“Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only….Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.” Thomas Jefferson, Notes On The State Of Virginia, Chapter 17, “The different religions received into the state?”
When this question is put to me or when I hear someone assert that America was founded as a Christian nation, I react much the same as John Fea, Professor of History at Messiah College, did in his book on the subject. Because the answer to this question, like a lot of questions which rely on a knowledge and understanding of history, is not as straightforward or as easy to resolve as it might be, Fea explains that it “…depends upon how we define our terms.
What do we mean when we use terms such as ‘Christian,’ ‘founding,’ and ‘nation’?” I do not frame my argument in this manner to be deliberately obtuse. I do it because before I can respond affirmatively or negatively to my interlocutor’s question, he and I must first come to terms. I must know the sense and the context of his use of key terminology, just as he must know mine were I to put the question to him. We must, as it were, speak the same language.
The principal difficulty here lies in how we view and choose to use history in this discussion. To that end, there are several pitfalls one must avoid in accessing history to sustain an argument or point of view. The first pitfall is that we often fail to see conditions and issues in context, the way the people of the time periods we refer to saw, experienced, and understood them.
We see conditions through a contemporary lens which is colored by our own experiences and beliefs, a lens which serves our purposes well and which we at times use to find historical examples which only conform to our perspective. (It is akin to establishing a conclusion and then going in search of facts to support that pre-conceived notion, as opposed to letting the facts lead where they may.)
A second pitfall is the selective and incomplete use of history, what author Michael Austin, in his book, That’s Not What They Meant!, refers to as “proof-text citations.” “A proof-text,” says Austin, “is an isolated quotation offered to support an argument.” (An analogy might be the use of sound bites in political rhetoric and political ads that do not give you the whole picture.) Such proof texts too are bereft of a context which fully informs the reader (or listener) and clarifies the issue.
The third pitfall is that the indiscriminate use of the term “Founders,” those individuals we venerate for having so well established our nation and its system of government, tends to be a monolithic grouping of those men which ignores significant differences in the relationship of each to Christianity and in their individual beliefs and practices.
We assert a sameness about the Founders that just did not exist. There were some significant and substantive differences among the Founders as to their beliefs and practices, and the beliefs of at least one Founder (Jefferson) might well be an affront to many Christians today, although he likely considered himself a Christian.
For purposes of answering the title question, it is necessary to establish when this country—the government and political system that we know today—was “founded.” Was it at the time of the initial early colonization or later with the adoption and implementation of the Constitution of the United States?
The nation we today call the United States of America was “founded” upon the adoption and implementation of the Constitution of the United States of America. In making the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, most of those who do so begin with the colonization of America and its clearly Christian hegemony, citing as an example the symbiotic, almost theocratic, relationship between church and state in the Puritan colonies of New England or the Anglican colony in Virginia, or both. Christian those colonies may have been, but a nation they were not.
There is no doubt that these colonies had religious, specifically Christian, predicates, so these earliest settlers can more accurately be referred to as “Planting Fathers,” inasmuch as what they did was to establish English colonies in the New World and plant their established religion, but they were not founded as independent nations; rather, they remained subject to the jurisdiction of the Mother Country.
Those “fathers” whom we credit with the drafting, adoption and implementation of the Constitution and the political system it commissioned are the actual “Founding” Fathers.
According to Frank Lambert, in his book The Founding Fathers And The Place Of Religion In America, what has happened over time is that we began to “…conflate the planters—such as the New England Puritans and the Chesapeake Anglicans—and the [Founding Fathers] into one set of forefathers who came to America to plant ‘true’ Christianity.”
John Fea, in his book, Was American Founded As A Christian Nation?, draws the same distinction between planters and framers and notes that those who argue that America is a Christian nation “…argue that the United States, as a ‘nation’ was founded when the first English migrants brought Christianity to North America….Such assertions read history backward. They confuse the planting of the British colonies on the Atlantic seaboard with the founding of the United States of America.”
As for the question concerning when this country as we know it today became a nation, we need only examine the elements that must be present for a nation-state to exist and determine at what point those four elements coalesced to form the nation of the United States of America.
A nation-state (what we simply call a nation) must have the following four elements to be so designated: sovereignty, territory, population, and government.
The initial colonies possessed population, government and territory, even though the territory was generally not as precisely defined as would a nation’s borders today. But these colonies did not possess sovereignty—the ability and independence to act like a nation and chart their own course.
Indeed, they could not have done so because they were still subject to English sovereignty (The results of the American Revolution changed that sovereignty status). Thus, the United States as we know and refer to it today did not become a nation until the Constitution was ratified and implemented.
Read the conclusion of this argument at “THE CONSTITUTIONALITY OF A CHRISTIAN NATION,” here.