Independence Day Reflections

05 Jul

I am currently in Albany, Georgia visiting friends on this fourth of July. Yesterday, I began preparing for our patriotic service Wednesday night July 5th. In my preparation I did a lot of reading about out founding fathers — were they Christians? Did they found our nation to be a Christian Nation? [In the treaty of Tripoli (1797), our leaders say that our country was not founded on the Christian religion.] There is a huge debate over the faith of our nation’s founders and the ongoing issue of separation of church and state. I think that there are two ruts in this tireless debate. On one side are those who want to remove all references to God in our nation’s history. This secularization of American history is a mistake. The other rut is those who want to make out all of the founding fathers to be born-again Christians. They were not. Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the declaration of independence was a deist. John Adams was a Unitarian. George Washington would never receive communion. While the founding of our nation was within a Judeo-Christian perspective, it was hardly founded to be a Christian nation. The most valuable component to the founding of our country is the freedom of religion that we have in the US. It has helped the proclamation of the gospel. I am thankful for that.

I did read a great article about the “evangelicals” of the 18th century. According to this article, the Christians that we would call “evangelical” where in favor of the separation of church and State. Much more than the political evangelcial movement of today. Here is the first couple of paragraphs of the article that I read. Happy independence day!

The Framers and the Faithful
How modern evangelicals are ignoring their own history.

By Steven Waldman

Thomas Jefferson stood, dressed in a black suit, in a doorway of the White House on Jan. 1, 1802, watching a bizarre spectacle. Two horses were pulling a dray carrying a 1,235-pound cheese—just for him. Measuring 4 feet in diameter and 17 inches in height, this cheese was the work of 900 cows.
More impressive than the size of the cheese was its eloquence. Painted on the red crust was the inscription: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” The cheese was a gift from religious leaders in western Massachusetts.

It may seem surprising that religious leaders would be praising Jefferson, given that his critics had just months earlier been attacking him as an infidel and an atheist. In the 1800 election, John Adams had argued that the Francophile Jefferson would destroy America’s Christian heritage just as the French revolutionaries had undermined their own religious legacy. Adams supporters quoted Jefferson’s line that he didn’t care whether someone believed in one god or 20, and they argued that the choice in the election was: “God—And a religious president…[or] Jefferson—and no God.”

But in a modern context, the most remarkable thing about the cheese is that it came from evangelical Christians. It was the brainchild of the Rev. John Leland—a Baptist and, therefore, a theological forefather of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham. Even though Jefferson was labeled anti-religion by some, he had become a hero to evangelicals—not in spite of his views on separation of church and state, but because of them. By this point, Jefferson had written his draft of the Virginia statute of religious freedom, and he and James Madison were known as the strictest proponents of keeping government and religion far apart. Because Baptists and other evangelicals had been persecuted and harassed by the majority faiths—the Anglicans in the South and the Puritan-influenced Congregationalists in the North—these religious minorities had concluded that their freedom would only be guaranteed when majority faiths could not use the power of the state to promote their theology and institutions.

Each side of our modern culture wars has attempted to appropriate the Founding Fathers for their own purposes. With everything from prayer in school to gay rights to courtroom displays of the Ten Commandments at stake, conservative and liberal activists are trying to capture the middle ground and win over public opinion. Portraying their views as compatible with—even demanded by—the Founding Fathers makes any view seem more sensible, mainstream, and in the American tradition. And in truth, you can find a Jefferson or Adams quote to buttress just about any argument. But there are a few facts that might actually be stipulated by both sides in the culture wars. First, the original Constitution really didn’t say all that much about religion. God is not mentioned, and the only reference to religion is a ban on providing religious tests for holding office. (Ask why, and the arguments would resume with fury: Conservatives say the Founders left it out because they wanted the states to regulate religion; liberals say it was because the framers were secularists who wanted strict separation between religion and government).

Second, there was a widespread view among religious people of all flavors that the Constitution would be much stronger if it had a Bill of Rights that more explicitly guaranteed religious freedom. The 18th-century evangelicals were among the strongest advocates of this view and of the Bill of Rights, which declared that “Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion.” Throughout the states, evangelicals pushed hard for ratification of the Bill of Rights in the state legislatures. Indeed, part of what made Jefferson cheese-worthy in the eyes of a Baptist leader like Leland was his advocacy of a Bill of Rights.

Modern Christian conservatives concede that point and hail the First Amendment, but they argue that it by no means follows that either the Founders or the proto-evangelicals wanted a strict separation of church and state. They point out—accurately—that neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights includes the phrase “separation of church and state.” And they argue that what the First Amendment intended to do was exactly what it says—and no more: prevent the “establishment” of an official state church, like the ones that had been prevalent in the colonies up until the time of the revolution. In the book The Myth of the Separation, religious conservative David Barton argues that the Founders simply did not support separation of church and state. Indeed, he maintains, this was a Christian nation founded by Christian men who very much wanted the government to support religion. The contemporary intellectual battle over the role of religion in the public square will be determined in part on who can own the history.

It is ironic, then, that evangelicals—so focused on the “true” history—have neglected their own. Indeed, the one group that would almost certainly oppose the views of 21st-century evangelicals are the 18th-century evangelicals. John Leland was no anomaly. In state after state, when colonists and Americans met to debate the relationship between God and government, it was the proto-evangelica1s who pushed the more radical view that church and state should be kept far apart. Both secular liberals who sneer at the idea that evangelicals could ever be a positive influence in politics and Christian conservatives who want to knock down the “wall” should take note: It was the 18th-century evangelicals who provided the political shock troops for Jefferson and Madison in their efforts to keep government from strong involvement with religion. Modern evangelicals are certainly free to take a different course, but they should realize that in doing so they have dramatically departed from the tradition of their spiritual forefathers.

To read the rest of the story, click here:

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Posted by on July 5, 2006 in Theology



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