Considering Christian Faith and the American Republic

March 29, 2023

American Flag

We live in an age that some scholars have called the “age of acceleration.” Technological change, driven by advances in science and engineering, is altering the way we communicate, build our economies, and attempt to construct our social systems. The fabric of the American Republic seems frayed as political parties are increasingly polarized and fractured. In the midst of radical change, some find comfort in reaching back to an idealized past while others push to discard the past and grasp an unknown future. In this context and depending on your perspective, religion, and in particular, Christian faith becomes either the source of American strength or the barrier to a better future.  

In a recent public discussion, one university educator presented this view: “a modern nation state flourishes in a secular (non-religious based system) societal framework.” In a thoughtful argument, he suggested that the founders of the American Republic understood this important issue and created a system which separated the Church and the State. He expressed frustration that the future of the American Republic is at risk as religious zealots seek to create a future built on a false understanding of American history as they push a form of Christian nationalism. It was obvious from the rest of his discussion that he wished to develop a society that minimized the truth claims of religion and replaced it with the “verifiable” and “authoritative” conclusions of Enlightenment theorists. He used comments from a speech of former Vice President Mike Pence to launch his argument: 

“Well, the radical left believes that the freedom of religion is the freedom from religion, but it’s nothing the American founders ever thought of or generations of Americans fought to defend. You know, I said today here in Houston that the source of our nation’s greatness has always been our faith in God, our freedom, and our vast natural resources.”

As the president of a Christian college, I am often asked by colleagues how we understand the connection between Christian faith and government. There are thoughtful scholarly works on this complex topic, including one by our own Professor Mark David Hall, author of Did America Have a Christian Founding. It is a complex discussion and difficult to assess in a brief essay, but let me try to address in concise form these two questions: What was the nature of America’s founding – did it have important religious or Christian church roots? Second, whatever the historical facts related to the creation of the American Republic, should it continue to inform the type of society we are trying to create in this new age of acceleration?  

For most of human history, religion, and the deities that accompanied belief, were an essential part of the way humans understood and made sense of their world. Whether you lived in the East or West, religious institutions and religious documents provided the foundation for worldviews that guided the development of government and ethical systems undergirding them in addition to providing a sense of purpose and meaning for human communities. I do not think that is a controversial statement. Depending on your perspective, it is with the rise of modern science – and with it the tendency of some of its proponents to argue that the only true knowledge comes from observable and repeatable material experiments – that religion has been slowly displaced as the authoritative “priests” of human culture. 

declaration_of_independence_1819_by_john_trumbull.jpgI believe there is strong evidence that our founding fathers were far more comfortable with the church and state relationship than is currently broadly understood. The Founders believed strongly that “religion,” and in their mind Christian religion, provided societal systems with the necessary moral and virtue development necessary for the maintenance of a republican form of government. Even those Founders who were deists believed broadly in a shared moral foundation as a necessary piece for a flourishing republic. Thus, most of the Founders understood religion as essential to the American experiment. That is why they did not discourage the reading of the Bible, the placement of religious documents in court, prayers in Congress, and even the ability of states to actually create state churches if they wished.  

But, some argue, there are no references to a supreme being anywhere in the Constitution, because the Founding Fathers were adamantly opposed to centralized religious power or requiring individuals to subscribe to any particular denomination. Absolutely true. Further, the text of the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech. . . “ Isn’t this additional evidence that the Founders wanted to keep religion and faith out of the public square and thus the former Vice President of the United States is simply wrong?  

I think one must dig deeper. It is hard to imagine today, but the Constitution limited the power of the federal government and gave great freedom to the states. The First Amendment was aimed at preventing a single Church (Anglican or Catholic) from becoming the special, privileged product of the federal government. At the same time, it did not limit the “states” efforts to establish a single Church (assumed to be Christian) if they wished. The reality is that several states did and that practice did not end in all the states until the 1840s. For almost 50 years then, the American system not only recognized religious systems as part of the public square, it also gave individual states the right to create unique arrangements between the church and the individual states. Again, this is not to say that this was a good thing or that its practice should be encouraged today –  indeed, the fact that the practice of establishing state churches ended certainly suggests that Americans came to the conclusion that placing state power behind a church system was not in the interest of the American Republic and the flourishing of its citizens. 

Perhaps more importantly, the Founders seemed to agree that religious systems were essential for developing the moral and virtue necessary in the citizens of a burgeoning Republic. In Washington’s famous Farewell Address, he addresses his fears and also what he believes are the habits which will give strength to the new Republic. (As you may know, the Federal Constitution was our second experiment with a federal government. The Articles of Confederation which were birthed after the peace with Britain, did not prove to be a lasting arrangement. We were exploited by Britain economically and the “loose” ties which were characteristic of that system did not enable the fledgling Republic to build into a viable system. America, founded in opposition to a large Federal system (England), emphasized local ties and only a loose affiliation nationally. Washington’s Farewell address primarily expresses his concern that “local ties” would continue to pull Americans apart and destroy the Republic. During Washington’s tenure, of course, there was no political party system, and in his mind the development of political parties, perhaps regionally aligned, would serve to further “localize” the country. He wanted to build a strong Union). In order to achieve a viable Republic, he wished to emphasize that which held Americans together: 

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness--these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. 

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”

gilbert_stuart_george_washington_lansdowne_portrait_google_art_project.jpegThe Founders, represented here by Washington, certainly wanted to avoid the sectarian violence that had so dominated Europe for centuries, but they also saw “religion and morality” intertwined and essential for the maintenance of the Republican form of government (Even Jefferson’s famous Bible retained Jesus’ moral teaching as essential to living a good life). In their minds, it was essential to find a balance between what religious systems brought to society while at the same time trying to limit their negative impact on the freedom of others who were not adherents. Indeed, there was an assumption on their part that “morality” was necessary for a Republican form of government to thrive and survive and Washington believed that the system could not survive without religious faith.  

Even though religion was vital to building character and virtue, it did not mean that the state should enforce systems of Christian belief on its citizens. The most famous document, often mentioned by progressives, Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists (of Connecticut), appears to argue for a “wall of separation” between federal systems and the state. Most people fail to read the document in light of the broader context. In the case of the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson actually argued that the Danbury Baptists should have the right to freedom of worship in a state (Connecticut) where the established state church limited their freedom of expression. Thus, Jefferson concludes, the state (not referring to the Federal government) should not “intrude or limit the freedom of the Baptist to worship as they deem necessary or essential to connect with their creator.” Jefferson suggested that the “limitation” was on the state’s power over religious expression (in this Vice President Pence is accurate in his assessment of the Progressive Left). In Jefferson’s mind, religious communities should be free to allow various approaches to worship God. Many historians indeed believe that the very reason that the Christian church flourished in the United States was that the Founders encouraged a system that enabled open competition in the religious marketplace – a free market for faith. In Jefferson’s mind, there should be a wall, but the “wall” kept the state out of religious affairs.  

It is essential in this entire discussion to remember that the Constitution applies to the Federal government and its relationship to the individual states. The Bill of Rights (and in Virginia, the Virginia Bill of Religious Liberty) was inserted primarily to protect individuals and the states from the intrusion of a powerful federal government, like England, into space that should be governed by local and state systems. One should not read, for example, the fact that God is not mentioned in the Constitution as evidence that the Founders did not believe religion or the worship of God had a place in the broader culture or even in politics. Many of the other documents, state constitutions and local laws, clearly blended religion with government and, in some cases, even created established churches. What the Founders wanted to limit was the development of an autocracy (perhaps one like Hamilton wanted). They assumed that “religion” – systems of belief and worship – would consistently influence states and politics in the American experiment. They hoped that freedom and reason would work together to produce a flourishing society and they believed strongly that this would not occur in a system (like Europe or Islam) where a single church was approved by the state. 

Finally, I believe it is common consensus among historians that the Founders also agreed that religion was the primary place that order and law were taught and encouraged. There were no public schools in the Federal period – the church (in its various forms) ran the (soon-to-be) great universities and also what we would know as the K-12 system. If one examines the curriculum of the time it is clear that “morality” was intertwined with general learning and the encouragement of a belief in God. Even Jefferson encouraged such systems. I am citing here the leaders most would consider the most “liberal” of our Founders (I could have as well included Benjamin Franklin). If I were to include the more rigorous Christian Founders, the comments would be fully supportive of the importance of religion to the maintenance of a successful Republic. 

Perhaps you believe I have evaded the real question, “is Christian nationalism, defined as a political system dominated by a particular religious faith, an approach that is supported by the Founders and one that we should “return” to today?” I share with the Founders – at least most of them – that the federal government should not be an advocate for specific approaches to religious faith. Thus, if Christian “nationalists” are those who argue for the power of the state to enforce the belief and practice of Christians – then their approach is not supported by history (at least as our Founders understood a republican form of government) or one I share.  

I do share with the Founders the understanding that religious faith is essential to morality and ethics and, as such, the state has an interest in seeing religious communities flourish. While it should not use the power of the government to prioritize religious organizations above others, neither should it limit the religious expression and commitments of its citizens through its power. Like Jefferson articulated, the government should be restrained in its efforts to limit freedom of religious expression – “a wall of separation” should be present.  But the people should bring their whole selves in service of the republic and that includes their religious understandings and commitments.