In 2010 the Texas state school board considered controversial new guidelines for social studies instruction. Promoted by a bloc of evangelical commissioners, the proposed standards included language asking students to consider the influence of “Judeo-Christian (especially Biblical law)” on the Constitution and suggesting that Moses was an inspiration to the Founders. Supporters of the changes denied that they were trying to smuggle theology into the public schools but insisted on the centrality of religion to American history. According to board member Cynthia Dunbar, America has always been “a Christian land governed by Christian principles.”
The proceedings in Texas provoked a national debate. Is this a “Christian nation”? Or a secular country that Christians share with adherents of other faiths—and those who profess no faith at all? The stakes in this debate are not merely scholastic. Although there is no movement to establish a Handmaid’s Tale–style theocracy, a majority of the public believes Christianity is essential to American identity.
The legal scholar Steven K. Green suggests that answers to these questions can be divided into three categories. The “secularist” view presents the Founding as a product of the Enlightenment. Developed in books with titles like The Godless Constitution, this interpretation holds that the Constitution was drafted by men of deistic inclinations and intended to limit the role of religion in public life. The “religionist” perspective rejects both claims. Most closely associated with popularizers such as David Barton but also defended by some reputable authorities, it asserts that the Founders were, for the most part, devout Christians who established a republican government with the aim of promoting piety among citizens. Finally, “accommodationist” scholars seek a middle course between these extremes. The historian Mark David Hall acknowledges the role of Enlightenment ideas but insists that “orthodox Christianity had a very significant influence on America’s Founders and that this influence is often overlooked by students of the American Founding.”
So which position is right? Let’s consider the secularist perspective first. Among other arguments, this literature emphasizes the influence of modern philosophers who advocated religious toleration, particularly Locke, and highlights the role of nonconformists like Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase “wall of separation” between church and state. For secularist writers, the absence of any reference to God or the Bible shows that the Constitution is based on a radically new conception of religion as a strictly private affair.
There is a considerable body of scholarship in favor of these conclusions, which dominated the legal and historical literature for decades. In recent years, however, it has become clear that the secularist interpretation is myopic in important ways.
For one thing, secularist arguments misunderstand the limited purpose of classic arguments for the separation of church and state. While they denied that government should impose specific beliefs or provide support to churches, advocates of secular government also placed religion at the core of human existence. Take James Madison, whom secularist writers often cite as a kind of patron saint. In the “Memorial and Remonstrance” against state funding for ministers that he published in 1785, Madison described religion as the “the duty which we owe to our Creator.” The phrase is borrowed from the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, an influential justification of the Revolution. In advocating a secular government, in other words, Madison was not promoting a secular society or rejecting the idea that rights come from God.
Secularist arguments also tend to place excessive emphasis on unrepresentative figures. They pay considerable attention to Jefferson and Madison, who both flirted with deism, but often ignore the likes of John Witherspoon and John Jay, both of whom expressed orthodox Christian views. Witherspoon and Jay exercised less influence on rhetoric of revolution or the form of the new government but were probably more reliable guides to how these developments were understood by their contemporaries. The proceedings of the ratification conventions show that many Americans thought not only that religion in general was socially necessary but also that the truth of Christianity meant it alone could place this role.
The religionist approach is a valuable corrective to these defects. By shifting attention from a few outliers to the mainstream of American life, religionist writers remind us of the pervasive role of Christianity in the revolutionary and early republican periods. They also call deserved attention to the influence of Calvinist theology on Whig political thought. The work of Barry Alan Shain on this topic is of particular importance.
The problem is that a religionist interpretation of the Founding often replaces exaggeration with exaggeration. It does not follow from the fact that some of the Founders were devout that most or all were. Nor does the sincerity of those beliefs mean it was the only or primary influence on their political thought. Religionist writers are on thin ice when they rely on isolated quotes like John Adams’s statement in an 1813 letter to Jefferson that the “general Principles, on which the Fathers Atchieved [sic] Independence, were . . . the general Principles of Christianity.” Adams goes on to explain that the principles he has in mind are also found in Enlightenment philosophy and could be supported by “Sheets of quotations” from notorious skeptics including “Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Reausseau [sic] and Voltaire.”
The “accommodationist” school tries to avoid hyperbole while continuing to challenge secularist assumptions. Rather than claiming that America has been “a Christian land governed by Christian principles” since the Mayflower landed, its advocates try to show that the explicitly religious purposes and beliefs of many early settlers did not disappear but rather created a culture in which the moral and intellectual authority of Christianity was taken for granted. The confusing truth is that eighteenth-century Americans did not distinguish as sharply between religious and secular, faith and reason, as we do today. Locke was often read as a defender of revelation. The Old Testament was considered a work of political history comparable to Livy’s History of Rome.
Moreover, accommodationist writers argue that the Founders saw the promotion of religion as a legitimate civic purpose. They point out the Congress provided for the appointment of chaplains and that many states maintained established churches well into the nineteenth century. Although the state governments eventually severed their relations with these churches, it was not because they concluded that religion had nothing to do with politics. Rather, it was because the plurality of denominations made established churches politically insupportable.
So does this prove that America is a Christian nation? It depends, in the end, what “Christian nation” means. Many parts of North America were settled by Christians who devoted their communities to the service of God. Arguments and assumptions drawn from Christian theology were part of the background for the framing and ratification of the Constitution, as well as many of the great controversies of American history. And to this day, a majority of Americans profess to be Christians and see Christianity as an important part of what it means to be an American. In all these respects, it is not inaccurate to describe us as a Christian nation.
Yet it is impossible to deny that the Constitution created an extraordinary and in many ways unprecedented relationship between religion and politics. Without attempting to diminish the influence of religion on public life, it grounds political institutions on the consent of the governed and orients them toward the accomplishment of earthly purposes. And while virtually all the Founders were, in some sense, Christians, they also rejected the idea that any particular beliefs or affiliations are necessary to being an American. As George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport in 1790, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
In the Farewell Address he delivered six years later, Washington acknowledged that “the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure” might produce good citizenship without the aid of religion. On the whole, however, he concluded that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” A secular government for a religious people. That is the paradox the Founders bequeathed us.
Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, where he is also executive director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom. The opinions in this essay are his own and do not represent the George Washington University or Loeb Institute.
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