Christian America and the State

Part 3 in the Series:

Is America a Christian Nation?

By Don Enevoldsen

The Christian moral responsibilities observed by de Tocqueville were synonymous in the minds of early Americans with being good citizens. They could not, and did not, separate the two. Nearly all Americans agreed that the moral values that made a good Christian were the same that made a good American. De Tocqueville observed:

“Although the Anglo-Americans have several religious sects, they all regard religion in the same manner. They are not always agreed upon the measures which are most conducive to good government, and they vary upon some of the forms of government which it is expedient to adopt; but they are unanimous upon the general principles which ought to rule human society. From Maine to the Floridas, and from the Missouri to the Atlantic Ocean, the people is held to be the legitimate source of all power. The same notions are entertained respecting liberty and equality, the liberty of the press, the right of association, the jury, and the responsibility of the agents of Government.”

For the first Americans, then, individual responsibility as a citizen had its roots and foundation in Christian belief. This fact is the reason Americans saw no contradiction in declaring that Christianity was essential to the democracy at the same time they required a complete separation of church and state. De Tocqueville was intrigued by the difference in this attitude to what he saw in Europe. For most Europeans, Christian faith was a philosophy that was pondered, acknowledged and accepted. For Americans, it was an ingrained conviction, held without question or analysis:

“Religious institutions have remained wholly distinct from political institutions, so that former laws have been easily changed whilst former belief has remained unshaken. Christianity has therefore retained a strong hold on the public mind in America; and, I would more particularly remark, that its sway is not only that of a philosophical doctrine which has been adopted upon inquiry, but of a religion which is believed without discussion.”

The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, articulated this uniquely American sentiment. He is often quoted by evangelicals: “It is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” This statement was made in 1816 in a private letter to John Murray, congressional representative from Pennsylvania. What is generally left out of the quote is the preceding sentence, which gives the reason why Jay considered Christian leaders desirable. “Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others.”

In other words, leaders should be Christian, not because of their spiritual beliefs, but because of their moral convictions regarding the rights of all citizens, moral values shared by virtually all Americans because of their Christian faith and regardless of their denominational affiliation. They believed that clergy should not be involved in political decisions, but clergy should require of all citizens, including political leaders, Christian moral standards, which included belief in the basic rights of individuals.

Next: Natural Law

To go to the beginning of the series: A Schizophrenic History

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Christian America and the State

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