A Schizophrenic History

Part 1 in the Series:

Is America a Christian Nation?

By Don Enevoldsen

American democracy works because America is a Christian nation.

Such is the passionate claim of conservative evangelicals, who see in the beginning of America a biblical foundation for law and government. Juxtaposed to this belief is the equally passionate conviction of many non-evangelicals that at least one of the reasons American democracy works is the separation of church and state, by which is meant the complete prohibition of government officials from any kind of religious expression.

Evangelicals behave as though America is doomed to extinction if the number of born again Christians in government ever falls below a divinely ordained minimum percentage. For them, the notion of a Christian nation is defined as a government that openly espouses the basic doctrinal tenets of Christianity.

Non-evangelicals behave as though America is doomed to extinction if government officials are not actively prevented from any expression of Christian faith. For them, the notion that America could ever be considered a Christian nation is a fatal flaw that will lead to a tyrannical theocracy.

Both sides of this argument have appealed to history as proof of their position, which has produced much rhetoric, but little agreement or resolution of the question. Evangelicals approach the issue with copious quotations from the Founding Fathers to demonstrate their obvious adherence to the Christian faith. Non-evangelicals counter with copious quotations from the same Founding Fathers to demonstrate their obvious dissonance with Christian faith. A couple of examples will illustrate the enigma:

• Thomas Jefferson, according to evangelicals: “The Christian religion is the best religion that has ever been given to man.”

• Thomas Jefferson, according to non-evangelicals: “I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology.”

• John Adams, according to evangelicals: “The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity.”

• John Adams, according to non-evangelicals: “The doctrine of the divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity.”

Similar discontinuities could be multiplied, not only for Jefferson and Adams, but for George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison. Of course, these five men were not the only Founding Fathers, merely the best known today. Many others, such as Noah Webster and Patrick Henry, would probably qualify today as evangelicals. Nevertheless, the names most consistently associated with the birth of the United States, including the first four presidents, display remarkably conflicting evidence about their Christianity.

Even Congress as a whole seemed unsure of itself. In 1777, in spite of a struggle to finance the war effort, the Continental Congress designated $300,000 for the purchase of Bibles to distribute throughout the colonies. After the war, they recommended and approved “the Holy Bible for use in all schools.” Fourteen years later, the same governmental body unanimously approved a treaty with the Moslem nation of Tripoli that stated, “the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religions.” Even in an institution known for inconsistency and irrationality, these actions seem a little schizophrenic.

Fortunately there is evidence available to help clarify the question, not as much in the quotes of leaders as in the mindset of the population. It is there we look in the next post.

Next: Religious Mindset of Early America

Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

A Schizophrenic History

9 thoughts on “A Schizophrenic History

  • August 4, 2012 at 11:27 am
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    Wow, Don, this is going to be a great one! Looking forward to the next installment… 🙂

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    • August 4, 2012 at 1:23 pm
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      A subject close to my heart for a long time. And one I think is especially appropriate during an election year. There is much said in church circles about the appropriate involvement of Christians in politics, so it is a discussion that seems pretty important. I expect some good input from others on the subject as well. This post is really just an introduction. I’ll put the next part up in a few days, so we won’t have to wait too long to get into the meat of the topic.

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  • August 5, 2012 at 6:50 pm
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    The Founding Fathers aside, we must look at the Word of GOD and seek the Truth for America and it’s purpose. After the swearing in of President Washington on April 30,1789, he, Senate, and House of Representatives walked to Saint Paul’s Chapel located at “Ground Zero”.

    The President and Congress bowed together in prayer to consecrate the new nation’s future into the hands of God. This was the first official act after his swearing in as President. It’s no accident that it was the only structure still standing at Ground Zero.

    1st John speaks of the inherent truth of the desperate people that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. America is at a pivotal point in the history of humankind. Romans 11:11. Salvation has come to the Gentiles, for now. Until the fullness thereof. It is temporary! Are we at the point of the regrafting of Israel back into the Olive Tree? You need to simply look around and see the decadence that is encircling the United States Of America.

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  • August 6, 2012 at 12:08 pm
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    My goal in this series is to get past all the rhetoric thrown around on the subject and get to the realities, as far as we can discern them, thereby putting the discussion of America’s heritage into perspective. The rhetoric invariably clouds the facts. There was, in fact, a great diversity of belief in early America, from as early as the original Jamestown settlement, 200 years before the United States declared independence, but that diversity looked quite a bit different than America today.

    I believe this discussion is very important, especially in an election year, and I do believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. What concerns me is that what that meant 200 years ago was somewhat different than what most evangelicals mean today. And the arguments used to present the evangelical viewpoint are flawed. As an evangelical, I find most of it a little embarrassing.

    First of all, showing that Founding Fathers attended church services doesn’t prove anything about them personally. Napoleon attended church services, and was crowned emperor in a church—just six years after telling the Egyptians he had just conquered that he was a believer in Islam. Politicians have always attended functions and said things to get public support, regardless of their actual beliefs. We see it today and it happened then.

    Because of this trait, quoting the Founding Fathers doesn’t necessarily prove anything. Those who were not born again Christians (a modern term, by the way, not used then) purposely avoided being too specific about what they believed, especially when it was not a popular sentiment. It wasn’t that they lied; they just didn’t say anything that political critics could exploit.

    Ben Franklin is a good example. Evangelicals cite things like his resolution at the Constitutional Convention to begin every meeting with prayer as proof that he was a Christian. But that didn’t really tell us much about his beliefs. (The resolution was voted down, by the way.) Toward the end of his life, even people who knew Franklin well weren’t sure what he believed. His friend Ezra Stiles, concerned for his salvation, asked him for a statement of his Christian convictions. Franklin, 83 years old at the time, presented a typical masterpiece of political dissimulation:

    “Here is my Creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs the World by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life, respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them.”

    Stiles called him out on it, and asked directly if he was a Christian or not. Stiles thought it was important to know what people believed about Jesus. Franklin finally answered directly. He said that he believed Jesus had given the world the best system of morals and religion ever seen, but he then added that he thought those morals had “received various corrupting changes.” Regarding the divinity of Jesus, he wasn’t sure:

    “I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts… tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.”

    Franklin died a few weeks later. It can be demonstrated that Jefferson and Adams were pretty much the same as Franklin in their beliefs. Washington and Madison were so good at avoiding any outright declaration of their beliefs that we don’t really know today what they were. The subtle hints in their writings and speeches indicates that they probably agreed with Franklin.

    The point is that the usual approach to this topic—by either side—doesn’t get to the real answer. And the real answer doesn’t actually affect my faith. As an evangelical, I believe I have a responsibility to live what I believe. That means acting with integrity, with honesty, standing up for the truth and protecting those who are oppressed, whether I agree with their religious beliefs or not. It means praying for those around me and for the nation as a whole. But those things are my biblical responsibilities regardless of whether or America is, will be, or ever was a Christian nation.

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  • August 6, 2012 at 1:45 pm
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    You’ve got me chomping at the bit on this one, Don, but I don’t want to steal any thunder or get ahead of the story… But looking forward to seeing terms like “deist”, “Jefferson Bible” and – no sensationalism intended – “Free Masons”…

    I’m wondering if you’re also going to get into issues like where the United States fits into the long line of hegemons from the Tower of Babel to modern day; how this relates to our relationship with Israel and the Jewish people; maybe even Revelation chapter 18; etc… If not, I’ve got your back!! LOL

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  • August 6, 2012 at 2:17 pm
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    Well, I wasn’t going to get directly into those things, but I expect at least some of them to come up in the comments, so we’ll see. As for Revelation 18, I think that might be a natural place to go after this. The present series, by the way, is already written. It was originally a single long article, but I’ve broken it up into 7 pieces. I have no doubt it will lead to other considerations for another series. In the meantime, feel free to jump into any of those subjects.

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  • August 7, 2012 at 4:49 pm
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    Ryan, this has me thinking that it might be worthwhile to take a look at the religious beliefs of the five best known of the Founding Fathers—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and Madison. I did a little with Franklin in the comment above, and I have notes on all of them. I’m placing some thoughts on the Jefferson Bible here, and I will try over the next few weeks to compile some others. They don’t really fit into the flow of thought for the series, but I might add them as a regular post at the end of the series, a kind of addendum.

    Regarding the Jefferson Bible, it’s a good example of how modern evangelicals interpret history through a narrow lens. For those who don’t know what the Jefferson Bible is, Thomas Jefferson toyed for many years with the idea of extracting the parts of the four Gospels that he believed were the pure and uncontaminated morals of Jesus. Non-evangelicals point to this as proof that he was not Christian because what he eliminated were the miracles and any reference to Jesus being God. The evangelicals counter with the claim that he did it as a way to introduce the Bible to the Indian tribes without unduly offending them.

    The real motive seems pretty clear when you read some of the correspondence associated with the Jefferson Bible. He became convinced that the teachings of Jesus had been corrupted and that if you could remove the parts that editors had ruined, the remaining fragments would show a master whose “system of morality was the most benevolent and sublime … ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of any of the ancient philosophers.” He began considering how to do that after numerous conversations with his close friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, in 1798-1799, while Jefferson was vice president.

    It was during this time that Jefferson wrote in a letter to Rush the famous quote: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of men.” At the time, Jefferson was running for president and the opposition painted him as an atheist who would drive Christianity from America. I’ve heard that passage spoken often by evangelicals, apparently in ignorance of the context, which was in reference to the devout Christians who accused Jefferson of being an atheist. The full quote is:

    “They believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every for of tyranny over the mind of man.” The “tyranny over the mind of man” which most concerned him was those who believed in what Jefferson thought of as Christian mythology and superstition.

    Another friend during that time was Dr. Joseph Priestly, a prominent scientist and Unitarian theologian. Priestly believed that much of Christian doctrine was either opposed to or superfluous to the Christian message. He thought the Gospels had been obscured by extraneous additions to the message. Jefferson appears to have agreed with him from the things he wrote to both Priestly and Rush. In response to a short treatise written by Priestly called Socrates and Jesus Compared, Jefferson committed himself to the project that would, through a couple of stages, become the Jefferson Bible. He wrote to Priestly:

    “I should proceed to a view of the life, character, ad doctrines of Jesus, who sensible of the incorrectness of his forbears’ ideas of the Deity, and of morality, endeavored to bring them to the principles of a pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes of God, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice, and philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state. This view would purposely omit the question of his divinity, and even his inspiration. To do him justice, it would be necessary to remark the disadvantages his doctrines had to encounter, not having been committed to writing by himself, but by the most unlettered of men, by memory, long after they had heard them from him, when much was forgotten, much misunderstood, and presented in every paradoxical shape. Yet such are the fragments remaining as to show a master workman, and that his system of morality was the most benevolent and sublime probably that has been ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of any of the ancient philosophers. His character and doctrines have received still greater injury from those who pretend to be his special disciples, and who have disfigured and sophisticated his actions and precepts, from views of personal interest, so as to induce the unthinking part of mankind to throw off the whole system in disgust, and to pass sentence as an imposter on the most innocent, the most benevolent, and the most eloquent and sublime character that ever has been exhibited to man.”

    The first step was his own Syllabus of an estimate of the merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, compared with those of others, which he sent to Dr. Rush. In the cover letter, Jefferson remarked that this work was “the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from the anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself.” In the body of the Syllabus he made clear what he thought those corruptions were as he compared Jesus with ancient philosophers:

    “1. Like Socrates & Epictetus, he wrote nothing himself.

    “2. But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write for him. On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing his life an doctrines fell on the most unlettered and ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, and not till long after the transactions had passed.

    “3. According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind. he fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and the throne, at about 33 years of age, his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of 3 years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete set of morals.

    “4. Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.

    “5. They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatising followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian sophist, frittering them into subtleties, and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust and to view Jesus himself as an imposter. Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us, which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.”

    Clearly Jefferson considered the New Testament to be horribly corrupted and written by ignorant men who failed to understand the teachings of Jesus that they attempted to record.

    Jefferson wanted Priestly to create a version of the Gospels with the “pure” sayings of Jesus extracted. He wrote a letter that said:

    “I think you cannot avoid giving, as preliminary to the comparison, a digest of his moral doctrines, extracted in his own words from the Evangelists, and leaving out everything relative to his personal history and character. It would be short and precious. With a view to do this for my own satisfaction, I had sent to Philadelphia to get two testaments Greek of the same edition, and two English, with a design to cut out the morsels of morality, and paste them on the leaves of a book, in the manner you describe as having been pursued in forming your Harmony. But I shall now get the thing done by better hands.”

    Priestly was in bad health, however, and died before the letter reached him. So Jefferson tried to do the project himself. A year later he ordered two copies each of a King James and a Greek New Testament. The Greek text came with a parallel Latin version, so apparently for the sake of symmetry, Jefferson also added a French version, giving four translations. He cut out the passages he thought pure and pasted them onto facing pages. Sometime in 1804 or 1805, the resulting book, called Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, arrived from the binders.

    On the cover page, the book was described as “an abridgment of the New Testament for the use of the Indians, unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions.” This curious phrase, which was never again alluded to in any of Jefferson’s correspondence, is almost the sole reason evangelicals believe Jefferson had evangelical motives, and they quote this to prove that he was indeed a Christian.

    As seen from some of the earlier writings quoted above, however, that seems unlikely. If anything, it seems more reasonable to suppose that he wanted to protect the Indians from the Christians by giving them only the part of Jesus’ teaching that he considered valid. In 1809, he spoke of a secular plan for civilizing the Indians as “undoubtedly a great improvement on the ancient and totally ineffectual one of beginning with religious missionaries.” It is also possible that the reference to Indians was a swipe at his religious opponents. He did that on at least one other occasion, during his second inaugural address, where he made a veiled critique of his political and religious critics by speaking of the “prejudices” of the aboriginal inhabitants of America.

    A much more likely idea of what Jefferson had in mind can be seen in his various letters that he intended to keep private. Just how much he did not want his actual views becoming public, because of the political attacks against his religious beliefs, can be seen by his concern over what would happen to some of his letters after Dr. Rush died. He was concerned that letters he had written would be published by enemies, so he wrote to Rush’s son in 1813, describing the fact that many of the letters contained “communications which were never intended to go further. In the sacred fidelity of each to the other these were known to be safe; and above all things that they would be kept from the public eye.”

    One of them did become public, however, and was published in a book that John Adams read. Jefferson first learned of it when Adams wrote to him, mentioning the plan to sift out the pure sayings of Jesus, and encouraging him to continue the effort. It appears that Adams agreed with Jefferson’s religious views. He wrote, “Your letters to Priestley have increased my grief, if that were possible, for the loss of Rush. Had he lived, I would have stimulated him to insist on your promise to him, to write him on the subject of religion. Your plan I admire.”

    The letter prompted Jefferson to work on the project again, and in letters to Adams, and to others, Jefferson made it clear that proselytizing the Indians was not a priority and that he did not believe what evangelicals today believe. To Adams, October 13, 1813, he wrote:

    “We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphiboligisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and by arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines, such as were professed and acted on by the unlettered Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers, and the Christians of the first century.”

    On another occasion, he called the project an extension of the ideas contained in the Syllabus. These ideas were described in a letter to Dutch scholar and Unitarian minister, Francis Adrian Van der Kemp:

    “While this syllabus is meant to place the character of Jesus in its true and high light, as no imposter Himself, but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code of religion, it is not to be understood that I am with Him in all His doctrines. I am a Materialist; He takes the side of Spiritualism. He preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it, etc., etc. It is the innocence of His character, the purity and sublimity of His moral precepts, the eloquence of His inculcations, the beauty of the apologues in which He conveys them, that I so much admire; sometimes, indeed, needing indulgence to eastern hyperbolism. My eulogies, too, may be founded on a postulate which all may not be ready to grant. Among the sayings and discourses imputed to Him by His biographers I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others, again, of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same Being. I separate, therefore, the gold from the dross; restore to Him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of His disciples.”

    In a letter to another friend named William Short:

    “We find in the writings of [Jesus’] biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. First, a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications. Intermixed with these, again, are sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms, and precepts of the purist morality and benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed. These could not be the intentions of the groveling authors who related them. They are far beyond the powers of their feeble minds. They show there was a character, a subject of their history, whose splendid conceptions were above suspicion as being interpolations from their hands. Can we be at a loss in separating such materials and ascribing each to its original author? The difference is obvious to the eye and to the understanding, and we may read as we run to each his part; and I will venture to affirm that he who, as I have done, will undertake to winnow this grain from the chaff, will find it not to require a moment’s consideration. The parts fall asunder of themselves, as would those of an image of metal and clay.”

    Given all of these quotes, which are only a portion of Jefferson’s statements in private letters about his religious beliefs, it is difficult to understand how evangelicals can spend so much effort trying to prove Jefferson was a Christian. They love quotes such as the reference to the Indians, and the one from a letter to Dr. Rush: “I am a Christian.” But they ignore all of the information around those quotes. The full statement to Rush was:

    “I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.”

    Given everything else he said, it’s clear that Jefferson, were he alive today, would consider modern evangelicals to be those who propagated mythology and superstition as a tyranny over the mind of man, and he would have been opposed to them.

    None of this means that America was not a Christian nation, only that the religious convictions of the nation cannot be established by appealing to one or two of the leaders of the time. That approach has not given us very substantive arguments.

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    • August 7, 2012 at 5:32 pm
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      Great stuff, Don! Most of this I hadn’t heard before. Excellent research… It’s funny, after all of this, I can imagine some STILL claiming that Jefferson was a full-on, “born again” Evangelical. So many people simply believe what they want to believe…

      I think you’re right – The beliefs of one (or several) men, Founding Fathers or otherwise, doesn’t necessarily speak to the Christianity of America as a whole. In their day, I think it’s likely that most “Americans” (those who’d come from Europe, I mean) were Christians in the traditional sense of the word. But whatever the case – and whatever it means about our identity as a nation – our primary Founders simply were not Christian in the way that you and I mean the term. They were deists: They believed in a “Supreme Being” – “God” – and they believed that Jesus was a great teacher and philosopher, probably the greatest of all time. But they did not believe that Jesus performed miracles, was resurrected from the dead or was the Son of God. This is just a cold, hard fact, and it’s embarrassing that so many of our Christian brothers and sisters try to claim otherwise…

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      • August 7, 2012 at 5:47 pm
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        There were quite a few of the Founding Fathers who were very devout. Noah Webster is a good example. But for the most part, they weren’t the ones we ever hear about. A great book for those interested in this subject is called “Neither King nor Prelate.” It examines the beliefs of Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin in some detail. A lot of my information came from that source, as well as reading from their letters, etc.

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