The role of religion in the American republic has been a source of controversy since the nation’s inception. Debates are particularly fierce when they concern religious liberty and the proper relationship between church and state. Arguments on these questions are often framed in the light of the Founders’ intentions, but unfortunately, their views are often distorted. Did America have a Christian Founding? Two popular answers to this query—“Of course not!” and “Absolutely!”—both distort the Founders’ views. There is in fact a great deal of evidence that America’s Founders were influenced by Christian ideas, and there are many ways in which the Founders’ views might inform contemporary political and legal controversies.
At its most foundational level, this war over ideas is over the place of religion in public life. In recent years, some people have used the concept of “separation of church and state” as a principle to eliminate religious perspectives from public places and public education. These people emphasize that ours is a “pluralistic” society. (Walch, 45) However, others contend that religion, and specifically the Bible and Christianity, has an important role to play in our political system and public issues. As a result of these two opposing views, there continues to be a debate about the proper place of religion in the public square. To settle the dispute, something must be known about the foundation upon which our government is built. Knowing how something is designed is crucial to its operation. For example, it would be unwise to pour molasses into the gas tank of a car. Internal combustion engines are not designed to run on molasses. In a similar way, it is imperative to have a proper understanding of how our republican form of government is designed to work. Only then can the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States be maintained. (Walch, 45)
According to those who answer “Of course not!” America’s Founders were guided by secular ideas and self, class, or state interests. These scholars do not deny that the Founders were religious, but they contend that they were mostly deists—i.e., persons who reject many Christian doctrines and who think God does not interfere in the affairs of men and nations. For instance, historian Frank Lambert writes that “[the] significance of the Enlightenment and Deism for the birth of the American republic, and especially the relationship between church and state within it, can hardly be overstated.” Similarly, University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone avers that “deistic beliefs played a central role in the framing of the American republic” and that the “Founding generation viewed religion, and particularly religion’s relation to government, through an Enlightenment lens that was deeply skeptical of orthodox Christianity.” Virtually identical claims are made by Edwin Gaustad, Steven Waldman, Richard Hughes, Steven Keillor, David Holmes, Brooke Allen, and many others. (Walch, 55)
In addition to asserting that the Founders were deists, these authors regularly contend that they abandoned their ancestors’ intolerant approach to church–state relations and embraced religious liberty. They often concede that some Founders thought civic authorities should support religion but argue that this is irrelevant as Jefferson’s and Madison’s conviction that there should be a high wall of separation between church and state was written into the Constitution and reinforced by the First Amendment. As we shall see, there are significant problems with this story. The second answer to this question is offered by popular Christian writers such as Peter Marshall, David Manuel, John Eidsmoe, Tim LaHaye, William J. Federer, David Barton, and Gary DeMar. They contend that not only did America have a Christian Founding, but virtually all of the Founders were devout, orthodox Christians who consciously drew from their religious convictions to answer most political questions. (Macleod, 76)
To support their case, these writers are fond of finding religious quotations from the Founders. The rule seems to be that if a Founder utters anything religious, at any time in his life, he counts as an orthodox or even evangelical Christian Founder. Using this methodology, Tim LaHaye concludes, for instance, that John Adams was “deeply committed to Jesus Christ and the use of Biblical principles in governing the nation,” and George Washington, if he was alive today, “would freely associate with the Bible-believing branch of evangelical Christianity that is having such a positive influence upon our nation.” . (Marty,75) This approach leads to similarly bad history.
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