Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sunday Devotions: Founding Faith - For Presidents' Day

Most Americans can quote Patrick Henry's famous statement, "Give me liberty or give me death," but I wonder how many of them would identify Henry as the originator of this statement: "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great Nation was founded not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For that reason alone, people of other faiths have been afforded freedom of worship here."

People these days are very quick to point out Jefferson's wall of separation' letter to a Danbury Baptist Church meant that Christianity had no place in the heart of the writer of the Declaration , but are they aware of what is written in Jefferson's personal Bible: "I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus. I have little doubt that our whole country will soon be rallied to the unity of our creator." To say that Christianity had no influence over his writing is to diminish Jefferson's personal faith.

And do people also realize that more than half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who founded the United States, received divinity school training from Christian denominations? We may want to rewrite history and revise the Founding Fathers' intentions to suit our modernistic, non-absolutist, secular morality, but the facts about their lives speak otherwise.

Most of the political giants who founded America were Christians, and their faith shaped their principles of fierce independence and rugged radicalism. In fact, in 1774 Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The God who gave us Life, also gave us Liberty." Indeed, the First Continental Congress during the War of Independence sent for an order from Holland for 20,000 Bibles to ensure that the people and troops could maintain their Christian faith. And during times of trouble and indecision in their meetings, the same Congress resorted to prayer, which the ‘non-believer' Benjamin Franklin also led.
Even George Washington, the Father of our Nation, wrote this in his personal journal in 1752: "Make me to know what is acceptable in Thy sight, and therein to delight, open the eyes of my understanding, and help me thoroughly to examine myself concerning my knowledge, faith, and repentance, increase my faith, and direct me to the true object, Jesus Christ the Way, the Truth, and the Life." And when he addressed the Delaware Indian Chiefs in 1779, he said, "What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ."

These are but a few examples of the Christian beliefs that were held by our Founding Fathers. Those who seek to deny their faith and, subsequently, the founding of the United States of America as a Christian nation, are only imprinting upon the past their own present secular opinions and unhistorical misconceptions.

Finally, let us remember that the Constitution guarantees a freedom of religion, not from religion. It wasn't political secularism that established this clause: it was based on Christian tolerance of loving one another, and doing to others as you would have them do for you.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, we thank You for being the major influence over our Founding Fathers’ lives. Without Your words and ways, we would not be here today. Help us to be grateful for the land that we live in and the liberties that we cherish, both of which have been granted to us from You. In Your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.
Stushie writes the daily devotional "Heaven's Highway" and is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee


Shawn said...

Although it bears examining what kind of Christians they were. In Jefferson's case he didn't believe in any of the "non-rational" parts of Jesus' life, such as the virgin birth, his miracles or his resurrection. Which is why he cut all of these parts out of his version of the Gospels.

Jim Jordan said...

Jefferson's Bible faux pas is the exception rather than the rule. We all do stupid things [and that contradicted much of what Jefferson wrote]. Jefferson's actions show that even the most brilliant people are fallible.

The fact is, different as they were, the founding fathers were nearly all solid Christians, Jefferson included.

Joan Calvin said...

Unfortunately, most of the founders were Deists, not Trinitarians. Revisionist history is not factual. A good place to start to learn the facts, not wishful thinking is with Garry Wills (a devout Christian BTW) recent book Head and Heart: American Christianities. Jefferson may have called himself a Christian, but if you have even perused his version of the Bible, you will find his theology deviates from orthodoxy.

Shawn said...

Jefferson's Bible wasn't a faux pas or a mistake at one moment in time. In 1798 he wrote about the idea in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush. In 1804 he wrote an early version entitled "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth."

He write about this work positively in 1813 in a letter to John Adams. And in 1820 he publishes "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" a.k.a. The Jefferson Bible.

The Christian religion that Jefferson spoke of as integral to our country is more accurately described as Christian philosophy (i.e. sound moral teachings) rather than Christian faith (belief in a living, active and present Christ).

Stushie said...

Thank you for all of your replies. This is an currently and interesting topic of conversation during an election year.

I have found that biographers make their own judgments about the Founding Fathers based upon their own interpretations. For me, an autobiographical statement has more weight because it involves personal beliefs.

great comments from all of you. Please feel free to keep discussing these pertinent issues.

Andy said...

Jefferson's autobiographical statement is illuminative: "I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus." This notion of the "doctrines" or teachings of Jesus abstracted from the person of Jesus is deeply problematic. Isn't this just "Jesus was a great moral teacher?" I'm reminded of C.S. Lewis's famous remarks: Jesus did not leave this patronizing option of "just a great moral teacher" open to us.

I don't think anyone suggests that Christian language and imagery did not have a shaping influence the founding fathers. Of course they did. The burden is rather upon those who claim unreservedly that these men were orthodox Christians. Perhaps we can phrase the question in another way:

Pastor Shushie, imagine that you are teaching a new members class, and one person, let's call him Tom, says that he does not believe in the Trinity (thereby denying the divinity of Christ), nor does he believe in the resurrection of Christ. Would you consider Tom to "be a Christian"?

Reformed Catholic said...

imagine that you are teaching a new members class, and one person, let's call him Tom, says that he does not believe in the Trinity (thereby denying the divinity of Christ), nor does he believe in the resurrection of Christ. Would you consider Tom to "be a Christian"?

FWIW ... there are a few 'so-called' pastors currently in the PCUSA who say the same thing.

Stushie said...

I like your thoughts Andy, but again, you're transposing 20th/21st century thinking back into 18th century people. Their origins are deeply Christian, so it shapes their philosophies and ultimately their declarations.

Andy said...

Reformed Catholic: I know well what you are saying. This points out an important irony: both nationalism and theological pluralism have the same problem--they water down the particularity of the Christian message. So, "conservative" pastors (scare quotes are to indicate I recognize these are slippery terms) extol the "faith of the founding fathers" despite some vapid heterodoxy; at the same time "liberal" pastors, quick to point out that the founding fathers were not Christian, end up pointing out that neither are their churches, which have similar theologies!

Stushie: Weren't there trinitarian, orthodox Christians during the time of the founders? It wasn't the case that the 18th century zeitgeist was completely Deist, such that we can say, "Well, they were just talking the way Christians talked back then." I agree that "their origins were deeply Christian," and that Christianity had a shaping influence. However, that doesn't make them Christians (just like John and Jane coming to bring their children for baptism might have "Christian origins" that have somehow vaguely "shaped" them, but that doesn't mean that makes them Christian!)

I actually think you are transposing 18th century thinking into the modern day. Seems to me the historically nuanced approach would be to recognize the influence of Enlightenment rationalism, which had some aspects of it (major aspects) in conflict with Christian faith.

Also, what theological ground do we gain by arguing that the founders were Christian? I guess I just don't get it.

Andy said...

Sorry, one other thought. It's one thing to say that Christian ideas were influential in the culture of America's founding. It's quite another thing to make the much stronger claim that the founders were Christians. I'm happy to accept the first, but it strains credulity to maintain the second.

When has orthodox Christianity ever maintained, be it in the 1st century, the 18th, or the 21st, that one could deny the resurrection of Jesus and be a Christian? And why should we give a pass to the founding fathers?

Stushie said...

Great conversation, Andy. Here's my opinion - 20th century withstanding.

They wrote these things in their journals - not so much a blog, but a really personal reflection of what they felt and believed. Jefferson also wrote in his Bible - in those days, people only wrote very personal thoughts in their Bibles - no highlighters in those days. My conclusion is that these were the genuine feelings of the Founding Fathers and to dismiss or discredit them is to imprint our own prejudices into their thoughts and feelings.

Thanks for reading and writing

Andy said...

Fair enough, Stushie. Thanks for the conversation!