Over at Huffpost Religion, Gabe Lyons writes that many young evangelicals are taking a “third way” when it comes to the idea that the United States is a Christian nation. Here is a taste:
Rather than view America’s founding as either wholly secular or sacred, many claim to believe that we are a country influenced by Christian ideas. On the one hand, they recognize that many early patriots and politicians were deeply influenced by their faith. No doubt such influence can readily be seen in the many American icons and traditions where God is acknowledged.
On the other hand, they are quick to point out that being influenced by such ideas does not equal the establishment of a Christian state. They uphold that the founders did not mean to legislate or authorize any one religious viewpoint over others. As the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by John Adams and ratified unanimously by the U.S. Senate in 1797, states, “the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…”
It seems that young evangelicals see the value of thinking historically about religion and the nation’s past. This is a major theme of my forthcoming Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.
Tom Van Dyke says
A nation is not merely its government. Many of us love America; few ever particularly love our government.
So too, “religion” is not synonymous with faith, nor even with “revelation.”
Hence the equivocal nature of “church” in “church and state” or the Treaty of Tripoli's “government” as the “state,” not the “nation” as in “Christian nation.
In the Roman empire, there was a state religion, the head of state could be pontifex maximus. Formally, the British monarch was head of the state church as well. But this was never remotely the American model, not even among the semi-theocratic Puritans.
I participate in a couple of other fora, one historical and one philosophical, and it seems to me the discussions are suffering from us conflating these terms.
“Religion” carries a sense of publicness and community [as opposed to faith], and must be seen in that light.
John Fea says
Tom Van Dyke says
Thx, John. I'm working on making it more coherent. The original idea was where “religion” fits into political science, and not just in the American context, and in contradistinction to what we might call ethos and the difference between the spheres of government and “society.”
I think a useful distinction can be made between faith and religion. Religion carries a more public and institutional aspect—and most important to the Founders, a factional one.
In this light, “In God We Trust” is faith, but not religion.