In today’s column in The Washington Post Michael Gerson argues, quite emphatically, that “America is not a Christian country and has never been, for historical, theological and philosophical reasons.”
He attempts to prove this in three steps:
First, he argues, the United States was not founded as a Christian nation because the founding fathers were religiously diverse in their beliefs. Gerson is absolutely right about this. One of my big pet-peeves is people talking about the “beliefs of the founding fathers” as if they spoke in some kind of unified fashion. (I must confess I am guilty of this myself).
But I wonder how helpful the religious beliefs of the founding fathers are to deciphering whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Could an unorthodox Christian founder still see the need for a religious establishment–even a Christian one? Could an orthodox Christian founder argue against the idea of a uniquely Christian nation? (The answer, at least to the latter question, is yes).
(One minor point–Gerson calls Jefferson a deist who flirted with atheism. I don’t think he was, but it all depends on how loosely one defines deism. You can read more about this in my forthcoming Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction).
Second, Gerson argues that America was not founded as a Christian nation because “American religious communities were often strong supporters of disestablishment.” This is partly true. Some denominations–like the Congregationalists in New England–were staunch supporters of the American Revolution, but still favored establishment. Patrick Henry favored a loosely Protestant establishment in Virginia. Some anti-Federalists rejected the U.S. Constitution because it did not promote some type of religious establishment. John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams clearly advocated something close to a generic Christian establishment.
The more I study mid-Atlantic Presbyterians during the American Revolution the more it seems that they would have been quite happy to make Presbyterianism an established religion in these colonies.
Gerson buys completely into a Whig view that understands the American Revolution in terms of religious liberty. The heroes of this narrative are Baptists such as Isaac Backus or John Leland who teamed with “deists” like Jefferson to promote religious freedom. While this position has its merits, and it has been argued quite well recently by Thomas Kidd in God of Liberty, it is a contested position among historians. Of course Gerson is writing a 700-800 op-ed piece, so he can’t have all the nuance that a monograph or piece of scholarship might have. Fair enough. I am glad to see Gerson tackling such an issue.
Third, Gerson argues that America was not founded as a Christian nation because “America’s Founders were informed by a Jewish and Christian understanding of human nature. Since humans are autonomous moral beings created in God’s image, freedom of conscience is essential to their dignity.”
I think Gerson is right about this, but it does not explain the fact that many states continued to try to forge Christian societies even after the Revolution was over. Did the founders only apply the Imago Dei to the national government?
Moreover, there are many who argue that the United States is a Christian nation precisely because of this God-given understanding of rights. I was just chatting with one of them the other day.
But perhaps I am revealing too much. To see some of these arguments fleshed out you will need to wait until Was America Founded as a Christian Nation appears in February.
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