One of the more enduring myths on the religious right is the notion that America is a “Christian” nation, or at the very least a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Despite having no basis in fact or history this has become central to conservative mythology. One hears it from virtually every Republican politician, and it’s always accepted uncritically by conservative commentators and audiences.
Earlier this week, Republican candidate for president Ben Carson repeated this on Fox News, and he did it in typical nonchalant fashion, as though it were a truism. Near the end of a rambling interview about traditional marriage and religious liberty, Carson said: “This is a Judeo-Christian nation, in the sense that a lot of our values are based on a Judeo-Christian faith.”
This statement isn’t remotely true but it reflects a widespread ignorance about American history. America is currently populated by a majority of Christians, but this isn’t a Christian nation in any meaningful or legal sense. This inconvenient distinction is often lost on conservatives, and it’s why they’re under the impression that the government should respect their religious morality at the expense of all others (i.e., Kim Davis/Mike Huckabee).
There are two primary ways to argue that America is a Christian nation: One is to claim that our laws and Constitution are grounded in Christian values. The other is to say that the Founders of the country were Christians and that they conceived the government on the basis of those beliefs.
Both of these arguments are patently false.
First, the Constitution, which is sacrosanct in conservative circles (the parts they like anyway), makes no mention of Jesus, the Bible, Christianity or even God. In fact, when it does mention religion, it’s to prohibit the state from favoring one over another. When confronted with this fact, Christians eagerly point to the Declaration of Independence, particularly the part that reads “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
But again, with no mention of the Bible, Jesus, etc. that statement in no way justifies the view that America is a specifically Christian nation. Nearly all religious traditions have a “Creator.” Plus, even a casual reading of the Bible reveals that “all men are created equal” and posses “inalienable rights” are not values that the writers and early (or even many current) practitioners held.
As for the Founders themselves, many of them were deists, not Christians and certainly not Christians in the sense that Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz or Bobby Jindal are. John Adams, for instance, the principal author of the Massachusetts constitution and our second president, signed the Treaty of Tripoli, which stated that “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of the Independence and our third president, wrote in the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom (the precursor to the First Amendment) “That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”
There is nothing unclear about the Founders’ intentions in other words. America’s political roots are decidedly secular, only fundamentalists are confused about this.
The irony of all this is that the Founders (most of them, at least) are precisely the kind of people modern conservatives openly hate. They were elitist European-style intellectuals who were inspired by the (for the time) progressive ideals of the Enlightenment. They looked to history and Western philosophy for guidance, not to the Bible. They wanted to create a government based on classical republican principles not divine-right monarchy, the preferred method of government found in the Bible. No objective or disinterested analysis of our founding documents suggests otherwise.
Conservatives can (and almost certainly will) ignore this, but that doesn’t change the fact that America is and was intended to be a secular republic, not a Christian theocracy. If the myth of America as a Christian nation endures among conservatives, it’s because people like Ben Carson repeat it endlessly without evidence and for political purposes.