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Wednesday Word: A Theology for American Patriots, Pt. 2

June 23, 2021 | Jay T. Smith

Founding Fathers

In 1776, the English colonies declared their independence from England. This declaration was unanimous by colony, but not unanimous within each colony’s population. There were both loyalists and revolutionaries in every state. The organizations to which these citizens looked for leadership were the churches and trade guilds. These groups exercised an enormous amount of influence on the population, yet the founders very intentionally refused to organize the churches into a single, unified “Christian Church USA.” The united colonies would be a moral nation, informed by a valuable, yet varied religious experience, but there would be no state-sponsored religious expression.

The end of this attempt did not mean that citizens were not influenced both spiritually and morally by the life and ministry of the church. It simply meant that the colonists valued their freedom of conscience. Thomas Kidd, notes that Benjamin Franklin, a professed Deist,

adhered to a religion that we might call doctrineless, moralized Christianity. This kind of faith suggests that what we believe about God is not as important as living a life of love and significance… Although Franklin did at times toy with some radical anti-Christian beliefs, he settled on the conviction that Christianity was useful because of the way it fostered virtue… Franklin wearied of how colonial Americans incessantly fought about theological minutiae. But he still believed that Christianity represented a preeminent resource for benevolence and charity, qualities he considered essential to any worthwhile religion.1

Kidd further stated,

Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson all doubted some fundamental tenets of the Protestant faith. These could include salvation by God’s grace alone, the divinity of Jesus, or God’s Trinitarian nature. But leading patriots agreed that the new American republic depended upon having a virtuous citizenry. Although some elites might employ education to develop moral fortitude, the founders believed that average Americans needed religion for the inspiration to do good.2

The founders were not attempting to create a Christian republic; rather, they hoped to create a virtuous nation where its citizens were inspired to do good. They concluded that “religion” was needed for this task.

Political Philosophy

Why then was a national religion not formed? Why not take the extra step to ensure a religious homogeneity? That would seemingly make sense, in order to ensure that all American citizens would be virtuous. There are several reasons the founders did not want a “Christian nation” or a mandated religion. First, the second wave of colonists were fleeing religious persecution. England had a state religion, and many of the Puritans, Separatists, and other non-conformists had suffered greatly under persecution by the crown to conform to the theology and liturgy of the Church of England. Some non-conformists had been jailed, some had been burned at the stake, and others forced to flee to other countries under this persecution. The founders had no desire to repeat a scenario where this type of government coercion would occur. Second, many of the founders— and religious leaders (!)— were not only educated in Greek and Roman classics, but also the political theories of Francis Bacon, John Locke, David Hume, Shaftesbury, and other Enlightenment philosophers. The founders believed that the best way to ensure the liberty and rights of a nation’s citizens was by creating a republic whereby its officials were democratically elected. Thus, the people were able to choose officials and also replace officials through the process of election. Violent revolution need not occur. Third, there were a variety of Christian denominations, sects, and other religious expressions in the colonies in 1776. Early on, there were Protestant and Catholic Christians. How could, and should the government privilege a specific religious sect from this vast variety? The answer was, it could not privilege any one religion; but rather, it would protect all religious expressions because of the positive capacity of religion to shape the virtuous character of a nation’s citizens.

Separation of Church and State

In the end analysis, the founders decided to separate church and state in order to protect both entities from the coercive potential of each; and yet, they protected religious freedom because of its power to transform the character of all people. Indeed, 245 years after declaring its independence from England, the great experiment of the separation of church and state, as well as the protection of religious practice, has proven to be a wise choice. Although the boundaries of this separation have been tested again and again, with both state and church arguing for either greater freedom or more control and influence, the essential nature of this separation has proved to be resilient. The greatest challenge to this separation has not been from the side of the state, but rather, from the church.

“Land Where My Fathers Died; Land of the Pilgrim’s Pride”: An American Mythology

In the United States, we have developed a mythology concerning the relationship between American Christianity and the Constitution of our nation. The foundational claim is that the United States of America is a “Christian nation.” That claim in itself is a bit ambiguous. What does it mean?

  1. Is America made up exclusively of people who claim or practice the Christian faith?
  2. Was America founded upon “Christian principles?” If so, what were these principles? Where are these principles present?
  3. Did the founding fathers intend to found a “national” church? If so, why does it not exist?
  4. If a majority of the founders were practicing Christians, does that mean all Americans are “supposed” to be practicing Christians?

Pseudo-historian, David Barton, a Christian nationalist, advances the idea that the United States was founded as an explicitly Christian nation, and rejects the consensus view that the U.S. Constitution calls for a separation of church and state.3 His work has been rejected outright by both conservative and liberal scholars alike.4 A few scholars on the periphery of academia also attempt to put forward this indefensible thesis, but have been disproved by a broad range of reputable historians.5

As 21st century citizens of the United States, we have been reared with this patriotic myth. From the Christian faith of several of the founding fathers, to America’s Theologian—Jonathan Edwards, the evangelistic fervor of Billy Graham, and the patriotic songs of Samuel Smith, Irving Berlin, and Lee Greenwood, Americans have come of age believing that the United States is “blessed by God,” “ordained by God,” and that our leaders are fulfilling some type of Judeo-Christian prophetic pronouncements. Indeed many Americans have made erroneous theological judgements in regard to the prophetic and demonic roles of the 44th, 45th and 46th Presidents of the United States. Conservative publishing houses have produced “The Patriot Bible,” “The Founder’s Bible,” “The Liberty Bible,” and “The American Patriot Bible” in an attempt to capture the business of a growing segment of patriotic American Christianity.

As attractive as this mythology might sound, nothing could be further from the truth. Without doubt, as their personal correspondence and writings affirm, a majority of the Founding Fathers were church-attending, Bible-reading Christians. Yet they were also educated in business, history, the classics, and the political philosophy of their day. As strong as some of their faith commitments might have been, they were committed just as strongly to building a strong, equitable system of governance, drawing upon the best contemporary and classical political philosophies available. Additionally, the recent memory of religious and political oppression in England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands gave the founders the resolve to separate religious practice from the operation of the state, while simultaneously protecting the free exercise of religion.

The founders never intended the United States of America to be a “Christian nation,” but rather a nation for all peoples, and all faiths, informed by the values and virtues found most notably in Christian religious practice. There is a major difference between these two ideas. The idea of a “Christian nation” implies that this is a nation of Christians, holding to a homogenous set of theologies and values. The idea that we are a multi-ethnic nation, which is informed by the religious virtues found predominantly in the Judeo-Christian tradition refutes homogeneity, while encouraging the cultivation of virtue embedded in this tradition. The founders were not familiar with the religious expressions of the Native American peoples, nor were they familiar with the religious expressions of the Far East. Thus the founders, like Benjamin Franklin, naturally refer to the tradition with which they were familiar. It is important that Americans understand the intention of the founders, because if this distinction is ignored, or misunderstood, both the state, and the church suffer. The quest for power destroys both the state and the Christian faith. My answer today is to outline a serious theology for American Patriots.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Look for part 3 in the coming weeks. Read part 1 “Introduction: An American Patriot Theology—Part 1”.

1 Thomas Kidd, “How Benjamin Franklin, a deist, became the founding father of a unique kind of American faith,” The Washington Post June 28, 2017. Accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/06/28/how-benjamin-franklin-a-deist-became-the-founding-father-of-a-unique-kind-of-american-faith/ on May 21, 2021.

2 Ibid.

3 Blakeslee, Nate. “King of the Christocrats,” Texas Monthly. (September 2006). 34 (9): 1; Also, Billy Bruce, “First Amendment Specialist Views Church/State Separation as ‘Myth,” Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal (February 18, 1992).

4 E.g. Jay W. Richards, senior fellow at the conservative Discovery Institute stated that Barton’s books and videos are full of “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims.” See Thomas Kidd, “The David Barton Controversy,” in World. God’s World Publications, World News Group (August 7, 2012).

5 See Mark Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?: Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2019), and Robert Reilly, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020). A score of book reviews, have discredited the work of Hall and Reilly. In contrast see Andy Seidel, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American (New York: Sterling, 2019); Thomas West, The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Joseph Ellis, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic (New York: Vintage, 2008), and American Dialogue: The Founders and Us (New York: Vintage, 2019); and, Andrew Shankman, Original Intents: Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the American Founding (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Jay T. Smith

President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

Dr. Jay Smith leads the Yellowstone Theological Institute as its president. Dr. Smith has served as minister of youth, music and as senior […]

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