If you are ever in need of a sure-fire dinner conversation starter (or 'stopper' for that matter), just bring up the issue of whether or not America was founded by Our Founders (who else could have done it?) to be 'A Christian Nation', 'a shining light on a hill' and 'the last great hope on earth'.
You'll either talk way into the wee hours of the morning and consume many bottles of your best wine. Or your guests will suddenly remember they left the gas on in their stove and 'We just have to leave....RIGHT! THIS! VERY! SECOND!'
One of the things that fascinated us over 12 years of public service on Capitol Hill was to see the ebbs and flows of efforts to bring personal ethics and religious beliefs into the public domain by way of legislation and amendments. It is not as 'easy', or 'simple', as it seems.
On the one side, you have the 'Absolutists' who assert that Yahweh Himself wrote the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution on two stone tablets with His Righteous Finger just like he did with the two tablets He gave to Moses, the first of which Moses smashed to the ground in a fit of pique and anger. (at his nation's sin...imagine that)
On the other, you have the 'Deniers' who assert that we are just some sort of cosmic 'accident' that spontaneously combusted out of nowhere and therefore, there is 'No Heaven, and No Religion, Too!' (with apologies to John Lennon) so 'keep all talk of religious beliefs out of my face!'
Fortunately for us in the 21st century, neither extreme seems to be 100% 'right' or else we would not have an America in which we would want to live. None of us would for the reasons stated below by our friend, Cheri Harder who heads up the very fine Trinity Forum in Northern Virginia and who writes about this tension about as well as we have ever read anywhere:
'Next week, the Trinity Forum will host what promises to be a fascinating and provocative Evening Conversation with historians Thomas Kidd and Bill McClay on the religious history of the American Revolution.
It has long been assumed that "victors write history"; the arrangement of historical events into a narrative is shaped by the triumphant rather than the vanquished. The founding of America is no different; and while certain facts are undeniable (e.g., the United States did declare – and then win – their independence from England as a colony), one can be fairly sure that British students learn a slightly different version of the American Revolution (or at least spend less time on the subject) than their American counterparts.
Even within the States, one hears different interpretations of America's founding, and the philosophical, intellectual, political, and religious convictions which animated it. Some assert that ours was definitively a "Christian nation"; others point to the flexible deism of prominent founders Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and others to suggest that Enlightenment thought guided the Founders more than faith convictions.
But whatever the current ideological and historical divides between evangelicals and skeptics, one of the most interesting aspects of the founding was the unusual alliance between them – which ultimately ushered in the religious liberty we now expect as an intrinsic human right.
At the time of the founding, as strange as it may seem, New England was far more religious – and churched – than the South. Most of the original colonies had established a state church (generally Anglican or Presbyterian) which, in some cases, eagerly prosecuted - and sometimes persecuted – such wayward religious factions as the Baptists, evangelicals, and Quakers. These minority Christian groups harbored no hopes for dominance, but they did advocate for the freedom to worship as they saw fit – and made common cause with the deists and Unitarians to oppose the civil authority of established churches (the Christian "power centers" of their day) to secure the freedom for full religious expression, unhindered by the privileging of one denomination over another.
As Professor Kidd noted in his insightful work God of Liberty:
"The evangelicals wanted disestablishment so they could freely preach the gospel; the rationalists and deists wanted disestablishment because they felt an enlightened government should not punish people for their religious views. The combination of the two agendas would transform America, helping make it both intensely religious and religiously free."
Trinity Forum Founder Os Guinness has written eloquently about the dangers of both a 'sacred public square' (which establishes religion) or a 'naked public square' (which banishes faith, or marginalizes it to the private and pietistic).
It is worth noting that one of the greatest achievements of the founding – the securing of religious freedom and disestablishment of religion – came about precisely because it was in the best interest of both the faithful and the skeptical to ensure that the public square neither privileged nor penalized the practice of faith, but secured the freedom to think, speak, and worship publicly, as well as privately. (italics added by us)
In the midst of the cultural battles between those who would marginalize or banish faith from the public square, and those who assert the cultural predominance of a "Christian America" it is worth reflecting on the gift secured by the alliance of the devout, the doubters, and the Deists.
The Trinity Forum'
(to learn more about The Trinity Forum, go to http://www.ttf.org/index, join and learn...you'll be glad you did)
- Thomas S. Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2010)
- The Trinity Forum, The Great Experiment: Faith and Freedom in the American Republic, Os Guinness edited with Ginger Koloszyc, (The Trinity Forum, 2001)
- Paul F. Boller, To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Liberty, (Trinity Forum Reading, 1997)
- Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, (Trinity Forum Reading, 2010)