July 23, 2010

Was America Intended to be a Christian Nation? (2)

"America is the only nation in the world founded on a creed."
~G.K. Chesterton

As the title makes clear, I am continuing the discussion on the nature of America's founding. To ask whether America was intended to be a Christian nation is a different question than whether modern America is a Christian nation. I will only be addressing the former question here. In doing so, I will consider typical arguments put forth by present-day opponents who assert that America's founders and framers of the Constitution intended to create a secular government. We will see that their arguments lack historical credibility.

While the U.S. Constitution did not establish a secular federal government, neither did it establish the federal government as a particular Christian denominational government. Religion was a matter left to the sovereign states to decide individually. Furthermore, the constitution was to never be interpreted apart from the Declaration of Independence. A correct understanding of the fundamental principles enunciated in the Declaration is necessary for a correct understanding of the newly established federal government under the U.S. Constitution. The key point here is that it would be a crass mischaracterization of the Declaration to claim it is secular in content:
"Is it not that, in the chain of human events, the birth-day of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birth-day of the Saviour. That it forms a leading event in the progress of the gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact upon the foundation of the Redeemer's mission upon earth? That it laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity..." ~John Quincy Adams: An oration delivered before the inhabitants of the town of Newburyport, at their request: on the sixty-first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1837.
An astute Englishman, G.K. Chesterton, once noted that "The American Constitution does resemble the Spanish Inquisition in this: that it is founded on a creed. America is the only nation in the world founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that their governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason." We will see the historical records bear out Chesterton's observation that America was founded on a creed.

In addition, Chesterton said, "The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man." (What I Saw in America)

A few years ago, Republican John McCain stated, "the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation." McCain's statement rattled the cages of the usual suspects, including Alan Dershowitwz, who called McCain an "ignoramus". Now, my intent here is not to discuss whether McCain is an ignoramus, but to show that he was mostly right about America's founding, even if he was not right about certain other matters.

Dershowitz continues his rant: "McCain should go back to school and take Civics 1, where he might learn that the United States Constitution was called "the godless constitution," by its opponents, because it was the first constitution in history not to include references to God or some dominant religion." This is an unusual statement for anyone to make.

I am unaware of any Civics 1 class that teaches the constitution as Dershowitz claims, unless it happens to be a class taught by Dershowitz himself, or one of his ilk. More to the point, Dershowitz fails to offer references to his alleged opponents of the constitution. The primary opponents of the proposed constitution were the Anti-Federalists, and a godless constitution was not one of the subjects argued by the Anti-Federalists.

In addition, the Federalists were the salesmen for the constitution and would have argued the issue in the Federalist Papers, if it were a genuine issue.

Dershowitz does note the obvious: First, that "The Constitution mentions religion only once, in prohibiting any religious test for holding office under the United States". And second, the "Bill of Rights mentions religion twice, once in prohibiting an establishment of religion...and a second time, in guaranteeing the free exercise of all religions." However, Dershowitz does omit one reference -- the signatories authorized a document dated according to the Christian calendar: "...the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven..." More about this later.

Also, in its historical context, "religion" for the early Americans often meant Christianity. Thus, it is a misguided and uninformed criticism that says the constitution does not include references "to a dominant religion". The intent of the First Amendment is to preclude the federal government from preferring or establishing a particular Christian denomination. As Justice Joseph Story explained, "The real object of the (First) Amendment was not to countenance, much less advance, Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects."

As the matter stands thus far, Dershowitz has no case.

Another argument typically espoused by those opposed to America’s founding as a Christian nation involves reference to the U.S. treaty with the Barbary regime of Tripoli. Surprisingly, Dershowitz takes up this flimsy argument, perhaps out of desperation. He says, "Several years after the ratification, the Senate ratified a treaty with the Barbary regime of Tripoli which expressly proclaimed that "the Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.""

I will continue with a discussion of the treaty with the Barbary regime in my next post, part 3 of "Was America Intended to be a Christian Nation?" Also, we will look at several statements from the founding fathers, statements frequently quoted by present-day opponents of a Christian nation.

July 13, 2010

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (1)

"Is it not that, in the chain of human events, the birth-day of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birth-day of the Saviour. That it forms a leading event in the progress of the gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact upon the foundation of the Redeemer's mission upon earth? That it laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity..."
~John Quincy Adams: An oration delivered before the inhabitants of the town of Newburyport, at their request: on the sixty-first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1837.

The Fourth of July, Independence Day, is the annual celebration of our nationhood. We commemorate the passage of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Unfortunately, an appallingly high number of Americans who regularly celebrate Independence Day know next to nothing about the Continental Congress or the Declaration of Independence. When a nation loses a sense of its own history, unreliable historians easily persuade other to believe in whatever historical misrepresentation seems plausible. 

For example, on 4th of July weekend McClatchy Newspapers published a blatantly false opinion piece about America’s founding and the Founding Fathers. Marshall Poe, an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa, wrote the article in question, The search for historical truth. Poe’s article is a studied misrepresentation of the historical fact that Christian principles provided the foundation for America’s creation.

On the question of whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation, Poe says, “the Founding Fathers said nothing on the issue, because the issue is ours and not theirs”. Poe continues to make another incredible statement: “Asking Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the rest whether the United States was "founded as a Christian nation" would be like asking them what they think of the iPad: They wouldn't know what you were talking about.”

On the contrary, a person can hardly read the writings of the colonists, framers of the Constitution, the Constitutional Debates, political sermons of the day, state constitutions and histories, and so on, without clearly realizing America was founded as a Christian nation.

Poe's contra-factual claims are likewise made by people with strong anti-Christian biases, and who are sorely deficient in their understanding of American history. Yet, when a professed historian makes these kinds of historically unjustified remarks, one must suspect that an ideologically caused blindness, or mischievousness and intellectual dishonesty is fast at work.

Sadly, modern America has descended to being largely a non-Christian culture. Our secularized nation would horrify America’s founders. Yet popular media sources such as McClatchy Newspapers, and questionable historians like Marshall Poe, promote and support the secularization of America. 

The 20th century Supreme Court doctrine of “separation of church and state” is a modern myth, one that misconstrues the intention of the First Amendment. The First Amendment says nothing about separation of church and state. If one were to contend that "separation" is implied by the Amendment, the only answer can be that "separation" entails the federal government cannot encroach upon religion.

Jefferson’s reference to a “wall of separation”, frequently cited in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, was a one-way wall that restricted the federal government from intruding on religion. Political leaders expected religion, that is, Christianity to influence public policy. However, during the 20th century the U.S. Supreme Court inverted the meaning of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists in order to provide a facade of support for its secularist doctrinal innovation.

Early Americans often used the word “religion” to mean specifically Christianity. Thus, the First Amendment restricted the federal government from favoring any particular Christian “denomination”, while leaving the states free to do so. States debated the issue and chose either to discontinue or not to encact state sponsorship of a particular denomination. The intention of the First Amendment was correctly explained by Justice Joseph Story: “The real object of the (First) Amendment was not to countenance, much less advance, Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects (denominations).”

Texts from early American sources supporting the fact America’s founding was as a Christian nation are myriad. I will provide here several quotes, which are representative in nature of the importance that belief in Christianity and the Bible had with America's founders and political leaders:

* "The general Principles, on which the Fathers Atchieved Independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite, and these Principles only could be intended by them in their Address, or by me in my Answer. And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were united: And the general Principles of English and American Liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which had United all Parties in America, in Majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence."
~John Adams: Letter to Jefferson, June 18, 1813. John Adams, Signer of the Declaration, Second U.S. President.

* "The Holy Ghost carries on the whole Christian system in this Earth. Not a baptism, not a marriage, not a Sacrament can be administered but by the Holy Ghost, who is transmitted from age to age by laying the hands of the Bishop on the heads of candidates for the Ministry. In the same manner as the Holy Ghost is transmitted from monarch to monarch by the holy oil in the vial at Rheims which was brought down from Heaven by a dove and by that other phial [vial] which I have seen in the Tower of London. There is no authority civil or religious: There can be no legitimate government but what is administered by this Holy Ghost. There can be no salvation without it. All without it is rebellion and perdition, or in more orthodox words damnation." ~John Adams: Excerpt from letter to Benjamin Rush, December 21, 1809.

* "In as much as the Business likely to engage the attention and deliberation of the present Congress is of the utmost consequence to the good People of this Colony; for the successfull determination whereof, we can only depend on the all powerfull Influence of the Spirit of God, whose divine aid and assistance it becomes us as a Christian People most devoutly to implore. Therefore I move, that some Minister of the Gospel be requested to attend this Congress every morning at o'clock during the Sessions in order to open the Meeting with Prayer humbly supplicating Almighty God to preside over and direct our Councills for the Accomplishment of Peace Unanimity and Harmony between Great Britain and these distressed Colonies, and to grant that success to our publick affairs that will advance the great designs of his Providence."
~Elias Boudinot; President of Congress, Framer of the Bill of Rights; Address to Provincial Congress, (V.I, p.21)

* In response to a request for the reference to religion be removed from government, the House Judiciary Committee Report March 3, 1854 said:
"Had the people, during the Revolution, had any suspicion of any attempt to war against Christianity, the Revolution would have been strangled in the cradle. At the time of the adoption of the Constitution and the Amendments, the universal sentiment was that Christianity should be encouraged, not any one sect. In this age there can be no substitute for Christianity. That was the religion of the founders of the republic, and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendants. The great vital and conservative element in our system is the doctrines and divine truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ." ~Congress, 1854.

* "Kings or parliaments could not give the rights essential to happiness, as you confess those invaded by the Stamp Act to be. We claim them from a higher source---from the King of kings, and Lord of the earth. They are not annexed to us by parchments and seals. They are created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature. They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power, without taking our lives."
~John Dickinson; The political writings of John Dickinson, esquire: late president of the state of Delaware, and of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Signer of the Constitution, Governor, Revolutionary War General.

* "You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble."
~Benjamin Franklin: Excerpt from Letter to Ezra Stiles, March 9, 1790; Ben Franklin, Signer of the Declaration and Constitution, Governor, and more.

* "Sensible of the importance of Christian piety and virtue to the order and happiness of a state, I cannot but earnestly commend to you every measure for their support and encouragement."
~John Hancock; Signer of the Declaration, President of Congress, Governor, General.

* "And, whilst I see the dangers that threaten ours from her intrigues and her arms, I am not so much alarmed as at the apprehension of her destroying the great pillars of all government and of social life, -- I mean virtue, morality, and religion. This is the armor, my friend, and this alone, that renders us invincible. These are the tactics we should study. If we lose these, we are conquered, fallen indeed."
~ Patrick Henry: Excerpt from letter to Archibald Blair, January 8, 1799.

* "It becomes a people publicly to acknowledge the over-ruling hand of Divine Providence and their dependence upon the Supreme Being as their Creator and Merciful Preserver . . . and with becoming humility and sincere repentance to supplicate the pardon that we may obtain forgiveness through the merits and mediation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
~Samuel Huntington, Signer of the Declaration, President of Congress, Governor.

* "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."
~John Jay: Letter to Jedidiah Morse, February 28, 1797.

* "I recommend a general and public return of praise and thanksgiving to Him from whose goodness these blessings descend. The most effectual means of securing the continuance of our civil and religious liberties is always to remember with reverence and gratitude the source from which they flow."
~John Jay; Author of the Federalist Papers, President of Congress, Chief Justice, Governor.

* "The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man." ~Thomas Jefferson; Signer of the Declaration, Governor, Secretary of State, Third U.S. President.

* "The practice of morality being necessary for the well being of society, He [God] has taken care to impress its precepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain. We all agree in the obligation of the moral principles of Jesus and nowhere will they be found delivered in greater purity than in His discourses." ~Thomas Jefferson.

* "I am a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ." ~Thomas Jefferson. (Note: While Jefferson held that the moral principles in the Bible were the noblest we have, he did not believe that Christ was Divine).

* "I am a Christian in the only sense in which He wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to His doctrines in preference to all others." ~Thomas Jefferson.

* "Neither let it be overlooked, that public utility pleads most forcibly for the general distribution of the Holy Scriptures. The doctrine they preach, the obligations they impose, the punishment they threaten, the rewards they promise, the stamp and image of divinity they bear, which produces a conviction of their truths, can alone secure to society, order and peace, and to our courts of justice and constitutions of government, purity, stability and usefulness.”
~James McHenry: 1813 quote as president of the first Bible Society in Baltimore. Signer of the Constitution, Secretary of War.

* "The Bible, when not read in schools, is seldom read in any subsequent period of life… [T]he Bible… should be read in our schools in preference to all other books because it contains the greatest portion of that kind of knowledge which is calculated to produce private and public happiness."
~Benjamin Rush; Signer of the Declaration, Surgeon General of the Continental Army.

* "In contemplating the political institutions of the United States, I lament, that we waste so much time and money in punishing crimes, and take so little pains to prevent them. We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican form of government, that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity, by means of the Bible; for this divine book, above all others, favours that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and all those sober and frugal virtues, which constitute the soul of republicanism." ~Benjamin Rush: On Education.

* "I do not believe that the Constitution was the offspring of inspiration, but I am as satisfied that it is as much the work of a Divine Providence as any of the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testament." ~Benjamin Rush.

* "While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest Glory to laud the more distinguished Character of Christian. The signal instances of Providential goodness which we have experienced and which have now almost crowned our labors with complete success demand from us a peculiar manner the warmest returns of gratitude and piety to the Supreme Author of all good."
~George Washington; while General of the Continental Army issued Orders on May 2, 1778 to his troops at Valley Forge.

* "[T]he Christian religion – its general principles – must ever be regarded among us as the foundation of civil society."
~Daniel Webster; U.S. Senator, Secretary of State.

* "[T]he religion which has introduced civil liberty is the religion of Christ and His apostles… This is genuine Christianity and to this we owe our free constitutions of government." ~Noah Webster; Judge, Legislator, Educator.

* "The moral principles and precepts found in the Scriptures ought to form the basis of all our civil constitutions and laws."
~Noah Webster.

This list of quotations from early America could be continued to great length. I will suggest though, David Barton's website, which offers a more extensive list with references as well: WallBuilders. (Note: I believe, though, a few quotes cited on Barton's website are words commonly yet mistakenly attributed to the individuals in question. Nonetheless, these few quotes are consistent with the historical individuals' views on politics and religion.) 

The individual, sovereign states created a new federal government, and one would be hard pressed, knowing the role religion played in each of the states, to show that the states would have ratified a federal constitution which created a secular government.

So, one of the points to be discussed in my next post is in what sense America was intended to be a Christian nation. In addition, I highly recommend David Barton's book Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion. Original Intent is a well-documented resource and a delight to read.

"An essential resource for anyone interested in our nation's religious heritage and the Founders' intended role for the American judicial system. Original Intent combines hundreds of quotes from primary sources with the author's exposition on hot topics such as revisionism, judicial activism, and separation of church and state. A substantial appendix encompasses full texts of the founding documents, biographical sketches of numerous Founders, and extensive reference notes."

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