According to this Huffington Post/YouGov poll, 32% of Americans would favor a Constitutional amendment that would make Christianity the official religion of the United States. 42% oppose such an amendment, with 32% “strongly” opposing the idea.
It may appear shocking to some that so many people are in favor of such an amendment to the Constitution, but from a historical perspective this is not shocking at all. As I argued in the first four chapters of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, Americans have always understood themselves to be living in a Christian nation. Though not everyone who believed that America was a Christian nation would have argued on behalf of a Christian amendment, there were many who did.
In 1863 ministers gathered in Xenia, Ohio and proposed the following amendment to the preamble of the U.S. Constitution:
WE, THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES, [recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour and Lord of all] in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This group of ministers eventually became known as the National Reform Association (NRA). In 1864 its leaders brought their proposal for a Christian amendment to the White House and, according to an annual report of the NRA, Abraham Lincoln gave his approval to their mission. By 1874 the organization was holding national gatherings attended by several thousand people, mostly clergy.
The NRA leadership made several arguments on behalf of a Christian amendment. They believed that the original decision to leave references to Christianity out of the Constitution dishonored God. Some of them believed that God used the Civil War to punish the Union for its godless Constitution. Others argued that the Constitution did not reflect the religious sentiments of the majority of the American people.
The NRA also put forth a historical argument for why the Constitution should include a Christian amendment. Its members believed that the government of the United States was founded on Christian principles. The primary evidence for such a believe was the Declaration of Independence (with four references to God), the
state constitutions (which were loaded with Christian language), and the colonial and state criminal codes. By invoking the Puritans and Pilgrims, the membership of the NRA was making an argument that the United States had always been a Christian nation.
It should also be noted that the NRA maintained a commitment to the separation of church and state. They rejected the idea of an established church. In this sense, they distinguished the “separation of church and state” from the “separation of religion and state.” Its members were very careful to affirm that they were not opposing religious liberty and were not interested in creating a theocracy. But they did want to give Christianity a privileged place in America. This meant the promotion of Bible reading in schools, the preservation of the Christian sabbath, and the public recognition of the teaching of Christianity as the nation’s moral guide.
Like the current attempt in North Carolina to create a state church (I should add here that the bill was just killed in the NC House of Representatives), the NRA never specified how the government would strike a balance between the separation of church and state on the one hand and the privileging of the Christian religion on the other.
The movement to add a Christian amendment to the Constitution failed, but this did not derail continued attempts to get such an amendment passed. The NRA renewed its platform again in 1894 and 1910 and continued to meet through World War I. In 1947 and 1954 the National Association of Evangelicals promoted an effort to add the following words to the Constitution: “This nation divinely recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of Nations through whom are bestowed the blessings of God Almighty.”
Attempts to make the U.S. Constitution more Christian or to make Christianity the official state religion have been around for a long time. In most cases, the advocates of such amendments have failed to make a clear distinction between their respect for the first amendment (especially the disestablishment clause) and their wish to create a religious establishment. It should thus not surprise us that the North Carolina bill was killed for its failure to articulate its wishes in a clear and coherent way.