Among issues debated in modern politics, few are more controversial than the role of religion. The United States, in particular, finds this subject provocative. The very question “Is the United States a Christian nation?” can be a source of debate, because the term Christian nation can be taken to mean several different things, causing the answer to vary drastically.
There are three main ways to approach the question “Is the United States a Christian nation?” Each requires a different approach and results in a different answer. The first issue is whether or not the U.S. is the product of a Christian worldview; the answer is absolutely “yes.” The second question is whether or not the U.S. currently demonstrates a Christian worldview; the answer is absolutely “no.” The third angle is whether the government of the U.S. is Christian in its structure; the answer is “sort of.”
Is the U.S. the product of a Christian worldview?
One way to interpret the question “Is the United States a Christian nation?” is to ask if the U.S. has a Christian heritage. In other words, do the history, culture, language, and lifestyle of the nation reflect Christianity, and to what extent? This is, by far, the least controversial aspect of this issue, since the answer is so obviously and clearly “yes.”
History is unambiguous in showing that the U.S. has been predominantly Christian, in a general sense, for its entire existence. The vast majority of religious expression, terminology, and practice in the U.S. has been Christian or heavily influenced by the Christian worldview. Of course, as a secular nation, the USA has allowed free expression of other faiths, to varying degrees. Yet the primary religious outlook of the American people has long been that of Judeo-Christianity. Historically, the U.S. has been deeply involved in Christian evangelism and charity around the world.
It’s beyond debate, then, that the United States is a historically “Christian” nation, in terms of religious heritage.
Does the U.S. exemplify a Christian worldview?
Another way to examine the question “Is the United States a Christian nation?” is to ask if the U.S. currently has a Christian worldview. In other words, do the prevalent outlook, morals, lifestyle, and attitude of the nation reflect biblical, true-to-the-faith Christianity? This answer is occasionally divisive but has become less so over time. Based on current attitudes and trends, the answer is most definitely “no.”
There is a massive difference between a worldview inspired by Christianity or developed from Christianity and one that is actually Christian. Many of the values Western culture finds indispensable, such as charity, altruism, respect, tolerance, mercy, peace, and so forth are historically rooted in a Christian worldview. These virtues were absent from or explicitly opposed to the pagan worldviews that Christianity replaced in the West. Insofar as the modern U.S. follows those ideals, it’s acting in accordance with a biblical worldview.
On the other hand, the modern United States not only tolerates ideas contrary to Christianity, but it openly embraces and celebrates them. Sexual immorality, including pornography, homosexuality, and premarital sex, are widely accepted as normal in the U.S. Vulgarity, drunkenness, drug use, promiscuity, and other abuses of freedom are also celebrated as forms of entertainment. Atrocities such as abortion are rampant, as are instances of violence, greed, and corruption. In fact, the United States has come to the point where some of these sins are not merely accepted but consecrated; those who do not endorse fashionable behaviors are vilified and ostracized (see 1 Peter 4:4).
In terms of literal spirituality, few in the United States have a truly “biblical” worldview. Self-labeled “Christians” in the U.S. tend toward a watered-down, generic, convenience-driven version of the faith. This is not to say they don’t actually believe in God or in the Bible; however, in both theory and practice, most self-professed American believers live in deep conflict with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Even worse, many in the U.S. claim the name of Christ, or even the title of clergy, yet peddle a false, self-created parody of the truth.
Historians can debate at what point the U.S. “crossed the line” with respect to being a Christian nation, in terms of worldview. That being said, it’s abundantly clear that the United States of America, on the whole, does not presently exhibit a Christian worldview.
Does the U.S. have a Christian form of government?
The third way to examine the question “Is the United States a Christian nation?” is to ask if the United States has a Christian government. In other words, are the structure and form of the U.S. government uniquely Christian, dependent on Christianity, or inseparable from Christian principles? Ironically, this particular angle is rarely controversial, only as it is seldom considered. The answer, with careful qualification, is absolutely “yes.” In fact, the Founding Fathers were explicit about the relationship between the structure of the U.S. government and the Judeo-Christian worldview.
It’s crucial to establish that not all religions are the same. It is both ignorant and bigoted to assume all faiths approach ethics and civil discourse the same way or that all religious views lead to the same conclusions. Not every religion is equally compatible with all forms of government.
Gasoline engines are designed to run on gasoline. Diesel engines are designed to run on diesel fuel. These two liquids have many similarities, but are not identical. Where they differ, they do so drastically. Gasoline engines and diesel engines, likewise, are similar but diverge in critical ways. Putting diesel fuel in a gasoline engine renders it inoperative. Running gasoline through a diesel engine can destroy it. There is nothing prejudiced about pointing out the obvious: the design of these engines presumes certain fuels. When fed with something else, they no longer function as intended.
In much the same way, governments are designed with certain assumptions about the worldview of the population. Attempting to manage a nation using a government incompatible with a particular culture is like putting gasoline in the diesel engine or diesel fuel in the gas engine. Not all combinations of government and religion will work.
The point is not that the Constitution of the United States requires citizens or elected officials to be Christian. Nor is it that the government must be an extension of the church. Logic and common sense, however, say the United States was structured to govern a particular worldview. One of the Founding Fathers, John Adams, explained this in 1798 (emphasis added):
“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
As a parallel, college classrooms often allow students to choose their own seats and to enter and leave as they wish. Given that such students are appropriately self-controlled, that structure enhances education. Applying the same structure to a classroom of kindergarteners, however, would be a disaster; there are other systems of classroom seating and control better suited to young students. Vice versa, classroom rules that allow kindergartners to thrive would be toxic for college students.
In other words, governments “contend” with differing worldviews through different methods and divergent designs. As compared to the U.S., most governments impose drastically stricter control over the people. The constitutional republic of the United States, with an overt emphasis on personal freedom, is simply not “adequate” to govern a people who are “unbridled,” as Adams would say, by the ethics and morality of Judeo-Christianity.
In the same vein, George Washington wrote this prayer in a letter from 1783:
“That [God] would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”
Even the Declaration of Independence speaks of this reliance on a Judeo-Christian worldview. Though not a formal part of the Constitution, Jefferson’s epic work explicitly grounds rights such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the reality of a Creator. This same worldview is reflected in other concepts fundamental to the U.S. Constitution. Ideas such as personal responsibility, rule of law, protection of the innocent, personal property, and so forth are deeply ingrained in the Judeo-Christian worldview. At the very least, the U.S. Constitution reflects a heavy influence of biblical thinking, whether or not any part of that system is explicitly drawn from Scripture.
The term happiness itself is more closely tied to religion than many people realize. The word happiness is derived from the idea of outcomes and occurrences. The same idea is present in words such as perhaps, mayhap, happening, happenstance, and so forth. In Jefferson’s era, the term happiness carried a sense of divine blessing; the pursuit of happiness, then, was understood at that time to mean something more like “the pursuit of blessedness” than “the pursuit of good feelings.” The freedom being sought was very much the right to pursue a godly and moral life as each person saw fit.
In contrast, religious worldviews such as Islam, Hinduism, and atheism reject, directly or indirectly, principles that the U.S. Constitution takes for granted. The fundamental ideas on which the U.S. Constitution operates are either contradictory to or absent from the central ideas of other faith systems. For instance, Islam patently rejects individual rights with respect to religion; there are mandatory consequences for Muslims who apostatize from Islam and for Christians and Jews who do not “submit.” Hinduism is rooted in the idea of karma and linked to the caste system, both of which reject the idea of persons being “created equal.” Atheism, of course, provides no basis for universal human rights, equality, or fair treatment at all.
That in no way implies that Muslims, Hindus, and atheists cannot be productive and integrated citizens in the U.S. Yet the fact remains that their worldview inherently conflicts with some of the Constitution’s ideals.
There is no question that the government of the United States is structured to allow great personal freedom in matters of ethics, morality, and religion. It is especially designed to prevent government from interfering with individual rights to participate—or not to participate—according to personal religious faith. At the same time, there is no question that the entire function of the U.S. Constitution presumes a citizenry guided, as Adams noted, by morality and religion. History, once again, is unequivocal: the dominant worldview of the nascent United States and its founders was Judeo-Christianity.
From a “design” standpoint, the United States is not explicitly Christian in that it does not require any person or politician to be a believer. Nor does it insist that the government always be run in accordance with overtly biblical ideas. The Christian religion is not the formal basis of the U.S. Constitution. However, just as a gasoline engine is designed to process gasoline, not diesel fuel, the United States Constitution was designed to govern a predominantly Judeo-Christian people. The more the USA drifts away from this worldview, the less capable the government will be to properly function—a symptom that current events prove is the case.
What does Christian nation mean?
To give an appropriate answer to this question, it’s necessary to clarify what a person means when he speaks about the United States being a “Christian” nation. Various angles require different examinations and give a different conclusion.
Historically, the U.S. is most certainly “Christian.”
Culturally, the U.S. is absolutely not “Christian” in terms of current attitudes and behaviors.
Constitutionally, the U.S. government was designed to guide a population operating under a predominantly Judeo-Christian worldview, and it shows clear evidence of influence from that faith tradition.
The United States is under no obligation to keep a particular worldview. Nor is it guaranteed to maintain any sort of connection with its Christian heritage. History cannot be changed, but the decision of whether or not the U.S. will exhibit a Christian worldview will greatly impact the continuation of its particular form of government. Whether the U.S.’s constitutional republic survives, experiences drastic change, or fails entirely depends on the morality of its people.