Over the years I have often heard Christians of various political stripes assert that the United States is a Christian nation. More recently, Christian evangelicals, who supported Trump and his campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again,” seemed nostalgic for a white Christian America. One might be tempted to call the belief that the U.S. is a Christian nation a myth, the seeds of which were sown in 1630 when John Winthrop challenged his community to establish a city on the hill, reflecting the covenant of God and Christian charity. Many myths contain a grain or two of truth. Nevertheless, the belief in a Christian nation is more illusion than truth.
This might be a provocative claim to many people that requires justification. Let me begin by acknowledging that most of the people who immigrated to America, taking native peoples’ lands, were primarily of various Christian denominations. Some saw this country as the new Promised Land, overlooking the fact that by occupying the land they removed any possibility of promise to the non-Christian people who lived here for millennia. So, I am willing to concede that white European settlers were mainly Christian. This was also true after the War of Independence and in this sense one might say this was a Christian nation in that most of the settlers called themselves Christian. I will come back to this, but for now let me say that this new “Christian nation” was clearly neither a Christian theocracy not a parliamentary system advocating a particular religion. Indeed, the Constitution enshrined the free exercise of religion, while establishing a wall between church and state. If we were to call this budding nation a Christian nation, it was oddly one that proclaimed the freedom of individuals to practice other religions—at least ideally—or no religion at all. Proclaiming the inalienable right of religious freedom would leave open the possibility that another religion might be dominant, which would mean we would no longer be a “Christian nation.”
While some people cite numbers or percentage of Christians as a reason for calling the U.S. a Christian nation, others have argued that the U.S. is a Christian nation because it was founded by Christians and, therefore, some of their beliefs and principles were woven into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In reality, the Magna Carta and English Bill of Rights influenced those who penned the Constitution. Also, House Congressional Resolution 331 (1988) acknowledged the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations in writing the U.S. Constitution. To be sure there are references to God in the Declaration of Independence, but not in the Constitution, which is not to deny that Christian principles, to some degree, shaped the writing of the Constitution, though it is not entirely clear which principles. More apparent is the secular political influences that shaped founding texts. Indeed, it is more accurate to say the U.S. was founded on English and Enlightenment political values.
This will not deter those who will insist that since most colonial and later U.S. citizens nation were Christian, then the U.S. was, by and large, a Christian nation. Fast forward to the present and polls indicate that approximately 84% of people in the U.S. identify as Christians. So, our stalwart believer may proclaim that we are still a Christian nation by percentages alone. Of course, we might look more closely at those numbers to discover that many of those who self-identify as Christians do not actually belong to a Christian community of faith. In some polling less than 38% of Christians actually go to church. What percentage do we rely on for being a Christian nation—51% or above of those who believe in Christ? Or do we count those who are actually practicing their Christian faith? If it is the latter, then we do not qualify as a Christian nation.
Percentages and numbers, though, are hardly adequate measures for determining whether we are a Christian nation or not. It would seem fairer to consider not so much belief, but whether the majority of citizens and their elected representatives embody and live out core principles associated with Christianity. This would be akin to considering whether the claim that we are a democratic nation is valid based on whether citizens and institutions uphold and live out the principles and practices of democracy. Do citizens act in democratic ways? Are there state and non-state institutions that uphold democratic values and principles? Let’s shift to whether we are a “Christian” nation. Do citizens and elected officials adhere to the core principles of Christianity as reflected in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ? Do state and non-state institutions promote Christian principles and practices? The simple answer is no, but it is important to at least identify a few key principles of Christianity.
It is apparent in any cursory reading of history that there are various renderings of what it means to live a Christian life. Yet, it is safe to say that the ministry of Jesus Christ incarnates the love and compassion of God, which includes mercy and forgiveness. As Karen Armstrong (1993) notes, the three Abrahamic faiths elevate compassion as a central principle for living a religious life. If we consider love, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness as central principles of being a Christian, then it is evident that these principles are less about mere belief than they are about actions or practices. I think most individual Christians and communities of faith, if they are honest, would say that they fall short of living out these principles. Indeed, Kierkegaard, surveying the landscape of Christian Europe, asked whether a Christian could be found in all of Christendom. No doubt he was aware of how far he and others fail to live out and up to Jesus Christ. More importantly, his query was not just about individuals, but calling Christendom itself into question.
Individuals who call themselves Christian should be assessed in terms of the principles of Christianity, not so much to deny their identity, but to indicate to what degree they live out this faith. Those of us who call ourselves Christian know we do not measure up, yet we retain a Christian identity. When individuals use the term Christian to describe their nation, which includes identity, then it is fair game to use the principles as criteria. What does it mean to be called a Christian nation given the violent appropriation of land from Native Americans, which may rightly be called ethnic cleansing? Our ruthless treatment of Native peoples, which continues today, seems a far cry from any Christian principle. Consider how many American Christians legitimated slavery, Jim Crow, and racism. By what Christian principle do these fall under? The exploitation of Cuban, Philippine, and Central American peoples during the decades when the U.S. was a colonial power seems more in line with the principles of the Roman Empire than Christian values. The fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Has the U.S. ever asked for forgiveness for these acts? This kind of sociopathic brutality is a far cry from Christian compassion, though it is important to acknowledge that Christian communities perpetrated if not supported brutal actions (e.g., lynching). Let’s turn to the killing of around 2 million Vietnamese, which was more in line with the principles of realpolitik than Christian justice. Speaking of justice, read Acts and ask how Christian is it to have huge income and wealth disparities, millions of people without healthcare or inadequate healthcare, food deserts, and 7 million people in the penal system. Does this so-called Christian nation embody or even uphold any of the core values of Christianity?
If this is not enough to dissuade people from calling the U.S. a Christian nation, I also raise the fact that I am not sure any nation could be Christian, except in only one sense and that is the view that we are a Christian nation because most citizens self-identify as Christian. That said, it is crucial to recognize that while religious communities can hold forth about their Christian values and principles vis-à-vis organizing the life of the community, nations abide by other principles, principles more in line with Machiavelli and Clausewitz, rather than Christ. To be sure, Constantine launched the West onto the idea of a Christian state, but this idea seemed to be far from anything Jesus had in mind. Moreover, Christ’s motivation, if I can talk about his motivation, seemed to be more about compassion, feeding the poor, healing the sick, etc., than it was about founding a nation. In short, Jesus’ kingdom is not to be found on earth, even though the kingdom of God is among us in acts of love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. These are virtues that are inimical the advancement of a nation state, let alone, an empire.
So, let’s be honest and acknowledge that the U.S. and its government do not and, perhaps, cannot uphold Christian principles in organizing social or international relations. For this reason, we cannot claim the U.S. is a Christian nation. But I am not sanguine about people accepting this, especially those Christian individuals who are more likely to think of themselves as staunch patriots. By adhering to this belief, more accurately an illusion, they avoid facing the fact that the fundamental principles that actually operate in state-craft, namely, ruthless, rational calculation in the advancement of U.S. economic and political interests, are contrary to Christian principles used to organize the first Christian communities, namely sacrificial love, compassion, forgiveness, and distribution of resources according to needs.
I also think there are a few other reasons why many Christian Americans are steadfast in their belief that the U.S. is a Christian nation. First, Christianity has long been the dominant religious tradition in this country and has become, for many, intertwined with a national identity. Even if people recognize that one can be American and from other faith traditions, patriotic Christians’ identity is wedded to national identity. To begin to believe we are not a Christian nation can evoke anxiety and rage because it is a threat to that identity. A second reason for retaining this illusion is that it deflects one from the inherent cruelty of the state’s actions (e.g., drone warfare and the killing of civilians, policing the poor). Even when we find ways to justify violence (e.g., they attacked us first—just war), we can continue to hold out that we are Christian nation. “Christian” denotes something good, unsullied by our excesses. It is analogous to someone saying, after being cruel to someone, “All have sinned. I know this as a Christian and that God still loves me.” Pasting the title Christian over the notion of the state or nation is like trying to cover over the indelible stain of our national sins. Third and relatedly, to come face to face with ourselves, as Carl Jung noted, is a terrible shock for we will see how far we really are from our cherished ideals of ourselves. Our shared histories, which undergird our shared identities, are, more often than not, facades that screen the reality of wrong on the throne and right on the scaffold (Niebuhr, 1941, p. 40). Better to hold onto the soporific illusions of the title “Christian” than to face our collective past and present sins. As James Baldwin noted Americans “have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, into a proud decoration” (1955, p.31)—the proud decoration that we are a Christian nation. Baldwin also wrote, “(F)or there is a great deal of will power involved in the white man’s naïveté” (p.166)—a naiveté fostered by the illusion of a Christian America.
So, there are three basic rationales for citizens proclaiming the U.S. is a Christian nation. The first is the view that sheer numbers of people who believe in Christ indicates we are a Christian nation, but this fails because of the low percentages of people who actually practice some version of Christian faith. More importantly it also fails because the Constitution not only does not proclaim this, but actually leaves open the possibility of some other religion having greater numbers of believers, let alone practitioners. A second argument is that the founding documents of the nation are heavily influenced by Christian beliefs and principles. This might seem to be true, but the reality is that there were other influences, including those of Native peoples. Third, individuals may claim that we are a Christian nation because Christian principles and values guide how we understand ourselves and organize society. The truth, however, is that the United States has operated out of other principles more suited to Machiavellian principles of statecraft.
One might ask why is it so important to rid ourselves of the illusion that we are a Christian nation. What good will come of it? Isn’t holding this belief an inducement to live out a more moral existence as a nation? As for the second question, one need only go down the depressively long list of cruel, destructive, exploitive, and oppressive actions perpetrated in the name of a Christian nation to see that it has not been an inducement to live a more moral life, though people like Martin Luther King Jr. and others used this to prick the consciences of white Americans. If we work to get rid of or limit this illusion, people of other religious and secular faiths may feel more at home in the U.S. Perhaps another benefit would be a growing awareness of the misdeeds done under the name of Christian nation. In facing the sins of our past, there might be a sliver of hope for change. As James Baldwin (2010) notes, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” (p.34).
Armstrong, K. (1993). A History of God. New York: Ballantine Books.
Baldwin, J. (1955). Notes of a Native Son. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Baldwin, J. (2010). The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected writings. New York: Pantheon.
Kierkegaard, S. (1846). Concluding unscientific postscript to the philosophical fragments: A mimic-pathetic-dialectic composition: An existential contribution, by Johannes Climacus. Responsible for publication: S. Kierkegaard. Trans. D. Swenson and W. Lowrie (1941). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Niebuhr, H. R. (1941). Meaning and revelation. New York: Collier Books.