The United States is not a Christian nation, any more than the United States is an Atheist nation, or a Hindu nation, or a Poseidon nation. The United States is a secular nation.
Whenever a debate is raised over the issue of whether or not the United States was a found a Christian nation, we are entertained with quotes from the founding fathers either professing their belief in a God or their secular credentials, both sets of quotes used to justify both positions. What we rarely see, are the lengths the founders went to in order to ensure a secular framework for the new nation, and the context in which they fought for it. Their personal beliefs in a God or an organised religion are irrelevant. The meticulous work and reasoned writings – of framers like Jefferson and Pinckney – to ensure the constitution was based upon secular principles, is what ultimately matters.
A year before the Bill of Rights was attached, the Constitution – a document that doesn’t mention the word ‘God’ once – made a very brief mention of religion. Brief, but extremely important for that moment in time.
Paragraph 3, of Article VI of the Constitution states:
“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
– It is clear from this, that the civil duty of all public office holders, is to the constitution only. Religion is to play no part in the suitability of a candidate for office. The oath or affirmation for public service is to the constitution only. The idea of insisting on no religious test for public office was as much a fundamental part of the history of the United States as the idea of independence itself, though it had recently been lost to history by the time the constitution was under consideration. Indeed, the original colonists had fled in order to worship by the dictates of their own conscience rather than the dictates of the oppressive state. But the tyranny which they fled, they soon enshrined themselves. In Virginia in the 17th Century, certain laws penalised parents who did not baptise their children. The 1776 Constitution of Pennsylvania demands of all legislators:
“And each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz : I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.”
– Similarly, the Constitution of Massachusetts at the same time stated:
“As the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality, and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of public instructions in piety, religion, and morality: Therefore, To promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic or religious societies to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.”
– The Constitution of South Carolina:
“That all persons and religious societies who acknowledge that there is one God, and a future state of rewards and punishments, and that God is publicly to be worshipped, shall be freely tolerated. The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed, and is hereby constituted and declared to be, the established religion of this State.”
– Had the national Constitution included language like that of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts’ or South Carolina’s state constitutions, we may have had to conclude that the United States is indeed a Christian nation. But the framers didn’t choose any state constitution that included overtly religious tones, language, and intention. Instead they looked to Virginia, and specifically Jefferson’s “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” which noted:
“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
– Almost all State constitutions in the 18th Century (and many still today) demanded a religious test – most requiring a belief in Protestant ideals – for public office. The very fact that the national Constitution seeked to completely overturn those state constitutional religious tests, and refusing to acknowledge even the word “God” let alone Christian-Protestant beliefs, and instead specifically looking to Virginia’s declaration enshrining secular principles, was a revolutionary act in itself, and speaks volumes of the motives of the framers.
It was in the 1770s that Jefferson originally penned the ‘Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom’. It was Governor Pinckney out of South Carolina – a state that had established Protestantism of the state religion – that penned the no religious test clause for the national Constitution. This clause angered Christians of the time (less so the evangelicals, who, as a minority sect, generally supported a separation of church and state for their own protection), with one objection being raised in the ratifying convention in North Carolina:
“…those gentlemen who formed this Constitution should not have given this invitation to Jews and heathens.”
– Leading Protestants – mainly in the north, The south was the beacon of enlightenment thought in that period of the 18th century – feared that prohibition on religious tests for high office – in other words, the lack of Protestant privilege – would give Jews, Pagans, non-believers, Hindus, and Muslims the same right to seek public office as Protestant Christians and ultimately diminish their role and power over state affairs. Protestants were aware that the Constitution represented a complete break with the state constitutions that gave them a privilege not afforded to other faiths and sects until then. This was unprecedented in history. A gigantic step in secular governance. For Jefferson, Pinckney and Madison among others, this was a battle they had fought long and hard for. The realisation of enlightenment ideals.
Leaving the confines of the 18th Century for a brief moment, The Christian Post recently published an article by Eric Metaxxas, in which he says:
“So while the Constitution cannot be considered a religious document, many of our founders’ religious views deeply informed their thinking about the kind of government America should embrace. To suggest otherwise is intellectually dishonest.”
– This simply isn’t true. The remainder of Metaxxas’ article seems to be some sort of rescue attempt for subtly held theocratic views attempting to enshrine itself into the fabric of America. He seems to be arguing that the Constitution is not overtly Christian, but the Founders were (which they weren’t) and so it is REALLY Christian… if you think about it…. maybe? It is of course, nonsense. Given that the religious aspects of the United States Constitution use the Virginia Statute penned by Thomas Jefferson as its inspiration, we must seek Jefferson’s views primarily. In his autobiography of 1821, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“The bill for establishing religious freedom [in Virginia], the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “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 that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
– There was a specific debate over including the words “Jesus Christ” and this was absolutely rejected. Jefferson’s “religious views” were not given any sort of privilege. In fact, by rejecting the words “Jesus Christ”, Christianity itself was consciously stripped of its attempted privilege. For Jefferson, matters of religion were to be open and free to all, and not in any way linked to the state. A line of equality of belief.
Further, George Washington – in a letter penned to the Jewish congregation of Rhode Island – gives us his thoughts on the equality of conscience, and civil rights:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
– Washington notes that ‘tolerance’ is no longer spoken of. What he means by this is that the old world privileges of one religion to grant tolerance to another, are finished.
The Christian Post article goes on:
“They also considered freedom of religion so important that they enshrined it in First Amendment to the Constitution. This includes the right to bring our beliefs into the public square to influence our fellow citizens on issues like slavery, as antebellum believers did, and abortion, as Christians in Texas recently did, and as many are trying to do with marriage.”
– This in true, to a degree. As noted in my previous article on Madison, the ‘father of the constitution’ noted in his 1822 letter to Edward Livingstone, the limits of religious privilege in state affairs:
“I observe with particular pleasure the view that you have taken of the immunity of Religion from civil jurisdiction in every case where it does not trespass on private rights or public peace.”
– So, when it pertains to – for example – marriage, as noted by the Christian Post article, Madison would have considered this a time in which religion oversteps its power and trespasses on private rights. A heterosexual Christian legislator with the right to marry does not have an inherent right to limit that same right for others. You have no more right to insist that children learn creationism in science class, that I do to ensure children learn about the baby-bringing-stalk in biology class.
Jefferson elaborates on religious interference in state affairs – which Metaxxas seems to try desperately to justify – in his ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’:
“Statutory oppressions in religion being thus wiped away, we remain at present under those only imposed by the common law, or by our own acts of assembly. At the common law, heresy was a capital offence, punishable by burning. Its definition was left to the ecclesiastical judges, before whom the conviction was, till the statute of the 1 El. c. 1. circumscribed it, by declaring, that nothing should be deemed heresy, but what had been so determined by authority of the canonical scriptures, or by one of the four first general councils, or by some other council having for the grounds of their declaration the express and plain words of the scriptures. Heresy, thus circumscribed, being an offence at the common law, our act of assembly of October 1777, c. 17. gives cognizance of it to the general court, by declaring, that the jurisdiction of that court shall be general in all matters at the common law. The execution is by the writ De haeretico comburendo. By our own act of assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of a God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more Gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offence by incapacity to hold any office or employment ecclesiastical, civil, or military; on the second by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years imprisonment, without bail. A father’s right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put, by the authority of a court, into more orthodox hands. This is a summary view of that religious slavery, under which a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of their civil freedom.”
– Here, Jefferson notes the problem of the religious using the legislative process to force their faith upon the population. He specifically calls it religious slavery. For Jefferson, this is where faith becomes overbearing. Your faith is yours personally, it is not to be used to infringe upon the liberty of others. Madison fought for this principle his entire life. Jefferson enshrined it in the Virginia Declaration. Pinckney made certain that it would outshine theocratic attempts to distort the secular nature of the Constitution.
It must be said that the genius of the founders was their ability to recognise that their own personal beliefs were not supreme, and did not have an inherent privilege above any other belief. For the founders, the United States was not founded a Christian nation, any more than the United States was founded an Atheist nation, or a Hindu nation, or a Poseidon nation. The men charged with constructing the new national Constitution worked tirelessly to ensure it was absolutely not a Christian nation. It is quite sad that in the 21st Century, there are numerous commentators, as well state and national representatives that haven’t quite grasped this principle yet.