[John Fea of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog has been following our recent series of posts on religion and federalism and has been working along similar lines himself. Used with permission.]
This morning I was reading an old news story about a newly elected councilman in Asheville, North Carolina who refused to say "so help me God" or place his hand on the Bible during his swearing in ceremony. The man in question--Cecil Bothwell--is an atheist. Unfortunately for him, the North Carolina constitution (written in 1868) disqualifies from public office "any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God." As you might imagine, conservative Christians are invoking this clause to remove Bothwell from office.
As it turns out, there are six other states that require officeholders to believe in God. They are Arkansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. My favorite is the Texas state constitution, which states:
No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.
Actually, these state constitutions are quite liberal when compared to the religious restrictions placed on officeholders in some of the original state constitutions. For example:
The 1776 Pennsylvania state constitution required officeholders to subscribe to the following declaration: "I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder to the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration." When the constitution was revised in 1790, the language was toned down a bit to limit office holding to those who acknowledge "the being of God, and a future state of rewards and punishments."
Or consider Vermont. Today's Green Mountain State liberals might be surprised to learn that the original 1777 Vermont constitution declared that all citizens of the state "have a natural and unalienable right to worship ALMIGHTY GOD, according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding, regulated by the word of GOD." It also secured basic civil rights to anyone who "professes the protestant religion." It further noted that "every sect or denomination of people ought to observe the Sabbath, or the Lord's day, and keep up, and support, some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of GOD." Finally, officeholders in Vermont had to make the following affirmation: "I believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the scriptures of the old and new testament to be given by divine inspiration, and own and profess the protestant religion." When the constitution was amended in 1786 and a new constitution was written in 1793 (following Vermont's entrance into the Union), all of these religious provisions remained in place.
Only Virginia and New York did not place any religious restrictions on officeholders.
It is clear that most of these original state constitutions privileged Christianity and, in many cases, Protestantism.
How do these state constitutions fit into the larger debate over whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation?
It would seem that those who argue for a "Christian America" based on the Christian nature of the state constitutions have a pretty good argument. While the United States Constitution says that there can be no religious tests for office-holding (Article 6) and the First Amendment forbids a religious establishment and secures religious freedom for all, it is quite obvious that none of these restrictions applied to the individual states. As a principle of federalism, the states were given the authority to handle the relationship between church and government in their own way. Massachusetts and Connecticut, for example, upheld religious establishments well into the nineteenth century.
Those who want to debate whether or not America was founded as a "Christian nation" have fought long and hard over what makes a nation "Christian," but they say very little about what constitutes a "nation." For example, is the "nation" called the "United States of America" defined by the United States Constitution? If so, then one would be hard pressed to say that the framers wanted to establish a uniquely "Christian" nation.
But to what extent did the Constitution really serve as a marker of national identity in the eighteenth century?
In one of my favorite historical articles, "A Roof Without Walls": The Dilemma of American National Identity," Princeton historian John Murrin argues that the Constitution provided a very weak form of nationalism because it could not overcome the individual identities, rooted in colonial history, of the states. "In a word," Murrin writes, "the Constitution became a substitute for any deeper kind of national identity. American nationalism is distinct because, for nearly its first century, it was narrowly and peculiarly constitutional. People knew that without the Constitution, there would be no America." In other words, "Americans had erected their constitutional roof before they put up the national walls."
If Murrin is right, and the Constitution failed to create a strong or "deep" sense of nationalism, then the people would continue, as they did under the Articles of Confederation, to find their most meaningful and important sense of political connection to the states in which they lived. And most of these states privileged Christianity in a way that many of today's conservative Christians would welcome.
So let's go back to the original question: Was American founded as a Christian nation? I would hesitate to say "yes" to this question because not all of the states had Christian establishments or forbade non-Protestant Christians from holding office (see Virginia and New York), but it would seem to me that the early republic was closer to being a Christian "nation" than some might be willing to admit.
Dr. Fea is Associate Professor of American History at Messiah College and author of THE WAY OF IMPROVEMENT LEADS HOME: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press).