The Christian Nation Controversy
As noted in my original post, I’ve researched/blogged extensively on the Christian Nation controversy over the past six years. I’ve made a number of valued connections with various scholars and writers on the matter, very notably Ed Brayton.
Also as noted, I’ll try to publish here on the Christian Nation controversy as it relates to current events. But I figure I should do an introductory post on the controversy letting you know what I’m all about.
The funny thing about being a libertarian is we don’t really have a dog in this fight (provided the heritage isn’t used to contradict libertarianism). Some libertarians are quite secular minded, others quite “Christian heritage” minded.
I try to strike a modest balance; though admittedly I’m more critical of the “Christian America” types. But ultimately I want the facts; and I want clarity.
With that, whether America was founded to be a “Christian Nation” depends on what those terms mean. Indeed, the definition of “Christianity” needs clarification.
A variety of different “expert” epistemological perspectives — the historical, the political, the theological, the personal, and others — have addressed the “Christian Nation” controversy.
And whether something is actually “Christian” may depend on which definitional perspective one uses. Here are a few (there are others):
1. Identificatory: You are what you call yourself; anything that calls itself “Christian” is “Christian.” Mormons, President Obama, Bishop John Shelby Spong, the Pope and Pat Robertson are all “Christians,” accordingly.
2. Ethno-Heritage: This may be looser than identificatory; the atheist Richard Dawkins is certainly a product of “Christendom.” I don’t identify as a “Christian” but was baptized Roman Catholic, hence may be a “Christian” under some definitions.
Think of the old joke, an Irishman is accosted by the IRA and asked “Are you a Protestant or Catholic?” The man nervously answers, “I’m an atheist; I’m an atheist.” To which the IRA responds, “Are you a Catholic or a Protestant atheist?”
1 & 2 are “loose” understandings of the term “Christian” and, accordingly, I think it pretty obvious that America was founded to be a “Christian nation” and still is. I don’t think anyone argues Muslim mosques not Christian churches abounded in early America.
But there are other, stricter understandings of the term “Christian.” And the controversy, as I see it, is those who proudly trumpet “America was founded as a ‘Christian Nation'” mean something far more meaningful and stricter than 1 or 2.
Which brings us to the strictest understanding:
3. The theological. Indeed the personal theological. As in the Roman Catholic Church is the one_true_Christian_church; all others are heretics. Or only “born again Christians” are “real Christians.” Or only Calvinists who believe in TULIP are true born again, elect, “Christians.”
This perspective, properly understood, tends NOT to support “Christian Nationalism.” Indeed, the evangelical Roger Williams (founder of Rhode Island) believed the inevitable existence of large numbers of “unregenerate” in any given population meant no “Nation” could call itself “Christian” even if “real Christians” were in it.
4. The historical. How “Christianity” defined itself throughout its history. Here we cannot claim TULIP or Roman Catholicism as the one_true_way. When trying to do “history” not “theology” it would be absurd for an evangelical, for instance, to claim Roman Catholicism as not “real Christianity.”
Consensus v. heresy presents a challenge. Christianity “officially” defined itself according to a biblical canon and official creeds (i.e., Nicene Trinitarianism) interpreting thereof. Yet, all sorts of heresies have abounded in Christendom since then. If we include the heresies as part of “historical Christianity” then America’s Founding seems more authentically “Christian.”
The heresies present problems for the “Christian America” reading in that so many notable Founders and those who influenced them believed in, for instance Arianism, Socinianism, Universalism, and otherwise rejected the infallibility of the biblical canon.
And Christian Americanist types tend to follow CS Lewis’ theory on “mere Christianity,” that defines “historic Christianity” according to its orthodox Trinitarian minimums. (That is, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, capital O Orthodox and reformed or evangelical Protestants disagree on a number of things; but they agree on THOSE minimums.) To them, to disbelieve in the Trinity (as so many Founders did) is to be anti-Christian and anti-biblical. This is more the top down consensus view that defines Christianity.
Yet, CS Lewis didn’t invent this notion that “if you don’t believe in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, you are no ‘Christian’ regardless of what you call yourself.” I’ve seen folks from the Founding era literature — mainly expert theologians — make this very claim. Indeed, the largest churches in the late 18th Century defined “Christianity” this way.
According to these standards, J. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin clearly were not Christians, and it’s likely that neither were Washington, Madison, G. Morris, Hamilton (until the end of his life) and many others. They weren’t “Deists” either (Paine, Palmer, and Allen were).
An overwhelming majority of Founding Fathers were affiliated with orthodox churches for, at the very least, “social network” reasons. Determining whether a late 18th Century Episcopalian, for instance, really did believe in “mere Christianity” as Patrick Henry did, but Thomas Jefferson did not (both Episcopalians) requires scratching beneath the surface. Indeed, digging deep. And with many lesser names, we just don’t know.
Yet having the first four, arguably the first five or six American Presidents as not “mere Christians,” does not do well for a “Christian America” reading of history.
Likewise many of the philosophers and divines who influenced the American Founding flunk this historical standard of “mere Christianity.” They include the Revs. Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy, Samuel Cooper, and Samuel West (Americans). And the Revs. Joseph Priestley and Richard Price (British). From an earlier British era, John Locke, John Milton and Samuel Clarke likewise flunk “mere Christianity.”
Yet, a more generous understanding of “historic Christianity” that includes the heresies makes the American Founding more authentically “Christian” in an historical sense. The Reverend Jonathan Mayhew (the “morning gun of the Revolution”) was an Arian? So what. Arius was an early church father (against whom the Nicene Creed was written). These Founders tended to believe in universal salvation? So what. The Church father Origen did too.
The “Christians” (as they understood themselves) of the Enlightenment tended to embrace these heresies, many of which trace before the Enlightenment, indeed way back to the early Church.
One clever reader of mine reacted with the question: Was America founded, in a political-theological sense, on a “Christian heresy?”