Not long ago, I came across Thomas Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists after reading an article that attributes it as the source of the often used phrase "separation of church and state". Specifically Jefferson refers to the First Amendment to The Constitution as creating a "wall of separation" between church and state. I found it surprising that this phrase could be attributed to one of our Founding Fathers, whose quotes are often used in support of the argument that we are a "Christian Nation" or one "founded on Judeo-Christian principles". How could Thomas Jefferson have written such a thing if, as one of our country’s founders, he supposedly supported the idea of the United States being founded on Christianity? As I reflected on this, it occurred to me that I had never heard a practical description of what it meant for America to be a Christian nation.
I finally concluded that there may be three possible interpretations to this description. The first and one I believe fits only a tiny minority of people is that the First Amendment really doesn't matter in terms of law. What takes precedence is the actual intent of the framers who wrote it. Now there is a trove of the framers' writings from which one can cherry pick various quotations either in or out of context to support the idea the actual intent was to build a nation founded on Christianity. Consequently since the intent is more important, the First Amendment is really only something to which lip service need be paid. They may not support the idea of true freedom of religion and would ultimately try to subjugate other faiths to Christianity possibly only drawing the line at direct government sponsorship of churches. Again I think only a tiny minority of Americans may subscribe to this interpretation, and even then only privately or amongst a small group of like minded individuals. Of those, an even smaller minority might belong to some radical fringe groups that may be more public about their intentions.
The second possible interpretation of America as a Christian nation would be that the First Amendment is law and there is freedom of religion in the sense that churches cannot be actively persecuted. However, again because of the founders’ intent, Christianity should be held in higher esteem or given more deference than other faiths. While it may never be insisted that non-Christians not be allowed the freedom to practice their religion, believers in this interpretation might perhaps insist that the Ten Commandments be displayed on every public building, all children be required to pray Christian prayers in schools, and that in the culture Christian celebrations be given priority. Any attempt to suggest otherwise is promoting a secular or some other kind of agenda. My guess is that if there indeed are subscribers to this interpretation, they may comprise at least a significant percentage of the population who claim to be Christian. It is important to note that here I would define significant as simply meaning "non-trivial".
The third possible interpretation is that America is a Christian nation only in the historical sense, which is to say that it was founded by people steeped in the traditions and practices of a long-since Christianized Europe. Religious freedom means exactly that, freedom to practice whatever faith one's spiritual journey leads them to follow. Practically this means following what the First Amendment prescribes, specifically that: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". Admittedly, the balance of refraining from the establishment of a "state" religion while not prohibiting the free exercise of any religion is a tricky one to strike. This is often apparent in the public school system as they fall under the auspices of governments both local and Federal. Consequently, the First Amendment is applicable to their operation. The balance would then be between preventing school staff from promoting a particular religion in an official capacity while allowing its free exercise by both staff and students on a non-official, personal level even while on school grounds. In other words, while government institutions and possibly even government land cannot show preference to a particular religion officially, this is not to say that they should be religion-free zones when it comes to personal expression. Indeed, the landscape of the legal history of our country is littered with cases that have been brought about while trying to strike this balance.
To my mind, it is only this third interpretation that may permit one to refer to America as a Christian nation, yet still claim her as a land where freedom of religion is upheld. Assuming that my understanding of the different ways we interpret our supposed national Christianity is correct, why might good Americans seek to elevate their religion to a position above others? I believe the answer lies with my earlier assertion that, to some, denying that we are a Christian nation or refusing to allow it to be proclaimed upon every public building or during every Christian festival is to promote a secular or even atheist agenda. People who would believe this may be fearful because they perceive this agenda as lacking any sort of moral direction which will contribute to the ultimate destruction of our society. I do not believe this to be true, nor do I believe that rejecting the notion of the United States being founded as a Christian nation necessarily entails that we must be either atheist or wholly secular.
While I think it is true that the United States was not founded explicitly as a Christian nation, I think it is indisputable that it was founded as a theistic one. The Declaration of Independence makes it clear that the reason behind our separation from Great Britain was to, as a people: "assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them". Because, "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." I am paraphrasing for brevity’s sake; however it seems to me that the mention of "Nature's God" and a "Creator" in these statements was intended to make the assertion that a divine authority had ordained in the "Laws of Nature" what we might call today human rights. It was then the duty of governments and Kings to ensure the protection of these rights for their citizens and subjects. When they failed to do so, it is necessary for those under their authority to cast it off and secure these rights for themselves. The Declaration then goes into a laundry list of how King George III had failed in this regard and that consequently, under the authority of this divinity, the thirteen colonies were declaring their independence.
Notice here that the deity is mentioned in a very vague fashion as being simply the creator of the universe and that which established natural law. It is not specifically named as Jesus, or Yahweh, or Allah, or Zeus, or even the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I believe this to be intentional so as to allow for religious freedom in that people might fill this role with whatever Supreme Being in which they believe yet still call themselves American. It is also the reason why, I believe, we can have things like "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, or "In God we Trust" (seen in the Declaration as "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence") on our coins while still maintaining a separation of church and state.
So while not directly founded as a Christian nation, it is clear from a simple reading of the Declaration of Independence that it does not automatically follow that we must then be an atheistic or secular one. Furthermore, the 2010 Statistical Abstract published by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that as of 2008, only 15% of Americans identified themselves as not having a religion (including Atheists, Agnostics, and simply "No religion"). Although moving upward from 2001 and 1990 (14% and 8% respectively), the trend has clearly slowed and indicates that while our government remains secular so as to maintain a separation of church and state, the country clearly is not. Indeed, looking at these statistics, it cannot even be argued demographically that we are, or are rapidly becoming, a nation of atheists. Even if such a thing would destroy America as we know it, as it is not happening any fear of it is unfounded.
Ultimately this issue is one of co-existence. Freedom of religion cannot be if members of those religions refuse to live together peacefully. As fate would have it while I have been writing this, a Christian pastor in Florida decided to make a statement against Muslim fundamentalists by burning the Koran. Fortunately he decided it would not be a good idea and cancelled the event. However before this was announced I found it inspiring that the members of various faith communities, not only in the local area but around the country, peacefully expressed support for the Muslim community in our nation and objected to the offensive publicity stunt. I believe this was the direct result of the freedom of religion we enjoy because it is implicitly understood that this protection extends not just to one group but defends all believers from persecution. It is an understanding that the moment we sanction the restriction of a particular faith then the right of us all to choose to believe what we wish is permanently diminished. A separation of church and state does not weaken religion in our country but allows it to flourish. It does not promote but rather, I believe, prevents the evolution of a purely secular society. Indeed, as seen in the display of religious solidarity I just mentioned, the fruit it has borne makes America all the more a place of justice and, rightfully, should make her people proud.