Every election year, but especially those in which the Republicans are in a minority position, the rhetoric stating that America was founded as a Christian nation seems to increase. This mantra is so engrained into the national psyche by these political expressions that it has become almost an accepted fact in some locations. Having taught Early American History at a major university in the Midwest, I can honestly say that this was one of the hardest myths to crack in my students. And yet, myth is exactly what this statement is. America was not, by any reasonable definition, founded as a Christian nation.
One of the iconic moments of English settlement in the lands that would become the United States (hereafter referred to as America, regardless of time period) is the “First Thanksgiving.” Leaving aside the differences between this celebration and our own (as well as between the celebration and how it is commonly portrayed), this image is very misleading for a number of reasons. Most importantly, this often sets an image in people’s minds that the Pilgrims were the first English settlers in America. This, of course, is not the case. The lost colony of Roanoke and the established colony of the Virginia Company were both founded well before the Pilgrims left England for America. In fact, they were originally slated to land in the northern reaches of the Virginia colony, coming aground in Massachusetts only because they were running low on beer! So, even before the arrival of the first Pilgrims, we have an established English colony that was dedicated to seeking profits, not studying the prophets.
It is true that these Pilgrims, and their Puritan brethren who would arrive shortly, were seeking lands where they could freely practice their religion. However, these settlements were not bastions of freedom for Christianity, not was it the intent of the English King or the Pilgrims themselves to found a new Christian nation. First, any sort of doctrinal dissent was met with swift punishment, as seen in the banishments of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson and in the hangings of Quakers. This is hardly the image we have of a Christian nation or of the tolerance for religion we inaccurately apply to these people. Second, these settlers and the government that granted them the right settle the lands considered this to be nothing more than an extension of English lands and the English kingdom. Those who came to America would not have even conceived of their arrival as a founding moment of a new nation, Christian or not.
In fact, one could argue more strongly that the establishment of the Pilgrim and Puritan communities in America was not allowed in order to spread Christianity, but rather to act as a relief valve to get rid of a group the King found troublesome. The Puritans were a group that approved of the Anglican Church splitting from the Catholics but felt the new church needed to further reform, or purify, its theology. The Pilgrims, on the other hand, felt that they needed to split away from the Anglicans in order to be fully right with their god. In either case, it would be troublesome for a monarch who claimed to rule by divine right to have his Church questioned. Similarly, Pennsylvania and Maryland were established as colonies in order to give a place for two other dissident religious groups, Quakers and Catholics respectively, to escape to. These groups were similarly troublesome for political and social reasons.
While determining the precise moment of the first true revolutionary action is an open historical question, there is no doubting that the revolutionary movement itself is the first true founding moment for an American nation. Much is often made of the numerous mentions of a supreme being in the wording of the Declaration of Independence, but to consider this an indication that the United States was founded as a Christian nation stretches credulity.
First, in none of these cases is a clear reference to the Christian god made. The formulations of these terms, including “nature’s God,” “Creator,” and “Divine Providence,” are terms most often associated with deism. This leads to the second point: the principal author, Thomas Jefferson (like many of the founders) was, at the most spiritual, a deist. Deism is the belief in a distant, hands-off creator, often likened to a clock-maker, who set the world in motion and then set back to let it run its own course. This is a far cry from the personally-involved style of god of Christianity. Third, there is nothing in the wording of the Declaration that makes the establishment of Christianity a purpose of creating this new nation. In fact, one of the grievances listed in the Declaration (“For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries, so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these colonies”) is a direct response to the English King allowing the extension of Catholicism, by way of extending the new Canadian lands, into the western edges of the established American colonies.
The entire philosophical underpinnings of revolutionary thought come from a rejection of religious, especially Christian, formulation of government. The sweeping opening of the Declaration of Independence and its statements of the purposes of government come almost verbatim from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. This flows from his First Treatise, which explicitly rejects the idea of a Christian basis for government. This rejection of religious-based government can be seen in the writings of Thomas Paine, as well, especially his Common Sense which popularized these ideas prior to the writing of the Declaration.
Constitution and Beyond
This lack of evidence for a Christian founding, and indeed the mounting evidence against it, continues through the end of the 18th century with the writing of the U.S. Constitution, the enactment of the Bill of Rights, and even the ratification of early treaties. The United States Constitution explicitly mentions the Christian god once and only once. This is in the purely formulaic manner stating that the Constitution was completed “in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.”
However, even if this paltry mention were enough to call America a Christian nation, that label must be rejected by a reading of Article VI, which states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This rejection is only furthered when considering the First Amendment’s banning of any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
If this proof is still not enough to lay aside any thought that America was founded as a Christian nation, those thoughts should be completely eradicated by looking at one of the earliest treaties ratified by the United States Senate. In 1796, during the last year of George Washington’s presidency, the United States ratified a treaty with the Bey of Tripoli. This treaty was ratified the following year, in the first few months of the presidency of John Adams. This treaty, in Article 11, explicitly states that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”
It is apparent that in the history, in the political philosophy, and indeed in the very words of the founding documents there is no evidence that the United States of America was created to be a Christian nation. In fact, the study of these documents clearly establishes that it the United States was not founded on Christianity. Not in any sense.