“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”–The First Amendment
Was America founded as a Christian nation or a secular state?
It’s a needlessly polarizing question, rooted in almost willful blindness on both sides of the argument. Those who dismiss any religious role in the nation’s founding build their case on the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Meanwhile, those who imagine God’s kingdom on American soil point to countless customs that have woven faith into both public and private life. Not to beat around the bush, I believe the answer to my opening question is yes. America was both from the beginning. Here is how I break it down.
At its founding, the United States had a sketchy national identity, less religious than we like to think it was. But the seeds had already been sown for a nation that would be bound by a Christian culture, or more broadly, Judeo-Christian values.
Arguments against this make much of the founding fathers’ ties to the Enlightenment or to deism, a more generic belief in God. The establishment clause of the First Amendment makes clear their desire for government to be neutral toward religion. But it’s a mistake to dismiss pervasive references to God — from the Declaration of Independence to inscriptions on our currency to the opening of legislatures with prayer — as quaint artifacts or obligatory flourishes.
Whatever the framers’ intent in the Constitution, the people teaching, governing and judging in the nation’s classrooms, town halls and courthouses were accustomed to seeing faith, mostly Christian, expressed in everyday life. They weren’t constitutional scholars, and the signing of a piece of paper wasn’t going to break old habits. The easy blending of religious expression with official functions illustrates the cultural force of faith in America.
As the country grew still more religious, such expression crossed clear legal boundaries largely unchallenged until well into the 20th century – aided, no doubt, by the political benefit to officials who put on a pious face. For most of that time, the American understanding of the divine was largely from a Christian perspective. In many parts of the country, it remains so.
So when secularists say that our national, i.e., cultural identity wasn’t Christian at the beginning – they need to look past the letter of the law to the practical reality that has prevailed for most of our history. And take care how hard they push to bottle up faith in houses of worship and private homes. Authentic faith is not lived out that way, and this isn’t France. Christians – indeed, people of many faiths – will not be silenced.
And yet: the establishment clause is clear. As a matter of law, American government is not to endorse, enforce or inhibit religious belief or practice. Widespread disregard of this principle over 200 years may have been overlooked, but that doesn’t make it constitutional. In recent decades, religious encroachment in government functions has been challenged, and Christians have taken to the barricades as if the faith itself were under attack.
It’s time for Christians to realize that what they and previous generations enjoyed all those years was a triumph of culture over law. The culture is changing. One in five Americans now identifies with no religion at all, and Protestants now represent less than half of the population. Christian influence has weakened to the point that violations of the establishment clause won’t be ignored any more. Nor, I would argue, should we want them to be.
The church loses vitality when it becomes too institutional, too much a part of the secular power structure and the cultural mainstream. It’s easy to point to the history of the Catholic church in this regard. But American evangelicalism has cobbled together its own power structure and dogma, with the government and educational system at times bending to religious pressure. This cultivated a 3,000-mile-wide, inch-deep “Christian” orthodoxy that was long on ceremony and rhetoric but short on authenticity. In the process, politics and faith became entangled in unhealthy ways.
This is not to write off America’s Christian tradition, or to say that Christian government officials shouldn’t put God at the center of how they individually perform their duties. And I am certainly thankful for freedom to worship and practice my faith. The Bible promises that righteousness exalts a nation, and at times when America has been righteous, I believe God has exalted it.
But those days may be past, and while this isn’t France, neither is it ancient Israel. The God of the New Testament isn’t about building earthly nations. Neither should that be Christians’ focus. At a minimum, chasing a Christian national identity can distract us from the need for individuals, one at a time, to hear and respond to the Gospel. At its most extreme, blended Christianity and nationalism – confronted by a changing culture – can produce the offspring of fear and anger: cult-like and white supremacist movements.
When Christians rise up in fury over the end of organized school prayer, the expulsion of nativity scenes from public property, or the stripping of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse wall, what is the goal? For the government to rescue the faith? We’ve seen culture override constitutional law, but we shouldn’t reach for earthly laws to recapture a culture that’s running from God. It doesn’t work, and we’re putting our faith in the wrong thing. We have a constitutional right to practice our beliefs, and we should defend that, but see that we don’t get bogged down trying to regain privileges that were never constitutionally ours. God, not the government, is our ultimate protector and defender.