Was America founded as a Christian nation? Is America a Christian nation today?
A large percentage of the heated debate on these questions stems from a lack of clarity when defining terms. What makes a country a Christian country? There are several possibilities:
1. A nation under the direct personal and physical rule and reign of Jesus Christ.
This is the purest sense in which a nation can be a Christian nation. But whatever your eschatology may be, and whether or not you believe that a day is coming when there is a Christian nation under this definition, we can agree on one thing:
Under this definition, the United States has never been a Christian nation.
2. A nation in which everyone is a genuine Christian
This, of course, has never been the case. From the time of the earliest settlements through 1789, it would be fair to say that the United States was a nation composed predominantly of professing Christians. It’s not merely logomachy to state that there is a fairly wide gap between “a nation in which everyone is a Christian” and “a nation in which most people are professing Christians.”
It would probably be fair to call the United States a “predominantly Christian nation” at its founding (making sure to include the clarifying adjective).
Under this definition, the United States is hardly a Christian nation today. Let’s set aside the notion of professing Christian and focus, as best as we can, on genuine Christianity. Only God can look into the heart and assess whether or not someone operating is genuinely saved. But we can examine whether or not Americans operate from a Biblical worldview. In 2009, Barna researched what percentage of Americans did, defining a Biblical worldview as:
…believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today.
By this criteria, 9% of American adults surveyed had a Biblical worldview.
Under this definition, it would be fair to call the United States a “predominantly Christian nation” at its founding, taking care to retain that crucial clarifying adjective. But under this definition, the United States is definitely not a Christian nation today.
3. A nation in which Christianity was the established religion
4. A nation of Christian states
If you define a Christian nation as a nation assembled from Christian components—Christian under definition three—then the United States was a partially Christian nation at the time of its founding.
Several states, including Pennyslvania and Rhode Island, had either had no established church or had specifically established religious freedom from their founding. As the years went by, though, more states joined them. At the time the Constitution was adopted in 1789, most states had disestablished the Congregational Church or the Church of England (the major two at the time).
It is incredibly important to note, though, that the United States Constitution provided that Congress shall make no establishment of religion. It made no such requirements on the states. Under the United States Constitution, individual states were (and, for that matter, still are!) allowed to have an established religion.
How do we know that the above statement does not misconstrue the Founder’s intent? It’s quite simple. Connecticut was a legally Congregational state through 1818. South Carolina remained Anglican through 1790. And though Massachusetts allowed freedom of religion starting in 1780, it continued to fund the Congregational church through 1833!
Under this definition, the United States used to be a nation composed of some Christian states. But it was never completely a Christian nation under this definition, and is not at all a Christian nation today.
5. A nation based on the legal system of Scripture
Isn’t the answer obvious? Where do we stand today?
- We have become a nation forbidding (audible) prayer to God in government-funded education centers
- We have become a nation allowing the killing of the unborn and the elderly alike. Not only that, but the once-standard notion that abortion is never permissible or is only permissible to save the mother’s life is becoming increasingly characterized as a fringe position unacceptable at the higher levels of either political party.
- We have lost the fight to protect a Biblical definition of marriage. The 2012 election was, regrettably, the year where the tide turned in this battle. Through several years ago, even states as liberal as California voted to protect a Biblical definition of marriage, but this year, for the first time, three states voted traditional marriage down.
Wherever you may come down on the question of if America was ever a Christian nation, your answer will largely depend on how you define your terms. But one thing is clear: As the rest of the world looks on at our country’s increasingly depraved culture, it would be an insult to the name of Christ to use His name to describe the United States in 2012.