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Faith & Spirituality

Is America A Christian Nation?

Is America A Christian Nation?
Religion professor Richard Hughes critiques the powerful and potentially dangerous myth of America as a Christian nation.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): The U.S. Constitution instructs Congress to make no law establishing a religion for the United States of America. It would seem that should settle the issue of whether the U.S. is a Christian nation. But the notion that America is a Christian nation, anointed by God and with a special destiny in the world, has a long history in this country, and more importantly, it remains the cherished belief of many fundamentalist Christians today. What support is there in the Bible or elsewhere that America is a Christian nation, and why do so many Americans want to believe it? My guest Richard Hughes has researched both the origins of this idea and its consequences for America. Richard Hughes is Senior Fellow in the Ernest L. Boyer Center and Distinguished Professor of Religion at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. His book is called “Christian America and the Kingdom of God.” And, Richard, welcome to These Days.

RICHARD HUGHES (Author): Thank you, Maureen. Happy to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: Now we’d like to invite our audience to join the conversation. Do you believe America is a Christian nation? What do you think people mean when they use that phrase? Call us with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Richard, how is America portrayed as a Christian nation today? Who are the people making these claims?


HUGHES: Well, Maureen, often it’s conservative Christians but it’s not only conservative Christians. Christian Smith is a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, wrote a book on Christian America and based on his very extensive research, he found that many Americans, even secular Americans, often assume that America is called to be a Christian nation. And, by the way, John McCain, when he was running for president, said in an interview that the constitution claims the United States is a Christian nation. So it’s a widespread belief among many people.

CAVANAUGH: And what does being a Christian nation mean to those people who believe it is?

HUGHES: Well, Maureen, that’s an interesting question. I think, among other things it means that America is good and moral and, beyond that, as you indicated in your opening comments, that the United States has been anointed by God with a special destiny in the world.

CAVANAUGH: And so where does this idea come from? Because I know in your book you’ve researched these ideas.

HUGHES: Well, Maureen, of course as you indicated in your opening comments, the First Amendment is pretty clear, that congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of any religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. And the interesting thing is that many European immigrants who came to these shores in the even 17th, 18th, early 19th century, virtually all of them would have come from countries that had an established church. So many Americans who came here in that time frame fully expected that in some sense the United States would become some kind of a Christian nation. And, of course, they were sorely disappointed by the First Amendment. So now they can’t coerce the country in that direction by force of law so the one avenue that’s left open to them, of course, is persuasion. And persuade they did, they launched, in the early 19th century, a great revival that we know as the second great awakening. It lasted about 30 years, 1800 to 1830, and it was incredibly successful. And, by the way, the effort was not so much to Christianize the nation as to Protestantize the nation. So Catholics, in those days, were viewed outside the pale as well. But what’s interesting is, that effort was so successful that many historians today, looking back on the 19th century, refer to the 19th century as the Christian century.


CAVANAUGH: I know that there are many conservative Christian churches today that go back even further than that, and they talk about the early American settlers and the Mayflower Compact and a covenant that was made on the ship. And it seems that there’s this notion that from the very beginning of European settlers in the United States, that there was this notion that America was a Christian nation.

HUGHES: And, of course, when they point that out, they’re exactly right. But I often think that the United States, in a certain sense, had two sets of founders. One were the Puritans, who came to New England, and that’s the group that you’re speaking of and, absolutely, they did make this covenant with God. They wanted the colonies to be fully Christian with an established church. But in the long run, that’s not the set of founders that really finally made the determination. The set of founders that made the determination would have been those individuals that drew up the Constitution, authored the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in the late 18th century. So I think one of the things that confuses the issue is that we really have these, in a certain sense, these two sets of founders, one, the Puritans and then the other, the actual founders.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Richard Hughes about his book, "Christian America and the Kingdom of God." We’re inviting your phone calls with questions and comments, 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call now from Asher in Fallbrook. Good morning, Asher, and welcome to These Days.

ASHER (Caller, Fallbrook): Hi, how are you?

CAVANAUGH: Great, thank you. Yes.



ASHER: …in my belief that the idea that people hold onto of a Christian America is based on a perception that the precepts of Christianity that our country was founded on are what created the success and security that we’ve appreciated in the past and people are scared of the changes that are taking place in the future and, in that sense, are attached to the idea of a Christian America.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that. And, Richard, would you like to comment?

HUGHES: So, if I understood the caller, he’s saying that people hold to the idea of Christian America because these ideas of Christian morality and so on have given us security, protection from enemies, I suppose. Well, that’s an interesting thought. If that is, in fact, the case, then why have we raised such an extraordinarily large military presence? I guess I don’t really quite fathom the way that organate (sp) would work, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Well, I guess the idea was that many people hold is that America’s prosperity and its prominence in the world is based on the values that the original immigrants came over with, and those values were based largely on the Bible. And I think perhaps – But it’s interesting in your book, Richard, because you differentiate between the idea of an – America as an anointed by God and the idea of Christianity being sort of like the secular or civic religion of this country. Tell us a little bit about that.

HUGHES: Maureen, if I could, let me go back first just real quickly to the caller’s question.

CAVANAUGH: Sure, yes.

HUGHES: After – Your comment helped clarify it for me. I think that when people say our greatness is dependent on our goodness, which I think is the argument being put forth here, that idea certainly is rooted in the Hebrew Bible, this covenant that God made with Israel. So God says to Israel, if you will keep my law and if you will follow my ways, I will bless you and I will make you a great nation and so on. The only problem with that in applying it to the United States is that the United States is not Israel. And, you know, we’re an entirely different phenomenon from ancient Israel. But the idea that you’re asking about a kind of civic religion, back in 1967—and many of your listeners will remember this—Robert Bellah, from the University of North Carolina – I’m sorry, University of California in Berkeley, wrote a very important article called “Civil Religion in America” and he pointed out that there is, in the United States, a religion – a religious tradition with all the trappings of a conventional wisdom. It’s not Judaism, it’s not Christianity, but, really, the nation is at the center of that religious tradition and it has its own liturgy, for example. “God Bless America,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” and so on. It has its own sacred shrines, the Lincoln Memorial, etcetera, and that many Americans really do confuse the vision of the Christian tradition with the vision of the American nation. And he called that American civil religion.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls about whether or not America is a Christian nation. Richard Hughes, the author of "Christian America and the Kingdom of God" is my guest. My number is 1-888-895-5727. And we’re asking what do you think people mean when they use the phrase ‘Christian nation’ and apply it to America? Let’s take Greg – a call from Greg in Oceanside. Good morning, Greg, and welcome to These Days.

GREG (Caller, Oceanside): Good morning. When it comes to covenants, I have to wonder about the 451 Indian treaties that the United States made and broke. Historically, this country is basically founded on—I mean, it sounds horrible to say but it’s true—ethnic cleansing and genocide and land theft. And, you know, our money, it says ‘in God we trust’ but I think it’s more like in money we trust. I mean, the present day, you know, Christians are, shall we say, somewhat conflicted, in my opinion. You say you have a right to life, no abortion, but once you’re born or if you’re already here, there’s no healthcare. I mean, if we had a Christian country, I don’t think we’d have insurance companies. We wouldn’t need them. We wouldn’t have homelessness. We wouldn’t have hunger. And if you talk about God’s approval of our country, you know, in terms of our success, well, then what was 9/11 about? Maybe God doesn’t approve of the World Trade Centers and capitalism.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for your comments, Greg. And, Richard, would you like to comment?

HUGHES: Oh, I’d love to comment. I think he’s got a very, very important point. If people who want to claim Christian America, want to root that in the idea of some kind of a covenant that God has made with America, which reads if America will be faithful to God’s law, God will bless America, the assumption obviously is that we are, and have been, faithful. But the caller points out this long history of oppression. He’s correct when he speaks of genocide. He could’ve mentioned slavery. He could’ve mentioned segregation. So many things like that are certainly a part of our history. Having said that, the United States often behaves very morally, too, but it’s a mixed record. So to claim that somehow America is a Christian nation by virtue of the fact that we have lived up to some kind of a covenant with almighty God, that one, I think, really doesn’t wash very well.

CAVANAUGH: You know, our caller mentioned the September 11th attacks and instead of minimizing the idea that America has been anointed by God as a Christian nation, that – those attacks somehow refueled a lot of people’s notion that America has a mission in the world as a Christian nation. Tell us a little bit about that.

HUGHES: Well, Maureen, the book, "Christian America and the Kingdom of God,” the fundamental thesis of that book is that if you measure the idea of Christian America against the Biblical vision of the kingdom of God, the idea of Christian America doesn’t stack up all that well. The Biblical vision of the kingdom of God is a very dominant theme both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and virtually every time you encounter that phrase or that concept, it’s used in connection with, A, social justice for the poor, for the dispossessed, for the marginalized, that’s one. And number two, peacemaking, finding ways to make peace. So I have often thought that if the United States had really been and, still, if the United States still is some sort of a Christian nation, maybe we would’ve responded to those 9/11 attacks not by going to war and seeking vengeance but in some way responding by reaching out to the poor, reaching out to the dispossessed. After all, terrorism and terror grows from the roots of poverty and often from the roots of ignorance. So it would seem to me that what we might’ve done would be to address those kinds of issues. I remember the day after 9/11, I watched—we lived in California at the time. And I had the television on and Rector Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, was pleading with the American administration, don’t respond with vengeance, respond with justice. And maybe that’s unrealistic but one can only wonder what the future course of things might have looked like if the United States had taken advantage of that wonderful opportunity to respond to those attacks by seeking justice throughout the world rather than waging war throughout the world. So my point is, if the United States were really a Christian nation then one would think that we would ask some questions about going to war that often don’t get asked.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Richard Hughes. He’s the author of the book, "Christian America and the Kingdom of God." We have to take a short break but when we return, we’ll continue talking about this and taking your calls. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is Richard Hughes, Distinguished Professor of Religion at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. We’re talking about the subject of his book, "Christian America and the Kingdom of God” and whether America is properly defined as a Christian nation. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And, Richard, I’d like to go back in a moment and talk more about how this notion took hold of conservative Christians in the 20th century but first this is such a diverse nation and I’m wondering what the effect of calling the U.S. a Christian nation with a Christian destiny in the world has on people who, in this country, who are American and are not Christian.

HUGHES: Well, Maureen, I can only imagine that they don’t appreciate it very much. I mean, and that’s a very, very good point to make. If we want to claim that America is a Christian nation, one would think that it would be composed of practically all Christians and of course we know that’s not the case. You know, there are about 75% of the American people who claim to be Christians in one sense or another but that leaves another 25% of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, you can run through the roll call. So, simply the statistics don’t back up the claim.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call. Diana is calling from Carlsbad. Good morning, Diana, and welcome to These Days.

DIANA (Caller, Carlsbad): Good morning. Thanks very much for taking my call. So this is such an interesting subject and the thing that I wanted to share with the author is, you know, I’ve had a sense that for a very, very long time that America – it comes about this identification as a Christian nation in a sort of collective attempt to deal with the fact that our society and our history is not very deep but it is very broad. And a way of trying to achieve some kind of common set of values and common set of cultural trappings and traditions, and that this has been sort of the easiest path to that end because of just the sheer numbers of people who identify themselves as Christian. And to your other point about some of the points that you make about how if we are the Christian nation and identify ourselves as a Christian nation and as the kingdom of God, why then do we elect to make some of the decisions that we make in terms of war and other bad decisions that have occurred through our history, I like to think often that, you know, that identification of America as a Christian nation or Christian ideals or a kingdom of God is more an aspiration than what is actually happening today.

CAVANAUGH: Diana, thank you so much for your comments. And I – that – her comments kind of go back to that idea of the civic religion that you were talking about earlier.

HUGHES: Yes, I – That’s exactly what I was thinking, and I think she’s really onto something very important, that certainly in the 19th century, Americans in that time could claim to have – Christians who were Americans could claim to be a vast majority but, of course, that’s hardly true today. But I think she’s right that many Americans want to use that Christian understanding as a sort of civic glue that binds the Americans together but, of course, today it doesn’t work quite so well because we’re so diverse. So that leads me then back to Robert Bellah’s claim about America’s civic faith and, of course, Bellah says that that American civic faith is not Christianity and it’s not Judaism and it’s not Islam but it really draws on Christianity and it draws on Judaism so it really turns out to be a kind of civic glue that can hold many, many people together. But even there, that civic faith because it’s informed so heavily by the Biblical traditions, Judaism and Christianity, that civic faith doesn’t work today nearly as well, say, as it might’ve worked in the 19th century or even up to, say, 1950 because since then the diversity that has come to these shores has not been coming so much from Europe as from Asia.


HUGHES: And that’s given the United States an entirely different flavor.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Richard, one of the strongest statements in your book, "Christian America and the Kingdom of God,” in a book full of strong statements, you describe that there’s a Biblical and theological illiteracy running rampant in the United States. What is it that you mean by that?

HUGHES: I mean by that, and incidentally, that Biblical and theological illiteracy runs rampant through the United States but it prevails even where one might expect to find a very solid knowledge of the Biblical text, namely in America’s conservative churches. So what I mean by that is I’m just convinced, Maureen, that many Christians even, who claim – who want to talk about, say, Christian America really seldom read that text. You know, it strikes me that if people were to sit down and read the text all the way through and ask themselves, you know, what are the themes that jump out over and over and over again, it’s not about the chosen nation, it’s about the kingdom of God, it’s about doing justice, lifting up the poor, making peace. But the fact that so few Christians seem to get that may indicate that many Christians simply don’t bother to read the text that they want to exalt.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Diana is calling from San Marcos. Good morning, Diana. Welcome to These Days.

DIANA (Caller, San Marcos): Hi. Thank you. You know, I just wanted to let you know that we’re not all Christian out here and those of us that aren’t really feel disenfranchised, alienated, from our government, you know, even to the point where, you know, my kids are being forced to, you know, mention God in the pledge of allegiance and everybody has to pray on a Bible and, you know, we’re not all Christian and what about the rest of us? And we’re Americans as well. Why don’t we get equal say?

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that comment, Diana. And would you like to comment, Richard?

HUGHES: Yes, I would. I just think Diana’s point is right on and Diana is underscoring the concerns of the founders. This is why they didn’t establish this nation as a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or any other kind – Their concern was that every American would be free to practice the religion of his or her choice or no religion at all. Thomas Jefferson was very, very clear on that point: Americans should be free to practice no religion at all. So your caller is really, really on target with this one. This nation needs to provide freedom for its citizens to be religious in the way they see fit or not at all.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us, Richard, if you would, some of the ways you see the advocates of Christian America not acting in Christian ways today.

HUGHES: Well, the most obvious thing, Maureen, that comes to my mind is that when we were in the build up to the war in Iraq, even before the invasion of Iraq, Jim Loeb, who is a journalist, did some survey work and found that conservative white Christians favored invasion of Iraq in numbers that exceeded, in other words percentage numbers, that exceeded those even of the general population. And then by the time the war was growing unpopular, those white evangelical Christians still favored this endeavor. And it just strikes me, if the Bible says, as it does, that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and if Jesus says very clearly, you have heard that it was said, love your friends and hate your enemies but I say to you love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you, if we take that seriously we’ve got to put some huge question marks around violence. But I think the most striking thing that’s happened in the last, say, decade would be the fervor with which so many American Christians greeted that militaristic invasion of the nation of Iraq.

CAVANAUGH: And in your book, you also make the point that many conservative Christian movements seem to rely more heavily on the Old Testament than the New.

HUGHES: Yes, indeed they do because if you want to push notions of militarism and invading, you know, countries that one claims are your enemies, you really can’t find any justification for that in the New Testament and it’s spotty justification even in the Hebrew Bible. People will look back, say, to the battles that Israel waged against the tribes in the land of Canaan and say that’s some kind of a model for the United States. Of course, that’s a stretch to claim that Israel is a model for the United States. But what’s interesting is that by the time you get to the 8th century BCE, you get a whole raft of prophets, people like, for example, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, who are really calling into question policies of war. And what these prophets are saying is that Israel’s security does not depend on our fortifications and our alliances with other nations, our security depends on the extent to which we do justice. So the prophets are claiming that, really, the only route to peace and security is justice for all people.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. And Nguyen is calling in Hillcrest, and good morning. Welcome to These Days.

NGUYEN (Caller, Hillcrest): Hi.


NGUYEN: Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to say that America is only Christian on the surface but underneath it is a rotten country. And it’s evident by these rightwing radical nuts, what they’re doing to this country and other country that drag down the good name of Christianity.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the comment, Nguyen. But this is not something that you agree with, Richard. You love this country.

HUGHES: I do, indeed. And I wouldn’t say it’s a rotten country, I think it’s a marvelous country. But I would agree with one point that the caller made and that is that the Christianity that we claim to characterize the nation is really – it doesn’t run very deeply. It’s fairly superficial. And, of course, this is all – I mean, the point is, how could a nation be Christian? By that I mean, a nation is always interested in its own self-preservation. That’s inevitable. A nation is interested in its own self-interest. But the Biblical vision of the kingdom of God says don’t seek your own self-interest, seek the self – seek the interest of others, especially those who are in the greatest need. So how in the world then could a nation that, by definition, is interested in its own self-interest, in its own prosperity, be characterized as a Christian nation when division of the Biblical kingdom of God runs diametrically opposed to inevitable nationalistic interests?

CAVANAUGH: Craig is calling us now from San Diego. Good morning, Craig, and welcome to These Days.

CRAIG (Caller, San Diego): I just wanted to make a comment. I was an atheist for 25 years and I always had a reason why this nation was not a Christian nation. I am now in the faith for about 5 years and I would have to agree with the author that that’s the conclusion that I have experienced in my life. Now that I’m in the faith, I notice why I never believed in it and that’s because marriages are poor, poor parenting, poor decisions and so on and so forth. So I just want to make that comment and agree with the author in that sense.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that.

CRAIG: If we’r going to be a Christian nation or if we’re going to say we’re Christian then we need to act upon that in every decision that we make and how we give testimony to our life.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for your comment, Craig. I appreciate it. I wonder, Richard, in studying all of this, going back to the Bible and going through the texts that are used to support the idea that America is, you know, the new Jerusalem or whatever, I wonder how you see this idea, this notion as America as a Christian nation actually becoming dangerous for the U.S. and for the world?

HUGHES: Maureen, it’s dangerous when it assures us of our own innocence. And we saw exhibit A of that during the war in Iraq, and we all remember how the administration drew these lines between, on the one hand, the so-called evildoers, we all remember this…


HUGHES: …and on the other hand, the nation that has clean hands. It’s really difficult. By the way, I used to track the number of casualties in Iraq. I think it was a website called Iraq Body Count, something, I don’t remember the exact website, but it was just astounding. I mean, right away more Iraqi civilians had perished by far than the 3000 who perished in the World Trade Center. Obviously, we lament the loss of life in this country but we also must lament the loss of life elsewhere, too. And it seems to me that the myth of Christian America, one of its purposes is to somehow preserve the illusion that this nation is fundamentally innocent and, of course, no nation is fundamentally innocent.

CAVANAUGH: You say in the book that part of that might perhaps come from the fact that America has never really come to terms with some of its grave problems, its grave injustices, slavery and the decimation of the Native American people.

HUGHES: We haven’t. And, you know, and that stands in stark contrast, for example, to Germany, which has really come to terms with the horrors that Germany perpetrated during that pre-World War II period and until the war was over. One of your callers mentioned the genocide that we practiced against native populations, we don’t want to hear that. That’s very – it’s hard on our ears to hear that. The problem is, it’s true. And we have never, as a nation, come to terms with these kinds of things yet, and I think one of the reasons we don’t is because we want to preserve this illusion, this image of ourselves as moral, righteous, and, in fact, even Christian. One more comment, if I could make…

CAVANAUGH: Please, yes.

HUGHES: One of your callers said that he felt that this is a rotten nation, and I said I don’t share that. But let me make this comment. I don’t share it in large part because I’m part of the great American middle class and I’ve been greatly blessed. But sometimes I wonder how people who are trapped in inner city ghettos, people who live their lives out in abject poverty in this country, you know, people who can’t get healthcare and just have to live with debilitating sicknesses, how would they view this country? I think –That’s a fair question, I think, to ask.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Richard Hughes, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

HUGHES: Thank you, Maureen. It’s my pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: Richard Hughes is the author of the book, "Christian America and the Kingdom of God." Many people wanted to join our conversation today. If we didn’t get a chance to have your comment on the air, please go online and post your comment at Coming up, a conversation with music star and now patient advocate, Naomi Judd. That’s next as These Days continues here on KPBS.