A Balanced Evangelical View of America’s Founding

A Balanced Evangelical View of America’s Founding October 2, 2012

I recently reviewed David Aikman’s excellent book One Nation Without God? for Christianity Today. As I note in the review, Aikman’s book takes a balanced view of America’s Christian heritage:

In the chapter on history (the longest section of the book), Aikman reviews modern Christian providentialist literature, led by books such as Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory, that portrays the American founding as uniquely directed by God. He contrasts this approach with that of academic Christian historians such as [Mark] Noll and [George] Marsden (my doctoral adviser), who criticized the providentialist approach in their book The Search for Christian America (co-written with another accomplished historian, Nathan Hatch). Aikman seems satisfied neither with the providentialists nor their academic critics. He chides Noll and Marsden for seizing on moral failings of the colonial and Revolutionary Founders as evidence that America never was a “properly” Christian nation. In Aikman’s view, the Puritans and Patriot Founders had many faults—as do we all—but these do not fundamentally detract from their accomplishments and the Christian quality of their efforts…

Aikman prefers to sketch the religious character of the colonial, Revolutionary, and early national periods, letting readers see the good and the bad, the religious and the worldly, and decide for themselves whether it all amounted to a “Christian nation”… Aikman maintains that, despite the quote-bending contortions of popular Christian writers, key figures such as Franklin and Jefferson were Deists, not Christians. While rejecting many tenets of biblical orthodoxy, including the divinity of Christ, they affirmed belief in a Creator God who endowed his creatures with a range of rights and liberties. They were not, then, atheists or secularists, and they helped frame some of the essential religious principles that animated the Revolution. Among those principles were religious liberty, God’s providential role in history, and the need for moral virtue to sustain the republic.

As illustrated by the recent controversy over David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies (on which I reported for WORLD Magazine), there is a pressing need for a balanced approach to the American founding among evangelicals. While many balk at efforts to construe America’s founding as unequivocally, universally Christian, it would also be problematic to deny the deep Christian (or at least theistic) influence on the Founders’ intellectual world.

Although historians have written a number of outstanding books on religious aspects of the founding, including Noll’s America’s God, we seem to be having a mini-Renaissance today in our understanding of faith’s role in the Revolutionary period, with popular and academic books including Aikman’s, my blogging colleague John Fea’s Was America Founded as  a Christian Nation?, as well as two books in preparation on the Bible and the founding by American University’s Daniel Dreisbach, and Vanderbilt’s James Byrd (and there’s also a couple we might mention by your humble correspondent!).

I hope these books will enhance and refine American evangelicals’ view of the Revolutionary era, helping us to see that while not every Founding Father was a Bible believer, they all lived in a Bible-suffused milieu. And while faith was hardly their only inspiration, Christian principles heavily informed the Founders’ beliefs in equality, liberty, and the nature of the American republic.

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  • kierkegaard71

    I have not read Aikman’s book, and I have only skimmed your linked review of this book. Yet one observation: the conflation of nation with church. Although Aikman may not have chosen his title, he clearly is referring to the “nation” of the United States of America, yet the subtitle is “The Battle for Christianity”. I guess I need to read his book, but I wonder: what is the battle for Christianity? how is it related to America? Is it a battle to ensure that the Christian faith stands for real belief, or that America stands for the truth as espoused by the Christian faith? I hope that, within his work, while appreciating the uniqueness of America vis a vis the Christian faith, he acknowledges that while America may fall, but the Christian faith stands. Without being aware of the “nation under God” reference, I could easily read his title as an indictment upon the Christian church (not America) abandoning God and belief. I find in the church a quasi-idolatry of America as “Christian nation”. I would hope that we can clearly separate the destiny and “call” of America with the destiny and call of the church.

  • This is actually one of the things I like about Aikman’s book — he finds it ironic that as others (especially in the global South) are turning to Christianity, many in the west are turning away. As a former China-based journalist, he has a good global perspective, which is often so badly missing in the Christian America literature.

  • Brian Westley

    “[Franklin and Jefferson] were not, then, atheists or secularists”

    I agree they weren’t atheists, but what definition of “secularist” are you using?

    Wikipedia: Secularism is the principle of separation of government institutions, and the persons mandated to represent the State, from religious institutions and religious dignitaries.

    I’d say they were secularists similar to Reverend Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

  • John C. Gardner

    I have started to read this book and it certainly is well written. It(fortunately) is not based on the Dave Barton view of American Christianity. This book(like those I have read by Dr. Kidd) is balanced and nuanced.

  • thank you John!

  • Jerry Lynch

    So many Christians decry the state of America and want a return to our Christian roots, which is, I feel, the reason for the “mini-renaisannce” today. Every brand of Christian will enumerate a growing list of moral problems with this country, something there is no need to repeat here. And this is my point: “You will know a tree by its fruit.” Where we are as a nation today answers the question of our roots.
    The very fact we got our start by violating Romans 13 and including slavery tells the tale. These are seeds of worldliness, not godliness. Follow the history of our many economic and political abuses “as we grew” and the indicators are all there as to our origin.

  • Larry Linn

    “The United States of America should have a foundation free from the influence of clergy.”— George Washington

    “The United States Constitutional Convention, except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”— Benjamin Franklin

    “This nation of ours was not founded on Christian principles.”— John Adams

    “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.”— James Madison, letter to William Bradford, 1771

    “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion;…” ~Treaty of Tripoli 1796

  • You write: “not every Founding Father was a Bible believer
    Besides Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, during the founding, who else did not believe the entire Bible was inspired?
    Using the personal convictions of two people to represent the founding fathers is tragic. It is the majority that determine the faith of the founding, and the States formed orthodox Christianity as their religion.

  • Where do I suggest that Jefferson and Franklin are representative of Americans’ faith in the founding era? I agree (and have argued in _God of Liberty_) that most Americans involved with the Patriot movement were conventional Christians, many of them serious evangelicals. Still, it remains true that “not every Founding Father was a Bible believer.” To Jefferson and Franklin you could obviously add Thomas Paine, and presumably some of the folks who bought the seventeen editions of his anti-Christian _Age of Reason_ printed between 1794 and 1796. Or the people joining the Unitarian movement among the Congregationalists. I am _not_ saying that these people were representative, merely that they were there in the founding period. I would also add that even skeptics like Jefferson maintained essential Christian/theistic assumptions, such as the idea that all men are created equal. I don’t think we disagree as much as you assume.

  • I see that you’ve posted this list of quotes elsewhere, Larry! http://blog.acton.org/archives/34428-america-the-acquisitive.html Yes, I am sure that five quotes picked from the enormous body of the Founders’ writings tell us everything we need to know. Got a source for that Adams quote, by the way? 🙂

  • You write: Where do I suggest that Jefferson and Franklin are representative of Americans’ faith in the founding era?

    In your earlier post: “not every Founding Father was a Bible believer”

    I can only assume you are refering to those you mentioned. I believe you need to provide written evidence supporting your above assertions. When Paine wrote Common Sense, the colonists considered him an orthodox christian. Using him is a non sequitur. The colonists despised Paine when <i.Age of Reason came out. Joining a unitarian movement doesn’t mean anything. You need specific quotes from specific people. The fact is all of the founders, besides those mentioned, believed in <i.sola scriptura.

  • Larry Linn

    Wow! Are you my groupie?