Monday, September 27, 2010

Faith of Our Fathers

Over at First Things, author Joe Carter posted an interesting piece on the faith of America’s Founding Fathers entitled Founding Believers. Carter describes the debate often had between the Religious Right (conservative Christians) and the Secular Left (atheistic/agnostic secularists) concerning the religious beliefs of the men who formed this nation during the Revolution. He uses the research of David L. Holmes, a religious studies professor at the College of William and Mary, to reach the following conclusion:

“…while we Christians can claim few founding fathers as fellow believers, the atheists and secularists can claim none. Not one of the significant leaders was an atheist, much less subscribed to the modern idea of secularism.

“Most—whether they were non-Christian Deists or Deistic Christians—appear to have been held to the classic ‘five points of Deism’: (1) There is a God; (2) He ought to be worshiped; (3) Virtue is the principle element in this worship; (4) Humans should repent of their sins; and (5) There is life after death, where the evil will be punished and the good rewarded.

“The views of the Deistic founding fathers would have been as repugnant to the modern secularist as those of the so-called Religious Right. The founding believers considered belief in a deity to be necessary for good citizenship, believed in intelligent design, had few qualms about establishment of state churches, and took a low view of atheists. They might not pass muster as orthodox Christians, but if they were around today they would be considered theocrats.”


Now, I do not consider myself a member of the Religious Right (which is predominately Evangelical/fundamentalist). As a Catholic, I would disagree sharply with the Extreme Right’s view of Christianity and so I could never accept theocratic rule from the Right.

However, it has been my experience that theocracy is not what most conservative Christians are about. The Evangelical experience of Christianity is utterly devoid of such state-controlled religion (more so than even the Founding Fathers as deists). It would never enter an Evangelical’s mind to create a state-church union, primarily for two reasons:

1) For Evangelicals, faith is such a highly personal experience, that even within the same church-group no two believers hold exactly the same doctrines. They disagree on everything from baptism to End Times prophecy, ordination and divorce, even moral issues. In general, they have no desire to impose their personal doctrines even on fellow believers sitting next to them every Sunday morning. It would be foreign to them to use state power to do what even their churches do not do.

2) The history of Evangelicalism (as brief as it is) has never had ties to state power. There has never been an Evangelical (in the modern American sense of the word) state-church in the history of the world. Catholics and Mainline Protestants cannot say the same. The entanglements between ecclesial and state power among Catholics and Protestants are many, and unfortunately have caused wars and oppression and much suffering. Evangelicals know this history and they take great pride in their church’s lack of state power throughout history. They see it as a mark of authentic Christianity that their religion is devoid of the state-church sin.

We might summarize these two points as follows: 1) an individual’s personal beliefs about God are his own business and not even the church has the authority to force doctrine; 2) the church must remain free from state control and must not itself control the state – the sins of the past must not be repeated – state and church are separate entities. This radical autonomy of the individual believer and that of the church is the clear foundation of the Evangelical movement as it has shaped the Religious Right.

To an outsider it may seem that Evangelicals wish to create a theocracy, but from my experience discussing these things with Evangelicals, the two points I listed above rule the day. Whatever the rhetoric sounds like when taken out of context, or whatever the Left says to caricature the Religious Right, in the end Evangelicals are fighting a cultural battle (certainly with political repercussions and with many political fights along the way), but not a political coup or the establishment of a theocracy. The Christian Right’s main objective is not theocratic, but cultural and moral.

With all that being said, I don’t think the Religious Right’s motivations are all that different from those of the Founding Fathers. As the First Things article points out…The “Christian” character of our nation is not found encoded explicitly in its laws; it is not dictated, as a doctrine that must be believed by every citizen. Rather we are a nation of Christians who freely choose to follow Christ, and in doing so we act in accord with Christian principles and make laws that reflect the Good that Christianity has taught us. The battle fought by the Religious Right is to preserve Christianity’s right to inform the political and cultural debate just as the Founders intended: “(1) There is a God; (2) He ought to be worshiped; (3) Virtue is the principle element in this worship; (4) Humans should repent of their sins; and (5) There is life after death, where the evil will be punished and the good rewarded.”
"Regardless of what was believed at the time of the founding, our country is not a ‘Christian nation’ but rather, as the Baptist theologian Albert Mohler duly notes, ‘a nation of Christians.’ America, he argues, ‘is not Christian by constitutional provision or creedal affirmation—but its people are overwhelmingly Christian by self-affirmation. Thoughtful evangelicals will not overestimate the convictional character of this self-identification. Secularists ought not to overestimate its superficiality.’”


Even a deist could agree to that.
 If the Founding Fathers were “theocrats” who “had few qualms about establishment of state churches” then perhaps we should fear the Religious Right’s motivation in invoking the Founder’s intent? Is the Right positioning itself to enforce a Christian theocracy?

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