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United States

What does it mean to claim the US is a Christian nation, and what does the Constitution say?

Many Americans believe the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and the idea is energizing some conservative and Republican activists. But the concept means different things to different people, and historians say that while the issue is complex, the founding documents prioritize religious freedom and do not create a Christian nation.

Does the U.S. Constitution establish Christianity as an official religion?

No.

What does the Constitution say about religion?

“(N)o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” (Article VI)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (First Amendment)

If it says “Congress,” does the First Amendment apply to the states?

It does now. Early in the republic, some states officially sponsored particular churches, such as the Congregational Church in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Within a few decades, all had removed such support. The post-Civil War 14th Amendment guaranteed all U.S. citizens “equal protection of the laws” and said states couldn’t impede on their “privileges or immunities” without due process. In the 20th century, the Supreme Court applied that to a number of First Amendment cases involving religion, saying states couldn’t forbid public proselytizing, reimburse funding for religious education or sponsor prayer in public schools.

What does it mean to say America is a Christian nation?

It depends on whom you ask. Some believe God worked to bring European Christians to America in the 1600s and secure their independence in the 1700s. Some take the Puritan settlers at their word that they were forming a covenant with God, similar to the Bible’s description of ancient Israel, and see America as still subject to divine blessings or punishments depending on how faithful it is. Still others contend that some or all the American founders were Christian, or that the founding documents were based on Christianity.

That’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start at the top. What about the colonies?

Several had Christian language in their founding documents, such as Massachusetts, with established churches lasting decades after independence. Others, such as Rhode Island, offered broader religious freedom. It’s also arguable whether the colonies’ actions lived up to their words, given their histories of religious intolerance and their beginnings of centuries-long African slavery and wars on Native Americans.

What about the founders?

The leaders of the American Revolution and the new republic held a mix of beliefs — some Christian, some Unitarian, some deistic or otherwise theistic. Some key founders, like Benjamin Franklin, admired Jesus as a moral teacher but would fail a test of Christian orthodoxy. Many believed strongly in religious freedom, even as they also believed that religion was essential to maintain a virtuous citizenry.

Were the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution based on Christianity and the Ten Commandments?

References to the Creator and Nature’s God in the Declaration reflect a general theism that could be acceptable to Christians, Unitarians, deists and others. Both documents reflect Enlightenment ideas of natural rights and accountable government. Some also see these documents as influenced, or at least compatible, with Protestant emphasis on such ideas as human sin, requiring checks and balances. In fact, believers in a Christian America were some of the strongest opponents of ratifying the Constitution because of its omission of God references.

Were most early Americans Christian?

Many were and many weren’t. Early church membership was actually quite low, but revivals known as the First and Second Great Awakenings, before and after the Revolution, won a lot of converts. Many scholars see religious freedom as enabling multiple churches to grow and thrive.

Were Catholics considered Christian?

Not by many early Americans. Some state constitutions barred them from office.

How did that change?

Gradually, but by the time of the Cold War, many saw Catholics, Protestants and Jews as God-believing American patriots, allied in the face-off with the atheistic, communist Soviet Union.

Was it only conservatives citing the idea of a Christian nation?

No. Many proponents of the early 20th century social gospel saw their efforts to help the needy as part of building a Christian society. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt prayed on national radio for God’s blessing “in our united crusade … over the unholy forces of our enemy.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that civil rights protesters stood for “the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.”

What do progressive Christians say today?

“Christian nationalism has traditionally employed images that advocate an idealized view of the nation’s identity and mission, while deliberately ignoring those persons who have been excluded, exploited, and persecuted,” said a 2021 statement from the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, an umbrella group that includes multiple progressive denominations.

What do Americans believe about this?

Six in 10 U.S. adults said the founders originally intended America to be a Christian nation, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey. Forty-five percent said the U.S. should be a Christian nation, but only a third thought it was one currently.

Among white evangelical Protestants, 81% said the founders intended a Christian nation, and the same number said that the U.S. should be one — but only 23% thought it currently was one, according to Pew.

In a 2021 Pew report, 15% of U.S. adults surveyed said the federal government should declare the U.S. a Christian nation, while 18% said the U.S. Constitution was inspired by God.

One-third of U.S. adults surveyed in 2023 said God intended America to be a promised land for European Christians to set an example to the world, according to a Public Religion Research Institute/Brookings survey. Those who embraced this view were also more likely to dismiss the impact of anti-Black discrimination and more likely to say true patriots may need to act violently to save the country, the survey said.

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Sources: Pew Research Center; Public Religion Research Institute/Brookings; “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” by John Fea.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Peter Smith, The Associated Press


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