Christian Nation? Says who?
November 26, 2008 7:48 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone point to a good resource that explains the reasoning behind "USA is a Christian Nation"? Recently my partner was told by some of his co-workers that all of the Founding Fathers were fundamentalist Christians, and the idea that Jefferson, Franklin, or others were deists or agnostics is a liberal media conspiracy. Any help on the source for Founders as Fundamentalists assertion?
posted by hworth to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Edwin Gaustad's book Faith of the Founders should be helpful, but I'm sure there are others. There are also articles and sources available on the Mt. Vernon website, and probably over at Monticello, too.
posted by arco at 8:08 AM on November 26, 2008

I've not heard the fundamentalist thing, that's easily disproved. Wall Builders is perhaps the best source of "the reasoning behind 'USA is a Christian Nation'", though they are more logical than to make blanket assertions about personal beliefs. Much of the primary sources they provide will, however, surprise those who maintain that the 'founding fathers' were somehow agnostic humanists.
posted by dawson at 8:09 AM on November 26, 2008

Franklin, or others were deists or agnostics is a liberal media conspiracy.

What proof can you give him that he wont dismiss as a liberal conspiracy? That's your core problem. Once someone embraces a conspiracy then all evidence can be dismissed as part of the conspiracy? A good history good? Liberal bias. A good wikipedia entry? Liberal bias. A Franklin biography? Liberal bias. etc.

People who believe in conspiracies do so because they want to, not because the evidence suggests it is true. A conspiracy theorist comes from a place of emotion, not logic.

If he ever gets over his conspiratorial thinking (and he may never) then he should read this book.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:10 AM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't have any resources beyond personal experience, but the reasoning I have heard is that some people believe America is the 'new Israel', God's chosen nation since Israel rejected Christ. We're the shining light, the hope of the world, bringing capitalism and democratic republics to the less fortunate nations, and God loves us and blesses us because of it. But God is going to be really mad if we keep allowing all of this gay marriage and abortion to happen, so we need to fight against that stuff to avoid falling out of God's favor.

The Bible verse they will often cite is 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land." This of course completely ignores the context of the verse, in which God is talking specifically to the nation of Israel at a specific time in their history, but as long as it sounds good and is quotable, they use it.

Because of this belief, people go back and try to support their viewpoint with founding-father-this and constitution-that (backwards reasoning).

FWIW, I am a serious Christian who does not under any circumstances believe that America is a Christian nation. This belief is a dangerous and misguided one. You weren't implying that this is 'what Christians believe' but I just wanted to throw it out there anyway... I believe that God works on an individual level, post-Jesus, and doesn't "love" America any more than Russia or Australia or Indonesia. I do think the nation of Israel is still God's chosen and that he will bring them back at some point in the future, due to promises he made to them in the past - but aside from Israel I don't think God works on a national level.
posted by relucent at 8:15 AM on November 26, 2008

It's an old idea . This New Yorker article references Tim LaHaye's 1987 book, “Faith of Our Founding Fathers,” as a source of some of the conspiracy mythology.
posted by longdaysjourney at 8:21 AM on November 26, 2008

I think many people confuse the fact that the founding fathers were basically christian with the idea that therefore they wanted to found a christian nation. They were more concerned about freedom and representative government than they were concerned about breaking off from an already Christianity-based government (Britain).

There are many great men and women in history that have done many great things, but that does not necessarily mean they did it for the advancement of their religion. It's a non sequitur.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:29 AM on November 26, 2008

How about the Autobiography of Ben Franklin? He talks about his religious beliefs and he wrote it himself (thus the auto part) so it seems pretty hard to refute.

you might also point out that the Founding Fathers were all dead 100 years before the publication of The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth the semnal document of Fundamentalism.

You might also look at this: and yeah, Episcopalian is the one with the gay bishop. In those days Methodists, Unitarians and Congregationalists were just brands of Anglicanism and had not split off yet.

Deism is not a sect or denomination on its own by the way. You can be a deist and a Unitarian, a deist and an Episcopalian, a deist and none of the above (like Jefferson in the end).
posted by Pollomacho at 8:41 AM on November 26, 2008

2nding the Wall Builders link above. I attended a regular church service with my sister a couple of years back at a Riverside county megachurch and they happened to have a speaker from Wall Builders for like 80% of the service that day.

Presentation was full of half-truths and selective presentation to make the case. Wish I took notes.
posted by troy at 8:50 AM on November 26, 2008

I've not heard the fundamentalist thing, that's easily disproved

Not really since Fundamentalism is all about getting back to the moral and philosophical simplicity that obtained prior to the late 19th century.
posted by troy at 8:54 AM on November 26, 2008

George Washington didn't even attend church for the most part. I cant remember where I read that, but I know I am remembering it correctly.
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:57 AM on November 26, 2008

Thomas Jefferson, discussing the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:
The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason & right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that it’s protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.
via mahablog.
posted by zamboni at 8:57 AM on November 26, 2008

The burden of proof is greater than just showing the founding founders were outwardly Christian. Almost all current, high-ranking US politicians are outwardly Christian. A US politician would be committing career-suicide to claim to be anything but Christian. If you want to show that the US was founded as a Christian nation, you must show that the founding fathers were Christians both outwardly and in private.
posted by malp at 8:59 AM on November 26, 2008

D. James Kennedy is essential reading if you want to get inside their heads.
posted by EarBucket at 9:06 AM on November 26, 2008

Best answer: Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11: "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion..."

This was ratified unanimously - as in, it was read aloud on the floor of Congress in its entirety, no senator voted against it, and there is no record of dissent about the wording of that particular Article (or anything else in the document, actually). In addition, there is no record of public protest when Adams proclaimed the treaty.
posted by casarkos at 9:27 AM on November 26, 2008 [16 favorites]

I think many people confuse the fact that the founding fathers were basically christian with the idea that therefore they wanted to found a christian nation.

That's much too weakly stated. Protestant Christian denominations were (and some still are) strong backers of the separation of church and state. Duh -- if you have strong religious beliefs you want separation of church and state so that you can practice them without interference. The idea of a "Christian nation" is precisely opposed to the thinking of the founders. In particular, the religious persecution that was fresh in their minds was between Christian denominations, so the idea that they would think of a "Christian nation" as any kind of sensible idea is ridiculous.
posted by madmethods at 9:54 AM on November 26, 2008

The actual reasoning behind this assertion probably goes something like this:

Because we really worship American traditionalism, of which a public and effusive putative Christianity is a part, we do not distinguish very well between Jesus and Uncle Sam. But because traditionalism counts the framers among its saints, it must the case that the framers had the virtues that American traditionalism hold high. These virtues include, again, a public and effusive Christianity.

Or rather, if they were not Christian, then they couldn't be saints to American traditionalists. But they are saints, therefore they must be Christian.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:04 AM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

One could also perhaps point to the "Jefferson Bible," wherein Thomas Jefferson personally edited down the New Testament stories of Jesus to remove any "miraculous" mumbo-jumbo and try get down as close as he could to what a real, historical teacher named Jesus may have said.

At the very least, this shows Jefferson was no "fundamentalist" in our modern sense of those who believe the Bible is the "unerring word of god."
posted by dnash at 10:07 AM on November 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

And I'd agree that this isn't something you tend to find among real hardcore fundamentalists, but more among that larger group of weaker pseudo-fundies who don't think about it very much but like going to church. It's not a feature of strong belief, it's a feature of weak belief married to strong conservatism.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:08 AM on November 26, 2008

Some support for the non-Christianist position is nicely summarized in Our Godless Constitution, by Brooke Allen ("Our nation was founded not on Christian principles but on Enlightenment ones. God only entered the picture as a very minor player, and Jesus Christ was conspicuously absent."). Of course I realize that you've asked for reasoning supporting "USA is a Christian Nation"; sorry I can't help there.
posted by Dave 9 at 10:11 AM on November 26, 2008

The Myth of a Christian Nation, by Gregory Boyd, has been on my reading pile for a while now. I haven't read it, but several people whose opinions I trust deeply have recommended it to me. It sounds very much like what you're looking for.
posted by shiu mai baby at 10:25 AM on November 26, 2008

Clarification: that book was written primarily for people who self-identify as Christians, but who are disgusted by the blatant power-grab of the Evangelical Right that we've seen over the last few decades. Still, it's my understanding that Boyd gets into detail about the concept of the "Christian Nation," and why it's kind of wrong.
posted by shiu mai baby at 10:28 AM on November 26, 2008

Protestant Christian denominations were (and some still are) strong backers of the separation of church and state.

This isn't entirely true. New England, up until the 1830s, struggled repeatedly with the idea of Church and State. Most states there supported Congregationalism and it was through the efforts of various other groups (Baptists were one) that helped further the separation of Church and State during the era of the early United States. You're right in the idea that people didn't want interference from government but most didn't mind interference as long as it was from the right side.

The idea that the founding fathers were Christian fundamentalists is bullheaded because it takes a late 19th/20th century idea and starts to apply it backwards to historical figures. Thomas Jefferson wrote a Bible where he removed miracles and parts he didn't believe were historically accurate (the idea of historical biblical criticism being relatively new at this point in history). Ben Franklin had his qualms with Christian doctrine, etc. The idea behind the US being a "Christian Nation" is actually old - In God We Trust being on our money, the addition of God to the pledge of allegiance, etc are all events that happened through the US history to push one type of Christianity at the expense of others. It's lately become a hallmark of certain fundamentalist circles - and the earlier mentioned book Faith of our Founding Fathers helped promote an idea that was probably already coming into its own among religious circles during what I would label as the late 20th century "Great Awakening". It has less to do with Christianity and much more to do with a general romantization of the past as a way to turn away from the world and self-elect ones group to some sort of messianic status.
posted by Stynxno at 10:44 AM on November 26, 2008

Read as much Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Washington as you can bear is the answer
posted by A189Nut at 11:22 AM on November 26, 2008

Read as much Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Washington as you can bear is the answer

Bingo. Even a cursory scan of the founding father's personal writings will give even the very dense reader the very clear picture that our founding fathers were incredibly radical fundamentalists.

Its just that their radical fundamentals were about independence, not religion.

Religion was important to them too, but they saw it as a more personal matter, and the more pressing issue for them was creating an environment / nation where all those things could flourish, free of threats foreign or domestic.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:24 PM on November 26, 2008

@shiu mai baby:

I LOVE Greg Boyd's ideas on Christianity and politics - he singlehandedly changed my entire perception of how my faith affects the rest of my life. I couldn't get through the first few chapters of the book though - too dry and academic.

I would, however, wholeheartedly recommend the 2004 sermon series on which the book was based. The 6-sermon series can be downloaded from this site for free. He preaches with such passion and intensity that it makes you care a lot more about what he's saying! I listened to the whole series during a 14-hour drive, many of them back-to-back, and never once got bored - and sermons usually don't hold my attention for very long!
posted by relucent at 12:46 PM on November 26, 2008

Great links upthread, and Faith of the Founders is on my reading list. As to why people think the US is a Christian nation, a reason I've heard from recent immigrants is, says right on your money, "In God We Trust" and unfortunately I have no quick rejoinder to that.
posted by Rash at 2:54 PM on November 26, 2008

2nding the Jefferson Bible.

However, there's really no way to convince conspiracy theorists that they're wrong. They will change their story left and right to wriggle out of giving up an inch in an argument. I live in the land of Alex Jones and his many of his followers. I've found that trying to get anyone convinced of a conspiracy to make concessions in the face of hard evidence is like trying to catch a greased pig.
posted by fructose at 6:00 PM on November 26, 2008

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