I've come across several Newsvine articles in which the topic of conversation turns into a debate regarding if America is a christian nation or not. As you can probably imagine, the discussions become very charged on both sides of the debate. Many people seem to think America is a christian nation based on the beliefs of the original Pilgrims, or the various beliefs of the Founding Fathers, or even based on a "christian heritage."But to set the record straight, I can safely say that America is definitely NOT a christian nation (nor is it a nation of any other religious denomination). Here's why:
Let's start with the document that establishes the foundation of our laws and system of government, the United States Constitution. Many theists will claim the Constitution is divinely inspired or influenced by the religious beliefs of its authors. Nothing could be further from the truth. The First Amendment of the Constitution makes this abundantly clear: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Since there are no laws passed by Congress to declare an official religion of the US, then this country is recognized as being legally secular, with a religiously neutral government.
In addition, the fact that the United States is not founded on christianity is bluntly stated in Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, drafted in 1796 under George Washington and signed by John Adams in 1797: "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."
Next, let's look at the Founding Fathers themselves. It is common knowledge they had various religious beliefs to varying degrees of devotion. But they also understood the necessity and wisdom of keeping religion and government separate from each others affairs, while at the same time preserving the individual's rights and freedom of religion. James Madison, the father of the US Constitution, had this to say in his letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822:
"There has been another deviation from the strict principle in the Executive Proclamations of fasts & festivals, so far, at least, as they have spoken the language of injunction, or have lost sight of the equality of allreligious sects in the eye of the Constitution. Whilst I was honored with the Executive Trust I found it necessary on more than one occasion to follow the example of predecessors. But I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere designations of a day, on which all who thought proper might unite in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith & forms."
Thomas Jefferson was an advocate of keeping religion and the government separate form each other. Hence, he coined the term separation of church and state in his letter to the Danbury Baptists (1802):
"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their "legislature" should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties."
Thomas Jefferson's letter was also used by the Supreme Court to interpret the First Amendment of the Constitution
to include a "separation of church and state" in their landmark case, Reynolds v. U.S., 98 U.S. 145 (1879), in which the Court deemed Jefferson's interpretation of the First Amendment: "almost an authoritative declaration" of its meaning. The Court's decision still holds legal precedent today. After retiring from the presidency, Madison wrote of "total separation of the church from the state. "Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States," Madison wrote, and he declared, "practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States."
Regardless of the religious beliefs of Jefferson, Madison, or the other Founding Fathers, they were clearly passionat secularists who believed that the religious beliefs of individuals (especially the President), or lack of them, were entirely their own business. Based on the US Constitution, the Supreme Court's interpretations of the Constitution, and the writings of the Founding Fathers, it's safe to conclude that the United States in not now, nor was it ever, a christian nation (or any other religious nation).