A significant debate exists among historians and popularizing pundits about the religious origins of America and the religious views of her founding fathers. Some assert that America was a "Christian nation" from the beginning. Others point to the broad deism of prominent founders such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison to suggest that the philosophical views of the Enlightenment provided the primary basis for the Founders’ convictions. I have always felt the truth was not at the extremes. America was deeply influenced by Christians but the founders clearly never intended to create a Christian nation. Read the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Christ is not mentioned, nor the church of Christ. Most of the states favored one church over another but this was not the real issue either, at least not at that time. The founders were clearly thinking as far forward as possible. I doubt that they had any idea of the various religious competitors with the Christian faith that would arise centuries later; e.g. Muslims, Hindus, Taoists, etc.

foundingfathers_sml For this reason I have always found references to our “Judeo-Christian” roots as disingenuous. Jews were not a part of our founding and only much later were they welcomed and accepted, especially because of impact of Reform Judaism. In some ways the Jews had to prove that they were good Americans before they were widely accepted. Even Catholics were denied basic rights at the founding of most states. Massachusetts gave them the franchise in 1833! They too had to prove their loyalty to the nation in much the same way that we are now asking Muslims to do. 

Cherie Harder, president of the evangelical Trinity Forum, adds: “Whatever the current ideological and historical divides between evangelicals and skeptics, one of the most interesting aspects of the founding was the unusual alliance between them – which ultimately ushered in the religious liberty we now expect as an intrinsic human right.” She is spot on in her observation.

Most of the original colonies had established a state church (generally Anglican or Presbyterian, though Maryland came along a little later to be a Catholic state) which, in some cases, eagerly prosecuted – and sometimes persecuted – denominations such as the Baptists and the Quakers. (The Quakers found a home in Pennsylvania and the Baptists in Rhode Island.) These minority Christian groups harbored no hopes for dominance in the new land. They did advocate for the freedom to worship as they believed. By this means they made strange bedfellows in their common cause for religious freedom with the deists and Unitarians of their time. All of them opposed the civil authority of established churches (the Christian "power centers" in the culture) to secure the full freedom of religious expression. They saw, in the Bill of Rights, that this freedom should be unhindered by the privileging of one denomination over another. They interpreted Jefferson’s famous statement about “a wall of separation” in a way that favored the view that the state had no interest in supporting and favoring the church, any church or religion, in particular or in general.

kidd-god-book Professor Thomas S. Kidd, in his magisterial work God of Liberty, writes:

The evangelicals wanted disestablishment so they could freely preach the gospel; the rationalists and deists wanted disestablishment because they felt an enlightened government should not punish people for their religious views. The combination of the two agendas would transform America, helping make it both intensely religious and religiously free.

Os_Guiness_1 Trinity Forum Founder, and evangelical author, Os Guinness has written eloquently about the dangers of both a sacred public square, where religion is established by the state, and “a naked public square,” where faith is hindered or marginalized to private and pietistic expression only. Cherrie Harder is quite right when she says that: “It is worth noting that one of the greatest achievements of the founding – the securing of religious freedom and disestablishment of religion – came about precisely because it was in the best interest of both the faithful and the skeptical to ensure that the public square neither privileged nor penalized the practice of faith, but secured the freedom to think, speak, and worship publicly, as well as privately.”

What we had in America’s origins was a strong and unusual alliance between people of deep Christian faith as well as doubters and Deists. This is why Jefferson and Franklin had close association, in this regard, with groups like the Baptists. Today we still have both sides present in our constant cultural battles between those who would marginalize or banish faith from the public square and those who assert the cultural predominance of a "Christian America." The truth, in this instance, is not at the extremes of this debate. It is in the middle where it was in the Founders. These men worked to give us an incredible blessing. Can we keep it and use it well? Their gift was a nation where the most devout Christians, the most faithful Muslims and the most obnoxious atheists may live with the same freedom to propagate their beliefs without interference by the state.

The so-called Christian Right, and the older and more liberal Christian Left, both seem to miss the real genius of our system and how it works for our overall good. This is a free land where religion can and should play a role in public life without the interference and support of the state in the process. And it is a land where a plurality of faiths is not only tolerated but encouraged so far as the state is concerned. If you are a Christian you should thank God for this amazing gift. Personally, I think it is America’s greatest gift to her people and, for that matter, to the whole world. I think this gift is continually threatened by people of many faiths who seek to use the state for their religious goals, good or bad. This is why religious zeal, on every side, disturbs me when it directly enters the realm of the state.

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Comments

  1. John Ross March 2, 2011 at 8:21 am

    John, in a recent Facebook discussion of this issue I said that, speaking as a Briton, it seems to me, when you boil down the mixture, the faith of the Founding Fathers was a pretty indeterminate one, a heady brew of Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, Methodist and Roman Catholic theologies, strongly laced with Calvinism, to which was added a spicing of Deist philosophy.
    By deciding not to endow Christianity with legal status and pritection, they did not found a Christian nation, but, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, rather a pluralist one where people were free to be Christians or not as they chose.
    Personally, I prefer what the Founding Fathers so assiduously rejected, the Establishment in law of a particular form of Christianity: Anglicanism in England, Presbyterianism in Scotland. Though this is no guarantee of a vigorous and dynamic Church. Just this week High Court judges, Lord Justice Munby and Mr Justice Beatson, flew in the face of the Establishment principle and ruled that Britain is now a secular state: “the aphorism that ‘Christianity is part of the common law of England’ is now mere rhetoric”. Ironically, this judgement was made ‘in a court where witnesses swear on the Bible and invoke God’s help in telling the truth.’ The judges upheld a decision not to allow a Christian couple to foster children because they believed homosexuality was wrong, and personal religious convictions come second to rights of sexual orientation. Cf. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/cristinaodone/100078209/christianity-isn%E2%80%99t-dying-it%E2%80%99s-being-eradicated/
    The fact is, a spiritually healthy Church can ride out such storms out, but the flaccid and inert Church in Britain today may well, in time, succumb to such attacks.

  2. Jon March 3, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    There is missional importance to the label of being a “Christian Nation” as well. Far too many people around the world identify the policies of the U.S. with Christianity. This hinders missions by marring and confusing the witness of the Church. I’m afraid American Christians tend to view the “Christian Nation” label as a way of saying we are entitled to have people listen to us domestically, without regard for what that label communicates abroad.

  3. Don Broesamle March 3, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    John, it seems to me the real point is continually being lost in the worry over the phrase “Christian nation,” as if the Founders were all looking to “establish” us as such. Clearly and historically that is totally inconsistent with what they DID “establish” – namely a form of government – influenced and directed by what we honestly and consistently find at its genesis: a pervasive “Judeo-Christian” fundamental.
    A fact such as “Jews were not a part of our founding” is likewise distracting from the real point which you have so correctly exposed by your exhortation, that as “a Christian I should thank God for this amazing gift.” It IS an amazing gift, and it IS from God. The real point, it seems, is that we, as did the Founders, must understand this gift as being informed and strengthened by, and emulative of the very character and nature of the biblical God of our Creation.
    The real point is that the Founders understood this adherence to such a set of “moral standards” in our human societal and governmental interactions as the only means of obviating the historic failures within all other forms of government to consistently “provide for the common good.”
    It seems to me that it is this peculiar “Judeo-Christian ethic” woven into our form of government and our social fabric that has kept and preserved us lo these many years. It is that exceptional characteristic that allows us to stand apart in history when measured objectively with other societies and governments. Thanks be to God.
    It also seems to me, when we drill down into other societies where we see commendable and responsible characteristics, that these themselves will have found their strengthening from that ubiquitous “ethic” drawn on by our Founders, and which resides in the heart of every man, placed there by the hand of that very God to whom you so properly encourage us to give our profound, unswerving acknowledgment, praise and thanks.
    Does it matter if we are a “Christian Nation?” No.
    Does it matter we understand, value, give gratitude for and defend our “exceptional” moral standards and roots?
    I surely expect so. For it seems to me do devalue or turn our backs on that foundational moral character is to turn our backs on both the people we are called to care for, and the God who has called us to be that “salt and light.”

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