Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The "Christian Nation" Bit Again

Historian Thomas Kidd is note-perfect here on religion and the Founding:

Was America founded as a Christian nation? This is one of the most heated historical debates in America today, with its implications reverberating from prayers at high school graduations to Ten Commandments monuments on courthouse lawns. On one side of the debate, you have traditional Christians who say the Founders were Christians, and that they built the nation on principles of faith. On the other, you have secularists who argue that the Founders were deistic doubters, if not outright atheists, and who see the Founding as an Enlightenment-inspired, nonreligious event. One’s opinions on this subject often reflect what kind of role you think faith ought to play in modern America, too.

Madison and the evangelicals finally won the day* with the adoption of Virginia’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786 (originally penned by Jefferson in 1777), which guaranteed that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship place or ministry whatsoever nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion.”

Madison’s prediction about churches prospering under religious liberty also came true, as Baptists, Methodists, and other evangelical congregations grew explosively in the decades following disestablishment.

The triumph of religious liberty in Virginia was followed by the adoption of the First Amendment’s prohibition in 1791 of a national “establishment of religion.” But did disestablishment on the federal and state levels mean that Americans preferred a secular public sphere? Not at all. Few Americans could envision such a development.

Even Thomas Jefferson, a deist hailed as a hero of today’s secularists, took a generous approach toward the public role of religion after disestablishment. For example, Jefferson routinely attended religious services in government buildings as president.

Jefferson was the author, of course, of the 1802 letter in which he argued that the First Amendment had erected a “wall of separation” between church and state. But the same weekend he sent this letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, a Baptist minister named John Leland preached before a joint session of Congress, with the president in attendance. Their partnership worked, however, because deists such as Jefferson realized that religious liberty did not require rigid secularism. The Baptists, for their part, knew about Jefferson’s personal skepticism, but they supported him because he was the champion of real religious freedom.

Not all America’s Founders were devout Christians, but America was founded with Christian principles in mind. Among the most vital of those ideals – one that could bridge the gap between evangelicals and deists – was an expansive concept of religious liberty. _________________________
*For the story of how a handful of "Enlightenment secularists" joined forces with the Baptists in Virginia but now get all the credit, see an account here.


jimmiraybob said...

"...but America was founded with Christian principles in mind. Among the most vital of those ideals – one that could bridge the gap between evangelicals and deists – was an expansive concept of religious liberty. "

I hate to break it to everyone that's not already aware of it, but religious intolerance was the Christian principle that was being overcome. Severe religious/Christian intolerance, as practiced since the inception of Christianity in Europe and brought from Europe to the colonies, was the problem.

Universal tolerance and a right to freedom of conscience and freedom of expression were radical ideas in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries that orthodox* ecclesiastical and sympathetic secular thinkers fought and are still fighting tooth and nail today.

The radical ideals of universal freedom of conscience and freedom of expression that are emblazoned in the Constitution are not restricted to religion but to all citizens regardless of religion.

Giving equal rights before the law and before the state to all citizens - with no religious strings attached - is not necessarily antithetical to Christian ideals but it certainly has not been and is not now universally recognized by all or maybe even most of the faithful.

*There were certainly Christians that advanced more radical forms of tolerance but it was generally from within the more heterodox sects most in need of tolerance. And, on an individual basis there were some who would extend tolerance to non-Christians.

johnranta said...

The author makes a great leap, first pointing out that AAmerica's founders were primarily Deists focused on separating church and state, and then claiming that America was founded on Christian principles. That's not true. America was founded on Enlightenment principles. The founders were not promoting Christianity, and few if any of them entertained the belief that Christ was divine, or that his teachings were instrumental to the establishment of the United States. America was not founded on Christian principles, not in the least.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, Kidd didn't say any of that about the deists. And people who don't know the 500 years of Christian thought that led up to 1776 tend to assume that John Locke popped in from Mars one day in the 1600s to Enlighten us.

jimmiraybob said...

And, for the record, I'm not saying that the founders didn't have valuable Christian principles in mind during the revolution and founding. I have no doubt that many on the Loyalist, anti-rebellion side also had valuable Christian principles in mind as they lost everything and were hounded out of the new nation.

But, like B Franklin made explicit, many principles claimed to be exclusive "Christian" principles are principles found in all or most major religions and philosophies. It was theological doctrine that made Christianity distinct.

And, by the 18th century, so much of Christian doctrine was infused by ancient pagan philosophical ideas such as, Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism, Epicurianism, etc., it would be easy to confuse principles derived from Christian tradition and scholarship and the original Greaco-Roman sources.

Some tenets that were central to the radical Enlightenment, in addition to absolute freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, was to eradicate rule by kings, princes, and hereditary aristocracy and to end ecclesiastical and clerical authority impinging on state governance (certainly not orthodox Christian principle at the time). These are tenets central to the American founding. And, Locke, at least overtly, was not on board with such sweeping change and certainly was not on board with the kind of universal toleration in religion championed by the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin, and as explicitly constituted.

Let's also hear about all the contemporary American Christian clergy and pious Christians who were horrified with the secular nature and Godlessness of the new Constitution and national government. They certainly weren't very impressed. And they certainly didn't feel that the new nation was a Christian nation.

And yet religion flourished.

It could just be coincidental that today's increasing politicization of Christianity...or, Christianization of politics... coincides with a fading identification with religion. Or, maybe not. Who knows.

JMS said...

JRB - I agree with your dissent to Professor Kidd's conclusion. He failed to adequately explain the "Christian principles' America was "founded" upon. Certainly John Leland knew, when he demanded that James Madison add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, that "Christian principles" would not be sufficient to ensure "religious liberty" because, "the Manners of People are so far Corrupted, that they cannot live by Republican principles, it is Very Dangerous leaving Religious Liberty at their Mercy."

But I do endorse the article's main point, which today cannot be reiterated enough. The religious liberty forged during the founding era derived from a rather unique crossroads in our history where enough orthodox and non-orthodox Christians, along with "theistic rationalists" (Deists) coalesced to enact the First Amendment establishment clause whether they wanted to protect religion from government, or government from religion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Religion was left to the states, which is why the First Amendment reads "Congress shall make no law..."