Sunday, January 4, 2009

Did They Even Care That Much About Religion To Begin With?

Here at American Creation our central focus is to "promote discussion, debate and insight into the religious history of America's founding." It goes without saying that religion, among other factors, was certainly a powerful motivating influence for the migration and settlement of the "New World." In addition, we can -- and have -- made a number of strong arguments in support of religion as a catalyst for the American Revolution.

But just how important was the religious motivation for the Revolution's participants?

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson lists 27 specific grievances against Great Britain. And since the DOI can be considered the official "note of divorce" from the Mother Country, it is natural for us to assume that these grievances lie at the very heart of the Revolution. After all, the DOI was accepted by the Continental Congress as THE official document in which facts were "submitted to a candid world."

And which facts exactly were listed by Jefferson and the other delegates? What specific grievances against the King of Great Britain did they lay before "a candid world?"

1.) He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

2.) He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and, when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

3.) He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them, and formidable to tyrants only.

4.) He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

5.) He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing, with manly firmness, his invasions on the rights of the people.

6.) He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining, in the mean time, exposed to all the dangers of invasions from without and convulsions within.

7.) He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

8.) He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.

9.) He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

10.) He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

11.) He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures.

12.) He has affected to render the military independent of, and superior to, the civil power.

13.) He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution and unacknowledged by our laws, giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation:

14.) For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us;

15.) For protecting them, by a mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states;

16.) For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world;

17.) For imposing taxes on us without our consent;

18.) For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury;

19.) For transporting us beyond seas, to be tried for pretended offenses;

20.) For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries, so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these colonies;

21.) For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments;

22.) For suspending our own legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

23.) He has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us.

24.) He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

25.) He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.

26.) He has constrained our fellow-citizens, taken captive on the high seas, to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands.

27.) He has excited domestic insurrection among us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.
Where exactly is the religious argument being made? Now, some may attempt to argue that since Jefferson was the primary author, religion would naturally be omitted. But what about the other delegates? You mean to tell me that not a single person in the Convention raised their voice in support of a religious argument to be added to the DOI? If the majority of the founders were so passionate about forming a Christian nation, as many today assume, why didn't anyone succeed in adding such an argument/statement to the DOI? Why is there no mention of a biblical justification for going to war? After all, if 52 of the 56 signers of the DOI were evangelical Christians, as Mr. Barton insists, you would think that they would include AT LEAST one or two biblical arguments.

Or how about bringing up the need to separate from the wicked ways of the Church of England. Where is there a mention of this in the DOI? And what about the whole "Christian nation" argument? You would think that if the overwhelming majority of the founders were devout Christians bent of establishing a Christian haven, they would AT THE VERY LEAST put a sentence or two about this in the nation's first charter. Or how about a singular verse from the Bible? Wouldn't a Christian nation devoted to the ideals of the Bible be able to find a few words from the Good Book? You mean to tell me that nobody could come up with just a couple of lines or verses to insert into the document?

Now, with all of that said, I am not trying to make the argument that religion was irrelevant. Instead, I only want to point out just how ultra-political the DOI really is. Of the 27 arguments made for independence, here is how they break down:

-16 deal with the implementation, removal, and/or alteration of laws and government.

-8 deal with the presence/use of military force in the colonies.

-1 deals with immigration.

-1 deals with trade.

-1 deals with taxes (so much for "taxation without representation" being THE reason for independence. It was listed all the way down at #17).

If the founders really were determined to establish a Christian nation, and if religion was really of such importance in this conflict, why is the DOI so obviously vacant of orthodox Christian justifications for independence? If the founders really did want their posterity to know of their sincere devotion to Christian ideals, why did they chose to describe God in terms like "Nature's God," "Providence," and "the Supreme Judge?" It would seem logical to me that if the founders wanted a Christian nation they would have included something...ANYTHING in their official charter that demonstrated such a belief. And if "Nature's God," "Providence," etc. really are alternate names for the Christian God, why didn't they just come out and say it as plainly as possible? Why the obscurity?

Now, of course there were delegates who argued for a more Christian prose. We can be certain that at least some delegates were in fact devout orthodox Christians. But if their cause was the majority, why didn't they succeed in including at least something that hinted to a Christian motivation? As far as I can tell the politics won a VERY BIG way.


Tom Van Dyke said...

After all, if 52 of the 56 signers of the DOI were evangelical Christians, as Mr. Barton insists, you would think that they would include AT LEAST one or two biblical arguments.

Not really. The listing of these grievances are the justification for rebellion against legitimate authority, per Romans 13, eh?

Now it's true that many of these grievances are for breaches of English common law, trial by jury for instance. But if the crown itself violates the law, then there is no law.

Kristo Miettinen said...


"It would seem logical to me that if the founders wanted a Christian nation they would have included something...ANYTHING in their official charter that demonstrated such a belief"


Do the thought experiment, for real. Imagine a Christian Nation already existing. It's civil leaders are assembled to announce pending political schism from a colonial mother country, for reasons of deficient performance of the duties of the sovereign.

What would they write?

The DoI.

To think otherwise is to dehumanize the founders, to imagine that in order to represent a Christian Nation they have to somehow be "Christian Sharia" tyrants. They weren't. They were statesmen fit to handle the civic affairs of a Christian Nation.

As for the DoI, I mentioned in my Natural Law post that the lead-in to the grievances was Reformation-inspired, and I've mentioned in another post that "Providence" is explicitly Christian God-talk.

Asked and answered, as they say.

Brad Hart said...

Kristo writes:

"Do the thought experiment, for real. Imagine a Christian Nation already existing. It's civil leaders are assembled to announce pending political schism from a colonial mother country, for reasons of deficient performance of the duties of the sovereign."

If we follow this line of thought, that a Christian nation already existed, that means that the founders REBELLED AGAINST a Christian nation. If Great Britain was already a Christian nation, the founders made the decision to separate from it. Either way, the break is clear. As Thomas Jefferson stated,

" We are destined to be a barrier against the returns of ignorance and barbarism. Old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders and hobble along by our side, under the monkish trammels of priests and kings."

They didn't want to be a part of the old order. So no matter how you slice it, the Christian nation thesis doesn't make sense. If the founders were breaking away from an ALREADY EXISTING Christian nation that means they made the decision to part ways with such a government. And if their goal was to create a NEW Christian nation they certainly didn't specify that goal in the nation's first charter.

Kristo also writes:

"To think otherwise is to dehumanize the founders, to imagine that in order to represent a Christian Nation they have to somehow be "Christian Sharia" tyrants. They weren't. They were statesmen fit to handle the civic affairs of a Christian Nation."

I don't see this as dehumanizing the founders at all. If anything I believe it exalts them even higher.

Kisto also writes:

"As for the DoI, I mentioned in my Natural Law post that the lead-in to the grievances was Reformation-inspired, and I've mentioned in another post that "Providence" is explicitly Christian God-talk."

Tying natural law and the "God talk" stuff to Christianity seems like a stretch to me. If your goal is to establish a Christian nation based on Christian doctrine why not come right out and say it? Why all the covert usage of words? It seems to me that it would be a no-brainer to use AT THE VERY LEAST the Bible.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think the natural law and God talk was compatible with Christianity. But, when we argue America is not a Christian Nation, we mean in an exclusivist sense (a sense I argue many if not all of the Christian Nation proponents argue it is). Natural law and Providence talk is compatible with a whole slew of other religions (John Adams for instance thought it was compatible with Hindooism) as well as being compatible with orthodox and unorthodox Christianity.

This is important because many who argue for the Christian Nation thesis don't believe unorthodox versions of Christianity qualify as "Christianity" at all. I think of Hercules Mulligans (who isn't a dummy, and his two favorite figures are David Barton and D. James Kennedy) has said things along the lines of the FFs thought government should publicly support "Christianity" not other religions. And then he defined "Christianity" with orthodoxy and noted it would be therefore inappropriate for America to support Mormonism, because it is not "Christianity" but another religion.

If you pin down most other Christian Nationalists, I'm sure you'd be able to get them to make assertions/conclusions like this.

Obviously, you know, I find Dr. Frazer's thesis more convincing that the FFs thought America should support "religion" not necessarily Christianity. And "religion" defined as orthodox or unorthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, certain forms of Deism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Native American spirituality and pagan Greco-Romanism.

This is what it means when we say America was founded to be a "religious" not a "Christian" nation.

Kristo Miettinen said...

The founding generation rebelled, not against a nation, but against a sovereign, one that they judged to be illegitimate, by Reformation standards of legitimate rebellion.

If the Christian Nation hypothesis doesn't make sense, perhaps it is because it hasn't been stated clearly, either by its defenders or its critics. Let me start it off:

A nation is not a government, and neither is a state, nor are any of those three a sovereign, though for purposes of this blog I think we can talk interchangeably about the nation and the state. Nations and states are collectives, metaphysical wholes that are independent of, though constituted of, their members. The theory of state is a broad field in politics, well developed in the founder's time.

When was the American nation, the American "whole", born? I used to think it was born in the mid-19th century, but I have become aware of nascent nationhood at least since the Great Awakening, with notable resistance to nationhood only in New England. Although Adams speaks of the revolution, I believe he is really identifying the birth of the nation when he says:

"What do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations... This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution." - John Adams to H. Niles (13 Feb 1818)

So what is the Christian Nation hypothesis? It is, roughly, that an American nation came into existence, that said nation was Christian in whatever sense nations can have human characteristics (that's a long discussion in its own right), said nation needed suitable structures of civic government, both specific and general government (French terminology, used by at least Hamilton and Jefferson, and probably other founders - we can use local and federal government), the founders (a loosely defined generation of civic leaders active during the second half of the 18th century) responded to this need by establishing at least the 13 state constitutions and the federal constitution, and they did so with the Christian nature and needs of the nation in mind.

If this is not what you think the CN hypothesis is, then could you state your version in detail?

And if parts of my argument are a stretch, fine, but then acknowledge that the argument has been put and point out where the stretch is too far. Then I can amend or reinforce the argument, or perhaps clarify what is misleading in my previous expressions of it.

As for "coming right out and saying it", William Penn's Frame of Government is probably what you are looking for. A civic constitution for a republican democracy, with a preface that spells out its biblical basis, but then the body just lays out the new civic order. Note that Penn's preface is garnish; you don't need to spell out the biblical ties to lay out a government on Christian principles. Later constitutions got right down to (civic) business.

But must all constitutions look like Penn's to count as government suited for a Christian Nation, formed on Christian principles? I think not, but you seem to be insisting on the affirmative. Is that so?

Kristo Miettinen said...


My point has not been that "natural law and God talk was compatible with Christianity". My point was stronger: that the only version of natural law theory that matched the needs of the founders was the protestant one from the Reformation. Maybe I wasn't convincing to you; but my claim was more specific than you are acknowledging.

Providence is compatible with many beliefs (though not European Deism), but Providence was central to American protestantism of the colonial era (from the Puritans on though to the revolution, Americans made frequent reference to God as Providence). The founders knew the word named a specific, and in America a frequently invoked, Christian doctrine. They used the word anway because it fit their need: a word for God that is explicitly Christian yet generically American, acceptable to unitarians and trinitarians and whatnot.

If others are arguing that the founders thought government should support Christianity (in very mild and indirect ways), I would broadly agree until they try to identify Christianity with orthodoxy. But we mustn't deny the middle ground, thinking that the only alternative to support for orthodoxy is panfideism or afideism.

If you want to pin down Christian Nationists, I would suggest picking one that is actually participating on this blog.

Now, as for Frazer's thesis (which I haven't got a copy of yet), what concrete actions did the founders take to support, say, Hinduism, on a par with Christianity? Your list obviously implies that there were religions not to be supported (e.g. Satanism), but on what basis was the line drawn?

Jonathan Rowe said...


I am working on a post that articulates the problem that I have with the "Christian Nation" thesis as I see it being defended, and alternatively the idea of a "religious" but not "Christian" nation.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I didn't say necessarily on par with Christianity, just that both were valid "religions" that taught the same essential truth. And the essential truth is the existence of an overriding Providence and future state of rewards and punishments, NOT anything that has to do with specific Christian doctrines. Note in my forthcoming post the Adams quotations where he's drawing a connection between Christianity and the exotic world religions: THAT (the existence of Providence and a future state of rewards and punishments) is what connects them.

You have a very interesting and nuanced view, far more defensible than what I see coming from the Christian Nationalist like Hercules Mulligan. Though, I must say, I think he is far closer to the Barton-Kennedy et al. thesis than you are.

Charles said...

This legal theory article (32 pp), which is somewhat on-topic (see below), may be of interest to some readers:

It generally addresses the history of the 14A (and somewhat tangentially, the issue of incorporation) arguing for the amendment being intended as a corrective for a variety of systemic errors in the 1787 Constitution as opposed to narrowly focused on slavery. Most relevant is a relatively lengthy (and decidedly unflattering) footnote relating to David Barton. Also, if in the Conclusion section one makes the obvious substitutions for "white" and its various opposites, some of the quotes clearly recall some more extreme CN contentions.

Only slightly - if at all - on-topic, the paper also addresses the 18th C concept of "Slave Power", which I thought interesting in light of the state-by-state results of the recent presidential election. ("Bible Power"?)

The arguments in the article are terse and thus less than compelling, but the author (Garrett Epps) has recently published a book which presumably fleshes them out.

Brian Tubbs said...

Brad, I don't follow your reasoning here at all.

Let me say that I'm NOT a "Christian Nationalist" in that I'm not advocating in any way, shape, form, or fashion that the United States should become an official CHRISTIAN Nation, nor am I saying that it ever was. Okay?

That said...the DoI was a very SPECIFIC document. It was making its case for WHY the colonies were declaring independence. The only major religious beef the colonies had with Great Britain was the Quebec Act. And then the general split taking place within the Church of England. Otherwise...

The American Revolution wasn't about Christianity. So, there was no need for that to be addressed.

The Founders, however, DID make clear in the DoI where they felt their rights came from (the Creator) and they also understood that the most important reader of their document wasn't a "candid world" but rather the "Supreme Judge." That's all that needed to be said.

Brad Hart said...


That is exactly my argument. The DoI does NOT mention religion as a cause for war. The Revolution was fought for other reasons. I think that sometimes we tend to overplay the role of religion, being that this is our blog's primary objective. With that said, I am not arguing that religion played NO role, only that it played a very limited role.

This is why I don't buy the Christian nation argument. If this was one of the main goals of the war it would have been clearly mentioned. It is not.

And I are not a Christian Nationalist. I think you are quite moderate.