July 2, 2007

America is NOT a Christian Nation

One of the most common assertions one encounters by Christian extremists and even some moderate Christians on the political right is that America is a Christian nation. This claim has been thoroughly discredited in more sources than any individual could possibly compile. In fact, it is hard to imagine an atheist blogger who hasn't addressed this claim and one point or another. I realize that this post will do little to prevent the issue from recurring here, but at least I will have a prepared response ready for next time. And besides, the topic certainly fits with the current Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm.

Common Sources for the Christian Nation Claim

First, let's unpack the claim itself. Why might one argue that America is a Christian nation? As it turns out, there are many reasons. Here is a quick review of some of the most common:
  1. The majority of American citizens identify themselves as Christians on various surveys.
  2. The American government officially endorses or sponsors Christianity.
  3. Non-Christians have fewer rights than Christians because the law treats them differently.
  4. America was founded by Christians.
In examining these statements, it appears that each of them is at least partially true. Ample data support the first statement, and if all the Christian nation claim meant was that the majority of Americans identified themselves as Christians, one would have to agree. However, this is not what most making the Christian nation claim mean. Statement #2 is partially true in the sense of President Bush's faith-based initiatives and some other disturbing ways that Christianity has managed to receive preferential treatment when it comes to government funding, but most of those making the Christian nation claim refuse to admit this. Similarly, statement #3 is not one you will find argued by Christian extremists, even if it contains some truth. What the Christian nation proponents virtually always use to support their claim is #4, so it warrants further discussion.

Was America Founded by Christians?

A review of the writings by many prominent early Americans, commonly referred to as founding fathers, reveals some evidence of theism, some evidence of atheism, and very little evidence of Christianity. Take Thomas Jefferson for example. It is hard to read the following statement of Jefferson's as evidence for any sort of theism:
To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise...without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence.--Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, August 15, 1820
And how about John Adams? He didn't seem content just to point out problems with theism but attacked Christianity itself:
As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?--John Adams, letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, 1816
It doesn't sound like either of these men were Christian in any way whatsoever, does it? Even the quotes attributed to Ben Franklin by some making the Christian nation claim do not support the suggestion that he was a Christian. Franklin was obviously a theist, but these quotes suggest that Deism was as likely as Christianity, perhaps even more so.

Christian nation advocates love to cite the frequent mentions of a god in the Declaration of Independence while apparently forgetting that the Constitution and Treaty of Tripoli even exist. In writing the Constitution, the framers intentionally set America up as a secular democracy. This was not an accident - it was, as Christians are so fond of saying in other contexts, by design. What Christian extremists are propagating with the Christian nation claim is nothing more than revisionist history, but that doesn't stop it from being dangerous.

What About Slavery?

Let's pretend for a second that we had indisputable evidence that every last one of America's founding fathers was a rabid Christian. Would it even matter? If we want to claim that we are a Christian nation on that basis, how can we avoid calling ourselves a nation of slavery as well? Did not many of the founders own slaves? Is it not fair to say that the early economy of America was supported on the backs of slaves or that at least one of the reasons for our own Civil War involved slavery? If we are a Christian nation for this reason, then we are a nation of slavery, of misogyny, and all sorts of other things I suspect we'd rather not own.

We are no more a Christian nation than a nation of slavery; simply, we are neither. What we should learn from our founders is their mindset concerning the relationship between church and state. They had good reasons, based on their recent experience with Britain, for establishing a secular democracy. Unlike modern Christian extremists, they understood history and recognized that blending religion and government would harm both.

For more information about this important and frequently misunderstood issue, see the following:
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