Civil Religion, part seven
America as a “Christian Nation” in the 19th Century
Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these.
At this point we are looking at the second book for this series: Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, by John Fea. Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.
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• John Fea
The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.
• Article 11, The Treaty of Tripoli, 1797
According to John Fea:
The Treaty of Tripoli, which included the assertion that the United States was not founded on the Christian religion, was signed by President John Adams and ratified unanimously by the Senate. The text of the treaty was published in several newspapers, and there was no public opposition to it. (p. 3)
In spite of this example, the vast majority of people in the U.S. from 1789-1865 would have answered in the affirmative had they been asked the question, “Is the U.S.A. a Christian nation?” Fea notes that many would have made their case based on three points: (1) Divine Providence has a special plan for the U.S., (2) the Founders were Christians and set out to create a nation that reflected their beliefs, and (3) the U.S. government and its founding documents were rooted in Christian ideas.
However, the term “Christian nation” is a slippery one. It could mean simply that the majority of a nation’s citizens hold to some form of Christian belief and practice. As such, most of the western European nations in the 1800s would have identified themselves as “Christian.”
In the case of the U.S., the term has always carried a deeper meaning. As Fea writes, “It was often used as a way of describing the uniqueness of the American experiment. It was freighted with the idea that the United States had a special role to play in the plan of God, thus making it a special or privileged Christian nation” (p. 5).
In a previous post, we saw how the Second Great Awakening, combined with westward expansion, fueled the sense of America as a specially destined Christian nation. Fea agrees, noting how the Awakening democratized the Christian faith and gave it a peculiarly “American” flavor through its emphasis on free will and individual experience. “The United States are by far the most religious and Christian country in the world…because religion there is most free” (quoted by Philip Schaff).
Early Christian Nationalism
John Fea puts his finger on the presidential election of 1800 as an example of how Christianity merged with politics in the early days of the republic.
John Adams, a Unitarian, ran as a Federalist, a group that was strong in New England. They worked with the Congregationalist clergy there, who were concerned that the region would remain Christian in character, led by Christian leaders. His opponent was Thomas Jefferson, who was not a Christian. Jefferson attracted many Americans, particularly those who opposed state-sponsored churches and embraced the idea of religious liberty. With more and more people moving west, Jefferson’s vision of freedom and individualism attracted people like the Baptists and Methodists on the frontier, while Adams was strong in the more traditional northeast.
Fea describes some of the religious opposition that came against Jefferson:
The attacks on Jefferson’s supposed godlessness were fierce. William Linn, a Dutch Reformed minister from New York, wrote that he was forced to oppose Jefferson’s candidacy because of the Virginian’s “disbelief of the Holy Scriptures . . . his rejection of the Christian Religion and open profession of Deism.” He feared that the United States, under Jefferson’s rule, would become a “nation of Atheists.” Linn made clear that “no professed deists, be his talents and acquirements what they may, ought to be promoted to this place [the presidency] by the suffrages of a Christian nation.” He went as far as to argue that the act of “calling a deist to the first office must be construed into no less than rebellion against God.” Linn was fully aware that there was “nothing in the constitution to restrict our choice” of a president with religious beliefs akin to Jefferson’s, but he warned his readers that if they elected “a manifest enemy to the religion of Christ, in a Christian nation,” it would be “an awful symptom of the degeneracy of that nation.” (pp. 6-7)
It seems that, in the eyes of Christian nationalists, this country has been going down the tubes from the beginning! Jefferson, nevertheless, won the election, the Federalists faded from the scene, and Americans kept moving westward with a new sense of freedom.
One of the most interesting sections of this chapter in John Fea’s book is his discussion of the Whig Party, who in the 1830s and 40s raised a strong voice once more for the cause of Christian nationalism.
An article at History.com describes the Whigs’ constituency and appeal:
Although they received the votes of many small farmers, shopkeepers, clerks, and artisans, they appear to have appealed particularly to what some modern historians call distinctive ethnocultural groups: evangelical as opposed to liturgical Protestants; moralists and abstainers; persons unhappy with brutal treatment of blacks and Native Americans. In some states Whig leaders seemed so critical of political parties that they appeared to be religious zealots rather than party leaders.
Fea calls them a party that “favored a nation of markets and Protestant religion.” He characterizes them as reformers who “dreamed of a homogenous Protestant culture where slavery did not exist, alcohol use was under control, and Sunday was kept as a day of Sabbath rest” (p. 7).
Their economic philosophy tied in with their religious vision. The Whigs advocated the development of infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and canals so as to link the citizens of the nation together. That way they might see themselves as less isolated and more connected as citizens of one nation, trading freely and experiencing the blessings of economic as well as moral progress. Many were postmillennial in their eschatology, envisioning that such progress would usher in the new creation.
The great example he cites is Lyman Beecher, the well known Congregationalist minister who became president of a seminary in Cincinnati. In his speech, “A Plea for the West,” Beecher urged the establishment of schools and the development of an educated clergy in the rapid westward expansion so that the Roman Catholics and the advocates of slavery would not hold sway on the frontier. “‘A Plea for the West’ was Beecher’s call to extend the Whig and evangelical idea of a Christian nation to the unsettled regions of the country,” Fea writes (p. 8)
John Fea goes on to trace the idea of the U.S. as a Christian nation through the writings of the 19th century, particularly in the histories of the U.S. that were being penned and the textbooks that students read. Many of these created mythologies and hagiographies of the Revolution and Founding Fathers, combining these inspirational stories with moral exhortation in order to promote the advancement of a “Christian” America.
He also describes how the idea of a “Christian nation” became a theological crisis during the Civil War, when both sides claimed God’s will and favor. In fact, to set itself apart from the North and its “ungodly” U.S. Constitution, the Constitution of the Confederate States of America made explicit reference to “Almighty God” as the basis for its charter. One minister called the Confederate Constitution “a truly Christian patriot’s prayer” and blasted the “perilous atheism” of the U.S. Constitution, charging that “The American nation stood up before the world, a helpless orphan, and entered upon a career without a God” (p. 18)
Thus, the Civil War ushered in a period when the question was not, “Is America a Christian nation?” but, “What kind of a Christian nation will America be?”
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Earlier posts in the series: