Those who view America as a “Christian” nation often point to the country’s founding principles and speak of the need to “take back our nation for God.”
Since giving my life to Christ in 1994, I have been utterly confounded by the calls of sincere fellow believers in their zeal to “put God back into America.” Just tune into virtually any Christian conservative talk radio station in America and you are bound to hear phrases like: “We need to get God back into America again…” or “Our nation has turned its back on God…” or my own personal favorite: “We are engaged in a culture war and need to stop the liberals from destroying our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage!”
As I have surveyed the landscape of this pervasive idea of America as a wayward “Christian” nation, I have found the underpinnings of this argument to be embarrassingly idealistic at best and deceptively erroneous at worst.
While it is indisputable that many, if not most, of America’s early founders were sympathetic to Christianity, it is also clear that few of them believed the Bible to be the literal Word of God.
According to founding father John Adams:
Letter to Thomas Jefferson, September 3, 1816
The man’s writings speak for themselves. The problem is that most modern founding-era apologists have never read them.
Let’s turn now to our most Epicurean founding father Thomas Jefferson who considered the Gospels to be utter nonsense:
Thomas Jefferson to W. Short, 1820
They probably skipped that unfortunate quip in your last Sunday school class on God and country. And I seriously doubt Mr. Jefferson’s trashtalk on Jesus, Paul, and the Bible would score him any points in any modern evangelical Sunday school class, though somehow he remains deified within those same circles. Its an interesting sleight of hand.
In 1822, Jefferson predicted that the Unitarian faith would totally dominate the young country within a generation: “I trust that there is not a young man living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” Jefferson’s hope that “the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States” failed to materialize. But his radical democratic experiment did succeed in hastening further divisions and fractures in the Christian church. (The Unitarian faith still largely aligns with the early’s founders views on religious tolerance and acceptance of all faiths ultimately leading to the same God.) Our modern era of consumer choice and power hunger requires 8,000 Christian denominations to satiate our religious tastes and preferences. Sadly, Sunday morning is still the most segregated day of the week in America.
I have learned that if you want to understand the founder’s thinking, you must look less to the Bible (especially the New Testament) and much closer at works from the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, John Locke, Montesquieu, Thomas Paine and many other enlightenment thinkers.
As if his sentiment were unclear about his disdain for the so-called miracles attributed to Jesus, Jefferson wrote this to his friend John Adams three years later:
Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Apr. 11, 1823
By his own admission, Jefferson believed that, if Christ was even born, his mother was certainly not a virgin. To believe such nonsense would require one to be so gullible as to believe any of the other ancient mother-son cults, such as the ancient Roman story of Minerva being swallowed by Jupiter. Is it wise to simply overlook these doctrinal deviations simply for the benefit of maintaining the facade of our modern civil religion?
As to his philosophy on life, Jefferson pledged clear allegiance to Nature’s God, the same god referenced in our founding documents, but first by ancient pagan philosophers like Epicurus:
Thomas Jefferson to W. Short, 1819
Note that it was the Epicureans that Paul challenged with the gospel message during his time in Athens. (Acts 17:18)
Yet another founder, Thomas Paine, gleefully shared his atheistic leanings with sentences like this:
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. But, I guess aside from that, if you really still insist, you can call them “Christians.”
As former Europeans, the American revolutionaries were eager to prevent the “tyranny” of monotheistic Christian monarchy from encroaching upon their vision of a new and tolerant society that replaced duties to a divinely appointed king (Rom. 13:1-7) with individual rights. Initially, it was only self-evident that white men were created equal. The American God’s (or Nature’s God’s) “glorious” revival of ancient Greek pagan political philosophies were used as mighty weapons in the overthrow of monotheistic Christian monarchy.
America’s God extended life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all, as long as you were white… and male. If you were black, native American, Mexican, or even worse, a woman, liberty and justice didn’t apply to you.
Despite deep suspicion of church/state coordination, early American laws still greatly favored the Christian faith in the the public square. Until being prohibited at the federal level, several colonies used religious tests for political office.
Thomas Jefferson, in his haste to disconnect any tentacles between church and state that resembled the Church of England, promoted an idea of “religious freedom” and “toleration” for citizens of all faiths in early America. According to Jefferson, in America “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination” were now, 1800 years after the birth of Christ, granted complete freedom to worship as they wished. America’s revival of pantheism means all manner of gods can be erected and worshiped across the land. The founders ensured that no one would be able to tear down another false god again… ever. While no god is specifically endorsed, none are prevented, in direct conflict with the first of the 10 Commandments given to Moses: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” That seems like an important verse. In America, not so much. Choose your god and worship it however you please. As long as you don’t break my leg or pick my pocket, worship on. In America, all “gods” can be worshiped without reprisal. Just food for thought.
Before continuing with our 15 thought-provoking questions — that I hope many of you will print and use in your Sunday School class to stoke group discussions — let us first stop to define the word “Christian” and briefly explain what it means to use it in conjunction with a physical nation.
Aren’t “Christian” And “Christlike” The Same Thing?
According to my understanding, a “Christian” is an individual who believes Jesus Christ to be God incarnate and simultaneously the only begotten Son of God. In response to this Holy Spirit-inspired revelation, the Christian surrenders his life to God’s will and purposes. As a Christian, he values and esteems the teachings of Jesus so highly that he abandons all to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Through a consistent examination of God’s Word — the Bible — he relies upon the power of God to align his values and his ideas with those of his Savior. He trusts in the direction of God’s Holy Spirit. Finally, he submits himself to God’s divine reshaping and remolding process which will ultimately allow him to reflect the righteous character of his Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Put simply, a Christian is one who is Christlike.
However, when members of the “Religious Right” refer to America as a “Christian” nation, do you believe that this definition of “Christian” is what they have in mind? Are they really trying to say that America is Christlike?
And what about you? If you believe that America was, and is, a “Christian” nation, what definition are you using for “Christian?”
Is there another definition of a “Christian” that we should consider instead of Christlikeness?
Personally, I would prefer to avoid too much creativity on this definition. As J. Dwight Pentecost once wrote: “When the plain sense makes common sense, seek no other sense.” So, I feel comfortable maintaining the definition of “Christian” as “Christlike.” So, throughout the remainder of this piece, I will replace the ambiguous phrase “Christian” nation with the more lucid phrase, “Christlike” nation.”
I am fully aware that this article will provoke anger from some Christians. To those, I would say that my intentions through this article are absolutely sincere. Before coming to Christ in 1994, I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It took me several years of sound Biblical teaching and prayer to escape the clutches of that false cult. So, when I was born again, I came into the fold with eyes wide open. I fully understand the destructive power of brainwashing that religious leaders can wield, if they so choose. Therefore, this article is presented more as challenge to the prevailing wisdom of Christian nationalism, and less as an assault upon anyone’s deeply held beliefs.
Because we live in such an intellectually dishonest age where truth is a constant casualty, I feel that I should stress again that I am a firm believer in Christ. No one that knows me personally would ever accuse me of being a “liberal” Christian or a “liberal” politik. I believe that God’s Word is the only source of absolute truth. In theology, I am considered ultra-conservative. As a Christ follower, I believe my job on this earth is to spread His fame and glory through obedience to His commands. It is important to me that you respect this because the questions that I will provoke you with below will tempt the laziest among you to marginalize me and lead you to dismiss the importance of contemplating the questions posed in this article. I implore you to “think” and research the validity of the questions below before leaving a comment. Also, any comments that attempt to “prove” America is a Christian nation that are expressed in a non-Christlike manner will not be approved. However, I strongly welcome well-thought out comments that seek to challenge the thesis of this article, assuming they are worded in a spirit of love.
So, with all of those preliminaries out of the way, let us begin…
Below are 15 thought-provoking questions that I myself began struggling with many years ago. The purpose of these questions is to both educate and create a sense of humility regarding the human condition. I have used these questions in group settings and it is amazing what kind of reactions you get based on different perspectives.
15 Questions For Those Who Believe America is a ‘
Christian Christlike Nation’
1. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, North America was home to millions of natives. These early North Americans had built numerous cities and villages, developed a legal system, and had developed a unique culture that focused upon preserving the land for future generations. How do you think these early North American families and tribes viewed the the early European settlers? Would it be normal for the Natives to view them with suspicion?
2. After a war between the Puritans and the Pequot Indians in the late 1630’s, Puritan leader John Mason wrote these celebratory words: “Let the whole Earth be filled with his Glory! Thus the LORD was pleased to smite our Enemies in the hinder Parts, and to give us their Land for an Inheritance.” Do you agree with John Mason that God “was pleased” to bring death and destruction upon the Native American peoples in order to give the land of North America to English colonists as an “inheritance?” Is it accurate to call these violent actions on the part of the early European settlers “Christlike?”
3. In the Old Testament, God tells Abraham that as the father of the Jewish people, he and his seed will be given the land of Israel as an inheritance. (Gen. 17:8) Similarly, do you believe that God “gave” North America to the early European settlers as John Mason suggests? If so, is North America the only land that God wanted to “give” to the early European settlers? What if there are more lands that God wants to “give” to Americans as an inheritance? Would you be willing to publicly support further invasions of sovereign lands today so that America could receive those inheritances? Could any of these invasions into sovereign territories be accurately called “Christlike?”
4. In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while Native Americans (Indians) could occupy land, they were not permitted to hold title to, or own, the land. Given that America was founded on the basis that “all men are created equal,” how can the early American government’s stripping of the basic property rights of Native Americans be considered Christlike?
5. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law. This law, which had the support of the majority of Americans, forced Native Americans living in Eastern states to emigrate Westward across the Mississippi river to make room for the expansion of American settlers and for gold speculators seeking virgin lands to exploit. Over 4,000 Cherokee Indians died tragically in what is known today as the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Is it possible to justify early America’s mistreatment of the original inhabitants of North America as Christlike?
6. In 1848, America’s Westward expansion, coupled with the California gold rush, led to further massacres of Native Americans. The Indians that had been forcibly moved to the Western states were now in harm’s way yet again. Native American men were slaughtered, women were raped, and children were sold into slavery. Indian boys sold for $60 and Indian girls sold for $200. Have you ever been confronted with these facts before? Would you describe these actions as those of a “Christlike” nation?
7. Regarding the extermination of the American Indians and the expropriation of their lands, President Theodore Roosevelt said that it “was as ultimately beneficial as it was inevitable. Such conquests are sure to come when a masterful people, still in its raw barbarian prime, finds itself face to face with the weaker and wholly alien race which holds a coveted prize in its feeble grasp.” Do you agree with the former U.S. President that the genocide of the Native Americans was “beneficial” because white Americans were a more superior and “masterful” race than the “weaker” Natives? Are there any discernable differences between Roosevelt’s speech and the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Nazi Germany?
8. According to Holocaust scholar, Dr. David Cesarani, “in terms of the sheer numbers killed, the Native American Genocide exceeds that of the (Nazi-led) Holocaust.” Should modern day Christians excuse the murder, rape, and destruction of America’s indigenous peoples by early American colonists, even if it was done in the name of Christ?
9. Some might argue that America’s mistreatment of the Native Americans was rooted in a basic ignorance of scripture. But how could early America be coined a “Christian” nation without its leaders having a basic understanding of Christ’s teachings as found in Holy Scripture?
10. Others might argue that the mistreatment of Native Americans by early European settlers was strictly based upon self-defense. However, a proper reading of history demonstrates that the Native Americans did not seek out the Americans to do them harm but were instead themselves invaded by outside colonizers who sought to conquer their land. Therefore, it was the Native Americans, not the European colonists, who viewed their struggle as an act of self-defense. Which side do you personally believe was truly acting in self-defense? The natives who had inhabited the land for over a millenia, or the European settlers who had come in search of a better life, and in later years, in search for gold?
11. Can you name one other country besides America which, as a matter of national policy, sought to wipe out its indigenous population? Can you name one other country where “Christians” had to kill “Christians” to create their country and, again, to eradicate slavery?
12. If America were to be officially declared as a “Christian” nation, which of the nearly 8,000 Christian denominations would represent the national Christian faith?
13. Early church history reveals that, while the first Christians respected the governing authorities, they in now way condoned violence and bloodshed, even through the use of military force. Consider these words by renowned church historian, Kenneth Scott Latourette: “For the first three centuries, no Christian writing which has survived to our time condoned Christian participation in war. Some Christians held that for them all bloodshed, whether as soldiers or as executioners, was unlawful. At one stage in its history the influential Church of Alexandria seems to have looked askance upon receiving soldiers into its membership and to have permitted enlistment in the legions only in exceptional circumstances.” (A History of Christianity, pp. 242-243) Given these facts, what type of attitude do you believe the American church should have towards the U.S. military?
14. Early Christians were opposed to involvement in the military for many reasons. Several of these reasons were summarized by Adolf von Harnack when he wrote: “The shedding of blood on the battlefield, the use of torture in the law-courts, the passing of death-sentences by officers and the execution of them by common soldiers, the unconditional military oath, the all-pervading worship of the Emperor, the sacrifices in which all were expected in some way to participate, the average behaviour of soldiers in peace-time, and other idolatrous and offensive customs — all these would constitute in combination an exceedingly powerful deterrent against any Christian joining the army on his own initiative.” Do you think that early Christians were wrong to avoid entangling themselves in the world’s military disputes over territory and natural resources? How about today?
15. Is it possible for a country to be “Christlike,” and at the same time, possess the largest armed forces and weapons arsenal in world history?
There are many more questions we could ask. But these 15 questions are designed to get you thinking about what you believe and why you believe it.
If you have read this far, this article must have connected with you in some way. Please share your thoughts, questions in the comments section below.