Sunday, November 21, 2010

Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?

Forget about the answer---
there are problems with the question
by Tom Van Dyke

Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?

Lord knows our American Creation blog has spent so much cyberink about "Christian." Do you have to buy into the whole deal, like Jesus is God, died for our sins? Many did, but not all, by any means.

Do you have to go to Holy Communion, like George Washington mostly didn't? Many didn't, not even most.

Or could you be a "Unitarian Christian," like John and Abigail Adams [if not perhaps John Locke himself], and you still believed that the Bible was Divine Writ and Jesus was the Messiah, just not the Second Person of the Holy Trinity?

And as they ask today of a sect that followed after the Second Great Awakening in the 1820s, Are Mormons Christian?

God only knows.

Or to be more precise, only God knows, to paraphrase John Locke's "A Letter Concerning Toleration," because as he elegantly divined, no human being knows, that much we know for sure. Not governments, not clergymen, not even [!] historians.

This settled the question even for strict Calvinists like Samuel Adams, as he wrote in 1772's The Rights of the Colonists.

Do you know? Me neither. Only God knows, if there is one. The Founders agreed that there is a God. One God, as a matter of fact. So, they decided to leave the rest up to Him, and that was a wise choice, per the wise Mr. Locke.


So let's move on, then---what is a "nation"?

Its borders? Its government? The sum of its laws?

Or is it something greater [or less]? Its people, its culture, its ethos? After all, France was still France whether under Louis XVI, the Directory, or Napoleon. [Or under Hitler or Sarkozy, for that matter. It was still France.]

Well, let's park this one at the curb. But with the engine running, as it touches on both "nation" and "America."


Which brings us to "Founded." What the hell does that mean?

Plymouth Rock? The ratification of our Godless Constitution? The Bill of Rights that came some months later, the promised payoff to the anti-Federalists?

As my pal Alexandrian at his blog asks about America's Birthday:

Choose one (or more if you can’t choose):

17 September 1774 when the Continental Congress promotes the forming of local militias,

9 February 1775 when Massachusetts was declared in rebellion by George III,

19 April 1775 when organized fighting began,

10 May 1775 when Congress declares a “state of defense,”

15 May 1775 when Washington was named Commander in Chief of the Army,

6 July 1775 when Congress approved the Declaration of Taking up Arms,

23 August 1775 when the King issued the Proclamation of Rebellion and Sedition,

12 April 1776-July when 90 state and local Declarations of Independence were issued starting with NC,

15 May 1776 when the Continental Congress declared that the “Crown should be totally suppressed.”

11 June 1776 when Congress formed a committee of 11 and instructed them to draft a declaration,

2 July 1776 when Congress formally votes independence,

4 July 1776 when the document stating the reasons for that vote was approved,

2 August 1776 when many say the document was actually signed though others disagree,

3 Sept 1783 when the Treaty of Paris was signed,

14 January 1784 when Congress ratified the treaty,

21 June 1788 when NH is the 9th state to ratify the Constitution,


4 March 1789 when the new government under the Constitution begins.

[Oh, I left out stuff such as the Articles of Confederation because there already were too many dates to choose from.---Alexandrian]


"America." "Founded." "Christian." "Nation."

So little time, so many words. Terms.

Words and terms are supposed to make communication easier. Sometimes they just get in the way.

America, are you now or have you ever been founded as a Christian nation?

AMERICA: Yes. No. Sort of. Can you rephrase the question?


Brad Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brad Hart said...

This hits at the core of what I have believed/argued for a while now. When people argue over terms like "Christian" and "Nation" they are merely arguing semantics. There isn't too much substance there because the substance is in the eye of the beholder. Chances are that your typical Christian conservative who has his Tevo set on Glenn Beck and Trinity Broadcasting isn't going to give two shits about what a person like Zinn, Kramnick or Moore has to say. Likewise your Bill Maher/Richard Dawkins crowd is sure to laugh themselves sick at the David Barton/Peter Lillback ilk. Either way nobody is bothering with the founders themselves. They give them lip service but no actual effort. And make no mistake; this is a POLITICAL battle and not a HISTORICAL one. The partisan participants are merely hijacking history to bolster their own partisan agenda. Fortunately us "sophisticated scholars" here at AC don't fret over semantics/politics...right? =)

I still favor your term best, Tom. "Christian-y" is about as good as we're ever gonna get. It has weathered the storm of the past 2 years, unlike "theistic rationalist", "Judeo-Christian", "unitarian", "deist", blah, blah, blah.

I'm beginning to think that debates over semantics are like assholes: we all have them and they all stink. There's my "scholarly" ANALysis. =)

c said...

England was more Christian-y. The founding was the Constitution because that is what defines us today, but the DOI runs a close second in influence. Neither is Christian but DOI does appeal to a "Holy Christian" ruler without clearly specifying the Christian God. The problem which the Christian postmillenialists and dispensationalists won't admit is that calling America a Christian nation implies that salvation is by works rather than by grace and faith in Jesus Christ. So they dilute the message of the Gospel.

Daniel said...

Most interesting questions can be deconstructed to show that they are essentially meaningless? But your deconstruction does not demonstrate that the question is not worth asking; it simply demonstrates that it is very complex. Using many possible definitions of the terms, the question remains interesting. Of course, a "yes" or "no" is neither interesting nor illunimating.

Tom Van Dyke said...

All true, Daniel.

I wrote the essay rather even-handedly, but my take is that anyone who asks "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation" is setting it up so the answer is "no." [They always use those exact words and that formulation.]

No. Ceremonial deism, godless constitution.

Case closed, religion and the Founding, move along, nothing to see here, you stupid fundies.

Brian Tubbs said...

Tom, very good post. Well said.

Having grown up in Christian circles, I used to say America was founded as a Christian nation. But, I'm reminded of Paul's words in I Corinthians 13: "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me."

For me, that was about the time I hit college. I soon realized that life doesn't come in neat packages and pretty sound bytes. Reality is complex.

Good article!

fwb said...

1) America is NOT a nation at all. Only ignorant folks call the US America. Mexico, Canada, et al are all America.

The United States is not and never was a Nation. The terms Nation and National were removed during the original convention at the behest of Mr. Ellsworth because "they were not forming a nation nor was the government national." Folks need to get educated about the US.

The USA are a Union of Nations, sometimes refered to as States. The Nations are free and independent members of the Union called the United States of America.

2) Formed/founded - when the Constitution was ratified by the first 9. Since the Articles were repudiated by the Convention, the system was reset by the ratification.

3) Christian - maybe not as a Nation since no nation exists except in the minds of those who were brainwashed by the Pledge of Allegiance.

BUT the Constitution is Christian and contains a Christian reference in Article I, Section 7.

And most of the individual nations/states that joined the Union were very specific in their acceptable religion.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"BUT the Constitution is Christian and contains a Christian reference in Article I, Section 7."

Not really. The two so-references to Christianity in the Constitution were so nominal that, were we to extract a political theology from them, we could assert the US was founded on nominal Christianity.

A covenant to the Triune God (instead of a no-religious test clause) would have made the Constitution much more identifiably Christian.