Tag Archives: Fourth of July

THOMAS JEFFERSON’S FAITH

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding. The essay below deals with the religious beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.  I did not write the essay below specifically to respond to David Barton’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in his work The Jefferson Lies, but anyone familiar with his argument in that book will recognize that I disagree with it strongly.  For a more direct rebuttal of Barton’s claims about Jefferson, go here.]

Were our Founding Fathers devout Christians determined to create a Christian commonwealth grounded on biblical principles?  Or were they secular sons of the Enlightenment who hoped to banish orthodox Christianity from the public square?  This Fourth of July, combatants on both sides of the culture wars will gravitate to one or the other of these extremes as they remember our nation’s birth.  It’s a horrible dichotomy that demands that we choose between two equally untenable positions.

A more defensible position rejects both of these all-or-nothing claims.  As Matthew L. Harris and Thomas S. Kidd observe in their anthology The Founding Fathers and the Debate Over Religion in America, “None of the Founders were atheists . . . but none of the most famous Founders were ‘evangelical’ Christians of the sort produced by the Great Awakening, either.”  Many of the Founders were significantly influenced by the Enlightenment, most notably in their frequent willingness to let reason trump revelation when they seemed to be in conflict.  On the other hand, as Harris and Kidd note, “hardly anyone during the revolutionary era doubted that religion, and especially moral virtue, was important to the life of the new American republic.”   Citing such complexity, they conclude that any broad generalization of the Founders as either “secular” or “Christian” is problematic at best.

Founding Fathers and the Debate over Religion

Thomas Jefferson was not necessarily a representative Founder in his religious views, but he did embody the complexity that Harris and Kidd point out.  Since we’ll shortly be celebrating the anniversary of his handiwork–the Declaration of Independence–it makes sense to revisit a few samples of his thinking.

First, Jefferson was no atheist.  In fact, he regularly made an argument for God that today we would call an appeal to “intelligent design.”  Here is how Jefferson put it in an 1823 letter to John Adams:

“When we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. . . . So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro’ all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe.”

Jefferson also welcomed the contribution that religious belief might make in promoting virtue among the American people.  Jefferson, like almost all of the Founders, took for granted that a free society could not survive without virtue, and that virtue was unlikely to thrive in the absence of religious conviction.  Or as Jefferson expressed the point in his book Notes on the State of Virginia:

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”

Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791

Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791

Jefferson praised the civic utility of religion publicly in his first inaugural address in 1801.  In a lengthy paragraph listing the country’s peculiar “blessings,” the new president described the American people as

“enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man.”

He want on to observe that his fellow countrymen “acknowledge and adore an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”

And yet there was another side to Jefferson’s perspective on religion.  While he admired a “rational” religion that promoted good works and civic virtue, he was contemptuous of much of orthodox Christianity as just so much superstition.  In private correspondence, he referred to evangelical religion with a sneer, as in this 1822 letter to Thomas Cooper, a Unitarian professor that Jefferson was trying to lure to the newly-founded University of Virginia:

“In our Richmond there is much fanaticism, but chiefly among the women: they have their night meetings, and praying-parties, where attended by their priests, and sometimes a hen-pecked husband, they pour forth the effusions of their love to Jesus in terms as amatory and carnal as their modesty would permit them to use to a more earthly lover.”

Jefferson’s skepticism of the Bible is also well established, notwithstanding David Barton’s tortured efforts to prove otherwise.  In The Jefferson Lies, Barton insisted that Jefferson wholly accepted the gospels while suspecting the reliability of Paul’s epistles, but in reality Jefferson believed that a great deal of the gospels were invention.  As he summarized in an 1820 letter to William Short,

“We find in the writings of his [Jesus’] biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. first a ground work of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, & fabrications. intermixed with these again are sublime ideas of the supreme being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality & benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition & honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.”

Jefferson could easily distinguish between these two categories by subjecting them to the test of reason.  “Your reason is the only oracle given you by heaven” for discerning truth, Jefferson famously counseled his teenaged nephew in 1787.  A great deal of the gospels were unreasonable (the virgin birth, miracles, and the resurrection, for example), so these had to be discarded.  Perhaps the greatest irrationality of all, however, was the concept of the Trinity.  As he wrote to James Smith:

“[The] paradox that one is three, and three but one is so incomprehensible to the human mind that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, deceives himself. He proves also that man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder is the sport of every wind. With such persons gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason and the mind becomes a wreck.”

In sum, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence was no atheist, nor was he committed to a wholly secular public sphere, but neither did he believe that Jesus was the Christ.   So where does this leave us?  Somewhere, I think, between comfortable but false extremes.

THE PULPIT AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.  With politically-minded evangelicals like David Barton and Dan Fisher praising the role of preachers in supporting the cause of American independence in 1776, I thought it a good idea to revisit James Byrd’s systematic study of how patriots appealed to Scripture during the Revolution.  While Barton, Fisher et al contend that the Bible shaped colonial pastors’ politics, Byrd finds evidence to suggest that the opposite was at least equally true.]

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James P. Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

The history of the American Revolution is, above all, a story about national beginnings, and stories about beginnings are stories that explain. How we understand our origins informs our sense of identity as a people. We look to the past not only to understand who we are but also to justify who we wish to become. And so, as a nation divided over the proper place of religious belief in the contemporary public square, we naturally debate the place of religious belief in the American founding.

Outside of the academy, much of that debate has focused on a simplistic, yes-or-no question: did religious belief play an important role in the American founding? This makes sense if the primary motive is to score points in the culture wars, mining the past for ammunition to use against secularists who deny that the United States was founded as a Christian country. There’s a problem with the history-as-ammunition approach, however. It’s good for bludgeoning opponents with, but it positively discourages sustained moral reflection, the kind of conversation with the past that can penetrate the heart and even change who we are.

Sacred ScriptureIn contrast, books like Sacred Scripture, Sacred War have the potential to challenge us deeply. Granted, author James Byrd inadvertently offers ammunition to readers cherry-picking evidence for a Christian founding. He matter-of-factly contends that sermons were more influential than political pamphlets in building popular support for independence, and he insists unequivocally that “preachers were the staunchest defenders of the cause of America.” And yet the question that really interests him is not whether religion played an important role in the American founding but how that it did so. More specifically, he wants to understand how colonists used the Bible in responding to the American Revolution.

Toward that end, Byrd went in search of original colonial sources that addressed the topic of war while appealing to scripture. He ultimately identified 543 colonial writings (the vast majority of which were published sermons) and systematically analyzed the more than 17,000 biblical citations that they contained. The result is by far the most comprehensive analysis ever undertaken of “how revolutionary Americans defended their patriotic convictions through scripture, which texts they cited and how they used them.”

Byrd relates his conclusions in five thematic chapters, each of which highlights a common scriptural argument in support of the Revolution. Americans found in the scripture “a vast assemblage of war stories” relevant to their own struggle with England. From the Old Testament, ministers drew inspiration especially from the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt (Exodus 14-15), from the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, and from the example of David, the man of war who was also the “man after God’s own heart.” Ministers read each of these stories analogically and drew lessons from them. The Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt resembled their own bondage to British tyranny; ditto for the Israelites’ subjection centuries later to Jabin, king of Cannaan. The contest between David and Goliath, in like manner, foreshadowed the colonists’ righteous struggle with a powerful but arrogant British empire. (That David went on to become a king was a fact that need not be emphasized.)

To the patriotic ministers who declared them from the pulpit, the lessons embedded in these stories were indisputable. God championed the cause of independence. A warrior who liberated his people by means of war, the Lord clearly sanctioned violence in the pursuit of freedom. Furthermore, he would intervene on their behalf, and with God on their side, the ill-trained and poorly equipped patriots would be victorious. This meant that loyalism was rebellion against God, and pacifism was “sinful cowardice.” Had not the angel of the Lord cursed the people of Meroz because they did not come “to the help of the Lord against the mighty” (Judges 5:23)? Had not the prophet Jeremiah thundered, “Cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood” (Jer. 48:10)?

If the biblical argument in support of the Revolution was to succeed, of course, patriot ministers knew that they must buttress these arguments with support from the New Testament. This was no simple task, inasmuch as the apostles Peter and Paul both seemed to condemn rebellion and teach submission to rulers as a Christian’s duty. Paul enjoined the church at Rome to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1); Peter commanded Christians to “honor the king” (I Peter 2:17b). Neither admonition seemed to leave much room for righteous resistance to civil authority.

Advocates of independence countered, however, that these passages only commanded obedience to rulers who were ministers of God “for good,” and since liberty was self-evidently good, the apostles could not possibly be calling for submission to tyrants. They reassured their flocks, furthermore, by repeatedly citing one of the few unambiguous endorsements of liberty in the New Testament. “Stand fast,” Paul had counseled the churches of Galatia, “in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Gal. 5:1). The liberty Paul had in mind was civil as well as religious, ministers insisted, which meant that the refusal to “stand fast” with the patriot cause was nothing less than “a sin against the express command of God.”

Three overarching patterns emerge from Byrd’s study that should trouble Christian readers. First, the influence of political ideology and historical circumstance in shaping the colonists’ interpretation of scripture is striking. Traced to its roots, the colonists’ conviction that civil liberty is a God-given right owed more to the Enlightenment than to orthodox Christian teaching, and yet the belief strongly informed how colonists understood the Word of God. Reading the scripture through the lens of republican ideology, they discovered “a patriotic Bible” perfect for promoting “patriotic zeal.”

Second, the readiness with which Christian advocates of independence sanctified violence is disturbing. “Colonial preachers did not shy away from biblical violence,” Byrd finds. “They embraced it, almost celebrated it, even in its most graphic forms.”

Third, and most ominously, the evidence suggests that the way patriotic ministers portrayed the military conflict with Britain morphed rapidly from merely a “just war”—a war originated for a morally defensible cause and fought according to moral criteria—into a “sacred” or “holy war”—a struggle “executed with divine vengeance upon the minions of Satan.” Patriotism and Christianity had become inseparable, almost indistinguishable.

Byrd writes with restraint and offers little commentary on his findings, but the implications for American Christians are sobering and the stakes are high. As Byrd acknowledges in his conclusion, over time the United States has come “to define itself and its destiny largely through the justice and sacredness of its wars.” American Christians have played a major role in that process of national self-definition, all too regularly sanctifying the nation’s military conflicts as sacred struggles.

Historian Mark Noll has lamented that by the time of the American Revolution “the thought and activity of the American churches tended to follow the thought and activity of the American nation,” not the other way around. With painstaking thoroughness, James Byrd reaffirms that conclusion, showing that the pattern even defined how revolutionary-era Christians read their Bibles and thought

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE CHURCH

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.]

American-revolution

Independence Day is less than a week away, so I thought I would share a few more thoughts about what it might look like to think Christianly about the American founding.  The degree to which Christian beliefs influenced the creation of the United States is a question that many American Christians find intrinsically important.  I certainly share that view.

When it comes to the topic of faith and the American founding, however, amateur Christian historians have too often focused on a simplistic, yes-or-no question: did religious belief play an important role or didn’t it?  And so, like David Barton, they count references to God and allusions to Scripture and answer the question with a triumphal “yes!”  They then wield this two-dimensional “Christian heritage” as a lever for motivating believers and putting secularists in their place.  In the process, however, they actually discourage the kind of encounter with the past that can penetrate our hearts in life-changing ways.

What would a different approach look like?  The best way I know to answer this question is with a concrete example.  There are many that I could cite.  An encouraging development in recent years has been the increasing willingness among accomplished Christian scholars to breach the walls of the academy in order to communicate with the church.  Younger historians who are doing so include (among many) John Fea of Messiah College, Thomas Kidd at Baylor, and James Byrd of Vanderbilt University (my alma mater).

The example I want to share now, however, is from an older book by Mark Noll, formerly of Wheaton College, now at the University of Notre Dame.  Noll is a brilliant scholar, a prolific historian, and a kind and gracious Christian gentleman.  In the context of the bicentennial of American independence, Noll determined to investigate “the way in which religious convictions and Revolutionary thought interacted in the minds and hearts of American Christians.”  The purpose of the resulting book, Christians in the American Revolution, was less to prove that the United States had a Christian heritage than to discover the response of Christians to the revolution and learn from it.

Christians in the American RevolutionUndertaking an exhaustive reading of colonial sermons, pamphlets, and other primary sources, Noll concluded that the Christian response to the momentous political events of the period had been complex.  In their responses, colonial Christians fell into four broad categories.  Some supported the revolution enthusiastically, convinced that the patriot cause was unequivocally righteous and perfectly consonant with every Christian virtue.  Some supported independence more circumspectly, troubled by perceived hypocrisy or inconsistency in the patriot position.  Others saw loyalty to the Crown as the only truly Christian response, while a final group, believing that Scripture condemns violence, embraced pacifism and supported neither side.

Noll then proceeded to ask two overarching, open-ended questions of the evidence.  The first involved the nature of Christian influence on the struggle for independence, i.e., what did the Church do to and for the Revolution?  Among several influences, Noll found that countless colonial ministers openly espoused the cause of independence from the pulpit.  They defined freedom as the divine ideal, equated oppression with the Antichrist, assured their flocks that God was on the side of the patriots, and effectively presented the Revolution as a holy crusade, a spiritual struggle between good and evil.

Had Noll only been interested in establishing that the American Revolution had a Christian dimension, he could have stopped right there.  Readers interested only in proving that the United States was founded as a Christian nation would have found a treasure trove of useful quotes indicating that American colonists routinely thought of the conflict with Britain in religious terms.  And yet Noll didn’t stop there.  Instead, he asked a second, probing, uncomfortable question that Christian culture warriors have too often passed over, i.e., what did the Revolution do to and for the Church?

Again, the answer is multifaceted, but much of what Noll found was troubling.  To begin with, looking broadly at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it appears that the Revolutionary era was a period of declining Christian influence on the culture.  In broader historical context, Christians’ widespread support for the Revolution was actually an example of the increasing degree to which “the thought and activity of the American churches tended to follow the thought and activity of the American nation,” rather than the other way round.  Even more troubling, Noll found evidence to suggest that revolutionary fervor had sometimes undermined Christian integrity, as Christians too commonly forgot that our ultimate loyalty belongs to God alone.  Noll’s summary thoughts on this point bear repeating in detail, so I will leave you with the final extended quote as food for thought:

In addressing the question of what the Revolution did to the church, it is necessary to consider whether Christian integrity was not swamped in the tide of Revolutionary feeling.  From a twentieth-century perspective it appears as if all sense of proportion was lost, particularly where no doubts were countenanced about the righteousness of the Patriot cause.  Where presbyteries could exclude ministers from fellowship because of failure to evince ardent Patriotism, where the “cause of America” could be described repeatedly and with limitless variation as “the cause of Christ,” and where the colonists so blithely saw themselves standing in the place of Israel as God’s chosen people, the question must arise whether the Revolution did not occasion a momentary moral collapse in the churches.  Those ministers and lay believers who allowed the supposed justice of the Patriot cause and displays of Patriotic devotion to replace standards of divine justice and the fruit of the Spirit as the controlling determinants of thought and behavior betrayed basic principles of the Christian faith–that absolute loyalty belongs only to God, and that unwarranted self-righteousness is as evil as open and scandalous sin.

CHESTERTON ON PATRIOTISM

[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.

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

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.