Leaders Say the US is Christian, So…

By Ed Buckner | 17 February 2023
Letters to a Free Country

(Photo: Gilbert Mercier / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

About the Friday Freethought Perennials in general: This subset of my blog is to answer questions, nearly always already answered by me and by many others but posed again and again—over many years and in many places—on freethought, atheism, secular humanism, secularism/church-state/”This is a Christian Nation,” and similar topics. These answers are mostly not intended to be original analyses, breaths of fresh air, so much as just putting a whole series of things on the record (I’d say “forever,” except I know better). One source for many of these answers is the 2012 Prometheus Books book by me and my son (Michael E. Buckner), In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty. It’s available in many libraries and pretty readily in the used book after-market. I’ll cite writings of others that answer these things in more depth if I’m aware of them when I post these.

Political leaders, at pretty much every level, tend to say what they think voters want to hear, or at least to spin things in that direction. And political leaders and voters alike have and deserve the religious freedom to hold wrong beliefs or opinions—things I think are mistaken or worse. But not alternate facts.

The religiosity and the devotion to the myth (actually, false fact) of the US being founded as a Christian nation—or of being overwhelmingly Christian in the beliefs of US citizens—is quite widespread and persistent. Among many examples—

John F. Kennedy spoke in 1960 on religion—in the full heat of his campaign for the presidency—and he rightly and squarely defended an absolute separation of church and state.

But JFK also said, in February 1961 (just after becoming President),

No man who enters upon the office to which I have succeeded can fail to recognize how every President of the United States has placed special reliance upon his faith in God. Every President has taken comfort and courage when told, as we are told today, that the Lord “will be with thee. He will not fail thee nor forsake thee. Fear not–neither be thou dismayed.”

While they came from a wide variety of religious backgrounds and held a wide variety of religious beliefs, each of our Presidents in his own way has placed a special trust in God. Those who were strongest intellectually were also strongest spiritually.

Nor was JFK even close to being the only one to wax religious along these lines. Dwight David (“Ike”) Eisenhower, said on signing the bill requiring “Under God” to be added to the pledge—

FROM THIS DAY FORWARD, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. To anyone who truly loves America, nothing could be more inspiring than to contemplate this rededication of our youth, on each school morning, to our country’s true meaning.

Especially is this meaningful as we regard today’s world. Over the globe, mankind has been cruelly torn by violence and brutality and, by the millions, deadened in mind and soul by a materialistic philosophy of life. Man everywhere is appalled by the prospect of atomic war. In this somber setting, this law and its effects today have profound meaning. In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.

And President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, as President in his first term:

“We cannot read the history of our rise and development as a Nation, without reckoning with the place the Bible has occupied in shaping the advances of the Republic. … Its refining and elevating influence is indispensable to our most cherished hopes and ideals.” (Statement on the Four Hundredth Anniversary of the Printing of the English Bible; October 6, 1935)

And in case anyone thinks this factually incorrect conclusion—that this is a Christian nation— has disappeared, Nick Fish and American Atheists recently reported on the Washington Post’s reporting—

In an article this week, the Washington Post put it as bluntly as we have in the past: “Christian nationalists in fact harbor a set of extreme beliefs at odds with pluralistic democracy.”

Reporting on a new poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution, the Post breaks down the most alarming figures from this poll.

To establish the level of commitment to Christian nationalist beliefs, the poll measured agreement with the following five statements:

1. “The U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation.”

2. “U.S. laws should be based on Christian values.”

3. “If the U.S. moves away from our Christian foundations, we will not have a country anymore.”

4. “Being Christian is an important part of being truly American.”

5. “God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.”

It probably comes as no surprise to you that 10% of people agree or strongly agree with these statements. After all, we have been ringing the alarm bells about this for years.

But add to that the 19% who agree with at least some of those statements, and you are looking at almost a third of American adults—roughly 70 million—siding with the dangerous and extreme Christian nationalist ideology.

Let me reiterate—and I am now expressing my own opinion, not necessarily that of anyone at American Atheists—American leaders and voters have every right to have opinions or beliefs at odds with the ones I hold. But the honest among them (not Newt Gingrich, for example—more about him in a future essay) should at least take into account the thousands of compelling facts that are at odds with the false myth.

The 1796/1797 treaty that declared that “the government of the United States was not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” a treaty unanimously agreed to by the US Senate (discussed in Letters … last week) is sufficient proof of the founders secular intentions. Even more basic is the text of the US Constitution, which invokes as its authority only “We the People,” prohibits religious tests for holding office, and nowhere prefers Christianity or even religiosity. These are words found in historical documents, not just opinions.

Yes, a majority of US citizens still consider themselves Christian in one sense or another, and (though there is some question about the truth of it in the 1700s), most Americans 250 years ago probably did as well. If that’s all one means by claiming that ours is a Christian nation, then “Yes.” But it is historically certain that a great majority of leaders who played significant roles in establishing the US feared governments being entangled with religion nor did they want governments or majorities to decide beliefs related to religion for any citizens. They wanted, from the very beginning of our democratic republic, to establish a free country (for Christians and everyone else), not a Christian nation.

They wanted freedom of conscience and they were sure that such freedom could be protected only by a careful, thorough separation of government and religion.

Ignorance is not a sufficient excuse to persist in accepting and promoting the false myth.

Ed Buckner is an American atheist activist who served as president of the organization American Atheists from 2008 to 2010. He served as executive director for the Council for Secular Humanism from 2001 to 2003 and was once the Council’s southern director. He is the author (with Michael E. Buckner) of In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty (Prometheus Books, 2012).

Harmonic Atheist – Interview with Dr. Ed Buckner

John F. Kennedy – Address on Religion

The Founding Fathers on Religion – In Their Own Words

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  1. It is, as it was at least once before, a great honor (OK, OK, "honor" for Brits), to get attention and republishing from Lola Heavey. thanks!


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