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The Atheneum Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1796

The Atheneum Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1796

The Reverend James Abercrombie, the assistant at Christ Church in Philadelphia, once preached a rather heated sermon against the “unhappy tendency of…those in elevated stations who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.”  Though Abercrombie did not name names, then President George Washington, who was in the congregation that day, took the message to be aimed directly at him and thought it “a very just reproof.”  Washington’s custom had long been to excuse himself from church when it came time to partake of the sacraments and he now realized that doing so was deeply offensive to many.  Thus, Washington resolved from then on to skip church on Sacrament Sundays altogether.  (Holmes, pp. 63-4)

So, no, Washington was not an evangelical Christian.  Though he never, like Thomas Jefferson, went so far as to take scissors to the Bible, his faith was clearly a predictable sort of Deism.  In his letters to churches, for instance, he wrote in typical Deist-speak, variously referring to “Providence,” “the Deity,” “the Grand Architect,” and the like, but never to, say, the divinity of Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

Likewise, James Madison abandoned orthodox Christianity for Deism while in his twenties and John Adams was a Unitarian bordering on Deism who denied the existence of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.  There were, of course, sincere orthodox Christians amongst the Founding Fathers, like Patrick Henry (who, however, sharply opposed ratifying the Constitution) and Samuel Adams (who historically was much better at brewing trouble than beer).  But orthodox Christians were by no means either the most numerous nor the most prominent members of the Founders.

Quickly surveying the faiths of the Founding Fathers, one cannot help but wonder how anyone ever got the idea that America is or ever was a fundamentally Christian nation.  Perhaps it is because we tend to associate the colonials of our land with the deeply Protestant Pilgrims, in celebration of whose first harvest we glut ourselves each November.  But, of course, we forget that Jamestown, a purely commercial colony, had been established several years before the Pilgrims sought religious refuge on these shores.  We also forget that the Puritanism of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts was a witch-burning, Baptist-beating, Quaker-branding form of Christianity, far removed from the religiously tolerant spirit of the Founding Fathers.

And if we insist on the silly Sarah Palin-esque notion of there being or having been a “real America,” why should Puritan Massachusetts be the paradigm?  What of Anglican Virginia or (at least initially) Roman Catholic Maryland?  Why not the religiously neutral, riff-raff populated Georgia or Quaker Pennsylvania?  At any rate, the Founding Fathers ultimately modelled our country on Roger Williams’s scandalously religiously tolerant Rhode Island (or “Rogue’s Island” as it was popularly called) by refusing to establish any church in the Constitution and by insuring religious liberty to all in the Bill of Rights, be they Methodist, Morman, or Muslim, Sikh, Southern Baptist or Secular Humanist.  In short, the Christian Right’s rhetoric of America being a “Christian nation” is, historically speaking, just plain nonsense.  

decline and fall of christian americaAnd, fortunately, the “Christian America” folks seem to have quieted down as of late, the wind having been taken out their sails.  An emerging Christian Left has taken away their monopoly on the language of faith and values.  An heir to the late Jerry Falwell has yet to emerge.  The Bush administration policies such as waging a war of choice on Iraq, waterboarding, and imprisoning men for years without trial have become increasingly difficult to justify theologically.  And President Obama has still inexplicably not yet come out of the closet as an undercover al-Qaeda operative, a secret Muslim or the Antichrist. 

The net result seems to be that James Dobson and Focus on the Family have gotten back to focusing on the family instead of on public policy, thank God.  Hopefully in this moment of silence members of the Christian Right are doing some serious soul searching and I would like to recommend to all of us the following theses for consideration:

  1. Our Nation was born out of a political experiment of the Enlightenment and, as such, is structured by presuppositions that may or may not cohere with Christianity. 
  2. American Christians should listen to the concerns of fellow Christians elsewhere in the world (nearly all of whom opposed the invasion of Iraq). 
  3. Church and State are separate for a reason.  The same anti-establishment clause that protected the rights of Baptists and other dissenters in the 18th century protects the rights of agnostics, atheists and liberal mainline Christians in our own.
  4. American society has from its inception been pluralistic and the Founding Fathers designed our government so as to protect that pluralism.
  5. If marriage is a sacred institution, then it is not the State’s place to either define or regulate it.  Constitutionally speaking, questions about who can marry whom must be decided by faith communities for themselves.
  6. War, capital punishment, health care and poverty are as much life issues as abortion and stem cell research.
  7. In many countries, Christianity is associated with Socialism rather than neo-Conservative Republicanism.  In short, the supposed connection between the Bible and, say, the theory of “trickle-down economics” are far from clear.
  8. It is the international, transcultural, catholic Church and not the United States of America that constitutes God’s chosen people and holy nation (1 Peter 2:9), and the agendas of these two nations (in which I hold dual-citizenship!) can be and often are at cross-purposes with each other.  We all need to think long and hard about where our ultimate loyalties really lie.

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