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2/08/2019 11:02 am  #1

Is the United States a Christian Nation?

Is the United States a Christian Nation?

This week the annual national prayer breakfast was held. It has sparked the usual ‘debate’ whether the United States is a Christian nation. Certainly the dominant religion in the States is, and has always been, Christianity. But was the United States founded as a Christian republic?

Unfortunately, we live in an age of binary thinking fostered by our hyper partisan politics, and cable/talk radio media. A very interesting argument has been reduced to arguing that the Founders were either pro-Christianity, or anti-Christianity. Let’s move beyond this patent nonsense. Between worship on one side, and contempt on the other lies an uneasy path of examination.

Let’s get the easy part out of the way first. The founders were obviously not hostile to Christianity. They were, almost to a man, Protestants. They read their bible, belonged to churches. They wanted Christianity to flourish in the new republic.

But did they found this nation as a Christian republic? With apologies to political Christians, the answer is, no they did not.

Levels of religious piety are not a constant through time. The United States was founded during arguably the most secular era in American History either before or since. In the late eighteenth century church membership was low, and anticlerical feelings ran high. This was new.  After all, nearly every English colony had, in fact, been founded with an established religion. Connecticut’s 1639 charter stated that the whole purpose of government was ‘to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus’. 

But, in the century and a half between the Connecticut charter and constitutional convention a religious and political revolution occurred. The Constitution does not establish a state religion. It does not even mention ‘God’ except in naming the date (“The year of our Lord”).  This was not a casual omission.  Benjamin Rush wondered if ‘an acknowledgement might be made of His providence in the proposed amendments”. None was made. At a time when all but two of the new states required religious tests for office, the Constitution prohibited them. At a time when all but three states still had an official religion, the Bill of Rights forbade the national government from establishing one. Most Americans agreed with Madison, that religion can only thrive if it is no part of government, and that government can only thrive if it is no part of religion. When John Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797 he wrote that no holy war with Islam would be engaged in as “The United States is not, in any sense founded on the Christian religion”.

The Constitution was the product of centuries of ideas about government and the rights of Man.  It was the product of decades of struggle with both the English and between the colonists themselves.  There were fierce debates between the large states and the small, the slave states and the free. There were fateful compromises made. Then there was a huge battle over ratification, and the immediate addition of the Bill of rights.  It was definitely the product of man. Nothing was easy. 

So, how can there be any question about the founding? Well, times change.  People fail to appreciate this fact, and apply the beliefs they hold in their time to past times.

Look at this print from the early 1800s called, Washington Giving the Laws To America. 

In Washington Giving the Laws  it shows the archangel Gabriel in the heavens carrying the American emblem while Washington, dressed in a Roman toga holds a stylus in one hand in the other a tablet engraved with the words, ‘The American Constitution”. All that thought, struggle and compromise is ignored. It is as if the Constitution were handed down from the heavens, etched in stone, sacred and infallible, from God to the first President. It is as if the Constitution were scripture.

What the heck happened?

Shortly after the turning of the 19th century a religious revival swept the new nation. This revival became known as the Second great awakening., and reached its height in the 1830s. It’s scale was huge. Before the revival began a scant one in ten Americans were church members. By the time it ended that number had risen to eight in ten.

The leaders of the Second Awakening borrowed heavily from the Declaration of Independence. That the revival of Christianity was ongoing during the 50th anniversary of the declaration was made even more mystical by the deaths of both Jefferson and Adams on the very day. It was as if the Declaration itself took on a religious cast. The self evident truths became, to many, the truths of a revealed religion. 

Evangelicals recast the nation’s origins as avowedly Christian. Lyman Beecher, the Presbyterian preacher, argued that the Republic “In it’s institutions and laws is of heavenly origin”. Nearly everything took on a religious cast during the revival. Americans founded new sects from Mormons to shakers. Protestant denominations sprung up in every town. 

In 1816 a 73 year old Thomas Jefferson warned against worshipping the men of his generation. “To treat the founding documents as scripture,,,, and deem them like the Ark of the Covenant too sacred to be touched,,, would ascribe to men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human.” But, the tide could not be contained. The myth of the founders acting under instruction – rather divine inspiration - by the Christian God proved irresistible.

And the myth proved enduring, as we see to this day.

Last edited by Goose (2/09/2019 6:27 am)

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

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