"America was founded as a Christian nation," a guest preacher at my church claimed. Please help me dispute that

UGH, I know this topic has already been done, but I’m hoping The Dope will be able to speak to the points the guest preacher at yesterday’s church service made about his thesis that America was founded as a Christian nation. Because as a liberal Christian, he made me very angry.

I am so glad that our intentional interim is debuting next week, and it’s not going to be him.

You might start with the Treaty of Tripoli:

Approved unanimously by the Senate.

My favorite refutation is contained within the Treaty of Tripoli, ratified unanimously by the US Senate in 1797, and signed by Founding Father John Adams:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen (Muslims); and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan (Mohammedan) nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”


More generally, there’s the 1st Amendment:

In 1801, the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association sent a letter to then President Jefferson about the explicit lack of religious liberty protection in the state constitution. His reply included perhaps the first use of the phrase “separation between church and state”.

Y’all might want to listen to the infuriating sermon first. He explicitly mentioned the First Amendment, and suggested that it simply meant no Christian denomination should be ranked any higher than the others.

And he said that the first mention of the separation of church and state was put in by a reactionary KKK-affiliated Supreme Court justice as a check on what he feared the Kennedys would do if a Catholic were ever elected president.

The Treaty of Tripoli frequently comes up, but it should be recognized that treaty was written in flowery diplomatic language to be polite to Tripoli. I don’t think it is proof positive as much as people want to say it is.

I am not going to listen to a sermon, so I don’t know precisely what he said.

What I would take issue with is the specific phrasing “America was founded as a Christian nation”, that “as a” sort of implies a deliberateness that was not really there. If he even slightly changed his wording to “America was a Christian nation at its founding” I think it would arguably be more or less true. America was absolutely a Christian nation in the 18th century, that created a secular Federal government. Note that historically in each of the Colonies the Church of England was the official colonial church, mirroring the official Christian status back in England. After the Revolution, many States continued to have official State churches in the “Episcopal” Church (which was basically created due to the political schism between the United Kingdom and the Thirteen Colonies.) I believe it wasn’t until the 1840s that the last of the official State Churches was disestablished, and later on constitutional amendments (the 14th) and jurisprudence made such a thing no longer constitutional.

America’s government was secular, but its people were Christian, as were many/most of its State governments. Additionally it should frankly be recognized when the Founders spoke of religious liberty it was almost always in the context of “liberty to express Christianity in different ways, or at most to be Deist or Atheist.” I do not actually believe the Founders were generally very open to Islam, but it was not a significant issue in the 18th century. Muslims may have visited the Thirteen Colonies for trading purposes but a significant Muslim presence in the country would have been very alien, and probably extremely unwelcome at the time.

I seem to recall separation of church and state (the phrase, not sure of the principle) first appeared in Thomas Jefferson’s personal correspondence. I’m on my way out - anyone feel like checking that?

Am I invisible?

George Washington’s letter to a Hebrew congregation

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Jefferson mentioned a “wall of separation” in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. It should be noted that Jefferson was not involved in the drafting or ratification of either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, and as President in 1802 he had no special powers of Constitutional precedence-setting, the letter expresses Jefferson’s opinion. Is it and was it constitutional fact? That’s actually much more complicated, again there was nothing in those days against the individual States specifically favoring a specific Church–which is why some of them had official “established” State Churches (copying the norm from Europe at the time, and what had been the norm in the colonies.) The Federal Government was seen as the collective will of the thirteen States, so in many sense the sort of conceptions covered by an official “State Church” would not have made sense vis-a-vis the Federal government.

Due to the much more limited nature of the Federal government’s remit in the 18th century, to be frank much of what was concerned with in terms of it being secular was avoiding “religious tests” for Federal office, but it’s somewhat ahistorical to assert that the 13-15 States of the 18th century America were secular by the standards of modern times, and even the Federal government had already adopted a number of Christian cultural practices in its operations (like, for example, opening sessions of Congress with Christian chaplains giving prayers.)

18thC secular Enlightenment principles were certainly liberally sprinkled with the “flowery language” of Christian prose - or at the very least, Deism (which is not the same thing) - but it remains true that despite the cultural lean toward Christianity there is no reason to believe that the US as it was established in the 1780s was intended to be a Christian nation nor that it was founded on “Christian principles” (whatever they are) rather than Enlightenment ones. The founding principles of the country owe more to the writings of Thomas Paine than to the Bible.

And the assertion that the intent was merely to prevent one type of Christianity from having supremacy over others rather than full freedom of religion is not supported by either the historical writings of multiple Founding Fathers (notably Madison, Adams, Washington and Jefferson) nor by the wording of the First Amendment. Madison, who was a primary author of the Constitution, had seen in Virginia what damage a state religion could do (which went far beyond tests for office) and was determined to have none of it.

I would disagree that anything in the original constitution was intended to establish full freedom of religion. You guys are continually overstating the original scope of the Federal government. Such matters were left to the State–many of which did not have full religious liberty until some years later. The First and Second Great Awakening movements massively increased a sort of proto-evangelicalism (it wasn’t called evangelicalism, but it promoted churches like the Baptist church which was anti-establishment, and general non-denominational Christianity), and that had more to do with washing away old matters of establishment Churches than anything in the Federal constitution.

Many of the States with established Churches actually had religious tests for State office, requiring officers to swear to adhere to various tenets of the official Church as a condition for taking office.

One can certainly make that claim. But the thing is, that isn’t what it says.

What is perhaps more pertinent is the fact that the Constitution of the United States doesn’t say it’s meant to be a Christian country. You would think that were that the case, they’d have mentioned it, or would have in some way made the apparatus of government reflect that. Instead they came up with a Constitution that is totally devoid of any mention of God, or Christianity, or anything even remotely approximating a Christian basis of government. They could not have been LESS religious.

I have to think that if the intent had been to make it a Christian country where all sects of Christianity were accepted, it would have crossed their minds to mention that. As Gyrate points out that is also shot full of holes by contemporaneous correspondence, but the funny thing is that a Venn diagram of the “it’s a Christian country” crowd and the “Constitutionalist it’s only what it says word for word” crowd is very close to just being a circle.

That’s absolutely true. But that’s the state. The argument that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was founded as Christian is a pretty valid one. The argument that the USA was so founded is not. It would have been wholly possible for some states to have been officially atheist, or Jewish, or animist.

Even the Declaration of Independence only crosses the line into potential Deism with a reference to a “Creator”. And that’s at least as susceptible to the charge of “flowery language” as the Treaty of Tripoli is.

Backing up a second, what is your goal in trying to refute him?

Is it trying to correct him? Because he’s not going to listen. Is it to take to church leadership to make sure that they don’t bring him back and/or they do a better job of vetting guest preachers by showing where he was biblically and factually incorrect? Is it for talking to your fellow parishioners? Is it just for your own personal knowledge?

Where are you going with this?

It seems to me that America was founded very specifically by declaring independence from a Christian nation. England was all over having state Christianity (see “Church of England”) and the founding fathers were all “fuck that shit”.

This isn’t a very accurate view of the founding of America. Our disputes with the United Kingdom were mostly around taxation and issues of our colonial governments being pre-empted regularly by un-accountable British appointed officials and Parliamentary Acts that we had no say in due to not being represented in the Westminster Parliament.

The issue around official churches were not a big factor, and in fact many of the key founding fathers were relatively happy congregants in Church of England dioceses (George Washington for example.)

The main reason the Federal government wanted to explicitly not do such a thing is because we were establishing a supra-national government for all Thirteen Colonies, some of which had different religious traditions. Any sort of Federal official church would have led to serious clashes between New England, the Mid-Atlantic and the Southern States, all of which had different denominations in power.

If you’re talking about the Pilgrims and Puritans and so forth, sure, it’s relevant. By the time we get to the 1770s, it’s about taxation and representation as well as other abuses of the colonies by England.