[I’m going to be taking a break for the next couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is less than two weeks away, I thought I would re-post some of my favorite past essays on the American founding. Most are extended book reviews, and I have consciously tried to balance works from a range of perspectives, including those that exaggerate the place of Christian faith in the founding of the United States as well as those that understate it. I thought I would start off, however, with a reflection that engages with the British writer G. K. Chesterton, who offers a pertinent reminder about the nature of true patriotism.]
It is good to explore the role that Christian belief and principles played in the unfolding of the American Revolution. But as Christians called to “take every thought captive to obedience to Christ,” we also need to consider what it means to let our faith inform our understanding, today, of the events that led to American Independence more than two centuries ago. What does it mean to think Christianly, in other words, about this critical chapter in our national story?
As I have spoken to churches, Christian schools, and Christian home-schooling groups over the years, the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation has regularly been the single most common question that I am asked. If they are interested in history at all, the Christians that I meet outside the Academy keep coming back to the same basic question: Was the United States founded as a Christian country, by Christian statesmen, guided by Christian principles?
When I hear the question, the first thought that pops into my head is another question, namely “Why do you want to know?” I don’t mean to be flippant or disrespectful. Part of thinking Christianly about the past involves examining our motives for studying the past in the first place. And when it comes to a question like the relationship between Christianity and the founding of the United States, there are all manner of motives other than simple curiosity that can get in the drivers’ seat.
The question has become enormously politicized in the last generation, as Christians square off against secularists, both sides appealing to the past to support their respective policy position regarding the proper place of religion in public life. Historical truth is commonly a casualty when political agendas get entangled with debates about the past. Even more troubling is the degree to which well-meaning Christians have allowed their very identity as believers to become intertwined with particular interpretations of American history. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken with Christians who seem to see any denial that America was founded as a Christian nation as an attack on Christianity itself.
One of the very first quotes in my commonplace book is an observation from G. K. Chesterton that speaks to this mindset. In his 1908 classic Orthodoxy, Chesterton makes a brief observation in the midst of a lengthy (dare I say rambling?) aside as part of an even longer reflection on optimism and pessimism. Here it is:
“Only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history.”
If we are truly devoted to our country, in other words, Chesterton is telling us that we will not insist on a particular interpretation of its past if the evidence leads us in another direction. True patriotism may require us to acknowledge aspects of our national history that are contrary to the story that we would prefer to tell. We will do so, however, because patriotism is a particular form of love, and as Chesterton reminds us on the very next page,
“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”
But Chesterton’s observation doesn’t only help us in thinking about the relationship between history and patriotism. Its inner reasoning can be just as helpful to us in thinking through the relationship between history and our Christian faith. In one sense our Christian beliefs are absolutely grounded in history. Ours is a historical faith. Christianity’s core doctrines rest on theological interpretations of historical events: creation, fall, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection. Deny these historical events and eviscerate the faith.
But Christianity does not rest on any particular interpretation of American history. Let’s take the first Chesterton quote above and modify it in two key respects, giving us the following:
Only those will permit their Christian faith to falsify American history whose Christian faith depends on American history.
Who among us who aspires to follow Christ would readily accept a Christian faith dependent on American history? Of course none of us would wish this consciously, and yet our identity as Americans and our identity as Christians are so easily intertwined. As we think about faith and the American founding in the days ahead, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to keep Chesterton’s observation in mind.