A Christian Nation?

Some scattered thoughts on politics and religion. I don’t usually indulge but I’m starting to find the situation irresistible.

They gather to watch the spectacle.

Driving University Avenue in Provo, Utah is not a zero-sum game. It brings to mind the appellation “Christian.” I occasionally hear, “that’s not very Christian!” Meaning, I suppose, that some bit of speech or some action doesn’t measure up to the Sermon on the Mount.

The political season has affected public speech in numerous ways. News cycles, which tend to repeat conflicting claims rather than analyze them with some sort of objectivity (I know, I know), pound us with nearly meaningless sound bites. In all this we frequently hear that the United States of America is (claimed to be, or was, or should be) a “Christian Nation.” It is true of course that the majority of American citizens self-identify as Christian (what they may mean by this is certainly up for grabs, but about 45% seem to claim Evangelical or Mainline Protestant connections.)[1]

America is full of self-identified denominational Christians, but this represents a present fact, not a historical one. We hear from political pulpits around the country that America was founded on Christian principles and even that the founders were believers.

Jeffress: Yes! Rick is Good. Mitt is Bad. Catholics are sort of Christians - Inspired by Satan.

One can call out names on either side of the issue here and people love to cull quotations that suggest folk like Jefferson and Washington were card-carrying Protestants.[2]

If we cede that the “founders” had varying beliefs from closet atheism to full-blown Calvinism, what about Americans in general? Here the story seems less visibly contested and some statistics can be marshaled. Still you have to be careful about it. I happen to be very interested in American sermonizing and along with my book project on Joseph Smith, I’ve done some reading in the extant sermon collections of American preachers in the colonial, early national and antebellum periods. The record there is surprisingly large and I doubt many have mastered it completely. To the question of whether early Americans were Christian, I’d say it is more than just finding a quote from someone who happened to use the word “Christian.” Colonial preachers answered the question (who is a Christian) in one way, later preachers in another. The question and the answer evolved over time.

So, were early Americans Christian? Was America, at its founding, a Christian nation? The facts are that among American social and political elites, deism (or agnostic skepticism) were popular views. As much as anything, the preaching of contemporary ministers reveals this in the frequency of sermons condemning the situation. It was only after the Revolution that Christianity took off. Methodists in 1783 had one “conference” in the U.S. By 1843 there were 32 (population increased by a factor of 8 I believe). Baptists of 1780 had 6

Franklin Graham: uh, Romney a Christian? Uh, well, uh, he's a Mormon you know. But I think I'm over that popery stuff, maybe.

“associations.” By 1860 there were nearly 500. Colonial congregations were dominated by Congregationalists/Puritans in New England with Anglicans in the middle and southern colonies (of course, Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians and other Dissenters were present). But in most areas, adherents were rather few. In Maryland for example, colonists of the 18th century were not religious freedom seekers. They came for economic reasons. And they didn’t go to church. The same was true in most of the rest of the colonies, for example places like Virginia and the Carolinas. After the Revolution, as the government’s power in religious matters faded, the institutional denominations filled the vacuum – at first decrying disestablishment – they found both new authority and prosperity in it.[3]

But if America was only nominally Christian in some sense at its beginnings, the drive to secure it as a nation founded in and guided by Christian beliefs began rather early. The rewriting of both denominational issues/meaning and the classification and characterization of Christian in the service of exclusion began more than 150 years ago. Well before that, denominations sought a new narrative for the founding, one which framed Christian foundations for constitutional text. Much of this was in reaction to evident belief systems of public figures like Jefferson and Franklin. The post Revolution rush to proselytize America was, if not staggering, of high velocity. New congregations sprouted out of (often) hard-nosed competitions among denominations. Loads of missionarying went on, preachings to half-interested laymen, new settlers and anybody who would come for a spectacle. Crash courses in (orthodox?) doctrine were the order. If membership proved even a little reliable, members could request a permanent rather than a circuit preacher. Denominational leaders read the maps of new settlements at least as fast as the land speculators. They were out there! Tract and Bible societies worked to make trees into converts at astonishing rates. Tens of Billions of pages were being produced yearly in America by the time the Book of Mormon appeared.[4]

Max Stackhouse was Stephen Colwell Professor of Christian Ethics at Princeton until 2004. Irony is something I value.

The approaching end of the antebellum period saw a number of formal tries at rereading the American past as a Christian history of America. Presbyterian minister Stephen Colwell’s 1853 The Position of Christianity in the United States pushed back against the burgeoning religious marketplace, styling Catholics (and contextually Mormons, Jews, Muslims and others) as anti-American because they infected the true historical orthodoxy of America. The First Amendment was now seen as not anti-establishment but as a prop for Orthodoxy.[5] Colwell and others advocated that the First Amendment meant that Catholics (and again by argument, other “non-Christians”) could and should be proscribed by the government, while the FA proscribed the government from any interference with true Christianity. This was a popular denominational theme that read from Protestantism’s worst batches of name-calling literature and so the narrative of the founding of America became a singularly Christian one, indeed, an orthodox Christian one.[6] The great success of sectarian expansion but the puzzling institutional failures in active adherency, required a secondary effort. And so, the new narrative added a moral imperative subtext to preaching: it was your duty to attend if you were a loyal American. And so it is, people, so it is.

The present GOP run is therefore interesting on three counts: two Catholics and a Mormon. All three hoping for evangelical status.[7]

A Christian Nation? What does this mean to you?


[1] Via Pew Religious Landscape Survey.

[2] The double standard here is mentioned briefly below. I’m afraid I’m on the side of the rationalists on this point. You can’t argue with people over this. Facts don’t count.

[3] A good place to look at this explosive growth in denominational congregants is in architectural statistics. Sacral space (church building) magnified exponentially in the antebellum period. Few pulpits were open to every creed however. Franklin’s position of welcoming Muslim teachers in a non-demoninational church in Philadelphia was a minority one. (See chap. 10 of his autobiography.)

[4] It’s a little remarkable that about the same time many voices began to demand re-establishment. Probably this resulted from, despite the huge efforts, a somewhat disappointing retention success. Where have we heard that before?

[5] See Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith (HUP, 1990), 280ff. Gilles Kepel, The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern West, trans. Alan Braley (PSUP, 1994)

[6] I want to say that there is linkage with American narratives of the war of 1812, but I won’t. (For example, Howe, What Hath God Wrought.) The Presbyterians were, more than any other denomination, intent on saving the Mormons in Utah. They played a tiny but interesting role in JS sermon imprints. Colwell was concerned about immigration as much as anything. Diluting the purity of Christianity with Catholic, Mormon and Jewish community and theology, etc.

[7] <grin> A few days ago the Rev. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, made sure we knew that he was just a little fuzzy on Santorum and Gingrich, but he definitely has to question Obama’s and Romney’s Christian status. And besides, you know something that’s getting really old: the “Church of Latter-day Saints.” Great honking HELL. It’s not like these people know something about the Ohio period.


  1. I’m in favor of the US not being considered a Christian nation anymore, and for the Church to give up its fight for “Christian” recognition. I think “Christian” has become such a brand name, I’d rather us focus our marketing on how we believe in Christ but don’t care if you think we’re “christians”.

  2. “We hear from political pulpits around the country that America was founded on Christian principles and even that the founders were believers.”

    I heard basically this in sacrament meeting last Sunday. Luckily, it didn’t go into current politics, but it was full of founding father (Washington) worship and exceptionalism. I spent the time thinking “yeah Washington was great except for the rape/adultery and slave owning.”

  3. it's a series of tubes says:

    I spent the time thinking “yeah Washington was great except for the rape/adultery and slave owning.”

    The Lord gives him and the other founding fathers their props in D&C 101.80 for fulfilling the role they were intended to play, and praises them as “wise”. Easy for someone who hasn’t been so praised to throw stones, it seems.

  4. I hate it when politicians and pundits throw around terms like “Christian Nation” to score political points, because it really distorts the historical reality, which is way more interesting. I see it two ways:

    The first way is that America was founded as a “Christian Nation” insomuch that just about everyone who lived in it was Christian – specifically, a Protestant. The founders also (also a problematic term) were more heterodox, but they represented a wealthy, educated elite rather than the norm. The extent to which religious discourse and terminology dominated the public sphere would surprise modern ears, and it gives hacks like David Barton plenty of material to work with in rewriting history for political purposes. Still, I think modern liberals tend to understate the religiosity of the founding era. On the other hand, conservatives often go awry by assuming that early American Christianity was informed by the same values and doctrines as modern Evangelical Christianity, which is ludicrous. So the real question should be, to what extent is early American Christianity relevant to modern discourse, culture, and government?

    The second way is, America is definitely not a “Christian Nation” in the sense that the government is not structured along theological lines or with religious values specifically in mind. While the government was often described by various people within a religious framework (as was just about everything back then), the text of the Constitution is expressly areligious. In those days, religious tests were common (several state constitutions had them) and religious discrimination was accepted – especially against Catholics, for both doctrinal and political reasons (the French, after all, were “papists”). So the fact that the Constitution says so little about religion actually says a lot if you know the era.

    So, yeah. Two aspects, cultural and structural. It’s when the two get conflated that you start to see violence against the history. And I think just about every politician who brings up the issue as a political rather than historical question is out for blood, not understanding.

  5. I heard that Christian nation thing in Sunday school two weeks ago. I was enduring. Then a sister was very passionate as to how one can’t live in this country without loving the Lord and believing Christ is the Savior and suchlike, which was when I lost my patience with the discussion and spoke up. Deism, agnosticism, Age of Enlightenment, the works.

    Re Washington et al: Tubes is absolutely right. The Founding fathers built something extraordinary. Extraordinary people sometimes come equipped with great flaws, and sometimes they just come equipped with the era in which they were reared.

  6. Of course Franklin Graham is marketing his view just as the candidates are; he’s got to keep his base happy.

  7. “Then a sister was very passionate as to how one can’t live in this country without loving the Lord and believing Christ is the Savior and suchlike, which was when I lost my patience”

    How can you be upset by this when the Book of Mormon says this same thing?

  8. All priesthood holders are male, therefore all males are priesthood holders, Jettboy.

  9. Jettboy, I see lots of people living here who don’t love the Lord, AND more particularly, don’t love him the way we think they should. So if they can’t live here in such a disgraceful state, shouldn’t they all have died or moved to France? (France is nice. You should go there some time.)

    BTW, yes, someone else made that argument, by appealing to an authority only a relatively few people recognize as anything but a fiction by a charismatic 19th Century charlatan.

  10. Jettboy: perhaps because the Book of Mormon isn’t talking specifically about America?

  11. Meldrum the Less says:

    Christian might have different definitions for different people. The sign on the front of the church might not mean much to some.The last parable of Jesus in Matt 26 defines disciples of Christ (sheep) as those who do six specific activities. Feed hungry/ water for thirsty/ strangers taken in/ naked clothed/ help sick/ visit prisoners. These six items are repeated 4 times.

    All of those items mentioned had a first century context. For example, neither children nor adults starve anywhere in America. If a child is old enough to beg they will get some food. A parent has to make an effort to starve their child today. Drive through the worst ghettos in America and you will see a severe nutrition problem; not hunger but obesity. Likewise, clothing is easily stolen by the poor or is otherwise readily available and the underpasses where they live are littered with train loads of barely used but filthy clothing.This is because it is far easier to get another set of threads than to wash the ones you are wearing when you don’t happen to have a washing machine in your grocery cart. Clothing the naked in a culture where a woman’s swimming suit with not enough material to make a pair of children’s mittens is sold for over a hundred bucks is absurd. And so forth on each item. But I still think most of us understand what the modern equivalent of those six items is.

    Other Christian churches have this idea of the social gospel. Theology is for the preacher and the pulpit. Who really cares? But the real backbone of the church is the numerous outreach programs. My impression is that we Mormons take our theology seriously along with our history (to the point of bowdlerizing it) and we want to convert people before we extend the helping hand. Resolving foundational spiritual problems makes the solution to the physical problems easier. A chronic alcoholic can be fed or given money or a job, but until he stops drinking, you are not doing much but prolonging his misery. We Mormons are gradually doing more outreach to the community, but not enough to be considered full-fledged Christians yet. Especially since our corporate organization coupled with tithing faithfulness gives us wealth far in excess of our actual numbers.

    For these reasons, i believe we are resented and not allowed into the inner fold of the Christian flock. We want to be distinctive and exclusive (the only true and living church upon the earth of which I am well-pleased) and are wiling to be obnoxious and stubborn about some core beliefs. Yet we also want acceptance and respect. I think we have run this gauntlet in the recent past with skill and great luck, but our size and influence is making it harder. We can’t have it both ways indefinitely.

  12. Moriah: I am with Jettboy. Why do you hate Jesus?

    I actually think that Joseph Smith had The USA in mind when he wrote the Book of Mormon. That is not what Jettboy is implying, but I think that it is a reasonable assumption if one reads it as a 19th century text.

  13. Early American history is very interesting, but sort of missing the point, which perhaps is the point.

  14. Chris, he didn’t WRITE it. It was a revealed translation, thus, the Word of God, thus could encompass all his children. Tell him, Jettboy.

    That we choose to read scripture as pertaining only to the US, well, perhaps we’re as narcissistic as the rest of the world seems to think we are.

  15. Butler asserts that America wasn’t majority Christian even following the Civil War. By that I don’t just mean denominationally untied. I mean effectively nonbelievers. We have this fantasy that America was full of ‘independent’ believers.

  16. I have this fantasy that America is full of independent cleavers–of zombie skulls. It’s a pretty good fantasy. Makes my daily walking commute really enjoyable.

  17. Geez, oudenos.

  18. 11 – Meldrum

    For example, neither children nor adults starve anywhere in America. . . . Likewise, clothing is easily stolen by the poor or is otherwise readily available and the underpasses where they live are littered with train loads of barely used but filthy clothing.

    Wow. Just – wow.
    Do you really think there is no starvation in America? In 2010, we had over 1 billion under- and mal- nourished in the US and the CDC reported over 2,000 deaths. This is quite seperate from obesity related diseases, such as diabetes.
    And even though Americans throw away much food and clothing that have seen little use, that does not mean they get collected up under freeways to moulder – most of it is buried in landfills.

    As for the mentions of stealing and obesity in the poor, as if it is the norm? Doesn’t even deserve a comment.

    There is still plenty of work to be done, even within the United States, in feeding the hungry and clothing the poor. Insulting them just adds to the injury.

  19. Great write-up, WVS, and as ever, the captions and notes are spectacular.

  20. “Christians nations” haven’t historically been very good at representing Christ. I’m OK losing the distinction

  21. Thanks, J. I try. Way to confuse the issue Kyle. <grin>

  22. E.D. #2: Were you by chance in Wilmington (Delaware) 2nd Ward on Sunday?

  23. “Likewise, clothing is easily stolen by the poor or is otherwise readily available and the underpasses where they live are littered with train loads of barely used but filthy clothing.”

    How do you know *any* of this–clothing is easily stolen? Underpasses where *they* live? Underpasses that are littered with clothing? Clothing that is barely used?

    I’m blown away by this, so I’m not terribly articulate now, but what the crap are you talking about?

  24. RE: #12 & #14
    Look at your first edition of the B of M. Note that on the Title Page it says, “The Book of Mormon, by Joseph Smith, Junior, Author and Proprietor, 1830”.