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

I don’t really know a whole lot about this, but my understanding is that there were a number of judicial decisions determining that Arabs were not “white” for naturalization purposes (the Naturalization Act limited citizenship to whites). And that a big part of this was the perceived threat that Muslims posed to Christian (i.e. White) civilization. Arab was synonymous with Muslims; Muslims were a threat to Christian civilization; therefore Arabs were not “white” and could not become citizens.

As I understand it, an example was the influx of Syrian Christians in the 1880s, where “whiteness” was judged by “Christianity.” So that an authentic Syrian Christian was white, but as Arab Muslim was not.

A lot of these tired and exaggerated parables about Islam in early America are not particularly new, by the way. They all reared their misrepresenting heads back in the early post-9/11 era, as part of a liberal scheme to try to paint acceptance of Muslims as some sort of foundational thing that makes you a patriotic American.

Now, the reality of course is people should be accepting (at least to the point of giving them the protection of the law / freedoms / respect) of other religious groups. It is probably noble to try to leverage revered American like Jefferson in this effort. But it just isn’t representative of factual reality. If you actually read many early American comments on the “Mahometans” they are clearly speaking from a place of ignorance, these were people who had probably never met a Muslim, or if they had it was in passing while overseas in Europe briefly, and they were amazed by how exotic they looked.

They had little real practical experience with it, and it doesn’t hurt to write a few flowery passages about people you never have to deal with. Bigotry tends to rear its head more visibly when confronted with the realities of cultural pluralism. It’s easy to be nice to other cultures when you aren’t around them, or to respect them as “oriental and exotic.” The very same white Westerners who for centuries wrote about the glories of the Orient, the mystique of the mysterious and treasury-filled lands of China and India, once in more direct contact with these people…did not quite treat them like people they respected and found interesting and mysterious. They treated them like the “other” and subjugated and exploited them. When some of them tried to emigrate to the West, they were often viciously opposed and the few that got through were viciously mistreated as second and third class persons.

That is why attempting to put a lot of importance to “words” written in a time of Lockean ideals and flowery prose, isn’t good history. If you only judged some of the early Founding Fathers on the words they wrote you might find it surprising how they actually treated their black slaves, for example. Or how they actually treated Native Americans etc. The number of early American leaders who wrote praises of the Native Americans with their pen, while supporting their genocide in deed, is a long list.

It’s also intellectually dishonest to write articles like the Aeon author, where he starts off by saying “there were Muslims in America before Protestantism existed.” If he was talking about the American continent, okay. But his article is clearly talking about the United States of America, the country. While it is true that some Muslims from Iberia, some in the form of slaves and some free people, were present in New Spain prior to Martin Luther kicking off the Protestant reformation in the early 16th century, it is worth noting that the country the United States of America was formed from Thirteen specific British colonies. It was not formed from Spanish colonies. The first of these permanent colonies did not exist for another 100 years, and for the next four hundred years after that the majority population of those colonies and the country they ultimately became was overwhelmingly Protestant. Acting like some Muslims living in the Spanish possession 100 years before America even in its most embryonic form existed, is somehow some secret part of American history is…incredibly disingenuous. The history of the Spanish colonies in the New World is not the history of America the country. Interesting? Sure. But conflating them is weird and suggests strange ideological motivations.

The text of the founding documents and early letters of the founding fathers is pretty clear that the state was supposed to be separate from the church. This refutes anyone’s claim who says “America was founded as a Christian nation.” The founding documents don’t support that.

Now, does that mean America was founded as a pluralist, multicultural, non-religious society? Absolutely not. Had the Founders seen any substantial immigration of Muslims to the U.S, there’s no doubt in my mind they would have dropped the first amendment like a hot potato and substituted it with something that said “we’re not having any official state churches, but we’re only tolerating Christian or Jewish churches.”

I see you opted not to learn. You’ve also deviated from your original statements on Muslims in that time. Now you’re arguing that they were not hugely influential, which is not what you first stated and not what I responded to.

What a shame. I’m done wasting my time on trying to have a substantive discussion with you.

You can opt not to respond, but no–I did not change my original statements at all. I made additional statements, none of which directly contradict my original ones. You’re obviously entitled to speak or not speak to whomever you wish, but it is bad form to lie about what someone has said and then hide. You also do not have any right to chide someone to “learn or shut up”, sorry but that’s not how things work here. There’s nothing to “learn” from what you posted. A few random quotes that you probably googled, an article that conflates colonial Spain with the Thirteen Colonies, and an article about Muslim slaves in early America that in its own text admits that “we have no idea how many slaves practiced Islam” and offers virtually nothing of substance beyond that.

At the end of the day you have made an assertion, with scattered quotes offered without context to broader cultural norms of the time, and essentially claimed that America was a religiously tolerant country in the 1780s. The person making grandiose and uninformed claims here is you–and in fact I would say it is so well documented that America (like essentially the entirety of the world) was deeply bigoted in that time period that you have a substantial evidentiary bar to demonstrate otherwise–which you certainly did not meet. Good day.

amarinth is on the right track. Once you permit this preacher to frame the debate you have lost, as this thread shows. There are no clear answers to this sort of question. There are various people who have said various things, and various things that have happened, and you can go on discussing them and venerating some things and deprecating others forever.

A better approach is to say to your fellow parishioners “you can debate who said what and what certain clauses do or do not mean forever. But what is the right to thing to do? Treat people of other religions equally and well or not?” And similar substantive points.

In general, I would say that at the time of the writing of the Constitution, there wasn’t much of a sense that there might be other explanations for the Universe outside of Christianity. Deism was, effectively, the best an atheist could do because there were no other ideas floating around. Islam and Judaism would have been the most well-known religions and those both still concurred on the existence of God.

By the standard of the time, it is probably reasonable to think that when they granted freedom of religion that they did expect that to mean the freedom to choose between different variants of Yahweh. And, likewise, it was probably only a minority of the attendees who would have been thinking along more atheistic and wider views of the intent - likely, they were the ones pushing for the exact language that we got, while selling it as a measure to create peace between different groups of Christians in the country.

But, that all be as it may:

  1. That is the text that we got and Textualism is the preferred Republican reading of the Constitution. The people who are most ready to trash the first Amendment are stopped from doing so fairly robustly by their own team. (And the other team isn’t liable to side with them either.)
  2. The winning argument was, ultimately, that preserving the peace and representing different people who may hate each other as a combined body are both more important that trying to come to some form of religious consensus. That remains true and that is what they were voting on when they decided the language.
  3. The general idea of the time (the Enlightenment) was to use reason and logic to govern. That means developing some basic axioms of what is good and and what is bad and building systems on top of those, to maximize good. From that, we end up with axioms like that all people are created equal - this being written in a time and place where a significant percentage of the population was enslaved at birth and half of the white population was legally equivalent to property half the time. Ultimately, the axiom is the truth and the axiom is what we expect to win over time, when we are governing with logic and reason, not the mores of the 18th century.

What the Founders wanted to avoid was a replay of the notorious religious conflicts in the nations from which they came, conflicts based in the convictions of both Rome and the Church of England that it should rule the roost. The Fathers reserved the right to freedom of religion. What happened was the during the colonial era, 1620 to 1776, the frontier lifestyle, if we can use that term, resulted in a lot of unruly behavior and abuse of free will and free time. Bear in mind, the colonists fled either royalty or Empire. All of a sudden, they had all this free time with no one to tell them what to do and they couldn’t handle it. (Not unlike what we see today, btw, drunkeness, sorcery, sloth, vice, and the accompanying immorality.)
The colonial governors introduced church and religion in an attempt to settle things down. One of the most famous was Gov. Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay colony, The poster child was Salem, Mass. Gov. Winthrop found his strategy worked and if I am not mistaken he made church attendance a requirement. In church, they learned the rule of behavior. By the time the Revolution came around the Church – Quakers, Unitarians, and Congregationalists, I think – was a well established fixture in American life. The people were grateful for it and wanted it to remain strong. Religious fervor and conviction produced, in fact, something called “The Great Awakening” (1700-1774) which culminated in the Declaration. The Second Great Awakening resulted in Emancipation, but I doubt you’ll learn about that in school today. The church on the city square became a fixture and in some places, still is.

I am sceptical of this claim, as are most historians. And your dates for the First Great Awakening are off, given that it was already on the wane in the 1740s. The Declaration owes far more to Enlightenment Rationalism and Thomas Paine than to the Great Awakening, although the GA could be said to have had a minor impact, particularly in encouraging more Christian interdenominational unity.

You’re on more solid ground here, although it’s a little more complex than that. And most schools do teach the significance of liberal Christians as advocates of abolition (most notably William Wilberforce in Britain).

Thank you for the thoughtful and informed reply. The question is, “Was America founded as a Christian nation?”
The following History Channel summary of the Great Awakening may be useful. You might even call it an evangelical movement, in that it was spurred on by traveling preachers, such as Jonathan Edwards, who we still remember today.

History Channel on The Great Awakening

The Great Awakening was a religious revival that impacted the English colonies in America during the 1730s and 1740s. The movement came at a time when the idea of secular rationalism was being emphasized, and passion for religion had grown stale. Christian leaders often traveled from town to town, preaching about the gospel, emphasizing salvation from sins and promoting enthusiasm for Christianity. The result was a renewed dedication toward religion. Many historians believe the Great Awakening had a lasting impact on various Christian denominations and American culture at large.

While I would trivialize neither the contribution of Thomas Paine and “Common Sense,” nor the rationalist movement (after all, several of the Founders were both businessmen and Masons)
the fire in the gut of the Founders was a passionate belief in liberty, freedom, and brotherhood, tempered with a morality that was decidedly Judeo-Christian. The History channel continues:

Many historians claim that the Great Awakening influenced the Revolutionary War by encouraging the notions of nationalism and individual rights.
The revival also led to the establishment of several renowned educational institutions, including Princeton, Rutgers, Brown and Dartmouth universities.
The Great Awakening unquestionably had a significant impact on Christianity. It reinvigorated religion in America at a time when it was steadily declining and introduced ideas that would penetrate into American culture for many years to come.

And the answer remains “No”. It was certainly a nation of Christians, but that is not the same thing as being “founded as a Christian nation”. Even many of the Founders who were explicitly religious (notably Madison) did not intend for America to be a “Christian nation”, and as already noted several of them explicitly stated so after the fact.

Both of those are tenets of Enlightenment Rationalism, not Christianity. It is true that a strain of Enlightenment Rationalism made its way into some of the emergent GA beliefs, where it was countered by the more dogmatic views of the stringent Calvinist sects. And it is definitely true that the GA “had a significant impact on Christianity.” But it still does not follow that the GA had more than a minor impact on the drafting of America’s foundational documents and principles.

I would take a different tack. Ask the preacher and his ilk what Christian values our country is founded on. Feeding the hungry? Sheltering the homeless? Giving to the poor? Welcoming the stranger (immigrants)? If we are a Christian nation, wouldn’t our government by extension embody these core Christian values? And conversely, aren’t those who oppose progressive social values abandoning the Christian values our country was supposedly founded on?

As I said in my first reply, “The Fathers reserved the right of Freedom of Religion,” and added, “Separation of Church and State.” Letters and other writings of the Fathers give evidence that, in general, the Fathers were men of God, deeply committed to Biblical truths and the Judeo Christian ethics. I don’t happen to have those letters at my fingertips, but the preceding thoughts should be evidence enough that the American experiment was deeply grounded in Biblical principles. Again, as I commented in my original reply, the last thing the Founders wanted was a repeat of the Roman Church, with “priests” running around ripping “heretics” apart on the Rack, The Wheel, or the Judas Cradle.
As for food stamps, free housing, guaranteed income, open borders, and the like, history has made it clear that prosperity follows from as nearly as universal adherence to the ethics – hard work, diligence, honestly, morality and all that – where money is an exchange of value, not an apple that falls from the tree or a farthing lifted from the pockets of our neighbor, leads to exactly the outcome Fear_itself has identified as positive values. One need but look around to see the fruits of laziness and vice. Now, then, we are back where we started in 1620 – unrestrained freedom breeds lack of integrity. Bring back Governor Winthrop!

History of the Massachusetts Bay Company

When a thief was brought before Governor Winthrop, Winthrop’s punishment was to give the thief all the firewood he needed, so he didn’t have to steal any more.

Good one, Andy. Wouldn’t we do the same today? How many times have you heard, “Well, somebody needed it more than I do.” ?
Governor Winthrop would also sentence people to attend church!
Captain John Smith, a veteran of the 16th century Crusades (into Ottoman territory to drive back Islam on behalf ot the Holy Roman Empire) Capt. John Smith took a different approach, “No work No Eat.”
Henry Ford stood outside the door on Sundays with a clip board, checking off the names of Ford Motor Co. officers. I’m going to give that OP video a look & hear what the preacher said.

So which one was following Christian policies - Smith or Winthrop?

I’m sorry, “sorcery?” Where you seeing sorcerers running around in modern America?

Captain John Smith was an adventurer. I don’t think he necessarily possessed a personal commitment to religion as much as a wish to be in the action. By the time of the Jamestown Colony, though, he made it clear that he had little sympathy for the Ottoman.
Winthrop was a manager. The church for him was a substitute for the public schools, which were soon to follow. In other words, I don’t know. Good question, though.

Definition of Sorcery

Narcotics addiction, Wicca, Occult Practices, Church of Satan, Use of the media to scare the daylights out of young people.

For what it is worth most of the Founder’s ideals of individual liberty are more or less directly derived from the works of John Locke, not Thomas Paine, and not 18th century Christianity–which tended to be not very individualistic at all, if anything it was more focused on social obligations and communal behaviors.