Speaking from the heart of the Muslim world in Turkey's Cankaya Palace in April 2009, President Barack Obama answered the question with the nuance that has come to characterize his public statements: America, he declared, is "a predominantly Christian nation" but "we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation."
The President's answer seems to strike a discordant tone between reality and self-perception. On the one hand, American has no official church or religion. The United States Constitution expressly forbids a national religion. Yet on the other hand, Christianity is the religion of a substantial supermajority of the American population. According to the latest results of the Pew Research Centre's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, nearly 80 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian.
But there is no contradiction in the President's statement. America is, and indeed always has been, a nation of Christians but it is not, nor has it ever been, a Christian nation.
This is an important distinction that has been lost on some former Presidents. In a famous speech on "The Bible and Progress" a few years before the First World War, Woodrow Wilson asserted that "America was born a Christian nation." Decades later, just after the close of the Second World War, Harry Truman repeated the same theme in a letter to Pope Pius XII: "Your Holiness, this is a Christian nation."
More recently, prominent presidential candidates--both past and prospective--have taken their turn claiming America is a Christian nation. In 2007, then-presidential candidate John McCain said: "I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation." And just a couple of months ago, Sarah Palin echoed a similar theme when she fiercely condemned the view that America is not a Christian nation.
But the founders understood the distinction between living in a nation of Christians and legislating a nation of Christianity. Although most of them were strong Christian believers, the revolutionary statesmen who broke America free from the irons of its imperial overlords believed, above all, in the freedoms of faith and conscience.
Against this backdrop, we can better understand the narrative of religious freedom that runs through several provisions of the United States Constitution, written in 1787 at Independence Hall. Consider two examples. First, the Religious Test Clause bans any requirement of a religious affiliation, Christian or otherwise, in order to run for office or accept an appointment. And, second, the Oath and Affirmation Clause requires all executive, legislative and judicial officers at the federal and state level to vow their support for the Constitution. But it permits officers to either swear a religious oath of allegiance or affirm a secular pledge of loyalty.
When the First Congress subsequently wrote the Bill of Rights in 1789, one of the main objectives was to confirm that the new republic was anchored first and foremost in religious freedom. It is no wonder, then, that the very first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights is freedom of religion. And religious freedom was given pride of place for a reason: to signal clearly to Americans that gone were the days of living under the thumb of an oppressive regime that dictated religious thought.
Later in 1797, the United States ratified a series of treaties with representatives of the Muslim world. In one of those treaties, the Treaty of Tripoli, the United States Congress affirmed "the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."
But there is more at stake in this debate than a battle of dueling historical interpretations. For what remains unanswered is whether the United States could ever become a Christian nation under law.
Why must Americans continue to live according to the rules of the founding generation? If 99 percent of contemporary Americans want to establish Christianity as the official religion of the United States, what should stop them?
Perhaps more to the point, how would the President answer these questions? Would the President take the easy path out of the thicket, invoking liberal democratic principles of freedom and equality to overrule the possibility of an established church? Would he relate his answer to the distorted undertones of Christianity and Islam that have falsely characterized the war on terror? Or would he concede that the will of people must govern such a central question of American nationhood?
Given the rising tide of militant Christianity growing ever more present and powerful in the United States, these would be terribly difficult questions for the President to answer. But they are important ones deserving answers. Which is why someone should ask him.
Crossposted from Race-Talk.