Once again America is touted as a Christian nation

January 5, 2023 • 11:30 am

First of all, note that the Washington Post headline below is misleading. Although the author, Justin Dyer, gives lip service to the separation of church and state limned in the Constitution, 94% of his whole article is devoted to the claim that America was founded on explicitly Christian principles (note, not Jewish or Judeo-Christian ones). He does this by some historical fast-stepping and judicious quotation of early Americans who mentioned God.

Second, note that the question involves the present tense: IS America a Christian nation? This presumes that the country itself is just as Christian now as it was when it was founded, though that’s clearly not the case. Nearly everyone in America in the 18th century professed to be a Christian, and that’s no longer true. America is far more secular than it was back then. Further, even if you argue that the democratic nations of Europe were also founded on Christianity—something that the author would have to do to maintain his claims—many of those countries are, at present, pretty much atheistic.

The important question, then, is this: was America (and other Western democracies) founded on Christian principles? I aver that Justin Dryer is wrong.  The author, by the way, is identified this way:

Justin Dyer is executive director of the Civitas Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. This essay was adapted from his 2022 book, “The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics.”

So here’s Dyer’s “no” answer:

The founders said no to the model of confessional monarchies then prevalent in Europe. Instead, they created a republic with a constitution that explicitly ruled out religious tests for public office, and they separated the offices of the church from the offices of the state. Surrounded by robust religious pluralism, the founders chose not to establish a national church.

That’s it: 59 words in a 1,048-word essay, or about 6%. That’s a pretty small “no”.  But even that claim is immediately hedged:

That doesn’t mean we have a secular founding, however. America at its founding was far from secular, if we take that to mean a society in which the foundations of the political order are disconnected from an underlying religious tradition. Our Declaration of Independence begins with an invocation of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” bases human equality on creation, defines rights as the endowment of our Creator, appeals to the “Supreme Judge of the world,” and declares the signers’ “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”

Dyer doesn’t mention, though, that the Constitution, which really is the founding document of America rather than simply a declaration of a new country, DOES NOT MENTION GOD OR THE DIVINE.  Dyer goes on by mentioning when some of the founders alluded to God, like Alexander Hamilton:

In contrast, Hamilton claimed: “Good and wise men in all ages” have taught that God had “created an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensably, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.” The reason Hobbes believed such an “absurd and impious doctrine,” Hamilton concluded, is “that he disbelieved the existence of an intelligent superintending principle, who is the governor, and will be the final judge of the universe.”

Dyer argues that the Founders weren’t deists, but theistic Christians. I am not at all sure he’s right. Franklin was an atheist, Jefferson a deist who cut out all the words referring to miracles and the supernatural from his Bible (and also founded the University of Virginia insisting that it not have a divinity school), and I’m not aware that Madison or Washington were particularly religious. (John Adams, on the other hand, was.)

So what buttresses Dyer’s argument? Only his claim that the principles of American democracy come straight from Christianity. Except that they don’t: they are part of the humanistic philosophy that began with the ancient Greeks. Dyer even admits this below (my bold). First, this:

Such language points to a possible reconciliation of our familiar debates. The United States was founded by thinkers steeped in the Christian natural-law tradition, a rich and powerful stream of thought that is distinct from any institutional church. That tradition, developed during the long Christian engagement with classical philosophy, holds that reason can identify what is best for human beings by studying human nature. The good for human beings includes such things as life, health, knowledge and friendship. When we have good things in our lives, we flourish and are happy. When we fail to cultivate those goods, either individually or as a society, we sow the seeds of our own misery and ruin.

From that, it makes sense to say we have natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the purpose of government is to secure those rights, as the Declaration proclaims.

. . . Ancient pagan philosophers believed some of this, but Christians emphasized the divine source of the natural law and of human equality. The natural law, they claimed, implies a lawgiver who is the creator of the world and the author of human nature. Human nature is stamped with the image of God, the imago dei — a notion that undermined the ancient practice of slavery in spite of conditions at the founding.

The assertion of “natural rights” may be religious, but I don’t like the idea of “natural rights” founded on what you see as God’s will. That sets aside the need to use reason to ascertain what rights people have. “God said it; I believe it; that settles it,” as the saying goes. It’s far better to just talk about “rights”, which can change over time. (I’m not even sure that the idea of “natural rights” comes from Christianity; readers can weigh in here.)

BUT, the important thing is that everything in bold above—all the supposedly Christian ideas that infused America’s founding—was advanced as secular philosophy by the Greeks and Romans.  Christians just took it over from the ancients. So why doesn’t Dyer say that America was founded on secular Greek and Roman philosophy? Because he wants to emphasize Christianity:

Further, to say that the image of God undermines slavery is just ludicrous: Christianity was used to support slavery in the American South for several hundred years. The Bible says nothing against slavery and, in fact, gives advice about how severely to whip your slaves. “God’s will”, in Dyer’s case, is simply his own beliefs imputed to God. Here the author is reifying purely secular and humanistic ideas as Christian ones.

I don’t want to argue about the following claim of Dyer, because I think he’s wrong, and one could argue, based on the evidence, exactly the opposite:

Some of the founders expressed skepticism about the claims of Christianity, of course. With very few exceptions, however, they were not deists who thought God set the world in motion and left it to run on its own. . .

Unfortunately for Dyer, those “very few exceptions” included men like Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, and probably Madison. Those happened to be THE FOUNDERS. In the end, I reject Dyer’s claim that America was or is a Christian nation except in the trivial sense that most Americans in the late 18th century were Christians. The ideas that underlay America’s founding are simple humanistic ones that long pre-dated the rise of Christianity. Just because you can pick and choose them from the Bible (as well as other stuff like slavery) means nothing, for you can find support for any view you want in the Bible.

And you certainly can’t say that America was founded as a Christian nation simply because its founders professed to be Christians. Everybody was a Christian then. You might as well say that the Industrial Revolution was founded on Christianity.

And I just now remembered this book by FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel, who argues at length that America was not founded as a Christian nation. Click screenshot to go to the Amazon site. It’s well worth reading.

29 thoughts on “Once again America is touted as a Christian nation

  1. … 94% of his whole article is devoted to the claim that America was founded on explicitly Christian principles (note, not Jewish or Judeo-Christian ones).

    “Judeo-Christian” is the meaningless sop right-wing Christians tend to toss in so as not to court enemies among the substantial number of Jews who hold juris doctorate degrees and/or belong to the political donor class.

      1. Religious texts — from the Epic of Gilgamesh through the Book of Mormon — do nothing if not a lot of borrowing.

        1. But that is the fallacy of Ignoring the Common Cause. For over 100 Creations myths it defies reason and common sense to call it borrowing

          “when one notices a constant correlation between A and B and assumes A caused B (or vice versa) while ignoring that there is a third variable, C, that causes both and therefore accounts for the correlation.”

          Normal logic says that there is more likely a COMMON CAUSE.

    1. How wrong you are…One can see in Patristic and contemporary Jewish thought the idea that natural law precedes ALL revelation. ALL
      Tertullian concurs with Irenaeus that the natural law was the primordial law, the ‘womb’ of all God’s precepts.” and I could find maybe 6 more major witnesses.

        1. I have most triumphed in exposing your unopenness to dialog. i have spent maybe 5-6 years on this topic.

  2. “Nature’s God” is an explicitly deist concept, it refers to a remote, a-personal, ultimate origin of nature, that can only be learned about by studying nature (not from divine revelation). It is thus not the personal, theistic god of Christianity.

    It’s also worth noting that the phrases “endowed by their Creator”, “Supreme Judge of the world” and “protection of divine Providence” were not in Jefferson’s original draft of the declaration, but were added when he then took that draft to the commitee of six. Thus they cannot have been key to his intent.

  3. And we’re told by Luther Martin, then Attorney General of Maryland and delegate to the Constitutional Convention itself, that those who regarded the United States as a Christian nation were an “unfashionable” minority who did not prevail and were outvoted by the “great majority”.

    Reporting back to Maryland Legislature he said:

    The part of the system which provides, that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States, was adopted by a great majority of the convention, and without much debate; however, there were some members so unfashionable as to think, that a belief of the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some security for the good conduct of our rulers, and that, in a Christian country, it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.

  4. “(I’m not even sure that the idea of “natural rights” comes from Christianity; readers can weigh in here.)”

    The idea of natural rights, as well as of natural law, is not Christian nor even necessarily religious. Aquinas, writing about natural law and natural rights, stated, “the light of reason is placed by nature [and thus by “Nature’s God”] in every man to guide him in his acts.” The only difference between theists and humanists in this regard is that theists credit God for endowing humans with reason while humanists, with a swift slash of Occam’s razor, don’t concern themselves with where reason comes from.

  5. Washington reportedly escorted Martha to church (and to her pew?), then retired to his carriage to sit with his horses and, probably, smoke a good cigar. Nominal indeed.

  6. It’s interesting to look at the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the source of Jefferson’s version of the Declaration of Independence. The significant first paragraph leaves out any reference to a Creator, and Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence also does not have any reference to the Creator as endowing us with rights. There is talk of our being created with rights, but this talk very carefully is not framed in terms of a Creator.

  7. I believe this is part of a larger trend by some God-botherers, such as the pop historian Tom Holland (https://unherd.com/2022/11/humanism-is-a-heresy/), to insist that the best parts of western civilization, such as humanism and human rights, are taken from Christianity and meaningless without them. They’re making this argument precisely because there are fewer and fewer believing Christians (in the US and Europe at least) and yet concepts like humanism and human rights remain strong. Their bleats will grow louder as Christianity shrinks further.

    1. I just watched over an hour with Tom Holland and your comment is utterly odd.
      He explicitly says that is NOT why he wrote and is not what he thinks

  8. Jefferson a deist who cut out all the words referring to miracles and the supernatural from his Bible

    Off topic, but I’ve often wondered how he managed to do that, unless the words were only printed on one side of the page.

    1. Well that’s disappointing: I decided to look it up Jefferson’s Bible and found out that it is not a Bible with holes where the miraculous bits should be but a “life of Jesus” constructed by literal cut and paste of the non miraculous bits of the gospels from a Bible.

      I’m left wondering how I got the wrong end of the stick and whether I am alone in my misconception.

  9. Mr. Dyer writes, “Surrounded by robust religious pluralism, the founders chose not to establish a national church.” But you correctly point out that: “Everybody was a Christian then.” My view has always been that if the Founders were of the Christian Nationalist loony tune ilk that currently prevails in the Republican Party, they certainly would not have separated church and state. The Founders were humanists.

  10. Many early colonisers of the US, the Pilgrim Fathers, William Penn, et al., specifically arrived in “The New World” for reasons to do with religion. But that only makes it all the more surprising that the eventual formal foundation of the US via the Constitution doesn’t reflect religious aims.

  11. Dyer seems to be just another hard-right culture warrior, with all the concomitant completely predictable beliefs about abortion, “natural law’, C. S. Lewis, etc.

  12. For the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers, I recommend Matthew Stewart’s “Nature’s god: The heretical origins of the American republic.” He ties together Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza, Locke, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Allen, Young and several others. Fascinating read.

  13. I’m always thankful for people like our host and the other new atheists like me for fighting against the nonsense. I have my column, but not enough fame and only a few hundred thousand readers of whom I’m managed to convince…. probably none. 🙂
    D.A.
    NYC (FL currently)

  14. I think perhaps we should separate actual belief in a deity from having a basic ethos shaped by the prevailing religion of your background.
    It is hard to imagine the US forming the way it did had the founding fathers shared a background in Shintoism or Aghori.

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