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The Founding

Was the Founding Christian?

This NY Times Sunday Magazine article strains to get it right but doesn't quite get there.  Using the Texas textbook adoption controversy as a hook, author Russell Shorto reports on the Christian Right's attempt to link the Declaration of Indendence (with its multiple references to God, in various forms) and the Constitution.  Shorto (and probably many of the activists he interviewed) could have noted the pairing of American time and Christian time at the end of the original Constitution.  It is retained even today in presidential proclamations, as in this latest one, for American Heart Month:  "done in the year of our Lord 2010."  If one protests that this expression was merely a convention of the time, that actually strengthens rather than weakens the Founding as Christian argument:  Conventions such as that have weight in our original understanding of the text.

One should consider the constitutional commands ("shall") that public officials shall take oaths to support the Constitution but that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."   This summarizes the issue well:  There was a public expectation of reverence or piety (the oath requirement) but without demanding a sectarian commitment.  

Contemporary secularists have grotesquely expanded the private sphere to shove religion out of the public sphere.  As religion fights its way back, its adherents need to consider all of the language and argument of the Declaration of Independence and thus unite spirit and reason. 

Categories > The Founding

Discussions - 13 Comments

Jefferson's The Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty begins, "whereas almighty God hath created the mind free."

Jefferson thought that language was perfectly consistent with diestablishment. Nowadays, however, speaking of God, and, beyond that, of natural law, is taken to be religious. To Jefferson, however, they were what reason discovered, and hence inside the "wall of separation" about which he wrote.

Jefferson believed that a "wall of separation" was the proper means of disestablishment precisely becuase he believed that reason gave us natural law. Nowadays, our secular legalists deny that premise, yet still think a "wall of separation" is reasoneble. Jefferson knew better.

Perhaps the more pressing question is: who cares whether or not the founding was Christian?

I guess people who care about the Founding?

Political scientist Louis Hartz , famous for "The Liberal Tradition in America", argued that an underlying Lockean liberal consensus informed the American body politic and that consensus made our constitution workable. What he meant was that absent that consensus, the same constitution with its separation of powers and checks and balances would descend quickly into anarchy. True enough, but I always thought he didn't go far enough, i.e., that the Lockean liberal consensus itself was insufficient to unify that which the constitution divides. That consensus itself was informed by yet another, more substantive consensus, an overwhelming majority Christian consensus. In that sense at least we were indeed founded as a Christian nation and those who want to undermine that understanding had better replace it with something, and do so very quickly.

Er ... no, Owl. Not "people who care about the Founding," but people who care about things being Christian.

...or their particular notion of what Truly Christian is.

Actually, once significant numbers of Americans think that the founding was Christian, we all must care about the question. In a democratic-republic such opinion matters a great deal. Even the Times recognizes that. The same is true, of course, about the idea of a "living constitution."

Interesting your reference to Jefferson, the separation of church and state, and religon. Funny, people always refer to Jefferson and "the separation of church and state" when referring to the Constitution and Religion. What is really funny is that Jefferson did not write the Constitution, nor was he any where near the United States when it is drafted, written, re-written and finally ratified in 1791. He was in France. Today, so many uneducated people say things like Jefferson wanted a separation of church and state, not even knowing what Jefferson meant when he wrote that misused phrase in his letter of reply to the letter sent to him by the Danbury Baptists Ministers congratulating him on winning the hard-fought presidential election against John Adams. What would suprise people even more is how much Jefferson did support the idea of religion and state. During his presidency, religious services took place in the House and Senate and he approved of government funds to be used to support Christian missionaries. But the one item that is even more surprising is what Jefferson and George Mason (who helped write a great deal of the Constitution) wrote into the 16th Section of the Original Virginia Bill of Rights in 1776 which is as follows:
16. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our CREATOR, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity, towards each other
Yes - Jefferson and George Mason penned that thought.

Sick and tired: I mean, of course, that they would care whether the Founding was Christian in the same sense as that they would care if it the state was founded on principles of secularism. It isn't that they should hope for some particular conclusion that comports with their own belief, but rather that to understand the Founding in its fullness, one should understand its religious overlay, among other aspects (for which a strong case can be made).

Sure that's what you meant ....

Sounds like somebody is mad that all right-wingers weren't what they thought they were.

No, Owl, you're exactly what I thought you were. Exactly.

And what is that?

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