Truth Project 10: The American Experiment (Stepping Stones) – My Thoughts

These are my reflections on tour 10 of the Truth Project. For a summary of the tour itself, go here (or just look below this post).

This was one of the most difficult tours to watch. The reason is that I am familiar with the argument that Del proposes about the founding of the United States, have spent time studying it, and have found it historically inaccurate, misleading to a lot of Christians, and damaging to the church.

Del’s thesis, broadly stated, is this: the United States was founded as a Christian nation. He is not saying that the people of the United States used to be all or even mostly Christians. He is not saying that the founders who crafted our founding documents were all or even mostly Christians. He’s not even saying that the United States has ever acted in a “Christian” manner. He is saying that the founders “tried to lay down biblical principles in the founding of this country.” If this thesis is true, then there is no problem with Del’s presentation. But if, as I will argue, Christianity was not the only influence in the founding of the United States, but one of many, then when we say the United States was founded on “biblical principles,” we are in fact combining Christianity with non-Christian influences, watering down the gospel, and neutering the church. Let’s examine Del’s claim, looking at his presentation chronologically.

Del begins his argument by looking at the history of education in the United States. What he says does show that Christianity certainly had a greater cultural influence during the colonial era than it does today. His quotes from prominent founders show that they thought religion was very important for fostering virtue and morals. But does it prove that they were trying to lay down “biblical principles” in the founding of this country? I think that we shouldn’t go farther than the evidence suggests. All we can say from these quotes is that Gouverneur Morris, Sam Adams and Benjamin Rush thought that a virtuous people were the best kind of people to preserve a republic. Adams and Rush think that Christianity is the best source of virtue. I don’t see any official state recognition of Christianity here. I just see wise politicians placing a high value on virtue in the populace, and seeing that religion, specifically Christianity, is the best source of virtue. It seems to me that the emphasis in these quotes is not necessarily on Christianity, but on fostering virtue.

Misleading Statement #1: Noah Webster was not, as Del would have us believe, a “founder” of the United States. He did not attend the Continental Congress or the Constitutional Convention. He did not hold public office until 1800. He was certainly a prominent citizen in the early days of the republic, but was not a founder.

Del then recounts his own journey, saying that the history he learned as a young man is history that has been rewritten to exclude Christianity. It may be that the role of Christianity has been downplayed in some circles (though examples of this would have helped). But does that give us carte blanche to retaliate by ignoring non-Christian influences? This eye-for-an-eye method of history, it seems to me, is bound to leave everyone blind.

Not only Del’s method of doing history, but also his biblical interpretation (which is often good in the other tours), is suspect. He quotes Revelation 2:5, which is Jesus speaking to the church at Ephesus, and says, “When Jesus removes his lampstand from a place, that church, that nation, becomes very dark.” Where in this verse, or this section of Scripture, is a nation mentioned? From the context, is Del justified in blurring the lines between church and nation? I don’t think so. This interpretation, which equates the United States with the church of Jesus Christ, is absolutely unjustified.

Del continues to quote Founding Father after Founding Father, including George Washington, but if you look at the quotes closely, all you can come away with is that these men apparently thought religion and morality were important for preserving freedom. Again, as in the first round of quotes, their emphasis seems to be on fostering virtue. Christianity seems like just a means to the end of fostering a virtuous people. Del says during this round of quotes that “they [the founders] came here with a fundamental biblical worldview.” It is probable that some of them did (although it couldn’t really be said that the Founding Fathers “came here.” With the exception of a few, like Alexander Hamilton, they were born here. Perhaps Del is confusing them with the Puritans, who did come – 150 years earlier). Benjamin Rush certainly seems to have positive words for Christianity in particular (though if you read more about him, you will find that he was a Universalist). But all this is far from proving that the founding principles of the United States are biblical. All it proves is that several Founding Fathers thought Christianity was important for fostering the virtue that a republic requires. This does not mean that the United States is or was distinctly Christian or founded on “biblical principles.”

The quote from Alexis de Tocqueville is an interesting one, because it shows the fusion of Christianity with other ideas in the founding era. Christianity and political liberty had become fused together in the United States, indicating that Christianity was in fact, as I am arguing, combined with other influences.

Then Del turns to the Declaration of Independence. He says that human rights come not from the state, but from the Creator. I suppose if you want to talk about rights, then it’s better to have them come from someplace other than the state, because the state is prone to abuse them. But the idea of inalienable human rights, technically, is not something found in the Bible. They sure are found in John Locke, though, as well as the English common law tradition. This is another example of how Christianity was blended together with other influences in the founding of the United States.

Del then says that he has heard over and over that the term “nature’s God,” used in the Declaration, is a Deistic term. So he quotes Edward Coke. But Coke’s quote, if anything, reinforces the idea that “nature’s God” is Deistic. Coke doesn’t talk about God’s intervention in history. He doesn’t talk about the history of Israel and the church. He doesn’t talk about Jesus. All he talks about is God putting the law of nature into man’s heart “at the time of creation.” Here is a definition of Deism from Wikipedia: It

is a religious and philosophical belief that a supreme god created the universe, and that this and other religious truth can be determined using reason and observation of the natural world alone, without the need for faith.

Coke’s quote looks a lot more like Deism to me than orthodox, biblical Christianity.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that orthodox Christians used the term “nature’s God” too, and that it’s impossible to tell just from the fact that it is used whether it is meant as a Deistic or a Christian term. Even the fact that there is confusion, that there is a co-mingling, that there is a vagueness in language is troubling. Because if it isn’t entirely clear what Jefferson meant by the term “nature’s God” in the Declaration, when we take that term and say it is Christian, we’re taking a vague, amorphous conception of God and saying this is the God of the Bible. At best, it’s confusing, and at worst, it’s watering down the faith.

I’ll skip over Del’s discussion of legal positivism, because I actually liked what he had to say there. But when he mentions that “virtually all” of the 13 colonies had religious tests for the holding of public office, I sat up and took notice.

Misleading Statement #2: Del says that “virtually all” of the original 13 states had religious tests for office. Many of them did, but not all. Virginia and New York did not. Also, though Pennsylvania’s constitution originally contained a religious test, it was struck down before the Constitutional Convention in 1787. So it is not “virtually all,” but 10 out of 13. 77%

It seems that the founding generation was not of one mind regarding religious tests. On the one hand, it is true that, as Del said, many of them wanted religious tests in order to ensure that those in public office were God-honoring men. But on the other hand, there were also many who were wary of religious tests because they were all too familiar with the religious tyranny caused by national churches in Europe. Most importantly for our present examination of Del’s claim that the nation was founded on biblical principles, Article VI of the Constitution contains the phrase, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” In the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, this very clause was brought up time after time in the state ratifying conventions. Many people wanted it taken out, and a religious test inserted in its place. But the Founding Fathers prevailed, and it stayed in -thus ensuring freedom of religion.

Del then goes farther back than the founding generation, to the mid-17th century. He quotes the Constitution of the New England Federation of 1643.

Misleading Statement #3: It is anachronistic to call a confederation of colonies in the 17th century “the United States.” The United States came 130 years later.

The quote from this Constitution indicates that the people drafting it came to New England in order to advance the kingdom of God. That is all well and good, but the Puritans didn’t found the United States. As mentioned above, there were 130 years between this document and the United States Constitution. Over the course of that time, the influence of the Puritans waned and was combined with other influences, such as classical republicanism, radical Whig thought, English common law and the Enlightenment liberalism of thinkers such as John Locke.

Del then quotes Ben Franklin’s plea for prayers to be offered during the Constitutional Convention.

Misleading Statement #4: Although Franklin did make a public plea for prayer during the Constitutional Convention, it is worth noting that that plea was not acted on during the course of the Convention. Franklin’s proposal was not voted on, and no prayers were offered.

Del closes with three more biblical passages, in addition to Revelation 2:5, mentioned above: Hosea 13:6, Deuteronomy 8:10-20 and 2 Chronicles 7:13-14. This is the most troubling part of this tour. He takes passages which are God speaking to his people (in the Old Testament examples, Israel; in the New Testament example, the church) and applies them to the United States. This is wrenching texts out of context, and results in blurring the lines between the church and the world. There were nations that thought of themselves as God’s Chosen Nation before the United States, and there probably will be after we’re gone. But we don’t have any biblical evidence that suggests God planned to choose a modern nation-state as his special people. To suggest otherwise is frankly unbiblical.

This post has been rather long, and I haven’t even gotten into the Treaty of Tripoli of 1796, which is often brought into these discussions about whether the United States was founded on “biblical principles.” But in case you missed why this tour was so troubling to me, I’ll close by saying it as clearly as I can:

There are some quotes that show several Founding Fathers thought that religion and morality made a better republic. Some (like Benjamin Rush, Samuel Adams and John Jay) had kind words for Christianity in particular and could be described as Christians. I do think that Christianity did have an influence in the founding of the United States, and that should not be ignored or minimized. But Christianity was certainly not the only influence. It was combined with other, non-Christian influences. The God mentioned by our Founding Fathers was in many cases a vague deity. When modern Christians take these vague references to “nature’s God,” or “Providence,” or “The Deity,” and claim that they are really references to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus Christ, they dilute Christianity. And when Christians take Bible passages about Israel or the church and apply them to the United States (or any nation), they dishonor Jesus by saying his bride and his body are not really who the Bible says they are.

But don’t just take my word for it. Read the sources for yourself. In addition to the original source documents, which I recommend most highly, I’d recommend The Search For Christian America by Mark Noll, George Marsden and Nathan Hatch (Christians all, by the way), Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? by John Fea, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn, and The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America by Frank Lambert. Any of them are more fair-minded than the historical revisionism that Del gives us in this tour. Del’s definition of historical revisionism is “fiddling with the past to control beliefs in the present,” and that is exactly what he does. Ignoring non-Christian contributions to the United States for the purpose of making people believe that our founding was more Christian than it was is historical revisionism.

My guess is that the main motivation for using selective quotes to make the founding of the United States seem more Christian than it was is to hang on to whatever influence Christianity had (real or imagined) in our society. My advice is: it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it to turn God into a vague deity, old and toothless, who does nothing but bless America. It’s not worth it to neuter the church by trying to merge it with the state. That has never worked. Forget about clinging to influence in society and trying to restore us to a mythical golden age. It won’t work, and it only alienates people from Jesus and the church. Instead, we should be faithful to the dangerous but good God of Jesus, and the church will turn the world upside down, the way the early church did.

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6 thoughts on “Truth Project 10: The American Experiment (Stepping Stones) – My Thoughts

  1. honeyandlocusts June 7, 2009 / 6:33 pm

    I have enjoyed reading through your comments on this tour. I am a big fan of the Truth Project, but, like you, hit a bit of a stumbling block with #10. Still, since finishing the project (and leading another group through it) I have been trying to read up on all of his source material. I recently read through the Federalist Papers (and many of the Anti-Federalist Papers), and am working my way through Herb Titus’ “God, Man, and the Law”.

    My take on some of the quotes he used is a little different. I do believe that there were some committed Christians who were genuinely working to model our Constitution after Biblical principles, but they seemed almost to know that it couldn’t work. Their republican system relied too much on the goodness of man, while they at the same time realized that man was fallible and wicked.

    I found quotes such as those from Rush’s “Defense of the Use of the Bible as a School Book” telling, not because they indicated the “Christianity” of the culture, but because the use of the Bible as a school book had evidently already been called into question (thus requiring a defense) within ten years of the ratification of the Constitution.

    I do find the arguments from James Madison’s Notes and the Federalist & Anti-Federalist papers (all of which are public domain and easily found online) quite fascinating, but there was certainly not the overwhelming concurrence with Scripture that is presented by Dr. Tackett. Many of the Anti-Federalist arguments have turned out to be just as prescient as those from the Federalist papers, but are less-known because they did not produce the desired changes to the Constitution. In “Brutus” letter #15, for instance, the author warns that the restraints on the Court were insufficient, and that the “power in the judicial will enable them to mold the government into almost any shape they choose”.

    Overall I think the TP is very good, but addressing the American Experiment in just one hour was perhaps too ambitious, and I worry that Dr. Del may have compromised a bit. I would be very interested to see whether things might be different if he were to take a much more in-depth look at it over multiple episodes… but I’m not holding my breath.

  2. Nate Swift July 4, 2009 / 11:38 am

    I’d have to say that Del was far more interested in setting up a red herring blaming rejection of religion for failures of any “American vision” than in taking representative responsibility for the failure of religion to teach and hold its members responsible for a living faith that demonstrated principles of morality and love demonstrated in our lives.

  3. Ruben May 20, 2010 / 12:43 pm

    To whomever the author is. In regards to your observance of Del’s teaching, I do believe that some of the points you stated are not giving complete justice to your claims against his. For example, you mentioned that Franklin’s proposal that the Constitutional Convention was not voted on and you are right. However, you fail to mention that in response to Franklin’s appeal, Virginia’s Edmund Randolph offered a counter proposal. He recommended that a “sermon be preached at the request of the convention on the 4th of July, the anniversary of Independence, & thence forward prayers be used in ye Convention every morning.” Two years later, Congress would also adopt Franklin’s proposal by having chaplains for both houses of Congress, a practice that has since continued to this day. (These can be found on the house,senate.gov websites) I believe that Franklin probably expressed his need for prayer because of the arguments that arose from delegates at the convention. I think he knew that prayer was needed to unify the group, just like the call to prayer by delegates to the first continental congress in 1774. And we can go on about other specifics, but my point is that there is plenty of evidence to show the judeo-christian principles set by our founding fathers.
    Also, there are many founding fathers that shaped our nation, not just delegates that shaped our constitution. You must include ministers, congressman, justices, and prominent citizens that influenced the shape of our nation.

    • elliot May 20, 2010 / 4:23 pm

      Ruben:

      Thank you for reading, and thank you for commenting. I’m not quite sure what your first sentence means (what would it mean for me to give complete justice to my claims against his?), but I’ll respond to the best of my ability.

      My point in emphasizing that Del made several misleading statements was simply that: to show that they were misleading. I wanted to show that Del was not giving us the full picture, and I think I did that. My argument is far from resting on whether or not the delegates to the Constitutional Convention prayed. So if you think you have refuted my argument by pointing out that I didn’t say there are chaplains in Congress, I would urge you to reconsider. Actually, my argument is quite compatible with the fact that there are chaplains in Congress.

      The fact that you refer to “judeo-christian principles” in your comment shows that you have not understood my point. My point – and I will put it more bluntly here – is that the whole idea of Judeo-Christian principles is a bastardization of the gospel. You might think that you are defending the gospel by talking about Judeo-Christian principles in our founding documents, but I would argue that by doing so you are attributing the authority of the gospel of Jesus Christ to a variety of Christian and non-Christian influences that were involved in the founding of our country.

      What is a Judeo-Christian principle, after all? The Ten Commandments? Those are commands, as their name indicates. Love your neighbor? Also a command, given by God to those with whom he is in covenant.

      God gives us more than principles. He gives us a covenantal relationship with him. We can take this covenantal relationship and make “Judeo-Christian principles” out of it, but let’s not confuse that with genuine Christianity.

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