A Student of History

October 17, 2007

Religion & the Founders

Filed under: Early America,The past that is still with us — John Maass @ 8:03 am


[GW Praying at Valley Forge-True?]

A few weeks ago, I posted on Christianity and the Founders, a subject that has been receiving lots of attention in the form of many books, articles, etc.  Now John McCain has weighed in, and says that the U.S. was founded on Christian principles and that these should be emphasized today.  Bold words from a presidential contender.  Related to this theme is an opinion piece in the Boston Globe, by James Carroll, which is here.  I include a snip of it below.

One of my proudest boasts as a schoolboy was an ability to both identify and spell what my teacher insisted was the English language’s longest word: antidisestablishmentarianism.

I had, of course, no idea what it meant. Now I know that it defines America’s political third rail onto which John McCain threw himself when he recently said that the United States was established as a “Christian nation.”

No, it wasn’t! Or so answered a chorus of critics, heading off an inevitable denigration of minority religions – and no religion. The disestablishmentarians always point out that the U.S. Constitution nowhere mentions God, and that the founders were Deist gentlemen whose God was so impersonally detached from history as to be not recognizably Christian at all. The framers of the American political system, appalled by what “establishment” had led to in Europe, took pains to set their government on a religiously neutral path.

But government is not nation. Just because McCain’s assertion is dangerous – as I believe it to be – does not mean it is untrue. For one thing, what the founders intended may weigh less than how the nation developed over the next two centuries. The Constitution created “an open national space,” in the scholar Mark Noll’s phrase, but, Noll says, instead of it being filled with Alexander Hamilton’s economic planning, Thomas Jefferson’s yeomanry or John Adams’s communalism, that space was seized by unexpected 19th-century “awakenings” of evangelical fervor.

[Another, cheesier version]

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