There is little doubt that the religious makeup of the general population of the United States is predominantly Christian. The 2001 American Religious Self-Identification Survey showed that over three-quarters of those surveyed identified themselves as Christian, about one-third of whom were self-identified as Catholic.
There is also little doubt that the U.S. general population has been Christian throughout most, if not all, of its history. The settlers in the British Colonies that would eventually become the first States, for example, were often protestant Christians who were fleeing persecution by the Anglican Church. There has never been a time in American history when the majority of the population was Muslim, or Jewish, or Buddhist, or, for that matter, Atheist.
However, this is not what the claim "The U.S. is a Christian nation" means. The people who make this claim are not merely claiming that the U.S. population has a predominantly Christian bent, but that the basis for the government of the nation itself is based on some (often unspecified) set of "Christian principles," and that the modern, strict interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by the U.S. supreme court is erroneous.
The Founding Fathers
Quotations from Benjamin Franklin
- I have found Christian dogma unintelligible. Early in life, I absented myself from Christian assemblies. - Benjamin Franklin, Toward The Mystery.
- Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons preached at Boyle's lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough deist. - Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography
- I cannot conceive otherwise than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that He is even infinitely above it. - Benjamin Franklin, from Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion, 1728
- The way to see by Faith is to shut the eye of Reason. - Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard, 1758
Quotations from George Washington
- If they are good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa or Europe; they may be Mahometans, Jews, Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists.... - George Washington, to Tench Tighman, March 24, 1784, when asked what type of workman to get for Mount Vernon, from "The Washington papers" edited by Saul Padover
- I beg you be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny. - George Washington, to United Baptists Churches of Virginia, May, 1789 from The Washington papers edited by Saul Padover]
Quotations from Thomas Jefferson
- The Christian god can be easily pictured as virtually the same as the many ancient gods of past civilizations. The Christian god is a three headed monster; cruel, vengeful and capricious. If one wishes to know more of this raging, three headed beast-like god, one only needs to look at the caliber of the people who say they serve him. They are always of two classes: fools and hypocrites. - Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr
- Difference of opinion is advantageous is religion. The several sects perform the office of a censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women and children since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support rogeury and error all over the earth. - Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-1785)
- I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology. - Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Woods
- 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. - Thomas Jefferson, letter to Danbury Baptist Association
- The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. - Thomas Jefferson, speech to Virginia House of Delegates, November, 1776
- Read the Bible as you would Livy or Tacitus. For example, in the book of Joshua we are told the sun stood still for several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of their statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine, therefore, candidly, what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand, you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature - Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, Aug. 10, 1787, in Works, Vol.ii., p. 217
- ...If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that is pleasing to him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such thing exists [...] Diderot, D'Alembert, D'Holbach, Condorcet are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than love of God. - Thomas Jefferson, letter to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814
- Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting "Jesus Christ," so that it would read "A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination. - Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom;
- Reading, reflection and time have convinced me that the interests of society require the observation of those moral precepts only in which all religions agree (for all forbid us to steal, murder, plunder, or bear false witness), and that we should not intermeddle with the particular dogmas in which all religions differ, and which are totally unconnected with morality. - Thomas Jefferson to James Fishback, 1809
- Our Constitution... has not left the religion of its citizens under the power of its public functionaries, were it possible that any of these should consider a conquest over the conscience of men either attainable or applicable to any desirable purpose. - Thomas Jefferson: Reply to New London Methodists, 1809
- It is unlawful in the ordinary course of things or in a private house to murder a child; it should not be permitted any sect then to sacrifice children. It is ordinarily lawful (or temporarily lawful) to kill calves or lambs; they may, therefore, be religiously sacrificed. But if the good of the State required a temporary suspension of killing lambs, as during a siege, sacrifices of them may then be rightfully suspended also. This is the true extent of toleration. - Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Religion, 1776. Papers, 1:547
- I may grow rich by an art I am compelled to follow; I may recover health by medicines I am compelled to take against my own judgment; but I cannot be saved by a worship I disbelieve and abhor. - Thomas Jefferson
Quotations from John Adams
- Tom, had you and I been 40 days with Moses, and beheld the great God, and even if God himself had tried to tell us that three was one ... and one equals three, you and I would never have believed it. We would never fall victims to such lies. --- John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson
- Where do we find a precept in the Bible for Creeds, Confessions, Doctrines and Oaths, and whole carloads of other trumpery that we find religion encumbered with in these days? - John Adams
- The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity. - John Adams
Quotations from James Madison
- There remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Gov' & Religion neither can be duly supported: Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded agst.. And in a Gov' of opinion, like ours, the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness and stability of the general opinion on the subject. Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Gov will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together. - James Madison; Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822, The Writings of James Madison, Gaillard Hunt
- It was the Universal opinion of the Century preceding the last, that Civil Government could not stand without the prop of a religious establishment; and that the Christian religion itself, would perish if not supported by the legal provision for its clergy. The experience of Virginia conspiciously corroboates the disproof of both opinions. The Civil Government, tho' bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability and performs its functions with complete success; whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State. - James Madison, as quoted in Robert L. Maddox: Separation of Church and State; Guarantor of Religious Freeedom
- Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offense against God, not against man:To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered. - James Madison, according to Leonard W. Levy, Treason Against God: A History of the Offense of Blasphemy, New York: Schocken Books, 1981, p. xii.
Quotations from Thomas Paine
- Among the most detestable villains in history, you could not find one worse than Moses. Here is an order, attributed to 'God' to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers and to debauch and rape the daughters. I would not dare so dishonor my Creator's name by attaching it to this filthy book (the Bible). - Thomas Paine
- It is the duty of every true Deist to vindicate the moral justice of God against the evils of the Bible. - Thomas Paine
- The Bible is not my Book and Christianity is not my religion. I could never give assent to the long complicated statements of Christian dogma. - Abraham Lincoln
- My earlier views at the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them. -Abraham Lincoln, letter to Judge J.S. Wakefield,
- The divorce between church and state ought to be absolute. It ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no church property anywhere, in any state, or in any nation, should be exempt from taxation, for if you exempt the church property of any church organization, to that extent you impose tax upon the whole community. - James A. Garfield, address to Congress
- As this will be the last annual message which I shall have the honor of transmitting to Congress before my successor is chosen, I will repeat or recapitulate the questions which I deem of vital importance which may be legislated upon and settled at this session: First. That the States shall be required to afford the opportunity of a good common-school education to every child within their limits. Second. No sectarian tenets shall ever be taught in any school supported in whole or in part by the State, nation, or by the proceeds of any tax levied upon any community. Make education compulsory so far as to deprive all persons who can not read and write from becoming voters after the year 1890, disfranchising none, however, on grounds of illiteracy who may be voters at the time this amendment takes effect. Third. Declare church and state forever separate and distinct, but each free within their proper spheres; and that all church property shall bear its own proportion of taxation. - Ulysses S Grant, seventh State of the Union address.
- I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute- where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. - John F. Kennedy
Separation of Church and State
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins with the following two clauses:
- Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
These two clauses, taken together, embody the principle of the Separation of Church and State, a phrase first coined by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptists.
Since the passage of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, the Federal courts have determined that the prohibition against making such laws extends not only to Congress, but to State and Local governments within the United States as well.
In recent decades, these two clauses -- particularly the first, or Establishment, clause -- have been interpreted very strictly by the courts. Officially sanctioned prayer has been effectively outlawed in public schools. Religious iconography is prohibited from being displayed on public grounds. Laws requiring Creationism to be taught in public schools have been overturned for having a religious basis. This lies in stark contrast with the state of affairs a century ago, where cities frequently passed laws forbidding shop-owners from doing business on Sunday morning and the State of Tennessee actually passed a law forbidding theories from being taught in science classes that contradicted the Bible.
Some Christian groups have gotten quite upset by this slow turn of affairs.