Civil Religion, part eight
The Other NRA
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.
• • •
A 2000 poll of a thousand Americans about their views of religion and government asked this as one of the questions:
Would you favor or oppose a Constitutional amendment which would make Christianity the official religion of the United States?
32%, nearly a third of the respondents, either “strongly favored” or “favored” that statement.
When I first read that, it surprised me. It shouldn’t have. I don’t recall having learned about such efforts before, but historian John Fea informs us that there was a time during the Civil War when amending the Constitution to make Christianity our official religion was a live public question in the United States.
In our last post, we noted that the Confederacy made an explicit point of including God in their Constitution in direct opposition to what they saw as the “godless” U.S. Constitution. This bothered many ministers and Christian leaders in the North. One called the omission of God in the U.S. Constitution “a national sin” and others explained Union military defeats as God’s punishment on the U.S. for neglecting to pay homage to him in its national charter. A group got together and did something about this in 1863.
In 1863 several ministers decided to do something to change this godless Constitution. They met in Xenia, Ohio, and proposed the following amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
WE, THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES, [recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour and Lord of all] in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This group of ministers eventually became known as the National Reform Association (NRA). (p. 23)
Fea lists several reasons why the NRA felt such an extraordinary measure to be necessary.
- Their religious viewpoint held that “the decision to leave references to Christianity out of the Constitution was an ‘error and an evil’ that ‘dishonors God.’”
- Some proposed that the Civil War itself was God’s punishment for having a “godless Constitution.”
- Others argued that since the “great majority” of Americans were [Protestant] Christians, the Constitution should reflect this.
- They pointed to the Constitutions of the states, most of which explicitly invoked God, and some of which still required a religious test for officeholders.
- They argued that a Christian amendment would be true to the history of our people and government, as this statement from the 1874 NRA national convention affirmed: “This country was settled and its institutions founded by those who believed in God and accepted His Word as the law of their lives.”
- Many argued that this was an essential step to keep public education “Christian” in the U.S. Some states were considering laws at that time to prohibit Bible reading in public schools. An amendment was necessary, they argued, to fight the forces of secularism that were seeking to “obliterate every Christian feature from existing institutions.”
- Another danger they saw was immigration, which flourished after the Civil War. This amendment sought to protect the U.S. from what the NRA saw as an invasion of dangerous European ideas such as Catholicism, Marxism, and socialism.
In another article in which he recalls the NRA and their recommendation to amend the Constitution to guarantee America’s status as a “Christian nation,” John Fea reminds us that this debate is nothing new, but has always been part of the fabric of our national conversation.
The movement to add a Christian amendment to the Constitution failed, but this did not derail continued attempts get such an amendment passed. The NRA renewed its platform again in 1894 and 1910 and continued to meet through World War I. In 1947 and 1954 the National Association of Evangelicals promoted an effort to add the following words to the Constitution: “This nation divinely recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of Nations through whom are bestowed the blessings of God Almighty.”
Attempts to make the U.S. Constitution more Christian or to make Christianity the official state religion have been around for a long time.
By the way, John Fea wrote that article in the context of a 2013 effort by North Carolina legislators to make Christianity the official state religion. The impulse to declare America “a Christian nation” has not died out.