On a recent episode of the Thinking Fellows, where I was a guest, Dr. Rosenbladt asked me what he rightfully considered to be one of the most vexing of all questions regarding the founding of these United States and the role of the faith of our founders.
“Is, or Was, America ever a Christian nation?” he asked.
You can listen here to my full answer, but the short answer is: not really. To be more specific, let’s breakdown the question into three components: What is America? What is a Christian? And What is a Nation? A basic understanding of the three not only leads us to this conclusion but may help us ask why we are interested in such a question in the first place.
What is America?
If we are asking the question, “Is America a Christian nation?” we are likely thinking of America in its colonial form or immediately following the War for Independence. Or, maybe you are thinking about America today. The answer to our question is going to be shaped by whatever “America” we are talking about. Answering questions about a big nation, with a decently long history, takes some narrowing and precision. But the question of origins (the “faith of the Founding Fathers) is usually the question at hand. And asking questions about something over 200 years ago sets us up some thorny historical issues:
- The present is not the past. I’m much different at age 40 than I was at age 20. Now expand that to over 200 years and billions of people.
- Colonial America itself was a varied and vast land from the agrarian south and the pre-industrial/industrial north.
- While religious tolerance was practiced in some regions, it was often practiced begrudgingly.
It is best to see early America as a disparate, regionally varied, and eclectic place. There was a lot of land and a lot of people.
What is a Christian?
A Christian is a person, baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. A Christian is a co-heir of the kingdom of God (which is decidedly not an earthly kingdom). How can a nation, any more than a brick, or a piece of bacon be “Christian”? Made by Christians, perhaps, but not to serve some esoteric “religious” purpose. A Christian is a part of an eschatological reality (a future kingdom) and what Peter calls a “new nation” (1 Peter 2:9).
What is a nation?
To reiterate, the present is not the past. Defining a “nation” as a universal category is especially hard in America where we can’t always seem to decide what our nation is. Before the Civil War, it was common to refer to the country as, “these United States,” with the emphasis on “states” and their semi-sovereignty. After the Civil War, it became common to say, “the United States,” with an emphasis on “United.” All this to say, the question of what we are as a nation is similarly fraught as are the other questions we are attempting to answer today. It is a question not only of national character and identity but also of political arrangements.
If Christianity was primarily about a better life here and now, then it would make sense to interpret it like a political rule book
Additionally, should any nation be based solely on Christian principles? Certainly, there are elements of justice and compassion that we see in the Bible that might make for prudent leaders and better lives. But are these elements necessarily “Christian”? If the heart of Christianity is radical forgiveness, humility, and the way of Jesus, is this the best way forward for statecraft? Possibly, but we’ve yet to see any state try this. Christianity is about a reality of present forgiveness and a new life that culminates in the next world. If Christianity was primarily about a better life here and now, then it would make sense to interpret it like a political rule book and wait for the blessings to come rolling in.
This doesn’t mean that an appreciation for one’s redemption and new life, hidden in Christ, shouldn’t make for a good citizen. Paul and Peter both call on Christians to be good citizens for the sake of the Gospel. But the Gospel is not and never will be defined by being a good citizen.
The American tradition, as I discuss on the podcast, is unique, however. The tradition of religious freedom, as opposed to religious tolerance, has been one of the sometimes-bright lights in American religious and social life.
Religious toleration, as a matter of statecraft, can be seen in early Reformation conflicts between the Lutherans and the Empire. The Peace of Augsburg, signed in 1555, was designed to give religious tolerance to the upstart Lutherans. Religious tolerance meant the principle in place was, “whoever rules, they decide the religion.” In other words, whatever confession your prince digs, you can follow that one, but only that on. Religious toleration meant, “the Roman Catholic church is the official church, but under some circumstances, we will tolerate other religions as long as they stay within their carefully crafted boundaries.” This worked well on paper, but less so in real life as wars over confessions of faith continued through the 16th century.
It was in this period that the colonies were forming and discussion over religious tolerance or freedom began. The settlers who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth were undoubtedly looking for religious freedom, but they saw no virtue in religious tolerance. Roger Williams (you can hear about him on the Christian HIstory Almanac podcast from Aug 8th) was one of the earliest proponents of true religious tolerance, having been banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for religious dissension. William’s “Bloody Tennant of Persecution” from 1648 remains a foundational text on the transition from religious freedom to the religious tolerance practiced in the United States.
A person, not a nation, can be a Christian because only a person can be saved by grace through faith in the work of Christ.
The “founders” of the United States were a mix of deists, Christians, and non-conformists. Outside of Samuel Adams and John Jay, it would be hard to find any of them confessing historic, creedal Christianity. Instead, they sought to create a New Order under the Heavens (check out a dollar bill, and you’ll see that exact phrase in latin, Novus Ordo Seclorum). The founders were men of the Enlightenment and of a specific French variety that saw little room for supernatural religion. The Novus Ordo Seclorum was their attempt at creating a broadly “religious nation,” or perhaps best described as a “virtuous nation,” but in no way a Christian nation.
A person, not a nation, can be a Christian because only a person can be saved by grace through faith in the work of Christ. Try as we might, we can’t baptize a piece of land or even a historical document. This doesn’t preclude Christians from contributing to a nation and doing so to serve their neighbor. I suppose, at this point, the most salient question would be “who is my neighbor?” And luckily, Jesus was asked that very question. You can check out his answer here.
For more on the founding of America and the faith of the Founders, check out these books: