So-called Christian Nationalism has become a cause celebre among some Protestants and Roman Catholics associated with the New Right. New books have extolled the proposition that the United States needs an establishmentarian or establishment-adjacent civil and political regime. Their quality varies; some are thoughtful while still being illiberal. Others range from being niche Reformed theological policies to openly antisemitic screeds that would be comical if not for their comfort with open racism. A key central complaint of Christian Nationalist thinkers is that liberalism in the United States and the constitutional settlement actuated by the republic’s founding documents led to at best a secular, and at worst openly anti-Christian, socio-civil regime that must be recaptured by Christians either to stave off impending divine punishment, to restore socio-civil stability, or both. The problem with Christian nationalism is that apart from being vague and deeply problematic for the United States’ historic religious liberty practices, it is ultimately superfluous. The United States’ religious milieu has always allowed for official Christianity through various mediums, but perhaps the most prominent has been chaplaincies to Congress and to the armed services.
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787 delegates debated the final constitutional settlement for the young American republic. They ultimately decided after substantive, but not particularly rancorous, debate that there would be no federal religious establishment. Newly independent Americans had little stomach for state churches like the Church of England, and the proliferation of sects in the aftermath of state disestablishment, particularly in Virginia, made state religion unworkable. Even as they dismantled state-supported Christianity, they did not remove Christianity’s presence in the state apparatus or its ability to publicly speak to federal officers. In fact, the very same champions–Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, and James Madison–of disestablishment simultaneously headed the committee that appointed the first chaplain to the House of Representatives. The appointment was not controversial at the time, and most congressmen seemed to have viewed it as a matter of course that naturally followed from the Continental Congress’ practice of appointing chaplains for the Continental Army. The first chaplains to the army were appointed in 1775, without controversy, and the practice continues in the United States’ armed services to the present.
These same men responsible for the creation of federal chaplaincies served as drafters of the United States’ Constitution, and one of them, James Madison, proved so influential he earned the sobriquet “father of the Constitution.” Although the office of chaplain was not controversial when the Constitution was signed, the growth of freethinking and the presence of freethinking and universalist congressmen led some congressmen to question the appropriateness of federal sponsored chaplains. In 1857, an Indiana congressman who “distinguished himself in and out of Congress, for his opposition to revealed religion” proposed through a petition “that all chaplains employed by the government must be dismissed, and the office abolished.”
Both houses of Congress took up the question of the constitutionality of chaplains. They relied largely on the history of the Constitutional Convention. Their response was overwhelmingly supported by congressional colleagues and the tone of the report was testy. The exasperated congressmen asked rhetorically if “our present practice violate that article? What is an establishment of religion?” An established religion, they argued, must have a creed that defined “what a man must believe; it must have rites and ordinances, which believers must observe.” Established religion had to have “ministers of defined qualifications, to teach the doctrines and administer the rites; it must have tests for the submissive, and penalties for the non-conformist.” There never was, they noted, “an established religion without all these.” Was there, they demanded, or had there ever been, “anything of this in the appointment of chaplains in Congress, or army, or navy?” The committee noted that the “practice before the adoption of the constitution is much the same as since: the adoption of that constitution does not seem to have changed the principle in this respect.” Tersely, they added: “We ask the memorialists to look at the facts.” The facts affirmed the constitutionality of chaplains. Madison, Oliver Ellsworth, and Roger Sherman all vigorously supported disestablishment but worked to create federal chaplaincies. “Did they not know what was constitutional?” the committee asked scoldingly.
State governments and the military regularly resorted to chaplains not only for ceremonial invocations, but also for sermons and advice in times of local, state, and national tragedy and upheaval. Support for chaplains and the socio-cultural Christian establishment they signified was not limited to historically establishment-minded Congregationalists and Episcopalians who often filled chaplaincies in the Federalist Era. Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists also saw chaplains as a vital aspect of the United States’ disestablished but still substantive relationship between church, society, and state. When a small group of New York citizens complained in 1833 about the state employing chaplains for the state legislature, the pastor of New York City’s First Baptist Church called the protest a “poison” and a “public attack on the Christian religion.” Baptists, fierce defenders of disestablishment and equally fierce opponents of coercive religion in any form, nonetheless saw chaplains as an essential part of public Christianity in the United States.
Chaplaincies illustrated the fundamental nature of American disestablishment. The latter did not entail denuding the public square of Christianity, nor did it allow for the federal state to force Christianity on an unwilling populace. Government officers, however, did not cease to be members of society when they took office, and like other members of society, they claimed their right to religious counsel and advisement as statesmen. The American republic’s constitutional settlement allowed for chaplains to have a robust influence on congressmen’s vocational lives. Instead of dismissing Christianity from the civil order altogether, or baptizing the state, reclaiming chaplains who understand themselves first as chaplains, and not merely as decorative functionaries, would be one way of retrieving Christianity in the public square.