“The United States was founded as a Christian nation.”
I have heard this mythconception my entire life and as a Christian and historian, it bothers me on multiple levels. First, the United States was not ever intended to be a “Christian nation” but rather a nation in which there would be no “state religion.” As products of the Enlightenment and some of the most well-educated individuals of the time, the founding fathers knew and had seen the perils that had embroiled the nations and kingdoms of Europe. Just look at Great Britain as a sample…Henry the VIII had six wives, some were Catholic and some were Protestant. So, after his death, you had Mary, a Catholic, that persecuted Protestants. Then, she dies, and you have her half-sister, Elizabeth I, a Protestant, who persecuted Catholics. And it just goes on and on. Depending on whomever was king/queen, you might be the person being persecuted. So, when we say people were settling in the colonies in what would become the United States for religious freedom, a more accurate description would be that they were actually avoiding religious persecution. If they were in the colonies, they would be farther away from the persecution happening under the closer watch of the king/queen.
Aside from that, let’s take a look at the faith of the founding fathers. As with many people, faith is an ever evolving part of one’s life and it was the same for the founding fathers. But, to say that they were Christian is historically inaccurate. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, was not a Christian, but a Deist. As evidenced in the Declaration, Jefferson believed in a creator/supreme being/God. He wrote, “…the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…” and “…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” but this does not mean that he believed in Jesus as the Christ and Savior. He even cut out and re-wrote (maybe reorganized is a better term) his own version of the Bible, taking out any references to Jesus’ divinity, leaving what he considered to be an excellent set of morals. You can read more about his Bible here. And then there’s the other founding fathers…John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and the list goes on. While it is true that some of those founding fathers were, in fact, Christian, or at least members of Christian churches, we can not make a blanket generalization that the founding fathers were all Christian. The historical record simply does not support this view of the history of the founding of the United States.
This is probably one of the hardest mythconceptions to fight against, because it goes so deep. Generations of people in the United States, including my parents, were taught this. They were also in school when reading the Bible and praying was a part of the daily classroom routine in the public school systems. This brings up an enormous amount of other issues, but to stay focused on the mythconception, some of the reason this myth continues to be perpetuated is because the people that were taught this generations ago, continue to pass down the idea to their descendants and anyone else who might listen. In my opinion, another reason this perpetuates is because churches help to pass this myth along. Having attended three churches in my life, two with my parents, and the current church without my parents, this is an interesting one. At those three churches, the pastors and other leaders are good at making sure they don’t make blanket statements, political statements, etc. about one or the other of the main political parties or their platforms. I think they recognize the issues that this might raise with attenders/members (not to mention the IRS). But, in private conversations, I have often found myself wondering why people continue to have this idea…not necessarily the pastors or other leaders, but the attenders of the churches. I often wonder how to explain to other Christians that the United States was not founded as a “Christian nation” while still being respectful of them. The minute I am not respectful is when people will stop listening to what I have to say. So, I have to carefully choose my words, examples, etc. so I can make my point as well as I can.
Yet, another of the mythconceptions of history…