Updated: Jul 21, 2022
One day during a Q&A session with Pastor Russell Hutchinson Jr., the lead pastor at the Sunlight Baptist Church, I asked him a question that I had discussed the day before in class, “in your opinion, do you believe that the United States is a Christian nation?” Pastor Russell adjusted himself in his seat and admitted that he was taken aback by the question. After pondering it for a moment, the pastor exclaimed that he believed that the United States was originally founded on Christian ideals by the pilgrims, but as a nation, we have unfortunately veered off its original path. This image of the nation’s founding is one that is very recognizable to the average American. At a young age, we are taught of the Mayflower traveling across the Atlantic to solidify the pilgrims’ commitment to religious freedom...in how they practice Christianity. We are taught of the first Thanksgiving in which the pilgrims amicably shared a lavish meal with the Native Americans and how through it all they used their commitment to freedom ushered them into ultimately developing a nation of their own - the United States of America. This narrative is largely seen as the foundation on which the nation’s founding was built on. And admittedly, this origin story pairs nicely with proponents of the implicit Christianity of America. Proponents such as former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session, who in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in regards to the Religious Liberty Protection Act, established that “the wall of separation [of religion] is not constitutional or historical” (Sessions). In 1998, Senator Jeff Sessions began his remarks by establishing that “the government can't violate a church doctrine without a compelling interest, a real interest, because we have a real respect for religion. That was what this Nation was founded on, it seems to me” (Sessions). He later coins this idea as “the American way” and points out how evangelism is a historical feature of America. There is no question that Christianity was devoutly present even amongst the first settlers. Yet as the Mayflower traveled across the Pacific to establish the Plymouth colony, there were more ships at the same time carrying hordes of slaves not looking to escape laws of religious practice but rather to escape laws primogeniture. In this piece, I hope to broaden this widely understood foundation of the United States, taking interest in the composition of the first settlers as a representative framework for the country's founding ideals and ultimately make the point that the United States is not a Christian nation by definition, but rather, it has adopted a Christian culture in a way that emboldens the capitalist underpinnings to which the country was founded upon.
Situating the argument within English colonization, the first English colony was founded in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608, 12 years before the pilgrims ever made it to the shores of the Americas. The Jamestown mission was clear, to continue the European effort to increase wealth and influence through colonization, and specifically to gain a return on investment for the Virginia Company who funded the settlement. In this way, by the time the pilgrims landed in what will become the United States, the land was very much more capitalist than it was Christian. This trend of capitalist expansion became the backbone of the first thirteen colonies and was further solidified by the incorporation of slavery in 1619. As time progressed, slaves became seen as the modern labor population in which the colonial economy was raised, and here is where Christianity is interestingly invoked as a way to proliferate capitalism. As shown through the work of the 1619 Project by Mary Elliot and Jazmine Hughes, “The slave trade provided political power, social standing and wealth for the church, European nation-states, New World colonies and individuals” (1619 Project). Here we see that the slave trade became the engine that allowed for American industry to thrive, and thus created a revolving door system. A system where slavery allowed for wealth and wealth supported the church and the church supported slavery. Not only was the proliferation of economic profit seen as a way to create standing within the church, but the church was also used to proliferate economic profit. As Kimberly Sambal-Tosco writes, “Protestant Evangelicalism, emphasizing individual freedom and direct communication with God, brought about the first large-scale conversion of enslaved men and women...Whereas an earlier generation of evangelical preachers had opposed slavery in the South during the early nineteenth century, Protestant clergymen began to defend the institution” (Sambal Tosco). From this, we see that the United States was founded on being a nation of Christian indoctrination. Christianity used as a funnel to support the economic institutions that solidify the country's standings. It is no surprise that this practice remains today as a political function.
Therefore when a politician like Jeff Session, invokes the use of Christianity as a way to establish “the American way”, in some ways he is correct. Although it is debatable what it even means to be a “Christian nation” it is true that even amongst the first settlers of the country, that Christianity has always been invoked as a way to usher in political and economic goals.
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Sambol-Tosco, Kimberly. “Slavery and the Making of America. The Slave Experience: Religion: PBS.” Slavery and the Making of America. The Slave Experience: Religion | PBS, 2004, www.thirteen.org/wnet/slavery/experience/religion/history2.html.
Sessions, Jeff. “HEARING BEFORE THE COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY UNITED STATES SENATE ONE HUNDRED FIFTH CONGRESS SECOND SESSION ON S. 2148 A BILL TO PROTECT RELIGIOUS LIBERTY.” Statement of Hon. Jeff Sessions, A U.S. Senator from the State of Alabama, U.S. Department of Justice, 1998, www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/jmd/legacy/2013/12/07/hear-j-105-110-1998.pdf.
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