The Founders Loathed Superstition and We Were Never a Christian Nation

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The claim that America was founded as a Christian nation — a favorite of Right-wing Christians — is just not true.

June 15, 2012  |

Once they begin  to circulate, falsehoods—like counterfeit currency—are surprisingly tenacious. It doesn’t matter that there’s no backing for them. The only thing that counts is that people believe they have backing. Then, like bad coins, they turn up again and again.

One counterfeit idea that circulates with frustrating stubbornness is the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. It’s one of the Christian Right’s mantras and a favorite talking point for televangelists, religious bloggers, born-again authors and lobbyists, and pulpit preachers. Take, for example, the Reverend Peter Marshall. Before his death in 2010, he strove mightily (and loudly) to “restore America to its traditional moral and spiritual foundations,” as his still-active website says, by telling the truth about “America’s Christian heritage.” Or consider WallBuilders, a “national pro-family organization” founded by David Barton, whose mission is “educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country.” Called “America’s historian” by his admirers, Barton is a prolific writer of popular books that spin his Christian version of American history. And then there’s Cynthia Dunbar, an attorney and one-time professor at Liberty University School of Law. She’s another big pusher of the Christian America currency. Her 2008 polemic One Nation Under God proclaims that the Christian “foundational truths” on which the nation rests are being “eroded” by a “socialistic, secularistic, humanistic mindset” from which Christians need to take back the country.

Unlike some of the wackier positions taken by evangelicals—think Rapture—the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation has gone relatively mainstream. This is the case largely because the media-savvy Christian Right is good at getting across its message. A 2007 First Amendment Center poll revealed that 65 percent of Americans believe the founders intended the United States “to be a Christian nation”; over half of us think that this intention is actually spelled out somewhere in the Constitution. Conservative politicians sensitive to the way the wind blows are careful to echo the sentiment, or at least not to dispute it, even if they’re not particularly religious themselves. Recent GOP presidential aspirants Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry championed the claim with gusto. Even John McCain, who usually left the Bible-thumping to his Alaskan running mate, jumped on the bandwagon in his failed 2008 bid for the presidency by assuring a Beliefnet interviewer that “this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles” and that he personally would be disturbed if a non-Christian were elected to the highest office in the land.

So the notion that America was founded as a Christian nation is widespread. In the currency of ideas, it’s the ubiquitous penny. But like an actual penny, it doesn’t have a lot of value. That so many people think it does is largely because they don’t stop to consider what “founded as a Christian nation” might signify. Presumably the intended meaning is something like this: Christian principles are the bedrock of both our political system and founding documents because our founders were themselves Christians. Although wordier, this reformulation is just as perplexing because it’s not clear what’s meant by the term founders. Just who are we talking about here?

There are three primary candidate groups, and each is regularly invoked by the Christian Right. Some say that the founders of the nation were the Puritans, the “original settlers” of the New World. (Never mind that they’re not the original English settlers; that honor goes to the ragtag and much less prudish Jamestown lot.) Others contend that the real founders of the country were the people who actually lived in the colonies at the time of the revolution. But the most widely recognized candidates are the men at the center of the struggle for independence and the subsequent formation of the republic who have since been enshrined as the “Founding Fathers.”

Cynthia Dunbar is among those who believe that the Puritans who began migrating to New England in the first half of the seventeenth century are our nation’s founders. In her One Nation Under God, she applies John Winthrop’s famous 1630 city-on-a-hill rhetoric about the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s destiny to the United States. “We as a nation were intended by God,” she writes, “to be a light set on a hill to serve as a beacon of hope and Christian charity to a lost and dying world.” To clinch her argument, Dunbar appeals to the Mayflower Compact, a covenant signed by slightly fewer than half of the original Mayflower Pilgrims in 1620. Quoting the part of the Compact that reads, “Having undertaken for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith … a voyage to plant the first colony,” Dunbar comments that “this is undeniably our past, and it clearly delineates us as a nation intended to be emphatically Christian.”

No less an authority than Alexis de Tocqueville shares her sentiment, although in a less heavy-handed way. In his Democracy in America(1835 and 1840), he argued that the basic principles upon which the American experiment is based—equality and democracy—were inspired by Puritan covenants such as the Mayflower Compact. They established communities in which local independence, the “mainspring and lifeblood of American freedom,” could flourish, thus preparing the way for a “completely democratic and republican” form of national government.

This sounds good on a first run-through. But the problem is that both Dunbar and de Tocqueville miss important points. The Mayflower Compact that Dunbar thinks establishes the nation on a Christian footing is clearly more political than religious. She quotes from the document’s preamble, which in fact does contain conventional references to God, but ignores the purely secular meat of the document. Signatories bind themselves “into a civil body politic” for the sake of enacting “just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony”—period. The Mayflower Compact may ceremonially invoke God, but its substance is religiously neutral. And even in its opening reference to God, there’s not a breath of anything specifically Christian.

De Tocqueville gets it right when he claims that the Puritans established self-regulating local communities. But he overplays his hand when he says that these are prototypes of democratic and republican forms of government, because the sorry truth is that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was more theocratic than democratic. Repression of religious dissent—including the public execution of Quakers and harsh restrictions on dress, behavior, and “secular” forms of entertainment—are representative of the oppressive bigotry that characterized Puritan settlements. It’s difficult to see any common denominator between Puritan polity and the principles of the early Republic except the bare fact that both advocated “just and equal laws.” But the salient point of comparison is not, of course, the mere advocacy but rather the contentof those laws, and the theocratic drift of the Puritan ones obviously clashes with the republic’s careful separation of church and state. The conclusion is obvious: the Puritans may have founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which historically preceded the United States, but they didn’t found the United States. To claim otherwise is to fall victim to one of the oldest fallacies on the books, post hoc ergo propter hoc, the hasty assumption that because A precedes B, A causes B.