Mention the role of faith in public life, and somebody is bound to bring up the faith of the Founders. Like many debates, this one has two extremes. Many secularists (and some conspiracy-minded Christians) claim that the Founders were mostly deists or religious skeptics who wanted to keep religion on the sidelines. (Deism is the view that God created the world and established a moral law, but doesn’t get involved in the day-to-day details on the ground. Strict deists rejected the possibility of miracles and the value of prayer.) They trot out skeptical quotes from Thomas Jefferson and talk about the “Jefferson Bible,” in which Jefferson deleted all references to miracles from the gospels.
In response, some Christians seem intent on proving that almost all the Founders were conservative evangelical Christians. They will cite the many statements by Founders showing their Christian piety or commending the value of Christianity for society. The truth is that the lines separating orthodox Christianity from deism were blurry in 18th-century America. We should resist the temptation to cram them into tidy modern compartments. Many of the Founders, such as Patrick Henry, John Jay, John Witherspoon, and Samuel Adams, were serious Christians, without a whiff of deism on them. Almost all were Protestants, though Charles Carroll, who signed the Declaration of Independence, was a Catholic. None were atheists.
George Washington was an Episcopalian, though he often attended different houses of worship. He believed deeply in God’s providence and in the necessity of religion for morality. In his inaugural address, he said:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports….Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
We could pile on quote after quote along the same lines from the Founders. Even so-called deists such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin supported prayer and religious observance. Others who were Unitarian, such as John Adams, often spoke fondly of Christianity and, in particular, its moral system.
This was but the most crucial of several points of agreement among the American Founders:
· The Church has a proper authority that the state must respect.
· The federal government should neither establish nor prohibit the free exercise of religion.
· Every person should enjoy religious liberty.
· Religion, and especially Christianity, is vital to the survival and prosperity of the American Experiment.
· We know by reason that God and a natural law exist.
· Public displays of respect for God are right and good, and don’t constitute an establishment of religion.
These views allowed the Founders to revere God in public, even officially, while still opposing a federally established church. God’s existence and the basic principles of morality, they believed, were public truths, not sectarian religious doctrines. So when the US Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as our national motto in 1956, they were not imposing religion on the public, but publicly recognizing God—just as the Founders did. The phrase had appeared on our coins as early as the 1850s.
Remember, it was Thomas Jefferson, a deist of sorts, who wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights….” On this point, the Founders believed, reason and revelation agreed.
Secularists insist on practical atheism as the only neutral, legitimate public philosophy. It’s the idea that people can believe and practice whatever religion they choose in their private lives, but when we come together in public, whether it’s to explore the origin of the universe, debate public policy, or explain why a criminal went on a shooting spree, we must assume God doesn’t exist. Any reference to God or morality, on this view, transgresses the boundaries of church and state and is a dangerous step down the road to theocracy, “dominionism,” or “Christian nationalism.”
This practical atheism is ardently promoted by groups such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the American Civil Liberties Union, and accepted by most academic elites. It is entirely alien to the thought of the Founders and most Americans. Today, our greatest danger is not a Christian theocracy, but a secularist theocracy that tolerates no dissent.
Many Americans ask, “Is the United States a ‘Christian Nation’?” It’s easy to get bogged down in this debate. The problem is that the phrase means different things to different people. If we’re talking about the views of most Americans, then certainly we are a Christian nation. About 78% of Americans identify themselves as Christians of some sort. All other religions combined make up less than 5 percent, and about 16 percent are unaffiliated (though not necessarily atheist). So just as we talk about “Muslim countries,” where most of the citizens are Muslims, we could refer to the United States as a “Christian nation.”
The phrase also makes sense if you’re talking about American history. The original American colonies were overwhelmingly Christian. In fact, most started as Christian charters. Moreover, our laws and political traditions come larger from the Judeo-Christian culture of Europe, and especially Great Britain.
But when some people hear talk of America as a “Christian nation,” they envision a country where Christianity is mandated, or where non-Christians are viewed as second-class citizens, or where atheists are herded out of the political process. So unless you explain what you mean by the phrase, talking about the United States as a Christian nation is liable to create more heat than light.
It is our sincere desire and prayer that the insights and truths we share in our book, Indivisible, will inspire Christians to be as involved in local and national direction as those who are committed to remove any effect of faith on the public. Why would people who claim to believe in the importance of God’s kingdom influence indifferently allow the few Americans who want progressive socialism while also rejecting traditional faith and moral values to create a “hell on earth” for our families to endure? In a free constitutional republic we have the privilege of choice by voting for the best leaders and programs. Negative trends brought on by idolatry and godlessness can only continue if those professing to know God fail to stand up for what they claim to believe.
This commentary was adapted from the New York Times best-selling book INDIVISIBLE: Restoring Faith, Family and Freedom Before It’s Too Late, co-authored by James Robison and Jay Richards.