"It is time for Americans to come back to the faith of our fathers, to the Bible of our fathers, and to the biblical principles that our fathers used as a premise for this nation's establishment." (Jerry Falwell)
"We must vote in pro-moral leaders who will return our country to the biblical base upon which it is founded." (Tim LaHaye)
During the last three decades, the loudest voices calling for a return to "Christian America" came from those in a tradition known for its "strong sense of the separation of the church from the state, and of the believer from the world" (p. 160). What prompted this turn of events? And why did a renewed interest in America's religious heritage and the faith of the founding fathers become such a fundamental concern for many prominent Christian leaders?
The Rise of the Revisionists
According to the authors of The Search for Christian America, two significant events triggered a renewed engagement in politics among American evangelicals: The Supreme Court ruling on abortion in 1973 and the nation's Bicentennial in 1976 (p. 14). The Supreme Court decision was the match that set ablaze evangelicals' already growing concern with America's sinking moral standards. The Bicentennial excitement provided a good opportunity to capitalize on opposing these sinking standards by drawing attention to the Christian base upon which America was founded.
According to Christian America advocates, the liberal media and the secularists were steadily undermining traditional moral standards by removing all Christian influence from American culture. Because of this, America's moral foundation was crumbling. Secular humanism, however, was the iniquitous usurper in this drama, being a relatively recent innovation in American public life, and thus guilty of betraying America's Christian heritage and values. Therefore, the only way to stem the rising tide of secular humanism and its consequent moral decay was to call America back to her Christian roots.
The Problem with the Revisionists
The authors' contention in The Search for Christian America is that the message of Christian America advocates is both historically inaccurate and biblically indefensible for three reasons.
First, the record of history does not paint a pristine picture of a once glorious Christian nation.
We feel that a careful study of the facts of history shows that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly or even predominately Christian, if we mean by the word "Christian" a state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture. There is no lost golden age to which American Christians may return (p. 17).
Of course, the Christian faith was not entirely absent in American history, but at the same time, it was not the predominant or exclusive influence in the founding of this nation. In other words, Christianity was influential but not foundational. Those who argue that Christianity was the predominant source of influence in the founding of America have disregarded the facts (pp. 18-19).
The second reason is theological rather than historical. "[T]o dream of making America a 'Christian' nation is at odds not only with the ideals on which the United States was founded -- it is also at odds with the deeper message of the whole Bible" (p. 140). The Bible itself does not argue for the establishment of a Christian nation. "The New Testament teaches unmistakably that Christ set aside national and ethnic barriers and that he has chosen to fulfill his central purposes in history through the church, which transcends all such boundaries" (p. 24). It is never proper to speak of a Christian nation after the coming of Christ (p. 20). Israel under the Old Covenant was a special agent of God in the world. The same thing cannot be said of the American nation.
Third, Christian America advocates are often unable to see how much Enlightenment thinking and secularism has influenced their own perspective, diminishing their ability to biblically evaluate and critique American culture due to their blurring the line between culture and Christianity. Because of this, they run the risk of obscuring the roles of church and state, leading to confusion in regard to the respective purposes and responsibilities of both institutions.
The call to a return to Christian America is neither historically warranted nor biblical defensible. Obviously, the intentions of Christian America advocates are respectable, but their arguments evaporate in light of historical evidence and biblical analysis. This well-intentioned distortion, however, is not only damaging to the reliability of Christian America advocates, it is also destructive to their own desires for cultural change. Misrepresenting the past inhibits an objective biblical analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of American culture in the present (p. 23). Blurring the line between church and state inevitably leads to an unwitting incorporation of cultural philosophies into the content of the Christian faith. Christians must always maintain a relationship to culture that allows them to biblically evaluate the prominent values of their culture -- both in the past and present -- in order to both engage and critique it properly. Believing that American culture, until recently, was predominately Christian "lowers the guard of Christians to distinguish what is truly biblical from what is merely part of their cultural heritage" (p. 133).
Massachusetts Bay - An Experiment in Creating a Christian Society
The call to a return to Christian America usually remains largely undefined. It is assumed that there is an agreement on the meaning of this ambiguous phrase -- Christian nation. What exactly is a Christian nation anyway? The authors pose two important questions in this regard: "[H]ow much Christian action is required to make a whole society Christian?" Or, negatively stated, "[H]ow much evil can a society display before we disqualify it as a Christian society?" (p. 19)
There was no greater opportunity to fashion a Christian society than the Puritan experiment in Massachusetts. The Puritans of New England had complete freedom to fashion a culture that was uniquely and consistently Christian. They believed their mission in the New World was identical with the mission of Old Testament Israel (p. 31). Their goal was to live under the dictates of Scripture, thus faithfully remaining in covenant with God and securing God's blessing upon their lives and culture.
Despite their good intentions, the Puritan attempt to create a Christian society led to great abuses against the rights of individual citizens -- especially those who were not active church members. For example, only church members were eligible for public office and allowed to vote (p. 36).
Those who were not Christians had no real religious freedom, and subsequently, no real political liberty. John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, relied heavily, if not exclusively, on Old Testament law in forming the legal systems of New England (p. 35). Thus, many of Massachusetts' laws demanded compliance with Christian principles. The Massachusetts "Body of Liberties" (1641) called for the death penalty to anyone who worshipped any other god than the Christian God (p. 35). "The same penalty was prescribed, together with the corresponding Old Testament citations, for witchcraft, blasphemy, murder, sodomy, homosexuality, adultery, and kidnapping" (p. 35). This situation proved to be unwieldy, especially when attempting to enforce these laws upon the entire population of Massachusetts Bay.
Further abuses stemmed from the Puritan belief that they, like Israel before them, were God's chosen people called to be a "city on a hill" for the world to imitate (p. 31). Believing that they were God's unique nation made it easy to justify abusing and mistreating other peoples and nations. Viewing the Indians as "Canaanites" in America's "Promised Land", the Puritans justified their harsh treatment against the Indians, believing they had a divine right to take the land from the pagans (p. 33).
Roger Williams challenged the Puritans' assumption regarding Israel and the church and argued that, in order to preserve the purity of the church, a clear line of demarcation between the church and the state needed to be maintained. Because of his views, Williams was despised and banished from Massachusetts (pp. 36-37).
Did the Massachusetts Bay culture prove to be a positive contribution to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian nation? The Puritans desired to live by Scripture and yet stole Indian lands and murdered them when necessary. The Puritans desired to worship God freely and yet persecuted and executed Quakers who also wished to worship God freely (p. 19). Many groups outside the established church (e.g. Indians, Quakers) were silenced at best, oppressed or persecuted at worse. Even some within the church (e.g. Roger Williams) were mistreated and rejected. Was their society Christian or not? If we focus on their virtues alone, we can claim the former, but if we focus on their problems as well, the answer is not so obvious. It is not an overstatement to suggest that the experiment in creating a distinctively Christian culture ended in failure.
The Revolution - A Fruit of the Great Awakening?
Another way Christian America advocates defend their position is by connecting the American Revolution (1770s) with the Great Awakening (1740s). They argue that the Revolution was another fruit of the religious revivals of the Great Awakening: "[I]f the American Revolution was in fact grounded in the Great Awakening, then the Revolution must be considered as much a work of God as the revival itself" (p. 49).
What exactly is a "Christian" Revolutionary War? How much Christian action is required to make a war Christian? Did the American Revolution exemplify Christian belief and conduct? There were plenty examples of contradiction and blatant hypocrisy in the time of the Revolution that should disqualify it from any consideration as a fruit of Christian revival. Three examples should suffice.
First, Baptist minister Isaac Backus challenged the colonists to be consistent in applying their principles of liberty to all men equally -- including slaves. His argument was simple: If American liberty was worth fighting for, why not grant liberty to all Americans (p. 58). The new American government was "continuing to allow slavery at the very time it complained of a 'slavery' from Parliament" (p. 58). While fighting for liberty from Britain, Washington owned 153 slaves. Thomas Jefferson who wrote of "unalienable rights� [of] life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" possessed about 200 slaves (p. 97).
A second inconsistency arose in the preaching of the church. The "patriots invested their cause with the kind of honor that belonged to God alone" (p. 64). Unfortunately, the ministers followed suit. "Allegiance to the Revolution became just as important as the faith itself to some Christian patriots" (p. 91). Loyalty to America and loyalty to Christ became synonymous in the preaching of most ministers, as many preachers equated God's cause with America's cause. While many preachers were accusing the British Empire of being the Antichrist, they were at the same time alienating Christian brothers and sisters who refused to hold to their opinions. "Christian leaders spoke as if it were more important for fellow believers to make the proper choice against Britain than it was to maintain spiritual unity around the gospel" (p. 63).
Third, the Revolution can hardly be considered a fruit of religious awakening in light of its poor statistics concerning church attendance. The "Revolutionary period marks a low point in public spiritual life in the country� marked by declining concern for church, weakness in evangelism, and general spiritual lassitude" (p. 65). Some 80 to 85 percent of Americans were not church members at the time of the Revolution (p. 150).
One final question concerning the Revolutionary War places its spiritual foundation in doubt: Was the Revolution necessary? Was it a "just war"? The reasons behind the Revolution do not fit the qualifications for a just war. It has been a common Christian consensus throughout the centuries that a war, in order to be morally justified, must fit certain criteria. A just war is one that is reluctantly entered into only after exhausting all peaceful means to solve a conflict, fought with a minimum of violence to restore justice or preserve peace (p. 95). None of these qualifications were evident in the Revolutionary war. It was not entered into as a last resort but prematurely out of fear of possible British exploitation. All peaceful means were not employed in coming to a resolution concerning British participation in America. Furthermore, the colonists were not threatened by any real injustice. The colonists "enjoyed more freedom than almost any region in the world in 1776" (p. 96). Although Parliament was committing serious errors in their handling of the American experiment, the patriots were never in a desperate situation (p. 96).
The Revolutionary War was not a fruit of revival, but another in a long series of political battles arising from human sin. American victory was not due to God's particular blessing of America and cannot be used as an argument for the uniqueness or supremacy of America in God's purposes.
The Faith of the Founding Fathers
Christian America advocates usually place a lot of stock in demonstrating that the founding fathers were evangelical Christians. But does this assertion fit the facts?
The founding fathers "were at once genuinely religious but not specifically Christian" (p 72). A few -- John Witherspoon, Patrick Henry, John Jay -- shared evangelical convictions, but the majority did not hold to traditional Christian beliefs. Thomas Jefferson completely rejected the supernatural elements of the Bible, including Christ's deity and resurrection, writing them off as silly superstitions (p. 73). John Adams despised the "awful blasphemy" of the doctrine of the incarnation (p. 75). As educated men, the founding fathers knew the Bible better than most evangelical Christians, but that does not necessarily mean they held to its teachings in an evangelical fashion, or that its truths directed them politically. It is more accurate to say the Bible influenced them.
But the Bible was not their only influence. The Enlightenment and Whig ideas also influenced the founding fathers. Whig ideas appear to have much in common with Biblical truth -- emphasizing the rule of law, the need for civic virtue, and the dangers of unchecked power. But the resemblance is only superficial. For example, Whig law is ultimately grounded in nature, not revelation. Grounding all laws in nature rather than God's revelation would ultimately be the driving force behind secularization. This appeal to nature and not revelation is most apparent in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence grounds its appeal, not on biblical revelation, but on "self-evident" truths or "laws of nature and nature's god" (p. 130). The Constitution "says even less concerning a deity, let alone Christianity or the Bible" (p. 131).
In light of this it is interesting that "the United States was the first Western nation to omit explicitly Christian symbolism, such as the cross, from its flag and other early national symbols" (p. 131). This was not by accident, but was intentional. The founding fathers "purposely chose not to set up a Bible-based republic" (p. 137). No one religion was to receive state support, but all religious expression was to be protected by the rule of the state for the common good. A simple statement from a treaty with the Islamic nation of Tripoli in 1797, "negotiated under Washington, ratified by the Senate, and signed by President John Adams" (p. 131) clearly evidences the founders' intentions. The treaty reads: "[T]he government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion" (p. 131).
It is historically inaccurate and intellectually dishonest to argue for a return to Christian America. "A view of American history which gives it a falsely Christian character is a hindrance� because it distorts the nature of the past" (p. 22). An appeal to Christian foundations as the reason for a return to traditional morals is dishonest and deceptive, misrepresenting the facts in order to make a point. It is historical revisionism at its very worse, for it betrays the intention of the founding fathers.
The goal of our founding fathers was pluralism, not the preferment of one religion over all others. "Certainly they did not design the American government so as to ensure that the nation would be Christian in the sense that today Iran is Moslem or Russia is Marxist" (p. 134). Yet, in the hands of some Christian America advocates, one would think that this close association of religion with politics would be a welcome union.
We must be thankful for the liberties -- both religious and political -- our government provides and pray for and respect those who hold public office. But we must not put our confidence in princes (Psalm 118:9) or in any form of human government. Christianity existed before the creation of American democracy. Its future does not depend upon the continuation of American democracy, or, for that matter, any form of government.
The Bible is full of examples where God worked mightily with great grace in situations of less than full political liberty -- Joseph in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon, Paul in the Roman world, not to speak of Jesus himself. When Revolutionary Christians spoke as if the triumph of America was necessary for the survival of Christianity, they had lost their way (p. 84).
The only true Christian society is the new society created by the Spirit of God consisting of new men and women who are being transformed by King Jesus. This society takes part in the only form of government that is eternal -- a monarchy. The kingdom of God transcends all national boundaries and all cultural particularities. Therefore, it must not be equated with any one nation or culture, lest we baptize political philosophies into the Christian faith (p. 20). If we are part of the church of Christ, our roots go much deeper than America's heritage. They go all the way back to a promise made to Abraham concerning a seed who would be a blessing to the nations, a king in the line of David who would rule eternally on behalf of his saints in a kingdom not of this world.
 Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, The Search for Christian America (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Helmers & Howard Publishers, 1989). All page numbers in parentheses are from this book.
 Jerry Falwell, Listen, America! (New York: Doubleday Publishing, 1980), 50.
 Tim LaHaye, Battle for the Mind (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H Revell Company, 1980), 36.
© Richard J. Vincent, November 20, 2000