Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Christian Foundations of America

For several posts, I've been processing the Christian trajectory of Europe, culminating in America.
You often hear that America was founded as a Christian nation and on Judeo-Christian values. I'm not a master of this discussion so I'll just give my hunches on this issue.

1. Many of those who first came to America from England came for religious reasons, to escape the religious pressures of Europe. The Pilgrims were Separatists who just wanted to be left alone. The Puritans were Anglican Calvinists who wanted the power to make their community observe Christianity their way. The Quakers came to be left alone.

Of course these weren't the only ones who came to America. No doubt there were also criminals who came, trying to escape the eye of society. de Tocqueville, coming to America a few decades before the Civil War, had nothing good to say about the south: "No noble views, no spiritual thoughts presided over the foundation of these new settlements" (41). Writing in 1835, no doubt the institution of slavery heavily filtered his assessment.

Many of the colonies were officially Anglican, including the upper crust and the "power layer" in America. George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe were officially Anglican in the Episcopal church, although perhaps more deist in reality. They were generally dubious of organized religion and saw Jesus more as a great moral example than as anything like the second person of the Trinity. John Adams was more or less a unitarian, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine strongly deist. Thomas Jefferson was also more deist than theist.

2. So while the Declaration of Independence references God, it does not reference the Bible. And the only place where the Constitution mentions God is in the phrase, "the year of our Lord," a conventional way of referencing the date. These documents are most directly based on Enlightenment philosophy, especially John Locke and Montesquieu. The inalienable rights of "life and liberty" come from Locke. The three branches of government comes from Montesquieu.

The Puritans of a century earlier did not design a system of government like the US Constitution, especially after the Bill of Rights was added. Puritan New England was more like when the majority in Egypt tried to use democracy to vote in Islamic law as the law of the land. It's a democracy in the sense that the majority are voting on things, but if you are Roger Williams or Anne Hutchinson, it's not a particularly pleasant place to live. It's not who we were when the US was actually born, thankfully so.

3. So was America founded as a Christian nation? Clearly its population overwhelmingly identified as Christian and, given the unique situation of its origins, it probably had a significantly higher percentage of devout believers than Europe in general, at least at the beginning. I hesitate to say that its philosophical foundations were deist, because that might have a negative connotation, so let me put it this way.

America was founded on the notion that God had created the world with a certain moral structure to it. Most of the founders and the philosophers on which they drew did not think much about God's regular action or involvement in the world. But, like Newton, they believe God had infused the world with a certain natural law that had implications for how society might best be structured.

What were these features of natural law?

a. "All men are created equal."
I would argue that the Western world--and America first--has played out a system of government that embodies the Christian sense that all people are created in the image of God better than all of history previous. Indeed, biblical Israel did not play out this value as well as the United States. The Roman Empire of New Testament times absolutely did not play out this value.

We have not played out this principle perfectly, to be sure. There remains great disparity in America. Slavery was not abolished until 1865, and the premature death of Lincoln resulted in the complete race mess that we are still struggling with 150 years later. His vice-president, Andrew Johnson, to me the worst president in American history, let the south mangle the integration of slaves into society.

b. "inalienable rights"
The real genius of American democracy, in my opinion, is that it goes beyond mere democracy to the protection of individuals within that democracy. (Someone always reminds me at this point that we are technically a republic. Yes, yes, I know.) The Bill of Rights is an incredibly important addition to the Constitution because it prevents the majority from voting out the rights of a minority. It can be said to be biblical in the sense that all people deserve to be treated with love because all people are created in the image of God.

The Puritan was not interested, however, in giving freedoms of this sort. Their ideal world was one where the Christian majority forces everyone to follow Christian laws. As an Arminian, I prefer a land where the laws have a basic moral character (don't kill, don't steal), but on specific issues individuals are "given up" to choose whether to be moral or not, as long as they do not harm others.

Of course I could come up with some passages (Romans 1, 14). Freedom of religion, though, is not something all Christians would agree with, especially those of a Puritan stripe. As a Wesleyan, however, I have more admired Roger Williams in his early days.

c. human freedom
I'm not sure how I would argue that human freedom is a primary biblical value, even though it is an essential element in my theology. As an Arminian, I believe that God has given it to us. I believe God lets us choose. This is a long-standing Christian interpretation, of course. Augustine's explanation for the problem of evil starts with Adam's freedom.

IMO, these discussions go beyond what the Bible explicitly says. It is Christian processing of the Bible, especially the notion that God is love. The Enlightenment, with its American and French revolutions, took the notion of freedom to the next level. In my theology, it reflects to some extent the character of God as I understand him. But there is a lot of Enlightenment in my understanding too.

d. centrality of truth and reason
I'm not sure how I would argue that a commitment to reason and objective truth or a commitment to an empirical view of the world is biblical. Certainly there are many presuppositionalists today who would more or less argue to the contrary. I personally don't think it is unbiblical. I think it is unavoidable if we wish to perpetuate the great successes of the West.

But this is a key aspect of America's philosophical founding and, perhaps more than anything, it is one of the key aspects of America that I fear may be decline. The majority of Americans of course have never been Enlightenment thinkers. But the best thinkers and leaders of America have been. Although I have learned from postmodernism, this is its greatest potential casualty--it has threatened to erode the rational foundations of society and empowered the presuppositionalists.

4. I don't know if I will keep posting on this subject, but I do have a line of thinking here. Christians have been saying that America was in moral decline since it started, it seems to me. Didn't they say that in the Great Awakening? Weren't the Princeton Fundamentals saying that in the 1920s? Didn't Richard Weaver say that in 1948, at what some consider the height of Christian America? Wasn't Francis Schaeffer saying that in the 1970s? James Dobson in the 1980s? Any Republican candidate today?

Could it be that each Christian generation has a tendency to idealize the American Christianity of the past and that we're all alarmed to find that, in our generation, it's only about 20% of America that is really Christian in any meaningful sense? Could it be that even my sense of "Enlightenment decline" is really just a slightly different version of the same?

So is America now finally, for real this time, losing its moral foundations?

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