The Religious Foundation of America Has Been Misunderstood
Many political and religious leaders like to remind Americans they are a Christian nation. It is used as a tool to justify policy decisions. When President Trump needs to explain his policy of promoting protections for far-right Christian beliefs he evokes the religious tradition of the United States. When pastors argue why we should be limiting gay marriage they use quotes of early Founding Fathers.
But are they right? Was America indeed created as a Christian nation? The truth is less clearly defined.
It is true most of the founding fathers were Christian. Many were different denominations of Protestantism, as well as three who were Catholics. It is also true that the Declaration of Independence and many speeches about America include references to God. But this does not mean that America was a Christian nation. As John Adams said, “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
While the Declaration of Independence includes references to God, the Constitution does not mention Christianity or God once. The difference is the Declaration was designed to explain the American Revolution. The Founding Fathers used the authority of God to justify the rebellion as a way to supplant the authority of the British. When creating the Constitution, the Founding Fathers wanted the government not to have any mention of any particular religion.
To understand why the Founders did this you need to understand the ideology of Deism. Deism was a widespread belief during the time of the American Revolution. It argued that rationality rather than religious dogma should determine what humans believe.
Instead of this supplementing Christian belief, it was seen as complementary. Many of the Founding Fathers were both Christians and Deists. They believed in freedom of thinking, skepticism, and uncertainty. They thought this was using the very tools that were given to them by God. The definition of God moved to a more natural, spiritual force than a supernatural entity.
Therefore, all the statements about God did not automatically mean that the Founding Fathers were automatically trying to make America Christian. And if they were, it does not necessarily mean that they were giving an orthodox interpretation of Christianity. There is more nuance in their understanding of Christianity. If there are universal truths to the founding of America, it would be that the principals of freedom of personal choice and intellectual curiosity were essential to the formation of a democratic nation.