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Was the United States founded on Christianity?

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The concept in question here is often expressed in various ways, mostly by theists positing that the United States government is a specifically Christian body meant to govern a Christian state populated by Christians. Variations on the claim include most commonly, “The United States is a Christian nation.”

The answer to the question, “Was the United States founded on Christianity?” is actually complex. There is no easy “yes” or “no.” In fact, it might be said that there is no answer to the question.

Contents

The Underlying Question

This is an important consideration. One cannot answer a question unless one knows what it is that’s being asked. Most of the time — especially when asked by a politician — the question refers to how much Christian theology is entwined within the U.S. government. Unfortunately this question means many things to many people.

Appeal to Basic Numbers

As was the case in most of Europe and its colonies, Christianity was the dominant religion at the time the United States was established. That is, the majority of people who had a religion, were Christian. And Christian ideas were well-known; in literature, the Bible was oft-quoted, stories out of Christian legend were common, and so on. To be educated at all in the American colonies, by definition meant knowing Christianity quite well — even if one was not actually a practicing Christian in a normal sense.

For some of those who claim that the United States is a Christian nation, this consideration is all that matters. If so, this is correct. Christianity was a dominant system of thought at the time the United States was founded. Most of the time, however, this claim means more than just what the dominant religion was at the time the U.S. was founded.

Appeals to the Founding Fathers

That the country’s founders were devout believers who embedded Christianity into the nation, is what most people mean when they make the statement in question; it’s also harder to support. This claim is based on at least some of these factors:

As with the colonies’ general population, there were plenty of Christians among the Founding Fathers. Unfortunately for at least some of those who make this claim, none were fundamentalist Protestant Christians of their own ilk — since American Protestant fundamentalist Christianity did not exist until the Great Awakening of the 19th century, after the U.S. had already been founded.

The Founding Fathers were actually religiously-diverse; easy labels in either direction do not apply. They were, collectively, no more “Christian” than they were “Deist” or “Unitarian” or any other assignation one might use. Not only did the religious views of the Founding Fathers vary from one to another, many were eclectic thinkers, and offered, at various times, different views about religion, both over time and according to their audience.

Religion in the Founding Fathers’ Time

One problem in evaluating the Founding Fathers’ faith(s) is in determining what their faith meant to them. In their time, Christianity was endemic to society, and most people identified themselves as “Christian” even if — today — such a label might not apply.

Example: Deism. Many of the Founding Fathers were Deists, especially as we now understand this term, but some in their own day would have said they were Christian. The main reason is that they took the term Christian literally ... i.e. they believed in the importance of Jesus Christ and that, in a very simple sense, made them Christians (or followers of Christ). Today, Deism is construed as dismissing religious dogma, including Christ, but in the 18th century, many Deists valued many of the teachings of Jesus and thought of themselves as his followers. Even those who clearly thought of themselves as Deists, definitely found value in at least some aspects of Christianity.

This means that many of the Founding Fathers said or did things that — from our 21st century perspective — explicitly identified them as “Christian”; however, this is misleading. Thus, any claims by Founding Fathers of affection for Jesus or Christianity must be viewed carefully, so as not to arrive at anachronistic conclusions.

A better approach than offering an expansive argument covering all the Founding Fathers collectively, would be to discuss some of them individually and see if the claims made about them, specifically, hold up:

Thomas Jefferson

Among the best-educated and most brilliant of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson is a focal point in this argument, since he had so much to say about religion. Jefferson was certainly a “Christian” in the sense that he placed great value in the teachings of Jesus Christ. But he was a Deist in rejecting most of the legend surrounding Jesus and in dismissing the supernatural aspects of Jesus’ career.

This is exemplified most in his own redacted version of the gospels, known now as the Jefferson Bible. He preserved within it the teachings, parables and lessons Jesus taught, but carved out almost all of the supernatural content of the gospels. Another way of putting it is, that he valued the intellectual aspects of Christian teachings, but dismissed its dogmatism.

The Jefferson Bible, in fact, shows in a single package the dichotomy of Jefferson’s religious thinking.


Quotes:

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

- Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82 (capitalization of the word god is retained per original)

[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

- Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1779), quoted from Merrill D Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: Writings (1984), p. 347

I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.

- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803

Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society. We have solved ... the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.

- Thomas Jefferson, to the Virginia Baptists (1808). This is his second use of the term "wall of separation," here quoting his own use in the Danbury Baptist letter. This wording was several times upheld by the Supreme Court as an accurate description of the Establishment Clause: Reynolds (98 US at 164, 1879); Everson (330 US at 59, 1947); McCollum (333 US at 232, 1948)"

Thomas Paine

Another Founding Father who said a lot about religion, Paine authored one of the best-known polemics against religion, The Age of Reason. He also qualifies as a Deist, and Age pulls few punches in opposing dogmatism and ecclesiastical authoritarianism. Paine denounces the very idea of creed-based religion; for him, truth is not declared in the words of a creed, but understood by the rational mind using the divine gift of reason. Note that this is nowhere near the same as denouncing religion wholly.

Benjamin Franklin

Franklin spoke often of the value of virtue, and it appears he meant this not in a religious sense — as the word was used most often in the 18th century — but in an Aristotlean sense, as a rationally-based civic quality in citizens. Franklin prized virtue above all else, even piety, and further saw religious dogmatism as hindering, rather than helping, individuals become virtuous.

Complicating the matter for Franklin, however, he acknowledged that for many, virtue even as he viewed it was intricately caught up in religion. In a letter to Thomas Paine, for example, he wondered how virtuous humanity would be without religion, if virtue is so rare even with religion. So in an almost self-contradictory manner, he sometimes extolled the value of religion; but he did so in such an open and general way, that John Adams famously remarked that to a Catholic Franklin was Catholic, he was an Anglican to Anglicans, and so on. A way to reconcile the contradiction here is to understand that, to Franklin as well as other thinkers of his time, “religion” meant several things at the same time. It was, it appears, rigid dogmatism and strict creed-based theology which concerned him about religion; other aspects of “religion,” other meanings embraced by that term, were more acceptable to him.

John Adams

John Adams was a Congregationalist foremost. His views became more Unitarian, as a result of New England Congregationalism’s veering into Unitarian country. (This is why it’s commonly said that Adams was a Unitarian.) He was definitely a religious man, however, his religion was strictly Unitarian and Universalist in flavor. This meant that, along with the aforementioned Jefferson, Paine, and Franklin, Adams reviled creed-based dogmatic religion. He rejected, as Jefferson did, specific doctrines such as the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and more. So even though he cast aspersions on “that Blackguard Paine” for having dismissed religious institutions, it’s clear that he actually agreed with a great deal of what Paine had to say.

Other Founding Fathers’ Faiths

(to be written)

Appeal to Founding Documents

A corollary to the appeal to the Founding Fathers, is an appeal to the founding documents (e.g. the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, etc.). Since these documents were authored by the Founding Fathers, this exercise usually just leaves one looking at the Founding Fathers again. There are some interesting points to be made, however:

Constitution and Associated Documents

The documents upon which the United States government is directly based, are the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the later Amendments. None of these expresses any belief in God, except that the phrase “year of our Lord” is used in the Constitution’s date. This was a common convention, however, and was used — then and now — by people of varying faiths. It has no religious meaning when used in this way.

Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence famously announces:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Mention of a Creator, in the eyes of theists, as used in this document, means the U.S. is founded on Christianity. But this is a stretch. First, the Declaration was written mainly by Jefferson, with assistance from Franklin and Adams. As explained above, their ideas of what “the Creator” was, is certainly not the Creator of Christian dogma, but rather the incomprehensible being of Enlightenment thought. Their vision of “God” had much more in common with the Ineffable Divine of Socrates and Plato, than with the “Gawd” of modern fundamentalist preachers. The term “Creator” was commonly used in the 18th and 19th centuries to speak of deity in an open, generic sense, especially when the author was bridging religions (as Paine did in Age of Reason). Use of “the Creator” by Englightenment thinkers cannot be considered as referring specifically to the Christian God. Second, more obviously, the Declaration is not our Constitution; its provisions do not carry the force of law, and the Declaration, as great a document as it was, does not describe the U.S. government.

Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation describe the U.S. government between the end of the Revolution and the Continental Congress, and the current Constitution. The Articles do, as it turns out, mention God, both in dating (as in the Constitution), but more explicitly in Article XIII:

And Whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union.

As with the term used by Jefferson in the Declaration, the phrase “Great Governor of the World” was, then, used often in a general way that did not relate specifically to a single religion’s deity. (Yet another common term of this type is “Providence.”)

Summary of Founding Documents

Taken together, what does all of this mean? It only tells us what we already know based on examining the Founding Fathers themselves, which is that they avoided attributing much to God (specifically or explicitly); when they did speak of him, they did so in a generic and open-ended fashion. The “our Lord” of dating convention, the “Creator” of the Declaration, and the “Great Governor of the World” of the Articles, did not in any way refer specifically to the God of Christianity. They were, instead, generalities and abstractions which went beyond that definition.

The Treaty of Tripoli

The nascent United States no longer were defended by the powerful British Navy; in 1796, then, a treaty was signed with the state of Tripoli which helped the United States protect its shipping interests. Article 11 of this treaty contains an interesting provision, and reads as follows:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

The official text of the treaty was in Arabic, however, the above was part of the official English translation ratified by the Senate and published in several venues at the time. There is no record of anyone ever objecting to the phrase “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” although the terms of this treaty were quite public — which strongly suggests that this statement was not far from the mark.

Constitution and Bill of Rights

Bound up in the assertion that the U.S. is a “Christian nation” is an implied opposition to separation of church and state. That is, many of those who claim that the U.S. is founded on Christianity, oppose the idea that church and state should be separated, and argue that since no such separation is explicitly called for in the Constitution, this principle does not exist. While the words “church and state shall be separated” are — quite obviously — not in the Constitution or any amendment, two features are present, which are relevant:

  1. Article IV section 3 says, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
  2. The First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Arguments over whether or not these constitute “separation of church and state,” have been going on for decades, never really getting anywhere; but what ends them are the words of James Madison, who was a key player in the Constitutional Convention and author of the First Amendment itself:

Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.... Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative.

Madison used the example of Congressional chaplains to explain his intention behind the First Amendment. He wanted a clear wall separating church and state. Whatever quibbling we may do, now, over his words (i.e. the First Amendment) is beside the point: He told us what he meant, and a wall was what he had wanted.

Having said this, one can see that Madison’s motivation here has more to do with protecting religion, than anything else. For him and for most of the Founding Fathers, for religion to have any value or accomplish any good, it had to be individual and it had to be sincere. Anyone forcing religion on others was unacceptable and damaged the religion itself; it ruined the religion’s integrity. In Madison’s view, the danger of state and church joined was that the state would alter the church and exploit it as a means of manipulation and control. By preventing this from happening, Madison and the rest hoped to preserve the integrity of religion and its sanctity.

Christian Theology in the United States Government

The argument from design based on the Founding Fathers’ views is, of course, only one way of looking at this issue. Another is to compare Christian theology and the U.S. government, and see what similarities and differences exist.

Representative Republic

While the U.S. is colloquially called a “democracy,” a better term for it would be “representative republic.” As such, it’s descended from the democracies and republics of classical Greece and Rome. Aspects of U.S. government, such as the name of the upper house of Congress (“Senate”) reflect this classical origin.

Nothing, however, in the history of Christianity or Judaism before ite bears any resemblance to a representative republic. The various forms of government described in the Bible as having been divinely-ordained are tribal confederations (i.e. the so-called Judges period) and monarchies (i.e. rule of Judea and Israel under Saul and other kings descended from David). Neither of these is a representative republic, nor did they contribute even philosophically to the notion of a representative republic.

Rule of Law

U.S. government is also based on the “common law” model which was part of England’s Anglo-Saxon tradition. This legal system is based on the principle of precedent; i.e. laws are interpreted and enforced according to how things had previously been done. The laws promulgated in Judaic and Christian beliefs, however, are divine statutes. They are authoritarian declarations, taken as authoritative all by themselves with precedent being irrelevant.

English common law, in fact, is far from Christian; it originated among Germanic peoples in pagan times and reflected their own tribal customs. The Germanic peoples developed a “common law” legal system of their own, prior to their contact with Christianity, which was nearly as sophisticated as the Greco-Roman world had. This legal system persisted in England in spite of Christianity, not because of it — the rest of Europe, even places like France and Spain which had been conquered by Germanic peoples from Rome, fell back on Roman law.

Yes, the U.S. has statutes ... some might say an overabundance of them! ... and the very job of Congress, state legislatures, county boards and municipal councils is to enact statutes. However, in the U.S., all of those statutes are evaluated by a legal system based on precedent. Courts can, for example, overturn statute laws based upon other precedent. The prevalence of precedent is something not found anywhere in Judaic or Christian tradition.

On these two scores, then (government structure, and rule of law) the U.S. is clearly not based on Christianity.

Supreme Court Frieze

Some theists point out that the frieze above the Supreme Court shows Moses, the original law-giver of Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Thus, religionists claim, the Supreme Court and its proceedings are “inspired” by Moses and the law propounded to him by JHWH. The problem here is that the frieze depicts a number of law-givers from history and legend, 18 in all:

  1. Menes, the primeval Egyptian pharaoh
  2. Hammurabi, ruler of Babylon, codifier of Babylonian law
  3. Moses, already mentioned
  4. Solomon, Hebrew king famed for wisdom
  5. Lycurgus, shadowy law-giver in early Sparta
  6. Solon, a magistrate and law-giver in early Athens
  7. Draco, another Athenian statesman
  8. Confucius, classical Chinese philosopher and moralist
  9. Augustus, first emperor of Rome
  10. Napoleon, post-revolution dictator of France
  11. John Marshall, Supreme Court justice
  12. William Blackstone, British jurist
  13. Hugo Grotius, Dutch jurist
  14. Louis IX, king of France
  15. King John, king of England who promulgated Magna Carta
  16. Charlemagne, Frankish king
  17. Mohammed, founder of Islam
  18. Justinian I, Byzantine emperor, codifier of laws

The presence of Moses and Solomon in this frieze hardly stamps “Christianity,” distinctively, on the U.S. government. Taken together the point of this frieze of 18 figures is reverence for laws and law-givers in history and legend; it is not necessarily an endorsement of any particular set of laws, let alone that one promulgated by JHWH to Moses. Also, some of these figures are quite legendary, little-known, and may not actually have been involved in establishing or codifying laws (among these are Lycurgus of Sparta and Draco of Athens). Their presence on the frieze cannot be construed as an assertion of the historicity of Lycurgus or Draco; only their metaphorical presence is required.

Christianity And Its Relationship With Government

In many ways, Christianity itself is not concerned with governments. Perhaps the most famous statement made by Jesus is “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” see Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17, and Luke 20:25. Many of Jesus’ teachings centered on defining the difference between the spiritual and the physical; and he assigned government (metaphorically, “Caesar”) to the realm of the physical. He generally encouraged his followers to concern themselves with the spiritual and not the physical. Thus, to be a Christian means not concerning oneself overly with statecraft, and in turn this implies strongly that Christianity does not favor any particular kind of state, or take any interest in the creation of states.

Christians Are The Majority!

Some theists fall back on the fact that, since Christianity is the dominant religion in the U.S., both at its founding and now, this makes it a “Christian nation” and that’s the end of it. This is, however, majoritarianism, something which most of the Founding Fathers opposed, and which the U.S. government is specifically designed to guard against. Using majoritarianism to declare the U.S., an anti-majoritarian state, “Christian” is simply ridiculous.

What Is the Point?

Trying to discern how much Christian theology is embedded into the U.S. government is an interesting intellectual exercise, but what is the point of asking this question? Even if one could show conclusively that the United States was founded specifically on Christianity, where exactly does that take us?

In a word, it takes us nowhere! That there were Founding Fathers who believed in Christ, tells us nothing about Christianity itself. Similarly, even if one accepts that the U.S. was founded on Christianity, this also tells us nothing about Christianity.

American Christians generally use this appeal to history assuming it bolsters the veracity of their beliefs. They are further comforted by the notion that their own personal religion also happens to be the religion of the entire country. This is a form of argumentum ad populum, though, and is just as fallacious.

Moreover, this argument ignores that there have been many changes in culture and society since the founding of the United States. Not every aspect of life in the time of the Founding Fathers is still valid. For instance, slavery was part of their world; some of the Founding Fathers even owned slaves. Yet slavery has since been abolished. That slavery existed in the Founding Fathers’ time, and that some even owned slaves, does not mean that slavery should still be acceptable now.

Confusing Religion With Polity

Christianity is a religion, a package of metaphysical beliefs and spiritual notions. Statecraft is something entirely different. These are not the same thing, even if many people construe them as being united. (Such an admixture is even more pronounced in other religions such as Islam.) This is why, to an extent, the question “Was the United States founded on Christianity?” cannot be answered. It would be like trying to answer the question, “Is the song brown?” Just as music cannot be brown in color, it is not possible for a state to be “Christian.”

Lot of samrts in that posting!


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