God and Country

Did America have a Christian Founding? This disputed question, far from being only of historical interest, has important implications for how we conceive of the role of religion in the […]
May 26, 2016
Did America have a Christian Founding?
This disputed question, far from being only of historical interest, has important implications for how we conceive of the role of religion in the American Republic.
One could argue the significance of the Enlightenment and Deism for the birth of the American republic, and especially the relationship between church and state within it, can hardly be overstated. Deistic beliefs played a central role in the framing of the new republic.
What would constitute a Christian Founding?
The Founders certainly acted as Christians in their private and public lives. With a few exceptions, such as Franklin and Jefferson. Some say Jefferson converted to Christianity on his death bed, but is that even so? Jefferson always seemed to take theological studies throughout his life. His statements in public service offered us centrist ideas with neutrality on religious matters within duties of office. Jefferson issued calls for prayer and fasting as governor of Virginia, and in his revision of Virginia’s statutes, he drafted bills stipulating when the governor could appoint “days of public fasting and humiliation, or thanksgiving” and to punish “Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers.” As a member of the Continental Congress, he proposed that the nation adopt a seal containing the image of Moses “extending his hand over the sea, causing it to overwhelm Pharaoh,” and the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” He closed his second inaugural address by encouraging all Americans to join him in seeking “the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old….”
But what about the other hundreds of Founders?  When people think of the Founders they only view a handful of key figures. Our nation did not begin in 1776, but more than one hundred fifty years earlier. The Quakers were seriously Christian. It is certainly the case that colonists were attracted to the New World by economic opportunity (in New England as well as in the South), and yet even in the southern colonies the protection and promotion of Christianity was more important than many authors assume.
Virginia’s 1610 legal code begins:
Whereas his Majesty, like himself a most zealous prince, has in his own realms a principal care of true religion and reverence to God and has always strictly commanded his generals and governors, with all his forces wheresoever, to let their ways be, like his ends, for the glory of God…
The Charter of Liberties and Frame of Government of the Province of Pennsylvania (1681) begins by making it clear that God has ordained government, and it even quotes Romans 13 to this effect. Article 38 of the document lists “offenses against God”.
On the surface, the War for American Independence appears to be an inherently un-Christian event. The Apostle Paul, in Romans 13, seems to leave little room for revolution: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained by God. Whosoever therefore resists the power, resists the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” Historically, Christian thinkers have taken this and similar biblical passages to prohibit rebellion against civic authorities. However, in the 12th century, some Christian scholars began to allow for the possibility that inferior magistrates might overthrow evil kings.
It is worth noting that all of these men wrote before Locke published his Two Treatises of Government and that this tradition was profoundly influential in America. Indeed, between 55 percent and 75 percent of white citizens in this era associated themselves with Calvinist churches, and members of the tradition were significantly over-represented among American intellectual elites.This was noticed by the other side, as suggested by the Loyalist Peter Oliver, who railed against the “black Regiment, the dissenting Clergy, who took so active a part in the Rebellion.” King George himself reportedly referred to the War for Independence as “a Presbyterian Rebellion.”
The Declaration of Independence, the most famous document produced by the Continental Congress during the War for Independence, proclaims: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As well, this text references “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and closes by “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world” and noting the signers’ “reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” The Founders’ use of Christian rhetoric and arguments becomes even more evident if one looks at other statements of colonial rights and concerns such as the Suffolk Resolves, the Declaration of Rights, and the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms—to say nothing of the dozen explicitly Christian calls for prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving issued by the Continental and Confederation Congresses.
Some scholars have argued that the use of “distant” words for God or “vague and generic God-language” like “Nature’s God,” Creator,” and “Providence” in the Declaration and other texts is evidence that the Founders were deists. However, indisputably orthodox Christians regularly used such appellations. Some have argued that America began as a Christian country but that the authors of the Constitution recognized that this was not a good thing, and so they created, in the words of Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, a “Godless Constitution.” To reinforce this point, the Founders added the First Amendment to the Constitution, which begins “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
Before discussing the positive influence of Christian ideas on the American Founders, let me briefly suggest the central reason why the Constitution appears to be “Godless.” Simply put, the Founders were creating a national government for a very few limited purposes—notably those enumerated in Article I, Section 8. There was almost universal agreement that if there was to be legislation on religious or moral matters, it should be done by state and local governments. All of this was discussed among the Founders during the framing of the Constitution through various debates and the Federalist Papers. God was mentioned numerous times by the majority. In fact, states remained active in this business well into the 20th century. It is true that the last state church was disestablished in 1832, but many states retained religious tests for public office, had laws aimed at restricting vice, required prayer in schools, and so forth. Because the federal government was not to be concerned with these issues, they were not addressed in the Constitution. The First Amendment merely reinforced this understanding with respect to the faith—i.e., Congress has no power to establish a national church or restrict the free exercise of religion.
They firmly believed that God ordained moral standards, that legislation should be made in accordance with these standards, and that moral laws took precedence over human laws. This conviction manifests itself in their abstract reflections (e.g., James Wilson’s law lectures, parts of which read like St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica) and practical decisions (e.g., all but one Supreme Court Justice prior to John Marshall argued publicly that the Court could strike down an act of Congress if it violated natural law).
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Faith and belief in God led many Founders to conclude that religious liberty should be extensively protected. Yet many also thought that civic authorities should encourage Christianity and that it is appropriate to use religious language in the public square. By the late 18th century, some Founders were beginning to question the wisdom of religious establishments, primarily because they thought that such establishments hurt true religion.
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To person, the Founders were committed to protecting religious liberty. This conviction was usually based upon the theological principle that humans have a duty to worship God as their consciences dictate. A good illustration of this is George Mason’s 1776 draft of Article XVI of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. It reads:
That as Religion, or the Duty which we owe to our divine and omnipotent Creator, and the Manner of discharging it, can be governed only by Reason and Conviction, not by Force or Violence; and therefore that all Men shou’d enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion, according to the Dictates of Conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the Magistrate….
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James Madison, in his first significant public act, objected to the use of “toleration” in the article, believing that it implied that religious liberty was a grant from the state that could be revoked at will. The Virginia Convention agreed, and Article XVI was amended to make it clear that “the free exercise of religion” is a right, not a privilege granted by the state.
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Mason’s draft of Article XVI was reprinted throughout the states and had an important impact on subsequent state constitutions and the national Bill of Rights. By the end of the Revolutionary era, every state offered significant protection of religious liberty. The federal Constitution of 1787 did not, but only because its supporters believed the national government did not have the delegated power to pass laws interfering with religious belief or practice. In the face of popular outcry, the first Congress proposed and the states ratified a constitutional amendment prohibiting Congress from restricting the free exercise of religion.
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In 1775, at least nine of the 13 colonies had established churches. Although establishments took a variety of forms, they generally entailed the state providing favorable treatment for one denomination—treatment which often included financial support. Members of religious denominations other than the official established church were usually tolerated, but they were occasionally taxed to support the state church, and some were not permitted to hold civic office.
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After independence, most states either disestablished their churches (particularly states where the Church of England was previously established) or moved to a system of “plural” or “multiple” establishments. Under the latter model, citizens were taxed to support their own churches. Although a few Founders challenged establishments of any sort in the name of religious liberty, most arguments were framed in terms of which arrangement would be best for Christianity.
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So did America have a Christian Founding? History is complicated, and we should always be suspicious of simple answers to difficult questions. As we have seen, there is precious little evidence that the Founders were deists, wanted religion excluded from the public square, or desired the strict separation of church and state. On the other hand, they identified themselves as Christians, were influenced in important ways by Christian ideas, and generally thought it appropriate for civic authorities to encourage Christianity.
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“May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.” – George Washington 1790 letter to a “Hebrew Congregation” in Newport, Rhode Island.
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The Founders’ insight that democracy requires a moral people and that faith is an important, if not indispensable, support for morality. Such faith may well flourish best without government support, but it should not have to flourish in the face of government hostility.
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In conclusion, from all historical data gathered, from the first colonies to the creation of a new Republic, the founding charters and documents, it would be absolutely fool-hearty to say our American Republic was not founded as a Christian nation, for in all it’s secularism embodied with the Constitution, you find within, God.

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Kenny

Christian. American. Father. Husband. Friend. Brother. Son. Grandson. Uncle. Cubs Fan. Digital.

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