Monday, June 1, 2009

Liberty in a Feather Bed: In What Sense is the United States a Christian Nation?

President Obama's recent decision against holding a public ceremony commemorating the National Day of Prayer, along with recent comments that he made in April to the Turkish National Assembly, suggesting that America is "no longer just a Christian Nation," has predictably unleashed a torrent of comment and controversy across the airwaves and the blogosphere. In addition, current articles by Newsweek and prominent Christian thinker Albert Mohler, suggesting that our country is indeed slipping into secularization, have added to the swirling stew of crackle and buzz. From evangelical talk show hosts to the secular thought police, practically no day goes by without debate on that most indefatigable of questions: Is America a Christian Nation?

We must be careful where we tread, for this is not as simple a question as some would like to believe. It is a morass of complexity and bewilderment, an imbroglio fussed and squabbled over since the days of our nation's birth, in which often times quotes by the same founding father are used to prove opposing viewpoints. So what gives?

An thorough appraisal of the subject seems to leave as many questions as answers. In truth, both arguments, pro and con, are woefully inadequate. Those who insist we are a Christian nation imply that our government was designed as some sort of loose theocracy by born again believers. This view invariably begins its argument with excerpts from the journal of Christopher Columbus, or from the Mayflower Compact of 1620, or from the often quoted "Shining City on a Hill" passage of John Winthrop, when in fact, these observations were generations removed from the founders in outlook, philosophy and motivation.

At the opposite end of the polemic, the secularist argument purposely ignores whole chunks of the historical record, that belief in God has always been central to the country's experience, and that our history has been shaped by Christianity more than any other factor. This argument tends to emphasize the deist musings of such founding fathers as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, that the god of deism is an aloof, impersonal being, distinct from the Yahweh of the Bible, without any dealings in the governments of men. Yet, only a cursory glance at the writings of any of these people will tell you that they very much believed God was directly involved in human affairs, and that the deity they spoke of was clearly from a Judeo-Christian context. So both sides misquote, take citations out of context, and otherwise muddle up their assessments (and our understanding) of our government's origin.

Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking in what sense can any nation be Christian? Isaiah 40:17 says "all nations are before Him as nothing, and are counted to Him as less than nothing." Verse 15 previous to that says that "the nations are as a drop in a bucket" to God. The truth is, no nation can be adequately Christian, only Christians can be, individually, one at a time. I believe this is what the founding fathers had in mind, for they designed an earthly government unlike any ever founded, one that is indeed in one very real sense, Christian. How? Why? Because it mirrors the government of Almighty God.

To understand this, one needs to examine the ecclesiastical atmosphere of early America. We have always been a nation of religious pluralism, then as now. While it is true, despite what the secularists tell us, that many groups came to America to escape religious persecution, (There were clearly other factors in the migrations also: riches, land, exploitation, escape from justice, and political exile to name a few) our religious history begins with a surprising dose of downright intolerance. In Puritan New England, among other places where established churches reigned, tithes were forcibly extracted from the population by law (no matter what one believed about the church), attendance was mandatory on Sundays, and all manner of excruciating punishments could be legally administered to dissenters for as little as speaking a word against the pastor.

An established church is one supported by government taxes. They were a legacy imported from Europe, and there were two such churches in America: the Puritan, or Congregational Church in New England, and the Anglican, or Church of England elsewhere. In only three colonies, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, were practical allowances for dissenters tolerated. (In early North Carolina, for instance, acts were passed to limit the civil liberties of Quakers by the majority Anglican population) Yet, colonial governments were fragile things. The theocratic machinery of these governments could never keep track of how everyone in far-flung areas of a given colony worshipped, and thus, religious dissent began to grow. What changed everything and blew the lid off was the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s.

The movement began with a series of powerful sermons called Jeremiads, preached by such men as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. The sermons, which spawned a movement that spread like wildfire up and down the Atlantic seaboard, across all denominations, emphasized the personal: personal responsibility for sin, personal repentance from sin, and a personal relationship with Christ. This movement changed Colonial America in four ways: First, it unified 4/5ths of Americans in a common understanding of the Christian faith. Second, it worked to dissolve the theocratic consensus in colony after colony. Third, new denominations sprang up all over America. Fourth, it brought about an emphasis on the individual, that the individual's choice of where and how he would worship was a right of conscience given to him by God himself.

That these things had profound influence on our founding fathers is beyond doubt. A 1984 survey by the University of Houston examined 15,000 quotes made by founding fathers from 1760 to 1805. The survey sought to find out what references the founders used in arguments they made in print and in political forum. The researchers found that the Bible was by far the most often quoted source, with 34% of the quotes from scripture. Interestingly, another 60% of the quotes were from sources which derived from biblical ideas, ideas about liberty from enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, the Baron de Montesquieu, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, and ideas about the rule of law from Blackstone's Commentaries. What the founding fathers knew that we seem to have lost track of, is that the twin features they built into our American Government and Constitutional system, liberty and the law, come directly from the Bible.

It should be noted that we are the only nation in the history of the world to enshrine the doctrine of free will into our founding documents. Augustine wrote in his classic City of God that the concept of liberum arbitrium, or free will, is the right of mankind. Yet, denial of this has been practiced endlessly by nation after nation. Theocratic governments, or those founded on religion, are often the most tyrannical, whether in the Catholicism of the Middle Ages or Puritan New England or modern Islamic States such as Iran. Even Ancient Israel was a theocracy, although God gives the Hebrews a clear choice as to whether they wished to be a part of it. In Joshua 24:15, Joshua puts the option before the children of Israel: "If it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve." When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we are "endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights," the idea of free will was included in the most basic statement of what America is about. Life and liberty are tied together, not by some suggestion in a document, but by God himself. Being made in the image of God implies that we are, unlike the animals, creatures of reason and understanding. These God-given attributes we use to make moral decisions. The decision making process has been greatly corrupted by sin, of course, but without it we could not exist Imago Dei, in the image of God.

The idea of free will, or the liberty to choose for ourselves, was set down before man from the very beginning. Among the first actions of Adam and Eve was that most basic of human endeavors: the quest for sustenance. God directs them in this, but even so the liberty to choose is clearly a part of it. In Genesis 2:16, God tells Adam "Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat." Well, who's going to turn down a good meal, right? The Garden of Eden was a most plentiful place. Fruitful delicacies were everywhere. When Eve comes along we can almost sense the couple gorging themselves on tree after tree until they come to...uh oh!

In this dilemma we see the second fundamental Christian concept of our American system. The "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" that Jefferson wrote about has to be moderated by the rule of law. Critics say that our Constitution, the basic law of the land, does not mention God and has nothing to do with Christianity. They miss the boat on this one also, because the very idea of law comes from God. In fact, the very first law of history is set down before Adam and Eve right there in the Garden of Eden. The liberty to choose food for themselves is moderated by a stern admonition. Genesis 2:17 says "But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat." God even gives the consequence, or the penalty for breaking this law. "For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." In that one instance, the true government of God and the nature of His relationship to human beings is set down for all time. As God tells the Children of Israel in Deuteronomy 30:19, "I call heaven and earth as witnesses today before you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing."

We have a choice in our relationship with God. Our founding fathers were wise enough not to interfere with this relationship by insisting that we worship or believe things according to someone else's principles. In contrast, theocracies involve a coercion of belief and worship. The founders could see this in the ominous shadow of their recent European past, with fresh memories of bloody religious wars, ecclesiastical torture, and judicial execution for one's beliefs.

We do not have to dig up quote after quote from this or that famous personage to prove our nation's Christian heritage. It simply exists in our freedom to worship, or not to worship, as we choose, every day, every week, year after year. Yet, it is just as clear that such freedoms are under attack. We must be vigilant. Just because we have been able to exercise our free will here in America, it does not mean we always will. We cannot relax. As Jefferson himself once said, "It's a long way from despotism to liberty in a feather bed."

No government can force people into Christianity, or it would not be Christianity. We are a nation founded for the most part by Protestant Christians who based our liberties on biblical concepts, the most important of which says you don't have to believe the Bible. God gives us that option. Our government was founded to allow for His design.

Love in Christ,