Should America be more Christian? Our friend Dr. Tom Krannawitter asks, “to what end?”
I’m reading and hearing much hullabaloo about the recent Pew study and the larger question of Christianity in America. So let me offer a little perspective on a subject that has occupied much of my studies over many years:
In the middle 19th Century — before, during, and after the Civil War — the United States was near uniformly, near universally Christian, in terms of population demographics. There were no scientific opinion polls or public surveys of that day, of course, but based on everything we know historically, the Americans of that day understood themselves as Christian in numbers approaching 100%. (Tocqueville is a good place to start for this kind of demographic research.)
The few who questioned or rejected Christian dogma kept mostly quiet or spoke or wrote esoterically, so outnumbered and likely to be socially shunned they were. Only the bravest of the few dared to speak openly about Christianity in critical or challenging term. For those who clamor today about the good that might come if only America were more of a “Christian nation,” they need look no farther than the mid-1800s to see what such a nation truly looks like. It’s hard to imagine any nation, real or fiction, being more Christian than 19th Century America.
Further, the Bible of that day was the same as it is today — there has been no new revelation from any god that has led to the writing, editing, and publication of any new holy texts (The Book of Mormon excepted, of course). The core tenets of Christianity were in the 19th Century what they are today in the 21st Century. In that respect, not much has changed theologically.
Enter Mark Twain, the social commentator of the 19th Century who knew no equal. Twain’s religion and piety was and remains a disputed subject, but this much is clear: He was a man of no ordinary Christian faith, and it’s arguable that he had little if any religious faith at all, though he was surrounded by Americans who preached their Christian religion without end. And many, many of those very same Christian Americans, while very confident in their own righteousness, had trouble even acknowledging the humanity of men and women who happened to have dark colored skin.
Here is but a sample of how Twain put that irony on display, from chapter 32 of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN:
(Huck) “It warn’t the grounding—that didn’t keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head.”
(Aunt Sally) “Good gracious! anybody hurt?”
(Huck) “No’m. Killed a nigger.”
(Aunt Sally) “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt. Two years ago last Christmas, your uncle Silas was coming up from Newrleans on the old Lally Rook, and she blowed out a cylinder-head and crippled a man. And I think he died afterwards. He was a Baptist.”
The same American nation of Christians that nearly tore itself asunder over the moral challenge of acknowledging the humanity of people with dark skin, then — merely one generation later — ran to the seductive and false promises offered by socialism and progressivism: free things and permanent security in exchange for freedom.
Make of this American history whatever you will. But the history is true. And those who sponsor massive conferences and publish materials of all kinds with dire warnings about the terrible fates that await us unless we make American more Christian ought to take note: We once were thoroughly Christian as a nation. Look closely at how we were and what we did. Shall we return? If we are asked to make America more Christian than it is today, then I ask: To what end?
I shall patiently await an answer. In the meantime, I will go about my work, trying to help fellow Americans understand the goodness and rightness of freedom, while others offer instruction on what they believe is true religion.