231 A Christian America or a Religious Republic?

In The Search for Christian America (Colorado Springs:  Helmers & Howard, c. 1989), three eminent evangelical historians—Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch—examined the evidence for claiming that this nation is (or ever has been) actually Christian.  The question is as old as the republic itself, and the answer hinges upon both a definition—what makes a nation “Christian”—and the disposition of the historians looking for evidence.  These three authors believe that though the people have been generally religious “a careful study of the facts of history shows that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly or even predominately Christian, if we mean by the word ‘Christian’ a state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture” (p. 17).  Still more:  they find the very idea “of a ‘Christian nation’ is a very ambiguous concept which is usually harmful to effective Christian action in society” (p. 17).  The authors demand more than a generic label easily applied to “Western Christian Culture” or large groups of believers engaged in admirable activities.  

Though they claim not to “expect perfection,” they “would expect that a ‘Christian’ society in this sense would generally distinguish itself from most other societies in the commendability of both its ideals and its practices.  Family, churches, and state would on the whole be properly formed.  Justice and charity would normally be shown toward minorities and toward the poor and other unfortunate people.  The society would be predominantly peaceful and law-abiding.  Proper moral standards would generally prevail.  Cultural activities such as learning, business, or the subduing of nature would be pursued basically in accord with God’s will.  In short, such as society would be a proper model for us to imitate” (p. 31).  

The authors apparently share the repudiation of the “myth of American innocence” etched in the works of their academic peers.  “Young Historians,” Hatch says, “taking a fresh look at the American past, have discovered a saga of injustice, exploitation, greed, and self-righteousness.  As C. Vann Woodward recently noted, the vocabulary of early America now is completely reversed:  ‘discover’ of the New World has become ‘invasion’; ‘settlement’ is now ‘conquest’; and what was once the ‘Virgin Land’ is now called a ‘Widowed Land.’  The advancement of the Western frontier is sometimes pictured as genocide of the Indians, and the achievements of the Revolution are considered in terms of their excessive cost for the underprivileged and those in bondage.  The ‘glorious experiment’ which called for adoration has given way to a tale of infamy which demands repentance” (p. 121).  Could bona fide “Christians” have orchestrated all these abominations?  Obviously not!  And since the authors of The Search for Christian America  accept the consensus of the “young historians,” they could obviously find little or nothing “Christian” in American history.  Still more:  given such definitions and standards, it seems obvious that no nation could ever qualify as Christian and false claims to such status prove deleterious.  If no nation could ever, realistically, be Christian, it follows that America was never really Christian.  

Each of the three writers contributed chapters rooted in his historical specialization, and the project begins with George Marsden looking at “America’s ‘Christian’ Origins:  Puritan New England as a Case Study.”  Though the Puritans clearly sought to establish a “city on a hill,” working out their covenant theology, they just as clearly failed, mistreating dissidents and massacring Indians, transgressing biblical precepts and rather quickly sliding into both a works-righteous moralism and theological Unitarianism.  “Puritan culture, then, for all its merits, can hardly qualify as a model Christian culture” (p. 45).  Nor, Mark Noll argues, were the American Revolutionaries particularly Christian.  Though he acknowledges the powerful transformations resulting from the First Great Awakening led by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, he disagrees with those historians who connect the spiritual revival of the 1740s with the political upheaval of the 1770s.  

Though preachers and patriots routinely used religious language in the Revolutionary Era, Noll insists we “should be appalled at the way in which the Bible, and Christian categories generally, were abused” thereby (p. 64).  Indeed, he asserts, this era was rather abysmal, for “the gospel was prostituted, the church was damaged, and, finally, the spread of the Christian faith itself was hindered” (p. 65).  He insists America’s Founders such as Washington “were at once genuinely religious but not specifically Christian” (p. 72).  In sum:  “The Revolution was not Christian, but it stood for many things compatible with the Christian faith.  It was not biblical, though many of hits leaders respected Scripture.  It did not establish the United States on a Christian foundation, even if it created many commendable precedents” (p. 100).  Emphatically, says Noll:  “America is not a Christian country, nor has it ever been one” (p. 102).  

During the 80 years separating the War for Independence and the Civil War millions of Americans, especially in the West, embraced a fervent and uniquely American form of evangelical Christianity personified by Charles G. Finney.  Repudiating classic Calvinism, Nathan Hatch says, these believers trumpeted the importance of individual liberty in religion as well as politics.  Minimally educated Methodist and Baptist revivalists enraptured the masses, with the consequence that “traditional theology itself, along with the riches of the Christian heritage, had been largely set aside by 1830” (p. 119).  And though many of these believers, swept up in the Second Great Awakening, were personally devout, they failed to fundamentally transform the nature of the nation, leaving it less than authentically Christian.

In light of all this, there is, naturally, no possibility of any “return” to a Christian America that never existed!  All the calls for political renewal and a recovery of pristine religiously republican virtues must go for naught.  However, though “the American heritage is not ‘Christian’ or biblical in any strict sense, the generically Judeo-Christian aspects of this heritage may be relatively the best available for the health of the civilization” (p. 138).  

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Countering those historians who discount any distinctively Christian basis to this nation’s past, Michael Novak, a distinguished Catholic philosopher and public intellectual, argues—in On Two Wings:  Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (San Francisco:  Encounter Books, c. 2002)—that America was established as an explicitly Judeo-Christian nation.  Reaching this conclusion, however,  took him years of study to discover that “the way the story of the United States has been told for the past one hundred years is wrong.  It has cut off one of the two wings by which the American eagle flies, her compact with the God of the Jews” (p. 5).  The story of the Enlightenment (personified by Locke and Montesquieu, Jefferson and Franklin) and its role in shaping the nation has been effectively told.  Sadly neglected is the role of the Bible!  In fact, fully one-third of all citations in the works of the founders were taken from Scripture, whereas only ten percent cited Montesquieu, the most influential of all secular writers; even the most secular of the founders, Thomas Jefferson, suggested the Seal of the United States depict “‘the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.’  He later concluded his second inaugural address with this same image:  ‘I shall need . . . the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life’” (p. 8).  

Jefferson incarnated what Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated, in his magisterial Democracy in America:  “‘There is no country in the world in which the boldest political theories of the eighteenth-century philosophers are put so effectively into practice as in America.  Only their anti-religious doctrines have never made any headway in that country.’  Indeed, Tocqueville went further:  ‘For the Americans the ideas of Christianity and liberty are so completely mingled that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive of the one without the other’” (p. 31).  At this point, Novak repeatedly emphasizes the statement of one of the most influential of the founders, Benjamin Rush:  “‘A Christian cannot fail of being a Republican’” (p. 35).   A Christian cannot fail of being a Republican!  Sharing Rush’s position in a 1807 letter addressed to him, John Adams declared:  “‘The Bible contains the most profound philosophy, the most perfect morality, and the most refined policy, that ever was conceived upon earth.  It is the most republican book in the world’” (p. 37).  Accordingly, Adams and his colleagues asserted their understanding of “rights” in religious rather than secular terms.  They were original rights, rooted “‘in the frame of human nature, in the constitution of the intellectual and moral world,’” not granted by kings or parliaments (p. 78).  So Alexander Hamilton insisted:  “‘The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records.  They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power’” (p. 132).  

Having established his position, Novak devotes the final sections of his book to answering “ten questions about the founding” and providing biographical vignettes of some of the “forgotten founders” (men who were both deeply religious and major 18th revolutionary leaders) such as George Mason and James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.  Today’s overwhelmingly secular historians generally imply that all of the 100 founders were akin to the least religious of them—Franklin, Jefferson and Madison.   But, in truth:  “Virtually all the signers of the Declaration and Constitution were churchgoing men” (p. 129).  Hamilton, for example, routinely knelt by his bed and prayed before retiring and asked to take Communion while on his deathbed.  John Witherspoon, Princeton’s Presbyterian president, exercised enormous influence in both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention.   Digging into the original sources one finds persuasive evidence that this nation’s founders were, in fact, deeply Christian men who openly relied upon their faith while establishing the United States of America.  

Novak’s skill in assembling the evidence—amply evident in his extensive citations—and setting forth cogent arguments makes this treatise both scintillating and persuasive.  

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Thomas S. Kidd, a history professor at Baylor University, roots his God of Liberty:  A Religious History of the American Revolution (New York:  Basic Books, c. 2010) in a meticulous, in-depth study of primary sources.  Consequently, his assertions are highly credible—though his presentation targets a scholarly rather than popular audience.  At its inception, he argues, this nation’s “religion was both diverse and thriving,” sustaining a “public spirituality shared by the revolutionary era’s evangelicals, mainstream Christians, liberal rationalists, and deists [who] established many of America’s most cherished freedoms” (p. 10).  Though they clearly differed doctrinally, they were all equally committed to and fought for the establishment of a “religious republic” committed to religious liberty.  

Kidd sees the Revolution as a political outgrowth of the remarkable mid-18th century spiritual movement he earlier portrayed in The Great Awakening:  A Brief History with Documents.  In a chapter titled “‘No King but King Jesus’:  The Great Awakening and the First American Revolution’” he shows how the preaching of Jonathan  Edwards and George Whitefield (and the churches springing up along the western frontier) incubated a “spiritual democracy” that helped fuel the drive for independence from Great Britain.  As Pastor Nathanial Whitaker declared, delivering a eulogy for Whitefield, the great evangelist “‘was greatly concerned for the liberties of America, and under God it was in no small measure owing to him, that the Stamp Act, that first attack upon our liberties in these colonies was repealed’” (p. 34).  Just as preachers in the Great Awakening challenged the authority (the “spiritual tyranny”) of the established churches so too their hearers easily challenged the “tyrannical” authority of the Crown.  

When the Quebec Act (assuring Catholics in Canada that they would enjoy protection as England assumed control of that region and shifted Quebec’s border south to the Ohio River) was passed in 1774, many Colonists (New Englanders in particular) were alarmed.  Alexander Hamilton, just beginning his studies at King’s College in New York, assailed the act “as an ‘atrocious infraction’ on Christian liberty and the rights of Englishmen” (p. 69).  Anti-Catholic alarms easily turned into anti-Episcopal agitations as back-country Baptists in the South demanded an end to the established Anglican Church.  “General Gage, who had become the martial-law governor of Massachusetts in May 1774, wrote that the Quebec Act unfortunately ended hope of limiting the crisis to Boston.  In the hinterlands of the province, where ‘sedition flows copiously from the pulpits,’ a patriotic ‘flame blazed out in all parts at once beyond the conception of every body,’ Gage remarked” (p. 71).  

Evangelicals, Kidd insists, cleared the way for the American Revolution.  For example, Patrick Henry (who derived both his beliefs and speaking style from the Great Awakening) believed that the Virginians’ battle with Britain was “a ‘holy cause of liberty’” and that “‘God would fight on their behalf’” (p. 76).  For 30 years evangelicals had been asserting “groundbreaking notions of limited government, the sacred right of conscience, and the people’s duty to resist ungodly laws and governments” (p. 78).  Though they easily employed the language and thought of John Locke (as did Jonathan Edwards in his theology), their deepest convictions and insights came from Scripture and the Natural Law.  Even Thomas Paine—despite his growing theological skepticism—chose to rely on “religiously inspired language and arguments in Common Sense,” the most significant political pamphlet of the revolutionary era, resplendent with the “rhetoric of evangelical dissent” (p. 88).    

Founders such as Samuel Adams hoped the revolution would inaugurate in Boston a “Christian Sparta”—a virtuous city sustained by strong moral standards manifestly lacking in London.  “‘Will men never be free!’ he exclaimed.  ‘They will be free no longer than while they remain virtuous’” (p. 98).  Adams was, Kidd says, “articulating a new philosophy of the Patriot cause:  Christian republicanism” (p. 98).  He was joined in this by scores of pastors and Patriot leaders, including John Witherspoon (who synthesized both vocations and stands out as one of the most influential revolutionary figures) and John Jay, who “proclaimed that if ‘virtue, honor, the love of liberty and of science’ were to remain at the heart of the Republic, then rising generations had to be taught to be free” (p. 111).  Summing it all up, George Washington, in his 1796 Farewell Address, said:  “‘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 labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness—these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens’” Warning against any weakening of religion and morality, any supposition that humanistic education could replace them, he insisted that “‘religion and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle’” (p. 112).  

As was evident when Washington freed his slaves at his death, religious and moral principles were challenged during this time by the problematic status of slavery in the colonies.  A few decades earlier almost no Christians questioned the legitimacy of owning slaves—both George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, the great leaders of the Great Awakening, owned slaves.  Yet as evangelical thinkers such as Patrick Henry mused on the notion that all me are created equal they could not avoid wondering at the enormity of some men owning others.  In a 1773 letter, Henry (a slave-owner who never freed his slaves) wondered why “‘that at a time, when the rights of humanity are defined and understood with precision, in a country, above all others fond of liberty, that in such an age and in such a country, we find men professing a religion the most human, mild, gentle and generous, adopting a principle [slavery] as repugnant to humanity, as it is inconsistent with the Bible, and destructive to liberty?’” (p. 147).  

The Declaration of Independence famously declared that “all men are created equal” and many of the founders (Benjamin Rush, John Jay, George Mason) clearly saw the need to end the repugnant institution of slavery.   Prominent Baptist preachers in the South denounced it, longing (in the words of John Poindexter) “‘for the happy time to come, when the church of Christ shall loose the bands of wickedness, undo the heavy burdens, and let the oppressed go free’” (p. 157).  Methodists in the 1780s united in opposing it.  And as increasing numbers of slaves embraced evangelical Christianity a religiously-based anti-slave movement made headway.  In time, of course, compromises (both theological and political) postponed for half-a-century a resolution to the controversy, but the seeds for emancipation were clearly sown during the revolutionary era.  

Kidd insists that what emerged from the America Revolution was a religious republic—not narrowly Christian but certainly aligned with the “Hebrew metaphysics” celebrated in Michael Novak’s On Two Wings.    

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While reading a derogatory and condescending discussion of David Barton in The Anointed (by Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson) I noticed that they rarely referred to Barton’s basic text, titled Original Intent:  The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion (Aledo, TX:  WallBuilder Press, 2010)–instead  relying on internet materials and statements from his critics.  So I determined to see exactly what’s presented in Original Intent and found it more a compilation of original sources (quotations, biographical vignettes, references) than a historical treatise.  

Basically, Barton argues that recent judicial decisions regarding “the separation of church and state” violate the Constitution and ignore the precedents set by the nation’s founders that were followed for 150 years.  The prescription was set forth by James Wilson, an original Justice on the Supreme Court and one of only six Founders who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution:  “‘The first and governing maxim in the interpretation of a statute is to discover the meaning of those who made it’” (p. 28).  The men who wrote and adopted the First Amendment, with its guarantee of religious freedom, clearly supported a Judeo-Christian metaphysic and presence in the public square.  The “separation of church and state,” so rigorously enforced by today’s judiciary, is (as Justice William Rehnquist said) “‘a misleading metaphor’” (p. 49).  The phrase was lifted from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to assure some Baptists that they need not fear for their freedom to follow their religious convictions, for the government would never intrude on them.  Barton then summarizes 21 court decisions upholding this position.  

Presenting historical evidence supporting claims that America is a “Christian nation,” Barton cites a collage of colonial documents—the Mayflower Compact, colonial charters, college constitutions, Patriots’ statements, Continental Congress’s calls for days of prayer and fasting,  the Declaration of Independence, etc.—to demonstrate this case.  He then records a multitude of statements by the nation’s founders that indicate this was, at its inception, a deeply “Christian” country.   That secular historians and jurists now seek to deny this reveals their personal prejudice rather than any openness to evidence.