Friday, January 11, 2008

Made in America

There's been a lot of discussion lately about the US and to what extent it may be considered a Christian nation. Much of this debate has focused on America's constitution, which is notably lacking in references to God and the Christian church. But, as we more closely examine the issue, it's worth asking: which America are we talking about? The original settlements of the refuge seeking Puritans? The revolutionary America of the deist founding fathers? Traumatized America following the Civil War? The American melting pot of the 21st century?

The original settlers were unquestionably seeking religious freedom in the wake of insufferable repression under the English Church. But, there was much more to the Puritan mission than a desire for freedom: the Puritans saw themselves on a divine mission and they modeled themselves after the Hebrews of the Old Testament. "Come let us declare the word of the Lord in Zion," declared Puritan leader, William Bradford. America was to them the new Zion, and they set out to establish a new holy land under God's guidance. They cited Scripture as authority for many criminal statutes throughout the colonies and endeavoured (and generally failed) to convert the natives to Christianity. Christian writers of the period celebrated at length this "choice above all other lands." Cotton Mather, in his Magnalia Christi Americana extolled, "Christ's Great Deeds in America."

The New Land continued to attract both the persecuted and the rebellious. Within a few decades, the territories held Baptists of many varieties, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Puritans of all stripes, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, a handful of Jewish congregations, and undoubtedly those who described themselves as unaffiliated, many of whom were alienated if not hostile toward organized religion. Religious freedom in such an atmosphere became more than just a catchphrase; it was an absolute necessity in the face of such unique diversity and difference of opinion.

Increasingly many saw themselves as outside the Church. This was, in part, due to diversity of belief, but also the great distances between communities, and of course America's relative isolation from European religious leadership. The result was a religious revival known as the Great Awakening which swept over the American colonies from Maine to Georgia between 1730 and 1745. Theologian (and later President of Princeton) Jonathan Edwards, in 1742 wrote: "Tis not unlikely that this work of God’s Spirit, that is so extraordinary and wonderful, is the dawning, or, at least, a Prelude of that glorious Work of God, so often foretold in Scripture, which in the Progress and Issue of it, shall renew the World of Mankind ... And there are many Things that make it probable that this work will begin in America."

As he and others preached a return to the Church, a new manner of Christianity, neither Biblical nor European, emerged - an American Christianity. Americans bonded in a common understanding of Christian faith and being, and a fresh respect for lesser established denominations. The sentiment of John Wesley sums it up: "Dost thou love and fear God? It is enough! I give thee the right hand of fellowship." (The Complete idiot's Guide to Christianity, pg. 183)

It’s also worth remembering the role of religion in the American Revolution. While the conflict split some denominations, notably the Church of England (more than half of the Anglican priests in America, unable to reconcile their oaths of allegiance to the King with American independence, left their pulpits during the Revolutionary War), other theologians advocated that civil and religious freedom was ordained and therefore rebellion sanctioned by God.

It was incumbent upon the Founding Statesmen to recognize and acknowledge the vast range of religious opinion at the time. Still, this diversity was all seen within a Christian framework. "All the sects of the United States are comprised within the great unity of Christianity, and Christian morality is everywhere the same...Christianity, therefore, reigns without obstacle, by universal consent." (de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, Vol. 1, Ch. 17.)True, they were all profoundly inspired by the lofty goals of Enlightenment. While several spoke against the more superstitious and incredulous aspects of Christian belief, there remained for most an essential faith. "I am a real Christian," wrote Thomas Jefferson, "that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus." George Washington was an Episcopal vestryman; John Adams called himself "a church going animal." James Madison was a Hebrew major at Princeton. Most American statesmen seemed to share the convictions of their constituents that religion was, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, "indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions."

It may well be that some were simply paying lip service to a religious constituency. Even so, they never failed to recognize the Christian nature of the land. If they held personal religious misgivings they felt no compunction against encouraging religious practice in others. Despite the absence of God in the Constitution, Congress appointed chaplains for itself and the armed forces, sponsored the publication of a Bible , recommended that all members of the armed forces “attend divine services”, and facilitated the promotion of Christianity to the natives. As well, National days of thanksgiving were established on which the American people could “express the grateful feelings of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor" and on which they may” join the penitent confession of their manifold sins . . . that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance."

Over the years, Christian religiosity has continued to intrude itself into the American system despite the separation of Church and State. Following the American Civil War, for example, the words "In God We Trust" were added to US coins. And in 1870 Congress proclaimed Christmas a federal holiday.

I believe America is a Christian nation, even if most Americans today do not believe that Christianity should play a central role in governance, or that the United States itself should ever be regarded as a visible 'Kingdom of Christ on earth.' Surprisingly, I don’t have a problem with this. America has, through its Puritan antecedents and resolute founders, developed its own take on the divine mission, one that has sought to shake off the constraints of dogma and superstition in favour of Judeo-Christian practice, based on the rule of charity and respect of one's fellow. America is by no means perfect; the country has certainly experienced its share of anti-Semitism, although very rarely has it resulted in violence. Still, Americans continue to soul-search on these and other problems. Overall I think the Puritans would be pretty impressed with the freedoms their descendants and others now enjoy.

1 comment:

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