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America's 'Christian Nation' Myth

By the Rev. Howard Bess
November 22, 2010

Editor’s Note: A key propaganda ploy of America’s right-wing news media has been to insist endlessly that there is no constitutional separation between church and state and that the United States must “return” to its status as a “Christian nation.”

This propaganda has proved so effective that some polls now show that more than half of Americans believe that the Founders created a “Christian nation” despite the lack of any reference to Christianity in the Constitution, as Rev. Howard Bess notes in this guest essay:

While people came to the American continent for many reasons, one prominent reason was to find a place to escape religious persecution. Sadly, those who were persecuted because of their faith often became the persecutors.

The prime example was Roger Williams, a Congregational clergyperson who became a dissenter and had the audacity to declare himself a Baptist, leading to his banishment from Massachusetts and to his move to what is now Providence, Rhode Island.

There he was joined by others in establishing what was then almost unthinkable in the Western world. In 1636, Rhode Island became a colony in which religious freedom was to be practiced.  Even the despised Quakers and Jews were welcomed. 

For that reason, Rhode Island is held up as an American ideal, the birthplace of the nation’s principle of religious freedom. However, even the folks from Providence had their religious hang-ups. Roman Catholics were denied the right to vote.

A century and a half later, the free exercise of religion became a major barrier to the formation of the 13 colonies into a new nation, in part because there was little experience with religious tolerance in the European homelands from which most early American immigrants originated.

(Many European governments established official religions for their countries and persecuted people who resisted that orthodoxy. Bloody wars were fought both between nations of different religions and within nation states where adherents to unapproved religions were sometimes put to death as traitors and heretics.)

Even in the fledgling United States, which was a sanctuary for many of these persecuted religious followers, an abiding problem was the tension between the desire for religious freedom for one’s own group and the hesitancy to grant that same freedom to others.

James Madison was responsible for pulling together words that were acceptable to all. They are the heart of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof.” 

(Madison was saying that the U.S. government should never establish an official religion – the bane of European religious wars – but should be tolerant of all religions.)

To this day, Madison’s words establishment and free exercise remain central to all religious freedom discussions. 

Madison’s greatest ally was a fire-brand Baptist preacher by the name of Isaac Backus from Massachusetts. Backus knew full well the experience of being a part of a persecuted religious minority and wanted free exercise of his religious beliefs.
Many Americans recognize the First Amendment as the basis of the “wall of separation between church and state,” words from Thomas Jefferson that are firmly stuck in the minds of Americans (though as failed Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell likes to note, those precise words are not in the Constitution).

We have been arguing the meaning of Jefferson’s words for over 230 years (and it is not only O’Donnell who is confused about the intent of Madison and Jefferson to create a country that was tolerant of all religions but favored none.)

The First Amendment Center, which has offices in Washington and at Vanderbilt University and is dedicated to the defense of First Amendment rights, has been doing polling on this subject since 1997. 

In the most recent poll, the center found some surprising results. About one-third of the respondents believed that the First Amendment did not establish a clear separation of church and state, and more than one-half believed that the United States was established as a Christian nation. 

Somehow millions of Americans seem comfortable with ignoring the facts.

Not once does the U.S. Constitution or any of its amendments use the words Christian or Christianity. The only times the word religion is used in the Constitution is in the prohibition of a religious test to run for public office and in the First Amendment, forbidding any limits on the free practice of religion. 

Yet 53 percent of Americans believe the United States was established as a Christian nation. 

Today’s misconception about the United States as a Christian nation, of course, is not the only example of Americans failing to live up to the founding ideals.

The Baptists and the Quakers suffered severe persecution in Colonial days. The Roman Catholics and Mormons were the targets of persecution in the 19th Century, and the Jehovah Witnesses and Christian Scientists were demonized in the 20th Century. The bias against Muslims has become the challenge of the 21st century.

Acceptance and assimilation is not easy, but as we have learned, freedom is not an easy path.  Nevertheless, the United States has a strong history of accommodating religion.

Clergy have never been subject to military draft. Churches (like other not-for-profit organizations) are tax exempt. Gifts given to churches are tax exempt. Churches do not pay property taxes on properties that are used for religious or charitable purposes.

Court rulings have upheld that these kinds of accommodations to religion do not violate the constitutional wall of separation.

During the last administration, President George W. Bush established, not by law but executive order, the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Large sums of money were diverted from social service programs administered by the federal government into religious organizations.

Major constitutional questions were raised about the Faith-based programs. The administration of Barak Obama is still in the process of sorting through the rules that should be put in place for the continuation of the program.
Despite various detours (and today’s confusion about a “Christian nation”), the path on which James Madison and the First Amendment set the nation seems clear. The free exercise of religion and the wall of separation should be plain enough.

Are we ready for the Mosque built next door?

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is             

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