A nation’s conception of itself and of the way it should be run is derived from its faith. In other words, there is a direct link between a nation’s ultimate conception if itself and the utterly practical ways in which it get things done. Consider a common slogan: “America is a Christian nation.” Many people deploy it to mean: “America has to get back to being a Christian nation.” That is, America’s founding faith was Christian, the country has let that slip, and so the answer to its ills is to recover Christianity as the nation’s guiding light.
Reputable, patient, historical scholarship, however, has shown that it is a misleading reading of the history of the United States to conclude that it was founded as a Christian nation. See, for example, The Search for Christian America (Noll, Hatch, and Marsden) or the more recent Founding Faith (Steven Waldman). No one, of course, can honestly deny the Christian influences, which were many, widespread, and deep, in the early American narrative. Puritan, Quaker, Baptist, Anglican, and Roman Catholic settlements, for instance, all confessed Christianity and exemplified variants of it. However, these were settlements and colonies. They were not about the founding of a nation, of the United States. The distinction is significant.
The founding document of a nation is its constitution. If, for instance, you read the constitutions of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan you will immediately see that they are “Islamic republics.” This can leave no question in anyone’s mind about the ultimate religious faith of those nations – their conception of themselves – which then directly influences the practical ways in which they go about their business. As Pakistan’s constitution puts it: “the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed” (my emphasis).
Now there is no such overt faith or religious statement in the constitution of the United States of America, or even in the Declaration of Independence, about Christianity. It is true the Declaration gives a nod to “God” and to “divine Providence,” each once. But the Declaration is not the Constitution. It did not found the nation. It declared the thirteen colonies to be independent from the British empire. Twelve years later the Constitution was written and signed, and there is no mention of Christianity in it, nor any God-language either. The closest the Constitution gets to God-language is the Preamble’s ambiguous phrase “to secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
So is American a Christian nation? Not according to its founding, legal document. This is not to suggest that there were no Christian ethical, social, economic, political, and other insights contributing to the founding. But it is much closer to the actual reality, I believe, to sum up the founding faith of the United States of America as an admixture of Puritan Calvinism, Enlightenment rationalism, and Virginia deism.
These sources play huge roles in America’s ultimate conception of itself, that is, its faith. They informed the thinking that went in to U.S. Constitution. They account for the way the nation goes about its business today, such as its social, political, economic problems, as well as its analyses of and responses to its foreign relations headaches.
In the next post I will conclude these thoughts on “religion” by considering why a gospel-directed and -shaped wisdom seems an odd way to address America’s collective problems.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer