Notes on “Christian” America
(A Myth That Won’t Die)
Marshalling an impressive array of census statistics, they [the authors] argue that, contrary to popular misconception, religiosity was fairly weak in Colonial America. About 17% of the colonists belonged to churches. If this proposition is true, then the oft-repeated claim that our forefathers were religious believers, is simply untrue. Moreover, the claim that moral purity accompanied religious piety at the founding of this nation is a myth. Nor were so-called traditional family values in dominance. For example, the authors cite data that one in three births from 1761-1800 occurred within less than nine months of marriage, despite harsh laws against fornication. They also say that the taverns in Boston were more jammed on Saturday night than the churches were on Sunday morning. [The Church in America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark (1992).]
The facts of history show that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly or even predominantly Christian. There is no lost golden age to which American Christians may return. In addition, a careful study of history will also show that evangelicals themselves were often partly to blame for the spread of secularism in contemporary American life. … We do not want to contend that Christian values have been absent from American history. On the contrary, there has been much commendable Christian belief, practice, and influence in the history of the United States and the colonies which formed the new country. Their presence, we agree, justifies a picture of the United States as a singularly religious country. … And we feel that its history is liberally sprinkled with genuine Christian influences radiating from lives of exemplary belief. However, we still wish to call into question the assumption that just because many Christians have done many Christian deeds in America, the country enjoys simply a “Christian heritage.” There are too many problems with this assumption. … One set of questions has to do with how much Christian action is required to make a whole society Christian. Another way of stating the same issue is to pose it negatively — how much evil can a society display before we disqualify it as a Christian society? These kinds of questions are pertinent for all of early American history. (The Search for Christian America, pp. 17-19.)
When we look at the Puritans of the 1600s, do we emphasize only their sincere desire to establish Christian colonies, and their manifest desire to live by the rule of Scripture? Or do we focus rather on the stealing of Indian lands, and their habit of displacing and murdering these Indians wherever it was convenient? Again, do we place more emphasis on the Massachusetts Puritans’ desire to worship God freely in the new world, or their persecution (and, in four cases, execution) of Quakers who also wished to be free to worship God in Massachusetts? … Do we praise American patriots for wanting to be free of Parliaments restraints upon their freedom, or condemn them for taking away freedom of speech and press from their opponents? Likewise, do we praise American patriots for their defense of “natural law” and “unalienable right,” or condemn them for failing to heed Paul’s injunction in Romans 13 to honor their legitimate rulers? … American patriots began to speak about the republican political principles of the Revolution as if these had an almost saving power. Many Christian patriots regarded Americans who were loyal to Great Britain or who wanted to stay out of the conflict as much more that just politically mistaken. They were rather “accursed of God.” Then in the early years of the United States, most Christian bodies took the basically secular principles of the American Revolution as the guiding light for organizing churches, interpreting the Bible, and expressing the Christian faith. (The Search for Christian America, pp. 19-20.)
The two most significant events in America during the 1700s were the Great Awakening and the American Revolution. The first was a broad revival of Christianity that swept through different parts of the colonies from the late 1720s to the early 1750s, with its most visible manifestations in the early 1740s. The second involved a War for Independence in the 1770s and the creation of a vast new nation, the United States, after Americans defeated the world’s greatest military power of the day. … The implication is sometimes drawn that if the American Revolution was in fact grounded in the Great Awakening, then the Revolution must be considered as much a work of God as the revival itself. … Does such a view represent good history? And does it represent clear Christian thinking? Yes, definite connections do exist between the Awakening and the Revolution. But, no, these connections provide neither a sufficient explanation for the Revolution, nor a satisfactory Christian evaluation of it. … History shows that the Great Awakening did not lead to permanent gains in the number of people either attending church or formally becoming members. In the last years of the decade 1740-1750, the number of those joining church by personal confession of faith actually declined to levels below those of the 1730s. The result was that the number of people making profession of faith and joining churches for the entire period 1730-1750 amounted to just about the same rate for the entire population as had been witnessed for the thirty or so years before 1730. Church members never amounted to more than a third of the population of New England adults, and may never have been as high as 5 percent of adults in the southern colonies. … We are forced to conclude that whatever kinds of connections existed between the revival and the Revolution, it is not appropriate to consider them as two expressions of the same spirit. … Yet, Christians leaders spoke as if it were more important for fellow believers to make the proper choice against Britain than it was to maintain spiritual unity around the gospel. It became common for believers during the Revolution simply to equate loyalty to the new nation and loyalty to Christ. (The Search for Christian America, pp. 48-63.)
– Ethan Allen was one of the most prominent Deists in early America and an ardent opponent of the divinity of Christ and the supernatural character of Scripture. … George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were brilliant leaders — all genuinely religious but not specifically Christian. Thomas Jefferson’s views are perhaps best known. As an old man he summarized the basic religious convictions of his entire life by affirming that Jesus’ doctrines “tend all to the happiness of man …, that there is only one God …, that there is a future state of rewards and punishments, that to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.” For the rest — the deity of Christ and his resurrection, the Trinity, the divine authority of Scripture — these, according to Jefferson, were the “deliria of crazy imaginations.” Franklin saw Christ as primarily a moral teacher and true religion as an expression of perfectible human nature. Washington’s faith was also deeply moral and profoundly humane, but not particularly Christian — his religion was a social performance. “He seems never to have taken communion; … and he did not invariably go to church on Sundays.” He attended his parish church only about ten times a year in the decade before the Revolution. The God of the founding fathers was a benevolent deity, … This God had made the world an orderly and understandable place. He had created mankind with great skill and imbued him with nearly infinite potential. They were utterly convinced that human exertion and goodwill could make America a nearly ideal place. They were not, in any traditional sense, Christian. They had found in God what they most admired in men. … They did incorporate into their politics many elements compatible with Christianity. It should not be surprising that most of the founding fathers paid some attention to Scripture, for they lived at a time when educated people in the Atlantic community had a broad knowledge of the Bible. … Yet, John Adams spoke of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation and of the deity of Christ, as “this awful blasphemy” which it was necessary to get rid of. Thomas Jefferson, though willing to contribute money to Bible societies, could not accept the canonical accounts of Jesus as the Son of God (he twice edited the New Testament in order to remove the objectionable, unreasonable parts — see next item). (The Search for Christian America, pp. 67-75)
– Driven by a desire to select what he considered the most attractive and authentic material from the Gospels, Thomas Jefferson pasted up 46 pages’ worth of his favored passages. He took translations of the Bible from several languages — Greek, Latin, French and English (the King James Version) — and arranged his selections in parallel columns. (The English version has now been reissued as The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Appropriately, publisher Beacon Press is an arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Jefferson’s religious outlook fit the budding Unitarian movement of his day, although he never formally affiliated with it, but did once say, “There is not a young man now living in the U.S. who will not die a Unitarian.” That forecast was obviously mistaken.) The Old Testament was of no interest to Jefferson, who regarded Jesus as a reformer of “the depraved religion of his own country.” He further repudiated the writings of the Apostle Paul, whom he considered the “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” He also eliminated much of the material from the four Gospels, whose compilers he castigated as “groveling authors” with “feeble minds.” Jefferson censored out any hints that Jesus was God, or even had an unusual relationship with God, and all supernatural events. “No miracles, no metaphysics, no mystery,” summarizes one writer. All that’s left are parables and aphorisms. “He made a Socrates out of Jesus.” Deciding what to keep was easy, Jefferson wrote John Adams, because it was “as distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” What was left at the end was “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Jefferson told another correspondent that the discards were “so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture,” and wrote yet another that they reeked of “vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications.” Jefferson did not employ technical study of ancient manuscripts nor newly emerging theories from European liberals about literary sources that might underlie the biblical texts: He simply picked what he liked. His anti-miracle mindset forced him to awkwardly chop some passages in half. In Matthew 12, he included Jesus’ assertion that it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath but eliminated the subsequent healing (verse 13). In John 9, he retained Jesus’ statement that a man’s blindness was not punishment for sin but dropped the actual cure of his handicap (verses 4-34). (Source: AP Story by Richard N. Ostling: “Founding Father Jefferson radically rewrote Bible,” 7/21/01, Bloomington Herald-Times.)
– The founding fathers may have read the Bible, but explicit references to Scripture or Christian principles are conspicuously absent in the political discussions of the nation’s early history. Biblical texts do not appear in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the new state charters. Moreover, conscious reference to Biblical or Christian themes is also almost entirely absent from the places where it might be expected — the pamphlet literature advocating independence, the various stated debates over the Constitution, and the political disputes of the 1790s. In short, the political spokesmen who read the Bible in private rarely, if ever, betrayed that acquaintance openly in public. … The American Revolution was led by men who were not very religious: At best, the founding fathers only passively believed in organized Christianity and at worst they scorned and ridiculed it. So long as religion supported political harmony, few of them were all that concerned with what a person believed. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, had no use for a particular evangelical clergyman because “he wanted to make persons good Presbyterians rather than good citizens.” (The Search for Christian America, pp. 81-107.)
– David Barton, a staunch “Christian” America advocate, wrote the book America: To Pray or Not to Pray? In it he quotes from the notes of the “James Madison Debates on the Federal Convention of 1787.” Barton quotes a speech by Ben Franklin out of the Madison Journal, requesting that the Convention turn to prayer. Barton cites only part of the quote, then concludes that “Franklin’s rebuff rearranged the priorities of the delegates — they indeed did stop to pray. They adjourned, and for almost three days they prayed, attended Church and listened to ministers challenge and inspire them.” As Christians, we love to hear that our founding fathers prayed. It sends warm fuzzy feelings down our spine. But the fact is that the Journal he quoted said nothing to confirm his story. It is true that on Thursday, June 28th, Franklin made the motion for the convention to turn to divine guidance. Barton wrote that “those three days were the turning point in the success of their deliberations.” But Madison writes in his Journal for Friday, June 29th, that the Convention resumed Saturday, June 30th with all the delegates there, including Franklin. They adjourned late Saturday and started Monday, July 2nd. When did the three days of prayer and church attendance to “listen to the ministers” take place?
– A letter written on March 9, 1790 by Ben Franklin to Ezra Stiles, a Congregational minister and president of Yale College, responding to specific questions by Stiles regarding Franklin’s “opinion concerning Jesus of Nazareth” (written when sick at 85 years old — Franklin died a few weeks later on 4/17/90):
“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England some doubts as to his [Jesus] divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as it probably has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed; especially as I do not perceive, that the Supreme take it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world with any particular marks of his displeasure.”
By Ben Franklin’s own admission, Jesus had good ideas on morals. Like most Deists-Universalists, however, Franklin thought Jesus was a good philosopher and a good man, but he had doubts as to His divinity. Franklin had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian, but could not embrace the doctrines such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc. Was Franklin a follower of Christ? Barton often uses this quote by Ben Franklin: “He who shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.” Philosopher Franklin had practical wisdom, but apparently Franklin did not believe in original sin or the need for Christ’s atonement. Franklin artfully dodged Ezra Stile’s question of Christ’s divinity, choosing to dismiss the concept on the grounds that the corruption that ‘his religion’ had acquired somehow made the question irrelevant. How could he have been a Christian when he was not sure of the Deity of Christ or of the atonement by His blood?
– Ben Franklin the anti-Semite: in an address before the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 — “In whatever country Jews have settled in any great numbers, they have lowered its moral tone, depreciated its commercial integrity, have segregated themselves and have not been assimilated, have sneered at and tried to undermine the Christian religion, have built up a state within a state, and have, when opposed, tried to strangle that country to death financially. If you do not exclude them from the United States in the Constitution, in less than 200 years they will have swarmed in such great numbers that they will dominate and devour the land and change our form of government. If you do not exclude them, in less than 200 years our descendants will be working in the fields to furnish the substance while they will be in the counting house rubbing their hands. I warn you, gentlemen, if you do not exclude the Jews for all time, your children will curse you in your graves. Jews, gentlemen, are Asiatics; they will never be otherwise.”
– Christian America advocates want us to believe that Supreme Court Justice David Josiah Brewer declared this a Christian nation over 100 years ago. And on its face, this appears to be the case — Supreme Court decision, Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S., 457, 471, (1892) — “Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind (the Lord Jesus Christ). It is impossible that it should be otherwise: and in this sense and to this extent our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian … this is a Christian people. This is historically true. From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation … we find everywhere a clear recognition of the same truth … these, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.”
But Justice Brewer later wrote a 98-page booklet explaining his views in greater detail. He wrote: “But in what sense can (the United States) be called a Christian nation?” asked Brewer. “Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or the people are compelled in any manner to support it. On the contrary, the Constitution specifically provides that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ Neither is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either in fact or in name Christians. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within its borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all.” Continues Brewer, “Nor is it Christian in the sense that a profession of Christianity is a condition of holding office or otherwise engaging in public service, or essential to recognition either politically or socially. In fact, the government as a legal organization is independent of all religions.”
And when referring to a New York supreme court case he wrote: “Christianity is not the legal religion of the State, as established by law. If it were, it would be a civil or political institution, which it is not; but this is not inconsistent with the idea that it is in fact, and ever has been, the religion of the people.” This means beyond question, Brewer said that there was to be NO official legal Christian State Church established by law.
– Few Americans know that Thomas Jefferson wrote, in a letter to John Adams (April 11, 1823) — “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” Or know that Jefferson wrote many sneers at “priestcraft” — that he was denounced as a “howling atheist” — and that his famous vow of “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” which is engraved in his memorial in Washington, D.C., was written of the clergy. Or know that Thomas Paine wrote in The Age of Reason (1794) — “All national institutions of churches whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit. … My own mind is my own church.” Abraham Lincoln never joined a church, and once wrote a skeptical treatise, which friends burned in a stove, to save him from wrecking his political career.
– In 1863, the National Reform Association, a coalition of people from 11 Protestant denominations, sought to “secure such an amendment to the Constitution of the United States as will declare the nation’s allegiance to Jesus Christ and its acceptance of the moral laws of the Christian religion, and so indicate that this a Christian nation.” A year later, the groups petitioned Congress to amend the preamble of the Constitution so that it would read: “We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union.” The amendment was finally rejected in 1874, but similar resolutions have been introduced as recently as 1965. (11/20/92, Religious News Service)
– Freemasonry was a huge influence at the time of America’s founding. Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and many others were Masons. (After Washington’s presidency, he went on to become the Worshipful Master of a Masonic lodge in the state of Virginia.) America’s Great Seal of the United States was designed by “illuminated Masons” and adopted by Congress in 1782. With the blessings of Thomas Jefferson, the Great Seal dedicated to America as the nation that would bring forth the “New Order of the Ages.” The U.S. one dollar bill sports the Great Seal. On the Front of the seal, the Latin phrase above the eagle, “E Pluribus Unum,” means “giving order to chaos by uniting many into one.” This is the message of Genesis about the first Tower of Babel, the roots of Babylon, where the many attempted to declare their independence from God and unite into one “lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). The back of the seal, surrounding the occultic pyramid, reads “Coeptis” and “Novus Ordo Seclorum.” Read together, these mean “announcing the birth, creation, or arrival” of the “New Secular Order.” The Roman numerals at the bottom of the pyramid represent the year 1776 as the birth of the nation that was to bring forth the New Order of the Ages. At America’s birth, this country was sealed with the Seal of Babylon, not the seal of Christ as many would like us to believe. (Concerned Christians, Jan./Feb. 1990)
Biblical Discernment Ministries – Revised 8/01