Perhaps no aspect of the American founding is as politicized today as the role of religion. Be they atheists or deeply devout, liberals tend to see religious pluralism and equality as definitive American values, while the right wing (Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for example) insists that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that fostering the country’s Christian, or Judeo-Christian, identity is essential. Those with “a secular mind-set,” Sessions argued in opposing Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, do not understand “who we are” and advance a worldview “directly contrary to the founding of our republic.”
It’s an old debate, as old as the United States itself. Yet, contrary to Pence, Sessions and other Christian nationalists, the range of views on what the role of religion in American life should be has actually grown narrower, and shallower, since the Revolutionary generation debated the matter. There are many reasons not to want to return to the politics of the 18th century, but they did hold a richer discussion about religion and society.
When today’s Christian nationalists look back at the past two centuries of history, they see secular ideologies at the root of conflict and war. For Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, however, religion lay as the root cause of bloodshed and tyranny. They stood, in profound ways, closer to Martin Luther, and Galileo, than we do to them. Jefferson described his and Madison’s attempts in the 1780s to establish religious freedom in Virginia as “the severest contests in which I have ever been engaged.” Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the U.S. Constitution, the country’s charter documents, are partial to Christianity. The Declaration acknowledges the authority of “the Laws of Nature” and the deists’ beloved “Nature’s God.” Of the 27 grievances against the British Crown that the Declaration puts forward, not one concerns religion. Likewise, the Constitution merely recognizes “freedom of religion”; it doesn’t endorse Christianity — it doesn’t even mention it. These omissions present today’s Christian nationalists with a real awkwardness. It has forced advocates of the “Christian nation” or “Judeo-Christian nation” into strained textual exegeses attributing immense significance to the use of the Christian calendar for example, or elaborate justifications as to why a generation of men and women who said everything somehow left this important thing unsaid.
There was even prevalent, open hostility to Christianity, in the form of anti-Catholicism, in Revolutionary-era America. The American Colonies were deeply, profoundly anti-Catholic. Anti-Catholicism was one of the few things the diverse Colonies shared. Colonists were horrified when Britain, with the 1774 Quebec Act, recognized Quebec’s Catholics as deserving equal protection of the law. The Continental Congress protested, claiming that Catholicism as a religion that had “deluged” Britain in blood and “dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.”
Then, as now, most Christians in the world were Catholics. Claiming that people moved by deep prejudice against most of world’s Christians wanted to form a “Christian nation” makes no sense. The problem cannot be solved by simply devolving to “Protestant nation.” Britain was known as the sword and shield of Protestantism, set against a hostile Catholic continent. In what form of Protestantism, exactly, did the United States rise up in rebellion against the 18th-century world’s standard-bearer of Protestantism? Possible answers quickly begin to look rather sectarian, rendering any understanding of “Christian nation” into something very narrow, perhaps some kind of provincial country denomination.
So there are insuperable obstacles to the Christian nationalist position. But there is also a neglected and fascinating history, key to American independence. Quite simply, America’s first patriots were acutely Christian and did envision, at least, an acutely Christian, which to them meant Protestant, nation. They issued the first calls for American independence. More specifically, America’s first nationalist movement was a small group of young New England writers at Yale College who were fiercely Christian. Timothy Dwight and John Trumbull were the group’s founding members, and by 1769, at the Yale College commencement, they publicly protested for American independence. Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, would later come into the group, too.
These young writers, who called themselves the Connecticut Wits, were terrible poets, but they were visionary American nationalists. Dwight’s epic poem, “The Conquest of Canaan,” portrayed an independent America as the new Holy Land. He began it in 1771. Most Americans, by contrast, supported reconciliation with Britain well into 1776. Years later, Dwight would complain that for their early, open advocacy of American independence they had suffered years of ridicule and contempt. John Trumbull’s 1773 poem “An Elegy of the Times” is a clear, repeated call, steeped in New England Protestantism, for nationalist revolution. Though I’ve never met anyone today who has read it, Trumbull’s 1775 poem “M’Fingal” was the best-selling poem of the American Revolution. It went through 30 editions, a feat no other American poet managed until Maine’s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1847. “M’Fingal” is a lampoon of the Scottish Enlightenment and a sclerotic Great Britain in the name of enlightened and vital independent, Protestant America.
Here we have bona fide, as well as forthright and prescient, 18th-century American Christian nationalists. Of course, you won’t see them invoked by today’s Christian nationalists — for a couple of reasons.
One, ironically, is that the Wits wrote too much, in too much detail, about how Christian America should look. As a result, it’s obvious that their vision does not easily fit with that of today’s Christian nationalists. America’s 18th-century Christian nationalists, for example, were interested in God and theologizing. Today’s Christian nationalists prefer Jesus and evangelizing. America’s 18th-century Christian nationalists wanted the state to regulate almost every aspect of life, from education to commerce to religion. Today’s Christian nationalists depend politically on an alliance with anti-statist capitalists; indeed, this in some ways odd alliance forms the basis of modern conservatism.
Second, in the story of American national history, America’s 18th-century Christian nationalists are losers. They lost a battle for political control of the United States to the deists Jefferson and Madison, and to the rest of the Southern planters, whom they despised. In December 1814 and January 1815, during the War of 1812, these early Christian nationalists’ alienation culminated in the Hartford Convention, in which a group of their close allies, state and federal officeholders from Connecticut and Massachusetts, met and issued a series of demands. Their most radical demand? They wanted the three-fifths clause, which in effect gave Southern planters 66 votes for every 100 slaves they owned, banished from the U.S. Constitution. If their demands were not met, the Hartford Convention threatened to secede from the United States. The threat misjudged the political climate, however, and helped destroy the Federalist Party that served their political vehicle.
Jefferson exulted at the Hartford Convention’s miscalculation — their “mortification,” he called it. Under any other government, he wrote, “their treasons would have been punished by the halter,” that is by execution. Hartford, to Jefferson, illustrated the New Englanders’ “religious and political tyranny.” He compared them to prostitutes, “bawds,” who found in religion “a refuge from the despair of their loathsome vices.” Strong words, from one of America’s founders, against the first American patriots, and the country’s original Christian nationalists.
The history of religion and the American national founding does not offer simple support to either today’s Christian nationalists or the liberal secularists, who also tend to claim some kind of consensus existed among the Revolutionary generation. It’s impossible not to notice that much has been lost from the Connecticut Wits’ 18th-century Christian nationalism. They thought deeply about Christianity, governance and the broad social responsibilities of a truly Christian state. If the deists were preoccupied with freedom, the Christian nationalists were as preoccupied with how society must facilitate grace.
By comparison, today’s debate is rather stark, with Christian nationalists such as Pence and Sessions, or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, committed to an evangelical Protestant vision that comes down to little more than pro-life politics, home schooling and rote patriotism. Anti-religious liberals, such as comedian Bill Maher, on the other hand, don’t know much about religion at all.
Why has such a vibrant debate dimmed to a litany of talking points? Partially, the answer is that American Christianity has changed. But more important, rather than a historical disagreement or a philosophical one, today’s argument about whether America was founded as a Christian nation is a political one. Arguing whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation is usually just a coded way of asserting about what kind of nation we want America to be. That’s a discussion worth having, and having it directly, without bad historical justifications — an endeavor America’s founders could have respected.
Sam Haselby is a historian, an editor at Aeon Magazine and the author of “The Origins of American Religious Nationalism.”