Faith of Our Founders

Constitution Series 1787-1987: The Constitution's framers resisted attempts to define America as a Christian nation. The battle goes on.


A common denominator unites the Christian right and has a seductive appeal to many conservatives who otherwise reject evangelical or fundamentalist positions: the belief that the vast majority of Americans are Christians and share—or should share—a set of values and assumptions based on Christian teachings; that the Founders also held these values and embodied them in the Constitution; that these elements of the Constitution have been eroded by clever ACLU lawyers and other "secular humanists," who have built an artificial constitutional wall of separation between church and state never intended by the Founders.

As federal judge Frank McGarr recently declared in a case involving a creche in Chicago's city hall, "The truth is that America's origins are Christian with the result that our fondest traditions are Christian, and that our founding fathers intended and achieved full religious freedom for all within the context of a Christian nation in the First Amendment as it was adopted, rather than as we have rewritten it."

The goal of the Christian right is to put this attitude into practice and, in the process, to make America a Christian nation by law as well as numbers. "We have together with the Protestants and the Catholics," evangelist and presidential contender Pat Robertson believes, "enough votes to run the country. And when the people say, 'We've had enough,' we are going to take over."

But the view that the United States began as an explicitly Christian nation, only to have that status snatched away by activist judges, is a misreading of history—and of the Constitution. This is not the first time that politically active believers have attempted to make America a Christian nation juridically as well as numerically. The Constitution has withstood similar assaults from its inception.

Liberating Document
"No religious test," says Article 6 of the Constitution, "shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." By forbidding religious tests for public office, the Constitution declared that the new country, whatever the faith of its people, was not legally a Christian nation. Unlike state constitutions, most of which contained religious freedom clauses analogous to the First Amendment alongside religious tests for public office, the national government would grant equal citizenship to those of any faith—or even of none.

Certainly, this is how citizens on both sides of the debate viewed the Constitution at the time. Luther Martin of Maryland, a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, complained to no avail "that in a Christian country, it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism." And a group of Massachusetts and New Hampshire Presbyterian ministers told George Washington that "we should not have been alone in rejoicing to have some explicit acknowledgement of THE TRUE ONLY GOD, AND JESUS CHRIST who he has sent, inserted somewhere in the Magna Carta of our country."

Foreshadowing the sentiments of cultural conservatives throughout American history, a North Carolina politician-clergyman predicted that the absence of a Christian oath for officeholders amounted to "an invitation for Jews and pagans of every kind to come among us. At some future period, this might endanger the character of the United States." And a speaker at the New Hampshire ratifying convention suggested that at least the president ought to be compelled to take a proper religious oath. Otherwise, "a Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and what is worse than all, a Universalist, may be President of the United States." With the election of such deists as Jefferson and Madison, his worst fears were borne out.

For their part, American Jews—barred from office in most states—immediately recognized and rejoiced in the Constitution as a liberating document. In Savannah, they thanked George Washington for helping to create a government that "enfranchised us with all the privileges and immunities of free citizens, and initiated us into the grand mass of legislative mechanism." The Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, wrote to Washington in a similar vein: "Deprived as we have hitherto been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty Disposer of all events), behold a Government…which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship…"

Atheistical Constitution?
For the next half century, religious leaders of major Protestant denominations occasionally voiced complaints about the Constitution's failure to establish a Christian government. In 1811, for example, the Reverend Samuel Austin, later president of the University of Vermont, stated that the Constitution "is entirely disconnected from Christianity. It is not founded on the Christian religion." This "one capital defect," he warned, would lead "inevitably to its destruction."

As the Enlightenment waned and a resurgence of evangelicalism swept America, the attempt to restore Protestant Christianity to a position of political primacy became a major goal of those who, like Austin, found the Constitution wanting. By the time of the Civil War, from Protestant moderates as well as from fundamentalists, in hundreds of sermons and pamphlets, came a call to put Christ and Christian values into the Constitution.

The National Reform Association was formed in 1861 with that express purpose. Its membership included college presidents, governors, state and federal judges, public administrators, and important private citizens. "The fundamental proposition on which this whole movement is based," commented the editors of a New York City Methodist newspaper, "is the impossibility of State neutrality in religion and morals. Once grant this fundamental principle, and we see not how the object of this movement can be logically opposed or ignored." The petition of Cincinnati Presbyterians to Congress that a "Christian nation with an atheistical Constitution is an anomaly" was typical of most others.

The National Reform Association reached its peak during a time of enormous psychological stress, when moderate Protestants, without much thought regarding the political consequences and constitutional ramifications, supported the movement. The Civil War, so it seemed to thousands of religious Americans, was God's punishment, not only because of slavery, but because He was omitted from the Constitution.

"For more than forty years, a Fourth of July has seldom passed," wrote the Reverend George Junkin of Lafayette College, in 1863, "on which I have not preached and warned my countrymen of this defect, and told them if it be not supplied, God would pull down their temple and bury a nation in its ruin." The Reverend Henry A. Boardman of Philadelphia argued that "the loss of His favor will explain everything that has happened." Only by placing Christ in the Constitution could it be regained.

Not surprisingly, Jews regarded the National Reform Association as but one manifestation of a movement to Christianize the country officially. "Are We Equals in This Land?" queried a Jewish newspaper.

North and South, political leaders referred to the war as a Christian battle fought to preserve Christian principles. Many of the speeches, the songs, the prayers, the fast-day proclamations, and the military orders recognized the primacy of Christianity. Even President Abraham Lincoln issued an order in 1862 that referred to "the sacred rights of Christian soldiers and sailors" and "deference to the best sentiments of a Christian people."

Yet Lincoln neither endorsed nor condemned the National Reform Association. Nor did Congress, which tabled all the petitions supporting its goals. The organization continued to function, disbanding finally in 1945, but its membership declined rapidly once the Civil War ended. With peace, the danger receded, and Americans tended to agree with Horace Greeley's dictum: "The name of God on a plow beam would not make the plow run any better."

Baseball and Blue Laws
As hopes of a Christian amendment to the Constitution faded, efforts to Christianize America came to concentrate on establishing Sunday as a national "Lord's Day," on which many commercial and leisure activities would be outlawed. Such Sunday laws existed on the state level, varying greatly in their severity. Massachusetts's law, passed in 1792, was so strict that Alexis de Tocqueville commented in 1831 on the "profound solitude" that reigned in Boston: "The whole movement of social life was suspended [on the Sabbath]. One can hear no sound of folk at work or at play, and not even that confused noise which constantly rises from any great city." By contrast, the Virginia Sunday law was mild: it forbade unnecessary labor or disturbances of religious services and provided for a fine of $1.67, which was rarely collected.

The national debate began in 1828, when a group of conservative merchants and old Federalists meeting in New York City formed a General Union for Promoting the Observance of the Christian Sabbath. At their instigation, church organizations and civic groups flooded Congress with petitions to stop Sunday mail delivery. But mail delivery wasn't the heart of the matter—the status of America as a Christian nation was.

"The people of these United States," read a memorial from Newark, New Jersey, "in their national capacity and character, constitute a Christian nation. If a Christian nation, then our Government is a Christian Government, a Government formed and established by Christians, and therefore bound by the word of God." From North Carolina came a similar message: "In a Christian community where all the chartered rights and political institutions, as well as the legislative provisions of the country, recognize the authority of the Christian religion, your memorialists deem it unnecessary to employ any reasoning to prove that Sabbath breaking is sinful."

There were strong arguments to the contrary. Senator Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky reminded Congress that the "Constitution regards the conscience of the Jew as sacred as that of the Christian." A resolution by the legislature of Indiana stated "that all legislative interference in matters of religion is contrary to the genius of Christianity; and that there are no doctrines or observances inculcated by the Christian religion which require the arm of civil power either to enforce or sustain them; that we consider every connection between church and state at all times dangerous to civil and religious liberty." The attempt to stop Sunday mail delivery failed.

That was in the 1820s. By the 1840s, evangelical Christians concentrated on cities, where growth had led to Sunday streetcar travel, amusements, business and other secular pursuits. The broad spectrum of Americans who had been initially opposed to these laws narrowed considerably before the Protestant assault. Mainline churches united in their favor, with Presbyterians in the lead, Methodists firmly at their side, Episcopalians nodding an aristocratic assent, and Lutherans lagging behind (because so many German members of that church believed it was their historic right to visit beer taverns on Sunday).

Opponents of the laws included abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who organized an Anti-Sunday-Law Convention in 1848, which adopted a resolution "that if the Legislature may rightfully determine the day on which people shall abstain from labor for religious purposes, it may also determine the place in which they shall assemble, the rites and ordinances which they shall observe, the doctrines which they shall hear, the teachers which they shall have over them, and the peculiar faith which they shall embrace; and thus entirely subvert civil and religious freedom."

Although a national Lord's Day bill wasn't introduced in Congress until after the Civil War, judges seemed to be paving the way for such a law during the preceding decades by sustaining the constitutionality of state Sunday legislation. In the process, they often affirmed that the United States was indeed a Christian nation.

A supreme court judge in South Carolina, for a unanimous court, held in 1848 that "The Lord's day, the day of the Resurrection, is to us who are called Christians, the day of rest after finishing a new creation. It is the day of the first visible triumph over death, hell and the grave!…On that day we rest and to us it is the Sabbath of the Lord—its decent observance in a Christian community is that which ought to be expected." The same year, a supreme court judge in Pennsylvania declared: "We are a Christian people and state.…I do not recognize the right of legislation to make a day of secular cessation from labor independent of the Christian Sabbath."

In a case involving Sunday baseball games, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in 1892 that "Christianity is woven into the web and woof of free government and but for it free government would not have existed, because no other system has been able to check the selfishness, arrogance, cruelty and covetousness of the race.…As a Christian people, therefore, jealous of their liberty and desiring to preserve the same, the State has enacted certain statutes which, among other things, in effect, recognize the fourth commandment, and the Christian religion, and the binding force of the teachings of the Savior."

Even the U.S. Supreme Court, in an extensive obiter dictum in the 1892 case of Holy Trinity Church v. United States, felt compelled to add an unmistakable endorsement of the primacy of Christianity by categorically stating "that this is a Christian nation."

But Congress resisted all attempts to enact a national Lord's Day law. On more limited issues, however, lawmakers were certainly susceptible to the power of Christian forces acting in unison. Protestant groups pressured Congress to deny appropriations for the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago unless it closed on Sunday. Congressmen admitted, as did Senator Joseph Hawley of Connecticut, that the bill was "founded on religious belief."

Congressman John Pattison of Ohio said, "We but voice the sentiment of the many millions of Christian people and also at least nine-tenths of the American people."

In response, Albert Hopkins of Illinois asked, "What would the gentleman do with those who have Saturday as their Sabbath?"

Pattison: "There are very few of those."

Hopkins: "But their conscientious scruples are as sacred to them as those who desire the doors to be closed on Sunday."

An unnamed congressman told a reporter for the Chicago Daily Post: "The reason we shall vote for it is, I will confess to you, a fear that, unless we do so, the church folks will get together and knife us at the polls." The law passed easily.

The Present Danger
Today no representative of the Christian right is audacious enough to suggest that the Constitution be amended to recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ. But that in effect is their goal: the recognition of America as a Christian nation politically and judicially. Christian right leaders are, in the main, shrewd and sophisticated.

They have even cast their net to include Jews by their unqualified support for the state of Israel and by their repeated invocation of the term "Judeo-Christian principles," or "Judeo-Christian traditions," or "Judeo-Christian ethics." Obviously it is politically expedient to employ euphemisms to attract Jews to the so-called moral majority. (No recognition is given, of course, to the growing number of Asian immigrants, for example, who share very different religious traditions but are nevertheless citizens.)

Occasionally, however, the face of anti-Semitism is revealed. The Reverend James Robison, for example, the television evangelist selected to open the 1984 Republican National Convention with a prayer of thanksgiving, has defined an anti-Semite as "someone who hates Jews more than he's supposed to." He also believes that "the non-Christian can't understand spiritual things."

Likewise, Catholics inclined to support the religious right should remember that the Reverend W.A. Criswell, a Baptist pastor and prominent spokesman for the Christian right chosen to close the Republican convention with a benediction, once called the Catholic church "a political tyranny" and predicted that John Kennedy's election would "spell the death of a free church in a free state."

Such remarks are reminiscent of 19th-century claims that morality was exclusively a Christian possession. "What constitutes the standard of good morals?" asked a South Carolina judge in the 1840s. "Is it not Christianity? There certainly is none other."

In the middle of the Civil War, Jewish leader Isaac Leeser alerted his readers that the "poison" of the National Reform Association "has become more diffused, more portentous, and indicative of a coming storm." It threatened not only Jews, he wrote, but Unitarians, sabbatarians, atheists, deists, free thinkers, civil libertarians, the unclassified who were indifferent, and Catholics as well.

Especially Catholics, he noted, "would be as much injured as we, should the religious element be engrafted on the Constitution; for they would find it difficult to contend against a united Protestant body. We may therefore expect that should the question grow into larger dimensions, we should not be left alone to contend for human rights, but find support no less from our ancient oppressors than from persons indifferent to all religion, not from love of Israelites and those who would be excluded under the new state of things, but from a sense of common danger."

Just as the collective rhetoric of the Christian right reflects its 19th-century antecedents, so Leeser's response is applicable today. The struggle between two contending images of America has been a constant of our history. From the beginning, many Americans, unhappy with a Constitution that was undeniably secular, defined the United States as a Christian nation. They believed that the civil order and spiritual order are interrelated and interdependent; that if Christianity is the true faith, those who deny it are wrong and misguided; that non-Christians should be tolerated but that government, to be strong and virtuous and moral, must be allied with the religion of the majority. This is essentially the message of the Christian right today.

Opposed to it has been the definition associated most notably with Thomas Jefferson: that all religions have merit, but that religion is a private concern; that Christianity or Protestantism has no monopoly on truth; that government should neither favor nor discriminate and must be divorced from religion. Jefferson's view of religious freedom, some of his contemporaries complained, exalted individual freedom at the expense of majority rights. Indeed it did, and still does, since Jefferson opposed all tyrannies, of monarchs as well as of majorities. He considered his authorship of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom as memorable and significant as the Declaration of Independence.

But there have been many throughout American history, to this day, who have been unable to accept either Jefferson's ideas on religious freedom or his motives. The Virginia Statute, in fact, one rather typical critic contended, denigrated Christianity. It amounted to "an alliance between the civil authority and infidelity."

Secularism has been, a recent scholar concludes, "one of Jefferson's richest legacies to democracy." Those on the religious right today cannot conceive of republicanism functioning successfully without a Christian foundation. Like their 19th-century predecessors, they point to current national problems as proof and rely on psychological stress to attract support. They are as zealous as they are indefatigable, for they believe it is the Lord's work.

One must keep in mind that religious liberty did not come easily. It did not simply ripen and fall to non-Christians as a gift. It had to be fought for in legislative halls, in constitutional conventions, and in the courts. What has been achieved, easily can be lost if the near unity of the Christian right in rhetoric is ever matched by their unity in political action.

Morton Borden is a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Jews, Turks, and Infidels (University of North Carolina Press, 1984).