Social conservatives love to preach about the Christian principles that influenced our country’s founders. To hear them recount history, men like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and George Washington were men of deep Christian faith whose lives and writings were profoundly shaped by the Christian bible. They are quick to point out that what ails our nation is the abandonment of these principles. For them, the country took a dramatically wrong turn during the 1960’s and, except for a brief period during the 1980’s when their hero and saint Ronald Reagan rose to power, has been influencing culture and government ever since.
That’s a tidy summation of American history and provides a cure for all that supposedly is wrong with America today but it’s too tidy and not entirely accurate. History tells us a different story.
There is a fundamental inaccuracy in the conservative premise. The United States of America was not founded on Christian principles, at least not the traditional principles found in the Old Testament, the four Gospels, and the New Testament writings. If one looks closely, it wasn’t the 1960’s that was the beginning of the end but the 1660’s, the birth of the Enlightenment Period.
Enlightenment thinkers exalted reason as the supreme force shaping and driving culture, politics, art, and religion. The successful application of reason to any question depended on its correct application—a scientific method that would guarantee validity. This new methodology relied on the sciences and mathematics, where the logics of induction and deduction made possible the creation of a sweeping new cosmology. The success of Isaac Newton, in particular, in capturing in a few mathematical equations the laws that govern the motions of the planets, gave great impetus to a growing faith in the human capacity to attain knowledge. At the same time, the idea of the universe as a mechanism governed by a few simple—and discoverable—laws had a subversive effect on the concepts of a personal God and individual salvation that were central to Christianity. This new method affected the Christian faith, radically altering its long-held beliefs in doctrine and the authority of the Church. The existence of a monotheistic deity was upheld but it was no longer a Christian monotheism. Deism was the preferred rational understanding of a supreme being. Deists believed in a creator god often conceived of as architect or mechanician, the existence of a system of rewards and punishments administered by that God, and the obligation of humans to virtue and piety. Beyond the natural religion of the Deists lay the more radical products of the application of reason to religion: skepticism, atheism, and materialism.
One of the most influential of the Enlightenment Period was the empiricist philosopher John Locke whose “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property” Thomas Jefferson borrowed to pen his famous “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, was careful to separate religion from civil governance. As an empiricist rather than a strict rationalist, Locke believed that all of our ideas, whether simple or complex, are ultimately derived from experience, so that the knowledge of which we are capable is therefore severely limited both in its scope and in its certainty (a kind of modified Skepticism), especially given that the real inner natures of things derive from what he called their primary qualities which we can never experience and so never know.
In so doing, Locke desired to put an end to religious strife and persecution, ending the subjugation of peoples by force to accept a certain religious belief system. Toleration is central to Locke’s political philosophy. Consequently, only churches that teach toleration are to be allowed in his society. Locke’s view on the difficulty of knowing the one true religion suggest that religion is not personally important to Locke. This new understanding of religion changed the fundamental nature of true belief in God and relegated religion not so much to salvation and the afterlife but to the proper regulation of civil life according to a strict moral code. Under Locke, the Christian faith would serve its civil purpose to maintain order and an ethical life. Doctrines and dogmas were disputable and essentially irresolvable in terms of their truth value. In his “Letter Concerning Toleration” Locke writes, “For every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical. For whatsoever any church believes, it believes to be true and the contrary unto those things it pronounce; to be error. So that the controversy between these churches about the truth of their doctrines and the purity of their worship is on both sides equal; nor is there any judge, either at Constantinople or elsewhere upon earth, by whose sentence it can be determined.”
For Locke and subsequent Enlightenment philosophers, it didn’t matter if one believed in a Christian god as taught by Church councils or beliefs that contradicted those councils as long as good moral orders were inculcated. Locke’s one exception-the atheist-is unacceptable because without a general belief in the existence of God, one’s morals and ethics become suspect.
Yet, we hear what we want to hear. When an elected official or politician invokes god we tend to interpret that invocation in the manner in which we ourselves understand god. That’s fine with the politicians because they don’t call on the almighty to reaffirm their own beliefs but to reassure voters that they are true believers, whatever that means.
Now, for the shocking part. The country which can actually attribute to itself the word Christian is Russia. Yes, that’s right, our adversary and former Cold War, godless, former Commie country-Russia. In 988, Prince Vladimir became a Christian after surveying the other major religions. Since that time, Russia’s history has been intertwined and inextricably linked to Christianity. Most historians view the relatively brief period of Communism as an aberration. In fact, today Russians refer to that period as the time of being oppressed by the “Soviet yoke”. When Russian President Vladimir Putin criticizes the United States he does so from the perspective of Russian Christianity. Like Islamic adherents, he believes the West, including the USA, has been corrupted by materialism, capitalism, and a general godlessness.
What does that say about the notion of god and “his” role in politics and culture? Whether we are believers, atheists, materialists, hedonists, libertarians or none of the above, the question of god remains an influential factor in how we live our lives and the way we govern ourselves. In short, it influences everything. To paraphrase an old axiom, “You can take god out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of god.” So, let’s make sure when we are telling our own story of the USA we get our facts straight. We aren’t a Christian country in the traditional sense of the term Christian. That’s neither good nor bad. It’s just a fact. We’ve been deeply influenced by Enlightenment ideas and these influence our way of life, our education, our work and our political life. If social conservatives want to call us back to our roots, let’s be clear about where it is they are calling us to before we swallow the bait hook, line, and sinker.