Maybe America Was Meant to be a Christian Nation After All

This morning I was reading an old news story about a newly elected councilman in Asheville, North Carolina who refused to say “so help me God” or place his hand on the Bible during his swearing in ceremony. The man in question–Cecil Bothwell–is an atheist. Unfortunately for him, the North Carolina constitution (written in 1868) disqualifies from public office “any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.” As you might imagine, conservative Christians are invoking this clause to remove Bothwell from office.

As it turns out, there are six other states that require officeholders to believe in God. They are Arkansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. My favorite is the Texas state constitution, which states:

No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.


Actually, these state constitutions are quite liberal when compared to the religious restrictions placed on officeholders in some of the original state constitutions. For example:

The 1776 Pennsylvania state constitution required officeholders to subscribe to the following declaration: “I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder to the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.” When the constitution was revised in 1790, the language was toned down a bit to limit office holding to those who acknowledge “the being of God, and a future state of rewards and punishments.”

Or consider Vermont. Today’s Green Mountain State liberals might be surprised to learn that the original 1777 Vermont constitution declared that all citizens of the state “have a natural and unalienable right to worship ALMIGHTY GOD, according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding, regulated by the word of GOD.” It also secured basic civil rights to anyone who “professes the protestant religion.” It further noted that “every sect or denomination of people ought to observe the Sabbath, or the Lord’s day, and keep up, and support, some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of GOD.” Finally, officeholders in Vermont had to make the following affirmation: “I believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the scriptures of the old and new testament to be given by divine inspiration, and own and profess the protestant religion.” When the constitution was amended in 1786 and a new constitution was written in 1793 (following Vermont’s entrance into the Union), all of these religious provisions remained in place.

Only Virginia and New York did not place any religious restrictions on officeholders.

It is clear that most of these original state constitutions privileged Christianity and, in many cases, Protestantism.

How do these state constitutions fit into the larger debate over whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation?

It would seem that those who argue for a “Christian America” based on the Christian nature of the state constitutions have a pretty good argument. While the United States Constitution says that there can be no religious tests for office-holding (Article 6) and the First Amendment forbids a religious establishment and secures religious freedom for all, it is quite obvious that none of these restrictions applied to the individual states. As a principle of federalism, the states were given the authority to handle the relationship between church and government in their own way. Massachusetts and Connecticut, for example, upheld religious establishments well into the nineteenth century.

Those who want to debate whether or not America was founded as a “Christian nation” have fought long and hard over what makes a nation “Christian,” but they say very little about what constitutes a “nation.” For example, is the “nation” called the “United States of America” defined by the United States Constitution? If so, then one would be hard pressed to say that the framers wanted to establish a uniquely “Christian” nation.

But to what extent did the Constitution really serve as a marker of national identity in the eighteenth century?

In one of my favorite historical articles, “A Roof Without Walls”: The Dilemma of American National Identity,” Princeton historian John Murrin argues that the Constitution provided a very weak form of nationalism because it could not overcome the individual identities, rooted in colonial history, of the states. “In a word,” Murrin writes, “the Constitution became a substitute for any deeper kind of national identity. American nationalism is distinct because, for nearly its first century, it was narrowly and peculiarly constitutional. People knew that without the Constitution, there would be no America.” In other words, “Americans had erected their constitutional roof before they put up the national walls.”

If Murrin is right, and the Constitution failed to create a strong or “deep” sense of nationalism, then the people would continue, as they did under the Articles of Confederation, to find their most meaningful and important sense of political connection to the states in which they lived. And most of these states privileged Christianity in a way that many of today’s conservative Christians would welcome.

So let’s go back to the original question: Was American founded as a Christian nation? I would hesitate to say “yes” to this question because not all of the states had Christian establishments or forbade non-Protestant Christians from holding office (see Virginia and New York), but it would seem to me that the early republic was closer to being a Christian “nation” than some might be willing to admit.

13 thoughts on “Maybe America Was Meant to be a Christian Nation After All

  1. Heheh. We're back to our David Barton wars, so I just posted Daniel Dreisbach's reply to Kramnick & Moore's Godless Constitution, which is completely germane to your post here.

    In fact, I meant to ask you if we may use this very post of yours as a “Guest Blogger.” You limn the issues nicely.

    Not that David Barton ever gets a pass with us, mind you. I just like to concentrate on major-leaguers. Like yourself.



  2. Well, John, framing the debate around the Constitution's “enlightenment” or “Godlessness” is perhaps the error, at least I argue it is. The Founding is not just the Constitution, as you observe, it left religion alone, to the states.

    Story points out elsewhere that had the Constitution been more “Godly,” states like New York and Virginia would have been prohibited from ratifying it by their own laws and charters. This was a practical reality.

    I share your caution about Story's sociology; however, as a SC Justice, his legal opinions surely have weight, even if descriptive of only the immediate post-Founding period, as the understandings of the Constitution were put into practice.

    I think you've been cited favorably at my groupblog, American Creation, and have been known to stop by there yourself. Hope to see you again at some point.


  3. Tom: Thanks for the comment. I think you may be right. The Constitution is not a “Christian” document, but rather a progressive or enlightened one. It breaks with the tradition of a Christian polity run by Christians that defined most of the states at the time.

    I was just reading this quote from Jefferson the other day. He says something similar in his 2nd Inaugural Address.

    As a historian, I tend to be a bit more cautious about using Joseph Story when trying to understand the mindset of the Founders


  4. It seems to me that anyone who wants to make an argument for a “Christian nation” will not find much support in the Constitution.

    John, what your post illustrates is that America was already Christian when the Constitution was ratified, and the First Amendment required no changes on the part of the states.

    β€œI consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion, but from that also which reserves to the States the powers not delegated to the United States. Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise or to assume authority in any religious discipline has been delegated to the General government. It must then rest with the States.”

    “…the whole power over the subject of religion is left exclusively to the State governments to be acted upon according to their own sense of justice and the State constitutions.”
    —Justice Joseph Story in Commentaries on the Constitution

    More here from Justice Story.


  5. Of course, America might also have been founded as a Masonic nation, given all the Masonic influence in our early history.

    Maybe, really, we need to embrace the Egyptian gods (kind of Masonic precursors). Their culture lasted a very long time, and if they'd just had some modern dentistry (to combat the dire effects of sandstone-ground wheat) they would probably be running things today.

    My faith is currently vested in local banks as a reasonable antidote to federal obfuscation.


  6. John: Great comment. Thanks. I could not agree with you more.

    This is indeed a complicated and complex issue, yet our society continues to debate it through sound bites and quotes from the era ripped out of context.

    As I wrote in the original post, I think we need to think more about just what constitutes a “nation” in the eighteenth century.


  7. Ahhh. I am going to have to mark this post for when I come back to the topic in five weeks in my religious history of the US class. My approach this question–influenced by Murrin's article and Frank Lambert's book on the topic–is to unpack the differences between nation-as-state and nation-as-shared identity.

    If we're talking about the US “nation” as a shared form of government across the 13 states, then I think the answer to the initial question is a most definitive “no.” The Constitution is noticeably silent on the issue and several Founders–particularly James Madison–seemed aware that reaching consensus on the issue would be difficult. (Madison, in fact, cited religious conflict as one of the archetypal forms of “factional” conflict that had riven Europe.) To the extent to which the federal government inculcated a common identity through constitutional means, it was not a religious one.

    In terms of nation as collective cultural identity–what things do all Americans have in common–the answer is more equivocal. Broadly speaking, I would answer “yes”: most Americans were Christians. A general religious sentiment was one of the things tying them together. And state constitutions did have religious tests for office. But even here, I think that the picture is somewhat mixed. There were significant denominational differences between and amongst the states. Did Baptists and Congregationalists in New England see themselves as sharing a common religious identity? What about Baptists in North Carolina and Presbyterians in Pennsylvania? Each believed themselves to be Christian–but did they see themselves as sharing a common Christian identity with these other denominations, in other states?

    One a state constitutional level: in very few of the states did you see a continued religious establishment or strict tests for office. (I would consider Pennsylvania's 1790 test a “weak” test for office, though some might disagree.) New England seems to be the exception here, where you have a much higher degree of religious uniformity than the rest of the nation.

    So–within each state, what it meant to be “Christian” and what it meant to have a “Christian government” varied considerably. All seemed to embrace the idea of the former, and most the latter, but they did it in different ways. And between the states, there's ecclesiastical and theological diversity. One of the things that is striking when all of the examples listed in the post are taken into context is that in most instances Christian means “not atheist.”

    One of the interesting things to me here–and this is something I try to emphasize in my religious history class–is that “Christian,” in a post-Reformation context, can function as somewhat of an empty category, filled in differently in particular contexts. Calvinists saw Catholicism as a perversion of Christianity, worse (in some instances) than Islam or paganism; they sometimes wrote of they fellow Protestants the Baptists the same way. Within US history, many Protestant and Catholic Christians in the 19thc (and a surprising number today, to my eyes) do not accept Mormonism as a Christian faith.

    So I think the answer to the “was America founded as a Christian nation” is a mixed one, depending on how you want to do the mixing. And I will leave out the complicated issue of where the history of colonial America fits in. Do we count the founding of Massachusetts or Pennsylvania as part of the “American founding”? What about New Mexico (now part of the US, of course)? Enough to talk about in a long post or a course, but difficult to talk about when someone asks you the question in casual conversation.


  8. I remember a few years ago a Strict Constructionist spoke here at Malone College. His two statements were that the nation should go back to the Constitution strictly interpreted and that the nation was founded as a Christian Nation.

    I asked him what that would mean concerning religious freedom in states – would this not cause us to go back to some states being Quaker, some being Presbyterian, some being Baptist, some being Catholic, etc. And wouldn't this also set us up to allowing states to change their constitutions so that we would presumably have Islamic states with Sharia law?

    No answer.


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