America The Christian Nation: Where it Began

This is the second in a series of posts on the idea of America as a Christian nation you can read the first post here.

Understanding some of the difficulties we face with the notion of America being a Christian nation requires understanding where this idea began. The concept that America is a Christian nation has its roots in the Revolutionary War, with many Colonists including some of our founders who believed God would show favor on the side of justice. Leaders  made public comments that if the Colonies’ “principles are pure” God would fight on their side and they would win the war. We all know the Colonies won the war and gained their independence from the British Crown, and that victory confirmed the idea of Divine favor. For the Colonists, particularly those with deep Calvinist roots, the victory over the British proved that God’s plan was for the colonies to gain freedom. The logic goes like this:

  • God is just
  • God is sovereign (God’s will cannot be thwarted)
  • God has a plan to bring about justice
  • The British are acting unjust toward us
  • Therefore if we win the war it is because we are just and pure like God

This theology is enshrined in the fourth verse of the Star Spangled Banner

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

After the war it became very easy to morph this theology to say the very existence of the United States was Divinely ordained. The thinking became, “God had worked with the Colonies to win the war that means that God has a special purpose for these states”. So long as these newly independent states had a trajectory of success that meant God was continuing to smile on them. And, after the Constitution was ratified in 1787, the United States did grow, which was proof God still fought for us. [This theology/political theory conveniently omits all the difficulties between 1791 & 1789.] The capstone of proof of God’s protection was the War of 1812, which removed all doubt that God had ordained this nation for a special purpose– this is when Key produced those memorable lines.

There are, however, three major observations that need to addressed when critiquing this theology

Though some of the founders like John Jay and John Witherspoon were orthodox Christians many were not. Many orthodox Christians who claim to believe “America is a Christian nation” would be appalled by the beliefs espoused by our founders. Certainly many founders claimed the title “Christian” and I am not here to judge their sincerity but many conservative Christians would not consider our the beliefs of many high profile founders “Christian”, if not for their association with the idea America is a Christian nation. For instance, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, & many more would not affirm the statement “Jesus is the only son of God.” And though others like John Jay and John Witherspoon clearly were orthodox, Mark Noll, John Fea and others have shown convincingly their political theology depended more on their political ideals than theological convictions. In this instance poor theologians were developing poor theology which was accepted hook, line, & sinker because those “theologians” had political power and what they said sounded good to their audience.

Does it follow that because God is just- justice always wins? Bad guys sometimes win, at least in real life. It was the epitome of hubris for the American founders to make the claim that God would bend the course of the Revolution toward justice. And the hubris has continued in the notion that America wins wars because we are just and so God fights for us. What does that say about the French Revolution when the atheist revolution overthrew the “Christian king”? While Martin Luther King Jr is certainly correct, “The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice”, that is a far cry from suggesting a God intervenes in a specific event to establish the just. Rather, this sentiment grew out of a hyper-Calvinist theology that credits God as the most relevant cause in every outcome in the world. Even if the Colonists were correct in their claim that the British Crown was acting unjustly toward them and they were acting justly, does it then follow that God will intervene on the American side give them victory. The answer is a hard no. There is no scripture to support this premise, nor does any theologian support the notion– except of course when that theologian is justifying a specific cause.

Was, as has been claimed, the cause of the Colonies just? Disregarding the criticisms of people like John Wesley who said the American cause was unjust because the Colonists had the same rights as the average British subject, I think we can still ask the question was the American cause just. It is easy to point out American treatment of slaves and natives to show how the Americans were no more just than the British, Obviously, these people were thought of as less human and inconsequential, and were not provided with justice. But American injustice did not stop there, perhaps one-third of Americans were actively against the Revolution and such loyalists were treated very harshly by the Americans. Further, while the wealthy like Alexander Hamilton were able to grow wealthier and more powerful from the war, many poor farmers were abused and robbed by the wealthy with government assistance. None of this is “just” by a Christian definition, meaning we must call into question the very premise of the claim that God wanted to establish justice in America.

The ideology that America was founded in God’s grace to perpetuate Christianity was, though certainly believed by some founders, at best a smug notion coming from an uncritical view of the Revolution and at worst a clever marketing scheme designed to prey upon the sentiments and desires of a population which was overwhelmingly associated with Christianity. But sadly, this mindset continues today led by the same ignorance and delusion which first brought it to our shores. Still today we have politicians and pastors who use the ties between church and nation to gain political and social esteem. In story after story I read the main measure of a person’s views is political ideology; even Christians are significantly more likely to take social and political stances based on political party affiliation. The is still a significant group of people who perpetuate the the idea of a “Christian America” because it allows them to sell ideas based more in political ideology than in Scripture. I intend to spell out what this means over the next few posts as I consider a few political issues and how I see a difference between where the conversation is and where it should be in churches.

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