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Rebecca Koerselman’s post earlier this week about the “Competing Narratives” of American history struck a nerve with me.

For decades I’ve been giving presentations for community groups and church adult-education programs on the question: “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” I’ve worked hard to answer the question truthfully, a task that requires a fair bit of nuance and complexity.

Has it done any good? Hard to tell from the public conversation—or shouting match—over the question. The prevailing options seem stark and simple. The Founders were godly men pursing divine inspiration and biblical principles in designing the new nation. Or, they were Deists in theology and resolute secularists in their political thinking, dedicated to the complete separation of church and state.

In fact, neither of those statements is true, and the muddled middle where truth lies can only be sorted out by asking some further questions. For instance:

  • Which “founding” are we talking about: Massachusetts Bay in 1630 or the Constitutional Convention of 1787? The first clearly qualifies as intentionally Christian in character; the second does not. But the first was only regional, not national, in scope and happened long before an independent United States was even a day-dream.
  • The “Founders” of 1787: the national elite in Philadelphia, or leaders on the state and local level? The former were close to resolute secularists in operation; the latter, depending on the locality, less so.
  • Furthermore, Founding Fathers or Founding Mothers? Think of poor Thomas Jefferson up at Monticello surrounded by women talking all the time about Jesus and the state of their souls.

Then there is a conceptual issue that needs to be clarified against a backdrop of historical development. “Separation of church and state,” famously, does not appear in the Constitution. It originated, rather, in a letter Jefferson wrote to (wait for it) good pious Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut who were suspicious of the established Congregational church of their state. The separation clause became an operational principle of constitutional interpretation much later. Then too, separation of church and state is one thing, but separation of religion and society is quite another. And the 1787 Founders’ relatively tiny state has become much, much larger (along with most other institutions) over time, making tidy lines of separation harder to define.

One more historical development. If the USA was not founded as a Christian nation, it soon became one socially and culturally. Churches had a higher profile and greater weight across the nation by 1850 than any time before. And while that may sound like—and actually was—good news for the Christian cause, it also held some bad news: namely, that the churches’ growth curve in the early republic eerily paralleled that of slavery; that on this greatest moral challenge, American Christians spoke with increasingly divided and adversarial voices; and that the nation’s most profound political failure—the Civil War—was also a religious civil war, pitting ardent Christians against each other. Being “Christian” is no guarantee of moral or political clarity.
There’s a lot more to say on the matter but that can wait for another time.

I offer the above as one example of the informed, nuanced voice that’s regularly on offer here at The Twelve. The type of voice that our perplexed and acrimonious times need. I hope that, on this last day of The Twelve’s fund drive, you’ll give us a token of your financial support if you haven’t already done so. Even more, that you’ll keep on reading and thinking and caring about good Christian journalism. We appreciate it!

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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. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

4 Comments

  • Allan Janssen says:

    And then there is Manhattan — where the Dutch forebears of what is now the RCA settled. Which was not colonized for religious purposes. Russsell Shorto’s book offers yet another narrative of America’s “founding.”

  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    Indeed, history — especially of a nation like the United States — is nothing if not incredibly full of nuance.

    Perhaps one of the questions to ask is why questioners constantly ask a question like, “Was America founded as a Christian nation?” Were the question asked by the opposing attorney for the other side in litigation, I’d object to the form of the question, and argue that it couldn’t be meaningfully answered because it was too ambiguous. In other words, if we ask questions that lack “nuance and complexity,” how can we expect answers that are not similarly defective?

  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    Speaking of the need for “nuance” (as this article does), I just noticed the post-article blurp about the author, about whom it is said, “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.”

    The USA’s descent into its current mortal illness??? This gratuitous, backhanded political poke in a blurb about the author who correctly but ironically points out the need for nuance when discussing such un-nuanced questions like “Was America founded as a Christian nation?” causes me to re-ask the question that is the title of this article.

    Perhaps we just live in a time that generally abhors nuance, that favors bumper sticker either-or thinking, even when bemoaning our ability not to be nuanced. Perhaps we need to realize that more often than we care to admit, we ask questions, including publications like Reformed Journal, that are DESIGNED to pick a fight rather than invite thoughtful, dispassionate, nuanced discussion.

    So the title is a really good and timely question: “Can We Handle Complexity?”

    • Jessica A Groen says:

      Doug, every year at this season, I listen often to (sometimes to a live performance of) the rousing bass aria from Handel’s Messiah, “Why Do the Nations?”

      Why do they so furiously rage together? Why do the peoples of those nations imagine empty things? Those questions are so relevant, not just to the lyric writer of that famous second song of the Psalter, but to patriots of any geopolitical entity in 2018. Does any powerful nation-state or empire, of any era, have the exceptional origin story, or raison d’etre, or bright future, to evade an eventual unravelling from its own mortality or illness? These are not “pick-a-fight” questions, they are foundational “my-hope-is-built-on-nothing-less-than ________” questions. Peterson’s paraphrase of this song moves from the question part of Psalm 2 to this part:

      “Let me tell you what God said next.
      He said, ‘You’re my son,
      And today is your birthday.
      What do you want? Name it:
      Nations as a present? continents as a prize?
      You can command them all to dance for you,
      Or throw them out with tomorrow’s trash.’ ”

      Maybe that Psalm is too passionate, non-nuanced, and politically poking for us, but Advent season annually invites us into these difficult questions and answers. Will we react like Herod, or the shepherds, when a manger-cribbed child is gifted the world? Gifted it with words that steal fealty and reliance from the border checkpoints and national summit meetings we have constructed with our centuries of confidence-in-princes faith?

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