TBT: The Influence of Christianity on America’s Founding

My high school American history classes are getting into the American Civil War—or the War of Northern Aggression, or the War for Southern Independence, or whatever you’d like to call it—this week, so we’ve been talking about beginnings a good bit.  The Civil War had deep roots that go back not just to the 1840s or 1850s, and not even to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Indeed, the fundamental division dates back to the English Civil War in the 1648, when the Puritan Roundheads under Oliver Cromwell ousted and beheaded Charles I, and established the English Republic (which—the English having little taste for radicalism or dictatorships, fortunately collapses in 1660 with the restoration of the Stuart monarchs).  Loyalists to the king and the monarchical order were the aristocratic Cavaliers.  Those same Puritans of East Anglia settled heavily in Massachusetts following the Pilgrims’ famous landing at Plymouth Rock, and the Cavaliers—in body and spirit—dominated the tidewater plantations of the South.

That same puritanical spirit of forcing everyone to believe what you believe—or else—permeates Yankee culture, and is likely the source of the famous “Protestant work ethic” in the United States.  But the spirit of the old Cavaliers lives on—barely—in the South, where a sense of noblesse oblige and easy-going tolerance of imperfections are present.  Richard Weaver claimed somewhere (maybe in Ideas Have Consequencesthat the South, while deeply Protestant, is essentially the inheritor of the old medieval Catholic conception of the world:  there is a cosmos, and we each have our place in it, and everything relates to one another in a grandly poetic way because God is Reality.

That’s a very long way of introducing this week’s TBT feature.  This post was originally delivered on 10 December 2018 as a talk to the Darlington County and the Florence County Republican Parties (South Carolina) at their joint Christmas party.  This “Historical Moment” was a very cursory overview of a complicated topic, but I had to address it in about eight minutes to a room full of people who just wanted to eat barbecue and have a good time, not hear a minutiae-laden history lecture.  The talk derives primarily from Dr. Mark David Hall’s Heritage Foundation lecture “Did America Have a Christian Founding?” (PDF) I highly encourage readers to investigate that source, as it addresses the issue more completely.

I’ve been asked to speak briefly tonight about the influence of Christianity on America’s Founding.  Given the Christmas season, and the continuing culture war that attempts to revise Christianity’s impact out of our history and the public sphere, this topic is particularly germane.

For tonight’s remarks, I’ve drawn heavily—and almost exclusively—from a Heritage Foundation lecture delivered in May 2011 entitled “Did America Have a Christian Founding?” (PDF)  The lecturer, Dr. Mark David Hall, focuses on a few major points to argue that, while it’s a bit complicated, the influence of Christianity on the Founding generation and the Framers of the Constitution was intense and profound.

The notion of a “wall of separation between Church and State” comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a congregation of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut.  It was the only time Jefferson used the phrase in writing, though Supreme Court justices beginning in the 1940s began to latch onto the idea as if it represented the entirety of late-18th-century opinion on the matter.  In fact, almost all of the Framers of the Constitution believed that government should encourage Christianity wherever possible.  They simply believed that such support for churches should occur at the local and State levels, not the federal.

This belief explains the relative silence of the Constitution on the matter of religion:  when the Framers drafted the document, they intended it to create a very limited federal government, one that would largely stay out of issues that the States were more equipped to handle.  When it came to established churches at the State level, the assumption was not that they were a de facto good; rather, the argument for or against establishment boiled down to “what is best to support Christianity generally?”  Some States, particularly in New England, had established churches—thus the chafing of the Danbury Baptists—but other States simply required individuals to pay a tax to support their individual denomination.

Now, to be clear:  I’m not advocating we return to the establishment of official denominations at the State level—the government can barely issue driver’s licenses effectively, and I sure don’t want them sniffing around the church collection plate—but the point here is that the Framers viewed State and local establishment as a profoundly in line with both the Constitution and the desire to preserve Christian principles.  Even Jefferson, the famous Deist among the Founders, hosted the Reverend John Leland, and had the reverend open a session of Congress with prayer.  Jefferson refused to declare days of thanksgiving and fasting—a custom established under Washington and continued after Jefferson left office—but he did so on purely constitutional grounds:  he didn’t think he had the authority.  Even then, he still observed days that, in all but name, had the same intent.

I’ve focused tonight largely on Christianity’s influence during and after debate and ratification of the Constitution.  I’ll close with a brief examination of the American Revolution.  As Christians will know, Romans 13 requires us to submit to higher authorities.  But theologians from John Calvin forward began arguing that, in some cases, a Christian might be allowed to resist an ungodly ruler, and some theologians began to argue affirmatively that they a Christian would be required to resist such a ruler.

The influence of Calvinism was so widespread by the beginning of the Revolution that King George III allegedly called it “a Presbyterian Rebellion.”  More notably, the Declaration of Independence clearly invokes “nature’s God.”  While some scholars have contended that such phrases as “Supreme Judge” and “Providence” are spiritual-sounding weasel-words used to refer to a theoretical or philosophical concept of “God,” Americans at the time would have understood them as references to the Christian God, the Holy Trinity.

There are, of course, endless vignettes from the Revolution that suggest God’s Hand in the proceedings—the unlikely fog that allowed Washington and his men to escape Manhattan Island, for example—but, from the historical record, it seems abundantly clear that, while the Founding generation was tolerant of other faiths, it was comprised of an overwhelmingly Christian people.  Our government was built on the assumption that thus we would remain.  As Washington noted in his Farewell Address, “religion and morality” were the “indispensable supports” of our constitutional system.

2 thoughts on “TBT: The Influence of Christianity on America’s Founding

  1. You can take that back lot further than Calvin, at least to St Augustine who commented that “An unjust law is no law at all”, or at least close from memory. That was the basis of MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. There is no religious compulsion to obey unjust laws, but you must be prepared to pay the secular price.

    As to the wars, Kevin Phillips in “The Cousins Wars” does an outstanding job of tying the English Civil War, The Revolution, and our Civil War together as one series of wars. They really are a series of campaigns in one war, often even the names are the same.

    Liked by 1 person

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