In case you haven’t seen it yet, Mark Edwards of Spring Arbor University has put together a roundtable of historians over at CNN.com to discuss this question
I am happy to join Amanda Porterfield (Florida State), Steven Green (Willamette University), Kevin Kruse (Princeton University), and Ray Haberski (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) in trying to make sense of this question. It is quite a fitting discussion for Independence Day.
Here is my piece:
Such a question is inevitably asking a historian to take a debate which did not reach any degree of intensity until the 1980s and superimpose it on the 18th-century world of the men who built the American republic.
The Founding Fathers lived in a world that was fundamentally different from our own. It was a world in which there was largely only one religious game in town — Christianity.
Yes, there were some tiny Jewish communities located in seaport towns, and it is likely that a form of Islam was practiced among African slaves, but much of the culture was defined by the powerful influence of Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity.
The founders also had very divergent views about the relationship between Christianity and the nation they were forging. As I tell my students, we need to stop treating them as a monolithic whole.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were strong advocates for the complete separation of church and state. John Adams and George Washington believed that religion was essential to the cultivation of a virtuous citizenry, an essential trait of any successful republic.
It is true that the founders, by virtue of the fact that they signed the Declaration of Independence, probably believed in a God who presided over nature, was the author of human rights, would one day judge the dead and governed the world by his providence.
Those who signed the United States Constitution endorsed the idea that there should be no religious test — Christian or otherwise — required to hold federal office.
Those responsible for the First Amendment also championed the free exercise of religion and rejected a government-sponsored church.
Yet anyone who wants to use the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to argue against the importance of religion in the American founding must reckon with all those state constitutions — such as those of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and South Carolina — that require officeholders to affirm the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments, obey the Christian Sabbath or contribute tax money to support a state church.
It is clear that some of the founders wanted only Christians to be running their state governments. Other founders rejected the idea of the separation of church and state. Virginia rejected all test oaths and religious establishments.
History is complex. It does not conform easily to the kinds of “yes” or “no” answers that most Americans want when they ask whether America was founded a Christian nation.
Here’s a better question: Is America a Christian nation now?
On this question there is a lot more evidence to sustain a “no” answer.