Is America a Christian nation? The answer is both yes and no, depending on what one means by the phrase.
The use of Christian religious references in the recent Presidential Inauguration prayers has served to reopen the debate over religion in America's public life. Professor Alan Dershowitz led off with an article strongly objecting that America wasn't a Christian nation; Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby replied that it certainly was. Who is right? Is America a Christian nation? The answer is both yes and no, depending on what one means by the phrase.
When President Harry Truman wrote to Pope Pius XII in 1947 that "This is a Christian nation.", he certainly did not mean that the United States has an official or legally-preferred religion or church. Nor did he mean to slight adherents of non-Christian religions. But he certainly did mean to recognize that this nation, its institutions and laws, was founded on Biblical principles basic to Christianity and to Judaism from which it flowed. As he told an Attorney General's Conference in 1950, "The fundamental basis of this nation's laws was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings we get from Exodus and Saint Matthew, from Isaiah and Saint Paul. I don't think we emphasize that enough these days. If we don't have a proper fundamental moral background, we will finally end up with a totalitarian government which does not believe in rights for anybody except the State."
Woodrow Wilson, in his election campaign for President, made the same point: "A nation which does not remember what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today, nor what it is trying to do. We are trying to do a futile thing if we do not know where we came from or what we have been about.... America was born a Christian nation. America was born to exemplify that devotion to the tenets of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture."
The crucial role of Christianity in this nation's formation is not without dispute, although as Revolutionary leader Patrick Henry said: "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship."
John Ashcroft was roundly criticized for his "No King but Jesus" speech at Bob Jones University, but he was only reminding us of our colonial and Revolutionary War heritage. In a 1774 report to King George, the Governor of Boston noted: "If you ask an American, who is his master? He will tell you he has none, nor any governor but Jesus Christ." The pre-war Colonial Committees of Correspondence soon made this the American motto: "No King but King Jesus." And this sentiment was carried over into the 1783 peace treaty with Great Britain ending that war, which begins "In the name of the most Holy and Undivided Trinity... ."
Samuel Adams, who has been called 'The Father of the American Revolution' wrote The Rights of the Colonists in 1772, which stated: "The rights of the colonists as Christians...may be best understood by reading and carefully studying the institution of the Great Law Giver and Head of the Christian Church, which are to be found clearly written and promulgated in the New Testament."
It is frequently asserted by those seeking to minimize Christianity's central role in our nation's founding and history, that the founders themselves were not practicing Christians, but rather were Deists or Agnostics. In a 1962 speech to Congress, Senator Robert Byrd noted that of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 29 were Anglicans, 16-18 were Calvinists, and among the rest were 2 Methodists, 2 Lutherans, 2 Roman Catholics, 1 lapsed Quaker-sometimes Anglican, and only 1 open Deist Benjamin Franklin who attended all Christian worships and called for public prayer.
Samuel Chase was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a Justice of the US Supreme Court, and, as Chief Justice of the State of Maryland, wrote in 1799 ( Runkel v Winemiller): "By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion... ." (Maryland was one of nine States having established churches supported by taxpayers at the time of the adoption of the Constitution; these churches were gradually disestablished, the last in 1833. The Maryland constitution, typical of many of the States, restricted public office to Christians until, in 1851, it was changed to allow Jews who believed in a future state of rewards and punishments to also serve).
Christianity pervaded the laws and the legal system of the States and the federal government. For example, Judge Nathaniel Freeman in 1802 charged Massachusetts Grand Juries as follows: "The laws of the Christian system, as embraced by the Bible, must be respected as of high authority in all our courts... . [Our government] originating in the voluntary compact of a people who in that very instrument profess the Christian religion, it may be considered, not as republic Rome was, a Pagan, but a Christian republic." In 1811 ( People v Ruggles), New York Chief Justice James Kent held: "'...whatever strikes at the root of Christianity tends manifestly to the dissolution of civil government... .' We are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity... . Christianity in its enlarged sense, as a religion revealed and taught in the Bible, is part and parcel of the law of the land... ." In 1824, the Pennsylvania Supreme court held ( Updegraph v The Commonwealth): Christianity, general Christianity, is and always has been a part of the common law...not Christianity founded on any particular religious tenets; not Christianity with an established church, but Christianity with liberty of conscience to all men... ."
Our sixth President, John Quincy Adams said "From the day of the Declaration...they [the American people] were bound by the laws of God, which they all, and by the laws of The Gospel, which they nearly all, acknowledge as the rules of their conduct"
John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court said: "Providence has given to our people the choice of their ruler, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers." This was said despite the explicit provision in the federal Constitution forbidding any religious test for federal public office.
Justice Joseph Story, who was appointed to the US Supreme Court by President Madison, said in an 1829 speech at Harvard: "There never has been a period of history, in which the Common Law did not recognize Christianity as lying at its foundation." Story wrote several respected treatises or Commentaries on Constitutional Law, in which are found the following: "Probably, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the [First] Amendment...the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship. Any attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation."
"The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects and to prevent any national ecclesiastical patronage of the national government".
Justice Story wrote for a unanimous Supreme Court in 1844 ( Vidal v Girard's Executors): "It is also said, and truly that the Christian religion is a part of the common law... ."
In 1854, The United States House of Congress passed a resolution: "The great vital and conservative element in our system is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and divine truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ."
During the Civil War, The Senate passed a resolution in 1863: "...devoutly recognizing the supreme authority and just government of Almighty God...encouraged ...to seek Him for succor according to His appointed way, through Jesus Christ, the Senate ...does hereby request the President ...to set aside a day for national prayer and humiliation." President Lincoln promptly issued a Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day, stating "...in compliance with the request and fully concurring in the view of the Senate... ."
The US Supreme Court forbade polygamy in 1890 (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v United States): "It is contrary to the spirit of Christianity and the civilization which Christianity has produced in the Western world." Two years later, the Court, by Justice Brewer, approvingly cited many of the earlier cases cited above, discussed the history and prominent role of religion in laws, business, customs, and society, and held (Church of the Holy Trinity v United States): "...this is a religious people. This is historically true. From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation... . These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian Nation... .we find everywhere a clear recognition of the same truth."
Congress in essence summarized all this preceding history when it passed a Joint Resolution designating 1983 as The Year of the Bible, stating: "Whereas the Bible, the Word of God, has made a unique contribution in shaping the United States as a distinctive and blessed nation and people; ...deeply held religious convictions springing from the Holy scriptures led to the early settlement of our Nation; ...Biblical teachings inspired concepts of civil government that are contained in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States....designate 1983 as a national 'Year of the Bible in recognition of both the formative influence the Bible has been for our Nation, and our national need to study and apply the teachings of the Holy Scriptures". In 1988, a Joint Resolution of Congress declared that the first Thursday in May of each year is to be a National Day of Prayer.
The historical record from the foregoing quotes from past Presidents, leaders, Congressmen, Jurists and court decisions, seems firmly on the side of those claiming that America was born and maintained as a Christian nation whose laws, morals, and customs derive from Christian (and Jewish) scriptures. The opponents of this view, however, point to the first sentence of Article 11 of the obscure Tripoli Treaty of 1797 as seeming conclusive proof that America was never a Christian nation. Before discussing that critical sentence, the treaty itself should be read in context with all of the Barbary treaties.
The Barbary States on the coast of North Africa, comprising the Moslem States of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, attacked ships in their coastal waters which would not pay tribute, and held captives for ransom. The European nations had treaties with those states, under which, in exchange for tribute, shipping was protected. After the Revolutionary War, our new nation followed the lead of those European nations and entered into similar treaties. Breach of those treaties by the Barbary nations led to the Barbary wars in 1801.
The first treaty was with Morocco in 1786, negotiated by Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. It was written in Arabic with an English translation. The treaty language assumes that the world was divided between Christians and Moors (Moslems), e.g. "If we shall be at war with any Christian Power ... .", "... no Vessel whatever belonging either to Moorish or Christian Powers with whom the United States may be at War ... .", "...be their enemies Moors or Christians." These along with numerous references to God, e.g., "In the name of Almighty God,", "... trusting in God ...", "Grace to the only God", "...the servant of God ...", "... whom God preserve ...". are the only references to religion in this treaty of Peace and Friendship.
The next was the Treaty of Peace and Amity with Algiers in 1795,written in Turkish. The only reference to religion was in Article 17 which gave the Consul of the United States "... Liberty to Exercise his Religion in his own House [and] all Slaves of the Same Religion shall not be impeded in going to Said Consul's house at hours of prayer... ." The Consul's house was to function in lieu of a Christian church.
The Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation with Tunis in 1797 was in Turkish with a French translation. It begins "God is infinite.", and refers to the Ottoman Emperor "whose realm may God prosper", and to the President of the United States "... the most distinguished among those who profess the religion of the Messiah, ...." Other than a reference to "the Christian year", there is no further mention of religion.
The Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Tripoli was signed in 1796 in Arabic, and was later translated into English by Joel Barlow, United States Consul General at Algiers. Except for the typical phrases "Praise be to God" and "whom God Exalt", there is no reference to religion other than the aforesaid remarkable Article 11, which reads,
"As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan (sic) nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."
The treaty, with this language, was submitted to the Senate by President Adams, and was ratified. Thus, opponents of the 'Christian nation' concept point to this seemingly official repudiation of the very idea. Yet the language is less a repudiation of the role of Christianity in the nation's heritage than a reminder that there was no national established church in the United States as there was in the European states with which Tripoli had previously dealt. This provided reassurance to the Moslem Bey and his religious establishment that religion, in of itself, would not be a basis of hostility between the two nations. None of the other similar treaties with the Barbary states, before or after this treaty, including the replacement treaties signed in 1804 after the Barbary Wars, have any language remotely similar.
And there is a deeper mystery: As noted in a footnote at page 1070 of the authoritative treatise by Bevans, Treaties and other International Agreements of the United States of America, citing treaty scholar Hunter Miller.
"While the Barlow translation quoted above has been printed in all official and unofficial treaty collections since 1797, most extraordinary (and wholly unexplained) is the fact that Article 11 of the Barlow translation, with its famous phrase 'the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.' does not exist at all. There is no Article 11. The Arabic text which is between Articles 10 and 12 is in form a letter, crude and flamboyant and withal quite unimportant, from the Dey of Algiers to the Pasha of Tripoli. How that script came to be written and to be regarded, as in the Barlow translation, as Article 11 of the treaty as there written, is a mystery and seemingly must remain so. Nothing in the diplomatic correspondence of the time throws any light whatever on the point" (Emphasis added)
In sum, the phrase was no doubt an invention of Mr. Barlow, who inserted it on his own for his own, unknown, purposes. It was duly ratified without question by the United States Senate, which would no doubt be hesitant to object to any phraseology which was represented as desired by the Bey of Tripoli, with whom the United States wanted peaceful relations. It remains a mystery.
Can America still be called a Christian nation? It is certainly a more religiously pluralistic and diverse society than it was during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. There are increasing numbers of non-Christians immigrating to this country, and there has been a rapid rise in adherents to Islam among our population. There are millions of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists, Unitarians, Hindus, Wiccans, Naturists, Agnostics, and Atheists, but Christians comprise roughly 84% of the population. Our constitutional legal system is still based on the Jewish/Christian Bible, not the Koran or other holy book. We still observe Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, as an official holiday. Easter and Christmas still have a special place in the holiday lexicon. The Ten Commandments are still on the wall behind the Supreme Court Justices when they take the bench. Our coins still display the motto "In God We Trust." The US is still firmly part of a Western Civilization fashioned by a Judeo-Christian religious ethic and heritage. Alexis de Tocqueville observed more than a century and a half ago, "There is no country in the world, where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America." That is still true today. We live, not under a Christian government, but in a nation where all are free to practice their particular religion, in accommodation with other religions, and in accordance with the basic principles of the nation, which are Christian in origin. It is in that sense that America may properly be referred to as a Christian nation.
Pearlston, Carl "Is America a Christian Nation." Connecticut Jewish Ledger (April, 2001)
Reprinted with permission of Carl Pealston.
Carl Pearlston is an attorney in the Los Angeles area, specializing in arbitration/mediation, a former professor of Constitutional Law, an Annapolis graduate, and a Jewish conservative active in various organizations including Toward Tradition.Copyright © 2001 Carl Pearlston