Many people believe the U.S. was founded on Christian principles. But is it true? The short answer: Yes and no, it just depends on what one means.
It’s true that many of the Founding Fathers of the United States were Christians (though many were also deists). It’s also true that most people living in the U.S. are Christians, and that geographically the U.S. is found within the region of the globe where Christianity wields most of its influence (aka Christendom).
However, neither of these points have any bearing on whether the structure of the U.S.’s democratic republic style of government was meant to explicitly endorse Christianity. The truth is that the documents which initiated the United States (i.e. the Declaration of Independence and especially the Constitution) are influenced largely by libertarian philosophers like John Locke; and are meant to be secular, not theocratic. What’s worse, is that the ‘Christian Nation’ belief has gained popularity only recently during the 1950s and is an example of historical revisionism.
The Belief in a ‘Christian Nation’
Whether its devotees intend it or not, there are certain implications meant when someone says, “America is a Christian nation.” The implications are:
- America’s founding documents are based off of Christian theology
- Christians have a special privilege
- Christian beliefs and institutions should also be privileged
Many religionists also mistakenly point out that America’s Bill of Rights are based off the 10 Commandments. As Devvy Kidd, the ‘Dynamite Redhead’ says in her blog after listing the 10 Commandments, “As one can see, both our laws and moral behavior is based on the Ten Commandments …”
Kidd’s assertion is typical, as she makes no real comparison between the 10 Commandments and Bill of Rights, the differences between which are vast.
What is odd that these beliefs are relatively new, arising first as a backlash to communism in the 1950s, and later catching on again, specifically with the words of Christian historical revisionist David Barton in the mid-1980s.
In short, the belief that America is a Christian nation equates with the belief that America is a theocracy; not a democratic republic. This belief is demonstrably false.
The Intent of the Declaration of Independence
The intent of the Declaration of Independence is just as its name implies; it builds a case for 13 British colonies to declare independence from Great Britain with the goal of becoming their own nation. Thomas Jefferson, who would later be the third U.S. president, was largely responsible for writing the Declaration, and the contents of the document reflects Jefferson’s libertarian philosophy and belief in deism.
Followers of the “America is a Christian nation” belief tend to focus on a few of Jefferson’s words in the Declaration. In particular, religionists tend to focus on passages where Jefferson cites “Nature’s God” and that people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”.
Jefferson was a deist, which meant he believed in a vague concept of a god that started the world, but isn’t necessarily involved in human affairs. This is also called ‘natural theology’, and that is which he refers to when he wrote “Nature’s God”. Note that the deist god is a far cry from Christianity’s personal God that sacrificed His Son to die for the sins of human ancestors (i.e. Adam and Eve); and otherwise regularly intervenes with humans, especially when they pray and in accordance to His plan for humanity.
The Intent of the Constitution
The intent of the Constitution is to create a government that would allow the population to guide public policy. It institutes a framework of three branches that would check and balance each other; executive, legislative, and judicial. The framework of the legislative branch allows for citizens to vote for representatives, and these representatives would argue on behalf of his/her constituents with other representatives, in an effort to create legislation.
The executive branch enforces legislation once it is made law, and the judicial branch determines whether there are any infringements against the Constitution when legislation is created, or if rights were violated during the enforcement of public policy.
This style of government, with representatives instead of divinely appointed monarchs, and government split into three branches, is inspired by the English philosopher John Locke. Locke’s idea for Separation of Powers was specifically what influenced the creation of three branches of government, and its various checks and balances.
In closing, while it’s dishonest and inaccurate to say that America was originally intended to be a Christian nation, the framework of the Constitution allows many different social/political theories to become dominant with enough participation from the population. If enough people vote on policies that are synchronous with Judeo-Christian principles, like the Hebrew law advocating the execution of non-virgin women on their wedding day, or not prohibiting homosexuals from getting married, then it’s feasible that America can become a Christian nation (albeit both laws would be in line with a Christian Dominionist philosophy). But just as likely, if enough people adopting a morality based explicitly on a sense of justice and fairness instead of one based on the Bible (i.e. the morality that causes one to distinguish between the Hebrew law mentioned above and the Golden Rule); that philosophy can hold sway on American politics as well.
- Kidd, Devvy. “The Dynamite Redhead” blog. “The Ten Commandments and America’s Laws”.
- People for the American Way Foundation (PAWF). David Barton: Propaganda Masquerading as History.
- Specter, Arlen (Spring 1995). “Defending the wall: Maintaining church/state separation in America”. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 18 (2): 575–590.
- Wall, James. Changes in Attitude, the Lost World of the 1950s. The Christian Century. October 18, 1995, pp. 947-948