[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.]
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.
Undertaking 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.