20 Nov 2008

Our Christian Nation? Christianity & The Founding Fathers

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Books, Kingdom, Ministry, Mission, Politics
I share this post with a degree of hesitancy because many so are emotional to nearly the point of irrationality this subject. Any reasoned critique is seen as an attack.

The origin of this post is the hundreds of emails I have received in the last week or so about the election of Barack Obama. Chain mails, forwards, email list … all with one thing in common. Some of the most recent emails hail the the notion that we are not a “Christian Nation” any more because Obama is either a Muslim or doesn’t believe the Bible or (supply the reason). In the process some serious historical claims are made about the Founding Fathers, the role of Christianity in their thought, and related matters, often these claims are simply wrong, sometimes they are imposing meanings upon texts that were not there or intended by those who wrote them. It is true that Christianity has been the dominant religious expression of the European immigrants to this land but it is not true that this has been a “Christian Nation.” It is one thing to say that most in the USA claimed to be Christians and another to say that the nation was “Christian” or that it was founded as such. The latter is false. This post does not defend Obama nor does it attack him I am interested in something else altogether. I would recommend a book, seriously, to all interested in what I write about though:

David Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press)

This is an outstanding book. It is fair, objective and solid. There are so many myths about the Revolutionary Era perpetuated by those on the right and those on the left. This book is more than worth the time to read and besides it is a good read.

It is fairly easy to find phrases like “principles of Christianity” in the writings of the Founders. The question is what did they mean by such talk. Lets think this through.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson for example was clearly a theist. But a “Christian” Religious and committed to some kind of “morality” yep but historic Christianity … I have a hard time with in light of his personalized “Jeffersonian Bible! In 1779 Jefferson introduced a “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” in the Virgina Assembly. This bill makes clear that the state has no authority to compel church attendance or even belief of any kind period. One’s religion, or lack thereof, would have no bearing upon one’s “civic standing.” Here is one memorable paragraph,

“We … do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened {sic} 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.” (A Documentary History of Religion in America to the Civil War, ed Edwin Gaustad) p. 261)

You are free to be religious or irreligious.

John Adams on May 26, 1797 submitted to Congress The Treaty of Tripoli. Article 11 below his name makes is clear as a bell what an official government document (ironically with a Muslim country) says.

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion … (See the entire text here)

Adams wrote Jefferson many letters that help us understand what he means by “principles of Christianity. ” On September 14, 1813 the former President wrote to the other former President

“…No Prophecies, no Miracles are necessary to prove this celestial communication. This revelation has made it certain that two and one make three; and that one is not three; nor can three be one. We can never be so certain of any Prophecy, or the fulfillment of any Prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle as We are, from the revelation of nature i.e. natures God that two and two are equal to four.

Had you and I been forty days with Moses on Mount Sinai and admitted to behold the divine Shekinah, and there told that one was three and three was one: We might not have the courage to deny it, but We could not have believed it …

I believe no such Things. My Adoration of the Author of the Universe too profound and too sincere. The Love of God and his Creation; delight Joy, Tryumph, Exultation in my own existence ‘tho but an Atom, a Molecule Organique, in the Universe; are my religion. Howl, Snarl, bite, Ye Calvinistick! Ye Athanasian Divines, if You will. Ye will say, I am no Christian: I say Ye are no Christians: and there the Account is balanced. Yet I believe that all the honest men among you are Christians in my sense of the Word ..” (A Documentary History, pp. 297-296)

The whole point of Adams is to deny the reality of Christian revelation in the Bible (i.e. prophecy, miracle, etc). He does not believe it because it does not give the certainty of science. His religion and his god is “nature’s God.” This is why he exclaims the orthodox Christians would deny his right to the word Christian … which many did even in the 1790s.

James Madison

In 1785 Patrick Henry and others while rejecting a “Church of America” did want to have a statement about Christianity in general. They wanted Christianity to be recognized as the established religion of the commonwealth. In response to this effort Madison wrote his “Memorial and Remonstrance. ” (full text here) This was not a good move in his opinion.

George Washington helps us in many ways by pointing to what he means by “Christian principles” too. In a letter sent to the General Assembly of Presbyterian Churches on May 26, 1789 the President wrote of his “dependence upon Heaven” and says that “piety, philanthropy, honesty, industry, and economy seems, in the ordinary course of human affairs particularly necessary for advancing and confirming the happiness of our country” (ibid, p. 277). These are “virtues” for sure but there is nothing uniquely or distinctly Christian about them. They are simply the necessary ingredients Washington thinks of having a stable society.

Again religious does not make “Christian.” There is no doubt that Christianity has been the dominant religious expression of those who have lived in the USA but there can be little doubt, that the country was founded basically on deistic or even secular foundations. The kingdom of God is not identified with any nation state on planet Earth. The kingdom of God critiques all kingdoms … Russia, Iraq, Germany, Japan and even the USA.

One more good book that goes beyond the Founders is Jon Meacham’s American Gospel: God, The Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation (Random House). This book traces the theme of religion and state far beyond the Founders but to the present and does so rather deftly.

Bobby Valentine

20 Responses to “Our Christian Nation? Christianity & The Founding Fathers”

  1. jim frost Says:

    actually when it comes down to teachings about morality and human behavior there just isn’t that much difference between Judaic, Christian, Muslim or Buddist teachings.

  2. Alan Says:

    Article 6 of the Constitution says in regards to holding office shall “be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification toany office or public trust under the United States.”

  3. Matthew Says:

    It seems odd that some are given to trying to make America into a Christian nation through the government, this is really not the intention of the Bible. I have a paper on this subject on my blog.

  4. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    I received the following note from my friend Joel up in the north country. He was unable to post for some reason so I post this for him.

    “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion …” John Adams, May 26, 1797, submitted to Congress; The Treaty of Tripoli. Article 11

    This disproves that the government of the US was founded on the Christian religion, but not that our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. I aver that our Founders envisioned a us as a Christian nation with a secular constitution and government.

    Did our Founders want our political process to be used as an engine for engineering and enforcing religious convictions? No. Did our Founders consider religious faith as a far more vital and powerful defining force for who we are as a nation than the Constitution itself? Absolutely.

    John Adams wrote:

    “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, 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.” (Adams, Oct. 11, 1798 – from an address to the military).

    In my view, our Christian heritage is being minimized by unsound academic means. Begin with the presumption that the USA is defined purely in political or Constitutional terms and you can make the case that we were not founded as a Christian nation. But if we open our minds to the larger dynamics that defined our beginnings, the Christian heritage becomes an essential element of our definition as a nation.

    The American experiment is a spiritual, moral and cultural exercise, not merely a political one. Private virtue, rooted in biblical faith, is essential for the American experiment to work as the Founders intended.

    John Adams wrote;

    “One great advantage of the Christian Religion is that it brings the great Principle of the Law of Nature and Nations, Love your Neighbor as yourself and do to others as you would that others should do to you,–to the Knowledge, Belief and Veneration of the whole people.” (From the diary of John Adams on August 14, 1796 (Quoted from Sydney Ahlstrum’s book, ‘A Religious History of the American People’).

    Adams was clearly referring to the “Christian religion” as the source that brings that great principle of law and love to the “whole people.” He envisioned a “Christian nation,” but with a secular government. Adams was speaking of the benefit of “the Christian religion” for the whole country–a benefit that transcends that which particular laws and governments can do for the nation.

    Adams also wrote:

    “The general principles, on which the Fathers Atchieved [sic] Independence, were…the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were United: and the general Principles of English and American Liberty…Now I will avow, that I then believed, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.” (John Adams, June 28, 1813):

    The U.S. Constitution, great as it is, does not fully define who we are as a nation. One must reach into our principles, our values, and yes, our faith to find that definition in its fuller form.

    Joel Solliday,
    Brooklyn Park, MN

  5. nick gill Says:

    Someone might have explained to John Adams, a brilliant man whom (of all the Founding Fathers) I hold in the highest esteem, this little tidbit about Love of Neighbor.

    Love of Neighbor doesn’t teach you to shoot people for raising your taxes.

    Adams was speaking of how a few particular aspects (principles, in his terminology) of the “Christian religion” have a beneficial effect upon the political and social lives of people.

    Notice particularly how he does not recall “Love your God…” but only “Love your neighbor.” Why? Because, as he clearly stated to Jefferson, he didn’t believe God was actively involved in the doings of men.

    Neither does he believe that the great principles of Christianity that he endorses are revealed truths.

    In “The Myth of a Christian Nation” Greg Boyd goes even farther. From Tim Archer’s review: “One of his basic premises is that for something to be Christian, it has to be Christlike. That is inherent in the meaning of the word Christian. And he argues that a government of this world cannot act in a Christlike fashion and still promote its interests. Some people might be put off by the title of the book, so it’s important to see that Boyd’s argument isn’t that the United States isn’t Christian; his point is that no nation can act in a truly Christlike fashion and continue to exist. And history shows us that when the church tries to run a worldly kingdom, it soon begins to use worldly methods.”

  6. Terry Says:

    Thanks for this post, Bobby. I have been terribly disappointed in the way many Christians have approached this election. Next time around, I’m going to try to do some teaching well in advance of the election, in an effort to head off some of these issues.

    John Ortberg has an article on Christianitytoday.com called “Lessons from the Election” which I highly recommend.

    Terry Seufferlein
    Cedar Rapids, Iowa

  7. Keith Says:

    Wow. There’s a lot of good information here from Bobby, Joel and Nick. Thanks for sharing guys.

    I definitely think American politics and Christianity are generally at odds with each other. I don’t see how one could be a Christian and a successful politician (or lawyer for that matter…but that a slightly different topic).

    Joel offered a perspective I’ve not considered. Thanks for your insight brother.


  8. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Good discussion so far and its civil.

    Joel. I really appreciate your contribution even though I do not agree with your analysis. I doubt seriously that John Adams would be allowed to teach his version of Christianity in many sunday schools in Baptist or Church of Christ Churches.

    Adams makes it crystal clear on more than one occasion that his god is not the god who reveals himself in and through the Bible (i.e. through revelation). His god is “nature’s god” … a creator god who is basically uninvolved in the world. This is classic deism.

    He like most deists affirmed the “moral teachings” of Christianity and the great religions of the world but they did not affirm the historic beliefs of Christianity. Adams makes this clear in his letter to Jefferson quoted extensively in my post. He denies “Prophecies. Miracles” and the like. This is biblical revelation.

    The quotation you provide from Ahlstrom itself shows the influence of Deism (i.e. “the great Principle of the Law of Nature and Nations”). Interestingly enough Ahlstrom goes on to describe (briefly) the veiws of Ethan Allan and his infamous The Only Oracle of Man in which he attacks the Bible and attacks the Christian religion, Joel Barlow and Thomas Jefferson. He then makes this statement about Jefferson: “In content his theology was similar to that of Adams, Barlow, Palmer, and Paine” (p. 368). Ahlstrom practically identifies “Republican religion” with “deism” (ibid).

    I have no doubt that the FF believed that some kind of public morality was necessary for the public well being of the nation. That they envisioned a “Christian nation” in the sense that England was or Ireland or Germany … I think the evidence is mighty slim.

  9. Doug (in Phoenix) Says:

    Thanks for addressing this issue in an honest, historical context.

    I’m not sure I could put myself (as on attempting to follow Jesus)in the position of judging some’s Christianity. Isn’t there some lesson somewhere about “splinters in eyes” and “casting stones?”

    Even if we were to judge presidential candidates on their “Christianity” – what would that be based on? Were they immersed? (as an adult?) Church attendence? Have they ever lead prayer or served on the Table during worship?

    (What if him or his wife consulted Astrology regarding policy decisions? Would that be Christian?)

    Is the only thing that that makes one “Christian” in America today, his/her opposition to legal abortion and a constitutional definition of marriage?

    What about (ALL????) politicians/presidential candidates who “bear false witness” against their political opponents in (personally approved) ads? Is that “Christian?”

    I find the whole idea of the concept of a “Christian Nation,” very difficult from a NT/Kingdom of God world view. There are issues here BOTH theologically as well as historically.

    Doesn’t the OT nation of Israel prove the problem (with humanity)of having God’s law legislated?

    I could go on and on with this subject….

    “The Myth of a Christian Nation” by Boyd is a great start.

    Here is another book I would HIGHLY recommend:
    “Turn Neither to the Left nor to the Right” A Thinking christian’s Guide to Politics and Public Policy” (2003) by D. Eric Schansberg (He is a Christian economist and this book is full of Biblical references.)

  10. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Doug I use the word “Christian” here to describe those folk who believe the basic storyline of the Bible and affirm the historic belief of the Christian faith: God is the Creator, he revealed himself to Abraham, delivered the Israelites, made promises to David, became Incarnate in Jesus Christ who performed miracles and was crucified under Pilate, was buried and rose on the third day and will return again to the praise of God the Father.

    If one does not believe in the prophecies and miracles … that God actually did enter history I fail to see how the word “Christian” has any meaning. Adams was well aware that his own professed system would not be viewed as historic christianity.

    I am just believing the man when he says he did not believe in that kind of religion.

    Bobby V

  11. Doug (in Phoenix) Says:

    One other quick point –

    If the US was founded, built, developed, and exists as a “Christian (Jesus-like; Jesus follow; disciple/imitator of Christ) Nation” – then I would say we really don’t know either, our Bible or our history – or BOTH.

    [I’ve always said – if we (Americans) were really honest about our history, then we would be better Americans. Given the emails and things I’ve heard said by me brothers and sisters in this election cycle – I’d also add that being honest about american history would also probably help make us better Christians s well.]

    Another great book by a C of C religion/History scholar:

    “Myths America lives By” by Richard T. Hughes

  12. Doug (in Phoenix) Says:

    Bobby –
    I wasn’t coming at you on the definition of a “Christian.” I understand where you are coming from. My post was more of a general response to ideas/positions in the emails I’ve seen over the past few months (probably some of the same ones you’ve gotten as well). 🙂

    Take care –

  13. David Says:

    Thanks for the good post and also to the comments others have made about it.

    Here’s my take…one can easily find quotes and favorite personalities to latch onto regardless of your ideological leanings. Thus there are some who think that there is only a deistic foundation for the republic (by quoting a lot of Jefferson) and there are those who believe it to be fashioned on orthodox Christianity. In truth, you can find what you wish to find from one founding father or another if you dig hard enough.

    The question for me is not what they thought about 225 years ago, but what we are supposed to be doing today. Just as we do not base our faith on the teachings of Campbell and Stone, neither do we base our full understanding of what it means to be a nation on the writings of Paine, Jefferson, Hamilton, et al. Certainly we can learn something about the past from these histories, but what was forever righteous was never wholly defined by a generation of giants, nor was it ever intended to be.

    Thus I get annoyed by the misuse of history and the narrow perspectives on it by those on both the left and the right. Both need to learn that history is never as clean and neat as they would have us believe.

  14. Christopher Says:

    A wonderful post! When many people talk about separation of church and state, they don’t realize the point of that principle is to keep government from influencing religion, not religion from influencing government!

  15. kingdomseeking Says:

    The separation of church and state was indeed to keep the state from playing in the church’s back yard. However, the only reason it was not stated as trying to keep the church out of government/politics was because the Christian faith was already separated from politics. That is why an entire colony of people were able to wage war in defense of their “political rights” despite teaching about loving neighbor and enemy, obeying (not rebelling) governing authorities, living as aliens and exiles, having nothing to do with Babylon, etc…

    I have no disagreement with the claim that the USA was founded upon principles that were shaped in part by religious persuasion. But to claim this religious persuasion was Christian in any sense of the Biblical witness and historically orthodox viewpoint… that I am seriously skeptical of. And that is a position I have only come to accept in the last few years.

    Nevertheless even though I disagree with those who claim Christianity the foundation of American roots as well as the approach of trying to make America a Christian nation through the government, I do think it important to remember that both sides want the same goal – for the people of the land to glorfy God and do his will as it is done in heaven.

    Grace and peace,


  16. Gardner Hall Says:

    My main concern about those who constantly state that this is a Christian nation is their desire to almost equate it with ancient Israel, and therefore justify its wars and aggressive foreign policy.

    There is no doubt that the nation has been greatly influenced in the past by Christian principles, perhaps more in the 1800’s than at the time of the “founding fathers.” However, that influence is waning and thus we see the current moral decay that will be followed by increasing overall weakness.

    However, such shouldn’t discourage those who claim allegiance to a greater kingdom, the kingdom of God. Indeed it grew most rapidly when the surrounding culture (Rome’s) was decaying at an ever increasing rate. May the same be true in the 21st century!

    Thanks Bobby and God bless, Gardner

  17. Anonymous Says:

    I’ve always thought it odd that our “Christian” nation was founded through what can only be described as an apparently unjust war.

    Consider: 1) The NT tells us to pray for our leaders (kings, those in authority). 2) Romans indicates that the powers that exist do so by God. 3) Jesus indicated that if you were taxed, pay the tax (“Render unto Caesar”).

    Yet, the colonists go to war against England because of taxation without representation. How is it possible to square praying for our leaders while being in rebellion against them?

    Despite the seemingly much worse treatment the early Christians received at the hands of their government, the one they were supposed to pray for, they willingly went to their deaths rather than rise up against it.

    Pray for Obama? Most certainly!

    A Christian Nation founded by rebelling against their leaders rather than praying for them?



  18. Cheryl Russell Says:

    Great post and thread! It seems that Jesus was concerned with making disciples, and not finding harmony between Rome and The Way.

  19. nick gill Says:


    It is not just American politics, my friend. It is worldly politics from every corner of this groaning creation.

    If politics can be defined as, “How groups of people live and function as socially organized bodies,” then even if the Martians and the Fungos are trying to hash out inter-galactic dominion, they’ll be doing it with the only two tools that the kingdoms of this world possess – violence and manipulation.

    Our Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, has taught and modeled for us utter rejection of those two tools of worldly politics. Rejecting them, he teaches us to take up the political methodologies of the kingdom of God – indiscriminate love and truth-telling.


    I forgot to say this earlier – I would tend to agree with you on that statement about the moral and ethical teaching of various religions. We could discuss shades of meaning, but by and large you’re probably right.

    All 4 of those groups would also agree that humans are pretty shabby at fulfilling those moral-ethical behaviors.

    Aye, there’s the rub! What Does Torah do for the violator of Torah? Condemn, and point to the Messiah.

    What does the Q’uran do for the violator of the Allah? Condemn.

    What will the Buddha do for the one who fails?

    What hope does the Dao hold?

    This is precisely where Christianity is completely different – only in Christianity does the Creator and the Standard Himself absorb the consequences for our failure.

    And that kind of thinking won’t protect the borders of a nation.

  20. Keith Says:

    Your clean delineation of various religions seems a little over simplified, especially in regards to Judaism.

    I think Ananias and Sapphira might not think the Creator absorbs the consequences of our failures. On the other hand, Abraham might feel his many failures (e.g. giving his wife to another man…twice) were absorbed.

    I agree with you in general, I just don’t think it’s quite that black and white.

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