There are some folk who insist that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. There are others who insist that it in no way was ever a Christian nation.
Both groups are right. And they are both wrong.
Oh, and before I continue, let me note that I am not a Christian.
Much of the exploration and colonization of the New World was driven by religious motives. While it is fashionable among a certain breed of “historian” to paint Christopher Columbus as a monster, driven solely by a lust for gold and seeing in the natives a ready source of forced labor (slaves) who could be easily conquered, the reality is far from that narrative. Yes, Columbus was seeking what he believed was a shorter route to the East by sailing westward–this based on a wildly erroneous estimate of the diameter of the world (well known as a globe by educated men of his day)–to open trade routes that would be profitable for Europe. However, his dealings with the natives–actual dealings not the spin created by certain popular “historians”–was based on his own Christian belief and a desire to bring the benighted locals to God.
Some that came after Columbus had much more venal motives. And some that came after didn’t. It was a mixed bag, as was often the case in history.
It is not my intent here to attempt to give an account of the colonization and conquest of the Americas, so I’ll leave that simply to set the stage for the founding of what would become the United States.
The first English Colony in North America was the Roanoke Colony, founded by Sir Walter Raleigh. It was actually two colonies. The first, founded on Roanoke island in 1585 promptly failed. The second, founded in 1587 also failed and vanished into the mists of history when a resupply mission was delayed by the Anglo-Spanish war.
The Roanoke colony had been intended as a supply base for Raleigh’s real interest, which was the Caribbean and particularly raiding Spanish shipping.
It would not be until 1607 until the first successful English colony–Jamestown–would be settled in America. Jamestown was another colony based on pure economic motives and it struggled for years, nearly failing in 1610, muddling along for several years trying to find something profitable to keep it going before developing tobacco as a cash crop in 1613.
Back in England, the suggestion was made that the failure of Roanoke and the difficulties of Jamestown was because they were purely military or economic ventures and lacked religious purpose. This was soon to be tested with the expedition of the Pilgrims to what would begin the settlement of New England.
The Pilgrims, a branch sect of a branch sect–being an offshoot of the Puritans, who themselves were an offshoot of the Church of England. They settled at what would become Plymouth in 1620. They, like the other colonies before them, had initial problems but they soon flourished. They were soon followed by other Puritan groups, also coming to New England to set up explicitly religious colonies.
While most of the New England colonies were religious separatists–“We grant those of other faiths the liberty to stay away from us”–a particular group who took the idea of individual conscience, and the idea of religious freedom that follows from that, and founded what would become Rhode Island.
So things would continue for some time. The English colonies in what would become the United States were a mix of religious communites, such as those in New England, and those founded for economic purposes such as those in Virginia.
The first rumblings of discontent with British rule over the English colonies, however, was very much religious in nature. It started with the English Civil War. Charles I’s marriage to the Catholic Henrietta Maria of France and the treaty which allowed her to freely practice her religion in England were not popular with the Puritans in England and in the New World. Then followed the English Civil War itself, which deposed Charles I. The Restoration put Charles I’s son, Charles II, on the throne and all seemed well, but then Charles II died and James II, a Catholic, ascended to the throne.
James II revoked the charter of the Massachusetts colony, created the Dominion of New England in its stead and appointed Edmond Andros, a foe of Puritanism as its governor. Andros ruled practically as a dictator, outlawing town meetings and stripping clergy of the power to marry among other things. Needless to say, the New Englanders used to running things to suit themselves were quite unhappy with this arrangement.
Thus, the first real stirrings of discontent with British rule were over religious matters. Things settled after the Glorious Revolution which ousted James II and enthroned William and Mary as the rulers of England.
In the 1730s and 1740s the Great Awakening swept Britain and the colonies, the first of many religious revivals that would affect the New World. It was into this environment that many of the key Founding Fathers of the US were born, including George Washington (1732), John Adams (1735), Thomas Jefferson (1743), Patrick Henry (1736), and so on. Samuel Adams (1722) grew to adulthood in the Great Awakening, and Benjamin Franklin (1706) was already an adult when it started.
Thus, many of the Founding Fathers were steeped in religion when they were forming the nascent United States. Individually, they spanned from Calvinist to Congregationalist to Deist to possibly outright atheist, but the culture and society which shaped them was decidedly Christian and largely Puritan at that.
However, when circumstances conspired to drive an irrevocable wedge between the colonies and the mother country of Great Britain, a rising tide of secularism was cresting. Folks of religious fervor found it necessary to work alongside folk of lesser religious feeling. Folks of different religious views needed to find common ground for the new government. The result was that they had to focus on matters other than religion. Even ardent “anti-Papists” like Samuel Adams were forced by circumstance to modify their views at least in government matters.
And so, as a result, the actual legal structures of the newly formed United States avoided either endorsing or denying particular religious views, from the most devout believers to the most determined atheist. They explicitly rejected religious tests for public office. One could not use a person’s religious belief or lack thereof as a condition of holding any office of public trust. Later, with the Bill of Rights, they forbade Congress for creating a State-supported church (Congress shall pass no law…respecting an establishment of religion) and from interfering in the practice of religion by the people (nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof).
So, while the culture and society which lead to the creation of the United States was strongly religious and overwhelmingly Christian, the legal founding of the nation steered clear of either endorsing or rejecting any particular religious belief or non-belief.
So the folk who say the United States is a Christian Nation and those who say it is not are both right. And they are both wrong. It is a quantum entanglement of both.