Are we a Christian nation?

Column by John Muenzberg, lecturer of philosophy

In making arguments for banning Muslim immigration into the U.S. or using school choice money to support Christian schools or passing laws that allow Christians to discriminate against certain people, support is often drawn from the idea that the U.S. is a “Christian nation.”

Supporters assume that we, as a nation, should follow Christian teaching even if it disagrees with U.S. or state laws. Yet few people explain which version of Christianity we will be following. It is often assumed that if we are all Christian then we all agree. This is not and never really has been true.

There are many disagreements in the history of Christianity, but let’s start with one that celebrates its 500th anniversary this year. On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther distributed his “95 Theses,” which disputed the common practice of granting indulgences for past sins when people donated money to the Roman Catholic Church. While Luther was not the first to publicly disagree with the Catholic Church, his disagreement lead to the Protestant Reformation, after which dozens of new denominations of Christianity were founded. Denominations such as the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Mormons and the Church of Christ did not exist before 1517.

But these denominations did not necessarily think the others were true Christians. The Catholic Church represented political power in Europe, so challenges to the church were political and financial challenges as well. Ultimately, these disagreements led to the 30 Years War, which began in 1618. Millions of Europeans, both soldiers and civilians, died from war, disease and starvation. In some areas, more than half of the population died. That Europe was Christian did not prevent them from killing each other for religious and political power.

We like to celebrate the landing of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. They are called “separatists” because, while they began as Anglicans, they wanted to separate themselves from the official state religion of England. England officially was, and still is, a Christian nation. But these Christians thought it was so important to separate themselves from state control that they left.

Many of our colonies were founded by specific religious groups. Maryland was founded especially for English Catholics fleeing persecution. New York was aligned with the Dutch Reformed Church. Florida was founded by Spain, which was Catholic. Several colonies were officially aligned with the Church of England.

Some take this history as evidence that we are a Christian nation, but these were separate colonies representing different denominations. Some of the colonies excluded other Christians from establishing churches and holding public office, and public taxes might support the official church.

Some people argue that our founding fathers were Christian. It is certainly true that many of them followed one of the denominations listed above. But it is also true that many of them were Deists. Deists believed in God and thought that God created the universe, but they did not believe in revelation or miracles. They mostly rejected contemporary religious practice and church hierarchy. Just because they believed in God, and use terms such as “creator” or “supreme being,” does not mean that they agree with your version of Christianity. Deist beliefs were instrumental in rejecting an official state religion in the U.S. Constitution.

When someone suggests that we are a Christian nation ask them, “Which Christians?” The largest Christian denomination in the U.S. is Roman Catholic. Yet many people erroneously say Catholics are not “true Christians.” Ask them if they would pay taxes to support the Catholic Church, or have Catholic theology taught in public schools. Chances are that is not the Christian nation they are thinking of. Religious freedom and tolerance have allowed the U.S. to thrive. Having Christian citizens should not be confused with being a Christian nation. And Christianity should not be used as an excuse to discriminate against others.