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On the Myth of America’s “Christian Foundations”

By November 11, 2011 One Comment

We can say for sure that the United States was not founded on a Christian basis. How do we know? From the testimony of prominent public theologians on both sides of the Civil War. Since that was an epochal conflict over who held true title to the American nation, we should credit its voices with knowing something about the nature of that title.

On the Northern side, we can call on Horace Bushnell, pastor of North Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut, and one of the best-known theological writers of his day. As befit the Puritan heritage he so cherished, Bushnell also sounded forth on any number of social and political issues, to considerable effect. He became something of a chaplain to the rising business-professional class in the urban North.

From the Confederacy, we can listen in on Benjamin Morgan Palmer, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans and a foremost visionary of the noble destiny that God held out for the Southern cause. The promise and the duties that destiny exacted were the burden of “National Responsibility Before God,” the sermon Palmer delivered on the Fast Day called  by the recently inaugurated President Jefferson Davis for June 13, 1861.

Palmer and Bushnell were ardent enemies as to sectional loyalties and in assaying the righteousness of Southern secession from the Union. But on one thing they fully agreed: the Civil War had broken out because of the faulty basis laid for that Union in the Constitution of 1787. That document, both said, misconceived of government as a “mechanical” institution binding together individuals in an artificial way. But its deeper error, they continued, lay in its robust secularism. The Union fell apart, Bushnell mourned—secession was a glorious necessity, Palmer asserted—because the Constitution had left God out of the picture.

Here’s Palmer:

We bewail then, in the first place, the fatal error of our Fathers in not making a clear national recognition of God at the outset of the nation’s career. . . . It is true that in the eloquent paper which recited their grievances before the world, and proclaimed the Colonies independent of the British throne, the signers of the Declaration appealed to the Divine Omniscience “for the rectitude of their intentions,” and pledged their faith to each other “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” It is therefore the more remarkable that, eleven years later, in that great instrument by which the several States were linked together in a common nationality, and which was at once the public charter and the paramount law of the land, not a word is found from which one could possibly infer that such a being as God ever existed. The omission was a fearful one; and it is not surprising that He who proclaims his jealousy of his own glory, should let fall the blow which has shattered that nation. 

And here’s Bushnell, in the memorable address he gave at the Yale commencement in 1865. “Our Obligations to the Dead” honored those of his fellow alumni who had fallen in the war. These, their brothers, Bushnell told the gathered throng, had “taken the sword to be God’s ministers” in redeeming the nation from its original sin. That sin was not slavery, however. No, the “wretched fault of our people” was to “have so nearly ignored the moral foundation of our government.”

Regarding it as a merely human creation, we have held it only by the tenure of convenience. Hence came the secession . . . . Bitter has been the cost of our pitifully weak philosophy. In these rivers of blood we have now bathed our institutions and they are henceforth to be hallowed in our sight. Government is now become Providential—no more a mere creature of our human will, but a grandly moral affair. . . . The stamp of God’s sovereignty is also upon it; for he has beheld their blood upon its gate-posts and made it the sign of his passover.

Not just formal foundations, then, but an actual redemption, a national blood sacrifice that atoned for primordial sin.

People who look for some “Christian foundations” for the American republic always look in the wrong place. For if the United States was not founded as a Christian nation, it soon became one. The faith probably reached its greatest public impact in the 1850s. Alas, that did nothing to avert or lessen the greatest single political catastrophe in American history—it probably made it worse. It certainly made the Civil War also a religious civil war. Both sides read the same Bible and prayed to the same God, President Lincoln observed in his Second Inaugural Address. Their leading clerical voices also both said that the war was necessary to give the nation a Christian basis that it never had, that it had intentionally spurned.

Theological and political “conservatives” today look to ministers like Palmer as tribunes of their cause, just as Northern liberals for generations invoked Bushnell as their pioneer. Both sides could well heed what their masters said about the (ir)religious character of 1787. 

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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