The Myth of a Christian Nation

July 6, 2010

Imagine in the coming days the media reporting that current U.S. President Barack Obama reads from a bible that he has dissected, edited and altered to his liking. The President does not feel that much of the Bible is factually true nor God-breathed and in fact believes many parts, such as Jesus’ miracles, are fabricated ideas created by Evangelicals. In order to create a Bible that better suited his worldview, he cut and pasted the verses he liked and threw out the rest. The virgin birth, the resurrection and a host of other miracles were discarded and only 990 verses make the final cut. (1).

Can you imagine? The American public would never stand for it. The idea of U.S. President having the audacity to revise the Bible to his liking flies directly in the face of the idea of Christianity and Biblical principles being the foundation for America’s core values. Yet, that is exactly what Thomas Jefferson, founding father, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States did.

The Founding Fathers

Thomas Jefferson was a deist, along with Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Paine, John Adams and several other founding fathers (1)(2). Deists view God as a supreme being who simply created the world yet does not intervene in human affairs and reject miracles and the inerrancy of scripture. The founding fathers were men of the Age of Enlightenment and many were members of the Freemasons which may have shaped the founding beliefs surrounding religion much more than Christianity ever did.

The founding fathers themselves made it very clear that America was not founded on a Christian or even religious basis. Article XI of the 1796 Treaty with Tripoli clearly states that, “the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” (3)

John Adams, founding father and second president of the United States of America wrote in A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America,

“Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known … It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.” (4)

Colonial America

According to God is Back by The Economists’ John Micklethwait and Adrian Woodridge, “Church members never made up more than a third of the adult population of New England before the revolution, and may never have climbed as high as 17 percent in the southern colonies.”

Although many of the original settlers organized their laws around adherence to scripture and a belief in God, much of that zeal fell to the wayside as the colonies grew. By 1683, for example, 83 percent of taxpayers in Salem reported no religious affiliation (5).

Creating the Myth

In 1800 Mason Lock Weems published the first ever biography of George Washington titled: Life of George Washington; with Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself, and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen. Besides having an unnecessarily long title, the book also included many fabrications about Washington’s life. One of the more famous stories tells of how the future president at a young age chopped down a cherry tree and then when questioned by his father replied, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie.” Upon hearing this, his father, overjoyed, exclaimed, “Glad am I, George, that you killed my tree, for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is worth more than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver and their fruits of purest gold.” (6)

Weems was an ordained pastor and bookseller who combined both passions in order to create a portrait of Washington as a deeply religious man whom Americans could look to as a role-model of faithful living. As David Wallechinsky states in his Footnote People in U.S. History,
“The cherry tree escapade is but one of the tales in Weems’s Life of George Washington; with Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself, and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen, a largely fictitious, or at least lavishly embellished, account of our 1st President’s life and times. To say that the good parson had a flair for exaggeration would surely be an understatement, but what he did have was an eye for what the reading public thrived on, and what would sell a book.” (6)

Weem’s biography of Washington became his second best seller (next to the Bible) and he peddled the book throughout the country. The historically inaccurate biography became a popular bestseller in early America and was published into eighty-two known editions, including translations into French and German.

Many Americans also point to phrases such as “In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God” as evidence of America’s religious founding. The phrase, “One Nation Under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance by a joint resolution of Congress in 1954 at the urging of President Eisenhower. (7) Similiarly, “In God We Trust” was not made a mandatory addition to United States currency until 1955 (8), over a century after our founding fathers were dead and buried.

(Thanks to Tony Godfrey for bringing this fact to my attention)

Conclusion

Human beings have always had a tendency to alter the truth when it comes to history. Stories get told and retold by those who, through their own worldview, lace the story with their perceptions of what happened. With each nuanced version diverting more from the truth than the last, legends and myths are created from what was once a historical record. It was perhaps this realization that made some of the founding fathers view the Bible, with its talk of miracles and resurrections, with suspicion.

Somewhere along the way the story of the birth of America was turned into the birth of an inherently Christian nation whose founding fathers might be viewed as the original board of directors for Focus on the Family. The founding fathers made it clear from the beginning that they did not want to replicate what they had fled from in Europe, a government so intertwined with the Church that the two were indistinguishable. America was not born a Christian nation, it grew into one.

America’s religiosity grew out of a system that valued free speech and an open society. America was perhaps the first time the marketplace of ideas was able to be implemented on a grand scale. It was this division of church and state, the freedom of expression towards religious practice, that made way for Christianity to flourish across America the way it has. To say that America’s Christianity is tied to the placement or displacement of phrases such as “One Nation Under God” or “In God We Trust” is to confuse cause for effect.

It is frustrating that many people’s perception of history is based upon misinformation and ultimately myths. The myth that America was founded on religious principles was created slowly over time yet was and is today perpetuated by many who seek to recreate history to fit their worldview. To edit, alter and ultimately rewrite history to better fit one’s liking sounds strikingly familiar to the dissecting of the Bible at the hands of a founding father.

Sources
1. HowStuffWorks.com
2. Founding Father’s Quotes on Religion
3. U.S. Treaty with Tripoli Article XI
4. “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” p. 13
5. God is Back, John Micklethwait and Adrian Woodridge
6. (Excerpts taken from “Footnote People in U.S. History”, People’s Almanac, David Wallechinsky, N.Y: Doubleday & Co, pp. 113-114).
7. How the Pledge Got God – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
8. The United States’ Mint

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4 Responses to “The Myth of a Christian Nation”

  1. Brashley2Bunny Says:

    The post is very informative and surprising. Most of us that have had an education where teachers were still allowed to speak of Christianity, which is probably anyone over the age of fifteen or so, have been taught that our country was founded in Christian ideals, but according tothis, it seems not to bethecase anymore. It raises a lit of questions to previously based theories that our country is “turning down a nasty spiral” with these “new” thoughts about keeping religion out of schools and courthouses, when honestly, that’s not exactly the case it seems. If anything, it’s encouraging that Christianity has flourished in a countrythat did not force any particular ideas on it’s citizens regarding religion and faith.


  2. […] The Myth of a Christian Nation […]

  3. Brent Bailey Says:

    Thanks for the researched post. I’ve always had trouble reconciling the birth and growth of Christianity, which happened in a hostile environment, with my experience in a largely pro-Christian nation (regardless of whether that favor for Christians is part of our nation’s foundation). It’s troubling to me that much of the dialogue in our nation that appeals to our “Christian founding” is more about furthering a certain cause (typically political) than about allowing Jesus to radically re-imagine our culture. Maybe we’ve allowed the myth of a Christian nation to define how Christians are supposed to live.

  4. Becca Says:

    Great post!! I came across your blog through Brent Bailey’s. 🙂 Keep it up!! -Becca


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