In his most recent column, Pat Buchanan notes the recent Pew survey that indicates that America has become less Christian over the last several years. In 1990 86% of Americans said they were Christians, while it was only 78% by 2007. There is a generational divide, too: younger people identify less as Christians than older people.
Buchanan links these changes to changes in how America’s leaders have understood the country’s religious identity. In 1892 the Supreme Court opined that America was “a Christian nation,” and similar remarks were made even by political men of the left, like Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman. But by 2009 President Barack Obama held that “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.”
All of this also raises the question what the founders thought of the nation they were founding. There is a debate about this between some American Christians, on the one hand, and some American secularists, on the other. On the one side, some contend that the founders intended to establish a Christian nation, that they drew their political ideas from the Bible and traditional Christianity. On the other side, some secularists contend that the founders did not at all intend to establish a Christian nation, that they instead intended to create a country with the most rigorous separation of church and state.
Both sides of this debate get ahold of part of the truth, but not the whole of it. The “Christian America” proponents go too far. The founders recognized that the country was overwhelmingly Christian, and particularly Protestant. They not only recognized it but often talked as if they appreciated it and thought the dominant religion was a wholesome influence. At the same time, a lot of their political thinking was influenced by political thought not animated by distinctively Christian concerns (like the thought of Locke and Montesquieu), and it is obvious that they did not intend to create a Christian regime or form of government. After all, even the original, pre-First Amendment Constitution included a prohibition on religious tests for holding public office.
But on the other side the proponents of America as a secular nation go too far in their own direction. They are right to correct the erroneous view that the founders were trying to create a Christian nation. But they are themselves wrong to suggest that the founders intended the rigorous separation of church and state that the contemporary left demands, and that the Supreme Court requires. The founding generation and subsequent generations used the influence, and even sometimes the power, of the government to promote religion. They evidently did not think that the Constitution prevented this.
I think a good statement of the founding view can be seen in Chief Justice John Marshall’s letter to Jasper Adams. Adams had sent Marshall his sermon on the relation of Christianity to civil government, and in his letter in response Marshall commented as follows. Not that he emphasizes both the importance of religion and the importance of respecting freedom of conscience, which presumably includes the beliefs of those who don’t share the dominant religion.
No person, I believe, questions the importance of religion to the happiness of man even during his existence in this world. It has at all times employed his most serious meditation, and had a decided influence on his conduct. The American population is entirely Christian, and with us, Christianity and Religion as identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, and did not often refer to it, and exhibit relations with it. Legislation on the subject is admitted to require great delicacy, because freedom of conscience and respect for our religion both claim our most serious regard.
This letter can be found on page 837 of Charles Hobson’s excellent collection of Marshall’s writings for the Library of America.