Is America a Christian or Secular Nation?

An 1885 Supreme Court decision, and a clause in the U.S. Constitution, lays out evidence of America’s basic Christianity.

(photo: Jackie Williamson/CC0/Pixabay)

It’s been quite a year for opponents of religion in the public square. Efforts to relegate God to the sanctuary are increasing as militant atheists demand “separation of church and state” – hoping to chip away at our nation’s Judeo-Christian roots, in direct opposition to the First Amendment rights of believers. In the classroom and in the public square, in the office and on the university campus, people of faith are often told to keep their religion to themselves. America, we are warned, is not a Christian nation; rather, we are a diverse population with many and varied perspectives, all of which should command equal respect.

But the Founders’ intent was not, to be sure, the elimination of any mention of religion in public life. Rather, they opposed any imposition of religion on the American people. The freedom-loving U.S. stands in sharp contrast to nations (such as Saudi Arabia) which have an “official” state religion and attempt to impose that religion on their citizens.

Supreme Court Justice David Brewer, who served on the Bench from 1889 through 1910, would have disagreed with the secularists who would seek to bleach religion from public life. In his opinion in the 1892 Supreme Court case of Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States — a case which has stood the test of time — Justice Brewer declared that the United States was “a Christian nation.”


The Alien Contract Labor Law, and the “Soft Plain Meaning” Rule

The case of Holy Trinity v. United States was filed in response to an 1885 law, the Alien Contract Labor Law. That law prohibited “the importation and migration of foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States, its territories, and the District of Columbia.” In other words, only American citizens could be employed by domestic companies.

When the Church of the Holy Trinity, an Anglican church in New York, hired a clergyman from England to serve as its pastor, it was charged with violating the Alien Contract Labor Law. The U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that the church did, indeed, err in hiring the English rector. The statute, they noted, disallowed a

“person, company, partnership, or corporation, in any manner whatsoever to prepay the transportation, or in any way assist or encourage the importation or migration, of any alien or aliens, any foreigner or foreigners, into the United States … under contract or agreement … to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States.”

However, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s verdict, finding that the Church of the Holy Trinity did not break the law when hiring their new rector. The court, in reaching their decision, used the “soft plain meaning rule” to interpret the statute. In writing the majority opinion, Justice David Josiah Brewer said,

“It is a familiar rule, that a thing may be within the letter of the statute and yet not within the statute, because not within its spirit, nor within the intention of the makers.”

The Church’s hiring of their new pastor, Brewer explained, did not intentionally impede Congress's purpose in passing the law — which was to stop the flow of cheap unskilled foreign labor to our shores. Brewer added that no legislature which represented a religious people would take action against religion. To prove his point that America is a Christian nation, Brewer cited documents such as the commission to Christopher Columbus, multiple colonial charters, state constitutions, and oaths of office. Brewer found evidence of America’s basic Christianity in the U.S. Constitution, citing the “Sundays excepted” provision in Article I, Section 7 to demonstrate the importance of religion in the United States.

In Article I, Section 7, the U.S. Constitution defines how a law shall be passed, and includes a reference to Sundays — assuming, although it’s not delineated in the text, that Congress and the president will not be working on Sundays but will, instead, be spending their time in church. “If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten days (Sundays excepted)” it reads,

“...after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law.”


“Free Exercise” Imposes Limits on Government Support for Religion

In his 1905 collection of essays titled The United States: A Christian Nation, Brewer detailed many other examples of Christian principles or messages being embedded in American history and political life. But despite the prevalence of Christian references in national and local courts and state constitutions, Brewer acknowledged that the U.S. is not a Christian nation

“ the sense that Christianity is the established religion or that the people are in any manner compelled to support it.” The First Amendment, he explained, “continues to reflect the Founders' belief that '[t]he Religion ... of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise [religion] as [conviction and conscience] dictate.”

But in what sense can America be called a Christian nation? Brewer explained in his book:

“In fact, the government as a legal organization is independent of all religions. Nevertheless, we constantly speak of this republic as a Christian Nation — in fact, as the leading Christian Nation of the world. This popular use of the term certainly has significance. It is not a mere creation of the imagination. It is not a term of derision but has substantial basis — one which justifies its use.”