First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension. (1 Timothy 2:1–8, NASB95)
A week ago the nation remembered the day in 1776 when the colonies arose to cast off the fetters of the Crown and begin their march toward the establishment of a new and free country. It seemed appropriate to reflect a bit on a subject of renewed relevance in our day: the Christian roots of America. One of the dominant features of the last several decades in America has been the drastic change in the norms of cultural morality. It is important to clarify the significance of that last phrase. It is very difficult to determine the extent to which individuals within a population as large as the United States have undergone a fundamental shift in virtue. Even pointing to the generational divide between the baby-boomers and Generation X, Y, or Z quickly becomes an over-simplification of a remarkably diverse demographic. What can be said quite objectively, however, is that the boundary lines of acceptable content for the public arena have been almost completely redrawn. While you could point to politics, education, and other cultural forums, all roads really lead back to media. The industry of entertainment and information has been given, and has forged, new parameters for moral norms. Anyone in their 30’s who watched television in the 80’s can appreciate just how dramatic and swift this change has been. For older generations, of course, the difference is even more jarring.
The relevance of all this to Jesus is fairly straightforward. It’s pertinence to the year 1776 lies in the sentiment that the moral decline has produced. For some of a more conservative persuasion, the condition of 21st century America has caused them to look toward 18th century America as the idyllic vision for our country. The argument generally takes the shape of something like this: America was founded as a Christian nation and it must return to its roots. The distinction between the Republican party and the Church on this subject is so blurred that it is nearly impossible to assess the motivation driving this hope for the future. Undoubtedly there are many who have no political agenda and simply want to see people in this land honor Jesus. Yet I intend to avoid the fray entirely and simply offer some perspective on the historical assumption it is based upon.
In my opinion, the only time it would be appropriate to term a nation (as understood in the post WWI geo-political world) as “Christian” is after Jesus returns and He has established His global government from Jerusalem. However, could it still be said that America has Christian roots, or a Christian foundation? I believe it is accurate historically to say both “yes” and “no”, depending on where one begins. The permanent colonization of Virginia began in 1607. The infamous landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock took place in November of 1620. If the latter was reckoned as the founding of the United States, the case for the Christian roots of this nation would be undeniable. The Pilgrims were of the Puritan tradition – a remarkably deep and orthodox expression of the faith from that period. Yet there were no states to unite at that point. Two fledgling colonies simply do not constitute the constitutional democracy that America would one day be. Abraham Lincoln would establish a day of thanksgiving to mark the historic date, but that is not the celebration of our independence.
Instead, it was when the colonies banded together to declare their identity as a sovereign nation on July 4th, 1776 that America was truly born. If the question of the roots of the United States focuses on this day, as it must, then it becomes very clear that they were not set in Christian soil. Those who look the “founding fathers” and claim otherwise are likely not intending to misrepresent them. The confusion arises from the modern ignorance of the grandfather of modern secularism that existed in Europe and the new world in those days. Termed Deism, it retained the language of religion but none of its theological substance. It should be obvious, but just because someone uses the word “God” does not mean they are a Christian. The writings of those who signed the Declaration of Independence and framed the Constitution are littered with references to a supreme deity, but it was the god fabricated by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and not the Bible. A careful look at the lives and writings of Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the other icons of liberty reveal men who faltered disastrously on the most important question:
The founders were deeply religious but, with an exception here or there, not Christian in any orthodox sense – precisely because they answered the question of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth wrongly. Further, as many have argued, they not establish a Christian nation but a religious one imbued with a great deal of Christian principles, what scholars refer to as America’s ‘civil religion.’ [Stephen Nichols, Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ (IVP Academic, 2008), p51]
While most would not have gone so far as to tear out large sections of the gospels as Thomas Jefferson did, the founding fathers found the divinity of Jesus to be quite intolerable. The underlying worldview driving their labor was not merely evidenced in what they denied but in what they affirmed. The document that declared the sovereignty of the United States in the face of British rule may also be the most potent declaration of the sovereignty of man in the face of Divine rule from that period. It was, for all intents and purposes, the single most significant statement penned for solidifying humanism as the foundation of the Western world for the next two centuries. The following excerpt from renowned missiologist Lesslie Newbigen is tremendously important for understanding not just our nation, but the way we view reality:
The thinkers of the Enlightenment spoke of their age as the age of reason, and by reason they meant essentially those analytical and mathematical powers by which human beings could attain (at least in principle) to a complete understanding of, and thus a full mastery of, nature – of reality and all its forms. Reason, so understood, is sovereign in this enterprise. It cannot bow before any authority other than what it calls the facts. No alleged divine revelation, no tradition however ancient, and no dogma however hallowed has the right to veto its exercise…[this] implies that the individual has the potential and therefore also the right freely to exercise his reason in the search for reality. This right can only be exercised if other rights are also acknowledged, especially the right to hold private property, since some such property, even if it is only the body and food and shelter to sustain it, is the precondition of any human activity. If no alleged dogma can stand in the way of the right to know, equally no alleged authority can negate the right to life, liberty, and property. The new concept of the “rights of man” comes into the center of the stage. Medieval society was held together by a complex network of reciprocal rights and duties, and the “human rights” in general, apart from this actual web of reciprocal duties and rights, would have been unintelligible…there is no way in which the idea of human rights could have been expressed in classical or medieval Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or Arabic. The idea would have been incomprehensible. In its earliest form the concept of human rights referred to life, liberty, and property. The most famous and influential statement of the rights of man, however, defines them as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [Lesslie Newbigen, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), p 25-6]
In Scripture, the sons and daughters of Adam are presented as the object of astonishingly tender concern and faithful care by their Maker. As precious as this truth should be to us, we must never equate it with affirming the concept of “human rights”. God alone is due something, we do not have a right to anything, and deserve only wrath (Jn 3: 18-20, 36; Eph. 2:1-3). If men truly have “inalienable rights” then no one can be tolerated who infringes upon them – not even God. In fact, it would only seem right that He should use whatever power He has to make sure that people do have them. This is precisely the relationship established by the Declaration. Not only does it demand what what we have no business insisting upon, it identifies “God” as the basis of the audacious claim. The ideological cornerstone of our nation has nothing to do with the glorious Christ of the Bible. Instead, the false god of Deism is used as the means to establish the entitlement of man over and above the sovereign claims of the true and living God. Prior to the Renaissance this would have been incomprehensible, but by the time the Enlightenment would run its full course it would be seen as undeniable.
What lesson does this hold? It is certainly no cause for abstaining from fireworks next July. We have much to be grateful for about this country. It may, however, be instructive in tempering our hopes for how change will come about among its citizens. The first Great Awakening was in direct ideological opposition to the univeralism and Deism that was sweeping the colonies and infecting its leaders. Whether called an awakening or a revival, all of the significant movements in the history of this country have happened not through the government but in spite of it. As Christians our gratitude should not be for the false ideal of a Christian nation or a Christian government, but in the fact that we have a government that allowed those awakening and revivals to happen unrestricted.
The wonderful thing about the second Great Awakening, as it pertains to the government, was not that James Munroe or John Quincy Adams attended Charles Finney’s meetings. Instead, it was that Finney never had to worry about them showing up with a battalion of soldiers and forcing him to stop preaching. Yet it is precisely this very virtue that it undermined when we overtly, or subtly, seek to find a way for the government to legislate Christianity. The guarantee of our freedom to build a church on the corner of our neighborhood in the decades to come is actually found in the fact that a synagogue or mosque could be built at the same location. To have a government that imposes Christian prayer in public schools or allows the ten commandments to be posted is to have a government that could also impose the Islamic hours of prayer in public schools should the power-base change. We say we want a government “small” enough to leave our money and our individual freedoms alone. Is it not double-talk to then turn around and want a government big enough and powerful enough to enforce Christian ideals on the masses? Politicians have no qualms about using people’s religious convictions to garner votes, but we should be deeply wary of trying to use politicians to express our religious convictions.
This November, when presidential elections are held, it will mark 392 years since the landing of the Pilgrims. I am thankful for the Christian heritage they represent, but I’m also thankful that even though the men who would later establish this country did not share their faith, they had the wisdom to create a place where their faith could be shared. Though many profound and grievous flaws exist in all three branches of the federal government, this foundation is the reason why a third Great Awakening would not be suppressed by force if it were to happen. And yes, I believe this is true regardless of which party happens to control Congress or who happens to sit in the Oval Office at the time. Is this not the very reason Paul offers for why we should follow the sole command in the Bible to pray for the government – so that we might lead a life undisturbed by those authorities as we bear witness the man Christ Jesus?
Paul turned the known world upside down (Acts 17:6) while there was a man in power who claimed he was a divine being worthy of worship (i.e. Caesar). My guess is that neither candidate will attempt this during their presidency. Conversely, the citizens of Jerusalem and its leaders in in the first-century had the most righteous laws that have ever existed (they were directly from God) and they murdered God-Incarnate when He came to them. I believe our time would far better spent trying to imitate Paul as he imitated Jesus rather than concerning ourselves with who gets elected. The results will certainly have civic implications worthy of our interest, but let us never aspire to find a leader of a renewed civil religion to try to carry America back to a golden age of morality. Nero was horrific, but Constantine proved worse. Somewhere in the middle, it would seem, lies the best answer until Jesus returns.