Is the United States a Christian Nation?

This article is about the way that we as Christians in the United States interact with our culture, especially in the political processes of our nation. I wrote it a year ago and it first appeared in the September 2010 issue of The Adopted Life. With another Presidential election cycle gearing up here in the States I thought it might be relevant once again.

Please note: there are at least two references in this article that could be construed as allusions to specific candidates for President, but they are not. One is my reference to “Mormons.” That sentence, as you will see, is a comment on the relationship between economic conservatives, evangelical Christians, and Mormons in general – it is not meant to refer specifically to any candidate. The second reference is when I critique the phrase “America needs to turn back to God.” A prominent candidate for President recently led a rally in his home state with a theme very similar to this. Obviously, since I wrote this article a year ago, I did not have this candidate, or that rally, specifically in mind when I talked about this phrase. However, I have to admit, that some of the themes of that rally did strike perilously close to what I am talking about. Never the less, I am not trying to use this article to speak for or against any candidate specifically.

Is the U.S. a Christian Nation? This question is significant for what the answer tells us about how we, as Christians in the U.S., are going to relate to the culture around us. The answer to this question depends on what you mean by “Christian Nation.”

It is certainly true that for most of its history the culture of the United States was religiously dominated by a Christian world view. The vast majority of people in the U.S. have traditionally identified themselves as Christians and attendance at churches has always far outnumbered the attendance at synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship.

But was Christianity enshrined in the political foundations of the U.S.? The answer to that question is clearly “No.”

The Declaration of Independence, for example, only mentions God once when it makes reference to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the opening sentence of the document. Who or what is “Nature’s God”? The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit I know, but I can’t tell for sure whether “Nature’s God” is this same Blessed Trinity whom I know through Jesus. Perhaps it is in the eye of the beholder. The primary author of the document, Thomas Jefferson, once said of the Trinity:

When we shall have done away with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus . . . we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples . . . ~ “Letter to Timothy Pickering, on a Sermon by Doctor Channing”, in A Library of American Literature: From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Vol. III. , pp. 283-284.

So clearly, when Jefferson said “Nature’s God” he did not mean the Father, Son, and Spirit. Jefferson’s Deism led him to go so far as to put together his own version of the Gospels in which he cut out all the miracles and references to Jesus as the Son of God and reassembled the text to portray Jesus as a good moral teacher. The University of Virginia has  a copy of his version of the Gospels online if you’d like to have a look at it:

We know the signers of the Declaration ran the gamut, from devout Christians to devout Deists such as Jefferson. So I think it is entirely possible that some of the Christians who signed the document would have read “Nature’s God” to mean the Trinity revealed in Jesus. What is significant, though, is that they all signed the document. The Christians present were comfortable signing a document with only one, ambiguous reference to a general Deity and with no specifically Christian statements about that Deity.

Eleven years later, when American political leaders gathered to draft a Constitution they created a document that didn’t even mention “Nature’s God.” In fact, there is not a single reference to God in the U.S. Constitution.

Compare this to the Constitution of Ireland, for example. The Irish Constitution begins with the words “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity . . .” The U.S. Constitution begins with the words “We the People . . .” The Preamble to the Irish Constitution goes on to mention “. . . our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ . . .” while the U.S. Constitution, of course, makes no mention of Jesus at all. (Here’s a link to the Irish Constitution, see page 8 specifically:

Is Ireland a Christian Nation? Their founding documents would seem to say “Yes.” Is the United States? Our founding documents say “No.”

So there are two key facts here:

  • A large number of Christians were present for, and participated in, the drafting and adoption of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Yet the document provides no special place for Christianity in our nation and makes no reference to any Christian understanding of God.

These two facts make it clear that the founders of the United States had no intention of founding a Christian nation. They founded a nation intended to function with people of many different religions, or no religion at all, living in peace together.

This is highly significant for us as American Christians when we seek to interact with our culture. What message does it send to atheists, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus when we Christians say things like “America is supposed to be a Christian nation” or “America needs to turn back to God”? The message it sends is that Christians are included and all others are excluded—or, at best—Christians are first class citizens and everyone else is a second class citizen somehow.

Is that the gospel? Is the gospel a message about doctrine and morality which says to other human beings “You aren’t included but you can be included if you believe what we believe and act the way we act”? I don’t believe that is the gospel.

The gospel is the good news that the Son of God has included everyone in his relationship with his Father. The gospel is the good news that we all belong, whether we believe it or not. Just as Christian and Muslim citizens of the U.S. are all full citizens, so also are all Muslims and Christians fully adopted children of the Father.

The structure of American polity, which says that people of all religions are equally included in our national life, offers us Christians in the U.S. a profound opening to preach the gospel. The very structure of our government enables us to show non-Christians the acceptance and inclusion that the gospel itself preaches.

The Scripture says “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free” (Gal. 5:1), and that freedom includes the freedom to not believe or to believe wrong things, and even the freedom to build houses of worship dedicated to wrong ideas. Jesus has never thrown down a lightening bolt from heaven to stop the construction of a mosque, yet here where I live in Tennessee, hundreds of people who call themselves Christians are trying to take freedom away from others and stop the construction of a mosque.

I think American Christians need to take a step back from the fiery political rhetoric of our current culture and ask ourselves “What is the core message that we really want non-Christians in America to hear from Christianity?”

An intersection of political interests has formed in the U.S. where economic conservatives, evangelical Christians, and Mormons are finding common political cause in resisting changes in American society. However you may personally feel about the changes in our society (from gay marriage to a greater role for government), I want to encourage you to think carefully about how this marriage of economics, politics, and religion can impact our ability to share the gospel. [Related Article: Why I No Longer Call Myself An Evangelical.]

We are surrounded by a non-Christian culture that perceives Christians (especially evangelical Christians) as mean, angry, and moralistically judgmental. They perceive the Christian message as a message of morality and doctrine: Do what we say, and believe what we say, and God won’t roast you over a fire for all eternity.

When we use our email, our Facebook accounts, and our conversations to publicly ally ourselves with the elements of American political life that say “America is a Christian nation” and “America needs to turn back to God,” we are only reinforcing this distasteful image of the gospel in the minds of our non-believing friends, family, and neighbors.

I think we need to be focused on one core message to everyone we know:

You are the Father’s beloved child in Jesus Christ. Believing or non-believing, Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish, straight or gay, good or bad—you and I are part of the same world and the same Triune Life. We are all Americans and we are all the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

Only then will those who do not believe in their adoption begin to really understand how much their Father in heaven loves them.

~ Jonathan Stepp

12 comments so far

  1. Mike on

    Thanks Jonathan. Some of your info here will help round out my sermon for this Sunday.

  2. Terry W Spencer on

    Some important points here, especially the “fiery rhetoric” about changes in American society. I find it disturbing that so many Christians display this xenohobic attitude toward those who “come ashore” to the US, epecially of lae the Muslim people. We should instead see this as a great opportunity to share the love of God through Jesus Christ.

    Your points about the history of the nation’s founding needs a wider hearing. Too many distort their view of the present because they have a view of history that denies and even rejects the principles that shaped the founding of our nation.

    Your statement about all of us being “fully adopted” and all are brothers of Jesus Christ is difficult to accept. Faith in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Gospels brings those graces to us. Clearly, there are those who do not believe that. I hope you are not one of them.

    Thanks for the contribution.

  3. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks Mike and Terry for your comments.
    Regarding faith in Jesus Christ, I believe that the Scripture makes it clear that Jesus saved humanity and now all people are called to believe this truth about themselves (see, for example, Rom. 5:18, Col. 1:20, 1 Tim. 4:10). So, we don’t get ourselves adopted by our faith, the Father has adopted humanity through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:5) and now by faith we can understand and enjoy this identity we have in Christ (Eph. 2:8.) So the “problem” that non-Christians have is that they are included in Christ but they don’t believe this truth about themselves. The gospel is the call on the life of every person to believe that he or she is forgiven and included in Christ.

  4. Jeannine on

    Jonathan, this was such a timely post. I detest the groupthink and gang mentality that I see around me – much of it under the banner of “Christian politics.” It’s exists on both sides (though one is not so subtle as the other). I can’t tell you how much I detest seeing God used to justify hatred toward certain groups of people for their actions or (in many cases reasonable) noncompliance or nonconformity.

    To Terry: the Bible is clear that faith is a gift – not something that must be dredged up from within us. Would a loving Father give that gift to just a few and then require it from ALL in order to have a place with Him?

    I have come to see Jesus as the only true believer. His faith is the only true faith. Mine ebbs and flows (like all humans if we are honest) – but His is rock solid. He will never give up on me. For me, faith is about just opening my eyes and returning to the awareness that God the Father and God the Son created and adopted me, and that there is nothing I can ever do to jeopardise their love for me.

    The amazing thing is that this reality is for all people – not just the ones whose eyes are open to it.

  5. Jeannine on

    I meant to add that I really liked the post you linked to on why you no longer call yourself an evangelical. I agree 100%!!!

  6. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks for the comments, Jeannine, I always appreciate your contributions to the blog! I especially like your phrase, “Jesus is the only true believer” – that says it very nicely and simply.

  7. John Stonecypher on

    Great post, Jonathan! It’s my hunch that some of this “Christian nation” and “God’s country” stuff has some connection with Calvinism’s way of dividing people into “elect” and “damned.” Once you start imagining there are 2 human races, it opens up the door to all kinds of racist/ nationalist/ imperialist perversions of the gospel. “We’re God’s country, and you’re not” is just one of many such distortions.

  8. Pastor Jonathan on

    Good point, John, thanks for commenting. I hadn’t thought about it when putting this article together but Calvinism is definitely a major influence in the history of American Christianity and continues to have an impact today, even in subtle ways that many Christians do not recognize.

  9. shadowspring on

    The wider culture understands the Christian religion to be ” mean, angry, and moralistically judgmental” because, unfortunately, it is.

    On two issues, namely abortion and entitlement programs, I dared to explain the compassion behind taking a position other than the position of the religious right. I was called the worst cuss word you can call a female, insulted as being less than human (the offspring of incestuious nephilim), and had my intelligence written about in very disrespectful words. One person even described suffocating me with a pillow. These were Christians, on a very public forum (facebook) responding to another Christian who was offering a different loving perspective on the sound-bites they were proudly spouting (without giving them much thought, I assumed- hence my attempts to broaden the view of the situation through the lens of love).

    I would never have believed it if I hadn’t experienced it. I can only imagine what hate these representatives of Christ would spew on an “other” in light of how they treated me, a fellow disciple. Is Calvinism responsible for this dichotomy? If I am “in”, I would conform to all they had been taught, and since I don’t, I must not be “in”? I suppose then, if they believe God himself has created me for damnation, it doesn’t matter how they treat me. In fact, the uglier they treat me, the more in line with the will of God, since they believe he has created me for eternal torment?

    Scary stuff.

    • Pastor Jonathan on

      That is very scary stuff – sorry you experienced that but I thank you for sharing it with us as a cautionary tale.

  10. sandra on

    I am disgusted by the state of American Christianity that this post was even necessary. All the way through it, I kept saying, “well, DUH!” Are Christians truly so blinded by their own prejudices that they need this oh-so-very-basic level of explanation about our founding documents? Obviously, they are. And that appalls and frightens me more than I can say.

  11. Pastor Jonathan on

    I agree, Sandra, it is disturbing but I think it is a reflection of just how far off in the weeds some Christian thinking about our society as gotten. Thanks for adding your comments to the discussion!

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