His life in a country town was devoid of picturesque and varying incident. He lived one side of the advantages of stimulating society and the intellectual discoveries of his time. The great thrills of modern thought reached him chiefly through newspapers and books. His profound and far-reaching influence in the country was for that reason all the surer testimony to the wisdom and power of his manhood.
It was perhaps not without propriety that I was asked to examine into the elements of his character and teaching, and to compose this book. I was his pupil, his colleague when he was president, and later his colleague in an inverted relation when I became his successor as president of the college, thougli not immediately following him in this office. They contend that not only did America have a Christian Founding, but virtually all of the Founders were devout, orthodox Christians who consciously drew from their religious convictions to answer most political questions.
To support their case, these writers are fond of finding religious quotations from the Founders.
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The rule seems to be that if a Founder utters anything religious, at any time in his life, he counts as an orthodox or even evangelical Christian Founder. Let us begin by considering what, exactly, would constitute a Christian Founding? One possibility is simply that the Founders identified themselves as Christians. Clearly, they did.
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In , every European American, with the exception of about 2, Jews, identified himself or herself as a Christian. Moreover, approximately 98 percent of the colonists were Protestants, with the remaining 1. But this reality is not particularly interesting. These men and women might have been bad Christians, they may have been Christians significantly influenced by non-Christian ideas, or they may even have been Christians self-consciously attempting to create a secular political order.
Second, we might mean that the Founders were all sincere Christians. Yet sincerity is very difficult for the scholars, or anyone else, to judge.
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In most cases, the historical record gives us little with which to work. And even if we can determine, say, that a particular Founder was a member, regular attendee, and even officer in a church, it does not necessarily mean he was a sincere Christian. Perhaps he did these things simply because society expected it of him.
Third, we might mean that the Founders were orthodox Christians. But the lack of records often makes it difficult to speak with confidence on this issue. Nevertheless, in light of the many and powerful claims that the Founders were deists, it should be noted that there is virtually no evidence that more than a handful of civic leaders in the Founding era—notably Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and if we count him as an American Tom Paine—embraced anything approximating this view. Moreover, a good argument can be made that even these Founders were influenced by Christianity in significant ways—and it certainly does not follow that they desired the strict separation of church and state.
Some historians have argued that the Founding cannot be called Christian because some Founders did not join churches, take communion, or remain faithful to their spouses. Moreover, in their public capacity, they did not act in a Christian manner because they did things such as fight an unjust war against England and did not immediately abolish slavery. In some cases, these critiques do not take into account historical context, such as the difficulty of joining Calvinist churches in 18th century America.
In others, they neglect the traditional Christian teaching that even saints sin.
If the standard of being a Christian is moral perfection, no one has ever been a Christian. Most egregious, it is profoundly unhistorical to judge the Founders by specific policy outcomes that seem perfectly clear to 21st century Christians. This is not to say that biblical principles are relativistic, but their applications to specific issues in particular times and places may vary or be unclear.
To take a contemporary example, one should be very careful in saying, for instance, that someone is a good Christian politician only if she votes for or against tax cuts or national health care. A final possibility is that the Founders were influenced by Christian ideas. Scholars have spent a great amount of time attempting to discern influence. Book after book has been written about whether the Founders were most influenced by Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, the Scottish Enlightenment, etc.
I believe that an excellent case can be made that Christianity had a profound influence on the Founders. Clearly there were a variety of different, but often overlapping, intellectual influences in the era. Puritans separated church and state, but they clearly thought the two institutions should work in tandem to support, protect, and promote true Christianity. Other colonies, however, are often described as being significantly different from those in New England. Whereas his Majesty, like himself a most zealous prince, has in his own realms a principal care of true religion and reverence to God and has always strictly commanded his generals and governors, with all his forces wheresoever, to let their ways be, like his ends, for the glory of God….
Early colonial laws and constitutions such as the Mayflower Compact, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, and Massachusetts Body of Liberties are filled with such language—and in some cases, they incorporate biblical texts wholesale. Perhaps more surprisingly, tolerant, Quaker Pennsylvania was more similar to Puritan New England than many realize.
The Charter of Liberties and Frame of Government of the Province of Pennsylvania begins by making it clear that God has ordained government, and it even quotes Romans 13 to this effect. An extensive survey of early colonial constitutions and laws reveals many similar provisions. As well, at least nine of the 13 colonies had established churches, and all required officeholders to be Christians—or, in some cases, Protestants.
If one is to understand the story of the United States of America, it is important to have a proper appreciation for its Christian colonial roots. By almost any measure, colonists of European descent who settled in the New World were serious Christians whose constitutions, laws, and practices reflected the influence of Christianity.
On the surface, the War for American Independence appears to be an inherently un-Christian event. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained by God. Whosoever therefore resists the power, resists the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. Historically, Christian thinkers have taken this and similar biblical passages to prohibit rebellion against civic authorities. However, in the 12th century, some Christian scholars began to allow for the possibility that inferior magistrates might overthrow evil kings.
These ideas were developed and significantly expanded by the Protestant Reformers. John Calvin, the most politically conservative of these men, contended that, in some cases, inferior magistrates might resist an ungodly ruler.
It is worth noting that all of these men wrote before Locke published his Two Treatises of Government and that this tradition was profoundly influential in America. Indeed, between 55 percent and 75 percent of white citizens in this era associated themselves with Calvinist churches, and members of the tradition were significantly overrepresented among American intellectual elites.
The influence of the Reformed political tradition in the Founding era is manifested in a variety of ways, but particularly noteworthy is the almost unanimous support Calvinist clergy offered to American patriots. Jeffry H. It may be objected that Jefferson, the man who drafted the Declaration, was hardly an orthodox Christian, and that is certainly the case. But this is beside the point. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day. In light of the above discussion, it is perhaps surprising that the Constitution says little about God or religion.
Of course, there are hints that America is a Christian nation e. What is going on? Some have argued that America began as a Christian country but that the authors of the Constitution recognized that this was not a good thing, and so they created, in the words of Isaac Kramnick and R. As we shall see, this interpretation of the Founding is inaccurate even with respect to Jefferson and Madison, and if one looks beyond them to the hundreds of men who attended the Federal Convention of , participated in the state ratification conventions, and were elected to the first federal Congress, it becomes completely implausible.
These individuals, without exception, called themselves Christians, and a good case can be made that many were influenced by orthodox Christian ideas in important ways. It also receives interesting empirical support from Donald Lutz, who examined 15, pamphlets, articles, and books on political subjects published in the late 18th century. His study found that the Bible was cited far more often than any other book, article, or pamphlet. In fact, the Founders referenced the Bible more than all Enlightenment authors combined. If Shain and Lutz make the argument for Christian influence in broad strokes, others have made it in finer strokes through studies of individual Founders.
For instance, I have co-edited four books that collectively shine light on 26 different Founders and several major traditions. These books, along with a number of other articles and books on less famous Founders, demonstrate that there is little evidence that the Founders as a group were deists who desired the separation of church and state. There was almost universal agreement that if there was to be legislation on religious or moral matters, it should be done by state and local governments. In fact, states remained active in this business well into the 20th century.
It is true that the last state church was disestablished in , but many states retained religious tests for public office, had laws aimed at restricting vice, required prayer in schools, and so forth. Because the federal government was not to be concerned with these issues, they were not addressed in the Constitution. The First Amendment merely reinforced this understanding with respect to the faith—i. Even though Christianity is not mentioned in the Constitution or Bill or Rights, the Founders of the American republic were influenced by Christian ideas in significant ways. For example:.
In the Supreme Court decision of Everson v. It is at once the refined product and the terse summation of that history. As evidence, he relied almost solely on statements by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, most taken out of context and made before or well after the Religion Clauses were drafted.
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Yet consideration of a wide range of Founders and their public actions shows that few if any embraced anything approximating modern conceptions of the separation of church and state. Of course, they differed among themselves, but it is possible to identify three major areas of agreement with respect to religious liberty and church—state relations.
To a person, the Founders were committed to protecting religious liberty. This conviction was usually based upon the theological principle that humans have a duty to worship God as their consciences dictate.
It reads:. By the end of the Revolutionary era, every state offered significant protection of religious liberty. The federal Constitution of did not, but only because its supporters believed the national government did not have the delegated power to pass laws interfering with religious belief or practice. In the face of popular outcry, the first Congress proposed and the states ratified a constitutional amendment prohibiting Congress from restricting the free exercise of religion.
Scholars and jurists debate the exact scope of religious liberty protected by the First Amendment. For instance, it is unclear whether the amendment requires religious minorities to be exempted from neutral laws. For example, does the Free Exercise Clause require Congress to exempt religious pacifists from conscription into the military?