Was America founded as a Christian nation or as a secular nation?

The following is an exchange between VFR reader Blake Dunlop of Bozeman, Montana, and his fellow Montanan, Bruce Gourley, in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle (which is online only for subscribers). After the exchange there is a comment by me.

Original letter by Bruce Gourley:

Don’t cling to myth of U.S. as Christian nation (12/22/08)

I would like to second Tom Stonecipher’s excellent comments on the myth of America as a Christian nation.

Many Christians in America today have forgotten their own history, both religious and national. In 2009 Baptists will celebrate their 400th anniversary. In the 17th and 18th centuries Baptists, heavily persecuted by colonial theocracies, led the way in embracing a pluralistic society and insisting upon full religious liberty and separation of church and state.

Baptists’ perseverance in the face of religious and state persecution led to the founding of America as the world’s first secular nation, including the adoption of separation of church and state in the First Amendment. England was so mortified, when the new nation left God out of its Constitution, that some English leaders accused America of being an atheist nation.

Why did Baptists (and some other Christian groups) insist that America be founded as a secular nation? Because they realized that true religion is voluntary, not coerced. This fundamental belief is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago. Christians of the late 18th century clearly understood that our country was founded as a secular nation (although not all were happy about the matter; some wished for a theocracy). Clinging to the historical myth of America as a Christian nation is historical dishonesty, as well as a slap in the face of our spiritual forefathers (and foremothers).

Bruce Gourley

Blake Dunlop’s response:

U.S. is indeed a Christian nation (12/28/08)

Bruce Gourley (Dec. 22 letter, “Don’t cling to myth of U.S. as Christian nation”) must think that if he repeats his “secular nation” mantra enough, he’ll bludgeon people into believing it, but the idea that the early republic was a secular nation would have astonished our founders.

If Gourley were right, he’d have a hard time explaining, among other things, why the first Congress purchased Bibles for distribution in the Northwest Territory (most of today’s Great Lake states), why Congress opens its daily sessions with a prayer, and why many states had established (i.e., tax-supported) churches, some persisting well into the 19th century.

Above all, Gourley would have to tangle with John Jay, who wrote approvingly in Federalist No. 2, “that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, …” (Note that Jay’s famous words were decisively no paean to “diversity,” which many of our contemporaries seem bent on imposing as the national religion.)

The First Amendment, as originally understood, merely stipulated that there be no established national church—no denomination favored by the federal government nor supported by federal monies. And the Constitution’s Article VI assures that there’s no religious test to hold national office.

But the founding generation took it for granted that Americans were predominantly Protestants of various denominations, with a few Catholics and Jews mixed in. They didn’t think America was a society of non-religious people, a “secular nation.” Jewish writer Ilana Mercer understands all this: Recently, defending Christmas displays on public property, she referred to Christianity as “America’s founding faith.”

Indeed. Merry Christmas to all, from an atheist.

Blake Dunlop

Bruce Gourley’s response:

America was founded as a secular nation (1/1/09)

Blake Dunlop’s (Dec. 28 letter, “U.S. is indeed a Christian nation”) assertion that America was founded as a Christian nation does not square with historical fact. Christians of the late 18th century would be astonished that contemporary Christians believe our nation was founded as a Christian nation.

Yes, theocracies existed at the colonial state level prior to the American Revolution (and persecuted Baptists, Quakers, and non-Christians). However, at the insistence of Baptists, Deists, and many others, our founding fathers rejected theocracy and chose a secular government structure. Yes, some states continued to collect taxes for churches into the early 19th century, because some Christians yet yearned for some degree of theocracy. And yes, people of all manner (not just Christians) in the late 18th and 19th centuries spoke to the vague notion of “providence.” John Jay’s reference to “providence” is akin to the deism of most of our founding fathers, as is the formal offering of prayer to a distant universal force or supreme being.

Baptist leader John Leland declared, in 1794, that the state has no reason to care whether “a man worships one God, three Gods, 20 Gods, or no God.” Baptists as a whole helped ensure that America’s founding principles, in terms of religion, were religious liberty, separation of church and state, and pluralism.

In short, America, like most other nations throughout history, has always been a nation of religious persons (as Tyler Mills in a Dec. 29 letter, “Why try so hard to downplay religion?”, correctly notes). But unlike all other nations prior to the late 18th century, America is a secular nation that believes the best way to honor religious faith—and lack of faith—is to separate church (and mosque and synagogue) from state.

Bruce Gourley

Blake Dunlop’s reply:

America substantively a Christian society (1/17/09)

In his letters (Dec. 22 and Jan.1) about the religious character of the early Republic, Bruce Gourley hammers us with boilerplate—“America was founded as a secular nation”—as though sheer repetition will convince. His boilerplate is based on the false premise that the Constitution was co-extensive with America itself, so that if the national government was secular, then America was a secular nation. But the Constitution merely created a federal governing structure, leaving most of the substance of the society, including religion, to the states.

Further, it’s not even correct to say that the national government was secular: Congress has always held daily prayers, and the First Congress mandated distribution of Bibles in the territories. So the correct description of our national government isn’t that it was secular, but that it didn’t establish one Christian denomination over others.

Gourley’s underlying conceptual mistake is to characterize a polity without a religious establishment as “secular” and a polity with a religious establishment as “theocratic.” Thus, nonsensically, he derides all colonies and states with religious establishments as “theocracies.” A religious establishment doesn’t mean that the government is run by God, saints, or holy men, as in a theocracy. “Establishment” simply means that one denomination is supported by taxes and that membership in it is required for public officeholders.

Also, I didn’t say that the U.S. was “founded as a Christian nation,” a phrase implying that the Constitution declared America to be Christian. I said that, in the Founding era, America was substantively a Christian society, its common beliefs, morals, and religious practices being Christian, and with Christian religious establishments in many states. The Constitution added atop this Christian society a national government that was barred both from establishing a national religion and from interfering with the states’ religious establishments.

Blake Dunlop

* * *

LA comments:

It is noble of Blake Dunlop, as an atheist, to defend the reality of America’s Christian character.

An interesting point that emerges from this exchange is that the two statements, “America was founded as a Christian nation,” and “America was founded as a secular nation,” are both false. When it comes to religion versus non-religion, America is and always has been a uniquely mixed society, the nature of which cannot be summed up with the sort of simplistic phrases Bruce Gourley throws around.

Thus Gourley’s main effort throughout the correspondence is to create a false dichotomy: either America is “secular nation,” or it’s a “theocracy.” The coercive intent of the argument should be obvious: since everyone agrees that a theocracy is a bad thing, we’re left with no other alternative but to assent to Gourley’s view that we are a “secular nation.”

It’s similar to the way liberals say that if you disagree with any position of theirs, you’re bigoted and racist. Which leaves no alternative but to assent to the liberal position.

In pursuit of his dichotomy, Gourley writes: “Our founding fathers rejected theocracy and chose a secular government structure.” As Blake Dunlop points out, Gourley has falsely defined mere religious establishment as “theocracy.” Having done so, he then says that the founders rejected “theocracy,” when in fact the very purpose of the First Amendment was to allow the states to have any religious establishment they wanted, or none. So the founders neither rejected theocracy (there were no theocracies in America and had been none since the Half-Way Covenant in late 17th century Massachusetts), nor did they set up a “secular” government structure. They simply said that no denomination would be favored.

Oddly, Gourley then turns around and admits that religious establishments—which he falsely calls “theocracies”—persisted into the 19th century. But if the Constitution allowed for what Gourley himself calls “theocracies,” what happens to his claim that America was founded as a “secular” nation? From the way Gourley lurches all over the place in his second letter, even blatantly contradicting his own position that America was founded as a secular nation, it’s evident that he has been thrown by Blake Dunlop’s first letter. And from the way he keeps deriding constitutionally permitted state religious establishments as theocracies, it’s also evident how hostile he is to religion itself.

The most disturbing and revealing thing about secularists such as Gourley is that they are not content with arguing that America may have begun as an at least partly Christian society but has changed over time and ought to be a “secular nation” now. No. They insist, against all the evidence, that America was a “secular nation” from the start. They cannot allow for the mixed nature of America—substantively Christian, but with no established religion at the federal level. Their ideology requires that America ALWAYS have been undividedly secular. And the reason for this, I believe, is that they are waging a war against God and Christianity. They want Christianity and belief in the God of the Bible to be completely driven out of America’s public society, so that God and Christianity have zero public presence, zero place in American life and in the American identity. Therefore it’s not enough for them to secularize America in the present. They must, like Communists re-writing history, wipe out any notion that America was ever Christian.

- end of initial entry -

Hannon writes:

This entry was one of the most helpful things I have read on this subject. It brought clarity to a subject that is more complex than most would believe. It would be grand if there was a complementary entry—if there is not one at VFR already—that discusses the causes for the transition from relatively robust religious establishment at the state level to the federally onerous conditions that pertain today. I gather this has much to do with the aftermath of the Civil War.

LA replies:

Yes, it has to do with the post Civil War 14th Amendment—though not with the Amendment itself, but with its radical distortion in a series of Supreme Court decisions in the early to mid 20th century resulting in something called the Incorporation Doctrine which turned the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in particular on its head. It changed the First Amendment from a restriction on the power of the U.S. Congress over the states, to a grant of unlimited power of the U.S. courts over the states. Instead of the Congress having absolutely no power over the religious policies of the states, the federal courts now have unlimited power over the religious policies of the states. The Incorporation Doctrine represents the single greatest revolution in our country’s history, fundamentally altering the constitutional structure and turning the states from quasi independent entities into creatures of the federal government and courts; and yet, hardly anyone knows about it. I’ve talked about the Incorporation Doctrine many times. An indispensable book about it is Government by Judiciary, by Raoul Berger. Tomorrow I’ll find some links. But offhand, one was my recently linked 1996 letter to Gertrude Himmelfarb.

Tim W. writes:

I think part of the problem with this issue is that multiculturalism is now being applied retroactively. There may have been some “diversity” among the Founding Fathers in terms of denominations, but with very few exceptions they were Christians. If America circa 1776 had been a religious mix of Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, Hindus, plus Wiccans and atheists, we’d have had a very different nation and a very different Constitution. Our founders took it as a given that our nation was an extension of Christian civilization. They surely wanted to avoid some of the messy (and violent) feuding between the various divisions of Christianity that had occurred in Europe, which is why they didn’t want religious tests for office or a national church. But it’s equally certain they wouldn’t want public respect of our Christian heritage to be sanitized lest it offend (for example) a lone Muslim who showed up within our borders. And they absolutely would have been appalled at the idea that Muslims would ever become even a significant minority in this country.

One of the casualties of political correctness is common sense. People often forget that some things now considered controversial, or even forbidden, were everyday life to people in 1776. One of those things was the Christian nature of America.

I’ve debated people who insist that the Founding Fathers didn’t care what the racial composition of America was since they didn’t put anything about race in the Constitution. I think a better case can be made that the white European nature of America was so accepted that no one ever entertained the possibility of its being otherwise. Just as none of our constitutions, state or federal, defined marriage as being between a man and a woman until recently. No one ever imagined it could be otherwise in an era of common sense and civilizational assumptions. Likewise, our forefathers took it as a given that we were a Christian nation.

Kidist Paulos Asrat writes:

There is a strange phenomenon going on. I am noticing more and more people who are openly declaring their atheism. Some participate in VFR, others I just encounter in daily life. And many eloquently write that Christianity is (or at least has been) an integral part of America, and even defend it rigorously.

I noticed in the posting of Blake Dunlop and Bruce Gourley’s discussion that at one point Blake Dunlop declares “Merry Christmas to all, from an atheist.” It came as a complete surprise. At an earlier point he wrote “Jewish writer Ilana Mercer … referre[s] to Christianity as “America’s” founding faith”.

Now, I wondered why he mentioned her, but she, like him, has openly declared her atheism, and thus this is part of the solidarity of atheists, it seems.

I’ve also followed the recent discussion on Mangan’s Miscellany, which in my view drew out the true nature of atheists, which is that they cannot in all sincerity defend Christianity since they just don’t believe in it. They will use logical and rational arguments stating facts and figures, but at a crossroads, they have to take a different path.

Still, I understand your generosity in saying that as long as someone doesn’t “openly disdain Christian belief,” then he can participate in the conservative (American?) community. There are many intelligent atheists out there.

But this is unprecedented. I think their numbers are growing. I’ve always said that one cannot make a person into a Christian. It is a calling, and even a mystery how it happens. Yet, atheists seem to be coming out of the woodworks and announcing their (lack of) faith proudly, so to speak.

This of course brings out all types of arguments about people calling themselves Christian (when in fact they’re not), and that at least atheists are being honest.

It has become a strange dichotomy for me, and I often end up not reading (or trusting, ultimately) such writers. And there seems to be many of them out there, who also call themselves conservatives, or hold some such affiliation with that category. Anyway, these are just some thoughts. I hope I am not being unreasonable. But, what a strange world we’re living in, and I wonder if by our acquiescence we’re letting these things happen.

Bob S. writes:

You write:

“It changed the First Amendment from a restriction on the power of the U.S. Congress over the states, to a grant of unlimited power of the U.S. courts over the states.”

I read Berger’s book decades ago, but I don’t remember seeing this point ever stated as clearly as you’ve done here. [LA replies: Thank you. It took me a while to figure it out myself. :-)]

“Instead of the Congress having absolutely no power over the religious policies of the states, the federal courts now have [unlimited] ABSOLUTE power over the religious policies of the states.” This powerful follow-up phrase is even more so if you substitute “absolute” for your original “unlimited”.

Great stuff.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 20, 2009 01:12 AM | Send

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