If one takes the conventional wisdom seriously that you shouldn’t talk about religion or politics in polite company, entertaining the question of whether or not America is a Christian nation would be disqualified on both accounts. So at the risk of offending, in even the relatively brief space here, let me offer some observations in two parts: the theoretical and historical and the practical and political.
Theoretical and Historical
First, one’s answer to the question about America’s Christian origins depends a great deal on the way that you define “Christian.” The “Christian principles,” of liberty, equality, and the worth of the individual were central tenets held by 18th century Enlightenment Deists who, as a matter of course, did not believe Jesus was divine nor the second person of the Trinity. Generic language in our founding documents about “God” or even “the creator,” in the end, are not specifically “Christian” for those of us who insist on the person and work of Christ as being central to what it means to be Christian. As Christians, we might understand these terms as meaning the triune God, but non-trinitarians (those who believe Jesus was merely a moral prophet) will affirm the same language. In truth, one cannot find any mention of Jesus, either explicitly or implicitly, in our founding documents of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
In fact, there are specific elements of the Declaration of Independence that substantially steer one away from an affirmation of America’s Christian identity. The Declaration affirms “nature’s laws” as being “self-evident” to rational human beings. This implies one relies on neither a divine being nor the central revelation of God in Christ. Edited early versions of the Declaration reveal that in the editing process, Ben Franklin replaced the word “sacred” with “self-evident” indicating that what you needed to know was available by using your faculties of reason and observation; one did not need “sacred” divine revelation to understand the way things should be.
Thomas Jefferson’s influence is also troubling from a Christo-centric perspective. Scholars agree that he affirmed the life and teachings of Jesus, but only because Jesus was a moral, model human being. Jefferson did not believe Jesus was in any way divine, and he manifested this in his own literal “cut and paste” version of the scripture called The Jefferson Bible. In it he edited out any supernatural activity of Jesus. What’s left is a Jesus who is born naturally like any other human being (no virgin birth), who lived a good life, taught powerful moral lessons, and died; end of story. His slim version of the life of Jesus concludes with the soldiers rolling the stone in front of the tomb—no resurrection, no ascension, no seated at the right hand of the Father.
Another question one might ask when examining America’s possible Christian origins is this: How does religious liberty fit? Is it a Christian virtue or value to allow everyone to believe whatever they want? I suppose, from an Augustinian and Reformed perspective this is less troubling since God is sovereign and we are called to be faithful. However, examining the emergence of the principle of religious freedom in the United States also has mixed and conflicting origins.
Religious freedom, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, was the result of the work of opposing political groups, which could qualify as the dictionary definition of “politics making strange bedfellows.” On one side were sincere devout evangelical pietists, like the Baptists and some Presbyterians, who were tired of paying taxes to the Congregational Church in New England and to the Anglican Church in Virginia. They distinctly wanted the government out of the business of religion. On the other side were rationalist deists who looked with disdain at the carnage and slaughter of the wars of religion where Christians had been killing Christians for 300 years. They believed that religion was not a force for the good of a whole society. They distinctly wanted religion out of the business of government. So for essentially polar opposite motives these two factions agreed on the rightness of the principle of freedom of religion. Each got what they wanted, but for extremely different reasons.
One last point on the theoretical and historical: On the positive side of things, and in keeping with the title of this website where the work of God in Christ is “in all things,” there is the fact that James Madison studied with Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon and learned of total depravity in his Reformed theology classes. Some have suggested that it was Madison’s understanding of the fallenness of all human beings that led him to help create the extensive set of checks and balances that governs our nation. No one should have too much power because, since we are all tainted and misdirected by sin, power will always be misused. It’s more complex than this, but it’s certainly plausible that the Father of the Constitution picked up a bit of his understanding of human nature from the “T” of TULIP, which helped plan a government that would contain the damage any one individual or branch could do. This doesn’t make the U.S. “Christian” per se, but it certainly reveals the hand of God moving behind the scene in some ineffable providential way, which is often the way God acts in the world.
Practical and Political
Finally, there is the issue of the practical and political nature of the question, “Does America have Christian origins?” I wonder, why do we ask? Too frequently the question is asked and answered in the affirmative as a way to distinguish between those who belong, who somehow have more of a claim on America and thus more of a say in who America should be, and how she should operate. If the question is asked as a kind of “power grab,” I can’t think of anything less Christian when I compare it to the gentle Jew from Nazareth, the founder of the faith, who, far from seeking power, sought to give up that power1 in self-sacrificial suffering. Repeatedly in the Gospels, Jesus was inclusive of those outside the religious establishment, welcoming and inviting them into the kingdom of God. Ordained minister and former U.S. Senator John Danforth summarizes this well:
Whether religion is a divisive or reconciling force depends on our certainty or our humility as we practice our faith in our politics. If we believe that we know God’s truth and that we can embody that truth in a political agenda, we divide the realm of politics into those who are on God’s side, which is our side, and those with whom we disagree, who oppose the side of God. This is neither good religion nor good politics. It is not consistent with following a Lord who reached out to a variety of people — prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers. . . . Reconciliation depends on acknowledging that God’s truth is greater than our own, that we cannot reduce it to any political platform we create, no matter how committed we are to that platform, and that God’s truth is large enough to accommodate the opinions of all kinds of people, even those with whom we strongly disagree.2
So if conventional wisdom suggests that one refrain from talking about religion and politics in polite company, polite company would likely not be offended if those who claim the name of Christ sought to be Christ to the nation by emulating his self-sacrificial redemptive suffering.