Weekend Post – Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Weekend Post – Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? September 19, 2010

Was America founded as a Christian nation?  The question is in the air.  On the one hand, the Restoring Honor ralliers and the “black robe brigade,” along with organizations or ministries such as Wallbuilders answer in the affirmative, recalling a hallowed founding period when America began with God.  On the other hand are all who are politically disinclined to associate with the aforementioned groups, and (they would say) those who are inclined to appreciate historical nuance.

Too often, those on the Right generally think that quotations from the Founders on the need of the American nation for God or on the importance of God and faith as a substructure supporting the legal and moral framework of American society, and quotations from Alexis de Tocqueville on the generally Christian character of the American people are sufficient to prove their case.  Too often, those on the Left think the simple fact that some of the Founders were Deists, or that some spoke passionately on the evils of a state church, are sufficient to prove theirs.

In such cases, the Right and the Left are not disagreeing so much as they are speaking of different things.  Conservative Christians do not mean that the Founders sought to establish a theocratic state, just as they do not seek a theocracy when they speak of “reclaiming a Christian America.”  There are at least four possible senses of “Christian America”:

  • A demographic sense: that the vast majority of Americans were/are Christians.
  • A social-moral sense: that the social-moral vision animating and permeating American society was/is (Judeo-)Christian.
  • A political sense: America was founded to have a Christian government.
  • A theological sense: America is especially (although not necessarily exclusively) chosen by God for a special purpose.

The first, at least in regard to the founding period, is a simple historical fact that should be beyond dispute.  The second is what conservative Christians generally mean when they say that America was once a Christian nation – and could be again.  The third is not claimed by anyone.  The fourth is claimed by some, but can mean many things, and is a subject for another time.

There are other modulating factors in this discussion: (1) “the Founders” were a diverse bunch with divergent religious beliefs and divergent visions for the young nation they birthed; (2) those among the Founders who were not orthodox Christians may not have been aware of the extent to which they and their vision for America were influenced by the Judeo-Christian ethical and philosophical tradition; and (3) some of the ‘Deists’ among the Founders were not strict Deists who absolutely rejected the participation of God in history.

Finally, the most important nuance is (4) that when the social-moral vision animating American society is Judeo-Christian, then this same vision will tacitly influence the government and its leadership.  This does not make for a theocratic state; it makes for a democracy that is swayed (though not exclusively) by Christian ideals. Thus the real heart of the question is whether it is acceptable, or whether it transgresses the founding principles (including “separation” of church and state, though conservative evangelicals rightly point out that this language is not found in any of the founding documents, and may be an unhelpful and even impossible metaphor), for voters and representatives (and perhaps judges to a lesser extent) to be guided in their voting and legislating (and judging) by their religious beliefs and values — or whether those must remain “private”.

To me it seems clear that the Founders intended for voters and representatives to be informed by their religious convictions, and that there is nothing wrong with bringing such convictions into the voting both and into the chambers of Congress or the White House.  Yet some today really are arguing the opposite.

In any case, I hope these distinctions help some think through this question in a more exact manner.


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  • Jim

    At the root, there is a real problem with the way many “God and country” Christians define a “Christian America.” Many of these folks believe God made a special covenant with America during the colonial period and/or the founding. There is only one covenant and it is with the Church which is made up of every tribe, nation and tongue. Commitment to God should be much higher than commitment to country and commitment to believers universally should be higher than commitment to American Christianity. The same folks usually advocate American exceptionalism. Both of these views are profound errors. The former a theological error the latter mostly a political one. A good reform would be to remove the American flag from our church sanctuaries.

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    So Jim, you’re referring to the fourth sense referenced, something I rather avoided discussing above. I don’t see quite the set of beliefs and attitudes you describe. I generally see conservative Christians who believe that God has blessed America because its people by and large have sought to honor Him. I certainly do not see them replacing the Church with America or American Christianity.

    It’s also not clear to me, by the way, why there must be only one covenant. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures describe quite a few covenants. Still I don’t hear a lot of talk of God making a special covenant so much as America reaping what it sowed in Christian character and devotion to God. I think there’s a belief in some natural rhythms that tend to bless those who seek to honor God.

    As for American exceptionalism, I don’t see how one can look at the history of the twentieth century and not believe that America is exceptional. What *exactly* that means should be the subject of another post, because we may mean quite different things with the word.

    I know some people get nervous when there is a blending of patriotism and devotion to God (the flag in the sanctuary). Let’s talk about that another time. Best,

    Tim

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  • Jim

    Tim,

    Historically most Reformed theologians hold to one covenant. All the covenants in Scripture fall under that one covenant including the Noahic,Abrahamic, Mosiac, Davidic covenants. Now, after Christ, the covenant is the new covenant in His blood.

    I know plenty of Christians and major Chrisitan figures who have argued that America has a special covenant. They often refer to the pilgrims in New England and the Virgnia settlers.

    America has been exceptional I don’t doubt that. However, the Proverbs says, “let another praise you and not your own mouth.” Many conservatives are guilty of boasting about the U.S. and often overlook her faults and often we do not relate well to others around the world. It is a real problem in military conflicts as Christians should take “just war” theory seriously. It also relates to how we nation-build or even whether or not we should nation-build.

    We come off as arrogant, thinking we are the best etc. It is as if one would only boast about his own family and not look to the interests of other families and see the positive found elsewhere.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      It’s certainly possible to see the variety of Old and New Testament covenants as variations on a single covenant, but they’re quite different, and even speaking of a “new” covenant points to this difference. So, again, theologically, I don’t see a reason why there cannot be more local “covenants” between individuals or groups and God, even if that is just a special way of participating in the greater covenant. We speak of marriage as a covenant between man and God, etc. Perhaps one has to distinguish between a more general and more particular use of the term. Apart from the term “covenant,” there are numerous examples in scriptures of agreements between God and individuals or groups. Whether we call that with the English “covenant” is partly a semantic question.

      Perhaps you can point me to some of those who speak of the pilgrims or etc. entering into a special covenant with God in a way that somehow supplants the Church? I know there is language of America as a new promised land, but the cases I have seen seem like harmless appropriations of biblical metaphor.

      Boasting in your country is arguably something different from boasting in yourself. It should certainly never blind you to the faults of your own nation. But this is another term in need of finer definition: exceptional in what respect? Exceptional in its responsibility and power? Exceptional in its virtue? And does exceptional mean unique? There is an “exceptionalism” that simply says that America has been on the whole a source of enormous good in spreading the political and economic ideas that have moved many nations to democracy and many hundreds of millions out of poverty, and that America as the lone superpower bears a special responsibility to preserve peace in the world. This kind of exceptionalism is precisely about looking to the good of other “families,” and given our constant interventions on behalf of other states or in cases of disaster I’m not sure where you get the impression that we don’t look to others’ interests. In any case, that kind of exceptionalism, which honestly assesses our importance and responsibility at this moment in history, is quite different from one that views America as infallible and beyond criticism. I hear a lot about the latter in caricatures, but I still don’t see much of it in the real world.

      Always enjoy your conversation.

  • Carol A Lipsmeyer

    Jim,
    I am very impressed with this article, and the conversations I have read. I would say that I fall under the Deists thought process.
    As you wrote there is no argument that this country began with a vast majority of Christians. Therefore, it is not surprising that our legal and moral constructs are based on those beliefs. As far as this nation having a special/exceptional covenant with God, I cannot find any merit of that other than the basic promises given in the New Testament. The covenant offered in the New Testament was that of grace to those that believe in Christ. There is no suggestion that the covenant is of a geographic nature. Orthodox theologians, as you attested to, do believe in the covenant God made with the country of Israel. That covenant is indisputable. For people to propose that America has a special covenant with God is boastful in the mildest sense. How would humanity expect God to follow any covenant we propose? If this country is blessed and in some forms apparently rewarded for our faith, it would be because of the actions we have taken as a result of our faith. I fear that with the socioeconomic stagnation the world and our country are suffering we will begin to see the negative aspects related to a country that believes it is under God’s covenant. There will be factions that will seek to find proverbial virgin to throw into the volcano in order to recapture God’s good grace. I pray people will stand upon their own merit with God and not try to make God a country or a state. Humanity has already tried to put God into too many boxes in order to feel they have some control over what God is or thinks.
    Thank you for your time.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Carol, I’m sorry I don’t have time for a longer response right now, but thank you so much for the two comments you left, and I hope you will continue to enjoy the blog and that God will bless you in your faith. And let us hope you are not right about that virgin and that volcano!