The debate about whether the United States of America is a Christian country is quite an old academic subject. Both atheist/secular community and the Christians have made,eloquently, convincing arguments about the same. But what is the truth?
The atheists,such as the late Christopher Hitchens have perpetually scoffed at the idea of the United States being a Christian state.They point out the complete separation of church and state enabled by the Constitution of the United States, in contrast to its European counterparts of their time where the Church held considerable sway over the government and its subjects. They also quote statements from some of the founding fathers of the United States where they dismiss religion as mere superstition and prejudice.
“I have examined all the known superstitions of the world,and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature.They are all alike founded on fables and mythology” — — Thomas Jefferson.
“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Roman Church, by the Jewish Church, by the Greek Church,by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church” — — Thomas Paine.
These above mentioned quotations do show a certain level of disdain towards religion and the sheep-like behaviour that religious people often commit to. The founding fathers were men of rationality and scientific temperament after all,with both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin being scientists.
However, closer examination of the Declaration of Independence drafted by Jefferson in 1776, does show an undeniable influence of Protestant Christianity.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,that all men are created equal,and that they are endowed by their Creator certain unalienable rights,that among these are Life,Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness ,that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men…”
The keyword here is: CREATED. Protestant Christian theology sees God as a creative agent who on the Sixth day created man in his own image.This makes man inherently divine, with a certain intrinsic value that is assigned to him irrespective of his intelligence,abilities or beliefs. This forms the basis of the idea of equality of men,as before God the Creator, all men are equal.His mere existence, as a creation of God makes him entitled to certain rights.This very emphasis on the sanctity of the individual can be seen in the nature of the state as well. The state is not considered a divine entity,unlike certain philosophies and is considered a means to certain ends,which are life,liberty and pursuit of happiness.
Let us contrast this with the German philosophy of the state. The 20th century German state is undeniably the product of Hegelian philosophy. Hegel held that all of human history is predetermined and that events don’t happen due to actions of individuals,rather they only unfold themselves. God to him isn’t a creative agent, but an Absolute Idea. When this Absolute Idea gets alienated from its true Self,it takes on the form of inorganic matter. Inorganic matter then turns to organic,then to man,then family,then civil society and finally the state. The state is therefore, the ultimate form of reason and man,when subservient to the state overcomes his alienation and understands his true Self,which is God. So,unlike Protestant Christian theology where man is complete by himself and institutes a government to serve a purpose, Hegelian philosophy holds that man is an alienated form of God and the state is a divine entity that helps him realize his true potential. This state worshipping culture created by Hegel is often considered one of the major reasons for the rise of Nazism in the 1930’s. Libertarian scholar Karl Popper makes a scathing critique of the irrationality of Hegelian thought-
“Hegel,installed from above,by the powers that be,as the certified great philosopher,was a flat headed,insipid,nauseating,illiterate charlatan who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense.This nonsense has been noisily proclaimed as immortal wisdom by mercenary followers and readily accepted by all fools.”
We examined the importance of Protestant Christianity in making of the American state. But what about the American nation? After all, a nation is far more than the laws,codes and governmental organisations. It is a large group of people who have,in the words of John Stuart Mill, “common sympathies”. If we study the works of celebrated French author and traveler, Alexis De Tocqueville, we find once again, the importance of Protestantism in the creation of an American nation. The philosophy of individualism espoused by the Protestant church encouraged the idea of volunteerism. Volunteerism enabled strong local governments, civil society organisations and even local militia that kept political power from becoming centralized and running the risk of becoming tyrannical.The result of these voluntary associations coupled with free market economics,was the creation of immense amount of social capital,wealth and prosperity. There was a culture of free expression and dialogue which included criticism of both Church and the State. In Europe,there was always tension between the State and the Catholic Church,where one was constantly trying to establish hegemony over the other. On the other hand, the Protestant church in the US always encouraged the populations to cooperate with the government and participate in the democratic processes.Peace organisations such as Quakers,a derivative of Protestant Christianity played an important role in spreading the gospel of human rights and were the vanguard in the fight against slavery.
In conclusion, we find that the United States is far from being a Christian theocratic state,having been one of the first to enable complete separation between religion and polity. However,it is undeniable that the American polity is a derivative of Protestant Christian theology. Also, Alexis De Tocqueville’s studies of the American society shows the impact of Protestantism in building a robust nation,whose beliefs in free speech,self government, volunteerism and rule of law continues to hold strong till date. To deny this would be nothing short of academic escapism.
(ii) Phenomenology of Spirit by Georg Willhelm Hegel.
(iii) Age of Reason by Thomas Paine
(iv)Democracy in America by Alexis De Tocqueville
(v) L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution by Alexis De Tocqueville