Sunday, October 07, 2007

Is America a Christian nation?

I was enlightened, as it were, on this issue two different times in my life. Having grown up in a buah known as Manhattan, I did not realize until starting college in Chicago that many Americans, even some who consider themselves on the left politically, are positive that America is a Christian country. Not just majority-Christian, but Christian-Christian, as in, Christianity is our official religion. At the time, I was not so much offended as convinced that these individuals were flat-out in the wrong. What about the First Amendment? I was aware of the existence of official Christianity this country--Sunday and Christmas holidays, for example--as well as plenty of unofficial details stemming from the fact of a majority religion, but I figured all that was official was illegal, and eventually on its way out. A national Christmas holiday was nothing but a relic.

Then I read Albert Memmi's discussion of what it means for a Jew to live in a Christian country that calls itself secular. Many things that seem neutral or cultural if they are part of your own background seem all-out religious if they are not. For many non-Christians, it is as plain to see that America is Christian as that Algeria is Muslim or Israel Jewish. It would be impossible not to mention unfair for any country to rid itself of all of its 'relics,' to divide out what's religious and what's French, what's Italian, what's American. It's at best annoying to be a religious minority, which is why many consider leaving for places where their own background is the default. Even non-believers find a certain appeal in living in countries where the religion associated with their heritage is that of the majority. The sad fact seems to be that the best religious minorities can ever hope for is toleration, not true state neutrality. If there are exceptions to this, I'm curious to know.

But back to the original question. Is it dangerous or just honest for a politician to call a country that's effectively Christian, Christian? Is denying it just reinforcing the idea that all this Christianness surrounding us is in fact neutral Americana? As in, this is not a Christian nation, so come here, Ahmed and Moishe, help me decorate this tree! Or is declaring aloud what so many think in private in fact the first step to unapologetic Christian theocracy?


alex said...

It would be impossible not to mention unfair for any country to rid itself of all of its 'relics,' to divide out what's religious and what's French, what's Italian, what's American.

I don't know about unfair, but definitely not impossible - in fact, its already happening. Public displays of religious beliefs (prayer at schools, football games, etc) has vastly declined over the last few decades. See also the "war on christmas " stuff. I don't know how long this process will take, but its definitely in full bloom.

David Schraub said...

Out of curiosity, what was the work where Memmi engaged in this discussion?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I wrote my very own "war on Christmas" article my second year of college. Then as now, it seems unlikely to have much of a following. My point is that even if the obvious changes are made, there will still be things no one of the majority religion thinks about that stand out as glaring examples of religiosity to the minorities.

David Schraub,

Probably "Portrait of a Jew," but possibly its follow-up, "Liberation of the Jew," although I think he points out the problem in the former then gives the answer--Israel!--in the latter.

alex said...

One could have made a similar argument fifty years ago, around the time that school prayer was decided to be unconstitutional: even if this is changed, there will still be so many things left...

...which is true, but it doesn't change the clear direction of the trend. The christmas controversy would have been simply inconceivable only twenty years ago. Given that America has made substantial progress in separating what is religious from what is American, I don't really see why further progress along these lines is fundamentally impossible.

Scott Lemieux said...

I like this book on the general point:

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I can explain this best from the example I'm most familiar with. Let's say one is an Orthodox Jew. (I am not, but am aware of the basics of what this entails). When is the major Brooklyn farmers' market? Saturday. Most employers find nothing odd in asking you to work late on a Friday. Exceptions may be made, but these are just that, exceptions. Now, let's say you're a mainstream (i.e. non-Mennonite) Protestant, and you want Sundays off to go to church. You don't want anyone to look at you funny if you pray in English, if you wear jeans and t-shirts. You want to refer to the spring holiday as being in some way related to your religion, i.e., Easter, without people looking at you aghast, like, what is this 'Easter' you speak of?

I'm sure there are better examples, but the point remains that you can dig and dig--and perhaps should dig and dig--but you will never get to a truly neutral USA, one that feels neutral to those whose practices strike the majority as downright bizarre. And furthermore, and this also relates to Scott Lemieux's comment, there are two sides, there is a debate. The book Scott mentions is, it appears, taking one of those sides. But another side exists, and it's unclear whether one can look at a trend without looking at its possibly-far-more-powerful backlash. A relatively ineffective 'war on Christmas' can and does lead to a massive 'war FOR Christmas." I don't get any feeling that the belief that America is a Christian nation is on its way out in some general sense.

Hat said...

I think calling the United States a secular nation, even despite the evidence otherwise, at least gives non-Christians the space to argue for equal recognition of their beliefs and norms. If politicians were to abandon that rhetoric, I fear that space would quickly disappear. First Amendment or not, if people believed it were right for non-Christians to not receive equal consideration, that would be a bad thing.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


My gut reaction is to find it frightening when politicians start calling American officially Christian, and what you write re: the space for debate is probably why. Non-Christians need to hold onto the illusion that there's something secular at the root of all this, so that the America that actually exists can be as neutral as possible.

"if people believed it were right for non-Christians to not receive equal consideration, that would be a bad thing"

And yet, people *do* believe this. But I see your point--maybe the best that can be hoped for is that people who believe this do not believe that they believe it. Meaning, those who consider America thoroughly Christian should at least know to repeat, if called upon, the tenets of separation of church and state.

alex said...


Maybe the main reason why my natural impulse is to disagree with you lies in the distinction between "majority christian" and "christian, christian." I agree that America will never be a truly neutral place. But all the examples you cite flow simply out of the fact that America is a majority-christian nation. Every minority - religious, cultural, or otherwise - will always feel some difficulty insofar as their practice differs from majority practice.

To put it another way, I think the only way to make sense of the statement "America is a christian nation" is to mean christian in the sense of "majority-christian." Any other way to view this statement is either a slight restatement of what "majority-christian" means, or flat out, factually incorrect.