For more than three decades—and notwithstanding its deep absurdity—the claim that “America is a Christian nation” has never gone undefended. Yet what does it mean to ascribe this or that religious identity to a nation? If America is a Christian nation, does it have a soul? Was that soul stained by original sin? Did Jesus die for its sins? Can America hope to go to heaven someday? Just the fifty states, or can America’s territories and possessions come too?
As far as I know, few conservative champions of Christian-nation claims actually think of America like a person, as an entity possessing a soul. (Never mind how many of them imagine corporations that way.) No, conservative insistence that “America is a Christian nation” usually means that most Americans are Christian, or that most Americans were Christian back in 1776 when the nation was formed—or that most of the Founding Fathers were Christian—and that therefore, Christian dogmas and institutions ought to receive favorable treatment by the government. Ultimately, Christian-nation claims aren’t about America’s soul. Invariably they seek to justify some otherwise unwarrantable arrogation of privileges on behalf of Christianity. They strive to vindicate various kinds of discrimination in favor of Christian believers, against believers in other faiths, and most particularly against those without religious faith.
Christian-nation rhetoric has seldom been so inflamed—nor so portentous—as it is today, on the threshold of a presidential election that among many other things will serve as a referendum on the proper relationship between religion and government. So we thought it appropriate to convene a noteworthy panel of experts to reexamine the claims for Christian nationhood. I think they have delivered a series of analyses that would convince any open-minded reader that no Christian-nation claim has merit. Which, sadly, is not to say that I expect them to settle today’s spin-besotted public debate!
Prolific historian and Thomas Paine scholar Kerry Walters surveys principal Christian-nation claims and explodes “The Myth of America’s Christian Heritage.” Susan Jacoby, author of the magisterial Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and a forthcoming biography of Robert Green Ingersoll, probes the Christian-nation idea’s deep but mendacious roots in “The Christian Nation Fiction, Then and Now.” Rob Boston, senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, offers “Five Reasons the United States Is Not A Christian Nation.” In “Our UnChristian Nation,” scholar of religion Hector Avalos, whose books include The End of Biblical Studies and Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence, examines what it means to be a true Christian—and how different our nation would be if it assumed the traits such an identity would entail. Philosopher David K. Clark considers the gulf between the requirements for a life of virtue and those for a life of faith and asks (perhaps with tongue in cheek) “Ought America to Be a Christian Nation?” Free Inquiry columnist and philosopher Tibor R. Machan offers “Faith and Public Affairs,” a classical-liberal justification for the scrupulous separation of faith from the affairs of state championed by many mainstream politicians just half a century ago.
The section closes with a groundbreaking research report by Center for Atheist Research associate Ryan T. Cragun and his coresearchers Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega. “How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the U.S.” attempts to calculate the extent of public subsidies granted by federal, state, and local governments to religious organizations and institutions under current tax codes. The startling toll— about $71 billion per year—admittedly includes just those subsidies that were relatively straightforward to quantify.
So, once and for all, is America a Christian nation? If it isn’t, what does the misplaced suspicion that it might be a Christian nation cost each of us at tax time? To these questions our distinguished contributors now turn their attention.