Is America No Longer a Christian Nation?
by David Barton
Over the past several years, President Barack Obama has repeatedly claimed that America is not a Christian nation. He asserted that while a U. S. Senator, 1 repeated it as a presidential candidate, 2 and on a recent presidential trip to Turkey announced to the world that Americans "do not consider ourselves a Christian nation." 3 (He made that announcement in Turkey because he said it was "a location he said he chose to send a clear message." 4 ) Then preceding a subsequent trip to Egypt, he declared that America was "one of the largest Muslim countries in the world" 5 (even though the federal government's own statistics show that less than one-percent of Americans are Muslims. 6
The President's statements were publicized across the world but received little attention in the American media. Had they been carried here, the President might have been surprised to learn that nearly two-thirds of Americans currently consider America to be a Christian nation 7 and therefore certainly might have taken exception with his remarks. But regardless of what today's Americans might think, it is unquestionable that four previous centuries of American leaders would definitely take umbrage with the President's statements.
Modern claims that America is not a Christian nation are rarely noticed or refuted today because of the nation's widespread lack of knowledge about America's history and foundation. To help provide the missing historical knowledge necessary to combat today's post-modern revisionism, presented below will be some statements by previous presidents, legislatures, and courts (as well as by current national Jewish spokesmen) about America being a Christian nation. These declarations from all three branches of government are representative of scores of others and therefore comprise only the proverbial "tip of the iceberg."
Contemporary post-modern critics (including President Obama) who assert that America is not a Christian nation always refrain from offering any definition of what the term "Christian nation" means. So what is an accurate definition of that term as demonstrated by the American experience?
Contrary to what critics imply, a Christian nation is not one in which all citizens are Christians, or the laws require everyone to adhere to Christian theology, or all leaders are Christians, or any other such superficial measurement. As Supreme Court Justice David Brewer (1837-1910) explained:
[I]n what sense can [America] be called a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or that the people are in any manner compelled to support it. On the contrary, the Constitution specifically provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Neither is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either in fact or name Christians. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within our borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all. Nor is it Christian in the sense that a profession of Christianity is a condition of holding office or otherwise engaging in public service, or essential to recognition either politically or socially. In fact, the government as a legal organization is independent of all religions. Nevertheless, we constantly speak of this republic as a Christian nation -- in fact, as the leading Christian nation of the world. 8
So, if being a Christian nation is not based on any of the above criterion, then what makes America a Christian nation? According to Justice Brewer, America was "of all the nations in the world . . . most justly called a Christian nation" because Christianity "has so largely shaped and molded it." 9
Constitutional law professor Edward Mansfield (1801-1880) similarly acknowledged:
In every country, the morals of a people -- whatever they may be -- take their form and spirit from their religion. For example, the marriage of brothers and sisters was permitted among the Egyptians because such had been the precedent set by their gods, Isis and Osiris. So, too, the classic nations celebrated the drunken rites of Bacchus. Thus, too, the Turk has become lazy and inert because dependent upon Fate, as taught by the Koran. And when in recent times there arose a nation [i.e., France] whose philosophers [e.g. Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Helvetius, etc.] discovered there was no God and no religion, the nation was thrown into that dismal case in which there was no law and no morals. . . . In the United States, Christianity is the original, spontaneous, and national religion. 10
Founding Father and U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall agreed:
[W]ith us, Christianity and religion are identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people our institutions did not presuppose Christianity and did not often refer to it and exhibit relations with it. 11
Christianity is the religion that shaped America and made her what she is today. In fact, historically speaking, it can be irrefutably demonstrated that Biblical Christianity in America produced many of the cherished traditions still enjoyed today, including:
Consequently, a Christian nation as demonstrated by the American experience is a nation founded upon Christian and Biblical principles, whose values, society, and institutions have largely been shaped by those principles. This definition was reaffirmed by American legal scholars and historians for generations 12 but is widely ignored by today's revisionists.
With his recent statement, President Barack Obama is the first American president to deny that America is a Christian nation -- a repudiation of what made America great and a refutation of the declarations of his presidential predecessors. Notice a few representative statements on this subject by some of the forty-three previous presidents:
The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were. . . . the general principles of Christianity. 13 JOHN ADAMS
There are many additional examples, including even that of Thomas Jefferson.
Significantly, Jefferson was instrumental in establishing weekly Sunday worship services at the U. S. Capitol (a practice that continued through the 19th century) and was himself a regular and faithful attendant at those church services, 19 not even allowing inclement weather to dissuade his weekly horseback travel to the Capitol church. 20
(The fact that the U. S. Capitol building was available for church on Sundays was due to the Art. I, Sec. 7 constitutional requirement that forbade federal lawmaking on Sundays; and this recognition of a Christian Sabbath in the U. S. Constitution was cited by federal courts as proof of the Christian nature of America. 21 While not every Christian observes a Sunday Sabbath, no other religion in the world honors Sunday except Christianity. As one court noted, the various Sabbaths were "the Friday of the Mohammedan, the Saturday of the Israelite, or the Sunday of the Christian." 22 )
Why was Jefferson a faithful attendant at the Sunday church at the Capitol? He once explained to a friend while they were walking to church together:
No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I, as Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example. 23
President Jefferson even closed presidential documents with "In the year of our Lord Christ" (see below).
Even President Jefferson recognized and treated America as a Christian nation. Clearly, President Obama's declaration is refuted both by history and by his own presidential predecessors.
Declarations from the Legislative Branch affirming America as a Christian nation are abundant. For example, in 1852-1853 when some citizens sought a complete secularization of the public square and a cessation of all religious activities by the government, Congress responded with unambiguous declarations about America as a Christian nation:
HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Had the people, during the Revolution, had a suspicion of any attempt to war against Christianity, that Revolution would have been strangled in its cradle. At the time of the adoption of the Constitution and the amendments, the universal sentiment was that Christianity should be encouraged, not any one sect [denomination]. Any attempt to level and discard all religion would have been viewed with universal indignation. . . . In this age there can be no substitute for Christianity; that, in its general principles, is the great conservative element on which we must rely for the purity and permanence of free institutions. 24
In 1856, the House of Representatives also declared:
[T]he great vital and conservative element in our system is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and divine truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 26
On March 3, 1863 while in the midst of the Civil War, the U. S. Senate requested President Abraham Lincoln to "designate and set apart a day for national prayer and humiliation" 27 because:
[S]incerely believing that no people, however great in numbers and resources or however strong in the justice of their cause, can prosper without His favor; and at the same time deploring the national offences which have provoked His righteous judgment, yet encouraged in this day of trouble by the assurances of His word to seek Him for succor according to His appointed way through Jesus Christ, the Senate of the United States do hereby request the President of the United States, by his proclamation, to designate and set apart a day for national prayer and humiliation. 28 (emphasis added)
President Lincoln quickly complied with that request, 29 and issued what today has become one of the most famous and quoted proclamations in America's history. 30
Across the generations, our national reliance on God, the Bible, and Christianity has been repeatedly reaffirmed. In fact, consider five representative images produced by the U. S. Government. The first three are from World War II: one shows the Nazis as the enemy because they want to attack the Bible, and the other two encourage Americans to buy War Bonds by pointing to Christian images. The fourth and fifth images are from the Department of Agriculture in the 1960s, using the Bible and even Smokey Bear in prayer as symbols to encourage Americans to be conscious of fire safety and to help preserve and conserve nature.
There are scores of other official actions by the U. S. Congress over the past two centuries affirming that America is a Christian nation.
From the Judicial Branch, consider first some declarations of prominent U. S. Supreme Court Justices regarding America as a Christian nation.
Justice Joseph Story (1779-1845) was appointed to the Court by President James Madison. Story is considered the founder of Harvard Law School and authored the three-volume classic Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833). In his 34 years on the Court, Story authored opinions in 286 cases, of which 269 were reported as the majority opinion or the opinion of the Court 31 and his many contributions to American law have caused him to be called a "Father of American Jurisprudence." Justice Story openly declared:
One of the beautiful boasts of our municipal jurisprudence is that Christianity is a part of the Common Law. . . . There never has been a period in which the Common Law did not recognize Christianity as lying at its foundations. . . . I verily believe Christianity necessary to the support of civil society. 32
His conclusion about America and Christianity was straightforward:
In [our] republic, there would seem to be a peculiar propriety in viewing the Christian religion as the great basis on which it must rest for its support and permanence. 33
Justice John McLean (1785-1861) was appointed to the Court by President Andrew Jackson. McLean served in the U. S. Congress, as a judge on the Ohio Supreme Court, and then held cabinet positions under two U. S. Presidents. His view on the importance of Christianity to American government and its institutions was unambiguous:
For many years, my hope for the perpetuity of our institutions has rested upon Bible morality and the general dissemination of Christian principles. This is an element which did not exist in the ancient republics. It is a basis on which free governments may be maintained through all time. . . . Free government is not a self-moving machine. . . . Our mission of freedom is not carried out by brute force, by canon law, or any other law except the moral law and those Christian principles which are found in the Scriptures. 34
Justice David Brewer (1837-1910), appointed to the Court by President Benjamin Harrison, agreed. Brewer held several judgeships in Kansas and served on a federal circuit court before his appointment to the Supreme Court. Justice Brewer declared:
We constantly speak of this republic as a Christian nation -- in fact, as the leading Christian nation of the world. 35
Brewer then chronicled the types of descriptions applied to nations:
We classify nations in various ways: as, for instance, by their form of government. One is a kingdom, another an empire, and still another a republic. Also by race. Great Britain is an Anglo-Saxon nation, France a Gallio, Germany a Teutonic, Russia a Slav. And still again by religion. One is a Mohammedan nation, others are heathen, and still others are Christian nations. This republic is classified among the Christian nations of the world. It was so formally declared by the Supreme Court of the United States. In the case of Holy Trinity Church vs. United States, 143 U.S. 471, that Court, after mentioning various circumstances, added, "these and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation." 36
Brewer did not believe that calling America a Christian nation was a hollow appellation; in fact, he penned an entire book setting forth the evidence that America was a Christian nation. He concluded:
[I] have said enough to show that Christianity came to this country with the first colonists; has been powerfully identified with its rapid development, colonial and national, and today exists as a mighty factor in the life of the republic. This is a Christian nation. . . . [T]he calling of this republic a Christian nation is not a mere pretence, but a recognition of an historical, legal, and social truth. 37
Justice Earl Warren (1891-1974) agreed with his predecessors. Before being appointed as Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Warren had been the Attorney General of California. Warren declared:
I believe the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their belief in it: freedom of belief, of expression, of assembly, of petition, the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of the home, equal justice under law, and the reservation of powers to the people. . . . I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so, no great harm can come to our country. 38
There are many similar declarations by other Supreme Court Justices, but in addition to the declarations of individual judges, the federal courts have repeatedly affirmed America to be a Christian nation -- including the U. S. Supreme Court, which declared that America was "a Christian country," 39 filled with ¡°Christian people," 40 and was indeed ¡°a Christian nation." 41 Dozens of other courts past and present have repeated these pronouncements 42 but so, too, have American Presidents -- as in 1947 when President Harry Truman quoted the Supreme Court, declaring:
This is a Christian Nation. More than a half century ago that declaration was written into the decrees of the highest court in this land [in an 1892 decision]. 43
In addition to its "Christian nation" declarations, the Supreme Court also regularly relied on Christian principles as the basis of its rulings on issues such as marriage, citizenship, foreign affairs, and domestic treaties.
For example, when some federal territories attempted to introduce the practice of bigamy and polygamy, the Supreme Court disallowed those practices because:
Bigamy and polygamy are crimes by the laws of all civilized and Christian countries. 44
In another case, the Court similarly explained:
The organization of a community for the spread and practice of polygamy is . . . . contrary to the spirit of Christianity and of the civilization which Christianity has produced in the Western world. 45
And when the issue arose of whether marriages made in foreign nations would be recognized in the United States, the federal court held that foreign marriages would be recognized only if they were not "contrary to the general view of Christendom." 46
The Supreme Court also decided military service issues in accord with Christian principles and standards. For example, in 1931, when a Canadian immigrant refused to take the oath of allegiance to the United States, the Supreme Court explained why he was therefore excluded from citizenship:
We are a Christian people (Holy Trinity Church v. United States. 143 U.S. 457, 470 , 471 S., 12 S. Ct. 511), according to one another the equal right of religious freedom and acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God. But also we are a nation with the duty to survive; a nation whose Constitution contemplates war as well as peace; whose government must go forward upon the assumption (and safely can proceed upon no other) that unqualified allegiance to the nation and submission and obedience to the laws of the land, as well those made for war as those made for peace, are not inconsistent with the will of God. 47
The Supreme Court also relied on Christian principles in its rulings on international policies. For example, if an American citizen living in a foreign land was accused of a crime under the laws of a fundamentally different nation (such as in Islamic nations, secular nations, and most recently in Japan following World War II), by means of international treaties, the U. S. citizen would be tried in front of the U. S. Consul in that nation (in what were called Consular Tribunals) rather than before the courts of that country. Of this practice, the Supreme Court explained:
In other than Christian countries, they [the Consuls] were by treaty stipulations usually clothed with authority to hear complaints against their countrymen and to sit in judgment upon them when charged with public offenses. . . . The intense hostility of the people of Moslem faith to all other sects, and particularly to Christians, affected all their intercourse [transactions] and all proceedings had in their tribunals. Even the rules of evidence adopted by them [the Muslims] placed those of different faith on unequal grounds in any controversy with them. For this cause, and by reason of the barbarous and cruel punishments inflicted in those countries and the frequent use of torture to enforce confession from parties accused, it was a matter of deep interest to Christian governments to withdraw the trial of their subjects, when charged with the commission of a public offense, from the arbitrary and despotic action of the local officials. Treaties conferring such jurisdiction upon these consuls were essential to the peaceful residence of Christians within those countries. 48
For example, an Islamic nation might charge an American with the capital-offense crime of blasphemy merely because the American attended Christian worship or used a Bible in that country; or a secular nation might accuse an American of the crime of proselytizing simply for sharing his faith with another (currently a crime in France, 49 across India, 50 Pakistan, 51 Saudi Arabia, 52 Malaysia, 53 and many other nations). In such cases, the Consul tried the offense under America¡¯s laws as a Christian nation. However, if another nation accused an American of a crime such as murder, the charge would stand since murder was also a crime in our Christian nation. 54
The Supreme Court commended this position 55 and federal courts observed the policy until deep into the twentieth century, 56 when many foreign nations finally began to adopt what the Supreme Court had earlier called "a system of judicial procedure like that of Christian countries." 57
Federal domestic treaties were yet another area in which the federal judiciary relied on Christian principles and standards. For example, by 1877 a number of disputes had arisen in which Indian lands were wrongly being taken for timber, minerals, and other resources. When those cases reached the Supreme Court, the Court affirmed the occupancy rights of the tribes to the lands because:
It is to be presumed that in this matter the United States would be governed by such considerations of justice as would control a Christian people . . . 58
The Court repeated this position on numerous subsequent occasions -- as in 1903 when it reiterated:
[I]n decisions of this court, the Indian right of occupancy of tribal lands, whether declared in a treaty or otherwise created, has been stated to be sacred. . . . Thus. . . . "It is to be presumed that in this matter the United States would be governed by such considerations of justice as would control a Christian people . . . " 59
The Court's position was subsequently enacted into federal statutory law in 1906, 60 and in 1955, the Supreme Court was still praising this position 61 -- a position regularly cited by other courts for decades, 62 including in the late 1990s. 63
These are just a few examples of the literally hundreds of similar cases at both federal and state levels affirming that America is indeed a Christian nation.
Jewish leaders, although firmly committed to their own faith, understand that by defending Christianity they are defending what has provided them their own religious liberty in America. For example, Jeff Jacoby, a Jewish columnist at the Boston Globe explains:
This is a Christian country -- it was founded by Christians and built on broad Christian principles. Threatening? Far from it. It is in precisely this Christian country that Jews have known the most peaceful, prosperous, and successful existence in their long history. 64
Aaron Zelman (a Jewish author and head of a civil rights organization) similarly declares:
[C]hristian America is the best home our people have found in 2,000 years. . . . [T]his remains the most tolerant, prosperous, and safest home we could be blessed with. 65
Dennis Prager, a Jewish national columnist and popular talkshow host, warns:
If America abandons its Judeo-Christian values basis and the central role of the Jewish and Christian Bibles (its Founders' guiding text), we are all in big trouble, including, most especially, America's non-Christians. Just ask the Jews of secular Europe. 66
Prager further explained:
I believe that it is good that America is a Christian nation. . . . I have had the privilege of speaking in nearly every Jewish community in America over the last 30 years, and I have frequently argued in favor of this view. Recently, I spoke to the Jewish community of a small North Carolina city. When some in the audience mentioned their fear of rising religiosity among Christians, I asked these audience-members if they loved living in their city. All of them said they did. Is it a coincidence, I then asked, that the city you so love (for its wonderful people, its safety for your children, its fine schools, and its values that enable you to raise your children with confidence) is a highly Christian city? Too many Americans do not appreciate the connection between American greatness and American Christianity. 67
Don Feder, a Jewish columnist and long time writer for the Boston Herald, similarly acknowledges:
Clearly this nation was established by Christians. . . . As a Jew, I'm entirely comfortable with the concept of the Christian America. 68 The choice isn't Christian America or nothing, but Christian America or a neo-pagan, hedonistic, rights-without-responsibilities, anti-family, culture-of-death America. As an American Jew. . . . [I] feel very much at home here. 69
In fact, Feder calls on Jews to defend the truth that America is a Christian Nation:
Jews -- as Jews -- must oppose revisionist efforts to deny our nation's Christian heritage, must stand against the drive to decouple our laws from Judeo-Christian ethics, and must counter attacks on public expressions of the religion of most Americans -- Christianity. Jews are safer in a Christian America than in a secular America. 70
Michael Medved, a Jewish national talkshow host and columnist, agrees that America is indeed a Christian nation:
The framers may not have mentioned Christianity in the Constitution but they clearly intended that charter of liberty to govern a society of fervent faith, freely encouraged by government for the benefit of all. Their noble and unprecedented experiment never involved a religion-free or faithless state but did indeed presuppose America's unequivocal identity as a Christian nation. 71
Burt Prelutsky, a Jewish columnist for the Los Angeles Times (and a freelance writer for the New York Times, Washington Times, Sports Illustrated, and other national publications) and a patriotic Jewish American, gladly embraces America as a Christian nation and even resents the secularist post-modern attack on national Christian celebrations such as Christmas:
I never thought I'd live to see the day that Christmas would become a dirty word. . . .How is it, one well might ask, that in a Christian nation this is happening? And in case you find that designation objectionable, would you deny that India is a Hindu country, that Turkey is Muslim, that Poland is Catholic? That doesn't mean those nations are theocracies. But when the overwhelming majority of a country's population is of one religion, and most Americans happen to be one sort of Christian or another, only a darn fool would deny the obvious. . . . This is a Christian nation, my friends. And all of us are fortunate it is one, and that so many millions of Americans have seen fit to live up to the highest precepts of their religion. It should never be forgotten that, in the main, it was Christian soldiers who fought and died to defeat Nazi Germany and who liberated the concentration camps. Speaking as a member of a minority group -- and one of the smaller ones at that -- I say it behooves those of us who don't accept Jesus Christ as our savior to show some gratitude to those who do, and to start respecting the values and traditions of the overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens, just as we keep insisting that they respect ours. Merry Christmas, my friends. 72
Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Lapin of the Jewish Policy Center unequivocally declares
[I] understand that I live . . . in a Christian nation, albeit one where I can follow my faith as long as it doesn't conflict with the nation's principles. The same option is open to all Americans and will be available only as long as this nation's Christian roots are acknowledged and honored. 73
In fact, with foreboding he warns:
Without a vibrant and vital Christianity, America is doomed, and without America, the west is doomed. Which is why I, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, devoted to Jewish survival, the Torah, and Israel am so terrified of American Christianity caving in. 74 God help Jews if America ever becomes a post-Christian society! Just think of Europe! 75
President Obama's declaration that Americans "do not consider ourselves a Christian nation" is a repudiation of the declarations of the national leaders before him and is an unabashed attempt at historical revisionism. Of such efforts, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wisely observed, "no amount of repetition of historical errors . . . can make the errors true." 76
Americans must now decide whether centuries of presidents, congresses, and courts are correct or whether President Obama is, but historical fact does not change merely because the President declares it.
The best antidote to the type of revisionism embodied by President Obama's statement is for citizens (1) to know the truth of America's history and (2) share that truth with others.