In God We Trust?
In Search of Christian America
By: Mark King
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Let me say at the outset that as I thank God for the privilege of being born and raised in the USA. It is an incredible blessing and I don't want anything I write below to be misunderstood. Furthermore, I think the United States has been an incredible force for good in the world.
I grew up in Christian America. I grew up in a country that had been founded by Christians on Christian principles with the expectation that its citizens would be Christians who were governed by laws that generally enforced Christian morality. However, there were new ominous forces on the horizon that were attempting to suppress Christianity in America and these forces were gaining ground. Only a forceful response from the "moral majority" would be able to stem the tide. Political action and activism were prescribed. Although God had blessed America because of her Christian founding and principles, we were in danger of losing God's favor and indeed incurring his wrath as the nation abandoned these principles.
I believed that the founders were godly men who were led by God to found our nation. The founding documents, primarily the constitution, while not divinely inspired in the same sense as Scripture, were nonetheless composed with God's guidance. It did concern me that the Constitution allowed slavery, but I assumed that in some way that must have been OK since God was guiding the founding fathers. But the belief that God was specifically guiding them put me in the place of having to defend whatever they did — a position I did not like.
As I began to question my original assumptions, I came across three different books that helped me reevaluate those assumptions and come to what I think is a more historically and biblically responsible position.
The first book is This Rebellious House: American History and the Truth of Christianity (IVP) by evangelical historian Stephen Keillor. He writes out of the same concern that had bothered me: If America is a Christian nation, defending America becomes tantamount to defending Christianity. Keillor asserts that America was never a Christian nation and that the evidence for this assertion is clear. The nation was founded in rebellion against the duly authorized authorities which is contrary to New Testament teaching. Beyond that, if you look at the treatment of the slaves, Native Americans, and immigrant workers over the years you would see that America was never acting as a Christian nation. The nation has abandoned itself to the "pursuit of happiness" found in autonomy and prosperity. While the founders and population at large may have been culturally Christian, this does not mean that the majority were believers in the New Testament sense of the word.
The second book I encountered was American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham (Random House). Meacham looks at quotes from the founding fathers about Jesus and the Bible. I had heard many of these quotes while I was growing up, and they were entered as evidence for the Christianity of the founding fathers and their intent to found a Christian nation. However, Meacham also gives larger context to the quotes. I had already become convinced that most of the founding fathers had a respect for Jesus as a moral teacher and for the Bible as a great book, but little beyond that. This book confirmed my previous assessment. The founders felt that if the nation were to be made up of free people, they would have to have some internal locus of control. If people live by the 10 Commandments or the Golden Rule, then society will be much more stable. The founders wanted a "civil religion" that was broad and bland enough to include all types of believers (Christians of all types, deists, various other sects). Very few (maybe one or two) actually believed in the inspiration of the Bible, the deity and resurrection of Christ, or the need for new birth by grace through faith. They would have been far more at home in what we would label today as "liberal mainline" churches. The thoroughgoing secularist is wrong in his reading of the founding fathers but so is the religious right that wants to "reclaim" our Christian heritage.
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