It would seem to even the casual observer that our American history is being deliberately misinterpreted by some leaders on education and politics who have an anti-religion agenda. Christians are being labeled as "extremist" because they have the audacity to insist on teaching "traditional" history to their children. Since there is great danger in trying to interpret the past by painting it with the broad brush of political activism of today, we must resist the efforts of elitists who seem bent on torturing history to fit whatever intellectual idea is in vogue. There is very good reason to believe that history is best told by those that lived it and wrote about it.
Is America A "Christian" Nation?
There are many good articles and books written on this subject, as well as many that are disgusting examples of anti-intellectual drivel. It is always difficult to be objective when one's emotional investment in the outcome is quite high and this is true regardless of the position taken on an issue. In some ways, the least credible advocate for ANY position is the one who manifests the strongest feelings!
That Christianity had a profound influence on the founding fathers there is little doubt. Christianity shaped the thinking of philosophers and kings for generations before the founding of America and the collective pool of theological and philosophical resources available to our founders was great indeed. (see Overview of the Development of Western Political Philosophy) That influence does not make America a Christian nation, but it does provide a theological starting point for subsequent analysis of "intent." Christians (including this author) have been guilty of making unwarranted assumptions concerning the "evidence" of some historical event because we WANT it to be so. Let us be certain that our arguments are intellectually honest, historically accurate, and logically consistent so that we may have honest, open dialogue with those who have a different perspective.
There are really three separate questions that flow out of the broader question: Is America A Christian Nation? First, WAS America EVER a Christian Nation? Second, if so,IS it still so? Third, if so, SHOULD it remain so?
For each of these questions, the same definitions should apply to the basic terms of the debate: See TERMINOLOGY for some working definitions of key terms.
IF America was never considered a "Christian" Nation, then it is unlikely that it would be so considered now since the criteria for judging it thus (cultural morality, behavior generally consistent with biblical admonitions and prescriptions, etc.) would leave little doubt of the decline. Whether it SHOULD become "Christian" is beyond the scope of this article. In answering the question: WAS America a Christian nation, it is important to lay the groundwork for what it means to be "Christian" in the political sense of the word. (See TERMINOLOGY) This is probably best done by way of analogy.
My children were raised in a "Christian" home. My wife and I were, and are, Christians (see the definitions). Our decisions were, for the most part, guided by our understanding of, and faith in, Jesus Christ. Human failure was in evidence daily so it would be mistake to look at the sum of our failings and simplistically deduce that it invalidated our faith. My understanding of Biblical principles guided (and continues to guide-notwithstanding frequent failures) my relationships, whether business or social.
When I told my small children to get up early, brush their teeth, do their chores, complete tasks on time, be loyal to family, etc., I was attempting to infuse them with Christian principles. I might tell them to "clean your room" with no mention of Jesus or the ten commandments. The instruction was no less "biblical" because it lacked reference to a chapter and verse in the Bible. Likewise, as they got older, I instructed them to maintain good hygiene, eat healthy food, and don't drive too fast, without so much as a "for the Bible tells me so!" As my children matured, I explained to them the theological basis for the lifestyle and relationship choices that we make.
We view the world through a "theological" framework. An atheist sees the same physical world as the Christian but, viewed without the perspective of a living, interactive, God, the interpretation is completely different. Often, it is quite possible to discern a person's "world-view" after a few moments of relationship (conversation or co-labor.) The depth of person's "theology" (faith) makes possible predictions about that person's conduct and behavior.
The argument that America is NOT (and never has been) a Christian nation is often framed by what is NOT expressly stated in the Constitution. In the "family" analogy (above) the formal structure of the relationships within the family, and without, existed without express reference to Jesus. What is evident however, is the absolute consistency of those structures to Biblical Christianity. That there may be families who operate with the same structures but without the same "theological" basis does not counter the premise that my family was a "Christian" family. To argue that absence of expressly "Christian" language in the Constitution "is powerful evidence" of the founder's intent to avoid the influence of Christianity is, on the contrary, no evidence at all.
Likewise, the Christian must be careful when asserting that the various founding fathers, possessed of individual and diverse religious beliefs, collectively purposed to create an overtly Christian nation. Granted, there is strong correlation to suggest such an intent but, in logic, as well as history, correlation does not equal causation. In my mind, however, it matters less what they intended than what they accomplished. Certainly, the structural framework of self-governance created by the founders permits a Christian people to order their relationships in accordance with biblical mandates, just as it permits non-Christians to order their relationships without overtly "theological" implications.
In this way, with minimum constraint of government, each citizen of the republic is free to pursue God, and to order his relationships, "according to the dictates of his own conscience." The purpose of criminal law is to draw absolute boundaries of conduct within which all citizens must remain. That these boundaries are consistent with ancient Biblical law and 5,000 years of tradition, creates a presumption of "truth." Presumtions may be rebutted but the burden of evidence is heavily upon the party who wishes to challenge tradition. The greater the weight of tradition, the greater the weight of the challenger's burden of proof.
The Founders of the American Republic, great men of undeniable intellectual acumen, were also men of political prowess. Successful politicians are coalition builders and, as such, they say and write things that may be interpreted in the light most favorable to the greatest number of people. This is a wonderful skill and necessary to governing of a large and diverse society. One must always be somewhat skeptical, however, of putting too great weight on a single quote from a single letter or speech. Specific, historical, and political context must be considered, along with the character and circumstances of the speaker/writer, before much definitive meaning should be attached to the communication of any politician. ( I said that as nicely as I could!)
The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of the theological leanings of the Founding fathers and a vignette of their beliefs from their own writings. While this will not be an exhaustive work, a sampling of the best known (whose writings can be found in abundance) will be seen to be representative of the political,intellectual, moral wisdom of the day. By understanding the theological, philosophical, and moral perspective of the founding fathers, it will be no stretch for the student to develop a well-reasoned conclusion that America was intended to be a nation where all relationships could, and should, be consistent with the teachings of Biblical Christianity. Some believed that this can only be accomplished when the heart of each person is committed to Jesus Christ. Others believed that the "political" principles of "relationship by implied contract" were valid even without a personal acceptance of the Christian faith. The reader will, hopefully, be able to discern that an idea emphatically rejected by all of the founders, was that NO form of law and government could EVER succeed if the fundamental principles of "covenant" relationship were ignored. This is, in my mind, the most compelling argument that America is a "Christian" nation for that is the principle most often, and most strongly, articulated in the early writings.
George Washington is probably the first "father" to come to mind. Indeed, he is known to every elementary school student as "the father of our country". There is absolutely no need to wonder where George Washington stood on the matter of religion. That is, unless you try to put him in too small a box. He was a man deep personal faith in Almighty God but believed, as did most of the early leaders, that it was in the best interest of all believers, not to favor any one denomination. Much confusion, and some animosity occurred then when it became difficult to pin him down on specifics. Interestingly, it has even been claimed by some non-believers that Wasington was athiest because of his ambiguity when addressing religious leaders of the day. Politics has changed little, however, and George Washington might well have been the original "teflon" president, at least when came to publicly debating the specifics of his faith.
In the copies of General Orders posted while he was General of the Continental Army (1775-79), Washington implored his subordinates to forbid swearing and drinking and also, to attend to matters of religious exercise. In a letter to the governors of the states on disbanding the army, June 8, 1783, Washington writes,
"I now make it my earnest prayer the God would have you and the State over which you preside, in His holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government; to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the field; and, finally, that he would be most graciously pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things we can never hope to be a happy nation." 1. That hardly sounds like the writing of an athiest.
It is more than just interesting to note that whenever the founding fathers wrote about "religion", they almost always were referring to "Christianity". Nearly a hundred years later, in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Church of the Holy Trinity vs. U.S.(1892) cited 87 historical precedents in its conclusion that, "Our laws and institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise. In this sense and to this extent, our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian." (italics mine) Although we hear much today about "the separation of church and state" , you will not find that phrase or that intent in the U.S. constitution. In fact, in an 1811 U.S. Supreme Court case (People vs.Ruggles) the court declared against a man for profaning Jesus Christ and the Bible, ruling that "whatever strikes at the root of Christianity tends manifestly to the dissolution of civil government."
In George Washington’s famous Farewell Address delivered on September 19, 1796, he stated, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security of property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason, and experience both forbids us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." 2.
The second founding father whose writings will be examined is Thomas Jefferson. It is Jefferson who is credited by the revisionists as favoring "separation of church and state". If it could ever be proven that this concept, as currently applied, was ever intended by the framers of the constitution, it would go a long way to proving that America is not a Christian nation. This is the hope of the revisionists because it galls them to think that our form of civil government is grounded in submission to Jesus Christ. The liberals who control politics and education in this country are convinced that they alone are gifted with enough intelligence to manage the affairs of the nation.
The quote of Jefferson (above) is part of a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association and is a response to their concern that the United States government was about to declare another denomination as the "official" church of the country. Jefferson wrote to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptists on January 1, 1802, "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State." 3. The reader should be astute enough to notice that this "wall" is intended to prevent the State from intruding into the domain of the church, not visa versa. In fact, when the beliefs of the founding fathers are studied in some depth, it is evident that they all believed that men needed protection FROM government, especially in matters of faith! Jefferson wrote to Samuel Miller on Jan 23, 1808, "Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority is religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority." 4.
Madison is often referred to as "the Father of the Consititution" because, from the very beginning of the Constitutional Convention, he was a guiding influence and a strong voice of principled reason. In his political career, which spanned more than fifty years, Madison was a stalwart defender of religious liberties. He frequently wrote that the Christian faith was solid enough doctrinally, theologically, morally, and intellectually that it did not need the support of civil government. In fact, he wrote in Memorial and Remonstrance that if civil government were necessary to prop up Christianity, then it would prove that the Christian Faith could not stand on its own merits. Because Christianity thrives in the absence of civil control and government intervention in religious affairs always served, historically, to weaken it, it should be kept separate from the institution of civil government. Incredibly, this "separation" is often misinterpreted as "anti-Christianity" when it should be more properly read as "anti-government".
Some historical background would be helpful at this point. Madison had a dispute with Patrick Henry over Henry's proposal to levy a tax to support teachers of the Christian Religion. In 1785 Madison wrote Memorial and Remonstrance in which he makes the case for keeping Christianity free from intanglement with the state. He saw very clearly that religious "liberty" would be compromised if placed under the dominion of the state. "It was because Madison exalted religion that he favored religious liberty. Since he revered the Christian religion above all others, he wanted it to flourish in its purity, free from the corruption that inevitably came with state support." 5.
Madison's Christian influence is understandable in light of his upbringing and education. He was raised in a strong Episcopalian home where both parents were active in the church. He went to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) which was then a very orthodox, conservative Christian school. The president of the college was the Rev. John Witherspoon (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) who recognized in Madison a bright and attentive pupil. We know a great deal of Witherspoon's beliefs-- the influence that he had during this time was tremendous. "Witherspoon was president of the College of New Jersey from 1768 to 1794. In those twenty six years 478 young men graduated--about eighteen students per year. Of those478 graduates, 114 became ministers; 13 were state governors; 3 were Supreme Court judges; 20 were United States Senators; 33 were U.S. Congressmen; Aaron Burr Jr. became Vice President; and James Madison became President." 6.
Of a Calvinist family background, Franklin developed (and maintained) a belief in the existence of God throughout his life. He was a brillliant man, possessed of an inquisitive mind, and not constrained very much by convention. Thus, he was an experimentor, an inventor, a scientist and a mathematician. He evidently applied those thought processes to every aspect of life. He was distinctly non-conformist in many ways yet he apparently was constrained somewhat by the moral framework in which he was raised. Moral in the sense that he acknowledged a responsibility towards his fellow man that was to guide his public life. "Of religion, he asked only that he be allowed to pay his respects to all-- his way of saying that he did not want any denomination to be awarded authority over all others. 'I have ever let others enjoy their religious sentiments," he wrote in his eighty-fourth year, "without reflecting on them for those who appeared to me unsupportable and even absurd." 7
Franklin, like Jefferson, does not offer anything in his writings that would cause one to believe that he was a Christian in the pure theological sense (see definition of Christian) but there can be little argument that Franklin was certainly not hostile to Christianity. In a political sense, like Jefferson, Franklin believed in, and called upon God to have a hand in the formation of the new nation.
" Once, when breakdown in the constitutional debates seemed imminent, he cooled the passions and restored the perspective of the delegates: 'Our different sentiments on almost every question,' he said, '...is methinks a meloncholy proof of the imperfection of human understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political sidom, since we have been running about in search of it...I have lived,sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth-- that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice,is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assurde, Sir, in the sacrted writings, that 'except the Lord building the house, they labour in vain that build it.' I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance despair of establishing governments by human wisdom and leave it to chance, war, and conquest. ' I therefore beg leave to move-- that henceforth paryers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business...' " 8
"A few weeks before he died, Franklin wrote to Ezra Stile, president of Yale University: ' Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His providence. That He ought to beworshipped. That the most acceptable service we render Him is doing good to His other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting conduct in this. These I take to be the principal principles of sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needlessl to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed; especially as I do not percieve that the Supreme [Being] takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in His government of the world with any particular marks of His displeasure...' " 9
Ben Franklin was evidently greatly admired by most of those who knew him, at least for his wit, humor, and honest dedication to public service. Although his "free-spirit" and unconventional ideas may have put him at odds with some in the local community, there is nothing in the writings from his contemporaries (that I have yet discovered) which casts any shadow on his sincerity or the truth of his convictions. He certainly was not an enemy of religion or religious expression in government.
It is interesting, indeed that man like John Adams could be elected to the presidency of the United States. He was viewed by many of his contemporaries as having an inflated opinion of himself and being always angry at something, yet, at the same time, they acknowledged that Adams was wise in his understanding of human nature and absolutely true to his convictions. Although after leaving public office he may have softened with age, during his active political life he was known as somewhat of a "fire-breather". He studied early in his life for the ministry but his independence and fire took him in the direction of the law. As to his religious beliefs, Adams has been called a Diest, a Puritan, an Orthodox Christian, and a Humanist, by various people. His writings reflect that he held orthodox Christian views but was absolutely abhorrant of narrow-minded, religious bigots. Thus he, like many others then and now, attempted to separate the principles from the practices.
An entry from his personal diary sums up the religious convictions of John Adams. Although much more is written (by him and about him) the entry dated February 22, 1756, puts it in perspective. "Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law-book, and every member would be obliged, in conscience, to temperence and frugality and industry; to justice and kindness and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love and reverence towards Almighty God. In this commonwealth, no man would impair his healht by gluttony, drunkenness, or lust; no man would sacrifice his most precious time to cards or any other trifling and mean amusement; no man would steal, or lie, in any way defraud his neigbor, but would live in peace and good will with all men; no man would blaspheme hi Maker or profane hi worship; but a rational and manly, a sincere and unafected piety and devotion would reign in all hearts. What a utopia; what a paradise would this region be!" 10
There are many letters written between Jefferson and Adams in later years which covered many topics and served to stimulate and challenge them intellectually. The correspondence lasted fifteen years and much can be gleaned from these writings. Of particular interest and for purposes of this work, the attention of the reader is called to that group of letters which deal with spiritual matters and have been excerpted by Cousins (biliography).
1. Norman Cousins,ed. In God We Trust, The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, Harper and Brothers, NY, 1958
5. John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution, Baker Books, Grand Rapids,1987, pg 109
6.Ibid. pg 83
7. Cousins, pg 16
8. Ibid., pg 18
9. Ibid, pg 19
10. Ibid, pg 80