Between Two Worldviews: Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

11 Jul

One of the heated debates in our culture is the issue of whether America was founded as a Christian nation.  There are strong advocates on both sides of the issue.  But as I look at the evidence (and I admit I am no scholar on these issues), I believe that both sides overstate their case.  I do not believe that America was founded as a Christian nation.  The evidence in the Constitution itself and the lives of some of the framers of the Constitution would seem to stand against such a conclusion.  On the other hand, the Christian influence on our nation’s founding is undeniable after even a cursory study of the historical documents related to the Founders.  Assertions like, “all our founders were deists” are flippant and baseless.  If one looks at the evidence honestly, I believe the conclusion will be reached that America was founded as a nation where religious freedom was to be upheld, but was also founded by people who were, by and large, deeply marked by Christian truth.
I believe that one reason there is so much confusion about the Founder’s religious views is because the Founders themselves were living between two worlds.  The Founders lived right in the heart of the Enlightenment, and this colors their worldview.  On the other hand, they were also influenced deeply by a Christian worldview that had come down to them through the generations.  They lived in a time where Christianity held sway but was being challenged by Enlightenment views.  In the next century, Enlightenment views would become dominant, and a Christian worldview would become less prominent.  The Founders, as the leading men of their day, probably rode on the front end of the Enlightenment wave.  Therefore, they were likely more influenced by Enlightenment thinking than the average person of the day.  But they were also clearly influenced by a culture that had been deeply shaped by Christianity.
I have a lot more reading and thinking to do on this, but I am going to float up a trial balloon with this article to say that the world in which the Founders lived, the ground on which this nation was founded, was one where the Enlightenment worldview and the Christian worldview were battling head-to-head, resulting in the Founders being conflicted about their own worldviews.  This may be why people from both sides of the Christian nation question can quote the same Founder to support their viewpoint.  Perhaps the Founders were not being dishonest or simply speaking to appease their audience.  Perhaps they were genuinely wrestling through their worldview or perhaps they were unknowingly being influenced by the broader changes in their culture.  The founding documents, in particular the Declaration of Independence, illustrate this battle.
There seems to be an interesting conflict going on in the Declaration, a battle between competing worldviews.  On the one hand, God’s existence is acknowledged, His creative power is asserted.  He is viewed as the giver of rights.  But there is also an affirmation of the value of reason over revelation.  Notice the opening lines to the Declaration . . .

 When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitles them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The key phrase in revealing the competing worldviews of the Founders is the phrase which begins the second paragraph,  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  This sentence acknowledges God as the source of rights but how are these rights seen?  They are “self-evident.”  This means they come to us by means of reason, not revelation.  They are not given to us by God but are arrived at through the use of reason.  This is a classic Enlightenment statement.  God is real and He has given us rights, but we discover them by our own powers of reason.  God is transcendent but not immanent.
The result of this thinking is that since our rights are discovered by reason, they must also be applied by the  standard of reason.  So morality is no longer derived from the Word of God, but from the mind of man.  So it is that in the course of our nation’s history we have often refused these inalienable rights to some Americans because we have arrived at our definition of rights through reason rather than God’s revelation.  These same Founders, in framing the Constitution, denied full personhood to slaves.  This is why women would long be denied the right to vote.  This is why in the last 35+ years millions of babies have been denied the inalienable right to life.  We have exalted often errant human reason over divine revelation and have reaped a whirlwind of sorrow for our efforts.
But we see in the Founders a longing for a personal God as well.  The last sentence of the Declaration illustrates this:

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

It is true that a more general term for God is used (“Divine Providence”) but it is also true that the words firm reliance imply something more than Deism.  This is the mark of Christian culture and perhaps for many of the Founding Fathers, a personal faith.
The argument over our Founder’s faith will probably not be resolved any time soon but I believe the ideas laid out above provide a plausible explanation for what we see in our founding documents and in the lives of the Founders.  In addition, these thoughts provide a good warning to all who hold to a Christian worldview how easy it is to be influenced by the worldviews working through our culture at any given time.

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