On America’s Christian heritage

by Wm. Robert Johnston
6 June 2003

Regarding America's Christian heritage the truth is somewhere in between the two extreme claims made today. While the founders were all shaped by a Protestant Christian worldview, they represented a range of denominations. Some were born again Christians, some were not. Jefferson and Franklin might not greet us in heaven. Some modern conservative Christian writers end up giving the impression that they argue there was a uniformity of theological views among the founders. There was not.

However, the relevant point is that they all had a Protestant Christian worldview. If they wanted a nation free of God, they would not have declared independence with the statement "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights". They established a nation free of sectarian particulars, since they were familiar with sectarian disagreements and associated abuses. However, the general belief in a redemptive God was common to all of them and foundational to their government concept. Tocqueville describes this (see below).

The Constitution established a government with the underlying assumption that men are inherently evil. This system is relatively unique in the level of checks and balances on its individual officers. However, at the same time it assumes a moral society--an assumption paving the way for some modern abuses. The Constitution assumes that sufficient respect for the rule of law will exist somewhere in the institutions and/or the electorate so that the officers will not disregard the Constitution's protections, so that law breakers will not continue to govern. This element has broken down now, reflecting the prevailing lack of morality in both the institutions and the electorate. Another element of this breakdown was hinted at in Tocqueville's warnings of the "tyranny of the majority."

By way of comparison, the failure of the French Revolution vs. the success of the American Revolution hinges on the superior moral basis of the American Revolution. The American Revolution produced a system of government that assumed man to be inherently evil, and thus instituted safeguards against abuse and a legitimate means for modification since the founders themselves admitted their concept might not be perfect. The French Revolution produced a system which in part assumed man to be inherently good; this, combined with the lack of a moral societal foundation like that observed by Tocqueville in America, allowed subsequent abuses to bring the system down.

To reiterate, while the beliefs and backgrounds of the founders were diverse, this diversity was within the bounds of a common Christian worldview. If this limitation of the diversity is not acknowledged, then one cannot make sense of the system they produced, one which values freedom, guards against the inherent tendency towards evil, etc.

Another claim is that a Christian heritage for the American system of government implies that non-Christians are displaced. In reality, no system of government has ever been as consistently (by this I mean to this degree, for this period of time) receptive of people of non-majority religious (or anti-religious) views as has the American system. A large part of the reason for this stems directly from the Protestant worldview of the founders: if one's relationship with God is an issue between the individual and God alone, then official interference in this relationship is wrong. This does not deny the existence of absolute standards of morality, which is both presumed and endorsed by our system.

Finally, here are some statements by Tocqueville addressing the points above, from Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 1, Ch. 17:

The greatest part of British America was peopled by men who, after having shaken off the authority of the Pope, acknowledged no other religious supremacy: they brought with them into the New World a form of Christianity which I cannot better describe than by styling it a democratic and republican religion. This contributed powerfully to the establishment of a republic and a democracy in public affairs; and from the beginning, politics and religion contracted an alliance which has never been dissolved.
The sects that exist in the United States are innumerable. They all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man. Each sect adores the Deity in its own peculiar manner, but all sects preach the same moral law in the name of God. If it be of the highest importance to man, as an individual, that his religion should be true, it is not so to society. Society has no future life to hope for or to fear; and provided the citizens profess a religion, the peculiar tenets of that religion are of little importance to its interests. Moreover, 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...
I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion--for who can search the human heart?--but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.

© 2003 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 6 June 2003.
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