Thursday, February 18, 2010

Was America Founded as a Godless Nation?

Finding the truth of the Founding is
all about asking the right questions
by Tom Van Dyke

Friend-of-the-blog Dr. John Fea is currently writing "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: An Historical Primer"
scheduled for publication in 2011.

But is that the proper question? It's always posed in those exact words, with no variation. Some very religious folks answer yes, but on the whole, even for those who argue for America's Christian, or "Godly," heritage, most admit it was not "Founded" as a "Christian Nation," if that means any level of theocracy.

Nor do they wish a "return" to theocracy. Settled early on in the debates in Virginia and elsewhere is that Baptists would rather not be ruled by Presbyterians, and nobody but nobody wanted to be ruled by Roman Catholicism.

Y'see, "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?" is usually the formulation used by those whose answer is emphatically "NO!"

And so, I submit we must ask better questions to get to the bottom of things, and here are a few:

---Was America founded as a secular nation, then?
---An agnostic nation?
---Since it's said we have a Godless Constitution, was America founded as a Godless Nation?

---And what do we mean by "Founded," anyway? 1787, the ratification of the Constitution? July 4, 1776, which America celebrates as its birthday?
---Was America America yet under the Continental Congress, which called itself the Congress of the United States?

---What is a "nation?" The debates over the First Amendment discarded Madison's language against establishment of a "national" church, since it was to be a federal government. [Jefferson referred to it as the "general" government.]
---Was religion left to the states under federalism, then? Did the ratification of the Constitution and Bill of Rights change the status of Christianity anywhere in America?

---Was America already a Christian nation [at least in most states aside from Virginia] when the Constitution was ratified, and ratification changed nothing?
---Because what does "Founded" mean anyway? Oh, we already asked that one, but it seems proper to return to it here.

---And the old standby, What is "Christian?" Can you be "Christian" if you believe the Bible is the direct Word of God? If you believe Jesus is the Messiah, although not the Second Person of the Holy Trinity?
---And who decides the answer to this question? Trinitarian clergy? Theologians? Sociologists? Historians?

---Was there a God of the Founding?
---Was His name Providence?
---Is this "theism," or is "theism" just a slippery term for what is the uniquely monotheistic, providential Creator-God who endowed men with certain unalienable rights, one who is unmistakably "Judeo-Christian," at least compared to all of man's other gods?
---What might Judeo-Christian mean? Anything? Everybody seems to know what it means, so does that mean anything?

Until we answer each of these questions---and many more, like What is a Founder?---we haven't even scratched the surface. And the terms, my God, the terms. We can put "scare quotes" around each one of them, because each has an arguable meaning:


Per Dennis Prager, our motto around here is that we value clarity over agreement. As we can see, our national discussion is remarkably free of clarity, since few of us are using the same terms and meanings and are asking the same questions. This is one small vote for clarity.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I knew I had missed you guys!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Welcome back, Angie! It's been fun around here lately.

Anonymous said...

These are precisely the questions that people devote their whole lives to answering. I wonder if the Founders themselves, as they pondered the founding, wondered how best to define everything. Their own opinions vastly differed.

I think it's safe to say this time was more accepting of open religiousness than secular today. I think it's safe to say that the Founder's religions played a part in the creation of the country.

But then again, someone may very well debate the points I see as safe and sound!

bpabbott said...

Beyond asking the right questions, we should be careful in what may be inferred by those with differing world views.

For example, when I say "we are a secular nation", I do not imply that religion is intended to be absent from the halls of government ... however, many would infer that.

If someone (say Tom) were to say "we are a Christian nation", he may not (Tom doesn't, I think) imply that we were founded on principles unique to Christianity, or that we were founded for a Christian purposes ... much less founded to be a Christian Theocracy.

p.s. Nice choice of topic, Tom .... and welcome back Angie!

Brad Hart said...

Solid post, Tom. This sort of goes back to what I have believed for a while...that much of the arguing and bickering over America's Christian/secular heritage boils down to semantics. What do we mean by "Christan?" What constitutes a "nation?" As J. Rowe has pointed out in a large number of posts, these terms mean something very different to different portions of society. For many "Christians," Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and others are far from being "Christian." And as you point out, even the idea of a "secular" nation or a "godless constitution" carries a different meaning depending on who you are talking to.

I think this whole debate can be boiled down into 3 basic truths:

1.) The extremists on both sides are totally unreliable. Their uncompromising stances leave no room for compromise or sincere debate on the matter. As a result, their arguments are flawed to their core.

2.) All semantics aside, everyone should agree that God (at least "God" in the abstract stance...i.e. "Providence" "Nature's God" etc.) was on the minds of 99.9999% of all the founders. Sure, they argued over what "God" was and how he/it should be acknowledged in the halls of government, but "God" was a palpable reality for them on some level.

3.) The current "Christian Nation" debate (for and against) is so saturated with PRESENTISM that is has become difficult for many to separate 18th century America from the modern day. What Madison, Jefferson & Co. thought constituted religious devotion v. what concepts are embraced today have changed. Of course some of the basic principles of religion are the same (i.e. is Jesus the savior of mankind) but much has large part to the American Revolution. I guess it's sort of like debating whether or not Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig would be able to hold their own in the modern version of baseball. Yes, the basic rules are the same but the game has evolved. Could the Babe take somebody like Johann Santana or Randy Johnson deep? Or would their 1920s style of play make it unlikely that they would succeed? Do 18th century concepts of Christianity and nationhood fit with the modern ones? How have they changed?

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

It sure looks like we've got a wholly "secular" Constitution, designed to establish a fundamentally secular national government.

Which is not to say that the nation is secular, for the government and the nation are not the same thing. A secular government may well govern an intensely religious people. And the very intensity of a religious people's faith may well induce them to insist upon separation church and state -- so that government does not corrupt religion, and so that each citizen remains free to honor his or her own religious scruples.

I believe that once was the Baptists' approach. And it was writing to the Danbury Baptists that Thomas Jefferson chose terms calculated to resonate with Baptist principles of the day -- speaking of a "wall" of separation.

I suppose one could argue that the strictly secular state thus is a Protestant innovation, or even a Baptist innovation, subsequently adopted and adapted by folks like Jefferson and Madison, who harnessed the sentiments of the Baptists, and Quakers, and dissenters who found themselves outside the established church of their day.

But even if the government is secular, and the people are religious, is it apt to speak of the "nation" as Christian?

Would Roger Williams have you call Rhode Island a "Baptist state"? I doubt it.

The trouble with calling Rhode Island a Baptist state in its early years, is that it welcomed Baptists and non-Baptists alike to be Rhode Islanders.

The trouble with calling America a "Christian nation," I think, is that the nation welcomes and embraces non-Christians as full-fledged participants in society.

To say that America is a "Christian nation," suggests that non-Christians, whether they be Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or atheist, or agnostic, are somehow less American than are their fellow Christian citizens.

Call me "politically correct" if you'd like, but I really don't think that's appropriate.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Politically correct? You, Eric? God forbid!

Me, I don't mind giving props where they're due to Moorish Spain. Or the Christian origins of the Greatest Nation on God's Green Earth.

It's only honest, and accurate. This is a historical blog, afterall.

Brad got to the heart of it:

Sure, they argued over what "God" was and how he/it should be acknowledged in the halls of government, but "God" was a palpable reality for them on some level.

For the Founders, God was a reality, one named "Providence," who created them and endowed them with unalienable rights, and one who helped them win the revolution and establish the nation.

This God wasn't one theory among many. He was as real as the air they breathed.

All the words and terms just get in the way. And that was the point of this post.

Nice to hear from you again.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Doesn't it have to do with whether we believe that values are derived from society or God? And even if we believe they are derived from God, we must determine whether they are innate or not....are there universals that are innate in all humans, and are just expressed or manifested differently because of cultural/language differences? Or is man really a social construct?
Functionalistm or moral theism...utilitarian or formalist...

Tom Van Dyke said...

Proper questions, Angie. Since this blog is about religion and the Founding, how would the Founders have answered them?

Especially since utilitarianism wasn't even "invented" until the 1800s.

are there universals that are innate in all humans...?

Alexander Hamilton thought so. And I've never found a Founder who disagreed with him:

This is what is called the law of nature, "which, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times."

More later.


Brad Hart said...

I don't think we can say that the Constitution is wholly secular, Mr. Isaacson. True, the prose is absent of any obvious references to God but let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater here. The mere omission of obvious "God talk" does not automatically insinuate that the founders wanted a secular government.

As has been pointed out on many posts (I am currently working on one that I am very proud of and should be up later this week) the issue of religion was, in large part, left to the states. Now, I won't go as far as some in saying that this establishes a Christian nation because I believe that it does not. But, it does illustrate the historical fact (yes, I said fact) that religion was tremendously important to the founders. Sure, they didn't establish a Christian government/theocracy of any kind but the notion that they established something secular is every bit as silly (if not more so).

Simply referencing the obvious lack of "God talk" in the Constitution does not, in my opinion, really prove much. Heck, the Constitution says nothing about having an Air Force or Marines. It only says that the government is to provide for the common defense via an army and navy. Does that mean we should tell the Air Force and Marines to pack it up?

Semper Fi, baby!!!

Yes, I realize that this isn't the greatest example but neither is declaring the U.S. government to be wholly secular based on the prose of its founding document. And let us keep in mind that other documents DO have the "God talk" in abundance.

I'm glad to see you stopped by, Eric. We've been in need of more opinion from different views. I sincerely hope to see you more.

bpabbott said...

I think we may be lacking a proper description for "secular government", as used by Mr. Isaacson , and objected to by Mr Hart.

Meaning I suspect the two gentlemen are interpreting/understanding the word secular and government differently.

My interpretation of what Mr Isaccson's words was that our Constitution does not necessarily rely upon and does not not explicit or implicit incorporate religious doctrine ... and by religious, I refer to that derived from religious authority and/or that which relies solely on faith (sans evidence and/or reasonable expectation).

By government I understood Mr Isaccson to be referring to our governing documents.

Assuming my interpretation is consistent with what was intended, what would be a proper short description (assuming "secular government" isn't).

Brad, I'm not sure exactly what your objection is. I am hopeful you'll offer a description to help me (us?) understand better what you are objecting to.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"Secular" is always the name that people give to things that are contrasted with religious doctrine or religion, itself.

If government and our Constitution is meant for the "real world", then "secular" is not appropriate, because both were meant for the real world and a real nation and to form a society.

Therefore, the Constitution is what our Founders socially constructed to "form the union", so to speak. And even though utility was not "formulated" by definition until the 1800's doesn't mean that the Founders weren't utilitarian in their understaking.

Organizational structuring does leave room for the differences that exist, which religion poses for a nation. The unifying principle of America is liberty and equality under law. So, the unity that is desired, even for today, is liberty and equality under partiansanship or discrimination when it comes to citizenship!

Religion, then is a secondary value to the Framer's value of justice is blind to those differences.

Daniel said...

Eric: "Would Roger Williams have you call Rhode Island a "Baptist state"? I doubt it. "

No. But I think he would have called it a Christian state. And there were pamphleteers who complained that he ran it as Baptist. Opening it to all does not determine the character. Pennsylvania was open to all manner of Christian sects, but Penn wanted it to be Quaker. I agree with you that it is fair to say the Constitution established a secular national government, but such labels get tricky.

The example of the military is interesting in that most of the founders (I think most) would have been horrified by the notion of our military. The were afraid of a standing army as oppressive. The limitation on funding the army to two years was intended to prevent this. It is a wonderful example for pointing out that the "intent of the Framers", in a least one case, was unrealistic and never worked out that way.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Let me note, before the post gets too old, this does ask the right questions for "clarity's sake."

I am going to quote from it and share it with my other blogs.



Actually, my understanding of Williams is that he DENIED the possibility of a "Christian" government.

It's strange, even though, Gregg Frazer and John MacArthur don't agree with Williams' groundbreaking idea of a God given permission of liberty of conscience (applicable to all religions), they do share many similar political theological ideas.

And that is the idea that the "regenerate" Christians will inevitably be a minority of ANY given population, even one where 100% of the population claims to be "Christian."

Largely for that reason, Williams denied the possiblity of a "Christian" government.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Jon.

I want everybody to know that this post and these questions are a distillation of Jon & my correspondence over the past few years, most of it here on American Creation.

Jon is in those questions, as are all the contributors and commenters on this blog. It's been a process, and if you don't believe me, just check one of our posts and comments from 2008 or so.

I won't try to name names to thank because I don't want to forget anybody, so I hope you know who you are. But this is why I spend so much time and study for this blog.

Unlike most of the rest of the internet, this blog is nourishing. We treat each other with respect and we pursue the truth together, because the truth, as elusive as it is, is what matters.

Just finding some of the right questions is achievement enough through all the world's noise. Our mileage may vary on this or that issue, but we've achieved a common language around here, and we have become a true community.

[Whether it's a karass or a granfalloon, I don't know yet.]

But I want to thank all here gathered, both old and new. Welcome, and thank you, as the case may be. We do this together because this isn't a debate, it's a symposium. It's a party.

Cheers to all, and I don't think anyone will mind if I say that especially to Jon. Here's to you, mate, and here's to all of us.

---Best from Tom

Unknown said...


With the Ron Paul/Tea party/Goldwater Republican cries for a return to the Constitution a brilliant, and I do not use that word often, post like this gets us going in the right direction toward figuring out what that really means. Is it back to the Constitution that people are looking for or is it a re-evaluation of what this nation was purposed to be or do. I like the former more than the latter in that I think we were founded to be something more than do anything.

I think the core of this being is seen in movies like the Patriot and Braveheart that were on back to back last night. The character played by Heath Ledger stated that people called it the "New World" but it was the old world. He said that if they won the war that there would be a chance to make a new world. One of the last scenes shows Cornwallis looking out over his defeated army and realizing defeat. He stated that he had been beat by a bunch of peasants and rabble that "things were going to change forever" or something like that.

Things did change. But my fear is that in the name of progress that the "new world' created by the revolution and the ideas contained in the DOI and the government formed by the Constitution is returning to the "old world" of nobles and "peasants" . This is the world of the feudal system where the government owns all the land and gives it out to those who they deem worthy to control the peasants and rabble.

The four terms you mention and what seems like a topic that has produced a national movement of anger that may could actually "change things forever" are crucial. If we do not ask the right questions we cannot come up with the right answers to the larger question:

"Where did we as a nation veer off course?" To even begin to answer that we have to know what course was set out to begin with. The good news is that Lockean ideas of private property seem to be fueling the fire of anger and not Marx like in the hippy days. I think Ron Paul was just the beginning. The problem is that the movement needs a real spokes person and Palin ain't it in my opinion.

The window is here to educate the "rabble" before the economy gets good again and people start thinking things are ok again when they are not.

Daniel said...

Thanks for the correction. For my assertion about Williams, I was relying on memory of Fox's "A New England Firebrand Quenched." On review, it looks like Fox, for that claim, was conflating Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Although there were some theocratic impulses in Rhode Island, I can't find any inclination that Williams shared them.

His own wandering theological notions are another good example of someone who had to support toleration because no established church could contain him. He was always rather dogmatic, but the content of his belief changed. That is dangerous where heresy is a crime.

Unknown said...

Angie stated:

"Religion, then is a secondary value to the Framer's value of justice is blind to those differences."

For many, if not most, their idea of liberty was the same as Locke's:

Based on the idea of inalienable rights grounded in the proposition that Man is the workmanship of God and thus his property and not to harmed in his life,liberty or property.

This was based on God's early proclamation to Noah about not murdering because man was made in the image of God and is the fundamental essence of the theme of the entire Bible. When man gets away from this idea bad things happen is the story. When they get away from it God comes and redirects them. He did it was Abraham when he told him to establish righteousness.

This idea is prevalent in Christian thinking and Canon law long before anyone knew what an Enlightenment was. THOSE WHO SAY THAT THE IDEA OF INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS IS NO WHERE IN THE BIBLE DO NOT KNOW ENOUGH THEOLOGY TO COMMENT. I will go to my grave saying this. How do people that have not read the Bible or studied some of the theological argument based on it bother to comment on these issues? They do it in arrogance and ignorance.

Do not believe me check out some at Dispatches that will emphatically state the America is a secular nation in the most extreme sense and have not even read Locke. The man wrote commentaries on the Bible and his Second Treatise follows an entirely theological First Treatise. In fact, his Second starts with the theological premise of Man as the workmanship of God.

Unknown said...


I am going to post this on my face book page. I think I am going to take do something on the Tea party theme and the larger questions of this whole idea you bring up. Great job!

Daniel said...

I have commented on some minor issues raised in comments, but I want to say, it is posts like this one that keep me interested in this blog. I don't have time to read more than a few blogs (and mostly of professional interest).

Jonathan Rowe said...

"THOSE WHO SAY THAT THE IDEA OF INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS IS NO WHERE IN THE BIBLE DO NOT KNOW ENOUGH THEOLOGY TO COMMENT. I will go to my grave saying this. How do people that have not read the Bible or studied some of the theological argument based on it bother to comment on these issues? They do it in arrogance and ignorance."

But King, this is just wrong. YOU may emphatically believe the idea of individual rights are found within the Bible's text. But Gregg and John MacArthur, who don't, know the Bible as well as ANYONE.

It's out of theological disagreement, NOT out of not knowing or having read.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The Old Testament was written within the historical understanding of social identity. The New Testament, via Jesus, clarified, as far as I can tell, the outsiders claim to a "right" to be included in humanity...

Paul, "created" a useful way to bring about a social consciousness in his writings, which has underwirtten the Church's understanding of itself. But, the Reformation "re-wrote" this social consciousness, because of the need to correct an abuse of power by the Church.

So, I see history as a "coming together' and a "correction" because group mentality always leads in the wrong direction..."Prophets"/philosopers are always needed to correct the tendency to abuse power.

Our Founders understood the abuse of power, so they formed a government with the balance of power in mind...

Individual rights have to be upehld to hold accountable government abuse of power. And government is always the collective that are empowered. But, just as well, the government holds accountable individuals who might do criminal acts that circumvent society's need for stability.

Psychological science has come to understand that there are those that have "collective" personalities, and others that tend toward a more individualistic personality. So, one cannot demand a certain dogmatic understanding theologically without doing disservice to individuals who might differ, that theological tenet...So, what is universal? Certainly not theology.

The individual and society are interdependent. But, the individual is the human and the political/theological systems that make up society must consider the needs of the individual first and be humane...

Unknown said...


My bold comments above were in the context of those rapid secularists you find at Dispatches. I know Frazer has read the Bible and knows it well. He is also tainted by indoctrination in my opinion that blinds him. As Tom calls it he has a "donut hole" in his argument. As far a Theology Frazer may know but certainly does not acknowledge rational elements of Christianity that precede Calvin.

Protestant Christianity, espeically of the Calvinist bent, thinks Christianity started with them. I know because I used to feel this way so much so that I wrote a book about Christian history and left out 500 AD to 1450 AD. I think there was a lot of truth in the book but I have to go back and research the years I left out and see if my thesis stands. SO SHOULD FRAZER.

jimmiraybob said...


Before this post is too buried in the blog post past, thanks for looking to clarify the conversation. I look forward to John Fea's new book and to many more energizing and engaging posts here.


Brian Tubbs said...

An excellent post, Tom! You've hit on exactly the right questions. The entire debate comes down to terms and framing.