In a seminar this past Friday, I was asked a question I’ve been asked many times: Was the United States founded as a Christian nation?
Another common variant is: What influence did the Bible have on the American Founding/Founders?
These kinds of historical-scholarly questions have become increasingly popular, especially among American Christians, as Christianity has become increasingly unwelcome, and unpopular, in American halls of higher education and in certain progressive political circles.
(Why and how Christianity has become unwelcome-unpopular in American institutions of cultural influence are important and large subjects that’ll be addressed in other essays.)
In general, the people most interested in whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation and what influence the Bible had on the American Founders and similar questions tend to be openly patriotic Christians, or piously Christian patriots.
On the one hand, they have deep respect, even reverence, for the American Founders. On the other, they tend to rank their beliefs in and about Jesus Christ and their devotion to Christian texts, traditions, and churches, among the most important things in their lives.
This confluence of political and religious interests means they are eager to hear that the American Founders were Christians who were deeply moved and influenced by the Bible. And there are many—some highly-trained academics, others who are not academics—who make that case well.
So was the United States founded as a Christian nation? Was the Bible influential for the American Founders?
The generation of Americans who declared independence from British rule, adopted the Articles of Confederation, and then ratified the United States Constitution, were widely and deeply Christian. There’s little doubt about that demographic fact.
The United States in the beginning and long afterward was a Christian nation in the sense that it was a nation of Christians. In this regard, the United States remains a deeply Christian nation today: While the numbers of Christian believers in the United States have been falling in recent years, still a large majority of American citizens describe themselves as “Christian.”
Does that mean that every and any idea that any American Christian thinks is a Christian idea? Does the religion of a people pre-determine all their thoughts? Hardly.
The first statement of first principles of the American regime—the Declaration of Independence—is premised upon certain moral and political self-evident truths.
- “Self-evident” is a philosophic term of art with an intellectual pedigree stretching back to Aristotle, who was no Christian.
- A self-evident truth is discoverable and knowable through unassisted reason.
- A self-evident truth is not an article of Christian faith.
In terms of ideas or first principles, the American Founding was not uniquely Christian, or even religious, because the self-evident truths of the Declaration can be understood without any sectarian religious faith.
No less interesting and perhaps more important than questions of whether the American Founding was Christian or the influence of the Bible on the Founders, however, are the many questions often ignored.
WERE THE BRITISH CHRISTIANS?
To wit: Were British subjects and their governors Christian? Was the British Empire a Christian Empire? What influence did the Bible have on the Founding of England and later English history?
What about the religious views of British soldiers who hunted and killed American revolutionaries in 1776? Were they Christians?
What about the religious views of the members of the British Parliament who authorized the hunting and killing of American revolutionaries by the British Army and Navy? Were they, too, Christians?
What about the religious views of King George III? He headed the Christian Church of England. How closely did he study the Bible? Do modern Christians, today, experience inspirational religious feelings if they see or hold historical Bibles that were once owned by George as he commanded the hunting and killing of American revolutionaries?
TOO SELECTIVE AND OVERLY BROAD SIMULTANEOUSLY
Even academically sound historical research appears skewed or biased when the subjects of study are too selective in one sense, and too broadly generalized in another.
Looking only at the religious views of American revolutionaries viewed favorably by Americans today ignores the religious views of the many contemporaries of the American revolutionaries who are not viewed favorably by Americans today. That is an example of the problem of selectivity.
Asking whether the American revolutionaries were “Christian” is to ask about a very broad, generalized, disputable and often disputed term: Christian. That is an example of the problem of over-generalization.
By the time of the American Founding, thinkers such as John Locke, Algernon Sidney, Adam Smith, Hugo Grotius, Montesquieu, among others, had re-interpreted Christianity to mean very different things morally and politically and economically than it had meant in the past.
WHAT IS CHRISTIAN?
John Locke’s understanding of Christianity would have been unintelligible, probably unimaginable, to Charlemagne, for example—the 9th Century Christian King about whom historians debate how many thousands he persecuted and executed in the name of Christian “purification.”
The same can be argued about Sir Robert Filmer, Christian author of Patriarcha. When Filmer presented the most comprehensive, Bible-based defense of the divine right theory of kings, Locke responded with the most comprehensive justification of constitutional self-government based on the consent of the governed framed by dozens of references to the Bible.
So…was Filmer a Christian? Was Charlemagne? Was Locke? They all owned a Bible. They all studied it. They all attended Christian church services. But they understood Christianity very differently from one another.
In terms of morals and politics and economics and human life in general, arguably, their differences were far more important than the possible common denominator that united them: Christian.
When someone today asks whether the American Founders or anyone else from the past was “Christian,” what exactly do they mean? Christians have disagreed with other Christians about what it means to be Christian since the beginning of Christianity. (See the heresy of Arianism, for example.)
More, when we look to people from history whom we admire being Christian, let us not shy away from asking about the religious views of those from the past we don’t admire.
CHRISTIANIZING THE WEST
After the Western world had been effectively Christianized, several centuries after the death of Jesus, the fact of the matter is that every noble deed could be attributed at least in part to Christian causes and every miserable act of tyranny could, too, because virtually all Westerners had become Christians.
- American revolutionaries? Most of them Christian.
- British opponents of American revolutionaries? Most of them Christian.
- Western theocrats? Most of them Christian.
- Western defenders of feudalism? Most of them Christian.
- Western apologists for Negro slavery? Most of them Christian.
For the simple reason: Most in the modern Western world were Christians speaking as a Christian or to a Christian audience or both!
For a millennium and a half—some fifteen centuries!—many Christians thought monarchy, kingship, and total government in the form of theocracy were the political corollaries to their religion. Many thought slavery, feudalism, and mercantilism fit well within the moral-political-theological framework of Christianity.
Even Westerners who were not pious Christians, themselves, were operating within a deep and broad Christian environment. They knew that they had to frame any idea or policy or proposal in Christian terms if they hoped to be successful within a Christian culture. When in Rome, walk like a Roman. When in Christendom, write and speak like a Christian.
INFLUENCE AND UNDERSTANDING
Did Christianity influence the American Revolution and Founding? Of course. Christianity influenced virtually every important event in the Western world for the better part of the last two millennia—for better and for worse, the admirable and the not-so-admirable.
We should also remember that while faith in Christianity can be compatible with a self-evident true idea or principle, it does not follow that faith in Christianity is necessary for a human mind to understand a self-evident truth.
A Christian can believe something false, wrong, bad. A Christian can believe something true, good, right. And the same is true for non-Christians.
These are important subjects often lost in debates about the influence of Christianity and the Bible on the American Founding. But they are subjects that help us understand the world around us, including where we’ve been, where we’ve trended, how we got to where we are now, and where we might want to go in the future.