The Influence of Christianity on America’s Founding

The following remarks were delivered on 10 December 2018 to the Darlington County and the Florence County Republican Parties (South Carolina) at their joint Christmas party.  This talk was a very cursory overview of a complicated topic, but I had to address it in about eight minutes to a room full of people who just wanted to eat barbecue and have a good time, not hear a minutiae-laden history lecture.  The talk derives primarily from Dr. Mark David Hall’s Heritage Foundation lecture “Did America Have a Christian Founding?” (PDF) I highly encourage readers to investigate that source, as it addresses the issue more completely.

I’ve been asked to speak briefly tonight about the influence of Christianity on America’s Founding.  Given the Christmas season, and the continuing culture war that attempts to revise Christianity’s impact out of our history and the public sphere, this topic is particularly germane.

For tonight’s remarks, I’ve drawn heavily—and almost exclusively—from a Heritage Foundation lecture delivered in May 2011 entitled “Did America Have a Christian Founding?” (PDF)  The lecturer, Dr. Mark David Hall, focuses on a few major points to argue that, while it’s a bit complicated, the influence of Christianity on the Founding generation and the Framers of the Constitution was intense and profound.

The notion of a “wall of separation between Church and State” comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a congregation of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut.  It was the only time Jefferson used the phrase in writing, though Supreme Court justices beginning in the 1940s began to latch onto the idea as if it represented the entirety of late-18th-century opinion on the matter.  In fact, almost all of the Framers of the Constitution believed that government should encourage Christianity wherever possible.  They simply believed that such support for churches should occur at the local and State levels, not the federal.

This belief explains the relative silence of the Constitution on the matter of religion:  when the Framers drafted the document, they intended it to create a very limited federal government, one that would largely stay out of issues that the States were more equipped to handle.  When it came to established churches at the State level, the assumption was not that they were a de facto good; rather, the argument for or against establishment boiled down to “what is best to support Christianity generally?”  Some States, particularly in New England, had established churches—thus the chafing of the Danbury Baptists—but other States simply required individuals to pay a tax to support their individual denomination.

Now, to be clear:  I’m not advocating we return to the establishment of official denominations at the State level—the government can barely issue driver’s licenses effectively, and I sure don’t want them sniffing around the church collection plate—but the point here is that the Framers viewed State and local establishment as a profoundly in line with both the Constitution and the desire to preserve Christian principles.  Even Jefferson, the famous Deist among the Founders, hosted the Reverend John Leland, and had the reverend open a session of Congress with prayer.  Jefferson refused to declare days of thanksgiving and fasting—a custom established under Washington and continued after Jefferson left office—but he did so on purely constitutional grounds:  he didn’t think he had the authority.  Even then, he still observed days that, in all but name, had the same intent.

I’ve focused tonight largely on Christianity’s influence during and after debate and ratification of the Constitution.  I’ll close with a brief examination of the American Revolution.  As Christians will know, Romans 13 requires us to submit to higher authorities.  But theologians from John Calvin forward began arguing that, in some cases, a Christian might be allowed to resist an ungodly ruler, and some theologians began to argue affirmatively that they a Christian would be required to resist such a ruler.

The influence of Calvinism was so widespread by the beginning of the Revolution that King George III allegedly called it “a Presbyterian Rebellion.”  More notably, the Declaration of Independence clearly invokes “nature’s God.”  While some scholars have contended that such phrases as “Supreme Judge” and “Providence” are spiritual-sounding weasel-words used to refer to a theoretical or philosophical concept of “God,” Americans at the time would have understood them as references to the Christian God, the Holy Trinity.

There are, of course, endless vignettes from the Revolution that suggest God’s Hand in the proceedings—the unlikely fog that allowed Washington and his men to escape Manhattan Island, for example—but, from the historical record, it seems abundantly clear that, while the Founding generation was tolerant of other faiths, it was comprised of an overwhelmingly Christian people.  Our government was built on the assumption that thus we would remain.  As Washington noted in his Farewell Address, “religion and morality” were the “indispensable supports” of our constitutional system.

Advertisements

18 thoughts on “The Influence of Christianity on America’s Founding

  1. It certainly makes America stand out that the very first people to disembark the Mayflower were Puritans. The Puritans were a violent group of Christian Terrorists who’s armies had lauded over Europe, every bit as sadistic and oppressive as ISIS is today. They weren’t simply escaping religious persecution as the US history tells it, but were authoritarian, sadistic, extremists who brought their sadism and inhumanity with them….Puritans, Calvinists, Christian Reformers.

    Like

    • I do think there’s a fairly straight line from the crusading ethic of the Puritans–and the constant need for “progress” or “reform”–to the modern day progressives (note the transition of old Ivy League schools from theological seminaries to what we might call seminaries of social justice). That said, the Puritans were not the be-all, end-all of Christianity in colonial British North America. The First Great Awakening, with figures like John Wesley (founder of Methodism) and the revivalist George Whitefield did a great deal to spread a profusion of new denominations and theological concepts, and to advance notions of spiritual equality (while we may have certain prescribed roles in life, we’re equal in the eyes of God, and Christians are all important parts of the Body of Christ).

      Richard Weaver draws a clear distinction between the puritanical ethic of the North and the religiosity of the South in his _Southern Essays_ (I’ll have to locate my copy to find the exact essay). His key insight is that, while the Puritan impulse is to stamp out evil wherever it exists–and, thereby, merely spreading it further, like stepping on a pregnant spider–the more traditionally Christian approach of the South has been to name and recognize evil, and to hem it in as much as possible without seeking to eradicate it entirely, knowing that we’re all fallen. He puts it far more eloquently than I, so I’ll attempt to locate the exact quotation and include it in a future comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You inadvertently hit the real problem with the Abrahamic religions in the concept that evil is a noun and not a verb. When this is combined with the assumption that what counts are beliefs and not actions, this introduces the justification of evil actions by the so-called faithful. As far as I’m concerned the Christians, Jews and Muslims are all guilty of unspeakable atrocities in the name of so called God!

        Like

      • I do think there’s a link between belief and actions; the two are not divorced from one another, and I know that much of my capacity to govern my actions derives from my faith in Christ. “Faith without works is dead,” after all. Certainly there have been “unspeakable atrocities” committed in the name of God, but that doesn’t invalidate God’s divinity–it just highlights man’s fallen nature, and endless creativity for twisting the godly into the ungodly. I would also counter that the far larger influence of Christianity has been to pacify and civilize humanity (case in point: the old Vikings of Scandinavia miraculously calmed down a great deal upon accepting Christ en masse). Christianity is the indispensable foundation for enduring, peaceful civilization. I imagine we’ll disagree on that point, but I appreciate your spirited commentary, and I think it’s important to acknowledge the pitfalls of some theological concepts.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The problem is the disparity between beliefs and behavior that is established by the focus on “right beliefs” being the only thing that counts. From this perspective all sorts of evil has been justified by people who are unaccountable because their actions do not count from a moral perspective.
        And when you consider that the Abrahamic God is a racist, a sexist, who endorses slavery, infanticide, genocide, heathen blood sacrifice, adultery, and behaves as a deceiver and insecure human ego…then how would you believe the product of such a religion is good? The fact is atheists lead more moral lives than Christians and it’s not difficult to understand why!

        Like

      • Whoa! We must not be reading the same Bible. God is pretty clear throughout the Old and New Testaments that adultery, murder, etc., are taboo. My understanding is the whole reason the Philistines were destined to lose control of the Promised Land was because they were sacrificing babies to Baal (and because God had promised that land to the Israelites). That’s also why He forbid the Israelites from intermarrying with the tribes in Palestine, and ordered so many mass slayings. The NT verses about treatment of slaves is not an endorsement of slavery, but an acknowledgement that it existed as an institution, and the Apostle Paul is pretty clear that even then a slave is your brother in Christ.

        I appreciate your perspective, but I’d argue any moral foundation that atheism can rest upon is ultimately Christian in nature. I know and am friends with many decent, morally upright atheists (one of them attends my weekly Bible study!), and I don’t doubt the capacity of an atheist to do and believe good. I would just argue that such atheists unwittingly are living according to biblical ideas of morality and goodness.

        Thanks for a lively discussion, Robert. I appreciate you taking the time to comment so vigorously. I don’t think we’ll agree on these fundamental points, but I thank you for the respectful exchange of ideas.

        Like

      • If you are to make recomendations, then you should be an expert on aspects of it before you do. This includes expertise on the other two Abrahamic religions, who share agreements and oppositions and each claim authority over everything including the authority over the law and decency!

        Like

      • What is infanticide if not murder? What is genocide if not murder? The bible also allows you to have slaves and beat them to death!

        Like

      • What is the exclusive elevation on the Jews if not racism? It certainly allowed them to conduct immoral behavior according to modern enlightened standards!

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s