Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Founding Fathers

Here's something coming out of the conservative evangelical church right now that really bothers me. Okay, it's bothered me for a while, but it's extra-bothering me recently because of some things that have been said about this at my church. The thought that some 4,000 people are coming to what I think are misleading conclusions about the history of our country is DRIVING ME CRAZY.

Is our country based on judeo-Christian principles?

Yes. We have been an unusually religious country throughout our history.

However, perhaps it's not quite like we think it is. Judeo-Christian values have infused and informed much of Western culture, but that doesn't meant the Western culture is Christian. We just carry some principles that have been derived from the Christian and Jewish religion.

Here's what I think the church is not clear on. Our country was not founded by strong believers. We act like it was. That is a misinterpretation of history. There were some strong believers among those who came to America, and you can read their writings and take heart. The Revolutionaries and those that wrote the Bill of Rights, though.... most of them were not passionate Christians. Most of them attended church because everyone attended church. Most of them believed there was a God, but then again everyone believed there was a God. There were a few with a passionate personal faith, Patrick Henry, for example. He was the exception. Most of the Revolutionaries and Founding Fathers were intellectual, principled men who believed in some sort of deity but did not believe the scriptures were literal truth.

The ideas and passions that drove our Revolutionaries carried the sentiments of Humanism, Rationalism, and Englightenment Philosophy. These men believed strongly in freedom and the rights of man (a very strong idea in Enlightenment thought). Most of them were religious liberals. To quote the article that I just linked to (which is fantastic and specifically examines the attitude towards Christianity of six of the Founding Fathers):

None of the liberals believed in the major doctrines of orthodox Christianity. As we will see in subsequent sections, they rejected some or all of the following doctrines: the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth, the Bible as the literal word of God, predestination, Hell, Satan, and creatio ex nihilo. The only doctrine, other than a belief in God, that they held was the immortality of the soul and some sort of afterlife.

The point I'm making is not that there has been no Christian influence on the USA - there absolutely has been. Our government is not built on Christianity, it is built on enlightenment philosophy. This carries some Christian ideals, like the value of humanity, but for the most part the Christianity that has been passed down through the USA has been passed from pastor to laymen to pastor to student. The strength of the church in the USA has never been our godly government, and actually a good study of history might lead you to think that we have often had much more corrupt leaders and periods of our history than that which we are in now. I believe that our government has been and always will be led by flawed men, very few of whom have personally followed the Lord.

I believe the reason our nation has grown so powerful and been so successful is because of a combination of being in the right place at the right time, and having an amazingly pragmatic and self-limiting governmental a fantastic economic model. God has allowed our success, but I think history and scripture shows that God often allows the growth of evil nations and uses them to enact His ultimate purposes. Neither the success or failure of our nation says anything about our relationship to God as a people.

So... what's the big deal? Why does it even matter? For one thing, I have increasingly heard Christians preaching the Christianness of America with such vehement urgency that it seems like it is just as important as the core doctrines of our faith. I don't understand this at all - why is this idea of a pure Christian history so important to so many? Is it because it makes us feel safe and secure because God surely blesses those that follow Him? It frightens me to see faith so inextricably mixed with politics and faulty history - it distracts from the core gospel of our Trinitarian God and the salvation we have through Jesus. I also think it's dangerous to hold so high of an opinion of our own history - it can border on idolatry, and certainly breeds arrogance and perhaps thoughtlessness in how we act as a country.

We are a nation that has many Christians in it, and we always have been. I think we have an amazing form of government, but it hasn't been sanctioned by God. Our security and identity as Christians lies first in our faith and our church. As citizens of this nation it's our job to vote as Christians and for things that enact redemption in our land. A Christian leader will not save us, a non-Christian leader will not necessarily ruin us.

*deep breath*... okay... end rant. :)


Nate Loucks said...

This reminds me of Greg Boyd's Myth of a Christian Nation. It's a phenomenal book on the Kingdom vs. the kingdom. Outside of NT Wright, Boyd might be my favorite contemporary theologian.

That Married Couple said...

Very interesting! You're right that this is a common misconception.

Lately I keep thinking that the US is comparable to the Roman Empire - it gets huge, but unruly, and ultimately it's going to crumble. Not necessarily because God's punishing us (although sometimes you do have to wonder), but because a single nation/empire is just not going to remain all-powerful for all of time.

That said, I'm one of those crazy patriotic people who really loves her country :)

I think the reason people feel such a passionate need to portray us as a Christian country is because they don't know what else to do. They feel like we're on this downhill spiral (abortion! gay marriage! who knows what's next?!) and they're grasping at straws. When people are panicking, it's easy to look back to earlier times and point out how rosy things were then. Of course, as you point out, there have been many other corrupt times; but it's really easy to forget or gloss over those when you're desperately searching for a utopic model.

Graced said...

Mmmmm, I just read a book on this subject, but we are in the process of moving and I know I've already packed it. It's buried at the bottom of a cardboard box! If you would like the name of the book, remind me over at my blog, and when we unpack, I'll let you know!

Kacie said...

Married Couple - great observations, I think you're spot on.

Nate - never heard of Boyd, I've only read Noll on the subject. I just looked up his book and it looks interesting...

Graced - was it Noll?

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

I think folks at your church should research the biographies of the early founders. Some were believers; some were agnostic; some were atheist. I'm not so sure that it was all that different from today. Life looks a lot different when you are living it than when you are looking back on it.

Kacie said...

Yeah, I would agree with that, we are reading our own situation back into history. I think this is a trend in American Christianity right now, to view early America as this sort of Christian utopia that we are now loosing. Too many people think that because abortion is legal and there's no prayer in school, the great christian heritage of this country is being lost.

I think that that Christian heritage never was a part of our proud governmental system, so there's no need to act like victims! We just need to represent our faith as we always have.