USA Today: Most think founders wanted Christian USA

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Most Americans believe the nation's founders wrote Christianity into the Constitution, and people are less likely to say freedom to worship covers religious groups they consider extreme, a poll out today finds.

The survey measuring attitudes toward freedom of religion, speech and the press found that 55% believe erroneously that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation. In the survey, which is conducted annually by the First Amendment Center, a non-partisan educational group, three out of four people who identify themselves as evangelical or Republican believe that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation. About half of Democrats and independents do.

Most respondents, 58%, say teachers in public schools should be allowed to lead prayers. That is an increase from 2005, when 52% supported teacher-led prayer in public schools.

More people, 43%, say public schools should be allowed to put on Nativity re-enactments with Christian music than in 2005, when 36% did.

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Filed under: * Culture-WatchReligion & Culture

Posted September 12, 2007 at 7:44 am

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1. Bob from Boone wrote:

I agree with the analyst’s comment that the results of the poll are a reflection of a real decline in teaching about our Constution and its contents. It also reflects the constant drumbeat of conservative Christian groups, organizations, writers and pastors that America was founded as a “Christian nation.” These factors are also compounded by the fact that the vast majority of Americans are unaware that the “free exercise” clause allows many opportunities for religious expression by students and that teachers may teach the history of Christianity, the Bible as literature, and the basic beliefs of all religions when done in a neutral fashion.

September 12, 9:00 am | [comment link]
2. Andrew717 wrote:

It isn’t terribly surpising.  Broad stretches of the populace know little or nothing about the Constitution, and think it means whatever they want it to mean.  I’ve read editorials from law professors citing the Declaration of Independence as part of the Constitution (a right to the pursuit of happiness, as I remember).

September 12, 9:13 am | [comment link]
3. Rick Killough wrote:

The question is backwards.

I believe the Founders presumed a Christian nation when they drafted and ratified the Constitution.  They did not make the government or the Constitution ‘Christian,’ which it could not truly be anyhow.
So perhaps the people’s instinct is vaguely in the right place, even if the reasoning isn’t quite on the spot.

September 12, 9:59 am | [comment link]
4. John B. Chilton wrote:

Whether the intent was there or not, freedom of religion created a competitive environment unlike the monopoly church franchises of Europe. The US is more religious as a result of that difference in institutions. I bet some of the deist authors of the Constitution/Bill of Rights would be appalled at the outcome.

I blog at: New Virginia Church Man, Emirates Economist

September 12, 10:09 am | [comment link]
5. Rick Killough wrote:

How do you explain religious Poland or Ireland, for example, where there was virtual monopoly in religious matters?
Moreover, since the break in 1775, how monopolistic were countries like England, Germany, Scandinavia, or Switzerland in terms of prohibiting other kinds of religious expression?
My gut feeling is that the competition is not what gave the US its comparative religiousity.  Instead, I think different gods (primarily, different versions of the state, race, or class) were set up in Europe to take the place of religion.

September 12, 10:39 am | [comment link]
6. John B. Chilton wrote:

Poland and Ireland are unique. In each case, the church played an important political role in opposition to the government or outside forces. In other countries the state church was co-opted and lived off the support of the state. They became “here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and where’s all the people?”

Regarding “moreover” my conjecture would be that religious freedom and religious freedom were slow to evolve in those countries but must confess I’m NOT a student of history.

I did not entirely follow your last point.

On another point, people forget how low religiousity at the time of the founding of the country. I doubt that institutionalizing Christianity into the Constitution would have led to a Great Awakening or the Burned Over district. Nor did the formerly state churches in colonies (Anglican in Virginia, Congregationalists in Mass., etc.) have anything to do the spread of Christianity into the hinterlands.

I blog at: New Virginia Church Man, Emirates Economist

September 12, 11:04 am | [comment link]
7. Franz wrote:

Well, the First Great Awakening did occur during the colonial period.  And, even in the time of the Second Great Awakening, there were at least vestiges of Establishment in at least some states (remember, it was not clear that the Bill of Rights applied to the States until after the Civil War Amendments).  In any event, it is an anachronism to read back to the 18th and 19th century to strict separation doctrines that have developed since the middle of the 20th century.
The fact is, even absent established churches, there was a far greater acceptance of a general, non-denominational (but implicitly Christian) practice and world view in public (including governmental) settings.  For example, the sessions of the Constitutional Convention opened with prayer, Congress has had a chaplain since the beginning, prayers at public events, i.e. Independence Day celebrations would have taken place without comment, and as a matter of course. 
This was, of course, possible in part because the country was culturally and practically Christian, even if there was no established church.  Even if one believes that the developments in the law over the past half-century or so are a good thing, it would be hard to defend the notion that the recent insistence on a “naked public square” is not a change from what went before.

September 12, 11:26 am | [comment link]
8. Rick Killough wrote:

John, apologies, my point was that I attribute the decline in religiousity in parts of Europe not to a lack of religious competition, but to the introduction of other idealogies (nationalism, socialism, marxism, fascism, naturalism) that effectively took the place of the Christian religion.  America lacked the fedual past and the large, urban dwelling class that was particularly susceptible to these new ideas.

I would also note that Europe was not exactly ‘areligious’ even up to the time of the Second World War, despite having established churches.  We in America have a tendency to see religion expressed our way, in the camp meeting and public professions of rebirth, etc., whereas patterns of being Christian may be quieter and more hidden in Europe.
So I don’t think we can say, for example, had there been no Revolution, and established churches remained in North America, the American people would have been less religious—only differently religious.

September 12, 11:55 am | [comment link]
9. William Tighe wrote:

State “religious establishments” long outlived both 1776 and 1787.  The Massachusetts Congregationalist “standing order” was disestabished only in 1832, and then only because of 25+ years of squabbling and court cases between rival Unitarian and Trinitarian factions within it.  The Congregationalist establishments of Connecticut and New Hampshire were disestablished in 1818 and 1819, respectively.  (I do not know when Anglicanism was disestablished in Georgia or South Carolina, nor when the peculiar “local option” religious establishments came to an end in New Jersey and New York.)

Based on this, and the complete lack of any attempt to challenge the constitutionality of these “religious establishments” while they existed, I agree with those commentators who have remarked on “popular ignorance” of the meaning of the Constitution.  However, in this case, such “ignorance” about the First Amendment results as much from deceptive arguments and wanton court decisions that have obscured the fact that the word “respecting” in the phrase “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ...” meant originally that Congress (nor, a fortiori, the federal courts) could not in any way interfere with, let alone prohibit any “establishment of religion” where such “establishment” existed or was desired.

September 12, 12:22 pm | [comment link]
10. Rick Killough wrote:

Mr. Tighe,
Exactly—the Incorporation Doctrine, a falacious one, allegedly incorporates the Bill of Rights into a prohibition of state actions in teh same way the amendments prohibit certain federal actions.  The Bill of Rights was never intended to do this, obviously.  Thus the Founders, who left open establishment of religion on the state level (where, indeed, almost all police and welfare powers were to rest), are thwarted in their original design.

September 12, 12:38 pm | [comment link]
11. justinmartyr wrote:

“Moreover, since the break in 1775, how monopolistic were countries like England, Germany, Scandinavia, or Switzerland in terms of prohibiting other kinds of religious expression? “

I can’t speak for Scandinavia or Switzerland, but England (Anglican), Germany (Lutheran), and much of Europe have for centuries had state-sponsored churches. A short stay in either of these countries makes it abundantly clear that state theft used to finance church is not the way toward church vitality and growth.

September 12, 1:55 pm | [comment link]
12. john_nelson wrote:

I agree with Rick in #3.  The founders were heavily influenced by Locke.  Without the assumption of a Christian basis, the Constitution is like leaves and branches of a tree without a trunk and roots.

September 12, 5:08 pm | [comment link]
13. Jim the Puritan wrote:

The Founders, more correctly the “Framers” (of the Constitution) assumed the United States was a Christian nation.  The only prohibition in the Constitution is that the national government would not create an established national church or dictate to the States or the people specific religious beliefs.  Such matters were left to the States and the people.

You will find nothing in the Constitution stating otherwise. There is nothing about “separation of church and state” in the Constitution.  Indeed, at the time of its ratification, several states had their own established churches.

The notions governing the extension of the words in the First Amendment to all State and local actions are purely judicial constructions, based on judges’ interpretations not of the original Constitution and Bill of Rights but of the 14th Amendment (ratified in 1868, almost a century later).  The 14th Amendment was supposed to address correcting the effects of slavery and the Civil War.  There is nothing in there about religion.  But it has been so construed by the courts to prohibit any sort of state or local government involvement in religious matters in the public square, as well as in the schools.

These decisions only began to arise in the mid-20th century.  Prior to that, there was no concept that there was anything wrong or unconstitutional about such things as prayer in schools or mention or encouragement of religion in state and local government.  Indeed, there is still a public school building in my hometown where, although they have attempted to sandblast the letters away, you can still read faintly on the side “Christian Education.”

The fear that the Framers were concerned about was that the national government of the United States would establish an official state religion like the Church of England, and prescribe religious tests for holding office (also expressly prohibited, see Article VI) and other matters.  It did not go further than that.

September 12, 5:11 pm | [comment link]
14. Wilfred wrote:

I followed through the links, & finally got to the actual questions the original poll asked.  #13 Jim is right; the pollsters could have been more clear about “founders” or “framers”. 

This question asked whether “The nation’s founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation.”  In the public’s mind, our nation’s founders include people like the Puritan colonists, who certainly were trying to form a Christian society here, even though they first arrived some 150 years before anyone thought about “the United States”.

Actually, it is the ignorance of our Constitution on the part of our own judges than concerns me, more than the public’s answers to this poll.  Specifically, the judges who “discover” all sorts of bizarre new “rights” in the Constitution, that somehow remained hidden from the view of everyone (including the Authors) until these geniuses “discovered” them.

September 12, 10:52 pm | [comment link]
15. Jim the Puritan wrote:

#14 Wilfrid:  I think you have put your finger on the flaw of the survey.  If you asked me that question, I would also have assumed that by “founder” you meant the Pilgrims and Puritans, as well as other religious groups that came to America in the early colonial period.  Perhaps it could also have meant those who supported separation from Britain—remember that some in London referred to the American Revolution as the “Presbyterian Revolt,” because of the predominance of members of that denomination (with its notions of egalitarian democratic government) among those advocating independence (although I see the Episcopal Church is now trying to claim credit for that as well).

September 12, 11:26 pm | [comment link]
16. azusa wrote:

# 9, 12, 14 etc are right. American schools throughout the 19th century regularly included prayer and reading the Bible and it never occurred to anyone that this was unconstitutional. Congress only enacted national laws, and on the face of it, the meaning of the amendment is that there would be no nationally established church nor any interference in religious practice; what states did was their business. It’s a VERY long stretch from that to banning prayer in school or religious monuments on state land, or singing Christmas carols. I suspect it was the growth in the number of Jews, many of them secular minded, and increasing Christian diversity, that pushed this issue to the fore.
The expression ‘separation of church and state’ only dates from about 1945. If the Constitution was supposed to be strictly secular, then all references to God (which are in the Constitution!) in state documents (and money) must be scrapped, and congressional and military chaplaincies would have to be outlawed.

September 13, 4:13 am | [comment link]
17. libraryjim wrote:

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
- John Adams (Federer, p. 10)

Just a thought.

“The world is a dangerous place to live — not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”—Albert Einstein

September 13, 6:40 pm | [comment link]

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