CANTON – Is America a Christian nation?
Last week, Malone University’s Spring Worldview Forum, in conjunction with the Center for Faith & Culture, explored the issue during “Christianity and the American Foundation” with guest speakers John Fea, chair of the Department of history of Messiah University, and Mark David Hall, Herbert Hoover Professor Emeritus of Politics at George Fox University.
Hall pointed out that while America was “deeply influenced” by Christian ideals, neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution contain specific references to faith. Article 6 of the Constitution, in fact, specifically prohibits religious tests for persons holding public office.
“The answer is clearly no,” he said. “America was not founded as a Christian nation.”
But Fea said that’s a question that doesn’t have a definitive answer.
“Too often the issue comes across as a political one,” he said. “But that’s probably not what the founders asked. I think we need to understand why we’re superimposing the question on the 18th century (documents). It’s a contemporary political question, but that doesn’t mean that religion doesn’t did not shape them.”
Although they have different views on the influence of Christianity on the Founders, both historians agree that the Constitution is not a Christian document.
Hall, whose books include “Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth” and “America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding”, noted that 98% of the settlers were Protestant Christians; 2% were Catholic; and 2,000 were Jews, but that still doesn’t resolve the issue.
“We know very little about the founders and their hearts,” he said. “For example, James Madison; it wasn’t very clear what he believed, but it was clear that he was influenced by Christian ideals.”
Letter to a Synagogue
Hall also quoted President George Washington’s August 18, 1790, letter at the Hebrew Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, in which he wrote in part:
“The citizens of the United States of America have a right to pride themselves on having given examples to mankind of a broad and liberal policy…All equally possess freedom of conscience and the immunities of citizenship. It is no longer now that toleration is spoken of as if it were through the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for fortunately the government of the United States , which does not sanction bigotry, does not help persecution, only requires that they who live under its protection must humble themselves as good citizens, bringing to it on all occasions their effective support.
“I don’t like the language like ‘Christian nation,'” Hall said. “I don’t think that’s the Founders’ intention at all.”
But Protestantism was the dominant religion, Fea said.
“I would say based on the culture and the way people lived, Protestantism, for the most part, was the only game in town,” he said. “Do you define a Christian nation like the people of the Colonies, who were Christians? So, of course. When the Founders talked about morals and healthy things for the Republic, Christianity was one of the sources they drew on.”
Hall argues that none of the founders would be classified as “evangelical” in the modern sense.
“Washington kept its faith private, expressing its belief in the letters,” he said. “That tells us a lot about the culture. You wouldn’t be elected dog catcher in Virginia if you didn’t believe in virgin birth or some other Christian dogma.”
Hall said when you look at lesser founders like John Jay, Roger Sherman and Patrick Henry, it’s clear they were Orthodox Christians. He noted that while it’s true that Washington, a High Church Anglican, never took Holy Communion, “perhaps it’s because he thought so highly of it.”
“Sam Adams and John Witherspoon might have felt comfortable in an evangelical church.” he said. “But no evangelical church would put George Washington on its board. Thomas Jefferson was a skeptic who rejected the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity, but evangelical Christians loved him because they stood for religious liberty.”
The two men noted that Ben Franklin did not claim to be a Christian, John Adams considered himself a Christian but rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, and although Thomas Jefferson was baptized into the Anglican Church, he rewrote the Bible, removing the claims of divinity of Jesus. and stories of miracles.
However, Jefferson did not publicize his unorthodox beliefs, and Hall said that had they been widely known before the presidential election of 1800, he would have lost.
“His Bible wasn’t revealed until the 20th century,” Fea said. “His saving grace was his strong belief in religious freedom.”
Fea, author of the book “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” says the founders quotes on faith have been misused by people from across the political spectrum.
“I was particularly interested in the rise of people like D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell who use and select the past to promote a political agenda,” he said. “The left does it too.”
Examples of this, he said, are “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn.
“The crowd that annoys me the most is the scholars who know better, with arguments like most of America’s founders were deists, or that they insisted on a wall separating church and the state.” said Hall. “Franklin, Jefferson and Adams respected traditional Christianity.”
Fea and Hall said historians are ethically bound to present history factually.
“I deliberately chose a Christian publisher,” Fea said. “My book was for the church because evangelicals were being deceived by a very bad story.”
Hall said calls by some on the Christian right to scrap the Establishment Clause from the Constitution are “a horrible idea.”
“Muslims have as much right as anyone else to build mosques,” he said. “Conversely, voucher programs, some of which are used in Christian schools, are not unconstitutional, as my friends on the left say.”
A Laughing Room recalled that in a debate with Freedom From Religion’s Andrew Seidel, Seidel described him as “the Zamboni of Christian nationalism”.
“Just understanding history well is a contribution to historical culture,” he said.
Malone’s history professor Jay Case, who served as moderator, asked historians why they think modern Americans were fascinated by the religious beliefs of the founders.
Fea said it was a fun exercise.
“People want to have a spiritual connection with the founders,” he said. “It’s interesting. But I’m not sure it tells us much about what they thought about how the church influences society.”
Hall said the nation’s founding documents contain four references to a deity, but not to a specific religion.
“You could argue that most Americans believed that all men were created equal, which is later the basis for abolition,” he said. “The founders expressed their understanding of liberty as not doing what you wanted, but in the context of what was right. But the Constitution is not a Christian document.”
Contact Charita at 330-580-8313 or [email protected] On Twitter: @cgoshayREP.