America and National Religion

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (written by dead white guys)

I think we all readily acknowledge that the United States Founding Fathers did not want a national religion to which all citizens must subscribe. But a number of evangelicals (I think that’s a fair label) still argue that our country was founded on Christian ideals for a Christian citizenry. It’s nice to read John Adams’ statement, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In fact, it’s a bit chilling to read the context of that line:

While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation, while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candour, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world. Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. That which you have taken, and so solemnly repeated on that venerable ground, is an ample pledge of your sincerity and devotion to your country and its government.

But I say all of this to ask one question. How would your perspective change if you became convinced the United States was not founded as a Christian nation? What if our laws were the same, but we had put to rest the idea that the Founders assumed we all respected the Bible, if we didn’t believe it? Perhaps I shouldn’t say this up-front, but I ask this question out of concern that too many evangelicals value America over the gospel. Some people talk as if God is always on our side–I mean, we’re Americans, so how could God side with anyone else? So they urge others to get with America, and in doing so, they’ll get with God.

If I’m talking to you, let me recommend this thoughtful, encouraging book: The End of Secularism.

9 thoughts on “America and National Religion”

  1. … I ask this question out of concern that too many evangelicals value America over the gospel.”

    Interesting observation, because that’s not at all what I see. Instead, many evangelicals — especially those in the Reformed camp — appear to have subtly repudiated and be disgusted with Americanism, both contemporary and historical iterations. I mean, my former pastor said that Communism was a good thing until it got too authoritarian.

    Myself, I’m rather fond of the uniquely American blend of free markets, free people and freedom of religion, and I happen to think those concepts owe something to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yeah, I know, it’s not a popular viewpoint right now. Let the tomatoes fly.

  2. Well, of course, the good guys have it right. I’m talking about those other people…

    Of course, you’re right to enjoy the blend of ideas. It’s a huge blessing from the Lord, but I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t think America is exceptional. I’m asking whether some of us argue for a return to American traditional values over surrendering to the gospel or rallying the party vote over solid biblical teaching.

  3. What I see is not one or the other, but a polarizing where each camp, the nationalists and the internationalists are retrenching into their corners. This tends toward hyperbole and demonizing built on circular reasoning as each side only associates with like minded people leading them to think that all right thinking people agree with them and anyone who doesn’t is not only stupid, but dangerous.

    A major error I’m seeing in some circles is the idea of salvation through political action. People think that if only they can get the right people elected and the right laws passed, then we will be saved. I wonder if this stems from the error the church falls into when it presents a Gospel centered on behavioral reform rather than reconciliation with God. When rules and morality become the center of our religion instead of an outgrowth of a deeper issue, the ripple effects can be observed far and wide.

    I focused my week after Easter message on Paul’s statement in Acts 13:38 declaring that through this man (Jesus) forgiveness of sins is declared to you. If religion is only about following the rules and being a good person, virtually every religion has a set of rules that if followed produces a reasonably orderly society. But what of those who haven’t followed all the rules perfectly? Christianity is the only religion I know of that is built upon providing forgiveness and reconciliation for those who have fallen short.

    The Church has always struggled to keep the main thing the main thing. From the time Paul wrote, “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?” until today, we have always had to be on guard against those who would co-opt our message and movement away from a Gospel of Peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ to merely a system of rules and commands. When the church falls prey to reducing the Gospel to a system of rules and behaviors, the next step is to co-opt the policing power of government to enforce those rules.

    Martin Luther dealt with this issue in a number of treatises, including To The Christian Nobility and On Secular Authority. He outlined the distinction between the Kingdom of God and Earthly Kingdoms. In God’s Heavenly Kingdom, the Holy Spirit uses the Gospel to call people to faith in Christ. On the other hand, earthly governments have been instituted to use the sword to maintain a peaceful and orderly society. We confuse the two to our own peril. If we think we can maintain order in society through the forgiveness of the Gospel, wicked men will run amok and wreak havoc. Luther likens it to putting a wolf, a lamb and a lion in the same pen and telling them to just get along. They will all agree, but in the morning the lamb will no longer exist. On the other hand, if we seek to build the kingdom of God by enforcing external rules and regulations, we only get oppression and rebellion, not Godliness.

  4. Phil,

    Ah, well that’s good. Apologies for (slightly) unloading. I’ve just grown frustrated with the public complacency from some of the rising stars in our particular theological corner.

  5. Very good, Greybeard. I think we’re on the same page.

    Loren, I don’t know who you’re talking about, but I can think of two reasons for what may seem to be complacency: 1) political fatigue, because the arguments seem to go round and round, year after year; 2) Gospel understanding that people are not changed by mere moral conviction or political rationale. I’m getting tired of politics too, because so often even the people who agree with you are wildly exaggerating. And if Christians need to step into the background by quieting their public voice on political issues in order to work more effectively on important matters that will change their city, then I’m for it. We can fight for justice and mercy without talking national politics on national airwaves.

  6. Phil: I love that quotation. For one thing, I think it unites a lot of complaints the Right and the Left have about our nation today.

    Recent debates about the founding fathers have made me curious about the truth, which doesn’t seem to fit into neat political narratives. I always loved Adams for his conviction, integrity, and faithfulness, though I don’t think he fits into a neat Evangelical category. He’s also one of those fascinating mis-fits, who seems to have had a particular clarity of moral vision. I can’t off the top of my head think of any other founding father with an equally insistant hatred of slavery, for instance.


    It’s interesting that you point that out in the Reformed tradition. I am coming at the same issue from the opposite side. I am highly critical of much of America’s historical entanglement of church and state, especially as tied together during the Cold War. For just this reason, I have a reluctance to jump in bed with a tradition that seems too close to Jonathan Edwards’ theonomy. I don’t have the stomach for a government that stones homosexuals to death, and I don’t see how such roots easily translate themselves into loving servant-leadership on the national stage. (Yes, I know, Jonathan Edwards lived in a vastly different society. But those–like me–who adore his theological works eventually need to come to grips with the Puritan City on a Hill ideal and how it worked in practice. That is, only practicing Christians lived in the City on a Hill, and excommunication from the faith community often came in the form of Old Testament style executions.)

    I wonder if the Reformed theologians you talk to seem so anti-American because they are pushing back against the particular interweaving of church and state native to their tradition? Maybe they insist firmly on separating their church from our American state because their roots predate the separation of church and state.

    In other words, Evangelicals trace their heritage back to the Revivalist tradition and through the American midwest. These early exemplars are already a part of a pluralistic society–revival preachers rely on the assumption that most of those they preach at are not acting in accordance with Christianity. Reformed trace their American heritage to the Puritans, who lived in communities with much stricter links between religious conviction and citizenship.

    (That said, most of the Christians I know who are most passionate about the right to bear arms and the importance of lowering taxes are Reformed, so maybe you’re seeing sampling error.)

  7. CR,

    I really don’t think that a reaction to theonomy is the issue here. It’s virtually impossible to get ordained in my and Phil’s denomination if one is a disciple of Rushdoony. The problem — from my viewpoint — seems an atomistic view of the gospel that denies that it has social implications.

  8. Anyone familiar with the wide-ranging thinking and the wry humor of our country’s founders should already know that they would not be capable of united blind allegiance to cant, whether religious or otherwise.

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