America’s Christian Heritage

My latest letter to the Fond du Lac Reporter:

George Ciesla’s April 19 letter illustrates a growing problem in America: severe confusion over our nation’s identity.  Is America a “Christian nation”?  What does that phrase even mean?  Let’s try to set the record straight.

As of 2008, 76% of Americans identify themselves as Christians [PDF link].  Accordingly, Christianity has shaped American life since the beginning.  So “Christian nation” is a perfectly legitimate descriptive term.

Furthermore, we are founded in significant part upon the Christian idea that every person is created equal, loved equally by the God who made us all.  In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson said government’s purpose is to secure the inalienable rights “endowed [on us] by our Creator.”  In his Farewell Address, George Washington called religion an “indispensable support” to political prosperity, warning us not “to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”  Ben Franklin proposed opening the Philadelphia Convention each day with prayer, because he believed that “God governs in the affairs of men,” and he feared the prospect of forming a government solely “by Human Wisdom, and leav[ing] it to chance, war, and conquest.”

In his landmark work Democracy in America, French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville explained that democracy tends to cause each person “to be occupied with himself alone,” but religion combats self-centered narcissism by drawing man “away from contemplation of himself” and imposing “some duties toward the human species or in common with it.”  Modern research demonstrates Tocqueville’s point—in Who Really Cares, Syracuse University Professor Arthur Brooks finds that “religious people are far more charitable than nonreligious people.”

Were all the Framers Christians?  No, but many were, and even those who didn’t accept Christ (namely Franklin and Jefferson) believed in a higher power and recognized religion’s importance to any free society.  Nobody familiar with their writings can deny this—many, many more examples can be found in books such as America’s God & Country Encyclopedia of Quotations by William Federer and God of Our Fathers by Josiah Richards.

To deny America’s Christian heritage, revisionists often cite the Treaty of Tripoli, which states America is “not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”  What they don’t tell you: the treaty was an (unsuccessful) effort to appease the Muslim pirates of the Barbary Coast (to whom President John Adams also agreed to pay protection money) attacking American ships at the time—hardly comparable to the scores of public statements and private correspondences that reveal the mark of faith in our forefathers’ thinking, not the least of which is our very Declaration of Independence!

True, the Constitution does not mention God.  True, we have a separation of church and state.  But both statements are irrelevant.  Mr. Ciesla mishears the phrase “Christian nation” as “Christian theocracy” or “Christian government,” but it means neither.  It’s a statement about our ideals, history and culture—not our government.  Maybe the problem is liberalism’s view of government: they idealize it as the solution to everyone’s problems, so they cannot imagine that any part of the nation can be considered separately from the state.

The Founders guaranteed freedom of religion and conscience for all Americans, and rightly so.  They wanted to prevent the state from persecuting churches and churches from oppressing the people, but despite what today’s secular revisionists may tell you, they never intended to keep religion stuffed inside pews and living rooms, never to be seen in the public square.  They never meant to purge religious thought and speech from political debate.  There’s nothing “prejudiced” about telling the truth about our heritage…but there is something “un-American” about suppressing it.


3 thoughts on “America’s Christian Heritage

  1. The Founders referred to religion and morality all the time, but rarely to Christianity. There were no such thing as Christians to the Founders. There were Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Calvinists, Quakers, Presbyterians etc but no such thing as a “Christian”. These sects were constantly vying against each other not merely for converts, but for political power. Ecumenism was not to be for two hundred years.

    The harsh truth is that the First Amendment was motivated by fear of the extraordinary level of religious bigotry that existed at the time. John Jay, co-author of the Federalist Papers, ran for governor of New York on a platform that included the exile of all Catholics from the state and the seizure of their property. There was nothing unusual about campaigns against particular religious groups.

    Most states had established religions that used their power to oust other religions from the state. Massachusetts, as usual the most irrational state in the country, actually issued a death sentence to Roger Williams should he ever return there after being exiled. His crime? Advocating religious tolerance!!! Although this was well before the American Revolution it illustrated just how irrational religions became when they joined with the state.

    Not surprisingly, it was Roger Williams who coined the expression “wall of separation” to describe the proper relation of church and state. Although Jefferson is usually credited with it, he was merely using a phrase that the Danbury Baptists would know since they greatly admired Williams.

    However, among the thinkers of the time the most important religious disagreements centered on whether or not knowledge of God could be attained only by truths revealed in scripture or truths observed in nature, that is, revealed religion versus natural religion.

    Washington often spoke of the importance of religion but even his own minister stated that Washington never once took the sacraments. Does that jibe with revealed religion or natural religion?

    Franklin, who asked for prayer before each session of Congress, stated many times that was more impressed by the naturalistic arguments for Deism than any offered by the religion he was brought up in. His epitaph shows that he believed in reincarnation, but there is no mention of Christ and no quotes from scripture. Does that sound like he believed in the inerrancy of the Bible? Or the divinity of Christ?

    The point is that people who publicly stated support for religion did not necessarily accept what today are considered “Christian” principles.

    Is there any support in the Constitution for:

    The existence of God?
    The inerrancy of the Bible?
    The divinity of Christ?

    There is none, absolutely none. Yet these are the most basic ideas of modern Christianity.

    The Constitution could easily have been written by atheists since most of the principles embodied in the Constitution not only had no basis in Christianity but were often developed by non-Christians.

    The separation of powers was developed by the Roman Republic which lasted twice as long as the United States has existed. Their experience under Etruscan rule showed them the dangers of concentrated power.

    Common law was likewise rooted in the Republic and the early Roman Empire where Christianity was held in contempt as was Judaism.

    It was the hereditary kings that claimed to hold their positions by divine right, not common men who rose to prominence by their own efforts. From the time of Charlemagne religion has always favored the tyrant over the freeman. It was always used to justify tyranny and rarely to oppose it. The Founders were well aware of this and the lack of any mention of God or Christianity in the Constitution was not an oversight, but a deliberate attempt to keep government secular and based on facts and reason, not faith and revelation.

    America is a Christian nation in the sense that most Americans are self described Christians. However, in the sense of being ruled by the fundamental principles of Christianity, America is most definitely not a Christian nation.

    (“Self described” is the operative phrase here since many Christian sects do not accept that other sects are truly “Christian”. Ask a Baptist about those Catholic “idolaters” or a Methodist about Mormon “blasphemy” or just about any member of the religious right about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ).


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