Was America Ever a Christian Nation?
Scholars, pastors, and pundits have vigorously debated this issue for decades, if not longer. The discussion has taken on several academic and popular iterations, contextualized by the rise of the “Moral Majority” in the 1980s or current views about “Christian Nationalism.” Assessing our country’s relationship to Christianity tends to focus on one or both of two spheres. One seeks to understand the religious views and practices of the American people. The other evaluates what place Christianity occupies within our political principles and institutions as seen through our governing documents, laws, and officeholders.
Both lenses matter and, while separable, mutually influence each other. Our political structure as a republic means that the views and practices of our people should have a significant impact on the actions taken by our government. The political principles, institutions, and procedures under which we live also form a part of our education as human beings and citizens, affecting how “We, the People” then exercise power. Christianity’s place in both the American character and her institutions matters greatly in our self-understanding and, consequently, how we should view the role of the Church in the current social and political context.
One thoughtful but neglected discussion of Christianity’s place in our regime came from a man named John Henry Hopkins. Hopkins was the bishop of the Diocese of Vermont in the Protestant Episcopal Church from 1832 until his death in 1868. From 1865 until his passing, he also served as the eighth presiding bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church. In 1857, he published a book entitled, The American Citizen: His Rights and Duties According to the Spirit of the Constitution of the United States.1 Hopkins composed this work in part to respond to the developing crisis in the country that would lead to the Civil War. He wrote about how to maintain peace between the hardening factions on questions about the nature of the American Union and on the issue of slavery.2
But before focusing on those then-pressing issues, Hopkins first made an argument for the Christian character of the Constitution. We will examine that argument in the following essay. In so doing, we will focus on describing his case rather than assessing it. Such assessment can take place only after retrieval. But Hopkins’ argument is worthy of retrieval, not just as a historical artifact but as a serious discussion of perpetual political issues within America and in politics more generally. Hopkins grounded the Constitution’s Christian character in its oath requirements, seeing in them a commitment to the Faith as an obligatory ground for our political community. Moreover, Hopkins thought religion essential for the health of any polity, including America. Finally, Hopkins articulated a form of religious liberty consistent with the preceding points, one generous to Christians and to Jews but less permissive of other religions. Together, Hopkins provides a helpful perspective to consider in our contemporary discussion of the interplay of a robust public faith and the extent of religious freedom.
The Constitution’s Christian Character: Oaths
Hopkins noted in his opening chapter that the Constitution contained no “distinct averment on the subject” and thus many doubted “whether, in our national character, we stand pledged to Christianity, by any legal obligations.”3 Hopkins countered that America was legally pledged to Christianity and that a true textual basis existed for so saying. This ground Hopkins saw in the oaths required by the Constitution of officeholders.
Article II required that, in taking office, the President must say, “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” In similar fashion, Article VI said that members of the legislative and executive branches both of the national and state governments, “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution.”4
One might pause at Hopkins’ textual choice to make his claim. Those clauses make no explicit reference to a god, much less to Christianity in particular. Hopkins, understanding this potential objection, spent considerable time developing his claim. His point depended not on what the officeholder swears or affirms but in the very fact that the officer takes an oath.
First, Hopkins argued that all oaths are religious in character. He quoted Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Laws of England to define an oath as “an affirmation or denial, before one or more persons who have authority to administer the same, CALLING GOD TO WITNESS that the testimony is true: therefore it is termed sacramentum, a holy band or tie.”5 The oath taker bound himself, not just to other humans, but to God himself. To call God to witness, then, required an underlying affirmation that God exists. It meant moreover that this God had a certain character and exercised a certain kind of governance over the world. In particular, prescribing the oath showed that the American political community saw God as “an almighty and unerring Judge, who will not fail to bring us before His supreme tribunal.”6 Binding government officials by oath to God manifested America’s commitment to these truths. Through our Constitution, we wished to show that officeholders were subject not only to popular will but to God Himself. In addition, the community, in requiring the oath, demanded the same belief from essentially all of its leaders; for the oath requirement extended to officeholders in every governmental institution, legislative, executive, and judicial, both on the state and national levels. Hopkins pointed out, then, that, “there can be no office undertaken, and no justice administered, under the Constitution of the United States, without the implied profession of religious faith.”7 All governmental action in making law, enforcing it, and adjudicating disputes regarding it can only be undertaken by persons who had made an oath to God to faithfully do their duty. It thereby would establish a potent internal check on evil and illegal behavior in the conscience of the official, one beyond general moral scruples or external threats of losing an election, being criminally charged, or impeached.
Hopkins thought the preceding established the religious nature of Constitutional oaths generally. He next argued these oaths assumed the Christian religion in particular, namely “the God of the Bible.”8 Hopkins gave three reasons to support this claim. First, he appealed to the beliefs of the American people at the time of the Constitution’s composition and ratification. This point mattered greatly for Hopkins. He noted from the start of his work that “the people” of the United States comprised the “sovereign power,” meaning they were the ultimate political authority, humanly speaking. The people, in this sovereign capacity, then “established” the Constitution as “the supreme law of the land.”9 Consequently, “every officer holds his authority, directly or indirectly, by the will of the people, under the Constitution.”10 What was the religious character of this original sovereign? Hopkins thought no one could doubt the answer. “Our people,” he stated, “are universally acknowledged as a Christian people,” both at the time of his writing and at the time of the Founding.11 If such was the people’s character in 1789 and since that time, then how could their constitution intend any kind of religious oath other than a Christian one? For, “no other [religion] would have been accordant with their principles, their feelings, or their accustomed modes of action.”12 To think otherwise would rip the Constitution’s text from its clear context, making for poor reading of our nation’s governing document.
Second, Hopkins pointed to the fact that the Constitution, in the Sixth and Seventh Amendments, adopted the English common law as a standard for judicial action.13 That common law, Hopkins continued, “is inseparably connected with the Christian faith.”14 Hopkins drew on William Blackstone, the famous English jurist, whose Commentaries on the Laws of England formed the basis for American legal training from its publication in the 1760s into the 20th century. Blackstone wrote that “CHRISTIANITY IS PART OF THE LAWS OF ENGLAND.”15 English common law developed from and in conformity with the dictates of Biblical religion. This point solidified for Hopkins the claim that the U.S. Constitution had not just a religious but a Christian foundation. When officeholders took their prescribed oaths, they not only vowed to God. The content of what they vowed to uphold, namely the Constitution, itself was based in Christianity.
Third and finally, Hopkins addressed the Christianity of the Constitution’s framers. Hopkins went through the statements and biographies of several Founders, arguing that they all professed belief in God and many were part of local churches. But he knew this point to be his weakest one. He wrote that he would, “admit, with sorrow, that the great leaders amongst our revolutionary patriots were not professors of Christianity in the full and complete form which was required by a just sense of religious duty.” Still, he did not think the unorthodox or even privately expressed heretical views of certain Founders did real damage to his argument. For one, he continued, “I utterly deny that they were not professors of [Christianity] in any form at all.”16 Persons need not hold a perfect understanding of Christian doctrine for their Constitutional oath to be a Christian one. Moreover, in instances like Thomas Jefferson, Hopkins argued that, whatever their alleged private views, such men made no public profession that did not affirm Christianity. Moreover, those private, unorthodox views could not determine the public meaning of the Constitution anyway, including its oaths. The oaths taken were, by definition of the term, “a religious obligation” and “Every man who takes it professes his belief in the great truths of religion by the very act.”17 Hopkins said the fact that some Founders may have held contrary private views, despite swearing a Christian oath, spoke to their own character, not to the Constitution’s public meaning.
Christianity as Public Necessity
Hopkins thought that grounding all officeholding and thus all government action in Christian oaths affirmed an essential truth about human politics, American or any other. Hopkins described the art of politics as “the noblest and most extensive of all human sciences, because it embraces the whole scope of government, law, and moral action.”18 Hopkins saw politics as starting with morality. Citing Aristotle, Hopkins declared that “the true basis of politics, considered as a science, is morality.”19 One must know the nature of virtue, of right living, to understand the proper purposes and proceedings of politics. Only from that moral basis could one create proper laws and administer good government. However, Hopkins continued that morality did not self-generate. Instead, “the true basis of morality is religion,”20 a point which he found seconded not just by philosophy but by American statesmen and laws.21 From religion the truest and best understandings of virtue, of the good, sprang. From those understandings, the purest morality was known. And by that morality could one establish the best laws and government. In prescribing Christian oaths, the U.S. Constitution recognized its own ultimate foundation and sought to keep government actions—legislative, executive, and judicial—in conformity with that foundation.
Hopkins’ argument for the Constitution’s Christian character carried with it important ramifications for the role of religion in public life. Citizens and officeholders must protect and cultivate Christianity, not just because it was true, but to maintain the polity itself. Hopkins gave banning blasphemy as one example. Using Blackstone, Hopkins defined blasphemy as including, “denying [God’s] being or providence, or by contumelious reproaches of our Saviour Christ, as well as all profane scoffing at the holy Scripture, or exposing it to contempt and ridicule.”22 He of course thought blasphemy inherently wrong because of Christianity’s objective truthfulness. But he also believed such blasphemy held critical, destabilizing political implications. To reject or belittle Christianity undermined the very foundation of politics. For, Hopkins claimed, “absolutely every blessing of the present life depends on the religious principle,”23 including the goods of a functioning society and a good government.
The result of scuttling this foundation, Hopkins reasoned, would be “anarchy, and bloody violence, and utter destruction of all the rights of man in honor, liberty, property, or even life.”24 Here, Hopkins held a low view of human nature left to itself. He returned regularly to man’s lack of self-control, especially when exercising extensive power. Man would do what was right in his own eyes and that right would combine selfishness and viciousness into a cesspool of evil. Lest this picture seem sensationalized, Hopkins pointed to the French Revolution as the example, showcasing in detail the horror that ultimately awaited a nation that rejects a religious foundation for its principles and practices.25
Yet Hopkins did not think America needed to descend to Paris in the early 1790s to reap bad consequences of insufficient religiosity. Many ills awaited the polity that merely goes lax on these matters. Doing so deforms the people’s character. They would withhold human praise to God for the blessings He gives, attributing them instead to mere human achievement. The people, too, would sever the connection between private character and public honor, opening the door to the worst of persons gaining power by promising indulgence of vice, not cultivation of virtue. Along these lines, the people might succumb to the temptation of all popular governments to turn their own will into “the only voice of God,” making human majorities the definers of justice rather than subjecting all human actors to God’s commands.26 These deformities then would overwhelm the country’s institutions and laws. Here, Hopkins returned to the role of oaths. So much of human society depended on keeping faith with others. What of witnesses and jurors in courts of law?27 What of contracts between private parties? In light of these points, Hopkins went so far as to say that “Even the most corrupt religion is better than none.”28 One likely would keep an oath based in some moral code to a false god more than to no god at all.
In addition, Hopkins argued that the Constitution’s oaths required that only professing Christians could hold public office. The Constitution’s oaths made it so that “ no man could take the oath of office in its true Constitutional sense, unless he were a believer in the essential truths of the Christian religion, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and thus all infidels would be excluded.”29 If the oath-taker did not believe these points, then he lied. If he lied, then his oath and thereby his right to his office, it seems, was void. Hopkins thought this not only true but wise for the same reasons that blasphemy should not be tolerated. The degenerating character of the people could play out in similar fashion with officeholders. Again, Hopkins thought the private character of a leader inextricable from his public fidelity to justice, to the law, and to the good. On this point, the very foundations of the Constitution and of all politics must be upheld by officeholders. A Christian oath did much to guard that necessity.
In making these points, Hopkins did articulate a form of religious liberty. This religious liberty involved deep protection both for faith and for practice. But, for Hopkins, that freedom only extended to Christians. By Christians, he cast a wide net. He wrote that each citizen had the right to “the enjoyment of his own conscientious choice, amongst all the forms of our common Christianity which were in existence at the time when the Constitution was established.”30 These forms included not only Protestant sects but Roman Catholicism as well.31 Based on practice at the Founding, he also believed this free choice extended to Judaism, though adherents to that faith still would be barred from holding office due to the particulars of the oath requirement. All other faiths, including Hinduism, Islam, and Mormonism, as well as the atheist, did not have religious liberty.
Hopkins defended this view when responding to objections grounded in other Constitutional clauses. Two other portions of the Constitution might push against his reading of the oath requirement. First, the prohibition found in Article VI against religious tests “as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Second, Hopkins noted the First Amendment and its prohibitions on establishing a religion or infringing on its free exercise.32
Hopkins argued that these clauses must be read as consistent with the oath requirements he had discussed earlier in the work. To say otherwise was a bad interpretation because it would pit portions of the same legal document, meant to be read in harmony, against each other. Hopkins thought he could maintain the Constitution’s Christian character consistent with these other provisions.
He again turned to English precedent to make this point. Hopkins thought all three—the ban on religious tests, on a national establishment, and on infringing free exercise of religion—reacted to English practice. First, consider the ban on religious tests. At the time of the Founding, England had in place what many called “test laws.” Those parliamentary statutes created religious requirements for officeholding. So, Hopkins had argued, did the Constitution’s oaths. But England’s test laws had gone much further. They had constructed these tests so as to limit public service only to those in the Church of England, excluding both Protestant dissenters and Roman Catholics. Though the latter two groups had religious toleration, they did not possess freedom of political participation on account of their faith. Hopkins then noted that many persons who emigrated from England to the colonies did so as religious dissenters in search of political freedom for their own Christian beliefs and practices. They never forgot those limitations from England. He then argued that the ban on religious tests referred to those sect-specific limitations put in place by Parliament. Thus, this Constitutional clause did not ban faith as a requirement for public office. Instead, the ban on religious tests meant no law could exclude any kind of Christian from full political participation.
This purpose also carried over into the First Amendment. England had and has a nationally established church that comprises but one strand of broader Christendom. Similar to religious oaths, Hopkins read the Constitution as banning one Christian denomination from holding a special legal status at the national level. For him, as history had shown, states even could have their own establishments and not violate this Constitutional provision. Moreover, the Free Exercise Clause was added to the Establishment Clause, not only prohibiting special favor among Christians but banning legal impairments as well. Hopkins explained this reading of the Free Exercise Clause as entailing that Congress could enact “no restriction to discourage the free exercise of every known and admitted variety of the Gospel system.”33
Hopkins thought no other faiths (or non-faiths) need or even should be tolerated to practice publicly because they would undermine the very foundations of the body politic. He worried about maintaining the system of morality needed for the people to maintain their self-governing character or the government to hold on to its just principles if the country suffered from open, “invasions of reckless infidelity, of revolting heathenism, and of every foul and disgusting innovation.”34 These limitations included Mormonism, which Hopkins declared clearly outside the bounds of Christianity.
Bishop Hopkins’s work, though well-read at its publication, did not retain an inter-generational readership. One reason was the failure of its immediate project. The Civil War did come, despite the efforts of men like himself. Another reason resulted from the social and political repudiation of some of his views. His attempt to formulate a compromise on slavery did not satisfy the country at the time and certainly does not align with the understanding of human equality and liberty in the post-Civil War era. In addition, his view of the Constitution’s Christian character has fallen out of favor, too overtly religious in demands and too limited in religious freedom for today.
These critiques require serious engagement, especially regarding slavery and religious liberty. That is beyond the scope of this essay, which sought to describe Hopkins’ viewpoint in order to bring it back into public discussion. Once retrieved, Hopkins remains useful, though certainly not definitive, for our own conversations. Hopkins’ book forces us to address perpetual political questions that neither we nor any other political community can avoid. First, we must consider our understanding concerning the roots of morality and law. Can any source other than God provide the universal and perpetual grounding for just and good government? Second, we must confront how the answer to that question relates to matters of individual rights, including religious liberty. With new spiritualities multiplying, the definition of religion and the limits of religious liberty have become a more difficult issue to parse today. We must consider these matters, finally, in light of our own history and in light of the particular claims of the Christian faith. Hopkins’ reading of the Constitution’s oaths in particular is a thoughtful one not easily refuted, one that demands we consider just how religious a people we are. Our answers might not, will not all be his own. But we must engage beyond our own time frame. We just might find uncommon wisdom to address our troubled times, a usable past that prepares a better political future.
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