Thursday, October 20, 2011

Did the Founding Fathers Create a Christian Nation?

Was it the conscious intention of the Founding Fathers to create a Christian nation? David Barton of the organization WallBuilders certainly thinks so. With the zealous spirit of a crusader he has devoted his life to telling a side to American history that often gets overlooked in the public school classroom. Yet as often happens to crusaders, Mr. Barton is sometimes prone to overstating his case.
In his DVD series American Heritage Mr. Barton argues that the Founding Fathers set out to create a uniquely Christian nation. If what Mr. Barton means by this is that the founders took it for granted that America already was a Christian country and that they had no intention of changing that, then he is certainly right. But, if he meant that they were engaged in a bold new experiment to create a government that was uniquely based on biblical principles, then I think he goes too far. The record simply does not support his contention.
The main problem here lies with the Constitutional Convention. Significantly, they did not even open their sessions with prayer. (At one point Benjamin Franklin, of all people, suggested that they do so, but his motion was never adopted). The final document, in contrast with the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, does not mention God at all, except for a single pro forma reference to "the year of our lord" at the very end. God is not even mentioned in the constitutional formula for the presidential oath for office. In Madison's Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention there are no references to biblical passages that I can see, nor are there any in The Federalist Papers.
But was the Constitution based on biblical principles? Barton points to several examples that correspond to such principles, but neglect to mention several other instances in which the Constitution actually contradicted Scripture. For example, in the original document:
Article I Section IX provided for the importation of slaves for a period of twenty years, in violation of Ex. 21:16 and Dt. 24:7. The debate on this provision was particularly revealing. Luther Martin of Maryland argued that "it was inconsistent with the principles of the revolution and dishonorable to the American character to have such a feature in the Constitution." To which John Rutledge of South Carolina replied, "Religion and humanity had nothing to do with the question. Interest alone is the governing principle of nations." The final provision was a compromise, not a solution based on biblical principle, and it was a dark omen of what lay ahead.
Furthermore Article IV, Section II provided for the return of runaway slaves to their masters, in violation of Dt. 23:15,16. This latter provision was not overturned until 1865, at the very end of the Civil War. We also note that Article VI, section 3 states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the United States." In other words, nothing in the Constitution would prevent an atheist from serving as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, in clear violation of Ex. 18:21.
The Framers of the Constitution were a diverse body of men representing competing interests and constituencies. They were trying to find a practical way to set up a workable federal government. Some of the delegates were personally religious, others were not, and it would be a mistake to overestimate their piety. It should also be borne in mind that a large number of the delegates, especially from the middle and southern states, were members of the Episcopal Church, and did not see the need for a scriptural justification for the practices of their own church, let along the federal government. Barton seems to be trying to make them all out to be Presbyterians!
Barton stated that our country has been blessed with uninterrupted peace and stability as a result of our Constitution. But this assertion overlooks the ugly fact of the Civil War, which arose largely over constitutional issues, including the fugitive slave provision mentioned above.
The basic flaw in Barton's argument is that of taking the opinions of some and making them representative of all. America, however, has always been a diverse country. Heavily influenced throughout its history by Christian values and ideals, nevertheless it has often fallen short of those ideals. And thus the struggle for justice never ends.
Apparently Mr. Barton's underlying concern in all of this is the way that the U. S. Supreme Court handles precedents in deciding cases, and thus the original intent of the Founding Fathers is of crucial importance (or at least it should be, in my opinion). What we know about the Founding Fathers is this: most Americans at the time were Protestants, and most Protestant denominations then were fairly orthodox in their theology. The Founding Fathers were conscious of being the heirs of 1700 years of Christian civilization. They also knew that the colonists brought over with them the English Common Law, and beyond that the Fathers relied on the concept of Natural law as the ultimate basis for government. They believed in divine providence, and most of them believed that religion and morality were necessary for the functioning of a republic. They spelled out their conception of government in the Declaration of Independence, which forms a kind of national creed. And ever since then reformers have appealed to these principles in their efforts to create a more just and humane society. It was never the intention of the Founding Fathers to repudiate Christianity or to detach the law from morality.
But we must be careful to state the facts accurately. If we misrepresent the truth, and are eventually found out, our whole cause will be completely discredited. I also think that there is a danger to the Christian community in making America out to be more Christian than it really is. Most of our fellow citizens are lost sinners and on their way to everlasting destruction. If anything, America today is "one nation" - under God's judgment. By asserting that America is a Christian country, we obscure the fact that much of what America does is not Christian. The country is, in fact, a mission field and we run the risk of our salt losing its savor, at the very time that the country needs the savor most!



  1. While I'm an establishmentarian and Constantian, at least to a degree, I like this post, Bob.

  2. Thanks!
    The issue is probably more relevant than ever, given the fact that the Supreme Court has decided to hear two cases involving same-sex marriage. Adverse ruling on both cases will certainly change the moral climate in America for the worse. So what do we do then?
    You might also like a piece I wrote entitled "William Jennings Bryan: a Lesson in Faith and Politics," which I posted twice -- once on Jan. 12, 2012 and again on September 5.