Concept of ‘‘Christian Nation’’ in American Jurisprudence

For much of American history, the U.S. Supreme Court and various state courts have characterized the United States as a ‘‘Christian nation.’’ In recent years, however, courts have generally stopped making such references, and some justices and judges have expressly sought to distance themselves from these earlier proclamations.

During the nineteenth century, the Supreme Court issued several opinions in which it referred to the United States as a Christian nation. In Vidal v. Girard’s Executors (1844), for example, a case involving a challenge to a will on the grounds that it devised property for a purpose ‘‘hostile to the Christian religion,’’ the Court rejected the will challenge but did characterize the United States as a ‘‘Christian country.’’ Similarly, in two slave trade cases, the Court characterized the United States as one of the ‘‘Christian nations’’ of the world: The Antelope (1825); The Kate (1864). Confronted with the question of the scope of American consulate jurisdiction, the Court in a few cases resolved the issue by distinguishing between the ‘‘Christian countries’’ and non-Christian countries of the world: In re Ross (1891); Dainese v. Hale (1875). Similarly, the Court repeatedly legitimated broad Congressional control over the property rights of Indian tribes, noting that Congress would be constrained by ‘‘such considerations of justice as would control a Christian people in their treatment of an ignorant and dependent race’’: Beecher v. Wetherby (1877). In the late nineteenth century, the Court decided a number of cases adverse to the interests of the Mormon religion, relying on the fact that certain Mormon practices such as polygamy were contrary to the ‘‘spirit of Christianity’’ and to the ‘‘laws of all civilized and Christian countries.’’ See, for example, The Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. United States (1890); Davis v. Beason (1890).

The Supreme Court’s most forthright claim that the United States is a Christian nation, however, came in Justice David Brewer’s opinion in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (1892). In that opinion, Brewer set forth a lengthy argument for his claim that the United States is a religious, and specifically Christian, nation in the context of analyzing the intent of Congress in enacting a particular statute. Justice Brewer quoted several colonial charters, state constitutions, and state supreme court decisions that referred to the central importance of Christian belief in the life of the American people; cited the practice of various legislative bodies of beginning their sessions with prayer; and noted the large number of churches and Christian charitable organizations that exist in every community in the country as evidence that the United States is a Christian nation. In 1905, Justice Brewer expanded on his Holy Trinity decision in a series of lectures at Haverford College entitled ‘‘The United States is a Christian Nation,’’ which were subsequently published as a book by the same title. Justice Brewer’s contemporaries made similar observations about the American polity. For example, British observer Lord Bryce commented in his 1888 two-volume study of the United States, The American Commonwealth, that ‘‘Christianity is in fact understood to be, though not the legally established religion, yet the national religion.’’

During the nineteenth century, a few state supreme courts also asserted that Christianity was part of the common law of the United States. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, for example, claimed that ‘‘Christianity . . . is, and always has been, a part of the common law of Pennsylvania’’: Updegraph v. Commonwealth (1824). The Ohio Supreme Court disagreed: The assertion that ‘‘‘Christianity is a part of the common law of this country,’ lying behind and above its constitutions . . . can hardly be serious . . . . The only foundation . . . for the proposition, that Christianity is part of the law of this country is the fact that it is a Christian country, and that its constitutions and laws are made by a Christian people’’: Board of Education of Cincinnati v. Minor (1872).

During the twentieth century, the Supreme Court stopped characterizing the United States as a Christian nation. In United States v. Macintosh (1931), the Court rejected an application for citizenship on the grounds that the applicant, claiming religious objections, had refused to pledge his unconditional support for this nation’s future war efforts. Justice George Sutherland, writing for a narrow majority, noted that ‘‘[w]e are a Christian people . . . acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God,’’ and that obedience to the nation’s military endeavors was ‘‘not inconsistent with the will of God.’’ The Macintosh decision was the last time that the Supreme Court expressly characterized the United States as a Christian nation, although in 1952, in Zorach v. Clauson, Justice William Douglas did write for the Court that ‘‘[w]e are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.’’

Even after the Supreme Court stopped referring the United States as a Christian nation, some state court judges continued to do so. The Mississippi Supreme Court announced in 1950 that ‘‘[o]ur great country is denominated a Christian nation’’: Paramount- Richards Theatres v. City of Hattiesburg (1950). The Oklahoma Supreme Court claimed in 1959: ‘‘[I]t is well settled and understood that ours is a Christian Nation, holding the Almighty God in dutiful reverence’’: Oklahoma v. Williamson (1959). In 1998, Alabama state judge Roy Moore defended the display of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom on the grounds that the U.S. Supreme Court in Holy Trinity had recognized that ‘‘the United States is a Christian Nation’’: In re State of Alabama ex rel. James v. ACLU of Alabama (1998).

But in recent years, some Supreme Court justices and lower federal court judges have attempted to distance the courts from its ‘‘Christian nation’’ heritage. In Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), for example, Justice William Brennan criticized the Court’s decision upholding a governmental display of a creche as ‘‘a long step backwards to the days when Justice Brewer could arrogantly declare for the Court that ‘this is a Christian nation.’’’ Similarly, writing for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Judge Avern Cohn noted in 2000: ‘‘We have come a long way from when it was acceptable that . . . a member of Congress could introduce a bill [in 1880] saying, ‘Whereas, The people of the United States are a Christian people, and firmly believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord . . .’, . . . or that the Supreme Court of Oklahoma could say: ‘it is well settled and understood that ours is a Christian Nation, holding the Almighty God in dutiful reverence’’’: American Civil Liberties Union v. Capital Square Review and Advisory Board (2000).

DAVISON M. DOUGLAS

References and Further Reading

  • Brewer, David. The United States a Christian Nation. Philadelphia: J.C. Winston Co., 1905.
  • Bryce, James Bryce. The American Commonwealth. 3 volumes. New York: Macmillan & Co., 1888.
  • Green, Steven K., Justice David Josiah Brewer and the ‘Christian Nation’ Maxim, Albany Law Review 63 (1999): 427–476.
  • Hylton, J. Gordon, David Josiah Brewer and the Christian Constitution, Marquette Law Review 81 (1998): 417–425.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • American Civil Liberties Union v. Capital Square Review and Advisory Board, 210 F.3d 703 (6th Cir. 2000)
  • The Antelope, 23 U.S. 66 (1825)
  • Beecher v. Wetherby, 95 U.S. 517 (1877)
  • Board of Education of Cincinnati v. Minor, 23 Ohio St. 211 (1872)
  • Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892)
  • Dainese v. Hale, 91 U.S. 13 (1875)
  • Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333 (1890)
  • In re Ross, 140 U.S. 453 (1891)
  • In re State of Alabama ex rel. James v. ACLU of Alabama, 711 So.2d 952 (Ala. 1998)
  • The Kate, 69 U.S. 350 (1864)
  • Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. United States, 136 U.S. 1 (1890)
  • Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984)Oklahoma v. Williamson, 1959 Ok 207 (1959)
  • Paramount-Richards Theatres v. City of Hattiesburg, 210 Miss. 271 (1950)
  • United States v. Macintosh, 283 U.S. 605 (1931)
  • Updegraph v. Commonwealth, 11 Serg. & Rawle 394 (Pa. 1824)
  • Vidal v. Girard’s Executors, 43 U.S. 127 (1844)
  • Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306 (1952)

See also Douglas, William Orville

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