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Is America a Christian Nation?

It’s a common refrain among evangelicals: America is a Christian nation, founded for Christians, by Christians, and on Christian principles. Is this true?

The short answer is no, or at least not in the way people like David Barton claim. But we should never forget that religion permeated public life in early America in a way that it just doesn’t today.

Let’s let John Fea, a historian at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, explain:

Those who insist that America was founded as a Christian nation run roughshod over the historical record. They use the words of the Founding Fathers to support Republican jeremiads on the moral decay of American life. If only this country could return to its Christian roots, they say nostalgically, everything would be okay.

And how do they demonstrate that America was founded as a Christian nation? By selectively choosing texts from the writings of the Founders without any effort to explore them in the context of the 18th-century world in which they were written. Just because John Adams and George Washington quoted from the Bible or made reference to God does not mean that they were trying to construct a Christian nation. Granted, the Founding Fathers were the products of a Christian culture, but most of them were never comfortable with the beliefs that defined this culture. Very few of them would qualify for membership in today's evangelical churches….

But before we go too far in condemning the Christian Right on this front, let's remember that the secular left is not immune to errors of historical thinking. While evangelicals misinterpret the references to God in the words of the Founding Fathers, their critics simply have no idea what to make of those same quotations. Since they can't fathom why people today would make religious faith an essential part of their everyday lives, they have little interest in making sense of past worlds where such beliefs were important.

Interestingly enough, Googling “Is America a Christian nation?” returns David Barton’s Wallbuilders as the top hit, followed by critical articles by Richard Albert and John Fea’s 2007 article for HNN.