“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ” Thomas Jefferson wrote those words to express the emotions of a nation that desired freedom, and to shake the foundation of the British Empire. However, this simple, but eloquent phrase has sparked one of the greatest debates in American history. Is America a Christian nation? One question has divided the nation and its politicians since the founding and forming of America.
This fiery debate has sparked more controversy than any other debate in modern politics. When the facts are analyzed and examined it points to the side that America was not, and is not a Christian nation. It is not a Christian nation because the Founding Father’s ideas for this country were no meant to be entangled with a national religion. There are clear and precise arguments on both sides, but one must put aside all biases and see that America’s founders had no intention of making America into a nation that was centered on one religion.
Through their own writings, letters, and actions the founders have shown that creating a government that protected the rights and liberties of the people was the primary and fundamental goal. The War for American Independence was not fought because the colonists wanted to separate from England, which already had a national religion, to create another nation based on a religion. It was fought in order to free themselves from the tyrannical monarchs that lived hundreds of miles away. In order to discover the solution to this debate the founding of this nation must be analyzed in detail.
Furthermore, it is important to look at this history because this debate deals directly with the founding principles, rather than the evolution of American government. The first question that must be asked is why the founders would be opposed to a national religion (or Christian nation) if that is what they had before. For instance, one battle cry of the revolution was, “Give me liberty, or give me death! ” It was not, give me religion or give me death, so it was clear to see that the people in America were not revolting because they felt their freedom of religion was in danger. It was an important part f their history though. As a matter of fact, the fear of religious persecution was not far removed from their memories. The men that had come to America had witnessed firsthand the results of a corrupt national church. They had come from the Anglican Church, which was created solely because Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife. Many came to the colonies of America because the corrupt church was challenging their beliefs and not allowing them to worship as they saw fit. These men and woman realized that having a national religion did not give more rights or promote religion, but simply corrupted it.
The founders believed that religion should be left up to the people to carry out how they see fit, without interference from any type of government. Those who claim that America was a Christian nation often point to the phrase in the “Declaration of Independence” where Jefferson invokes the name of the “Creator. ” Even though this seems like a valid point, the truth is that Jefferson and many of the other Founding Fathers were not Christians, but rather Deists. This worldview states that a higher power created the universe and all those in it, but then left it alone and does not care or pay attention to his creation.
Jefferson may have been referring to god, but it was certainly not the Christian God of the Bible. Like many of the prominent statesmen of that day, Jefferson knew who he was addressing. In the colonies, the majority of people would be considered Christians. Whether or not Jefferson or the other founders believed in the Christian God, they knew they had to secure the support of the people. People, would certainly be more likely to follow a plan to take on the greatest empire in the world if they believed their cause was supported by God.
Secondly, when supporters of the Christian nation idea point to the Declaration as proof they fail to realize something. The Declaration is not law. Nothing in the Declaration legally guides the way American government or its people function. Even though it set up the foundation for this new nation, it cannot be regarded as any type of legal document that would give evidence of a Christian based nation. However, even if someone were to look at the Declaration as proof, there are more misconceptions. The idea in the Declaration of a government that derives its power from the people is adically different from the theory of divine rights that is seen in the Christian kingdoms of the past. The founder’s idea of a government by and for the people completely rejects the idea of a government where man derives the right to maintain power from a divine being. Moreover, if the founders had wanted to remain in that type of society than they could have used much simpler terms, rather than using the confusing, vague terms such as “Creator. ” Since the Declaration is not in fact a law, one must look at the actual document that guides the way American government is supposed to act, the Constitution.
If the founders had intended to create a Christian nation, then it would follow that their laws would follow in that way. However, this is not the case. In reality, it could not be further from the truth. For example, in Article VI section 3 of the Constitution it states that will be no religious test for public office. If the founders intended for a national religion, then why not make influential, political figures be held to some religious standard? Once again, the evidence points to the founders trying to avoid the route of so many of the nations that came before them.
In yet another attempt to make sure there was no national religion, the 1st Amendment to Constitution states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. ” Clearly, the founders knew that establishing a national religion would result in the persecution of any other religion or belief system. Also, the establishment clause has been interpreted to mean there is a wall of separation between church and state, according to the Supreme Court. Even though this “wall” is not in the Constitution, it is implied through the 1st Amendment.
Finally, the laws and fundamental beliefs were based off the ideas of John Locke and Greek philosophers. The argument that states that common law and the natural rights of man came from any type of religious belief system cannot be used. Therefore, the foundation of this country was not based on Biblical (or any other religious) standards, when it came to the policies and functions of the US government. If the laws and history of the founders point to a rejection of national religion, what about how they lived out these policies? What did their actions and writings say about how they intended to run America?
When one looks at the founder’s polices and laws, it is obvious that they never intended for America to have an established religion. Firstly, in 1779 Thomas Jefferson presented the “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” to an assembly in Virginia. This statute would greatly influence the 1st Amendment in that it was concerned with the corruption of national religion and the persecution of those who think differently. “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or [burdens] or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness. Clearly, the founders were aware of the eminent dangers that would follow creating an establishment of religion. Moreover, this statute was supported by James Madison, who is considered to be the author of the Constitution, and a group of Baptists that had been largely persecuted when there was an established religion. Furthermore, before the Constitution was ratified there was much debate over what type of government to have. “The Federalist Papers” were a series of essays defending the Constitution and a more powerful federal government than that of the Articles of Confederation.
One of the main fears of the Federalists was the creation of factions. This meant groups, most likely political parties gaining control and causing a tyranny of the majority. Under the pseudonym “Publius” James Madison argued that even religious sects could become tyrannical when he wrote, “A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source,” Obviously, this is an argument for a Union rather than a confederacy, but it clearly shows the founders fear of a national religion.
They believed, like they had seen in the past that an established religion would be nothing more than a corrupt, political faction. Moreover, the most glaring, apparent proof that the founders did not want a national religion was when they were dealing with foreign nations. After the War for American Independence, the former colonies had to deal with the Barbary pirates themselves as they no longer had protection from England or France. Therefore a treaty was signed at Tripoli, in order to ensure peace and friendship between the two battling sides.
This document was signed and ratified by President John Adams and was unanimously voted through by the Senate. Article 11 of the treaty states that, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the part that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. Even though this was a treaty it showed what the founders truly believed about the nation that they had created. Furthermore, according to Article VI section 2 of the Constitution all treaties made by Congress shall become the supreme law of the land. There is the idea that this article was merely added to please the Muslim nation, which is a valid point. However, because it was a treaty it became law after it was ratified by the Senate. Why would the founders make such a bold statement that would become the supreme law of the land if they did not really mean it?
It is apparent that the founders were clearly stating, in this treaty, what they had already considered to be true. The study of history is important because it allows people to learn from the mistakes and errors of those in the past. The founders were some of the most intelligent men that have ever walked this earth and were certainly scholars of history. Therefore, they saw the corruption and persecution that was brought upon by the establishments of national religions.
In no way were the founders hostile towards Christianity, Judaism, Deism, or any other religious beliefs. If anything, when the arguments are analyzed the founders were trying to protect religions and peoples religious beliefs more than anything else. By not allowing the establishment of religion they ensured that, for example, Christianity would be handled by the different churches and denominations of that religion, and not by a unitary government figure.
Through their actions, writings, and policies it was evidently clear that America was never meant to be a Christian nation. In order to maintain the principles of liberty, the founding fathers had to create a nation where religion could flourish without the flaws and corruptions that come with combining a source of power with religious belief. If they had not done this, history would have surely repeated itself and the corruption of the church and government would have been much greater.
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