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The dangers of seeing America as a 'Christian nation'

Christian traditionalists see American freedom as derived from Christian faith. That flies in the face of the historical record – and it distorts today's political debates.

By Stuart Whatley / July 20, 2010


It may be a sign of the times that on Billy Graham Parkway in Charlotte, N.C, from whence the famed evangelist hailed, the North Carolina Secular Society recently unveiled a suggestively secular billboard: a flag with the words “One Nation Indivisible.”

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It is also a sign of the times that this message was promptly doctored by vandals with the words, “UNDER GOD” – a qualifier that wasn’t added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954.

With a creeping rise in secularists and nonbelievers today, some American Christian traditionalists see a politically existential threat, leading to reactions such as those from a few of Charlotte’s faithful. One is reminded of John Kennedy Toole’s cantankerously amusing character, Ignatius J. Reilly, in “Confederacy of Dunces” – combative towards modern culture and nostalgic for the halcyon days of Thomas Aquinas. This traditionalist camp is deeply perturbed by new threads in the social fabric and insistent that America is a Christian nation – demographically as well as politically.

This tension transcends a historical argument about the roots of American liberty. It goes to the heart of some of today’s most trenchant political debates, such as same-sex marriage, prayers at town meetings, US foreign policy toward Israel, and end-of-life issues germane to health-care reform.

Debate over America's Christian roots

Is America really a Christian nation?

Demographics give a clear answer. In 2008, 76 percent of Americans called themselves “Christian.” That’s down 10 percentage points since 1990, but it’s still an overwhelming and defining majority. Meanwhile, just 1.6 percent of Americans professed to be agnostics or atheists, more than double the amount in 1990.

History gives a more-muddled answer. The United States’ political origin as a “Christian nation” is a far more contentious issue, often reduced to each side drawing lines in the sand with fanciful single-factor readings of complex past events. A prime example comes from Jonah Goldberg, writing in the latest issue of Reason: “Our constitutional order rests on the conviction that we are endowed by our creator with certain rights. Both the abolitionist and civil rights movements were religious in nature.”