No, the United States Wasn’t Founded as a Christian Nation

Rembrandt Peale's portrait of Thomas Jefferson.

In a recent Washington Post column, Justin Dyer answered, “Yes and no,” to the question whether America is a Christian nation. I think the answer is “No and no.” 

Dyer’s effort to give Christian nationalists their due without endorsing their wilder fantasies founders on the historical record. Of the two documents that many people on the Christian right rely on, the U.S. Constitution is irrelevant because of its Article VI prohibition against any religious test for public office. 

The Declaration of Independence, though, is a whole other story. As Matthew Steward points out in Nature’s God, “Religious conservatives today routinely celebrate [the Declaration of Independence] as proof that America was founded as a Christian nation.” And according to Dyer, the “proof” is that the Declaration features “an invocation of the ‘Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,’ bases human equality on creation, defines rights as the endowment of our Creator, appeals to the ‘Supreme Judge of the world,’ and declares the signers’ ‘firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.’” 

All this shows, he argues, that, “The United States was founded by thinkers steeped in the Christian natural-law tradition,” which holds that “reason can identify what is best for human beings by studying human nature.” 

We can’t evaluate the “Christian nation” claim without identifying the defining doctrine of Christianity. Self-styled Christians believe all sorts of things, but what they all must believe to qualify is the story of the Incarnation, according to which God, existing eternally outside space and time, took on human form as Jesus, born of a virgin and crucified to redeem us from original sin, holding out to us the prospect of blissful eternal life. 

So the first problem for the Declaration as evidence for Christian nationalism is that it doesn’t even hint at the Incarnation. That’s because Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration, totally rejected the doctrine. While he thought that Jesus was an exemplary human being, he dismissed the divinity of Jesus as “incomprehensible jargon.” 

But cancel the divinity of Jesus and the rest of the Incarnation evaporates. If, as Jefferson believed, Jesus was merely an outstanding human being, then his crucifixion was just stunningly bad luck, redeeming nobody. 

But what about the “Christian natural-law tradition?” If that’s the view that our unaided reason enables us to “identify what is best for human beings by studying human nature,” there can’t be any such tradition in mainstream Christianity, which, remember, is a revealed, text-based religion. Thomas Aquinas and other Medieval thinkers inherited from Aristotle a high regard for our rational powers. But whereas Aristotle privileged it as our highest capacity, Aquinas subordinated it to revelation as conveyed to us through Scripture. At best, reason could help us understand revealed truths and defend them against error, but nothing more. 

Even that subordinate role for reason was too much for Martin Luther, who launched the Protestant Reformation. He vehemently denounced reason as “a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.” Spinning elaborate rational explications of Scripture as Aquinas did was, to Luther, a fool’s errand, because the saving truths it reveals don’t make any rational sense, are “impossible, absurd and false.”

Most of America’s founding generation subscribed to some flavor of Protestantism. But adherents to any version of a revealed, text-based religion like Christianity will be hostile to the idea that we can discover the human good just by the application of our unaided reason to the study of nature, including ourselves. Ascribing that power to reason, as Aristotle did, condemns Christian revelation to utter irrelevance. What’s the point of pouring over sacred texts revealing the wonders of God’s creation and our place in it when we can discover all that by applying our natural powers to the study of God’s handiwork directly? 

Jefferson—profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment giants John Locke, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton—agreed with Luther that the core tenets of Christianity were by rational standards “impossible, absurd and false.” But whereas to Luther that cut conclusively against reason, to Jefferson it weighed decisively against the defining dogmas of Christianity, the Incarnation in particular. 

So considering who wrote them, the passages in the Declaration of Independence Dyer cites as evidence of its Christian roots point only to Jefferson’s monotheism, which is incompatible with mainstream Christianity. And Dyer left out the most revealing passage in the Declaration’s last paragraph. While Jefferson and the other signers fervently hoped that the “Supreme Judge of the world” would look favorably on their spectacularly high-risk undertaking, they made clear that they weren’t acting on God’s authority, but “in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies…,” no more exalted authority being required. 

If you think that all this is of merely antiquarian interest, you’re more confident than I am that a sympathetic Supreme Court majority won’t inspire Christian nationalists and “dominionists” to deploy the Declaration of Independence to undermine the protections of the First Amendment to the Constitution, an abuse of both the Declaration and the Constitution.