Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Representative Steve King of Iowa is a racist, a bigot, and a xenophobe. I don’t intend these adjectives to be polemical but rather merely descriptive. Representative King recently insisted that we “can’t restore our civilization” with “other people’s babies.” For him civilization is Western civilization, which is European, white, and Christian, and more particularly American civilization. King argues that immigrants, particularly non-white and non-Christian immigrants, threaten American civilization with a “demographic transformation” that will lead to “cultural suicide.” This is not unfamiliar territory. For many America is a self-consciously white Christian nation. But are they right?
There were certainly people who made such claims in the past. Andrew Johnson was president when he declared the United States to be a white man’s country in which others could play only a subordinate role. Josiah Strong, a leading evangelical intellectual and reformer, wrote in his 1885 Our Country that the progress of civilization depended on “first, a pure, spiritual Christianity, and second, civil liberty.” Both, Strong wrote, had found a home in the United States, a country of Anglo Saxons. They were “time’s noblest offspring” threatened by, among other things, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and Mormons. The United States had to become “God’s right arm in his battle with the world’s ignorance and oppression and sin.” The United States was the “elect nation . . . the chosen people” destined to lead “in the final conflicts of Christianity for the possession of the world.”
The idea that Christianity provides the moral, religious, and constitutional basis for America has many adherents on the right.
The presence of such views did not mean that they defined the country. Thaddeus Stevens, a Republican member of Congress from Pennsylvania, thought Johnson “at heart a damn scoundrel.” When Congress came into session in December 1865, he attacked the idea of a “white man’s Government” as “political blasphemy, for it violates the fundamental principles of our gospel of liberty. This is man's Government; the Government of all men alike; not that all men will have equal power and sway within it. Accidental circumstances, natural and acquired endowment and ability, will vary their fortunes. But equal rights to all the privileges of the Government, is innate in every immortal being, no matter what the shape or color of the tabernacle which he inhabits.”
Neither Stevens nor Johnson landed on the correct form of our nation. What form “American civilization” takes is a historical process still under way. It has been and hopefully always will be contested by those who live in the country. Who counted as Christian has also long been debated. In the late nineteenth century, the Wisconsin Methodist Conference sounded a lot like King. It declared that the issue confronting the country was “a question of domestic or foreign domination. Shall there be one or many nationalities on our soil? Shall Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism maintain foreign ideas, customs and languages to the exclusion of what is distinctively American?” Representative King is a Catholic. His predecessor in representing Iowa’s Fourth District was a Lutheran.
That Americans have disputed who counted as white or who counted as Christian is less important than whether we ever in our foundational documents defined ourselves as a white Christian nation. The idea that Christianity provides, in the words of David Barton’s Wallbuilders, “the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built – a foundation which, in recent years, has been seriously attacked and undermined” has few adherents among scholars, but it is popular among evangelicals on the right. Two recent books—Steven Green’s Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding and Kevin M. Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America—provide devastating critiques of such claims and an intriguing history of the relationship between organized Christianity and the United States.
• • •
Green’s even-handed book takes advocacy of a Christian nation quite seriously, but in the debates of the Constitutional Convention, the speeches and papers of the Founders, and early judicial decisions, he finds little evidence for the Constitution’s biblical grounding. The sources that the Founders cited on behalf of a republican government were overwhelmingly secular. The only reference to the Ten Commandments was in a handful of Sunday closure law decisions, and these died out after the Civil War.
Green offers the conventional interpretation of why the Founders, even the devout among them, created a barrier between church and state: there were too many competing religions. Initially this multiplicity encompassed quarrelling Protestant sects, but things have grown even more contentious since then. First with Catholics and Jews, eventually Muslims, Buddhists, and others, and now large numbers of people who are just uninterested in anything theological.
Green dates the idea of a Christian nation to the Second Great Awakening, which occurred at a time—the antebellum era—when Americans were striving to create a cohesive national identity. Religious competition remained intense, but more and more of the competing denominations were evangelicals who conflated their nationalism and religion in ways that made divine intervention and providential thinking suitable for politics. It was this second American generation, rather than the Founders, who created the myth that has been with us in various forms ever since.
The various forms are important; the original myth is not the same as the one currently in fashion. Both see God’s guiding hand behind the nation’s history and regard Christianity as the basis of republican principles. The old myth, however, was optimistic and tried to be inclusive, which was possible in what was still an overwhelmingly Protestant country. It was oriented toward the future and intent on explaining a providential American destiny. The new myth, by contrast, is sectarian and divisive in a country full of Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, etc., not to mention agnostics, atheists, and the sometimes-inchoate mass who define themselves as spiritual. Rather than look to tomorrow, today’s myth appeals to those who think they have lost an ideal past.
The appeal of the Christian nation lies in its assertion that nothing has changed.
But these different forms are related, and their linkage is evident in an incident now long forgotten, which Green has treated elsewhere: the so-called Christian Amendment to the Constitution during the Civil War. The amendment would have altered the Preamble to read, with changes in italics, “We, the People of the United States, recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior and Lord of all, in order to form a more perfect union . . .” With the nation torn apart and Union armies going down to defeat, the amendment’s proponents blamed the Constitution. As Felix R. Brunot, who was instrumental in the attempt to pass the amendment, declared, “Our nation is Christian—the Constitution is unchristian.” Brunot was partially right. Most Americans were Christian (although this did not make the nation Christian), but they had, as Green argues, consciously decided not to make their government Christian. And in defeating the Christian amendment, Americans decided once again not to do so.
A second effort to define the United States as a Christian nation reached into the Wantagh, New York public schools where I was a student in the 1950s. I had no idea of the source of the battles waged in the school until I read Kruse’s book, which is as entertaining as it is revealing. Kruse contends that our modern version of Christian America has some of its roots in a plan hatched by conservative corporate leaders to overthrow the New Deal. The plan escaped their control. They didn’t accomplish their goals, but they helped to trigger what might be called the Third Great Awakening.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, worried about a decade of political losses and their own deep unpopularity, a group of conservative industrialists—as conservative rich are wont to do—began to grow anxious about American values. They came up with the idea of freedom under God, which was a kind of Christian libertarianism that emphasized a religious understanding of the Fourth of July and America’s founding. Realizing their own limits as spokespeople for freedom under God, they recruited—largely but not entirely—Protestant clergy, the most notable being Abraham Vereide and eventually Billy Graham. The goal was to argue for individualism and individual salvation and against claims of a larger public good. They wanted to restore self-reliance and oppose unions and welfare. Just as the first advocates of Christian America had sought to intertwine republicanism and Christianity, the advocates of this new version sought to intertwine capitalism and Christianity.
As these efforts blossom and produce unexpected fruit, Kruse weaves a narrative that is quite funny, in an understated scholarly way. The young Billy Graham secured an invitation to Harry Truman’s White House, but Truman found Graham both overwhelming—he and his associates appeared in white suede shoes, bright suits, hand-painted silk ties—and exasperating. Graham clutched the president uncomfortably close when he offered a prayer, and then basked too visibly in the light of the White House press corps. Truman banned him from the White House, but Graham learned and Dwight Eisenhower later embraced him.
President Eisenhower sincerely believed that the United States was a Christian nation. He was named after Dwight Moody, the Chicago fundamentalist minister, and his brother said they were raised fundamentalist Christians. Eisenhower believed that a democracy could not exist without a religious base, and he saw part of his job as president as leading a spiritual renewal. Eisenhower was the Yogi Berra of American presidents; he was shrewd, but sometimes the way things came out gave listeners pause: “our form of government,” he said, “has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” He meant it. In a diverse nation, religion would serve to unite only if it reached the lowest common denominator.
Thus, state endorsements of the deity, until then uncommon in American history, began to emerge. The 1950s gave us “In God We Trust” on our coins, “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Day of Prayer, and congressional prayer breakfasts. Many of the Ten Commandments statues dotting government spaces date from the era; some originated as part of the publicity campaign for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956).
Advocates of a Christian America sought to intertwine capitalism and Christianity.
The corporate sponsors of a Christian America saw it largely as a political tool, but in the 1950s the movement slipped their control. Its focus came to be religion in itself, not as an instrument of other motives. In 1954 Senator Ralph Flanders of Vermont introduced a new version of the Christian Amendment. Advocates urged the amendment by admitting, as their nineteenth-century predecessors had, that the Constitution did not actually say the United States was a Christian Nation.
Legal challenges to this official religiosity arose from popular resistance to prayer in the schools, which became mandated by New York state law. My Irish immigrant Roman Catholic mother and my atheist Jewish father could always find a haven from the simmering household religious wars that punctuated my childhood in their mutual opposition to bible reading in the public schools. My father objected to religion being there at all, although he eventually consented to our going to Catholic school; my mother objected to the King James Bible. She knew that Christian nation meant Protestant nation.
I was allied with my parents but secretly befuddled by the whole thing. I recognized that the issue involved some people using a public school—to which we children were obligated to go—to impose their religious views on others. I just wondered who the Protestants were. I knew plenty of Catholics and Jews. Actually, Catholics and Jews were all I knew except for Bobby Fisher, who lived down the block. He had such an impressively foul mouth that I did not automatically make an equation between Protestantism—Bobby being my sample of one—and religion. I was even more confused when, as I got a little older, I learned that Americans were predominately Protestant. You would think I’d have run into more of them.
When I suddenly encountered the twenty-third Psalm in elementary school, I had no idea that I was the victim of a conspiracy hatched against the New Deal. I did recognize that it was the anger of people such as my parents that spurred legal challenges to the practice. In 1962 the Supreme Court in Engel v. Vitale ruled that the New York law requiring public school teachers open each day with a prayer violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
The political firestorm that resulted is in some ways still burning. There were attempts to get a school-prayer amendment to the Constitution, which led to congressional hearings. Adeptly managed by Representative Emanuel Celler, head of the House Judiciary Committee, the hearings revealed that no official school prayer could satisfy all parties—because the United States still was not a Christian nation.
This seemed to me the truth on the ground. By then my family had moved to California, and I was a teenager in an Orange County Catholic school. I cannot recall Catholics talking much about the United States as a Christian nation. As Kruse points out, the efforts of the Gideon Society to get bibles—King James Bibles—into the hands of citizens and bible reading and prayer into the schools had raised the question of which bibles and whose prayers. These were the Kennedy years, and the president’s Catholicism clearly did not qualify him as a Christian for many Americans. My Catholic classmates agreed; they joked they weren’t Christian but Catholic, by which they meant they weren’t Protestant, which is what they took “Christian” to mean. The Judeo-Christian tradition was taking shape, but it didn’t yet have much of a grip on La Habra, California or Wantagh, New York. In those worlds, there were Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, and they were not united. That there were religions beyond this I knew only from the weekly collections the nuns made on behalf of “pagan babies.”
The defeat of the prayer amendment meant another evolution in the Christian nation and in its political utility. Eisenhower had intended generic religiosity to be inclusive, but it instead served as a weapon in the culture wars. Ronald Reagan, conservative Republicans, and the right in general used it brilliantly.
Viewed over the longue durée of three centuries, the idea of a Christian nation traces our changing religiosity, but more interestingly our sense of ourselves. Like originalist constitutional interpretation, the appeal of the Christian nation lies in its assertion that nothing has changed; we are who we were in the beginning and will presumably be until the end of time. Except of course we are not. We are certainly not a Christian nation. Over three centuries we have had three chances to enshrine that belief in the Constitution, and each time we refused.
And yet there is no denying the enduring influence of the idea. It is a way of linking an enduring secular providential strain of American thinking—that we are a chosen repository for the fate of all mankind—to a beneficent deity. When, at various times in our history, we did not have a clue as to what we were doing, it was good to believe that God did. And since we are a democracy, and the majority of us have been in some sense Christian, that God must be a Christian one. But attempts to be specific about God’s identity and plan lead to trouble. On those occasions, as Kruse writes, it becomes all too apparent that the United States is “not, in any meaningful sense, ‘one Nation under God.’”
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
What we have achieved this year—and our plans for 2023.