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Religious Pluralism and America’s Christian Nation Debate

By Gregory W. Hamilton, President[1]
Northwest Religious Liberty Association

Revisiting the Intentions of America’s Constitutional Founders

The constitutional system of the United States of America remains the envy of the world—or so we Americans like to think! Ideally and practically speaking—no matter how many flaws and shortcomings some seem to find—America’s constitutional system is what has inspired most of the nations on this increasingly free trade global planet of ours to aspire to freedom and equality and to share in the democratic and economic successes that follow in the train of borrowing from its constitutional and economic model. While this has not been without some apprehension due to America's occasional cowboy swagger and arrogance, success over a 220-year period has proven its value to the nations of the world. Article after article that I read in The Financial Times, the European edition of The Wall Street JournalForeign Affairs journal, Economist magazine, and the Robb Report, confirms this in my mind.

In his book Diplomacy, which continues to be used as one of the standard textbooks in many university graduate programs in diplomatic history and political science, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger describes America’s global reach and influence this way: “Almost as if according to some natural law, in every century there seems to emerge a country with the power, the will, and the intellectual and moral impetus to shape the entire international system in accordance with its own values.... In the twentieth century, no country has influenced international relations as decisively as the United States. No society has...more passionately asserted that its own values were universally applicable.”[2]

Kissinger’s magisterial description of the global reach and influence of the United States confirms the genius of America’s constitutional Founders. With its three co-equal but separate branches of governmental power—executive, congressional, and judicial—and more checks and balances than even our brightest constitutional scholars can keep up with, America’s constitutional system continues to be the governmental model most sought after among foreign countries choosing to embark on the path toward representative government.

With the addition of a Bill of Rights to compliment our Constitution, Thomas Jefferson was right when he eloquently wrote that "It can never be too often repeated that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united." But in the next sentence, Jefferson also warned that America's constitutional experiment in freedom and republican forms of government could either "revive or expire in a convulsion" depending on how long the memories of the people were in remembering and cherishing the bold experiment the Founders were bequeathing to them and to us.[3]

It can be said that how a nation interprets its own historical development—or tells its national story in the minds and hearts of its people—will determine its ultimate success or failure. This is how nations are sustained and often how revolutionary convulsions are born. Indeed, as George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[4]

This is no less true in the United States today where the greatest threat to our constitutional system comes from the temptation of a few overzealous souls to reinterpret our nation's constitutional history in a way that suits their own desire for political power.

For example, encouraged by their popular following on radio and television, there has been a plethora of politically and religiously motivated individuals challenging America’s well-researched and articulated constitutional history. Since the late 1980’s, beginning with the widely sold video and DVD productions by David Barton of Wallbuilders, Inc.—and advocated by very powerful and persuasive spin doctors like Newt Gingrich, Dr. D. James Kennedy, Judge Roy Moore, and Attorney Jay Sekulow—there has been an enormous amount of money, time, and energy put into blurring the distinction between the Puritan and Constitutional founding periods. This has caused many unwary American citizens to believe that the United States Government was specifically intended by our nation’s Founders to be constituted on the basis of Christianity and literal Scriptural commands.

However, at the heart of this revolutionary tactic is the desire for extraordinary political power, not an objective pursuit of truth. An honest examination of history will not advance their interests. Instead, they are subtly, and quite successfully, rewriting America's constitutional history in the minds and hearts of the people, particularly among evangelical Christians who are the most vulnerable. They hope by reinterpreting and rewriting the Constitution, to establish the Christian Constitution and Christian State, or Government, they have always cherished. Recognizing that they may end up falling short of rewriting the Constitution, they have even contemplated what it would take to influence “We the people” to abolish it altogether in a special edition of Richard John Neuhaus’ First Things journal (a leading Catholic journal) back in 1996.

One of the means that has been employed has been the proposal of so-called Constitution Reform Acts at the state level, including a Pledge of Allegiance Act at the federal level. These acts are specifically worded in a way that would bar state courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court, from hearing cases involving acts of religious expression in the public square that are sponsored by the government, thus giving state legislative bodies and the U.S. Congress a blank check to pass whatever the popular will of the people wanted. This in turn would effectively limit courts from interpreting the Constitution over an entire realm of jurisprudence—namely church-state and religious liberty case law. This would represent a dangerous precedent and a major constitutional revolution with potentially devastating consequences to our country's constitutional separation of powers, its system of checks and balances, and the constitutional separation of church and state based on the no establishment provision of the First Amendment. That is the path that historical revisionists seek to take America.

The Christian Nation Debate

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 71% percent of Americans consider the United States a “Christian nation.”[5]

But in what manner is the United States a Christian nation? According to the same Pew Research poll, secularism and atheism are on the decline while 82% percent of Americans claim to be Christian. Of this 82% percent cited by the Pew Research Center, 25% percent are conservative evangelical Catholics and 29% percent are evangelical Protestants. This means that 54% percent are conservative evangelical Christians, leaving approximately 28% percent in the mainline liberal Protestant churches. All other people of faith make up 9% percent (i.e., Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.). The remaining 8 to 9% percent range from secularists with no particular antagonism to institutional forms of religion, to atheists, who make up less than 2% percent of the American population.[6]

From this, one could reasonably conclude that demographically and culturally America remains a predominantly Christian nation in the midst of a competitive and diverse religious landscape. But it also represents a cultural divide where today, pitched struggles over the proper place of religion in the public square—whether it be over the celebration of Christmas in public venues, God in the Pledge of Allegiance, prayer in public schools, the legality and propriety of same-sex marriage, courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments, and the status of biological evolution in education (i.e., the teaching of Creationism or Intelligent Design along side evolution)—spill rivers of ink and spawn endless litigation. But this is not all: abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research are hotly debated. Popular TV and radio talk show host Bill O’Reilly is a frequent agitator of these conflicts, encouraging America’s Christian traditionalists—whom he calls “cultural warriors”—to fight against secular liberalism.

This culture war in America does not surprise any of us. Secular liberals have been seeking to deface religion in the public square, making it void of religious expression. On the other side of the divide, evangelical Christians have been vigorously trying—through legislation—to constitutionalize (or enforce by law) Christianity and Christian expression in the public square. In simpler words, “the Left fears that fundamentalists have subverted the Constitution to establish a theocracy, while the Right complains of galloping secularism.” In fact, every U.S. Supreme Court confirmation becomes a battle-royal over the quasi-religious issue of abortion. As Christopher Clausen eloquently points out in the most recent issue of The Wilson Quarterly, “War between the faiths, as well as between faith and government, is raging again throughout most of the world, and America is part of the picture.”[7]

Voices of Reason and Truth

In this great American debate (or constitutional struggle), the truth is somewhere in the middle and is often not heard by the American people because of the loud and ugly shouting matches that regularly occur in the print and broadcast media.

A few years ago, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in a speech at the University of Northern Ireland, argued that America’s Constitutional Founders understood the potential for either extreme to strangle its experiment in freedom and the development of a democratic form of government. She said that today it is no different: “The religious zealot and the theocrat frighten us in part because we understand only too well their basic impulse. No less frightening is the totalitarian atheist who aspires to a society in which the exercise of religion has no place.”[8]

For practical and civil reasons, America’s Founders, after realizing the need to add a Bill of Rights to solidify their constitutional experiment, sought to uphold both the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment to a high constitutional standard against very real and powerful forces. Using this standard, the Founders meant to do more than just prevent the establishment of a national religion. They intended the federal model to be a subtle but powerful inspirational guide to state governments to disestablish their state supported churches and to be neutral toward religion and people of faith. They did, with Massachusetts becoming the last of the original thirteen states to disestablish its state supported church. In time, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Everson v. Board of Education (1947) concluded that government neutrality meant that religion and religious institutions must be allowed to thrive freely, but without its official endorsement.[9]

The First Amendment, in part, states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” But today, many evangelical Christians seek to reinterpret the no Establishment provision separating Church and State in ways that would require government to financially support their institutions and enforce their religious dogmas in the public square so as to solve the moral ills of the nation. They seek to restore America to a time—a pre-constitutional period—in which government directly supported the church, and thus by default established it. In this case, instead of establishing a particular Christian faith or creed or denomination, it seeks to establish Christianity and its values as a whole.

But there are others, mostly on the Left, who seek to marginalize the Free Exercise of Religion in favor of placing a higher level of protection on lifestyles that are not viewed favorably by a society that is predominantly made up of moral and social traditionalists (i.e., evangelical Christians), specifically when it is perceived that any proposed religious freedom legislation competes with same-sex rights.[10]

Both of these approaches are unnecessarily divisive and extremely harmful to our nation’s constitutional health. However, the Nation’s Founders anticipated this tension, creating an internal check and balance within the very wording of the First Amendment in order to prevent America from being overrun by either extreme in the great church-state debate (a puritanical vs. godless society). Remove this balancing safeguard and I believe America’s constitutional guarantees will be lost, and with it its civil and religious freedoms.

Professor Jack Rakove, a noted constitutional and political historian at Stanford University, in his book Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, takes this point even further, arguing that “James Madison and Thomas Jefferson…countenanced a constitutional solution to the religion question [by] renouncing the authority of the state to regulate the one aspect of behavior that had most disrupted the peace of society since the [Protestant] Reformation. At the heart of their support for disestablishment and free exercise law was the radical conviction that nearly the entire sphere of religious practice could be safely deregulated, placed beyond the cognizance of the state, and thus defused as both a source of political strife and a danger to individual rights. By treating religion as a matter of opinion only, Jefferson and Madison identified the one area of governance in which the realm of private rights could be enlarged by a flat constitutional denial of legislative jurisdiction, thereby converting the general premise that all government rested on a delegation of authority from the people into a specific refusal to permit government to act over an entire area of behavior. In this sense religious liberty differed markedly from other civil rights that Americans valued. These other rights were essentially procedural; they assumed that government had the authority to act, but that it had to do so in conformity to the due processes of law that legislatures and courts both followed. In the realm of religion, however, what Madison and Jefferson contested was the capacity of the state to act at all.”[11]

Dr. Rakove, of course, is cognizant of the fact that since America’s Constitutional Founding in 1787, the courts have consistently concluded—beginning with its ruling nearly one-hundred years later in 1879 that forced Mormons to abandon polygamy (United States v. Reynolds)—that there are times when governmental interests outweigh the religious free exercise claims of religious peoples, particularly when the overall health and moral welfare of the state and its citizens are at stake.[12]

Religious Pluralism and Separation — The Cultural and Constitutional Answer to “Is America a Christian Nation?”

Back to the original question: Is America a Christian Nation? Demographically speaking, yes. We are predominantly Christian in terms of our population. 251 million Americans, out of a total population of slightly over 300 million, profess to be Christian. That’s roughly 82-83 percent of America’s population, with each categorized at varying devotional levels. Therefore, America is a Christian nation, particularly in a pluralistic sense—a nation of many faith groups and religions.

But there is a more relevant question to ask in our discussion: Is America a Christian nation from a constitutional and legal standpoint? When reading the Constitution on a line-by-line basis, does it make biblical demands on us as citizens, or propose to organize our federal governmental system on the basis of biblically defined principles? Did America’s Constitutional Framers specifically intend the Constitution to make Christianity the established religion or law of the land?

With more and more faith groups escaping from a troubled European Continent where religious wars and religious persecutions were a frequent and well-known condition of those times, our nation’s Founders knew full well that a greater influx of immigrants would bring a corresponding increase in religious pluralism. To anticipate an increasing flood of new immigrants meant establishing the new and fledgling Republic on a secure basis—on the basis of civil and religious freedom. To do this they would have to at once calculate, acknowledge, enunciate, and apply the radical principle of the separation between church and state in the new Constitution by preventing the establishment of a national church. It would also mean ensuring that the federal government was not involved in financially supporting, officially endorsing or sponsoring any particular religious activity—particularly denominational acts of worship or spiritual devotion.

Constitutionally speaking, then, the United States remains a secular nation with secular laws that are neutral toward religion, religious individuals and religious entities, where no religious belief system, tenet, or church is established through legal enforcement. If America was a Christian Nation by law and was specifically spelled out as such in our Constitution, then our government would be no different than some Muslim countries whose Constitutions are based on Sharia law and Haditha writings—laws derived, interpreted and applied from the Koran, the sacred Scriptures of Islam and Mohammed's writings. The only difference, of course, would be that our Constitutional laws—if placed on a similar footing—would derive its authority, interpretation and application from the Holy Bible, the sacred Scriptures of Christianity. How this would be interpreted would be a dilemma.

Perhaps the closest our country came to becoming a Christian nation was when Alexander Hamilton proposed the creation of a “Christian Constitutional Society.” While Hamilton’s proposal was contained in an obscure letter to Congressman James Bayard of Delaware, and never saw the light of day, it represented a systematic plan for ensuring the election of “fit [Christian] men,” and thus ensuring the transformation of the American political system into a Christian consensus, effecting generations of legislation with a Christian intent. Hamilton's proposal was, in some distinct ways, a precursor to the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition in our day—voting guides and all![13]

So then the question must be asked again: Is America a Christian Nation, legally and constitutionally speaking? The simple and direct answer is “No.” If America were indeed a Christian Nation on a legal and/or constitutional basis, religious freedom in this country would virtually be non-existent. Oh sure, religious tolerance might exist. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Spiritists, and even some Christian minorities might be tolerated (i.e., Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, all American born religions). But there would be no true religious freedom in the country we call the United States of America.

This is why Christian men like John Leland, an itinerant, hell-fire preaching colonial Baptist from Virginia, was motivated to write in his “Chronicle of His Time in Virginia” that “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever.” He argued that “Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians." [14] In these words Reverend Leland echoed the thoughts and words of many other Christians of his day. Indeed, no reasonable historian could accuse Reverend Leland of being a modern secular humanist.

Revisiting the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom

Perhaps the most convincing proof of the fact that America's constitutional Fathers did not intend to establish a Christian Commonwealth comes from a little known piece of our nation’s formative history: from the pen of Thomas Jefferson.

In reflecting on his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—what would become the Model for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—Mr. Jefferson, then retired at Monticello, noted in his Autobiography that even though “a majority of the legislature were churchmen…a great majority” rejected an amendment put forward by those who insisted on declaring in the preamble that coercion was “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.”[15]

While Jefferson had no personal problem with the theological correctness of such a statement, he had a problem with Virginia declaring that it was a Christian State when in fact it was more than a state that merely tolerated other religions, but instead gave them equal status with Christians of every creed and stripe. He observed that “The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”[16] In other words, all people of faith, including those who chose to refrain from faith altogether, were to be treated equally.

Derek Davis, noted church-state constitutional scholar and Director of the School of Humanities at Mary Hardin-Baylor University, comments that “Jefferson wrote this at a time when America was even more culturally Christian than it is today.”

But, he argues, “this never meant that Virginia, let alone America, was to be Christian in a constitutional sense. The Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia could have easily included language in the Constitution declaring the nation to be ‘Christian’ had they wanted to. In fact, many citizens argued for this kind of expressly ‘Christian’ language at the state ratifying conventions after the document was presented to the states for approval. But the Founders weathered these proposals, choosing to remain true to their conviction that the nation would embrace a principle of religious pluralism whereby all citizens’ beliefs would be legally protected with none favored.”[17]


From this, another clear line of reasoning emerges: the principled need for religious freedom in a diverse land of many people of varying faiths and faith experiences. John Tyler is one of the least remembered presidents in the history of the United States. Yet on July 10, 1843, he penned one of the most eloquent letters ever written applauding the American constitutional experiment in religious freedom. He wrote:

“The United States has adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent—that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mahommedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the Constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political institutions…. The Hebrew persecuted and down trodden in other regions takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid…. and the Aegis of the government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried, and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it; our system of free government would be imperfect without it.”[18]

Religious freedom and pluralism thrive in this country because America's Founders resisted the temptation to establish a Christian nation when drafting the Constitution. They had the courage to make sure that no religious test could manipulate and control the Constitution they had worked so hard to frame.

And finally, the Founders of the United States had the wisdom to understand that political and governmental intrusion into the affairs of the church and individuals of faith would only undermine political and religious freedom and the moral underpinning of any successful Republic. Instead of adopting the worn out and failed slogans of "God save the King," or "God save the church," America's constitutional Founders urged their countrymen to adopt secular utilitarian values when crafting the Constitution and establishing governmental institutions. The absence of any king or clerical rule would ensure that all faith traditions would be welcomed. Religious and political pluralism—not a Christian nation—was the principled foundation that was chosen by America’s constitutional founders so that religious and political freedom could truly be lasting. As such, it was intended to serve as a positive model and influence to the rest of the world.


[1] This paper was prepared for the 6th World Congress On Religious Freedom and Human Rights in Cape Town, South Africa, sponsored by the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), February 27-28, 2007. Greg Hamilton is President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association, which is a legislative and legal advocacy watchdog organization that champions religious freedom in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. It also mediates between employees and employers when potential and actual discrimination on the basis of religion is involved.

[2] Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), pp. 17, 18.

[3] Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII. Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1984): 283-87.

[4] Shapiro, Fred R., ed. The Yale Book of Quotations (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2006): 664.

[5] The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Many Americans Uneasy with Mix of Religion and Politics,” 24 August 2006. In 2006, 67 percent of Americans viewed the United States as a Christian nation, roughly four percentage points lower than in 2005.

[6] Ibid. Another recent survey by Newsweek confirms these numbers. With a few percentage points off here and there in other categories, the 82% percent margin for the number of Americans professing to be Christian is confirmed in this survey: Brian Braiker, “U.S. Poll: 90% Believe in God,” Newsweek 30 March 2007. See also Todd M. Johnson, “Christianity in Global Context: Trends and Statistics” prepared by Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2005. Mr. Johnson cites the fact that 251 million American citizens in the United States of America profess to be Christian. Out of a total population of 300 million, 82 to 83 percent of all Americans are therefore Christians in one various belief form or another. See also Janice D’Arcy, “Christian Conservatives Flex their Muscles in the Political Arena,” Baltimore Sun 27 March 2005, in which she refers to “our country’s Judeo-Christian roots and its roughly 80 percent Christian population.”

[7] Christopher Clausen, “America’s Design for Tolerance: Religious conflicts in multi-faith America are mild compared with those in countries that have only one faith or virtually no faith at all,” The Wilson Quarterly (Winter 2007): 27.

[8] Sandra Day O’Connor, “Religious Freedom: America’s Quest for Principles,” Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly 48 (1997): 1.

[9] Everson v. Board of Education 330 U.S. 1 (1947).

[10] After the 2004 Presidential Election, Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, observed that “when you get 25 percent of America, which is basically Catholic, and yet get 28 to 29 percent of America, which is evangelical, together, that’s called a majority. And it is a very powerful bloc, if they happen to stay together on particular issues.” See “Myths of the Modern Mega-Church,” an event transcript published by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life of its biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life, held in Key West, Florida, May 2005.

[11] Rakove, Jack. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996): 311-12.

[12] Reynolds v. United States 98 U.S. 145 (1879).

[13] Hamilton, Alexander. Letter to James Bayard, April 1802. Writings. (New York: The Library of America, 2001): 987-90.

[14] John Leland, "A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia," as cited in Forrest Church, The Separation of Church and State: Writings On a Fundamental Freedom by America’s Founders, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004): 92.

[15] Jefferson, Thomas. Writings. Autobiography (New York: Library of America, 1984): 34-40.

[16] Ibid. When Jefferson refers to “the infidel of every denomination,” he is referring to himself. He wrote this in a “tongue and cheek” manner, recalling the presidential election of 1800 when he was falsely accused of being an infidel by Federalists and Puritans in Massachusetts and Connecticut who vigorously opposed his election.

[17] Davis, Derek H. “Why Keep Church and State Separate,” in “The Christian Nation Debate: Weighing the Founders’ Intentions,” Liberty Express, Signature Edition, 2007.

[18] Cited in Bernard Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004): 331.