| Thesis: Religion is a private matter in the United States, a country where all religions are tolerated and none are officially recognized by the government.
Summary: The author argues that religion is a matter of private concern in the US and that any one belief cannot influence politics or government because the country allows freedom for all religions. Based on this definition, it is asserted that it is inappropriate to label the US as a "Christian nation." The origin of term is explained as dating back to the Roman Emperor Constantine (272-337), and an exploration of the broader history of conflict over church and state is presented.
The notion of "a Christian nation"--favored by some conservative political and religious figures in 21st century America--can be traced back to the Roman Emperor Constantine (272-337) who, by tradition, converted to Christianity on his deathbed. Subsequently Christians went from being an often persecuted minority in the Roman Empire to followers of the same faith as the emperor. Another key moment was on Christmas Day 800, when Roman Catholic Pope Leo III placed a crown on the head of Charlemagne, king of the Franks, and declared him to be successor to the emperors of Rome. (Charlemagne, who later became known as the Holy Roman Emperor, at the time ruled over what later became France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, about half of Italy and Germany, and parts of Austria and Spain.) The pope had mixed motives in 800. By crowning Charlemagne, he gave the church's blessing to political reality while subtly claiming a share of Charlemagne's power--in effect proclaiming that legitimacy of political power came from God whom the pope represented on earth (remembering that at the time there was only one Christian church in Western Europe, namely the Roman Catholic Church).
These two events symbolize the long history of conflict and cooperation between European rulers who achieved power through military power and religious leaders who maintained that the power of God supersedes that of politicians. Competition for political power along such lines has continued ever since--with religious leaders insisting the political power has divine origins and is thus subject to the interpretation of divine will by religious figures. At the same time, the involvement of religious figures with politics often proved highly useful for monarchs in claiming the "divine right of kings," a right that could not be challenged by mere human beings, such as rivals armed with swords but not with God's mandate to rule.
The Enlightenment and the End of Divine Rights
Starting in 1519, the monopoly on religious authority in Western Europe that had been exercised by the Roman Catholic Church was challenged by Martin Luther. His "95 Theses" posted on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, challenged the legitimacy of certain practices of the church and, by extension, the exclusive right of the pope to rule on church doctrine. In an 1821 letter, James Madison, one of the American Founding Fathers, wrote that Luther "led the way" in cementing the separation between church and state. The Reformation of the 16th century evolved into the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, during which a range of scientists and political thinkers challenged many widely held assumptions and beliefs. If the pope was not the only person able to interpret the teachings of Jesus, and by extension, of God, then did it not follow that the political decisions of monarchs also were subject to challenge? From this sequence of thoughts evolved the idea of democracy as stated by English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Locke's underlying idea was incorporated by Thomas Jefferson into the US Declaration of Independence in the words: "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.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...." (emphasis added).
In that short phrase--"deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed"--Jefferson simultaneously laid the basis of the future government of the independent United States and refuted the idea that the power of government stemmed from God as interpreted by religious figures.
England had long had an official religion--Roman Catholicism up to the reign of King Henry VIII (1491-1547), then the Church of England (whose head was the English monarch, as proclaimed by Henry VIII). Although England tolerated (to varying degrees) the practice of other religions, everyone was (and still is) obligated to pay taxes to support the official church.
The government of the United States, established by the Constitution of 1789, by contrast explicitly declared in the First Amendment to the Constitution that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." This fundamental aspect of American law stemmed directly from the long-standing debate over the role of religion in government. It was a statement that said, in effect, the power of government stems from the will of the people wholly independent of any religious figure, church, or set of beliefs. And just as the government is banned from making a law establishing one religion as the official faith, so too no laws may prevent anyone from practicing the religion of their choice--or no religion at all.
The notion that the United States is a "Christian nation" has no more legal force than the statement that the United States is a nation of creatures who walk on two legs. Christianity may or may not reflect the voluntary choice of a majority of people, but preferences in religion have no bearing on the laws of the United States. Any statement that "the United States is a Christian nation" runs contrary to the long history of America as a nation whose government is based on the will of the people.