The Myth Of A 'Christian Nation'

By A. James Rudin
Religion News Service

(RNS) The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is credited with saying that "everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts."

Some leaders of the religious right would have us believe that America was founded as a "Christian nation." The facts, however, say otherwise.

While the Founding Fathers, with their diverse Christian backgrounds, had every opportunity to make the fledgling United States into a "Christian nation," the factual record reveals they consciously refused to do so.

And it was not, as some opine, a mistake or an oversight.

Their reasons were a combination of history, demography and the Founders' shared belief they were creating something unique in the world.

They remembered the Church of England's persecution of religious minorities, including the Pilgrims and Quakers. The Founders were also haunted by the ghosts of Europe's Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) when huge numbers of Protestants and Catholics killed each other in the name of God.

The text of the Declaration of Independence contains just four theological references: "nature's God," "Creator," "Supreme Judge of the world," and "Divine Providence." There is not a single specific mention of either Jesus or Christianity. The Declaration, reflecting the signatories' collective thinking, was carefully written and edited; words were included, or not, for a reason.

The U.S. Constitution, written in 1787, has only this religious wording: "in the year of our Lord," a common phrase still used on some legal documents and diplomas.

There is not, however, any constitutional authorization for the establishment of any religion in the U.S. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Article Six rejects a "religious test" for public office, and the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of religion while at the same time providing for its free exercise.

There were demographic factors at work, as well. By 1776, the U.S. was already religiously diverse, with several Protestant groups, minority Catholic and Jewish populations, and a large number of African-American slaves, some of them Muslim.

James Madison, a Presbyterian attorney from Virginia and a future president, predicted a "multiplicity of sects" in the U.S., similar to diverse political parties. We see now that Madison was, and remains, correct.

Even so, the question of whether the U.S. would officially become a "Christian nation" was in doubt until a titanic struggle was waged in Virginia between Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry in 1785.

Patrick, the state's governor and an Anglican (today he'd be known as an Episcopalian), wanted residents to pay a church tax to support religious institutions. Because of Virginia's population at the time, most taxes would have gone to the Anglican Church. Supporting the tax was John Marshall, another Anglican and a future Chief Justice.

Jefferson, who was also raised in the Anglican tradition, strongly opposed the proposal, and he enlisted Madison and Baptist minister John Leland as allies in the bitter campaign to defeat the bill in the Virginia Legislature.

Thanks to the efforts of Jefferson and his allies, Henry's tax legislation failed, and the following year, 1786, the Legislature adopted Jefferson's Statute of Religious Freedom by a vote of 74 to 20.

The Statute has had an extraordinary influence upon American history for 225 years. It provided that:

" No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever ... nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

Those are facts. And now my opinion:

Had Henry's church tax become law, it is likely that other states would have followed Virginia's lead and adopted similar measures. Had that happened, it would have been a far different America for every citizen, whether religiously identified or not.

A Henry victory in 1785 would have made it much more difficult to write the Constitution two years later without including specific religious language and/or a provision to approve a church tax and an established state religion.

Thanks to Jefferson's victory in the Virginia Legislature, that did not happen. It's a historical fact--not an opinion--worth remembering.

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the forthcoming "Christians & Jews, Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future.")