American Civics 101: No Established Church

PPP-Christianity-National-ReligionWarren Throckmorton, who teaches psychology at Grove City College, the fellow who blew the whistle on Mars Hill, has set his sights on David Barton of Wallbuilders fame. You may have seen Barton on late-night infomercials or on the web. He is known for making some interesting claims about American history and has gained a following among cultural conservatives. In relation to those posts Throckmorton pointed out yesterday a recent poll from PPP, one part of which you can see above. There are three caveats. First, they “surveyed 316 Republican primary voters” via automated calls to landline telephones. They also contacted some respondents via the internet. I suppose that those who responded to landline calls were older. Who knows who responded to the internet survey. Second, this is a small sample. Third, I did not see anywhere the exact question put by the caller to those being polled. For the sake of discussion, however, let us assume it was something like, “Do you support establishing Christianity as the national religion?” That seems like a reasonable assumption given the way the question is framed in their report.

If this survey is reflective of the way a social conservatives are thinking then it confirms something I’ve inferred from the many discussions here and elsewhere about Christ and culture: a surprising number of American evangelicals (and perhaps others) are really Constantinian at heart. They want the civil magistrate to enforce and support (e.g., through taxation) some sort of religious orthodoxy. What surprises me more, however, is that it is a majority of those polled. One might have guessed that the numbers would be the other way round, with 30% supporting establishment and 57% opposing. Who are the 13% who don’t know? Does anyone want Jerry Brown (a former Jesuit seminarian)  or Barack Hussein Obama (educated briefly in an Indonesian public school where Islam was taught, who has said that the Islamic call to prayer, the Adhan, is “one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset,” who became a member of Jeremiah Wright’s UCC congregation) determining or enforcing religious orthodoxy?

Frankly, had the numbers been reversed it should still surprise one a little. The first Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Then, of course, there is the Article 6.3 of the Constitution, which prohibits the use of religious tests for public office: “but no religious Test shall ever required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” It is difficult to see how establishment would not lead to religious tests. It certainly did in England. The University of Oxford did not abolish religious tests for non-theological degrees until 1871.

Christianity has played an undeniably major role in the history of North America since the early 17th century. Several of the colonies were explicitly chartered as affiliated with various Christian denominations. Indeed, after the Constitution with the Bill of Rights was adopted, even though there was no nationally established churches, there were state established churches. In Georgia the Church of England was disestablished in 1780. The congregationalists were established in New Hampshire in 1790 and not until 1818 in Connecticut.

Nevertheless, it is one thing to recognize the historic role of Christianity in the formation of the United States (and continues to play) but it is quite another to think that, 197 years after Connecticut disestablished the Congregational Church, there should be nationally established church.

Of course the first question that critics ask in response is “which one?” As a confessional Reformed minister I should be very unhappy if California adopted the Roman communion as the established state church of California. As the demographics change in the southwest due to immigration from predominantly Roman Catholic nations, that is probably what would happen. At the current rate of change. If birthrates stay relative constant for a generation or two, it’s not unthinkable that, should the United States actually revise its constitution to establish a national church, that it might well be the Roman  Church. We may wonder if that is what 180 respondents had in mind.

If we’re dissatisfied with the federal government picking winners and losers (e.g., by attempting to jump-start the solar power business with giant subsidies) in business, why would we want the government picking winners and losers in religion? Would we put it to vote or referendum? One’s head begins to spin a little. It’s very difficult to imagine how confessional Protestants fare well in any event.

Were the respondents even aware of the 1st Amendment or Article 6? If my supposition that most of them were older (using landlines) then one would think that they went to school when basic civics were still taught. If so, did the respondents imagine a constitutional convention or some other process whereby the constitution of the United States should be amended, by revising the first Amendment or by revising Article 6? Were the respondents expressing a frustration with the apparent marginalization of Christians from public life? We’re just playing with the pollsters? Given the other results in the poll, it doesn’t seem as if the last option is likely.

If this very small sample reflects a more widely held sentiment that may help explain the ferocious response to any suggestion that Christ rules all things in two distinct spheres, or, as Calvin put it, in a “duplex regimen” a “twofold government.” Maybe Constantinianism, the civil enforcement and support of religious orthodoxy, is more deeply entrenched in the American psyche than one imagined?

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. According to the full report, the question was, as you guessed, ‘Would you support or oppose establishing Christianity as the national religion?’ I’d be curious to see the breakdown in Democrats as well. It would, I suspect be much lower, but by how much?

  2. “As the demographics change in the southwest due to immigration from predominantly Roman Catholic nations, that is probably what would happen. At the current rate of change. If birthrates stay relative constant for a generation or two, it’s not unthinkable that, should the United States actually revise its constitution to establish a national church, that it might well be the Roman Church.” – RS Clark

    Hmmm – What about…

    Western Michigan, Iowa, parts of Illinois, Indiana, North and South Dakota, belonging to the Netherlands Reformed Church, after all the demographics clearly show that the Dutch dominate there?


    Western Pennsylvania (especially Beaver Falls, PA) or Sterling, Kansas being under the Solemn league and Covenant, and under the Church of Scotland?

    My point is that Roman Catholicism is not even the “establish church” in Mexico (since 1857 actually), so I don’t think its going to happen.


    You do know that Protestantism is growing in Latin America, and the second and third generation and from there on of those who have been born of Hispanics immigrants are not remaining Roman Catholics. Yes, it is true that this is attributed (thankfully in a way) due, to the Arminians, Dispensational’s, Baptist, Calvary Chapel, Assemblies of God, etc., evangelistic efforts.

    BTW, having you seen the different ethnic backgrounds in a typical Calvary Chapel church in Southern California? Looks like heaven, and looks like the future of the US with all those interracial marriages compare to a typical Protestant church in the US.

    Within NAPARC, if things remain constant, the PCA will have the biggest Hispanic community in NAPARC churches, since some (praise God) in the PCA are reading there Bibles, using Biblical wisdom, loving their neighbors, and investing in the first generation of Hispanic immigrants.

    • Gil,

      Re demographic trends, I was thinking of this report that by 2020, minority children will be the majority.

      My intent is to say to those who may simply assume that the national religion would be Protestantism, think again. Demographic trends suggest a different outcome. In that regard I don’t think that the Dutch Reformed are sweeping the nation. Most of the great waves of immigration since the 19th century have been Roman Catholic: Irish, (1840s) the Italian (1880-1920), and the Hispanic (since the 1960s). Proportionally, whatever inroads evangelicals (Pentecostals) are making, the default setting in Hispanic cultures is Romanism.

      The various NAPARC groups, even if added together, are a demographic blip. There are 60 million Romanists (at least) in the USA. There are 60 million “evangelicals” of various sorts. Thus, if Christianity was to established as the national religion and were that to be done on the basics of demographics, Romanism would have as great a claim as any other. The Mainline Protestants are nearly dead. The evangelicals are fragmented. Romanists can at least point to a visible symbol of unity, which historically, has been an attractive rallying point during times of social disintegration and chaos.

  3. I understand regarding those Protestants who assume that the US would be a Protestant nation.

    But look how many of those Irish Roman Catholic of the 1840’s are now actually Protestants? Actually Presbyterians. For example, there are two historically related Scottish Presbyterian NAPARC denominations where you can find many Roman Catholic Irish last names. Many of them think their last name is really Scottish, but is just as Roman Catholic as Italian and Hispanic last names, they also think they are direct descendents of John Knox, and are guilty of worshipping Scotland. Yet, nobody is saying they are highjacking Presbyterianism for the pope. I wonder why?

    • Gil,

      The Irish who immigrated to the states in the 19th century were mainly from what is now the Republic of Ireland. The Protestants came to the new world in the 18th century and from the North (Ulster). They were Protestants.

      Yes, some of the Romanists became Protestants but as mainline Protestantism waned in the 19th and 20th centuries and as new waves of Romanist immigrants arrived, the social incentive to convert diminished.

      It was fear of a Romanizing influence that helped fuel the public (state-funded) school movement in the US. The mainline Protestants were wanted to socialize the new immigrants into mainline Protestantism. That experiment mainly failed.

  4. Personally, I find it a bit alarming to consider a national church, let alone a Romanist one. This would be a major step backward for our nation, but more importantly, a violation of the present US Constitution as you noted.

    The fact that there are various Protestant or Evangelical denominations opens up the church to cheap shot criticism by some as evidence of breaking fellowship with Christians rather than pursuing unity.

    I’d rather have the current state of things than some monolithic entity demanding worship. That reeks of the spirit of Antichrist and its antichristian system.

  5. Calvin introduced the Institutes by telling a popish king that it was his duty under God to embrace and enforce Reformed Christianity. In Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, Guido de Bres informed the popish government, which would eventually have him executed, that it was their duty to enforce the Reformed religion, and to destroy the Romish religion of Antichrist.

    The establishment principle (i.e., the historic, confessional, Reformed doctrine of civil government — ‘custos et vindex utriusque tabulae’) does not tell civil government to enforce whatever religion is professed by the majority of the populace. It says that the Holy Word of God calls on civil government (as it calls on every individual and church) to embrace and profess the true Reformed religion.

Comments are closed.