Religious Pluralism and America’s Christian Nation DebateGregory W. Hamilton September/October 2007
The constitutional system of the United States of America remains the envy of much of the outside world, despite the growing unrest of our European allies toward our country's administration, and the continual provocation against it by terrorists and a few hostile Arab nations.
The greatest threat to our constitutional system comes from within. Most particularly from those who seek to reinterpret our nation's constitutional history in a way that suits their own desire for raw political power.
This "revolutionary" threat is led by religiously motivated revisionists who seek to recast our collective history as one that favors their viewpoint. Since the late 1980s, beginning with the widely seen video productions by David Barton of WallBuilders, and advocated by figures with populist credibility—such as Newt Gingrich, Dr. D. James Kennedy, Judge Roy Moore, and Attorney Jay Sekulow—an enormous amount of money, time, and energy has gone into blurring our national history to create the myth of an evangelical Christian foundation.
The first casualty in this struggle to create a history that supports a contemporary march toward power is the demolition of the distinction between the Puritan and Constitutional founding periods. This has caused many unwary American citizens to believe that the United States government was specifically intended by our nation's Founders to be constituted on the basis of a narrow form of Christianity and literal scriptural commands.
Rather than an honest evaluation of the past, a mythical history has been developed—one that provides an incomplete and inaccurate history to support populist viewpoints. The revisionists have benefited from substandard public education in history and have used popular ignorance of key historical facts to reinterpret the Constitution, and to establish the Christian Constitution and Christian State they have always cherished. Rather than rewriting the Constitution, they simply say it means something else.
These radical revisionists have even misapplied Francis Schaeffer's idea of A Christian Manifesto. They contemplate a failure of winning by persuasion and recognize the possibility of the government forcing secular humanism against the Christian community's collective will. The revisionists have even contemplated what it would be like for "We the People" to abolish the Constitution altogether—a point emphasized in a special November 1996 edition of Richard John Neuhaus's First Things journal.
One of the means employed has been the proposal of so-called Constitution Reform Acts at the state level, including a Pledge of Allegiance Act at the federal level. It is an idea promoted by Newt Gingrich, who is fed up with the amendment process as outlined in Article V of the Constitution.1 These acts are specifically worded in a way that would bar state courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court, from ever hearing cases involving acts of religious expression in the public square that are sponsored by the government. They would give state legislative bodies and the U.S. Congress a blank check to pass whatever the popular will of the people wanted. This in turn would effectively limit courts from interpreting the Constitution over an entire realm of jurisprudence—namely church-state and religious liberty case law. 2
According to Jack Rakove, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution , such a move would strike at the very heart of Jefferson's and Madison's principled support for disestablishment and free exercise law: ". . . the radical conviction that nearly the entire sphere of religious practice could be safely deregulated, placed beyond the cognizance of the state, and thus defused as both a source of political strife and a danger to individual rights. By treating religion as a matter of opinion only, Jefferson and Madison identified the one area of governance in which the realm of private rights could be enlarged by a flat constitutional denial of legislative jurisdiction, thereby converting the general premise that all government rested on a delegation of authority from the people into a specific refusal to permit government to act over an entire area of behavior."3
Efforts to eliminate judicial review oversight by legislative fiat would, if successful, radically affect our country's constitutional separation of powers, separate individuals from the protection of the Bill of Rights, and effectively eliminate the constitutional separation of church and state. Arguably, with church and state bound together, radical historical revisionists would achieve their objective of full power over all branches of government, and indeed, of all faith.
The Christian Nation Debate
According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 71 percent of Americans consider the United States a "Christian nation."4
Other polls show that secularism and atheism are on the decline while 82 percent of Americans claim to be Christian. The fact is America is a nation with a large Christian majority, but it is a nation of many faith groups and religions. America is predominantly Christian in terms of its population: 251 million Americans, out of a total population of slightly over 300 million, profess to be Christian. That's roughly 82-83 percent of America's population, with each categorized at varying devotional levels.5
Of this 82 percent cited, roughly 25 percent are conservative evangelical Catholics and 29 percent are evangelical Protestants. This means that 54 percent are conservative evangelical Christians, leaving approximately 28 percent in the mainline liberal Protestant churches.6 All other people of faith make up 9 percent (i.e., Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.). The remaining 8-9 percent range from secularists with no particular antagonism to institutional forms of religion, to atheists, who make up less than 2 percent of the American population.7
From this, one could reasonably conclude that demographically and culturally, America remains a predominantly Christian nation in the midst of a competitive and diverse religious landscape. Spiritually, however, Americans don't view America as a Christian nation because of any real knowledgeable or passionate creedal commitment to Christianity. Instead, as Hugh Heclo of George Mason University argues, "A noncreedal Christianity fits very well with the larger American culture that endorses individual choice, tolerance of different truths, and distrust of anyone's party line about what morality ought to be."8
More and more, Christians are developing a social faith that passionately merges into shared cultural, moral, social, and political values, regardless of doctrinal differences. An indication of this middle ground is seen in the growing segment of younger evangelicals who are becoming concerned about global warming, AIDS relief, and economic relief for the poor and unfortunate, instead of the typical conservative hot button issues.9
But this does not diminish today's cultural divide, where, as Christopher Clausen reminds us, pitched struggles over the proper place of religion in the public square "spill rivers of ink and spawn endless litigation." The issues are things like the celebration of Christmas in public venues, God in the Pledge of Allegiance, prayer in public schools, the legality and propriety of same-sex marriage, courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments, the notion of Intelligent Design, abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research. Evangelical Christians unite on these issues in a similar way.
Whether one is a liberal, conservative, or in-between, as Clausen argues, "War between the faiths, as well as between faith and government, is raging again throughout most of the world, and America is part of the picture."10 Secular liberals, often professed Christians, continually seek to deface religion in the public square, making it void of religious expression. On the other side of the divide, many evangelical Christians have been vigorously trying—through legislation—to constitutionalize (or enforce by law) the dominance of Christianity and Christian expression in the public square. As Clausen puts it, "The Left fears that fundamentalists have subverted the Constitution to establish a theocracy, while the Right complains of galloping secularism."11
The Constitutional and Legal Question
So let's ask the logical question. Is America a Christian nation from a constitutional and legal standpoint? When reading the Constitution on a line-by-line basis, does it make biblical demands on us as citizens, or propose to organize our federal governmental system on the basis of biblically defined principles? Did America's Constitutional Framers intend the Constitution to make Christianity the dominating religion or law of the land?
Perhaps the closest our country came to becoming a Christian nation was when Alexander Hamilton proposed the creation of a "Christian Constitutional Society." While Hamilton's proposal was contained in an obscure letter to Congressman James Bayard of Delaware, and never saw the light of day, it represented a systematic plan for ensuring the election of "fit [Christian] men," and thus ensuring the transformation of the American political system into a Christian consensus, affecting generations of legislation with a Christian intent. Hamilton's proposal was, in some distinct ways, a precursor to the once vaunted Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition in our day—voting guides and all!12
Despite the narrow vision of Hamilton, we are fortunate that most of our nation's Founders realized that a greater influx of immigrants would bring a corresponding increase in religious pluralism. Many faith groups had escaped from the troubled European Continent, where religious wars and persecutions were a frequent and well-known condition of those times. For the Founders to anticipate an increasing flood of new immigrants required establishing the new and fledgling Republic on a secure basis—on the basis of civil and religious freedom. To do this they would have to at once calculate, acknowledge, enunciate, and apply the radical principle of the separation between church and state in the new Constitution by preventing the establishment of a national church. It would also mean ensuring that the federal government was not involved in financially supporting, officially endorsing, or sponsoring any particular religious activity—particularly denominational acts of worship or spiritual devotion.
Constitutionally speaking, then, the United States remains a secular nation with secular laws that are neutral toward religion, religious individuals, and religious entities, where no religious belief system, tenet, or church is established through legal enforcement. If Americawere a Christian nation by law, and Christianity were to dominate and suppress any other faith expression, and this was specifically spelled out as such in our Constitution, then our government would be no different than some Muslim countries whose constitutions are based on Sharia law and Hadith writings—laws derived, interpreted, and applied from the Koran, the sacred Scriptures of Islam. The only difference, of course, would be that our laws and the enforcement of our laws would derive authority, interpretation, and application from the Holy Bible, the sacred Scriptures of Christianity. Given the ardor of power-seeking Christians today who leave little room for plurality or dissent, the practical application of those laws would surely shock many.
If America were a Christian nation on a legal and constitutional basis, religious freedom in this country would be virtually nonexistent. The nation might be tolerant of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Spiritists, and even some Christian minorities (i.e., Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, all American-born religions), but religious groups that did not comply with fixed legal objectives would be at a distinct disadvantage.
This is why, in our country's historical formation, Christian men such as John Leland, an itinerant, hell-fire preaching colonial Baptist from Virginia, was motivated to write that "the notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever." He argued that "government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a preeminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians."13 In these words Reverend Leland echoed the thoughts and words of many other Christians of his day. Indeed, no reasonable historian could accuse Reverend Leland of being a modern secular humanist.
From this, a true American imperative emerges: the principled need for religious freedom in a diverse land of many people of varying faiths and faith experiences. John Tyler is one of the least remembered presidents in the history of the United States. Yet on July 10, 1843, he penned one of the most eloquent letters ever written applauding the American constitutional experiment in religious freedom. He wrote:
"The United States has adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent—that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mohammedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the Constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political institutions. . . The Hebrew persecuted and down trodden in other regions takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid. . . and the Aegis of the government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried, and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it; our system of free government would be imperfect without it."14
As Tyler so eloquently points out, religious and political pluralism—not a Christian nation—was the principled foundation that was chosen by America's Constitutional Founders, that religious and political freedom could truly be lasting.
Revisiting the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom
Perhaps the most convincing proof that America's Constitutional Fathers did not intend to establish a Christian Commonwealth comes from the words of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.
Shortly before his death, James Madison addressed the threat of a Commonwealth in his day. In a September 1832 letter to the Reverend Jasper Adams, responding to a sermon pamphlet that Adams had circulated to key individuals, including Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, Madison objected to the central argument in Adams' sermon. This was the idea that since the Christian religion was a cultural and moral force pervading the entire nation, it deserved to be financially supported by the government through general taxation. This, Adams argued, would solve many of the nation's moral ills.
But for Madison, Adams' argument was more than just a suggestion to subsidize Christian churches; it was an attempt to favor Christianity in an official and thus constitutional manner. This ran contrary to his original understanding, particularly when the establishment clause was largely drafted on the fresh experiences of defeating Patrick Henry's funding bill—a bill that would have established "A Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion"—with Thomas Jefferson's "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom," which in 1777 became Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom and allowed for no such funding or favoritism.
In response to Adams, Madison wrote: "The simple question to be decided, is whether a support of the best and purest religion, the Christian Religion itself, ought not, so far at least as pecuniary means are involved, to be provided for by the Government, rather than be left to the voluntary provisions of those who profess it." Madison's rhetorical question had a quick and decisive answer: "On this question, experience will be an admitted umpire. . . . In the papal system, Government & Religion are in a manner consolidated; & that is found to be the worst of Governments." Madison argued that this was because history had proven that such a system had neither been favorable "to Religion or to government."15
Thomas Jefferson did a little reflecting of his own regarding the legislative battle over his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Mr. Jefferson, then retired at Monticello, noted in his autobiography Writings that even though "a majority of the legislature were churchmen . . . a great majority" rejected an amendment put forward by those who insisted on declaring in the preamble that coercion was "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy Author of our religion."16
While Jefferson had no personal problem with the theological correctness of such a statement, he had a problem with Virginia declaring that it was a Christian state, when in fact it was more than a state that merely tolerated other religions, but instead gave them equal status with Christians of every creed and stripe. He observed that "the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindu, and infidel of every denomination."