Friday, July 1, 2011

Was the U.S. Founded as a Christian Country?

As the 4th of July approaches many Christians will be reflecting upon the founding of this nation. Many churches will particularly emphasize the distinction between the strong influence of Christianity in the nation’s early history and the waning influence that the faith has in our own time. In some congregations particular founders will be held up as examples of faith and piety. We can therefore scarcely blame people for assuming that the country was founded as a Christian nation. But is that the case? Certainly anyone paying close attention to the current debate about the role of religion in our nation recognizes that not everyone is in agreement on the interpretation of that history.

Atheists and secularists often interpret the founders intentions in such a way that faith-informed positions would be eliminated from the public square claiming that the United States was intentionally designed to be irreligious in public discourse and policy. Conservative Christians on the other hand decry what they see as revisionist history and claim that the founders understood Christian faith to be the foundational underpinning of the system of government that they implemented. It seems that everyone from across the spectrum is eager to claim the founders as allies in advancing their own contemporary agenda, but who is right? I believe the reality is more nuanced than either of those alternatives would lead us to believe.

It is true that the U.S. was founded as a nation primarily of Christians but that is something quite distinct from being founded specifically as a Christian nation. The broader cultural assumptions were largely formed by Christianity and though they were being challenged by Enlightenment philosophy they were still normative for the average person and public discourse. That being the case, however, the structure and apparatus of the U.S. government is decidedly religiously neutral. It does not protect, advance, promote, nor hinder, or disadvantage any particular religion or lack thereof.

At the time the U.S. was established it had the most consciously secular governmental foundation in the history of the world. I don’t mean secular in the sense of being anti-religious but rather in the sense of being non-religious. The founders expected that religion would play a part in government but they were unique in disconnecting the governing structure from a religious foundation. Pre-Christian pagan governments of the old world and the tribal governments of the new world intertwined religious elements into the structures that governed their societies. Once Christianity gained political ascendancy it retained a separation of functions between the church and state but they were never conceived as operating independent of one another. After the Reformation the Protestant ideal was the deliberate unification of theological and governmental agendas so that church and state became one. The only serious theological argument for separation of church and state within the Protestant tradition was developed within the Anabaptist tradition and was not widely accepted. The founders intentionally reversed the historical trend. 

Although the culture was saturated with Christian thought and the majority of Americans accepted those beliefs none of the founding documents appeal to Christian theology as their foundation. The Constitution is wholly secular and the First Amendment makes provision that the apparatus of federal government will remain as such. The Declaration of Independence cannot be used to show Christian intent because while it does mention “God” it is not expressly Christian. We know for example that some of the founders, including its primary author did not understand the reference to “natures God” in the way that orthodox Christians do. The language of the Declaration is that of 18th century natural law philosophy. The language in the document is broad enough to be acceptable both to Christians and non-Christian theists.

It is important that we make a distinction between general theism which was used to support public civil virtue from an articulation of particularly Christian theology. Perhaps the clearest example highlighting this distinction is found in the Treaty of Tripoli where we have an explicit statement during the founding generation signed by a U.S. diplomat (11/4/1796), ratified by the U.S. Congress (6/7/1797), and signed by President John Adams (6/10/1797) that plainly states that the U.S. is not founded in any sense on the Christian religion.  Article 11 of the treaty states:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

This treaty was published in the major news publications of the time without any apparent negative reaction from either partisans or the public. At this time most of the founding fathers were alive and many were still involved in politics so we would expect that if their intentions were to found a Christian state this language would have elicited a response from at least one of them.

The fact is that the various founders had different religious priorities and differing levels of commitment to those priorities. Some were Christian and some were not but what they produced in our founding documents was a government that was intended to be religiously neutral. The founders clearly did not, however, intend to restrict the faith of individuals from informing their political positions. In fact, many founders believed that a form of public religion was necessary in order to ensure the stability of the nation and some openly expressed their opinion that the ethical standards of the Christian faith were the most conducive to that end. The majority of them would have been horrified by the suggestion that expressions of faith be removed from public discourse.

The founders were clearly not attempting to create a society void of expressions of faith but rather to create a structure whereby each individual’s right to such expression was protected at the federal level. Religious commitment was expected to play an important role in the thoughts and actions of people. Scripture was frequently appealed to in order to support particular positions or actions. Prayer was ubiquitous and laws were passed to make provision for the purchase of bibles and to pay clergy. Protestantism was a driving cultural force and there was no attempt to muzzle its general influence.

The founders recognized the importance of having a unifying ethical system upon which the rule of law could be established. Many of them advocated a form of public religion around Christian ethics without enforcing a shared commitment to more precise doctrinal propositions. They lived in an age where it was assumed that there was a consistent natural order and many assumed that the values expressed in Christianity were the best expression of reasonable conduct governing human relations that had yet been articulated. Even those who rejected much of the doctrinal content of the faith, such as Jefferson, accepted the superiority of Christian ethics.

The onslaught of philosophical & scientific challenges that came in the following generations, however, challenged the notion that Christian ethics were superior or self-evident. As the philosophical eggs of the Enlightenment began to hatch the cultural assumptions that allowed a secular government to operate with Christian assumptions began to erode. The theory that one could maintain a commitment to Christian ethical teaching and yet disconnect it from its doctrinal foundation would, over the next century, evolve into protestant liberalism. After Darwin the intellectual assumption that the creation required a creator was shaken and even the broadly shared theistic consensus began to weaken.

I doubt that most of the founders would have imagined the kind of moral and intellectual relativism that we are dealing with now. They did not, however, establish the U.S. as a Christian country. Any evaluation of their intentions must account for both the many positive statements about the importance of Christian faith in our society as well as their repeated insistence that they did not lay a religious foundation for the political structure. They created a platform that would allow various faiths to compete in the marketplace of ideas. The erosion of Godly government that we see in this country is the result of the waning influence of faith in the culture around us.

This 4th of July we should give thanks to God for the blessings that He has poured out upon our nation. We should thank Him for the freedom we enjoy and recognize it as a protection for us as we enter a post-Christian age. We should also be sure to insist upon our right to make our voice heard in the public discourse (just as the founders intended). As we give thanks for all of these things, however, we must recognize that our primary citizenship is in heaven. Let our focus be on the preaching of the gospel so that we might see revival in our nation. Let us also recognize that the battle to be a God honoring nation is fought in our own schools, homes, churches, and places of work long before it is fought in the legislature or the courts. We should not expect that our faith would be influential in Washington if it is not relevant in our own communities.

May God continue to bless America!

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