Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Can there be a Christian culture? Part 1: historical issues

          For a number of years now (at least as far back as the Reagan years in the 1980s, but we might find it as far back as the 50s when some folks were ranting against rock and roll because it offended their Christian sensibilities), many in the evangelical Christian church have argued that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, or at the very least that it was founded on "Christian principles" -- whatever those might be, and they are rarely specified. This position usually relies on frequent references to quotes from the "founders" (that is, those men -- womens' roles were behind the scenes and it is nearly impossible to gauge their impacts on the mindsets of their men; Abigail Adams is a noted exception -- who talked a lot and even wrote some of their thoughts) about reliance on God or an entity of higher-than-human authority, generally presumed to be the God of the Bible, during the time they were forming a national identity separate from Great Britain. Since the dominant "faith tradition" (i.e., religion) in England (as distinguished from the rest of the growing British empire) was Christianity in various forms, including both Roman and English Catholocism as well as several protestant sects, and since the founders were mostly (maybe all?) of English descent, it seems fair to assume that the founders were, as a group though not all individually, exposed to and practitioners of Christianity in some form.
          Consequently, it also seems fair to assume that their references to God -- or to the higher-than-human entity -- probably referred to the God of the Bible. Notable exceptions would be Franklin and Jefferson, who were admitted theistic humanists but not admitted Christians; and there may have been other like-minded men among the founders -- I don't know and it isn't pertinent to my train of thought here anyway. (It does seem fair to say that the idea, sprouted in the 60s and early 70s, that most of the founders were theists but not Christians was and continues to be overstated. It is interesting and perhaps significant, however, to point out that two of the three framers of the Declaration of Independence, the document that provides the foundation for a separate national identity, were theistic humanists but not avowed Christians.) Reading quotes of the founders that show they believed in the God of the Bible, relied upon Him as they planned their independence movement, during the war for independence, and after the war as they worked to create the nation they planned and fought for, and ascribed their success in that endeavor to His help and guidance provides compelling evidence that Christianity (in unspecified form or forms) was foundational to the independence movement and the national origins of the United States. 
          Opponents of the notion of an explicitly Christian United States, among them Christians and non-Christians, fall back repeatedly on the "establishment" and "free exercise" clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Probably a reaction to the establishment of the Church of England and the subsequent persecution of practitioners of other forms of Christianity in England, this portion of the First Amendment is argued by opponents of a Christian United States to represent, even establish, the notion that the United States is an explicitly secular nation, a nation founded on the existence of human rights and liberties. If one wants to see those rights and liberties as gifts from God (whom Jefferson called the "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom), that, too, is among one's human rights and liberties but is not demanded by the Constitution. This is among the foundations of the concept of the separation of Church and State, a concept often mistakenly ascribed to the Constitution although it is not specifically found there.
          As an anthropologist, admittedly among the fringe element known as archaeologists, and an erst-while historian, I have watched this on-going debate with considerable interest. Why? Well, among other things, I am an evangelical Christian. I remember being thrilled when some Christians discovered that Columbus, based on his writings, viewed his adventures as Christian endeavors in which the Kingdom of God was expanded across the globe; in fact, some folks have found within his writings that idea that, although a practicing Roman Catholic, Columbus was actually an evangelist of almost protestant proportions. Frankly, I now suspect that this argument runs afoul of  theological history and of the historical theology of the Roman Church, but I'll leave that for someone else to decide.
          I also remember being thrilled when Christians began discovering and compiling the frequent references made by the founders of the United States to their belief in and reliance on the God of the Bible. At last we could take a stand for the significance of Christianity in the founding of the nation. At last we could stand proudly among the big-name Christians who have made this nation. At last the Church could take its rightful place among the founding institutions of the nation.
          Over the years, however, I began to question the position taken by many in the evangelical Church that references to God by the founders, even the faiths of the founders, can actually be taken to mean that the founders wanted to create a Christian nation, or, barring that, that they assumed that was what they were doing anyway. I must ask the question, did the foundational nature of Christianity in the origins of the United States, which I do not deny, actually extend beyond the individual lives of the founders to become a basic or foundational part of national identity? That is, does admitting that the founders, excepting the theistic humanists, believed in and relied upon the God of the Bible during the planning and creation of the United States also require us to admit that they saw their new nation as a Christian nation?
          On the contrary, the emphasis in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution on human rights and liberties, even if "endowed by their Creator," and particularly the very first statement of the very first amendment to the Constitution, suggest to me that they did not. Rather, it suggests to me that they recognized their own adherence to tenets of Christianity (in unspecified form or forms) as individuals but did not assume that all citizens of the new United States would similarly subscribe. If we keep in mind, and we must, that there were theistic humanists among the founders and that at least two of them -- Franklin and Jefferson -- were among the framers of the two founding documents, we must admit that the admitted Christians among the group had to know that not everyone effected by creating the new nation was or would become Christian. In fact, one could probably argue that Franklin and Jefferson openly rejected Christianity while retaining their theism, and that the Christian founders had to know that, yet did not exclude the theists from the nation-forming process. Indeed, one could also speculate that, had there been Hindus, Muslims, or Taoists among the founders, they could also have been included in the process, providing, of course, they were of English or at least northern European descent. That does NOT mean the process was entirely democratic. It is a difficult to see, in hind sight, Roman Catholics, particularly of southern European background, animists, pagans, and people with greater amounts of melanin in their skin as active participants in the process. And we should keep in mind that the founders were members of socially elite subgroups of their respective communities and colonies; not just any Tom, Dick, or Harry was allowed to have his say, and no Jane, Mary, or Fannie was allowed in the door.
          In any event, there actually seems to be no historical reason, to me at least, for people to continue arguing that the United States was ever a Christian nation. That conclusion has profound implications for the modern movement(s) seeking to restore the United States to a historical identity that it clearly does not have today. If the nation was never, historically, a Christian nation, how can it return to being a Christian nation? Christians, of all people, should know that one cannot return to being something one never was.
          One can, though, become something one never was, at least sometimes. Embedded here is the concept of culture, and this will take us to part 2 of the question, can there be a Christian culture?

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