Yes, a full third of the American population self-identifies as evangelical or ‘born again’ Christian, by far the largest religious group in America. But nearly one half of their neighbors subscribe to another Christian tradition, be it Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Mormon, or mainline protestant, etc. All told that’s 8 in 10 Americans who are Christian of one variety or another. Only 1 in 20 (or about 5%) participate in another religious tradition, such as Jewish, Buddhist, or Muslim, with another 1 in 20 considering themselves religiously minded without any particular religious affiliation at all. The remaining 1 in 10 Americans (10.3% to be exact) are unaffiliated, maybe not outright declaring that there cannot be gods in existance but certainly not betting on them either.
But honestly, some of us might be surprised that only 8 in 10 Americans are Christian. Some of us might be more than a little skeptical that for every ten people we cross paths with, one of them is an atheist or agnostic.
I think this is because that 80% who call themselves Christian, which, by the way, is a segment on the decline in America — America’s Christian segment can be a loud one. Especially those evangelicals. And they can give you the impression that the non-Christian segments are even smaller than they are.
They can also tend to give the impression that the United States is an explicitly Christian nation. And they can be particularly partial to a little historical revisionism. I remember my fundamentalist grandfather often insisting that our nation’s founding fathers were all vibrant Christians, that none of them were actually the deists that our historical records claim them to have been. He’s been convinced that liberals have gone back and perverted historical record. And his thoughts tend to be typical of a large segment of this American population.
But, no, the United States of America is not a Christian nation. It never has been. Now, it may be true that Christians have always comprised a majority of its population. But our founders wanted to put an end to the religious squabbles and state-sanctioned endorsements that had torn Europe apart. And those fleeing the persecution of their homelands had often created new American communities just as harsh toward disagreeing faiths, the only exception being that now they were the ones putting forth the persecution on everyone else. How’s that for a little divine intervention? Virginia, Massachusetts, and several others had set themselves up as Puritan colonies and enforced severe laws to the contrary. Colonial Maryland was Catholic. Rhode Island was Baptist. Do evangelicals realize that if not for our founders’ wisdom, Baptists might still be mandated to never leave Rhode Island?
And so with the development of time, our founders arrived at the conclusion that this American Experiment would also attempt the construction of a civilization where its people would be free to practice whatever religion they desired. And not just varying forms of Christianity, also a revisionist claim espoused by fundamentalists today.
And so the United States Constitution (1787) intentionally omits any terms such as “God,” “Jesus Christ,” “Christianity,” or those of any supreme being. It is true that our Declaration of Independence (1776) talks generally about God, but this was prior to the writing of the Constitution and as our founders’ position on religious liberty was still evolving. And while the Declaration of Independence is a valuable historical document marking our birth as a free people, it has never been voted upon and is not in any sense authoritative. That’s why we have the Constitution. And in that document, the one that is authoritative, it was declined to bear mention of any gods. And rather than attributing our nation’s birth to divine powers, our Constitution accredits it to the will of the American people. “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union…”
The American Experiment and the democratic nation it conceived is a product of the Enlightenment. It is fundamentally a humanistic endeavor.
Then there was the design of the First Amendment (1791). Of all the stipulations that our founders wanted clarified in the administration of this great and budding nation, this was of the first importance: our religious liberty. And so that first of constitutional amendments states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to the petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
We often speak of our Freedom of Speech as if it is the most fundamental and cherished liberty we Americans have. But notice that the Separation of Church and State is listed before even this. Is it possible that without a true freedom of religion, the freedom of speech becomes mere illusion?
But before any of this, before the drafting of the US Constitution or its First Amendment, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were busy working on another document which would be used to frame the latter. And this was the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1777). While it is true that this original statute is not federal law, it does provide us some background into the process of its creation.
The Virginia Statute’s preamble begins, “Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free…” Now, the evolution of America’s religious doctrine did flirt with Christianity along the way, and devout Christians such as Patrick Henry made moves to shape it in that direction. And in Virginia, they protested that the verbiage of this statute’s preamble ought replace “Almighty God,” a term that could be applied to the deities of any religion, with the specifically Christian “Jesus Christ.” And so Jefferson, always the true democrat at heart, suggested they put it to a vote. And to the discouragement of the ardent, the change was overwhelmingly voted down, keeping “Jesus Christ” out and the more generic “Almighty God” in place.
Jefferson reflected on the dynamics of the situation and interpreted from them that Virginia’s representatives wanted the law “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahomedan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” According to today’s terminology, this would read: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and all others including nonbelievers of every variation. The term “infidel” is typically used as a derogatory term against anyone not holding to the religion of the speaker; it therefore refers here to all other religions and those of no religion at all. This was Jefferson’s own category, himself apparently an agnostic deist.
Once the First Amendment of the US Constitution was in place, letters by Jefferson and Madison explained US law using phrases commonly heard today. Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association interpreted the First Amendment as a “wall of separation between church and State.” And a Madison letter written shortly thereafter reinforced those implications, saying, “Strongly guarded… is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States.”
And then, finally, we have the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated by Joel Barlow between the United States and North Africa’s Barbary States. Initiated in 1795 by President George Washington and submitted to Congress by President John Adams in 1797, the text of this treaty was then voted into United States law. Not only does it provide further support of how Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and others understood our new nation to function, as US law, it is also binding in its authority for America’s future construction. And here, possibly more clearly than anywhere else, US law clearly mandates that we are NOT and CANNOT be a Christian nation. Here it reads, even applying itself to negotiations with Muslim nations, “The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen.”
Let me repeat US law:
“The United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Shocking as this all might be to those who’ve always thought the United States to be an explicitly and intentionally Christian nation, may we remind ourselves that this is a good thing that it is not. It allows our citizens the freedom to practice or not practice religion as they see fit. If faith is the conviction of things not seen, then we must accept that everyone will “not see” those things differently. A truly democratic nation must allow everyone to define those unseen things as they themselves see fit.
I am reminded of my Ordination Council when I sat before the Baptist General Conference to receive their recommendation for ministry credentials. In my 25-page doctrinal statement, I had not covered Separation of Church and State. They asked that I go back and compose an addendum articulating such a core Baptist principle. It was, after all, the Baptists of Rhode Island that helped advocate for the freedom of religion in America, lest they be banned entirely. Freedom of Religion is a democratic necessity. It is a humanistic mandate.
Oh, how wonderful it would be if our Baptist neighbors today could only realize how much they are indebted to the Separation of Church and State and how great a role their forefathers played in its construction!
But how can we stop with only the freedom to choose among Christian faiths? Our founders realized how thin this distinction would be. And so they took all faith, all religion, entirely out of the process. Government has no business supporting or proposing any religious creed or distinction at all. This is to be an individual business, a freedom of conscience, an internal matter made without any direction from external authorities. And it is a freedom that once taken away, jeopardizes even our ability to speak freely. Without it, everything suffers.
So please, may we make no mistake about it. The United States of America is most certainly NOT a Christian nation. It never has been. And we have the responsibility to make sure it never will be.