It is always a surprise, and sometimes very painful to have one's bubble burst. This is all the more so when it has to do with something or someone a persons loves deeply and is deeply commited to. Take for example our country. It is not a very old country by global standards. Our less than 250 years of actual nationhood pales in comparison to a country like Egypt which has been extant for thousands of years. One would think with such a short history we could get the facts right about the religious character of our nation, and the beliefs of its founding fathers--- but apparently what we as Christians often wish was true, colors how we read our history so strongly that we cannot believe it could be otherwise.
Now before I go further I want to stress that of course plenty of the first persons who came to America were devout Christians--- both Protestant and Catholic. Not for nothing is Mary-land named for Jesus' mother, or Pennslyvania named for the great Quaker William Penn. Then too, Providence Rhode Island came by its name from its Christian leaders. We could go down this road a rather long way. We could recount for instance how Harvard was founded as a school for the training of Evangelical clergy and when it became too liberal in the minds of many Yale was founded as the antidote and when it became too liberal in the minds of many Princeton was founded by persons who made Jonathan Edwards, America's greatest early native theologian, its first real head. We could talk about why institutions of higher learning founded on Christian principles often go native within a generation.
What I am interested in however in this posting is the persons who framed our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, not to mention the Bill of Rights. More partricularly I am interested in the real architects of these documents, especially the Declaration of Independence.
What one discovers on close scrutiny is that it is not Christians, but rather Deists (Unitarians as they called themselves) who were most influential. Though I could talk about George Washington and his Masonic faith in the syncretistic rites of the Masons (one part Christian, one part Jewish, one part Egyptian--- look at the Pyramid on George's dollar bill sometime, and ask yourself where that came from), or I could talk about free thinkers and radicals like Thomas Paine. But I must focus on Thomas Jefferson the intellectual heavyweight of the period, and close friend to John Adams. These two of course were the second and third Presidents of our nation, and they shared common views on the blessings of Unitarianism.
I provide here an excerpt from a letter which Jefferson wrote to James Smith in 1822, a Unitarian pamphlet writer, only shortly before Jefferson died. He shared the same sentiments about this matter as did John Adams. In order to understand this letter one needs to keep three things in mind: 1) by 'primitive Christianity' what Jefferson means is Christianity shorn of its supernatural character--- without miracles, without the Trinity, without the resurrection. He is talking about the image of 'primitive Christianity' he was helping to create himself by his Jeffersonian Bible-- a Jesus Seminar kind of Bible with all the miracles in the NT snipped out, leaving us with the Sermon on the Mount and other ethical teachings. 2) the three headed dog Cerberus from Greco-Roman mythology is the point of comparison for his derogatory comment about the Trinity; 3) Unitarians were rationalists and Deists. They were the split offs from the controversial battles fought by the Congregationalists, originally in New England, who divided between Trinitarians, which is to say traditional Christians, and Unitarians.
Here is Jefferson's letter to James Smith written in 1822:
"I have to thank you for your pamphlets on the subject of Unitarianism, and to express my gratification with your efforts for the revival of primitive Christianity in your quarter. No historical fact is better established, than that the doctrine of one God, pure and uncompounded [i.e. not three persons in one God], was that of the early ages of Christianity; and was one of the most efficacious doctrines which gave it triumph over the polytheism of the ancients, sickened with the absurdities of their own theology. Nor was the unity of the Supreme Being ousted by the force of reason, but by the sword of civil government, wielded at the will of the fanatic Athanasius. The hocus-pocus phantasm of a God like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs. And a strong proof of the solidity of the primitive faith, is its restoration, as soon as a nation arises which vindicates to itself the freedom of religion opinion, and its external divorce from the civil authority. The pure and simple unity of the Creator of the universe is all but ascendant in the eastern states; it is dawning in the west, and advancing towards the south; and I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States."
In another letter written at about the same time Jefferson shared his confidence that "I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian." (These quotes and more can easily be found in David Hempton's fine study entitled Methodism. Empire of the Spirit (New Haven: Yale, 2005, p. 48).
Our founding fathers and the chief drafters of America's foundational documents wanted at all costs to avoid having a State or national church endorsed and under the patronage of government. Even more they wanted to avoid have a church which shaped, or partially controlled the government. There had been too many religious wars in Europe and they wanted to avoid that scenario in America--- which of course was a noble aim. The principle of 'freedom of religion' is of course not one found in the Bible strictly speaking. Elijah, for example in 1 Kngs. 18, was hardly an advocate of 'freedom of religion' when he attacked the prophets of Baal, but then Israel was hardly a democracy anyway, nor was Jesus' vision of the kingdom democratic. These entities were intended to be benevolent monarchies, though as you will remember, God was loath to give Israel a king in the first place.
One thing we must never do is make the mistake of equating Israel with America. America has always been a nation commited to pluralism (remember 'e pluribus unum'), though it has always debated how much pluralism was too much. Democracy of a sort, and freedom of religion was the sanction needed to allow for that sort of pluralism. Of course it is true that the Founding Fathers did think we could be united, whether Christian or Jew or even native American, in a belief in one God, in divine providence, in ethical principles (many of them from the Bible including the ten commandments) to undergird the nation.
Modern pluralism goes way beyond what the Founding Fathers could have conceived as either true or good, and indeed they did see the minimal beliefs of Deism as something that could unite everyone. It was a least common denominator sort of religious foundation for the nation, and its principles of respect for difference, open and free inquiry, no religion imposed on anyone had numerous merits when compared to the ugly spectacle of Christians killing each other over their differences in religious beliefs.
Another myth that dies hard is that we have written down somewhere in our founding documents the principle of 'separation of church and state'. Actually that is not in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence at all. It was however an undergirding principle of various of our founders in an attempt to avoid European religious scenarios. America's founding documents reflect the individualism (often of a radical sort if one reads Thomas Paine), rationalism and empiricism and even eudaemonism of our founders (noting the clause on the individual pursuit of happiness rather than holiness). These things made good sense then with the rise of the industrial revolution on the not too distant horizon.
In other words, our founding documents owe more to the libertarian sentiments of the Enlightenment than to the Bible. Our founding fathers believed democratic government could help set the people free--- one did not need to wait for revivals and Jesus and the Holy Spirit to do the job. Of course it is true that democracy has many virtues, and probably is the best sort of government found on earth. It is certainly far closer in many ways to Biblical ideals than communism.
But by the same token we need to be honest about the founding of our nation, and the beliefs of its founding fathers. We need to recognize that America was not founded to be a Christian nation if by Christian we mean orthodox Christianity that believes in a supernatural Gospel, a Trinity, a virginal conception, a bodily resurrection, an atoning death of Jesus, or the Bible as divine revelation. Perhaps you may have noticed that the quote from Jefferson places him in the camp of the Dan Brown's of this world who blame Constantine and Athanasius for orthodoxy, not realizing that Trinitarian thinking about God already existed in the first century A.D. as any careful reader of the NT can see.
The question then I wish to pose is--- if Christians should give up the quest to 'get back to Christian America', what then should we do? I would suggest we should go forward towards a Christianity in America that does a better job of being an advocate for its own position in all spheres of life and public discourse, not retreating into the narrow bubbles of holy conventicles, churches, home schools and the like.
If we really want to help our nation to go to Hades in a handbasket more quickly we can continue to retreat into our holy huddles, counting on the separation of church and state to protect us--- when ironically there is no such written down principle in our founding documents.
"Greater is he who is in us, than is in the world" should be our battle cry, or perhaps let us "take captive every thought for Christ". We must work and pray for revival not just of ourselves but of our whole nation. Escapist religion must be avoided. As John Wesley said there is no spiritual Gospel without the social Gospel. Indeed so, and we may say that while Christianity is a deeply personal matter, it was never intended to be a private matter--- we are after all called to make disciples of all the nations. Even our own. May it be so in our lifetime.