Take a few minutes to look at or listen to news of any kind - internet, tv, or radio - and chances are that you will find someone, saying something, about the United States, religion, the founders, or a combination of all three. Our climate is ripe with opinions about the relationship between religion and society today, and what the history of the United States can tell us about it. Often, the discussion is boiled down to this seemingly simple question - Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? - and our answer to it.
I say "seemingly simple" for a very clear reason: despite what many people believe and argue, this is a complicated question, which demands a complicated answer.
As a Christian historian who thinks and writes about these issues, it discourages me to tell you that the place where I have found the most hesitation, pushback, anger, and even slander for thinking critically about this issue is...the church. Many of my brothers and sisters who have reacted in this way to my discussion of this issue attest to loving history. But at root, they seem to have been less concerned with the complexities of history, and more concerned with using history for present-day political battles. My brothers, this should not be so.
If we want to pursue truth and understand the history permeating this question, we need to be ready for a complex discussion. This complexity begins with the question itself. How a person asks the question, and how a person answers, are wholly dependent upon how that person defines the terms in the question.
Walk through the question with me, and consider the following:
"Was" and "Founded"
These words refer to a particular point in the past - the American founding. The problem with the question, and with our often-simplistic answers, is that we haven't agreed on when this founding happened, or what this founding actually was.
When was it? 1492? 1620? 1776? 1787?
What was it? European discovery? Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock? English, Spanish, French, or a combination of them all? The Declaration of Independence? The ratification of the Constitution?
When and what you deem the founding will help determine much of what you think American history and society is all about. For 1620 supporters, religion and religious freedom are the story. For 1787 supporters, unification under a common law is the story. For 1492 supporters, multiculturalism is the story.
"America" and "Nation"
What is this America or nation? Is it a geographical location? A people? A nation-state? A government?
Again, if we don't define our terms, and agree upon them, we shouldn't be surprised when our discussion about the role of religion in "American" history devolves into a morass of confusion. How can two people actually get a useful answer to the question when one defines "America" as a place or people characterized by union around a common law (the Constitution) and the other defines "America" as the land settled by Puritans dedicated to establishing Christianity? They can't.
Finally, the most complicated term of all. What is this "Christian" in the question? To what does it refer?
A predominately Christian population?
An explicitly Christian state?
A law defined (or influenced by) Christianity?
And which Christianity? Puritan Massachusetts, Anglican Virginia, Catholic Maryland, Quaker Pennsylvania, or something in between?
And what about all those non-Christians who helped frame the colonies, states, and nation?
Was America founded as a Christian nation?
Well, that's a complicated question, with a complicated answer.
If we refuse to acknowledge the complex nature of this issue, we reveal our pride, and will never make progress as a Church, or as a nation.
But there is hope. Once we humbly acknowledge the complexity of religion and American history, we can actually begin to make the progress we want in our discussions with fellow Christians and with our non-Christian fellow citizens.