There’s a lot of talk on the news these days about “returning America to its roots as a Christian country, just as the founding fathers intended.” There’s even a whole “historical reclamation” movement that has set out to prove that the framers of the Constitution fully intended for the government of the United States to be ruled by not only Christian values, but Christian morals and practices as well. This is a fundamentally flawed argument from both a practical and historical viewpoint, as anyone who looks at the whole story can see. That would be fine if this were an academic argument, since a plenitude of hot air can be wasted in the halls of academia before anyone else even knows what they’re talking about in many cases. Unfortunately, these ideas and beliefs are at the heart of this year’s Presidential election, so we not only won’t be able to escape them for the next 9 months, but they may fundamentally affect our lives for the next four years.
As a Christian and an intellectual, I believe in seeking after the truth, wherever it may take us, because I believe that we, and God, have nothing to fear from the truth. If my beliefs are based on universal truths, then I don’t need to protect them from intellectual inquiry. If they aren’t, then I’d rather know now than find out when it’s too late. Unfortunately, this mode of thinking is all to rare in my co-religionists, so I find myself again in the uncomfortable position of challenging authority. Good thing I have so much practice.
Let’s dig into a few of these claims and see where they take us.
The Founding Fathers Wanted the United States to be a Theocracy
This is the unspoken -- but often broadly hinted -- belief of members of the Religious Right and their adherents, and it creeps into political rhetoric whenever we touch on areas of Christian morals, especially when they seem to conflict with social justice or issues of equality. The thought here is that the Founding Fathers, being religious men themselves, naturally assumed that a republic would be guided by the same ethics and practices that they held dear. When they asked for God to guide and protect the young United States, they naturally expected that a country guided by Christian religion was the equal response to His protection. They accepted the fact that membership in the Christian church was a requirement for membership in society, and even though they tolerated other religions and didn’t want to restrict them, they really knew which one was right.
The Whole Story:
The founders of the United States knew what a theocracy looked like and the horrors it could produce. In fact, the very Puritans who are always raised up as the icons of American Christianity came to the New World because they didn’t fit in with the “total Christian Society” of Europe. They knew that religious dogma coupled with the power of government inevitably led to vicious wars, and that religion could dress up any ruler’s agenda and give it the scent of divine blessing. They fled Europe to get away from the excommunications, the banishments, and the infighting that perpetually plagued the region. While some of them may have thought that they could succeed where others had failed in creating a religious utopia, the more clear-thinking among them saw that a national government must be guided by God and his priests -- among others -- but never ruled by them.
The Founding Fathers at Least Expected Christianity to be the State Religion of the United States
OK, maybe the founding fathers didn’t really want the US to be a theocracy, but they at least assumed that Christianity would be the official state religion and receive preferred status over other religions. They were all Christians, right? Wouldn’t they assume that Christians should lead?
The Whole Story:
Generally speaking, this is just a watered-down version of the first argument, and all of the same responses apply. State religions have a long and sordid history in Western civilization, dating back at least to Roman times, and they inevitably follow one of two paths: they either twist a society into their own image in an attempt to steal power from secular authorities or they become tools of those same authorities. The pure ideals of faith are poorly suited to the harsh realities of power. The Founding Fathers knew this, too, and carefully separated Church and State in the Constitution. The First Amendment’s text, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” is clearly two-edged: Congress shall not establish a religion, nor shall it prohibit religious practices. This statement clearly protects both Church and State from the abuses of the other.
Christianity is the Great Driving Power Behind the United States’ Success
Christianity made America great, and the only way we can keep America great is to make sure that everyone becomes a Christian, or at least to make sure that non-Christians don’t warp our society into something that God will be forced to destroy. Some people (Pat Robertson, for example), have been tactless enough to say this out loud. Others are smart enough to use the code words that mean the same thing. The underlying assumption is that only Christianity has the tools to create an ethical, moral, and prosperous society.
Paired with this idea is the notion that America is blessed because we are the “city on the hill,” a light to the rest of the world that shows that God blesses the people who believe in him the best. We are prosperous because making us prosperous makes other countries want to be Christians, too.
The flip side of this, of course, is that God will punish us with natural disasters, economic crises, and bad teeth if we don’t do what he wants us to do.
The Whole Story:
I’m going to set aside the image of God that leads someone to think that He would capriciously slaughter millions of people because of some piece of legislation (for more on my thoughts on what God is really like, see The Lion and the Bull). Instead, let’s focus on Christianity’s sole claim in America’s greatness. A large part of this claim rests on the “Puritan work ethic” that is a critical part of our society’s makeup. This work ethic, so the thinking goes, came from the idea of predestination and the resulting “salvation panic” that drove early settlers to work hard and gain wealth as a sign that they were among God’s elect. This work ethic, handed down from generation to generation, drove Americans to work harder than anyone else, to seek innovation, and the raised America up to become the most important economy in the world.
While there is some merit to this idea, it once again focuses on one piece of the story at the expense of the whole. Certainly, the Puritan work ethic and the associated emphasis on a stable, orderly society created a beneficial environment for industry and commerce, but many other factors were at work, not the least of which being the fact that America had a plethora of natural resources and gained its independence at a time when technology was finally making it possible to maximize the benefit of those resources. And, as Paul Johnson points out in his stellar book, A History of Christianity, businessmen have always preferred a religion that promotes stability and fairness in business dealings, regardless of the particulars of its religious practices.
The other glaring omission from the “Christianity made America great” argument is the unique contribution from so many other religious and ethnic groups that simply couldn’t have occurred anywhere else. For one huge example, America and its odd notion of a heterogeneous religious society created the first environment since ancient times where Jews could make their best contributions without fear of having their work or their wealth stolen from them by the government (see Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews). Jewish Americans responded with amazing contributions in nearly every aspect of Americans’ lives and livelihoods, creating the innovative spark that still drives America’s economy today. In this case, one religion didn’t make America great, but America made it possible for all religions to contribute to its greatness.
The Rest of the Story
What about this idea of the “city on the hill?” Is it possible that God really did raise America up to be an inspiration to the rest of the world? In this case, I actually agree with these folks on the television: I think that God and Christianity have played a pivotal role in the history of the United States, and forgetting that is foolish. I think that God did raise America up at a critical time and with a sovereign purpose. When the rest of the known world was mired in religious wars and men were killing their brothers over fine points of dogma, America provided an escape for people who wanted to live in peace. When evil threatened to overwhelm the world and wipe God’s chosen people from the face of the Earth, America threw its weight on the side of good and stopped evil’s march. For better or worse, since its inception the United States of America has shaped the history of the world, and will continue to do so. I think that God raised us up, not just to inspire the world, but to guide it; not just to talk about God, but to do his healing works in the world.
We are the city on the hill, and the world, as usual, is watching us. Will we waste our time in trying to be right (whatever that means), or will we focusing on doing what’s right? Will we waste our energy fighting over who God loves most (and who we think he hates) or will we show the world how much God loves them? How will we use this gift that we have been given?
I guess only time will tell.