Christianity and the American Founding: Bad Religion?

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A friend who recently read my 2011 biography of Patrick Henry asked me (to paraphrase him), “Did any of the Founders argue that America needed the Christian religion, not because of its social effects, but because Americans needed salvation?” He raises a good point: for all of our arguments about religion’s role in the American Founding, we may not have considered the possibility that the Christianity of the American Founding could have produced watered-down “bad religion.”

I was reminded of this problem recently when reading Matthew J. Franck’s excellent chapter on “Christianity and Freedom in the American Founding,” in the Cambridge volume Christianity and Freedom, edited by Timothy Shah and Allen Hertzke. Franck advances the entirely sensible view that Christian ideals partnered with more secular “Enlightenment” principles as the “warp” and “woof” in the fabric of the American Founding. The strands did not always sit comfortably together, but Franck argues that they resulted in basic consensus on the animating principles of the Revolution, and the new American republic: the dignity of man, and the idea that the human person (or, at least, white male person) is “a moral agent entitled to freedom, and answerable to moral norms in the use of that freedom.”

Apotheosis of Washington - Close up of George Washington - U.S. Capitol - Public Domain - Wikimedia Commons
Apotheosis of Washington – Close up of George Washington – U.S. Capitol – Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons

Franck’s metaphor is helpful and elegant because it frees us from the unhelpful binaries often used in interpreting religion’s role in the American Founding. Some popular Christian writers will have us believe that ALL the Founders (even Thomas Jefferson!) were orthodox Christians, and that the Declaration and Constitution are virtually taken chapter-and-verse from the Bible. Some hardcore secularists, conversely, will tell us that NONE of the major Founders was a Christian, and that the Founding was an undiluted triumph of godless thought.

These extremes tell us more about these writers’ agendas than about the history of the Founding. As I argued in my book God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, the Founding saw remarkable agreement by Deists and evangelical Christians alike on religiously grounded principles such as equality by God’s common creation, the fundamental value of religious liberty, and the need for virtue. The Deists and evangelicals, and conventional Christians in between, arrived at these ideas in different ways, but these beliefs still commanded widespread (though not universal) assent, breeding a unity that provided essential ballast for the new nation.

I wonder, though, about the functional approach that even devout Christians like Patrick Henry, or New Jersey’s John Witherspoon, adopted when discussing the need for religion in American public life. Franck raises this problem when he cites George Washington’s Farewell Address, in which Washington said, “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.”

Franck asks whether Washington and the other Founders were reducing “religion to the merely useful, considering only the Christian faith’s utility in producing tractable, responsible citizens for a free republic.” Franck gives a tentative “no,” arguing that the Founders recognized that heartfelt, irreducible faith was quite common in the generation after the Great Awakening, and the Founders knew that this sincere piety, not just functional nominalist faith, was the key to producing virtue for most people.

But how much were Christian Founders giving up in their well-meaning alliance with the Deists, and other Americans who saw no special need for the regenerating work of God in a person’s heart? There was no true virtue, Jonathan Edwards had argued, outside of a converted heart which delighted in God’s glory. And true Christianity was no mere servant of a healthy American republic, it was an all-consuming commitment to a living God, and the extra-national Kingdom he was building.

I’m comfortable with the idea that Christians can have local, temporal commitments to a nation, that do not necessarily clash with commitments to the kingdom. And I am all for the influence of Christian morality on a society. But when you consider the Founders’ overwhelming agreement on America’s need for Christianity because of its usefulness to the republic, I do have to wonder about what was won and lost when Christian principles became the “warp” of the American republican fabric.

Perhaps in the future we should not just ask whether Christianity influenced the Founding, or not. Maybe we should also ask this: to the extent that Christianity did influence the Founding, did that influence damage American Christianity?

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