407. The United States of America: Christian? Religious? Secular?

Independence Day

Today Independence Day is just a time for picnics and fireworks. We seem to give little attention to our actual Independence, its principles and its repercussions.  The United States and Great Britain have long been best of allies. And there are those of us who think Britain’s parliamentary form of government is slightly  less dysfunctional than ours.

However, I’m going to write here about (no surprise) the religious aspects of our American Revolution, our religious foundations and especially about the questions above, currently being debated.

To begin: Oh, help. In only a few days, I have discovered so much material on the subject that I almost wish I’d never got into this. However, it has been a fascinating exploration.

Like the good scholars we all are, we should begin by defining terms, though I warn you now that it will be of only limited help..

We all know what “Christian” means. Or do we? Does it mean simply a person who follows Jesus in some way? Does it mean someone who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ? or anyone who has been Baptized? This is important for what follows here.

I looked up the word “secular. ” Cambridge Dictionary says “not a having any connection with religion”. Collins Dictionary: “no connection with religion”. Oxford Dictionary has a more expansive definition: “not connected with spiritual or religious matters”.

This, I think, may help to explain the debate over “Christian” and “secular”: often we’re talking past each other.

The Proportion of Christians in America

I could try to weasel my way out of thinking about the subject this way: Are Christians a majority in America? (Would 51% make us a Christian nation?)

Bruton Church, Williamsburg, VA

That, however, has not been easy to measure until fairly recent times. Accurate religious statistics from the U.S. Census don’t appear till 1945. As for before 1945, well, for example: I came across two educated estimates (guesses?) about the percent of Christians in American in the 18th century: 1 Finke and Starke say 17%;  2 The Library of Congress says 75-80%! Everyone agrees there was a Protestant revival in the early 1800s, but how many people did it really touch? Did it last? Hard to say.

We’ll look at recent stats later in this Post.

So can we approach the question in this way?

Has America seen itself as a Christian nation?

The answer is definitely Yes. I think Jews and Muslims and non-believers would agree. In fact during most of our history we saw ourselves as a Protestant country. During Colonial times, with the exception of Maryland which was largely Roman Catholic, America was entirely Protestant. Eight of the thirteen colonies had established Protestant churches, and in the others non-Protestants and even other kinds of Protestants were often made to feel uncomfortable or worse. (Maryland, by the way, was the only colony which allowed freedom of religion.)

Over the decades, religion (usually of a Protestant Christian “flavor”) has been an integral part of American society, even when churchgoing was not.

Abraham Lincoln belonged to no denomination but often went to church with his family. He knew the Holy Scriptures well and often quoted from them. On August 12, 1861 he issued this proclamation:

“I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do appoint the last Thursday in September next as a day of humiliation, prayer, and fasting for all the people of the nation. And I do earnestly recommend to all the people, and especially to all ministers and teachers of religion of all denominations and to all heads of families, to observe and keep that day according to their several creeds and modes of worship in all humility and with all religious solemnity, to the end that the united prayer of the nation may ascend to the Throne of Grace and bring down plentiful blessings upon our country.”

In 1864 “In God we trust” was added to US coinage.

As late as 1954 the phrase “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Houses of Congress have chaplains who begin their sessions with prayer  (rather nebulous prayers, in my opinion) – even though this is now illegal in our schools! (Inconsistent, eh?) To date, all of their chaplains have been Christians, but in principle they could be of other faiths.

U.S. Presidents continue to be sworn in with their right hand on a Bible, and they still almost always conclude their speeches with some form of “God bless America”.

A Protestant country, indeed! As late as 1960, the pastor of one of the largest Methodist churches in Illinois wrote an editorial for the front page of The Chicago Sun-Times: “Why I could never vote for a Catholic for president”. This was notable 1 for what he said, and 2 because it made the front page of Chicago’s second-most-read newspaper, and one with a “liberal” bent, at that. (I remember this clearly, because a number of us who were then Methodist seminarians wrote a response, which also got printed in The Sun-Times, and… I’m not going to tell you the rest of the story.)

Not many years ago Christian holidays were all over the media. I, an old-timer, often listen nostalgically to Old Time Radio. Jack Benny was a Jew, but they celebrated Christmas and sang carols (and even “Ave Maria”!) on his show.

As late as the 1960s and ’70s pop music sometimes had religious themes: “I’ll say a little prayer for you.”   “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.‘Lord, we don’t need another mountain…'” “Morning has broken…. fresh from the Word. God’s re-creation of the new day.” (If you don’t know this one, please seek it on YouTube. It’s gorgeous and theologically perfect.)

As for today’s popular music… Well, actually I can’t say. I listen but I understand few of the words.  (Probably I’m going deaf.)

However, in recent years there has definitely been a change. “God bless America” is sung at most baseball games. “Amazing Grace” (oddly enough) seems to have become a sort of national hymn for days of mourning. But it’s self-evident that on American television, cable, movies – which most people are most influenced by – religion is largely absent.  Unless I’m mistaken, the BBC in secularized Britain has more serious Christian and religious coverage than do the networks here in “religious” America.

If you have any doubt about this overall trend, just check the obituaries in the paper, and see how few people are buried out of churches these days.

America’s Founding Documents: Christian or secular?

The words “Jesus” or “Christ” are found nowhere therein. 

In The Declaration of Independence there are three references to God, and each is different. In one case Thomas Jefferson, the author, used the term “Nature’s God.” Later, he used “Creator” and last “Divine Providence.”

The United States Constitution makes no reference to God.

The Bill of Rights mentions only “religion”, making it clear that – unlike England’s established Church of England – the United States is committed to no particular religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

These documents are secular in the sense that they “have no connection with religion”, except to protect and tolerate it.

To make this even more clear, here are the words of the “1797 Treaty of Tripoli”, originated by George Washington, signed by John Adams, and then ratified unanimously by the U.S. Senate (half of which were signers of the Constitution): “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Are there any more questions?

Did America’s Founding Fathers assume America would be predominantly Christian? 

The answer: Yes, sort of. In a way. It depends on what is meant by “Christian”.  

Most of America’s Founders were at least formally Christian – “culturally Christian” as I saw it described. Three were even Roman Catholic. However, I read somewhere (already I’ve lost the reference) that, at least according to their writings, the Founders were little interested in “re-birth in Christ”, whether by evangelical “born again” experience, or by traditional “new birth” in Holy Baptism. The miraculous aspect of the Faith, including the Incarnation, was of little or no importance to them. This was not Christianity in a form we Orthodox (or Roman Catholics or evangelicals) would easily recognize.

Given that peoples’ religious opinions can change from time to time, *  it appears that most of America’s “Christian” Founders were what might be called “inconsistent Deists” – who believed there is one God who created the world but is not directly involved in human affairs – except occasionally they seemed to think He did! “Nature’s God”, as Jefferson put it.

  • *For example, in his early years Benjamin Franklin experimented with esoteric religions. Then he went through the popular Deism phase, but by the time he was old he believed in personal afterlife and a benevolent God who was active in human affairs.

The Founders were (and I hate to tell you this) liberal Protestants, religious rationalists, who, nonetheless gave us an excellent form of government … when it works, but that’s another story.

Most of the Founders were interested in Christianity because of the ethical and moral teachings found in the Scriptures – what classical Western Christians describe as “natural law”. Christianity, in that sense, was used to justify the Revolution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

“Religion played a major role in the American Revolution by offering a moral sanction for opposition to the British–an assurance to the average American that revolution was justified in the sight of God.” Library of Congress

On those grounds Roman Catholic Thomas Carroll supported the Revolution and especially the “non-establishment” of any religion, remembering the way Roman Catholics had been persecuted by the Church of England. Here’s an article which claims that “the spirit of Thomas Aquinas” was the “Spirit of ’76”!  https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2021/07/03/catholicism-and-the-american-founding/

Thomas Jefferson, to take another example, had a deep interest in religion and was well-read on the subject. He wrote “I am a Christian.” However the sort of Christianity he believed in was “primitive christianity before its perversion by church leaders seeking temporal power.” *  

On those grounds he wrote the so-called “Jefferson Bible”, editing the Gospels, removing all things miraculous! leaving our Lord Jesus as a sort of eighteenth century philosopher.

So, when it is said that America’s Founding Fathers envisioned America as a Christian country *, it would be closer to the truth to say that they wanted ethical religion, in general.

  • See, for example, an article by Dr Robert Jeffries, influential pastor of an evangelical megachurch, who seems to believe the Founders were evangelicals: https://ptv.org/donate/july-2022-america-is-a-christian-nation-by-dr-robert-jeffress/

Now let’s come at it from the other angle.

Did America’s Founders intend this to be a secular nation?

As we said, if that means not connected to any particular religion: Yes.

If that means “a nation without spiritual or religious interests”, the answer is certainly No.

As witness to that, “God or the divine is mentioned at least once in each of the 50 state constitutions and nearly 200 times overall”! (Pew Research Center)

As I wrote above, Thomas Jefferson, who was probably the least “denominational” of the Founders, was profoundly interested in religion.

John Adams, who described himself as a “fervent churchgoer” and finally wound up a Unitarian, wrote this: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

George Washington was an Anglican vestryman who attended church only occasionally and received Holy Communion very rarely, some say never. However here is what he said in his Farewell Address: “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

However, I’ve wondered: Is there a danger in using religion primarily to achieve something else? I don’t know how to answer that. Do you?

Religion in America today

America’s Founders all had been raised in a Christian society, and almost all were Protestant. They could not foresee the present state of affairs, where there are significant minorities especially of Roman Catholics, but also Jews, Muslims… and, if the statistics are right, a large number of what statisticians call “nones”, people with no religious affiliation at all.

The present solution (whether intended or not) seems to be to remove religion from public life, so no one will be offended. But that leads to a situation the Founders certainly did not intend, where religion and spiritual matters are pushed to the side, almost ignored, and genuine secularism takes over.

Can you imagine a president of the United States today issuing a proclamation for a national day of prayer, repentance and fasting?

What happens to a country founded on the principle that religion is necessary for the public good, if there is little public “practice of religion”? if there is no commonly acknowledged moral truth?

Whatever the cause, even the private practice of religion in America is declining rapidly. To give you just two statistics:

In 2007 there were about 37 million Americans with no religiouis affiliation. By 2014 the number had climbed to about 57 million. 

If present trends continue (a dangerous assumption, granted), by 2070 Christians will comprise 46% of the American population, while the religiously unaffiliated will stand at 41%. (Pew Research)

Here, you can read it for yourself, if you wish:

In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace



Was John Adams right when he wrote ““Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”?

We do seem to be becoming like Western Europe where hardly anybody goes to church anymore. On the basis of what has happened there, what might we expect to happen to our social and governmental system here? Well… maybe not much. Maybe our Founders were wrong about the need for religion.

In fact in recent decades Western Europe has been far less warlike and more democratic – not to mention healthier, and with less poverty and more smoothly running government. (Check the statistics for yourself – or just go to Western Europe!) However, Europeans have had many centuries of “ethical and moral tradition” to carry them along. Thus far.

What will happen over here if secularism takes over? America may be about to find out.


Please forgive me for going on so long.  As I said, there was so much material, and one topic led to another, and… besides, I’ve got “Bloggers’ Disease”: When I get started I find it very hard to stop.


Suggestions for further reading:

A CNN extensive study: “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”


This PBS Series “God in the White House” explores the religious practices of most of our Presidents: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/godinamerica-white-house/



Posts for the next two weeks: An aged priest will try to learn the role of women in the Church from some strong, brilliant women – Saint Olga, Saint Macrina the Elder, Saint Macrina the Younger.


3 thoughts on “407. The United States of America: Christian? Religious? Secular?

  1. Hi Father,

    That was a fun read, a bit like how a history prof of mine in college described the so-called “World History” courses as “a motorcycle ride through a museum.” Trying to answer the question you posed is much akin to Alice following the rabbit. There is so much to cover and examine that it’s not a topic one can master quickly (and I make no claims to mastery myself). I used to be pretty active in circles where I’d argue and debate political matters with others, and this matter came up frequently, with hard and bitter lines drawn on either side, without much allowance for nuance. So I delved into it (especially once I was on the path to Orthodoxy and could begin to see things through that light).

    My apologies for the length of what follows.

    My own conclusion (opinion) after several years of study on the matter is that America was not actually founded as a Christian nation, nor a secular one, but vaguely Deistic Enlightenment nation that borrows heavily from from Congregational and Baptist Protestantism, with a large (but non-dominant) leavening of Anglicanism mediated by Methodism. Which is what makes it so confusing to study. America spoke Christian-ese fluently, but was not actually Christian at heart, nor exactly in practice. I should clarify that I’m talking about the animating spirit of the overall Nation of the US, not of the hearts of individuals (again, this can confuse things).

    What drove this conclusion home was looking at a series of uniquely American oddities. For one, we have our monuments in Washington DC. I’m quite thankful the Washington Monument was never actually finished as that odd obelisk would have been but the central part of a great temple built to Washington, complete with a Zeus-like statue of him enthroned. Imagine the Lincoln memorial, but baroque and gaudy. Or look up at the Capital Dome, and see the Apotheosis of Washington. This is nakedly pagan imagery being applied to Washington in an attempt to deify him. The Lincoln Memorial is an echo of that impulse (albeit more restrained), as is the Jefferson. Mt. Rushmore too is the same impulse, but filtered through America’s flirtation with fascism (more on that below). I think a more Christian spirit would choose to memorialize our great leaders more carefully, and neither erect temples, nor associate them with deification – neither the Tsars nor the Byzantine emperors, no matter how great, were allowed such memorials, nor were the Christian kings and queens of western Europe.

    The Pledge is another oddity. Why do we pledge allegiance to a flag? America got through its first century without any such pledge. But it came about as response to the supposed disloyalties of non-Protestant immigrants, again as part of America’s early flirtations with what we would recognize today at fascism (fascism at that time being a sort of cult of the State). And it’s recited at public schools because the schools in their current form (thanks to the efforts of John Dewey and Horace Mann and others), as factory-modeled schools, were established in part to churn out “Good Americans” all inculcated with the same patriotic background (and we should not forget the anti-Catholicism inherent then).

    And then there’s America’s overt messianism, where we are taught from a young age how unenlightened the rest of the world is, and boy wouldn’t it be great form them to have governments and cultures just like us.

    At the end of this, I had to conclude that no, America was not founded as a Christian nation, but as a nation that worshiped itself, and simply wore Christian-looking clothing, and was governed by people who were often Christian. That (to me) makes America deeply religious, but also deeply confused.

    1. Skip: Thanks for a very thoughtful response. Sorry I’m late replying.

      Granted that he was a man of his time in some ways, I think George Washington was a great man. However, I’ve always thought that the apotheosis of Washington in the Capitol dome is “over the edge”: similar in its way to Western depictions of the Ascension of Christ or the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. (I’d add an image of it here, but I guess we can’t put them in the “Comment” section. They can easily be found on-line.) After I became Orthodox I looked at the Capitol Dome and said to myself “I know Who belongs up in a dome like that, and it isn’t George Washington”. Likewise, as much as I admire Abraham Lincoln, the Lincoln Memorial gives a visitor a sense of religious awe. I doubt Lincoln would have approved.

      Father Bill

      1. Agreed. I think Washington was a remarkable man (and aptly compared to Cincinnatus in many respects), but would have embarrassed at how he was later depicted.

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