Our friend, Dr. Tom Krannawitter offers this thoughtful piece on America’s influence on Christianity.
The subject “America-was-founded-as-a-Christian-Nation” is one of those persistent themes in American politics. It pops up again and again, frequently.
This is true throughout all of American history, and some today have built highly successful, high profile businesses feeding this line to large audiences who want to hear more about the influence of Christianity on America. Offer to speak on the influence of Christianity on America and one can pack large stadiums with receptive audiences — probably in no small part because Christianity has many believers eager to hear more good things about their own religion.
I find it peculiar, however, that few talk or write about the influence of America on Christianity. In terms of politics, it is well-known and certainly no secret that the Christian religion has been around a long time, now over two thousand years old.
It is also well-known and certainly no secret that in the early years of Christianity, when Christians were small in number and relatively weak, Christians were persecuted, first and foremost by Romans, and by others as well.
It is also well-known and certainly no secret that almost as soon as Christians started to grow in numbers and gain power, they set about persecuting others, and often Christians persecuted fellow Christians because of sectarian or theological differences. If anyone is interested in knowing more, I suggest investigating the life and times of the Christian King Charlemagne as a good place to begin.
It is also well-known and certainly no secret that for the vast bulk of Christian history, stretching over many centuries of Christendom in the Western World, Christians understood their own religion to require the political rule of kings, or monarchy. There were many explanations, defenses, and apologetics for this view, but perhaps one of the most thoughtful was the little book, “Patriarcha: Or The Natural Power Of Kings,” written by The Learned Sir Robert Filmer and published in 1680. (Yes, that is how the Christian publishing house presented Mr. Filmer’s full name on the book.)
It is tempting for the modern mind to view Mr. Filmer’s defense of Christian monarchy as old, outdated, archaic. It was written, after all, almost three hundred and fifty years ago, and to us today that seems like a long, long time ago.
But what if, instead of looking backward from OUR time, we looked at Mr. Filmer’s arguments FORWARD from the time of Jesus? In other words, some 17 CENTURIES after Christ – when Christianity had been around for 17 centuries and Christians had many centuries to reflect upon what their Bible means! – Christians STILL were making arguments justifying MONARCHY in the name of their own Christianity and the Bible that informs it. I find that rather fascinating.
The Christian defense of monarchy offered by The Learned Sir Robert Filmer and many others might have had an even longer period of influence if not for the effort of Mr. John Locke, who took direct aim at Mr. Filmer and the whole concept of Divine Right Theory of Kingship, and offered a devastating critique. This is the entire purpose of Locke’s often ignored “First Treatise on Government,” which sets the stage for his more popular “Second Treatise on Government.” Only in the latter did Locke make the case for government by consent that protects equal natural rights AFTER demolishing the argument for kings ruling by God’s grace without the consent of non-godly human beings.
At the core of Locke’s political teaching, which was embraced fully by the American Founders and is enshrined forever in the Declaration of Independence, was the SELF-EVIDENT TRUTH of human equality. Whatever a “self-evident truth” IS, it certainly is NOT an article of religious faith. A self-evident truth is a TRUTH – it is a true proposition or statement whose evidence is contained in the terms and ideas of the statement, all of which are understandable and knowable by unassisted human REASON.
Understanding a self-evident truth requires NO religious faith whatsoever. A self-evident truth might be COMPATIBLE with this or that religious teaching, but one need not have any particular religious faith in order to comprehend intellectually a self-evident truth.
Only by providing a foundation for political legitimacy in a rational, non-sectarian, non-religious, self-evident truth could Locke and the Founders make a consistent argument for a regime of religious liberty. You see, so long as political authority was bestowed by a church, a religion, or some interpretation of God controlled by a council of priests or bishops, then all those who did NOT support the official political religion or church were seen as undermining the authority of the government, which meant undermining the authority of a sitting King whose very claim to rule came from a church representing God.
In this kind of theocratic situation, religious liberty was impossible from the point of view of those in government power, because religious liberty was seen by them as an attack on the very religious authority that granted political authority to the government. The result of uniting religious authority with political authority, which is both a matter of historical record and philosophic reasoning, was/is religious persecution.
The Americans of 1776, the vast majority of whom were unquestionably Christian, REJECTED the theocratic foundation of political authority. Instead, they embraced the teaching of Locke, and they placed the self-evident truth of human equality at the center of their political thought.
To help those of Christian faith understand and accept that idea, both Locke and the Founders framed the idea of human equality with many references to God – one finds a reference to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” for example, right in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. But if one understands the philosophic meaning of a self-evident truth, one quickly discovers that understanding self-evident truth is not dependent upon any sectarian faith, which is why the Declaration mentions no specific religion anywhere.
In fact, the only mention of “Christian,” which was later edited out and did not survive in the final document, was Jefferson’s indictment in the original draft of the Declaration of the Christian King George III for creating and protecting the international slave trade:
>> [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another. <<
The result of creating a regime of religious freedom based upon a rational, self-evident moral/political truth – human equality – transformed the world of religion, at least in America.
By separating religion from political power, churches in America no longer had legal authority to persecute people. Churches could not force others to attend or contribute or tithe on pain of legal, government-backed punishment, torture, even death.
Churches in America quickly learned that the only power they had was the power over themselves to try and make themselves more attractive to more people. In this respect, churches were transformed into something similar to businesses, where one can only hope to compete to attract followers and supporters, with no guarantees, and no legal coercion over others.
In this respect, I think the question HOW DID AMERICA INFLUENCE CHRISTIANITY? is at least as interesting, maybe more, than the question HOW DID CHRISTIANITY INFLUENCE AMERICA? After all, I suspect, when many American Christians today celebrate and call for more Christian influence in spheres of American politics and culture, they are likely thinking of the peaceful Americanized Christianity to which they are accustomed, not the medieval Christianity of persecution, torture, war, and death. And thus it might be worth considering more deeply how America influenced the religion they hold dear.