Attempts to acknowledge Christianity as the official religion of the United States date back to the founding constitutional convention and have erupted at regular intervals for the past two hundred years.
The current onslaught was initiated by pseudo-historian David Barton in the late 1980s and continues to this day under the banner of Project Blitz, which is his latest brainchild. Because of Barton’s zealous promotion of Christian-nation mythology, which is by far the longest sustained effort in attempting to inculcate this false ideology, his work will receive expanded attention later.
In this comprehensive review of historical and contemporary components of the Christian-nation claim, I begin by presenting capsule summaries with brief commentary on twenty-one Christian-nation declarations that advocates have argued support their political theology.
Twenty-One Christian Nation Claims
The order of the twenty-one claims is partly based on historical occurrence but also reflects the time when changes were effected, as well as the content of the particular issue. All assertions are preceded by the phrase, “The United States is a Christian nation because …”
1. The First Americans Were Unbaptized Christians.
Fact: The first human inhabitants of the Americas were Asians who crossed the Bering land bridge beginning 30,000 years ago. The first white people in North America were the Scandinavian Vikings in 1000 CE, and the first Christian to set foot in the new territory (the Bahamas) was probably Christopher Columbus in 1492.
2. The Early American Colonies Were Chartered as Christian Outposts.
Fact: Most charters for the American colonies specified a Christian purpose. It is noteworthy that the New England communities subsequently became intolerant theocracies where dissent was rigorously suppressed. At the beginning of the Revolution, most of the new states (ten of thirteen) had established Christian denominations, but all were disestablished by 1833.
3. The Prominent U.S. Founders Were Christians.
Fact: The principal framers of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and related documents were deists and Unitarians. Brief biographies of them are presented later. However, many of the signers and contributors to the founding documents were Christians, among them Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Patrick Henry, and George Mason.
4. The Declaration of Independence Invokes God Four Times.
Fact: Nature’s God, Creator, Supreme Judge of the World, and Divine Providence are all deistic, not orthodox Christian, terms. The Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson, was not an orthodox Christian. To appreciate this truth, it is only necessary to compare his Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth with the Gospel text from which it was extracted.
5. The Majority of Contemporary Americans Are Christians.
Fact: About 70 percent of U.S. residents now identify as Christian. However, the late evangelical preacher Billy Graham rejected the Christian-nation claim, saying that “only a minority are really committed to Christ or seek to follow him.” Barely one-half are even church members, and fewer than one-fourth attend church on a regular basis.
6. The Constitution’s Subscription Clause Acknowledges Jesus.
Fact: “In the Year of Our Lord” is a ceremonial dating custom that was used to attest to the authenticity of political documents for several hundred years prior to the U.S. Constitution. For a detailed rebuttal of this Christian-nation claim, see Andrew Seidel’s article in the Summer 2018 issue of Constitutional Studies.
7. The U.S. Was Officially Declared “One Nation Under God.”
Fact: The phrase “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag during the McCarthy era anti-communist hysteria in 1954. The original pledge was written by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy in 1892 and did not contain any religious references.
8. The U.S. Supreme Court Declared America a Christian Nation.
Fact: In the often-misrepresented Holy Trinity decision (1892), one justice (David Brewer) expressed his personal opinion (“dictum”) that the United States was a Christian nation. Moreover, the Christian-nation advocates never cite the Treaty with Tripoli (1797), which said just the opposite.1
9. The National Day of Prayer Was Authorized by Congress.
Fact: Congress designated the National Day of Prayer an annual event in 1952, later setting the first Thursday in May as its regular date. It is exclusively fundamentalist Christian in conception, planning, and presentation, with no contributions permitted by other faith traditions. Some local mayor’s prayer breakfasts have become embarrassing displays of fundamentalist Christian bigotry, as in Williamson County, Texas, where I live.
10. The U.S. Founding Documents Are Based on the Bible.
Fact: The Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights are not based on the Bible. Four biblical themes do appear in the three primary founding documents, but scores of other themes, principles, and concepts do not. Because this is a central claim in Christian-nation mythology, it is addressed in greater detail in a separate section.
11. Only Christians May Hold Public Office in the United States.
Fact: Pat Robertson, Roy Moore, and other extremists have argued for the exclusive Christian qualification for decades. Obviously, it violates the Constitution’s prohibition on religious tests for office.2 Yet even after 232 years, eight state constitutions still restrict public office-holders to candidates who believe in a higher power. Of course, these relics cannot be enforced, except by voters at the ballot box.
12. The U.S. Legal System Is Based on the Ten Commandments.
Fact: This popular fringe claim survives primarily due to willful biblical illiteracy. In fact, the first four Commandments violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty; these and others also endorse collective punishment, patriarchy, and slavery. Only the prohibitions against murder, theft, and perjury are found in U.S. law. The fake James Madison quote (cited later in this article) falsely supports this totally bogus claim.
13. Christian Symbols Are Prominently Displayed on Public Property.
Fact: Indefatigable Christian-nation advocates carry out their relentless campaign to place Ten Commandments monuments, Latin crosses, statues of Mary, and portraits of Jesus in public venues. Most are removed after sometimes lengthy court battles. Unfortunately, this may change with the recent addition of staunch opponents of church-state separation Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.
14. The National Motto Is “In God We Trust.”
Fact: This embarrassing corruption of American history was effected by a cowardly Congress in 1956. The original motto, which many people think should be restored, is E. pluribus unum (“from many, one”), composed by Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson to celebrate American ethnic and cultural diversity.
15. Only Christian “Historical Holidays” Are Officially Recognized.
Fact: This is a disreputable fundamentalist Christian-nation advocacy strategy to acknowledge only Christian holidays (Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Thanksgiving, St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day) by including them exclusively on government and public school calendars. Actually, many other religious holidays are usually recognized, such as Ash Wednesday, Passover, Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah, and other religious faiths should also be acknowledged.
16. The Constitution’s Preamble Acknowledges Jesus as Messiah.
Fact: During the constitutional convention, some delegates wanted Christianity officially recognized, but the majority rejected the idea. In the 1870s, an organization of Christian ministers attempted to insert into the preamble recognition of Almighty God, Holy Scripture, and Jesus the Messiah. The proposal failed, as have all other similar efforts to date.
17. The United States Was Founded on the Principles of Christian Law.
Fact: This assertion, which is based on the claim that the common law derives from Christianity, was thoroughly debunked by David Koepsell, a lawyer, philosopher, and former executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, drawing on an earlier analysis by Thomas Jefferson. The alleged principles of Christian law are nonexistent.
18. The Constitution Is Based on the Idea of Biblical Covenant.
Fact: Three Christian writers (Robert Barth, Herbert Titus, and Thomas Cahill) have invoked the “Covenantal Constitution,” the “Biblical Covenant Principle,” and the “Abrahamic Covenant,” respectively, as concepts that reflect God’s free choice and individuals’ experience of spiritual rebirth, held together by shared knowledge of personal salvation. No evidence supports the claim.
19. The U.S. Presidential Oath Acknowledges Almighty God.
Fact: The Constitution does not prescribe any religious declaration or theistic affirmation in the presidential oath of office. However, all U.S. presidents except Thomas Jefferson appended the meaningless expression of divine dependence, “So help me God,” in respect of an unworthy custom.
20. Prayers at the Constitutional Convention Ensured Success.
Fact: Contrary to this oft-repeated falsehood, Benjamin Franklin’s motion to begin each session with prayer was not adopted (it wasn’t even seconded), and there were no official prayers during the convention. This bogus story was printed a second time in a Christian newspaper (The Good News Journal) even after I explained to the editor that it was not true, and he thanked me for the correction! (The author of the copyrighted article is Charles Crisimer.)
21. The U.S. President Is a Devout Christian.
Fact: Franklin Graham and other fundamentalist leaders proudly proclaimed that “God raised up Donald Trump to be president.” Also, he has been said to be the exemplar of the “Christ-centered life,” based on his overwhelming voter support (81 percent) from fundamentalist Christians. The junior Graham had previously asserted that Barack Obama was a Muslim (based on his father’s religion). Did this make the United States an Islamic nation?
Conclusion: This diverse collection of claims is testimony to the limitless ingenuity of dedicated Christian-nation advocates. Although some of their assertions require elaboration, clarification, or explanation to be fully refuted, most are plainly false or irrelevant to the intended purpose of demonstrating that the United States is a Christian nation. It’s ironic that only a few items actually refer to Jesus or Christianity, with the god introduced typically being that of “ceremonial deism.” It’s never the god of contemporary Christian fundamentalism, which is the deity of the Christian-nation proponents.
Political Foundations of Christian-Nation Ideology
The most powerful advocate of Christian-nation ideology in the United States today is the Republican Party, which has become the political instrument for promoting fundamentalist Christianity in America. The ultimate goal of Christian-nation proponents is to implement a fundamentalist Christian theocracy in the United States through constitutional amendment or some other form of legislative action.
The central theological postulates of fundamentalist Christian-nation ideology are:
- Christian Exceptionalism: Christianity is the only true religion because only acceptance of Jesus as Messiah confers everlasting life, known as the doctrine of exclusive salvation.
- Scriptural Inerrancy: The Holy Bible (both Hebrew and Christian testaments) is the absolutely accurate word of God, a perfect revelation of his perfect will that is without error.
- Biblical Dominionism: This is the Genesis-based assertion that God provided all natural resources on the planet for the unrestricted use of believing Christians, as they deem necessary to fulfill God’s eschatological promise to the faithful.
These three axioms of fundamentalism have been translated into ten political objectives of this extremist Christian minority, which comprises less than 20 percent of the U.S. population. These objectives, stated in condensed form, are:
- Establish Christianity as the official religion of the United States.
- Acknowledge Jesus as the Lord and Savior of the United States.
- Dispel the myth of separation of church and state.
- Restrict elected governmental offices to orthodox Christians.
- Require Christian prayer at all civic events.
- Institute patriarchy in all aspects of public life.
- Eliminate public schools and fund only Christian academies.
- Exempt Christians from all laws that offend their faith.
- Control women’s reproductive healthcare choices.
- Deny the freedoms and civil rights of LGBTQ persons.
Project Blitz has expanded Christian-nation theology to include the issue of sexuality, focusing on the narrow specification of what constitutes acceptable forms of sexual relations, for the purpose of delegitimizing the LGBTQ community.
In addition to infusing phony Christian history into the public school social studies curriculum, the Project Blitz strategy specifies three objectives:
- Regulate sexual behavior by restricting lawful sexual relations to heterosexual married couples.
- Legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people by enacting “religious liberty” laws that exempt fundamentalists from civil rights legislation.
- Control the reproductive lives of women by outlawing in vitro fertilization, abortion, morning-after contraception, and other forms of contraception considered abortifacients.
Conclusion: The political foundations of Christian-nation ideology are located in the cultural and historical traditions of Christian fundamentalism, including exceptionalism, inerrancy, and dominionism. The specific objectives of this extreme theopolitical program include imposing a Christian theocracy in America, with an obsessive focus on “normal” sexuality and control of women’s reproductive lives.
Separation of Church and State
This foundational constitutional principle is enshrined in the U.S. founding documents and most of the state constitutions. It is supported by most citizens and contravenes the claim that the United States is a Christian nation. For this reason, fundamentalist activists have to assert that the principle is just a myth.
Clearly, if government is constitutionally prohibited from establishing an official religion, Christianity will never become the recognized national theology. And this is why we are witnessing the continuing assault on the First Amendment by Christian-nation advocates.
It’s important to understand the historical and cultural basis for the U.S. founders’ strong antipathy toward theocracy. As educated individuals, they were familiar with the terrible human destruction wrought in Christian Europe by five major crusades, three devastating Inquisitions, and the endless witch hunts that mostly targeted women. They were convinced that the only viable form of government was secular, meaning divorced from religious establishment.
The more recent early American experience with Puritan theocracies in the New England colonies solidified the founders’ resolve to eliminate all religious ideas from the Constitution and to explicitly disallow governmental establishment of churches in the Bill of Rights. They realized that religious liberty was dependent on the indispensable principle of separation of church from state.
The initial formulation of this foundational principle of U.S. secular government is properly credited to Roger Williams, a Puritan clergyman who settled in the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630. Ironically, he was subsequently the victim of religious persecution and banished from the colony because of his unwavering commitment to the concept of religious tolerance.
In 1637, Williams issued his seminal declaration referring to the “wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” The wall of separation metaphor was later made famous by Thomas Jefferson in his 1802 letter to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptists. His historic statement precedes the pronouncements by six other former U.S. presidents and the first attorney general appointed by the current president:
- Thomas Jefferson (1802): “I contemplate with sovereign reverence [quotes the First Amendment establishment and free exercise clauses] thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
- James Madison (1819): “Both society and religion benefit from the total separation of the church from the state.”
- Ulysses S. Grant (1876): “Keep the church and state forever separate.”
- John F. Kennedy (1960): “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
- Richard Nixon (1960): “The separation of church and state is not subject to discussion or alteration.”
- Jimmy Carter (1977): “I believe in the separation of church and state.”
- Ronald Reagan (1984): “We establish no religion in this country, church and state are, and must remain separate.”
- Jeff Sessions (2018): “The principle of separation of church and state is a recent thing that is ahistorical and unconstitutional—an extra-constitutional doctrine.”
The last statement is blatantly false, of course, but illustrates how an educated lawyer and mainline Protestant can be influenced by fanatical proponents of a fundamentalist political ideology to make an absolutely ridiculous assertion.
Sessions’s fellow Republican and United Methodist, former president George W. Bush, was also an advocate of merging religion and government, which he did through his highly divisive faith-based schemes. He also endorsed another fundamentalist postulate, declaring that “Only Christians are saved,” for which he later apologized, after the Anti-Defamation League publicly criticized the thoughtless remark.
Continuing with the contemptible theme of fundamentalist exclusivity, Jeff Sessions’s replacement, Matthew Whitaker, believes that only Christians should be judges in America! This is another expression of the fundamentalist postulate of Christian exceptionalism, which was cited earlier.
Conclusion: After two hundred years of sustained effort, fundamentalist Christian nation zealots are not going to curtail their relentless assault on U.S. constitutional principles and core American values. Defenders of church-state separation should adopt an offensive posture by aggressively confronting fundamentalists’ political hypocrisy and their incessant biblical lies. Because they claim to be victims of religious persecution, it’s entirely appropriate to give them justification for their persistent paranoid charges of aggrievement and victimhood. In fact, the fundamentalists are engaged in a program of systematic persecution of everyone else, as documented in this article. Their goal is to impose their unbiblical, ungodly, unchristian theopolitical dogma on all Americans.
Christian-Nation Mythologist David Barton
For the past three decades, the premier purveyor of Christian-nation mythology has been David Barton of Aledo, Texas. Beginning in the late 1980s, he tirelessly traveled the country speaking at fundamentalist churches, evangelical conferences, and private Christian academies, promoting the myth that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
Although Barton is not a professional historian, he did not allow his lack of training or credentials to deter him from conducting a one-man war on American history. He produced and distributed scores of booklets, brochures, pamphlets, posters, and videos promoting revisionist Christian-nation theology through his publishing empire, Wallbuilders, while under continuous criticism by legitimate historians.
Four major episodes that constitute milestones in his career are reviewed below: the Separation Myth fiasco, the prayer and Bible reading excision claim, the Jefferson Lies debacle, and the Project Blitz personal resurrection.
1. The Separation Myth Fiasco.
Barton initiated his program of unhistoric revisionism with a self-published treatise titled The Separation Myth (1989). After a dozen fake quotes attributed to U.S. founders were uncovered by readers, Barton recalled and reworked the volume, deleting the bogus quotes, which he labeled “questionable,” and adding some additional material. Then he released the revised book with a new title, Original Intent (1994).
In fairness to Barton, it should be stated that he did not fabricate the fake quotes himself; rather he failed to verify their authenticity after locating them in the fundamentalist fringe literature. After a half dozen printings of The Separation Myth were distributed to churches, schools, and libraries, it was inevitable that the fake excerpts would receive widespread attention.
The most popular of the false citations was attributed to James Madison:
We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.
All experts in American political history and constitutional studies have concluded that Madison never said it! But authors ranging from the Legal Training Institute of America to Bill O’Reilly have erroneously quoted the Founding Father, and The Good News Journal printed the bogus quote twice in 2018 alone!
2. The prayer and Bible reading excision claim.
Barton concluded that the Supreme Court decisions in 1962/1963 declaring mandatory prayer and required Bible reading in public schools unconstitutional precipitated a monumental moral decline in the United States.
In his book Original Intent, graphs that depict five social variables (unwed mother birth rate, violent criminal offenses, gonorrhea cases, SAT total scores, single parent female households) plotted over time (1951–1993) are used to conclude that the accelerating values of the variables were caused by the two court decisions.
There were several major methodological flaws in his retrospective post hoc analysis, which I summarize as follows:
(a) Barton identified an alleged cause and then searched for effects retroactively without proposing hypotheses about variables that should and should not be influenced.
(b) Barton failed to formulate differential hypotheses about numerous possible alternative causes, such as the Vostok space flights and JFK’s assassination.
(c) Barton did not report results for the scores of other indicators of social pathology, health diagnoses, criminal activity, and economic changes that he should have examined.
(d) Barton could commission a multivariate longitudinal analysis by qualified investigators who could design and conduct an appropriate analysis more than a half century later, because all the relevant data are available in government archives. Why not do it? He could confirm or disconfirm the original claim.
3. The Jefferson Lies debacle.
Barton spent several years preparing his masterpiece, The Jefferson Lies (2012), in which he argued that Thomas Jefferson was really an orthodox Christian who did not advocate separation of church and state. Scholars recognized immediately that these conclusions were false.
After two conservative Christian college faculty members documented Barton’s numerous errors and misrepresentations in Getting Jefferson Right, reputable evangelical publisher Thomas Nelson recalled the inauthentic tract from bookstores and libraries.
It should be emphasized that it was not godless, anti-Christian, secular historians who took down the dogged Christian-nation advocate guru. Two persons of faith who were embarrassed by his endless misconceptions and embellishments of American religious history decided to unmask him.
4. The Project Blitz personal resurrection.
Barton miraculously emerged from The Jefferson Lies debacle as the creative genius behind the newest Christian-nation theopolitical program known as Project Blitz. Most of his fundamentalist followers apparently accepted his explanation that he had been the unwitting, innocent victim of a liberal conspiracy. However, Hobby Lobby did not and quickly dissolved its partnership with him.
Although some observers were convinced that his fragile credibility was permanently compromised by Thomas Nelson’s decision to withdraw the Jefferson screed, Professor Barton (his academic title was conferred by former Fox News host Glenn Beck) has risen from the grave, indeed.
Project Blitz updates and incorporates many of Barton’s earlier strategies into a comprehensive Christian-nation advocate’s playbook. These include Christianization of public schools by posting “In God We Trust” and teaching Bible courses, as well as issuing proclamations recognizing Christian Heritage Week, the Year of the Bible, and Christmas Day. The truly despicable assaults on the LGBTQ community and women’s reproductive rights were mentioned earlier.
Conclusion: David Barton’s schemes have given fundamentalist Christians a focus for their never-ending frustrations with the requirements of a secular government. His legacy, while certainly not favorable for Christian-nation proponents, is one of ongoing controversy that has drawn attention to the destructive potential that Christian fundamentalism has for democracy.3
Were the Prominent U.S. Founders Christians?
In February 1994, Acting Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee signed one of the first Christian Heritage Week proclamations asserting that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin were “Christian statesmen of caliber and integrity who did not hesitate to express their faith.”
The only problem with Huckabee’s proclamation was that these four prominent founders were not Christians! As I show in the thumbnail sketches of ten eminent founders below, they were actually deists. The brief profiles provide a factual background against which to judge the highly misleading characterizations of these men presented by Christian-nation proponents.
1. George Washington was nominally an Episcopalian. Because he seldom attended church and was not a communicant, he was accused of being an agnostic and even an atheist. He denounced the Calvinist doctrine of original sin, never mentioned Jesus in his writings, and used the term Providence as synonymous with destiny or fate. He had a low opinion of religion because of the “incessant acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds” it encouraged. His so-called personal prayer book that is routinely cited by revisionists was judged by experts to be a hoax, and his prayer at Valley Forge (kneeling in the snow) is now acknowledged to be a fabrication. He was a deist.
2. John Adams studied for the ministry at Harvard. Doubts about his Christian convictions led him to shift to the law. Although he generally wrote favorably of Christianity and Jesus throughout his life, he rejected orthodox Christian dogma, including the Trinity and the doctrine of eternal damnation. In his diary, he wondered how the Judeo-Christian scriptures came to underpin “the most bloody religion that ever existed.” He also called the Cross “the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved.” He did not declare Christmas a national holiday. He was a Unitarian.
3. Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence and coined the oft-repeated phrase, “the wall of separation between church and state.” Political opponents called him a “champion of atheism and immorality” because he denied the deity of Jesus, did not think the Bible was God’s word, and rejected the Christian concept of hell as a state of everlasting punishment. Yet he greatly admired Jesus’s secular teachings and assembled them into a small book referred to as The Jefferson Bible. He was a deist.
4. James Madison is known as the father of the U.S. Constitution. He did not attend church, but he spoke out repeatedly on behalf of freedom of conscience, which he believed was a basic right of citizenship. He opposed any form of government support for religion, because history demonstrates that established Christian churches tend to produce “superstition, bigotry, and persecution.” He declared that “religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.” His alleged quote about “the Ten Commandments of God” that is popular with the revisionists is a verified fake. He was a deist.
5. James Monroe attended an Episcopal church but never talked about his religious beliefs because he considered religion a private matter. A reference to the Divine Author of All Good in his second annual message to Congress suggests that he may have been a deist.
6. John Quincy Adams was not a regular churchgoer, causing some religious people to call him an atheist. Ironically, he read at least three chapters of the Bible each day and read through the entire Bible every year. He wrote “Civil liberty can be established on no foundation of human reason which will not at the same time demonstrate the right to religious freedom.” A lifelong opponent of slavery, he severely criticized clergy and parishioners for not condemning slavery on religious and moral grounds. Like his father, he attended the United First Parish Unitarian Church in Quincy, Massachusetts. He was a Unitarian.
7. Benjamin Franklin rejected nearly all doctrinal aspects of Christianity. While he doubted Jesus’s divinity, he applauded his ethical teachings. He considered morality independent of religion and stressed the cultivation of civic virtue in his writings. Contrary to the revisionists’ dishonest assertion, his motion to begin daily sessions of the constitutional convention with prayer was not approved; it was tabled without a vote. He opposed oaths and religious tests for public office. He was a deist.
8. Thomas Paine is best known for his immensely popular booklet Common Sense, which developed the argument for independence from England. In another persuasive volume, The Age of Reason, he demonstrated that the Bible’s claims could not be true, and he ridiculed Christianity, which he regarded as an obstacle to social and political reform. He said that more than half the Bible contains “obscene stories, voluptuous debaucheries, cruel and tortuous executions, and unrelenting vindictiveness,” and for this reason it should be called “the word of a demon.” The charge that he was an atheist is false; he believed in God and an afterlife. He was a deist.
9. Ethan Allen was a military hero of the American Revolution, best known for conquering the British stronghold at Fort Ticonderoga. He formulated a deistic philosophy based on reason, disavowing revelation and miracles. His treatise, Reason the Only Oracle of Man, was the first openly anti-Christian book published in the United States. He was a deist.
10. Joel Barlow was a Revolutionary political writer and diplomat. As U.S. Consul to Algiers, he authored and negotiated the Treaty with Tripoli, which assures that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The treaty was approved by the U.S. Senate and signed by President John Adams, thus making it the supreme law of the land. He was later U.S. minister to France and died in Poland during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Based on his extensive poetry, it is apparent that he was a deist.
What can we conclude about the religious views of these ten American founders? First, eight were deists and two were Unitarians. Second, all were advocates of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. Third, ironically, most were themselves targets of religious bigots. Fourth, none was an orthodox Christian. And fifth, none was even remotely close to the modern-day fundamentalist revisionists who attempt to expropriate them for partisan political purposes.
Obviously, it is essential to know something about deism to fully appreciate American history.4 Deism was a religious philosophy popular among educated people living in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was referred to as a rational religion, meaning that it was based on science and reason, explicitly rejecting all forms of revelation and arguing that God’s existence is manifest in the natural world.
Deists believed in God as a celestial explanatory mechanism or first cause but disaffirmed all claims of divine authority, including the deity of Christ. Yet deists endorsed the ethical teachings of Jesus, as well as those of other religious prophets. Deists also denounced all religious dogma and creeds, were strong supporters of religious liberty, and emphasized civic morality and ethical responsibility instead of personal salvation.
The modern equivalent of deism is Unitarian-Universalism. All the above tenets of deism also characterize Unitarian-Universalism. (The Unitarian and Universalist churches merged in 1961, by which time meaningful doctrinal differences between them had disappeared.) Several of the founders, including Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin, and Paine, were strongly influenced by Unitarian ideas through friendship with the English scientist Joseph Priestly, a Unitarian minister, who lived in America from 1794 to 1804.
A major consequence of the adoption of the religious philosophies of deism and Unitarianism was the emergence of the principle of separation of church from state in the U.S. founding documents, which was the basis for the American concepts of freedom of conscience and religious liberty.
The rejection of creedal statements and emphasis on ethical behavior transformed Unitarianism (as well as Universalism) into alignment with religious Humanism. Thus, critics of the historical reviews above assert that deism and Unitarianism do not have the same meaning today as they did in the late 1700s.
There is most certainly some truth to the argument that philosophical and religious ideas adjust and adapt over time. For example, observe how much the beliefs and practices of U.S. Catholics and Southern Baptists have changed just since the 1950s.
Conclusion: It should be emphasized that while none of the prominent U.S. founders discussed above was even close to being an orthodox Christian, none was opposed to religion. As a group, they considered the promotion of religious belief and practice beneficial to society and, therefore, the responsibility of political leaders. They thought that religious faith could foster ethical conduct, create good will in the community, generate respect for the rights of others, and diminish antisocial behavior. Were they just hypocrites? It is more likely that they sincerely viewed religion pragmatically as a useful instrument for maintaining civil peace and public amity. Political philosophers since Plato have shared this perspective.
Are the U.S. Founding Documents Based on the Bible?
The overarching historical assertion by Christian-nation advocates is that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. If this were demonstrably true, it would constitute strong evidence for the Christian-nation claim.
However, it is a nonspecific supposition that is not directly amenable to objective evaluation, primarily because the oft-cited Judeo-Christian precepts have never been fully enumerated. Put simply, there is nothing approaching an agreed-upon set of principles.
A more precisely specified assertion that is amenable to objective assessment is that the U.S. founding documents are based on the Bible. We can examine the documents and holy scripture together, so the requisite task becomes that of identifying the biblical themes, principles, and events that are represented in the founding charters.
We begin by stipulating that the focus will be the three basic documents, the Declaration of Independence (1776), the U.S. Constitution (1787), and the Bill of Rights (1791). Some critics argue that there are other legitimate candidates, such as the Articles of Confederation, the Federalist papers, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the Mayflower Compact. The numerous alternative candidates do not qualify as U.S. founding documents because they do not present the principles and directives for governance that served as the philosophical and legal foundation for the new nation, although some were certainly precursors of the Big Three.
The first step in any historical analysis is to ask if there exists direct evidence in support of the claim. Are there any references to Jesus, Christianity, or the Bible in the three primary founding documents? Did Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration, or James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the principal writers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, ever say that they relied on the Bible in composing the founding documents? The answer to both questions is negative.
The second critical step is to search for those themes, principles, and events in the Bible that appear in the founding documents and those that do not. Our initial concern will be with four biblical themes that are represented in the documents, followed by a listing of ten prominent themes and events that are excluded.
1. The major biblical theme that predominates in the founding documents is patriarchalism. The doctrine that men are superior and women are subservient is explicit in holy scripture, at one point quantified in God’s differential valuation of men and women (Leviticus 27:1–7). Also, only one title is given to women, that of “helper.”
How is the pernicious doctrine of patriarchalism manifested in the founding documents? Three questions frame the answer: Who wrote the documents? Who signed and approved them? Who was allowed to vote in the new republic? The answers are, of course, men only.
2. Another significant biblical theme that occurs in the founding documents is that of slavery. The doctrine that one race or ethnicity is superior to others, which may be owned as chattel property, pervades scripture. Ownership of slaves was categorically approved by Jesus, Paul, and Peter.
The U.S. Constitution legally permitted the importation of black slaves until 1808. For the purposes of enumeration, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person. The dehumanizing institution of slavery was legal in pre- and post-Revolutionary “Christian America” for almost a quarter of a millennium (1619–1865).
Another expression of racism appears in the Declaration of Independence, where the native inhabitants of the continent are referred to as “merciless Indian Savages.”
3. The constitutional principle of separation of church and state received clear support from Jesus himself, when he said. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). While scholars of different persuasions disagree on this interpretation, a useful discussion is provided by Herbert Titus in The U.S. Constitution: A Christian Document (1997).
4. The constitutional option of affirming rather than swearing an oath occurs twice in the document and undoubtedly derives from Jesus’s unequivocal prohibition against swearing an oath, “Do not swear an oath at all, simply say Yes or No, anything else comes from the Devil” (Matthew 5:34–37) and was repeated by his brother James (5:12). Virtually all Christian politicians disregard this unambiguous scriptural teaching.
Listed next are ten major biblical themes, precepts, and events that were not included in the founding documents.
- The Ten Commandments, the so-called quintessential guidelines for civilized living, were omitted.
- The death penalty is scripturally required for two dozen contemporary transgressions but was not mentioned.
- Collective punishment, which entails execution of innocent family members of guilty parties, including children, was omitted.
- Recognition of Jesus as Messiah and obedience to his teachings, the essential requirement for salvation, was not mentioned.
- Jesus’s detailed description of the horrors of hell, essential knowledge for encouraging good citizenship, was omitted.
- Human history, including creation, Noah’s flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Conquest of Canaan, was not mentioned.
- God’s murderous behavior toward the unborn, infants, babies, children, adolescents, adults, women, and homosexuals was not recounted.
- The compelling biographies of the patriarchs and prophets, such as Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Elijah, David, Jesus, Paul, and Peter, were omitted.
- Animal sacrifice, which is a central component of godly worship, detailed in fifty-six chapters of fifteen books of scripture, was not mentioned.
- Three supreme Christian doctrines—original sin, punishment for disobedience, and that human sacrifice guarantees immortality—were not referenced.
Conclusion: Although it is not true that the U.S. founding documents were based on the Bible, it is accurate to say that the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights do incorporate four basic themes that occur in the Bible: patriarchalism, slavery, separation of church and state, and affirmation of oaths. It is also obvious that most themes, principles, and events central to the Bible story are absent from the founding documents.
Social Pathology in Christian American
If we define a Christian nation as a political entity under the authority of God the Father and his son Jesus the Savior of humankind, then we can reasonably ask: Why is there so much social pathology in the United States?
Doesn’t Christianity engender moral behavior in believers? Isn’t that the primary claim that Christian pastors and preachers make? Can’t we live ethical lives through acceptance of Christian faith? What does the objective evidence tell us?
Compared to thirty other modern Western industrial countries, the United States has by far the highest rates (per capita) of social pathology, as documented by the following indicators:
- Homicide rate: Fifteen to twenty times higher.
- Execution rate: All others have abolished capital punishment.
- Incarceration rate: More residents in jails, prisons, and penitentiaries.
- Drug abuse rate: World’s number one illegal drug market.
- Military budget: Exceeds the next fifteen countries combined.
- Military sales: Exceeds the next eight countries combined.
Other indicators include: suicide rate, maternal mortality rate, infant mortality rate, teenage pregnancy rate, children living in poverty rate, marital infidelity rate, sexually transmitted disease rate, obesity rate, abortion rate, wealth inequality rate, and drunk-driving fatality rate.
While the United States may not be the worst in all categories every year, it is at the top or close on each variable, and its aggregate or composite ranking is far and away numero uno for the modern Western world.
What are the causes of this monumental epidemic of social pathology in an allegedly Christian nation? It is an undeniable fact that Americans are an incorrigibly violent people. The country was founded on the evils of forcible conquest, bloody massacres, chattel slavery, and conscripted labor.
The North American continent was taken from the native inhabitants by violent, murderous expropriation, nearly annihilating most Indian tribes (of Asian descent), destroying their cultures, and imprisoning survivors on reservations. Ironically, the later westward expansion of the United States depended upon conscripted Asian workers.
The nation was built initially by black slaves who were captured in Africa and transported to the colonies beginning in 1619. Enslavement of black captives as the foundation of the Southern economy continued for two and a half centuries. Only a bloody Civil War terminated this God-ordained practice.
Another insult to human dignity occurred during World War II, when 100,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were incarcerated in internment camps, not because they committed any crimes but due entirely to their ancestry. A government film produced at the time declared that the action was taken “without violating the principles of Christian decency.”
Conclusion: The United States was birthed in violence, and the tradition continues to this day. How do the Christian-nation advocates reconcile these horrific historical embarrassments and the dismal statistical evidence of social pathology with their assertion that the United States is a Christian nation? Are these terrible historical events and social data indicative of Christian godliness? Do they reflect Christian exceptionalism? What would the Prince of Peace say? Fundamentalist doomsday preachers tell us that Satan is alive and well in America, and this frightening evidence confirms their allegation!
Absence of Christian Consensus in America
Fundamentalist promoters of Christian-nation ideology assume that there exists a consistent set of pro-family values that have the overwhelming support of the Christian community.
All available evidence flatly contradicts this assumption. In fact, disagreement within the Christian community is almost as great as it is among the greater U.S. population. It is the huge divide between fundamentalist and mainline Christians on the moral issues that accounts for most of the differences.
If the United States were truly a Christian nation, then it follows that those who identify as Christians would agree completely on the central moral issues. The clear absence of consensus, with fundamentalists typically in the minority, contradicts the very idea of a nation committed to a unified series of Christian values.
Outlined next are one dozen major moral issues that thoroughly divide the Christian community, with the mainline Protestants’ majority position (with substantial Catholic support) given first in the contrasting viewpoints.
- Abortion Rights: Freedom of choice in women’s reproductive healthcare vs. outlaw and criminalize abortion and related procedures for women and doctors.
- LGBTQ Rights: Equal rights and legal protections for all sexual minorities vs. ban same-sex marriage and legalize discrimination against LGBTQ persons for religious reasons.
- Sexuality Education: Comprehensive sexuality education including thorough explanation of contraception vs. abstinence only until marriage to an opposite sex mate.
- Science Education: Indoctrination in the philosophy, methods, and findings of scientific investigation vs. denial of human evolution, climate change, and vaccination efficacy.
- Capital Punishment: Abolish state-sponsored killing as immoral vs. execute criminals expeditiously, because the death penalty is an effective deterrent.
- Gun Ownership: Implement strong public safety requirements such as universal background checks vs. any restrictions in access to firearms is a violation of the Second Amendment.
- Right-to-Die: Individuals have the right to choose assisted death with dignity vs. individuals do not have the right to accelerate dying and must accept “natural death.”
- Ordination of Women: All persons should be eligible to assume all ecclesiastical responsibilities vs. women should be restricted to those statuses that scripture approves.
- Drug Use: Individuals should have freedom of choice in use of recreational drugs vs. drugs are a societal scourge, and all use should be strongly discouraged or outlawed.
- Gambling Activity: Wagering is a generally harmless recreational activity that must be regulated vs. all gambling should be abolished because it is morally destructive.
- Public Schools: Public education is the foundation of the community and should focus on the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and social development vs. public schools should be replaced by private religious academies and home schooling.
- Public Religion: Expression of religious faith is a private matter that is best left to home and church vs. public religious exercises, such as invocations and prayers, are essential for strengthening Christian commitment.
Conclusion: The United States cannot be a Christian nation if Christians do not agree on the central moral values that Christian-nation advocates argue are the foundation of the alleged national faith. In other words, the complete absence of anything even approaching a Christian consensus on basic moral issues demonstrates that there are no definitive Christian values or Godly principles and renders the concept of a “Christian nation” incoherent and utterly meaningless.
Each of the eight sections of this review produced a definitive conclusion about one of the dominant issues in the Christian-nation allegation:
- Twenty-one specific claims made by Christian-nation proponents are shown to be false or irrelevant.
- The theopolitical goals of the Christian-nation advocates are focused on the imposition of a Christian theocracy in the United States.
- The assertion by Christian-nation proponents that the constitutional principle of separation of church and state is a “myth” is refuted.
- David Barton’s thirty-year career of historical errors and confusion has not produced one iota of support for the Christian-nation claim.
- The best-known U.S. founders were not Christians; rather they adhered to the religious philosophies of deism and Unitarianism.
- The U.S. founding documents are not based on the Bible, but four basic scriptural themes are represented: patriarchalism, slavery, separation of church and state, and affirmation of oaths.
- The overwhelming evidence of social pathology in the United States in comparison to other modern countries flatly contradicts the Christian-nation assertion.
- The complete lack of Christian consensus on the major moral issues demonstrates that the United States is not a Christian nation.
Regardless of the total lack of support for their claim, Christian-nation advocates will not stop their obsessive activities aimed at achieving the goal of having Christianity officially recognized and proclaimed America’s religion, with all others excluded. Most authorities say this will not happen because the First Amendment protects citizens from government establishment of any religion.
Many fundamentalists still regard David Barton as the living savior of the Christian-nation dream. The Jefferson Lies debacle should have been the end of his journey of historical distortion and corruption. But despite his public exposure and disgrace, millions of believers accept the Christian-nation theopolitical myth as an article of faith rather than rejecting it as the product of fraudulent scholarship.
Their hopes have been revived by a recent episode in Israel, in which Benjamin Netanyahu and his cronies railroaded through a new law that declares Israel “the nation-state of the Jewish people” and asserts that “The right to exercise national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
In other words, Israel is now a Jewish nation! Interestingly, Israel’s founding Declaration of Independence guaranteed complete equality of social and political rights for all residents, regardless of religion.
Could it happen in America? With Netanyahu’s fellow demagogue in the White House, endlessly pandering to the fundamentalist far Right, almost anything is possible.5 Only the entirely secular U.S. Constitution stands between most American citizens and the small minority of Christian-nation zealots.
- Contrary to the standard misrepresentation by David Barton and Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court did not declare the United States a Christian nation. Yet court rulings that proscribed mandatory prayer, Bible reading, moments of silence, graduation prayers, pledging allegiance to the flag, and teaching creationism in public schools are never mentioned by Christian-nation advocates. Nor are the decisions that legalized abortion and same-sex marriage ever celebrated.
- Three Williamson County, Texas, commissioners did not believe that the prohibition against religious tests for public office applied to them. They interrogated candidates for a constable position about their views on abortion and same-sex marriage as well as their church attendance. Consequently, they were convicted in federal court of violating the constitutional rights of a job applicant.
- Barton also believes that giving women the right to vote weakened the family and contributed to the alleged moral decline of the nation, because granting female suffrage was contrary to God’s will. His propensity for denying reality is illustrated by his delusional belief that The Jefferson Lies will be reissued in the near future. Of course, no responsible publisher would touch it, but he could sponsor distribution himself under the Wallbuilder imprimatur.
- For an excellent discussion of deism in revolutionary America, see Kerry S. Walters, The American Deists: Voices of Reason and Dissent in the Early Republic (1992).
- The common themes in the political strategies of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu reflect their shared authoritarian values: both embrace ultra-right racist hatemongers, both call legitimate investigations into their corrupt activities “witch hunts,” and both blame the free press and liberals for their problems.