Gospel and is repeating the historical mistake of the Pharisees and Saducees.

Matthew Eastland's picture

TylerR wrote:

The concept of American exceptionalism over Godly exceptionalism often follows an overly sentimental view of America as a "Christian" nation. That is my concern.
...
Our citizenship is not of this world; we're merely strangers and pilgrims. The sentimental view of our "Christian" heritage is often inexorably linked to American exceptionalism, which inevitably leads to ridiculous "America" themed sermons and calls for national revival.  Christ is the center of Scripture and should be center of our sermons - not America or her "heritage." 

Pet peeve of mine. I apologize!

Thank you!
It's so nice to see that others are disturbed by this.

My personal pet peeve about this is how much time I see Christians today on the subjects of politics. They act as if America is the kingdom that matters to them above all else and they often tie their Christianity to it.

Several times recently I've seen Christians making comments on places like Facebook about how if the government does this or that (like taking their guns), then they would revolt and fight the government, and then connecting that to their Christianity.
My reply to that is to wonder how on Earth Paul could tell the saints at Rome to submit to the power of Caesar, when Caesar was the one trying to kill them and eventually had Paul killed. They had nothing close to the freedoms that we enjoy today, yet their faith in God and personal holiness has all appearance of being better than those found in this generation.

Let America descend into Totalitarianism and a police state. Let "Big Brother" take away my gun, tax most of my income, and monitor my phone calls. Up until the point where they try to command me to sin, I'll be a good Christian and submit.

Jeremy Larson's picture

TylerR: I think I agree with you for the most part, although we may disagree about "strangers and pilgrims" (but maybe not). I think that phrase is misinterpreted, and here's just a short place to see a different approach.

paynen: I'm not looking at things from a Baptist perspective, and I can see why Baptists would have lots of problems with this. Anabaptists have not typically been in favor of pressing the crown rights of Christ into every corner of culture—it's much more like the cloistered Fundamentalism that we see today. (See Matthew's last paragraph.)

Matthew: We are definitely on two different pages (maybe different books)! Being a good Christian never implies submission to tyrants. Submission is required by individual citizens up to a point, but I believe that Romans 13:1-4 is prescriptive, not descriptive—that is, magistrates/rulers ought to be ministers of God for the good of the people. And if they're not, that's where godly lesser magistrates come in. As I write here, Calvin's commentaries on Daniel 6:22, Daniel 9:7, and Acts 5:29, and his Institutes (4.20.30-32) provide some useful thoughts on resisting ungodly rulers.

 

"There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!" ~Abraham Kuyper

Philip's picture

Rom. 13:3-4 is pretty hard to apply some evil rulers. Try reading these verses and replace the generic ruler with the specific name of a horrid tyrant. It makes no sense. (Paul probably wrote Romans when Nero was ruler, but Seneca was still alive. So Nero hadn't yet gone berserk.)

3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom. 13:3–4 ESV).

That's why so-called Law of the Lesser Magistrate has been offered. For instance, many would say that Parliament lawfully withstood the tyranny of Charles I. Hence the English Civil War.

paynen's picture

you don't need to look at from a Baptist perspective to realize that all of one's freedoms in the religious area are thanks to the influence of the Virginia Baptists.

 

Also as far as submission to government authority it is pretty clear that one must submit, as we look at Ephesians 5 & 6 together with Romans 13. Matthew is completely correct. The second amendment is very hard to reconcile with Christianity. Taken literally the amendment is the right to bear arms against a corrupt government. Some today would even say it is a responsibility as an American. The question is, when is it okay for me to use lethal force against my government? Are things like high or unfair taxes, gun control, surveillance, etc. good reasons to use lethal force? That is the example of the revolutionary war and that is the intentions of the second amendment.

Matthew Eastland's picture

paynen: I'm not looking at things from a Baptist perspective, and I can see why Baptists would have lots of problems with this. Anabaptists have not typically been in favor of pressing the crown rights of Christ into every corner of culture—it's much more like the cloistered Fundamentalism that we see today. (See Matthew's last paragraph.)

Perhaps to clarify more, since I thought this would be obvious, I certainly don't favor a "cloistered Fundamentalism."
My statement in no way is saying we shouldn't take our reasonable part in the political process of our nation. I research the stances of those I elect, evaluate the referendums that come in my community, and cast my vote with knowledge and conviction. However, I will not spend more of my time on the subject than I have to.
I happen to have participated in mock Congress with public school students while part of the Bob Jones Academy Speech and Debate team. I got quite a kick out of being referred to by myself as the "Bob Jones Congress Team" (being the only person participating in that event some years).
I am quite knowledgeable of constitutional law and principle and have enjoyed studying it on many occasions.
If you were to look in the archives of SI, you would see that I spent a lot of time in the Politics section.

My point in my statement is not that I am ignorant of or uninterested in American politics, since that's just not true, but that I want to keep the proper Christian perspective in all things and not confuse my rights as an American with my standing with God.

I was very tempted to reply in full with scripture to the other comments made, but I'm not going to hijack this thread to that purpose. I have discussed them fully and completely before in other places and welcome the opportunity here, so if that interests you start a thread on it and we will go through it there.