By Robert E. Meyer
Numerous skeptics and modern historians raise an interesting question that has been hotly disputed in recent years; whether or not America was founded as a "Christian Nation."
Generally, secular humanists have tried to refute this claim by contending that certain key Founders believed merely in a deistic God which didn't intervene in human affairs.
They would be on safer ground if they had instead said that there were strains of religious unorthodoxy in the thinking of certain key Framers. The problem is that when those who claim the Founders were deists, define deism, they can't make that definition fit the concept of God expressed by the Framers themselves. It is clear that there was a solid belief in a God who actively manages and intervenes in human affairs.
Thomas Jefferson reflecting of the injustice of slavery stated…
"Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever."
This indicates a God who judges the deeds of humanity.
Benjamin Franklin, considered one of the least religious Founders, made this observation during the constitutional convention…
"In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for divine protection. Our prayers, sir, were heard and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor… Have we now forgotten this powerful friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance? I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God governs his affairs of man. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, it is probable that an empire can rise without His aid?"
Notice here that as Franklin approached the end of his life he found convincing proof that God was actively involved in human interventions.
George Washington acknowledged the same intervention…
"No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency."
Patrick Henry asserted a view in his time not much different from what those on the Religious Right claim to be historical…
"It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religion, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ! For this very reason peoples of faiths have been afforded asylum, and freedom of worship here."
Often quotes are given to show that the Founders had a disdain for Christianity, which was notably communicated in their private writings. One quickly discovers upon careful examination that the context of many of these sentiments are a criticism against "Erastianism," namely, the atrocities committed because of regulation and domination of religion by the state.
As one might expect, the views of certain key Framers often changed over the course of their lives. A young John Adams stated in his diary…
"Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there contained! Every member would be obliged in conscience to temperance, frugality and industry: to justice, kindness and charity towards his fellow men: and to piety, love and reverence toward Almighty God….What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be." John Adams diary entry Feb. 22., 1756.
While this may not have been his exact sentiments late in life, it is interesting to note that when Thomas Paine published his treatise against Christianity, "The Age of Reason," many distinguished Americans voiced outrage. That included this denunciation…
"The Christian religion is, above all the Religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of Wisdom, Virtue, Equity, and Humanity. Let the Blackguard Paine say what he will; it is Resignation to God, it is Goodness itself to man." John Adams retorting to Thomas Paine in his diary, July 26, 1796.
The atheist historian Perry Miller questions the claims of deistic foundations presented by modern historians…
" Actually, European Deism was an exotic plant in America, which never struck roots in the soil. ‘Rationalism’ was never so widespread as liberal historians, or those fascinated by Jefferson, have imagined." Nature’s Nation pp.110 (1967).
I believe that while some of America's Founders were unorthodox in their religious opinions, yet their basic world view was bathed heavily in a populist Christian Zeitgeist. Things really aren't much different today. A recent Barna survey shows that less than 10% of those identifying themselves as Christians, can answer in the affirmative to all seven questions that the survey used to delineate Christian orthodoxy. A lack of fidelity to biblical doctrine is the staple of main line Christian denominations.
There is more than one meaning to the idea that America was founded as a "Christian Nation." Simply quoting selected citations from certain key Founders tells us little about the social undercurrents of the time.
It is interesting that more than a full century after the Constitution was drafted, this is what the Supreme Court concluded about the matter…
"Our laws and institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of The Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise, and in this sense and to this extent our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian… This is a religious people. This is historically true." -The Supreme Court Decision 1892 -Church of the Holy Trinity vs. The United States.
But having said all this, we must ask if the only thing that gives us direction for the future is to mimic where we have been in the past? If I had thought that America had been founded on the principles of secular humanism, I would not for a moment suggest that we maintain that hideous course. Whether or nor America was founded as a Christian nation, has nothing to do with it proceeding as a godless union today and in the future.
Robert E. Meyer is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.