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,



The Queen of Rock said...

Wow Brad this post just vocalizes the thoughts of many God-fearing americans in our nation today. My advice: skip the blog and write a book :) Call it "The Historical Musings of Brad" haha

Anonymous said...


Thanks for writing on this. WHen I heard you were writing about this, I wasn't too excited because I thought you might be beating the dead horse about this topic. However, you pushed through all the cliches and the constant use of the word "founding" and said something meaningful. Thanks for speaking about such a controversal topic in a very clear, unique way. You truly did say something.

And from reading it, that something seems to be: "America's view of religion changed after the Great Awakening." It seems like everybody was changed a little bit, perhaps more towards a personal responsibility for one's faith. You said it unified 4/5's of the nation in a common understanding of the Christian faith. That's really interesting. I guess in America today, we often struggle for unity, in general, and then in churches we want unity in the church. Maybe it would be really beneficial if everyone had a common understanding of what following Christ would be, that would really unite denominations and people.

Your second point on what the GA did, was that it dissolved the theocratic consensus. How did that happen? Is that good or bad?


Brad Livengood said...

Nate and Lindsay,
Thanks for the posts.
I suspect you want me to "quit the blog and write a book" so maybe you won't have to read it every month, or six.
the Great Awakening wiped out the theocratic consensus by default. A consensus means to be in agreement. The GA by its very nature created dissent, the opposite of consensus.
"A common understanding of the Christian Faith," refers to a general agreement of who Jesus Christ was and what He did, not a given in the Europe of centuries past. It does not mean that there weren't denominational differences then as there are now.

Anonymous said...


To think that the Great Awakening gave everyone a common understanding of Jesus in America is something that I did not know. In my mind, the American church was thriving and strong for about 200 years. Some say that the American church is no longer the strongest in the world. I hope that changes, or I hope that there is revival.

But I always wondered why the church in England didn't do so hot. I guess I imagine America as like the child of America, confident in itself, doing well, but then sometimes looking over it's shoulder wondering how the parent country England is doing. Spiritually speaking, I considered Europe to be on the drift away from spiriutality and more towards philosophy. I always hoped that we would not follow in England's footsteps in terms of view of God.

Yet what you've said really puts a new light on why America's faith seemed to be "stronger" than England's. (You may accuse me of ethnocentrism being an American.) But it seems like the GA was a unique event that God carried out through people in the 1700's. The Great Awakening almost sounds like a rock concert tour going from city to city. "Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield and John Wesley in concert!!!! May 18th!!! in Greensboro!!!"

The funny thing is, I don't guess the guys during the great awakening had any radio, television or internet advertising. It might of been all word of mouth.

Brad, what kind of revival do you think would take place these days? what would it take?


Brad Livengood said...

In truth the Great Awakening was felt in Europe and in America. Many people trace the origins of the early sermons to Germany and a movement called Pietism, which had a profound influence on John Wesley. Wesley and Whitefield were British and traveled back and forth across the Atlantic many times to preach the word.
That the movement had a far greater impact here than abroad has been the subject of much speculation. It was perhaps because everything was new here and people were more easily led into what they called the "New Light." In Europe you had centuries of the residue of established beliefs and churches. The Reformation was a great leap forward, but did not out distance the long arm of central church authority, whether Anglican, Lutheran, or Catholic.
The Bible is clear. 2 Chronicles 7:14 says: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."
Humble prayer, corporate and individually is the strongest force we have to bring forth revival. But I do not know whether we as the collective Christian world are committed to it.

Anonymous said...

Great post Bro! It goes well with the book "total Truth" that I am reading. I want your opinion on a couple of things.

Do you see any negative impact the 1st great awakening had on Christianity in America? It did bring the choice to the indiviual for the first time but did it distance Christianity from the good parts of church history(IE- catechisms and church fathers, doctrine)?

What impact did revolutionary war, which fell between the 2 great awakenings have on religios belief in America?

Awesome Job!!!
Mike F

Brad Livengood said...

Thanks, Mike.
You put forth two excellent questions that could require book length treatments. First of all, it is difficult to peg these "awakenings" into specific time frames. Traditional historians insist the First Great Awakening ended by 1770-75, in time for the revolution. But, many historians today see the first and second as one continuous movement, particularly in the south. We had tremendous revivals down here in the 1780s and 1790s, (When you go down I-85 to Charlotte you cross under a road called "Poplar Tent," which gets its name from a huge brush arbor built in the area in the 1790s) so it's hard to say when one ends and another begins.
I do think that for the most part the disconnect between church history (and the intellectual facets of Christianity that Nancy Pearcy talks about) and our faith comes much later with the infusion of Darwinianism into our educational systems. But obviously, revivalism was not so much concerned with sticky issues of doctrine as much as it was salvation. It was all about winning souls. Methodists and Baptists, who were the principals in these revivals, were not so keen on traditonal catechisms, but did later developed their own versions of tracterian instruction.
Interestingly, one of the most prominent influences of the American Revolution upon Christianity was in the area of education. In state after state you see the rise of great institutions designed to ground students in Christian education(Although this has long since been abandoned to secularisim), the University of North Carolina, founded by Presbyterian Elders who fought in the Revolutionary War was the first, opening its doors in 1795.
Educators such as Noah Webster, who said that "education was useless without the Bible," designed his famous dictionary to be a tool of Christian instruction.(It is believed to have more Biblical definitons than any other reference.) The primers of William Holmes MacGuffey, amazingly popular with over 120 million sold (And still used, I'm told, by Christian home-schoolers today), was also very influential in its spread of Christian knowledge and values. Each of these educators knew that for our society and government to work, the responsible electorate had to have a grounding in the basic morality of the Bible.
To be sure, there is much more to this than I have tried to explain. But, these are great questions, the kind of things we all should be asking.

Anonymous said...

That's an interesting question Mike about the catechism. The other day I had the youth read the lyrics to "Did you feel the Mountains tremble?" I had them reading it because I was talking about disunity in the church. I feel like that song is a representation of when the church unites, great things happen. "Did you feel the darkness tremble? When all the saints join in one song?"

I know that isn't a creed, but in some ways I guess when you read them it helps you know it all better intellectually. When I look at the disunity in the church today, it seems maybe we could use another great awakening to unify our understanding of what it means to be a CHristian or maybe to read some creeds in order that we remember what happens when the church joins together in unity.

Do you guys think we need some Baptist creeds or catecisms?


Brad Livengood said...

The unification of those who say they are Christians is Christ. The meeting place, or point of agreement has to be His word. Diplomatically, when two nations sign a treaty or an agreement of sorts, it is customary for each to concede something, or compromise. We don't concede anything to the world. We can't compromise with it. Many churches have conceded to worldly values. We cannot follow that route. The early church certainly had the unity of which you speak, but it was because "they continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship (Acts 2:42)." They did not deviate from the teachings of Christ.
Do we need Baptist creeds or catechisms? I would say that we have one, although not in the strictest sense. The Baptist Faith and Message is an excellent statement of what we believe. We also had a great statement of belief on the church website.