Why I Cringe When People Say America is a Christian Nation

Below is text from one of my 2010 posts. Claims that the U.S. was/is a Christian nation get repeated by the right (when arguing for traditional family values) and the left (i.e. as a Christian nation we ought to welcome refugees)…and it always make me cringe.


Last night I spoke to a small group of international graduate students on the topic “Is America a Christian Nation?” I asked at the outset if they had been given the impression that America was a Christian nation and they all agreed that they had.

I began by asking what it is that makes an individual a Christian. I outlined three essential things. First, an internal work of God referred to as ‘regeneration’ or ‘being born again’. That is the work of God and the sine qua non of being a Christian – without that work, we are still dead in sin and not a part of the Kingdom. This internal change will be manifested externally in the Fruit of the Spirit, but these externals flow from (necessarily) the internal change and cannot be forced or produced simply by the will of man.

Second, Christians are defined right belief. I asked, “if I told you I was an atheist who believed in God, what would you say?” Rightly they understand that I wouldn’t be a real atheist, for atheists are marked by a specific belief, namely in the nonexistence of God. Likewise, real Christians are marked by certain beliefs. John, in his first letter articulates a doctrinal test -those who are truly believers will confess Christ. Those who don’t, aren’t genuine believers, but antichrists. Paul articulates the importance of right belief in several places, but look specifically at Galatians 1:6-9 and his condemnation of ‘another gospel’. The early creeds, accepted by Catholics and Protestants (and with minor disagreement, Orthodox believers) are a wonderful summary of what true Christians have believed for centuries.

Finally, there are certain actions that mark of genuine Christians. Again, I asked, “what makes someone a vegetarian?” Obviously, vegetarians are marked off by certain practices, more so than beliefs. They don’t eat meat. So Christians are marked off by certain actions, among them is participation in the sacraments of baptism and communion. The New Testament does not allow for a category of believer that is unbaptized or non-participatory in the sacramental life of the Body of Christ (I know, the exception is the thief on the cross). Likewise, the NT doesn’t allow us to conceive of believers who are not connected to the life of the church.

Having established what it means for a person to be a Christian, we moved on the discuss what it means for a nation to be Christian. First, a nation could be officially Christian in that it recognized/supported/regulated a state church. England is officially Anglican. Denmark has the Danish National Church (Lutheran). In a similar way, many states officially support Islam as the state religion (Iran, Kuwait, etc.), and several officially support Buddhism (Cambodia, Thailand, etc.).

Second, a nation could be established explicitly on Christian principles, theology, Scriptures, etc. The charter of the Plymouth Colony(Mayflower Compact) is such a document, stating,

“Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic…”

Third, a nation could be considered Christian if the vast majority of the population is Christian (but, on that, see the discussion above regarding the marks of a true Christian). So, do these apply to America?

Going back to the early 1700’s, N.America was controlled by three colonizing powers: France, Great Britain, and Spain. Before the 1700’s, other nations, like the Dutch, controlled some portions of N. America, but by 1700, it was those three that controlled the entire N.American continent. Two of the three were Roman Catholic, England was officially Protestant. Of the three groups of settlers (English, Spanish, and French), only one came for explicitly religious reasons. The Pilgrims (Separatists) and the Puritans settled in Massachusetts in hopes of finding freedom from (Anglican) persecution. However, not all British settlers came for religious reasons. Alongside the Dissenters (Pilgrims & Puritans) looking for freedom came good Anglicans who were motivated by the hope of a new life or financial prosperity.

Moving ahead to the time of the Revolution and the founding of the United States as a nation, many Christians look back to our Founding Fathers as pillars of Christian virtue who sought to establish a nation on the Christian principles. There is, however, good reason to question this. (I won’t even raise the issue of whether or not rebellion against a sovereign is biblical, I’ll just direct your attention to 1 Peter 1:13 and Romans 13:1-7). While it is absolutely true, that many pastors were supportive of the Revolution and that many of the Founding Fathers were good Christians (Patrick Henry, John Witherspoon, and Samuel Adams -who’s better known for his beer than his role in founding our nation), that is certainly not the whole story. Among the founders there were quite a few Deists (and heretics). Ben Franklin denied the deity of Christ. John Adams denied the Trinity. Thomas Jefferson took scissors to his Bible and cut out all things supernatural, including the resurrection of Christ. Can such men be considered Christian? The did talk of god, but they eschewed a Christian understanding of God. They’re god was sub-Christian. Thomas Paine was worse yet (or maybe better yet). He said, I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church. Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.” No wonder he was referred to as the ‘filthy little atheist’! Moreover, Washington, while being a regular church goer refused communion for his whole adult life. In addition, he was a Grand Master in the Masonic Lodge – something that cannot easily be reconciled with genuine Christian convictions. (Regarding the image: in the words of an author I can’t remember, ‘Praying doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger.’ Ok, the quote is actually, ‘going to church doesn’t make you a Christian…’ but you get the idea.)

Considering all of this, I believe we can say that Christianity was certainly influential, but not exclusively so. Maybe more important than Jesus or Moses were the Enlightenment philosphers in vogue at the time – Kant, Rousseau, etc – and their elevation of autonomous reason over revelation (ie. ‘we hold these truth to be self evident’).

Moreover, beyond the small circle of founders, the population at large, while certainly thinking of themselves as Christian, could be thought of as only nominally so. Belief in God can be assumed, as well as a general Judeo-Chrsitian ethic; however, it is estimated that only 10-15% of the population attended church regularly. [Interestingly, more people attend church regularly now than when this nation was born, in terms of sheer numbers and also percentage of population. So it could be argued we are more Christian now than then. I don’t think most would like that argument.]

In addition, when you look at the founding documents of the United States, you don’t see any gospel orientation (not even a specifically Christian orientation like in the Mayflower Compact). Certainly vague talk of God or Creator is there, but Deists could affirm that No mention of Christ or the gospel. There was never an officially sanctioned state church for the nation (though many states supported the church – Anglican or Congregational). In fact, our Constitution distances us from any form of established religion. Our leaders are not subject to any religious test (Article 6.3), and religious liberty (not just of Christians) was articulated in the 1st amendment. Interestingly, Patrick Henry understood this to be grounded in the gospel, writing,“It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship.” I disagree with him on the first part, but affirm the connection between the gospel and religious freedom in the second part of the quote.

It must be conceded that American’s breathed Christian air. The Judeo-Christian ethic was assumed. I’ve even heard it said that the god atheists disbelieved in was the Christian God (not a Muslim god or Hindu god, etc). However, that is a far cry from saying we were founded on Christian principles.

So, I believe saying America is a Christian nation doesn’t do justice to the historical complexities surrounding the birth or our nation. In addition, and more importantly, it doesn’t do justice to the nature of genuine Christianity. This is why I cringe when I hear pastors or theologians or lay people saying it. Do we really want that baggage?

First, American civil religion isn’t Christianity. Morality isn’t Christianity. Christian does come with a moral system, but the moral system, which American did, by and large, embrace, isn’t what is essential to Christianity.

Second, looking at the history of our nation, we cannot claim it was a Christian nation and then turn a blind eye to the atrocities we have, as a nation, committed. This is, I believe, very important to own. Slavery. The dispossession of and slaughter of Native Americans. The confinement of Japanese in internment camps. Entrenched racism. And that’s the short list. No wonder people in other parts of the world hear America claiming to be a Christian nation, look at our history, and conclude they want nothing to do with Christianity.

Lastly, I think Christians should think long and hard about whether or not the idea of a Christian nation is even biblical. Can a Christian America be squared with Jesus’ statements regarding the spiritual nature of his kingdom? I don’t think they can be easily reconciled.

I’ll conclude with a long quote from Richard Alpert in the Huffington Post:

“Speaking from the heart of the Muslim world in Turkey’s Cankaya Palace in April 2009, President Barack Obama answered the question with the nuance that has come to characterize his public statements: America, he declared, is “a predominantly Christian nation” but “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.”

The President’s answer seems to strike a discordant tone between reality and self-perception. On the one hand, American has no official church or religion. The United States Constitution expressly forbids a national religion. Yet on the other hand, Christianity is the religion of a substantial supermajority of the American population. According to the latest results of the Pew Research Centre’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, nearly 80 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian.

But there is no contradiction in the President’s statement. America is, and indeed always has been, a nation of Christians but it is not, nor has it ever been, a Christian nation.” 

Want more. Watch this short video from Bryan Chapell, President of Covenant Theological Seminary.