Published October 4, 2022
Is America a Christian nation—or was it ever? This vexed question, debated for decades, has been given a new lease on life by the heated and sometimes obsessive conversation around so-called “Christian nationalism” in the wake of the January 6th Capitol riot. Although no one seemed quite able to agree on the meaning of this faddish term, Christian nationalists, it at least seemed clear, were those who believed that the United States ought to be a Christian nation. But why?
Sociologists were quick to rush forward and proffer answers, suggesting that Christian nationalists are uniquely obsessed with boundaries, power, and order—perhaps because they secretly want to marginalize dark-skinned people and maintain “male authority over women’s bodies.” Such explanations, which inevitably involve not-so-charitably psychologizing the beliefs in question as the product of sinister repressed desires, stubbornly refuse in advance to consider the answers that so-called Christian nationalists themselves are most likely to offer. In the most influential account of the alleged movement, Taking America Back for God, authors Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, record over and over from those whom they call “Ambassadors” for Christian nationalism some variation on this response: “Our country was definitely founded on Christian principles.” Consistently, those who support some kind of Christian nation in the present do so on the basis that America was a Christian nation in the past—particularly and crucially, at the time of its Founding.
To be sure, such appeals to history are often little more than vague symbolic gestures; one wonders how many of those filling the bleachers at Trump rallies are particularly attuned to, say, John Adams’s theory of church-state relations. Still, it should not surprise us that today’s “Christian nationalists” make such appeals to history. We are a story-telling species, looking to the past to understand our present and shape our future. And this makes it rather difficult to simply dismiss the flag-waving zealots at the Capitol building as a herd of insecure, misogynistic extremists—however much the respectable classes may wish to do so. To the extent that their vision of the present is rooted in some perception of the past, the first question we must ask is, “is this perception accurate?” It is striking how readily sociologists like Whitehead and Perry seem to dismiss the historical question as irrelevant to their inquiry. They vaguely insinuate that all talk of a “Christian founding” is just wishful thinking in service of bigoted and exclusionary contemporary agendas, and so the history simply doesn’t matter.
But the history does matter. It may not settle all our debates if we discover that the Founders were indeed unreconstructed “Christian nationalists” in something like the contemporary sense, but it should at least change their tone. If Franklin Graham turns out to be saying little more than Benjamin Franklin, a noted Deist and freethinker, then today’s literati may have to rethink their snide mockeries or schoolmarmish rebukes. Moreover, it will force us to sharpen our analysis and clarify our critiques. If something is wrong with today’s “Christian nation” rhetoric, what is it precisely? Was it wrong all along? Or have changing circumstances simply rendered the concept obsolete, and if so, how so? And if it in fact is a red herring, with racism serving as the real motivation of today’s Christian nationalists, this will have to be demonstrated much more carefully than it has been heretofore.
The burden of this essay is not to sort through the many debates about the shape of contemporary “Christian nationalism,” but simply to demonstrate that the appeal to history is not an idle one. Not only do we find a clear conception of America as a “Christian nation” in the American Founding era, but, by attending closely to its discourse, we can arrive, I will argue, at a much clearer understanding of what we might even mean by that term. What does it mean for a country to be a Christian nation? And what might it mean to be a Christian nationalist, in the sense of someone committed to maintaining and supporting that state of affairs? The story of our own nation can offer some answers, and by doing so, offer us at least some conceptual tools with which to cut through the dense thicket of contemporary theo-political debate.
Asking the Wrong Questions
Because it is always easier to deal with particulars than abstractions, much of the debate on a Christian founding has become a debate about Christian Founders. Were the great men who signed the Declaration, led the Revolution, and planned the Constitution themselves authentic Christians? The answer, of course, is “It depends”—it depends on which Founder you are thinking of, at which point in his life, on what you mean by “authentic Christian,” and on how you read a host of often hackneyed and non-committal public and private statements. There are a few leading Founders, such as John Jay and James Wilson, who were clearly devout and orthodox Christians throughout their lives; others, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who were clearly heterodox in both belief and behavior; and a host of ambiguous and inconsistent characters in between. It is easy to see why scholars and popularizers alike prefer to debate such imponderables, but the verdict of these investigations has little bearing on the question at hand. After all, the beliefs of a few individuals, however prominent, cannot determine for us the Christianity of the American nation. Moreover, it is entirely possible for someone to champion Christian institutions without possessing consistent personal Christian faith or practice—after all, while scholars endlessly debate the Emperor Constantine’s own Christian convictions, no one would deny that it was he above all who oversaw the creation of a Christian empire.
If not bogged down in debates about personalities, argument over a Christian America frequently centers on the First Amendment, and whether the United States was founded with Christianity or Christian principles written into its constitution. Framed this way, the skeptics can often win fairly easily, since a quick word-search will reveal that the Constitution—unlike the Declaration of Independence—contains not a single reference to God, much less to a specifically Christian idea of him, or to the Christian church. But while this may have in time helped shape a more secular national consciousness, it tells us comparatively little about the assumptions of 1780s Americans.
After all, as so many today continually forget, the Constitution was a strictly federal document (indeed, almost an international treaty) which intentionally left to the states all those matters which belonged to their own internal sovereignty and police powers—religion clearly among them. Most of the Founders no doubt assumed that the only significant variation between states would be between different forms of Christianity, and thus that the federal government would operate from within a broadly Christian consensus. Nonetheless, we can cheerfully admit that America was not, strictly speaking, founded with a formally Christian federal government; but we should equally cheerfully insist that this has little to do with the question of whether it was—at its inception at least—a Christian nation. A nation, after all, is something more fundamental than its government, although in a stable regime there will necessarily be a close fit between the two.
We might think, then, that our question properly concerns the Christianity—or lack thereof—of the American citizenry. And indeed, a number of studies have sought to determine the demographics of American religiosity in the final decades of the eighteenth century. For the most part, they have yielded the rather surprising suggestion that Americans of 1780 were if anything less religious than those of 2020, measured by the favorite metric of church attendance—favored because it seems more objective and measurable than subjective criteria like doctrinal affirmations.
However, church attendance is a function both of religious dedication and of convenience, and it is unquestionably far easier for the average American to attend church today—a few minutes’ drive away in a climate-controlled vehicle on well-paved roads—than it was in the highly rural context of the late eighteenth century. Indeed, Mark David Hall has compellingly argued that the oft-repeated claims about low Revolutionary-era church attendance collapse on closer inspection. In any case, though, a question about whether America had a Christian citizenry is still not quite the same as whether it was a Christian nation. There is, after all, a crucial difference between a nation of Christians and a Christian nation (even if there is likely to be some causal relationship between the two).
The Meaning of a Christian Nation
But what then is a nation? When we answer this question properly, we will soon see why so many debates over America’s Christian founding are confused. A nation is defined not merely by its leaders, its government, or the individuals that comprise it—as important as all these factors must be. A nation is, rather, in Benedict Anderson’s phrase, an “imagined community,” and specifically, the product of a shared act of moral imagination—or what Charles Taylor calls a “social imaginary.” To see a nation, and to see oneself as part of it, is to perceive a horizon of shared meaning and shared history, a matrix of shared values and convictions, a fellowship of shared bonds and loyalties anchored in the past and extending into the future. Although historians and sociologists have observed several key features of nationhood, religion is usually near the top of the list. But what is religion? Religion is famously even harder to define than nationality, but even if we cannot analyze its essence, we can readily enough single out three key ways in which religions shape nations.
First, religions help provide or at least shape a common language, and indeed, language is often singled out as the most important determinant of nationhood—not in the merely superficial meaning of the term “language,” but in its fullest sense. A language, after all, is a symbolic structure, a way of naming, ordering, quantifying, and evaluating the universal phenomena of human experience in a way that particularizes them as the experience of a given historical community. Accordingly, even communities that may all speak some form of English may nonetheless adapt it in a myriad of ways, determining which words and metaphors to favor, which literary allusions and idioms to privilege, which echoes to evoke. Given the profound effect of religion on human life through the ages, it should be little surprise that religion tends to shape language—in vocabulary, grammar, everyday idioms and rhetorical tropes. The King James Bible, it is often said, gave us the modern English language. And it was this Bible—as well as the tropes and concepts specific to the Protestant Reformation—that saturated the national language of America during and after its struggle for independence.
Second, human beings make sense of their experiences—and above all their shared national experiences—by means of narrative. And few narratives generate as much power and motivation as religious ones. In nations shaped by religions (and indeed, what nations have not been?), the myths and stories of the dominant religion play an outsized role in informing the people’s conception of their past and enabling them to interpret and find direction in their present struggles. Throughout American history, the narratives of the Hebrew Bible have played this role constantly, with dreams of Exodus inspiring the colonists resisting King George III, slaves on the Underground Railroad, and the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Biblical narratives were not prominent because of a large American Jewish population, but rather due to the influence of Reformed Protestant Christianity, with its great stress on the Old Testament as the beginning of God’s covenantal history with his people. Indeed, the historical struggles of the Protestant Reformation against papal tyranny once provided anchoring narratives nearly as fundamental for the American revolutionaries, although the steady influx of Catholic immigrants in the two centuries since has diluted this stream of the national imagination.
Finally, if religious language helps structure the social world by imbuing it with moral value, and religious narratives anchor national experiences in a past that renders the present intelligible, religious virtues provide a vision of how the gifts of that past might be sustained into a blessed future. Intrinsic to every “story-formed community,” as Stanley Hauerwas has observed, is a sense of the character traits and behaviors that are consistent with the story the community tells about itself, the behaviors that will enable it to remain true to its past identity and secure a durable existence. We witness this dynamic even in supposedly post-religious “woke” America, which tells us a story of deliverance from oppression and every form of discrimination, and offers thereby a blueprint of the virtues needed to ensure a just and tolerant future. For early Americans, low and high, there seems to have been a remarkable consensus over the necessity for Christian virtue if the American experiment was to survive and thrive. Even for those who were personally least religious, such as Franklin and Jefferson, it seemed almost self-evident that their countrymen had better at least live as if Christianity were true, if the country was to flourish.
From this standpoint, it seems clear that the Founding Fathers, even if they were not always Christians, were certainly “Christian nationalists” by the contemporary definition—that is, people who believed it important that America should publicly describe and conduct itself as a nation within a Christian framework. In what follows, I shall seek to vindicate this claim by showing how the Founding generation (c. 1770-1800) and its prominent leaders continuously had recourse to Christian language to describe the challenges it faced, Christian narrative to interpret its own struggle and gain confidence in the outcome, and a Christian vision of public virtue as normative for the new nation if it was to endure.
The Language of a Christian Nation
A Bible-Soaked Imagination
If language is one of the key measures for a nation’s public religious identity, it is hard to miss the evidence for a Christian America in the later eighteenth century. Although supposedly something of a religious low-point sandwiched between two periods of vibrant religious revival (the First and Second Great Awakenings), most American very much still lived in the long shadow of Christianity during the decades that spanned the struggle for American independence and the formation of the constitutional order. Throughout the literature of this period, the language of the Christian Scriptures and the Protestant Reformation is pervasive, and the sermon—whether heard or later read—remained by far the most influential means of persuasion.
Indeed, Donald Lutz demonstrated in a survey of American political literature, 1760-1805, that the Bible was far and away the most referenced source, accounting for one-third of all citations. The book of Deuteronomy alone outstripped any extra-biblical text, even Montesquieu’s ubiquitous Spirit of the Laws, and was cited more frequently than all of Locke’s works put together. As James Byrd writes in Sacred Scripture, Sacred War,
Even before the Revolution, many colonists could not assess their wars without citing scripture, and they could not comprehend scripture without referencing war. For them the Bible was not a distant, ancient text; it was an engaging, universal drama, relevant and realistic, and interaction with scripture—whether through preaching, hearing, writing, or reading—was an engrossing exercise.
Of course, the skeptic might be quick to object that a great many of these “citations” are not thoughtful arguments from the biblical text, but mere rhetorical ornamentations—sometimes, indeed, little more than idioms of biblical provenance. Indeed, even a great many sermons, it is sometimes objected, represent little more than secular revolutionary ideas dressed up in the outerwear of the Scriptural text to give them greater respectability. Certainly the Loyalist clergy frequently made such complaints, and sometimes with just cause. Making too much of such objections, however, risks missing the larger point about the Bible’s outsized role in shaping the social imaginary of the American Founding era.
One of the most familiar biblical references from this era, from Micah 4:4, is a case in point: “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.” As Daniel Dreisbach has documented, Washington’s use of this phrase at crucial moments of his private and public life was hardly surprising; on the contrary, “this was the great Virginian’s favorite Scriptural phrase,” appearing nearly four dozen times in the papers from the latter half of his life. For Washington, the verse summed up the vision of personal and national tranquility, security, plenty, and self-sufficiency that it was his lifelong endeavor to establish in America. That’s not to say that Washington necessarily engaged in a sophisticated exegesis of Micah’s prophetic vision and argued that God’s promises to Israel were in fact fulfilled in the young American republic. Rather, the point is that, in order to understand and articulate the ideals toward which he was striving in his own political leadership, Washington, his imagination steeped in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, instinctively reached for biblical language—and his hearers, for their part, instinctively made the connection.
Contrast this with our own time, when the same phrase was invoked in a presidential inauguration by National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, and Gorman and her listeners celebrated it as a reference to the musical Hamilton. Today, our national language, to the extent it exists at all, is much more likely to be defined by the latest works of pop culture, which shape our understanding of who we are and who we are meant to be. In Washington’s era, while plenty of Americans may have held heterodox doctrines or no Christian faith at all, the Christian tradition continued to provide the symbolic structure through which they made sense of themselves, the challenges they faced, and the ideals for which they strove.
Byrd chronicles the way in which even very obscure biblical tropes like the “curse of Meroz” (Judges 5:23) came to saturate the colonists’ collective consciousness in their struggle against Britain. The curse in question was pronounced by Deborah and Barak after their victory over the oppressor Sisera, because the people of Meroz had refused to come to their countrymen’s help in the battle for liberation. During the Revolutionary War, loyalists or pacifists were frequently tarred with the brush of being like the people of Meroz, failing to recognize that love of their countrymen required violent struggle against tyrants. Sometimes the allusion served as rhetorical decoration, but sometimes it also constituted an important argument about America’s destiny and the action it demanded. In the course of one sermon on the Curse of Meroz, Samuel West of Dartmouth, also invoking the language of Psalm 80, declared “I have abundant reason to conclude that the great sovereign of the universe, has planted a vine in this American wilderness, which he has caused to take deep root, and it has filled the land, and that he will never suffer it to be plucked up, or destroyed.” Language, more than anything else, serves as the means by which societies bring order to their symbolic universe, and in so doing, helps shore up confidence in an order behind the chaos of earthly events. Thus, the pervasive appeals to biblical language anchored a confidence that divine Providence would sustain the American people through their struggles.
Such confidence was hardly limited to sermons, but appears even in state papers, such as Benjamin Franklin’s remarkable speech to the Constitutional Convention. Although unquestionably among the most free-thinking and free-living of the delegates to that body, Franklin rose on June 28th, 1787, to implore the delegates to start each day’s deliberations with prayer. His short speech, as Dreisbach has noted, is studded with Scriptural allusions in nearly every sentence; Dreisbach observes seven in just one paragraph. Here is a brief sample:
The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this Truth, that GOD governs in the Affairs of Men [cf. Daniel 4:17]. And if a Sparrow cannot fall to the Ground without his Notice [Matthew 10:29; Luke 12:6], is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House, they labour in vain that build it’ [Psalm 127:1]. I firmly believe this; and I also believe, that, without his concurrent Aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel [Genesis 11:1-9].
Here we see explicit theological claims of God’s providential orchestration of events, fortified by direct Scriptural warrant and enriched by indirect Scriptural allusions, all of which serves to help both Franklin and his hearers make sense of the events in which they find themselves and have confidence to carry on.
Standing against “Romish” Tyranny
Such language, we should note, was not merely generically Christian, but often quite specifically Protestant. A quick survey of the political literature of the Revolutionary period reveals a startling preoccupation with the themes of the Protestant Reformation, which we might have thought scarcely relevant to the world of 1775. The colonists clearly thought otherwise. As Burke noted in his “Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies,” the American colonists were of a deeply Protestant temper, “adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.” As such, they were preoccupied with the theme of liberty, which had been at the heart of Luther’s stand against Rome. Texts such as Galatians 5:1, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage,” pervaded Revolutionary sermons, as Byrd has documented. And while Loyalists might have carped that this was to confuse spiritual and civil liberty, many patriots thought that this missed the point: that George III’s attack on civil liberty represented a kind of “popery” which implicitly threatened civil liberty as well.
John Adams, indeed, made such an argument explicit in his 1765 Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, outlining the “Romish policy” that, as he saw it, lay behind the Stamp Act. “The first planters in these colonies,” he contends, “saw clearly, that popular powers must be placed as a guard, a control, a balance, to the powers of the monarch and the priest, in every government, or else it would soon become the man of sin, the whore of Babylon, the mystery of iniquity.”
Protestant Reformers applied these phrases from New Testament apocalyptic literature to the Roman Catholic Church, and by colonial times they were a shorthand for all things “popish.” They thus became the most natural mode in which colonists expressed their fear of the creeping tyranny of the English Parliament and monarchy. As Nathan Hatch observes, “According to Samuel Sherwood, these prophecies [of Rev. 13] could not be confined ‘to so narrow a circle, as papal Rome,’ but applied to ‘another persecuting tyrannical power,’ namely ‘the corrupt system of tyranny and oppression, that has been fabricated and adopted by the ministry and parliament of Great Britain.’”
Once one is alerted to this language, so strange to modern ears, one finds it all over the literature of the 1760s and 1770s (though less so, unsurprisingly, after the colonists concluded an alliance with Catholic France). Alexander Hamilton complained in 1774, “Does not your blood run cold, to think an English parliament should pass an act for the establishment of arbitrary power and popery in such an extensive country?” Similarly alarmed by the Quebec Act, which he also took to be proof of Whitehall’s conversion to political popery, John Jay fulminated in his Address to the People of Great Britain, “we think the Legislature of Great Britain is not authorized by the constitution to establish a religion fraught with sanguinary and impious tenets, or to erect an arbitrary form of government in any quarter of the globe.” The recent declarations of Parliament, he wrote, “we consider as heresies in English politics, and which can no more operate to deprive us of our property, than the interdicts of the pope can divest kings of sceptres, which the laws of the land, and the voice of the people have placed in their hands.”
Thus did the language of the Protestant Reformation continue to give to the Protestant colonists—whether heirs of Puritans or Anglicans—the categories with which to make sense of their own struggle for liberty. “Arbitrary power,” “mystery of iniquity,” “persecuting tyranny”—these were all not mere colorful phrases, but vivid three-dimensional images in the colonial imagination, recalling the catechisms of their youth and the best-selling narratives of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. They were shared symbols which structured the social universe of the American colonies, providing a shared framework of meaning which they could draw upon to justify resistance to one another and to find courage for the hard road ahead.
Of course, none of these images and phrases exist in isolation. On the contrary, each serves as what N.T. Wright has called “portable narratives,” briefly encapsulating much larger stories and complexes of ideas, and depending upon those stories in order to convey the intended meaning to their hearers. The preachers, soldiers, and statesmen didn’t just appeal to biblical metaphors to describe their times; they appealed to biblical narratives in order to ground the narrative of their own young nation.
Inhabiting the Christian Narrative
Deliverance from Egypt
If language provides the symbolic coordinates within which a people can find their meaning and purpose, narratives chart the paths along which they travel. For early Americans trying to make sense of their rupture from their mother-country of Great Britain, religious narratives played an indispensable role in bringing order to the chaos of the Revolutionary era and providing confidence in the midst of doubt. Unsurprisingly, these narratives were rooted chiefly in the text of the Christian Scriptures, and especially in the stories of Israel retold in the Hebrew Bible.
Foremost among these was surely the Exodus story, which has held immense imaginative appeal for oppressed people throughout the ages. For the American colonists before, during, and after the Revolution, it offered powerful analogies that seemed intended by God to illuminate their own experience. Like the Israelites in Egypt, they had long lived in a fertile land under benevolent rule, but suddenly found themselves “afflicted with burdens” by a new monarch who seemed determined to extract as much wealth as he could from them—like the “Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.” As Byrd remarks, “When ministers looked to explain the dramatic British shift from liberty to tyranny, they often did so by pondering the mysteries of divine providence and evil intent in the Exodus story.”
Their imaginations primed by this story to expect miracles of divine deliverance, colonial preachers looked for examples of God fighting alongside the colonists and intervening to rescue them from bondage. They saw signs of such intervention in the “Independence Hurricane” of 1775 that sunk a British fleet, which was hailed as “a providential drowning of the British that paralleled the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea,” and extolled George Washington as a Moses figure. Nor were such sentiments confined to the giddy imaginations of preachers eager to make connections to current events in their sermons. The leading Revolutionary statesman John Jay made similar connections while exhorting his New York countrymen to stand firm in the darkest hour of the war:
We should always remember that the many remarkable and unexpected means and events by which our wants have been supplied and our enemies repelled or restrained, are such strong and striking proofs of the interposition of Heaven, that our having been hitherto delivered from the threatened bondage of Britain ought, like the emancipation of the Jews from Egyptian servitude, to be forever ascribed to its true cause.
Indeed, so pervasive was the sense of the Exodus as analogue for the American Revolution that Franklin and Jefferson wanted it memorialized on the Great Seal of the United States. Jefferson described his proposed seal as follows: “Pharaoh sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head & a sword in his hand, passing through the divided waters of the Red Sea in pursuit of the Israelites: rays from a pillar of fire in the cloud, expressive of the divine presence and command, reaching to Moses who stands on the shore &, extending his hand over the sea, causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh.”
Once independence was gained, the people of America continued to see their story through the lens of the people of Israel. The thirteen colonies mirrored the thirteen tribes of Israel (including Levi), which came out of bondage together and subsequently were knit into a single nation and received common laws to govern them. These laws were, as no less a Founding Father than John Adams saw them, modeled on the example of the Hebrew republic. “The government of the Hebrews, instituted by God,” he wrote, “had a judge, the great Sanhedrim, and general assemblies of the people,” thus providing a model for the balanced regime of monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements that he advocated in his Thoughts on Government and subsequent constitutional writings.
The Narrative of the Protestant Nation
Again, however, for most American colonists, it was not generic Christianity that framed their national experience, but specifically Protestantism. Many, especially in Puritan New England but indeed throughout the colonies, continued to see themselves as part of a story that began with Luther, Calvin, and the English Reformation, with the Roman Catholic Church and the spirit of “popery” which it embodied forming the villains of the narrative. On this self-understanding, America was called to take up the mantle of the Protestant nation, guardian of liberty, against the forces of superstition, despotism, and imperialism, now that England, the once-free Protestant nation, had sold her soul in pursuit of power.
From our twenty-first century viewpoint, this narrative is at first almost incomprehensible; after all, it is not as if Britain converted en masse to Roman Catholicism in 1775. Nor was the throne suddenly seized by one of the hated Catholic Stuarts—although many in America worried about the malign influence of George III’s favorite, Lord Bute, in the early 1760s, and fantastical rumors circulated on the eve of the Revolution that King George had secretly converted to Rome and was in close league with the Pope. Such rumors are intelligible only in light of the complex of associations that British Protestantism had developed in the two centuries preceding the American Founding. On one side was Protestant Britain, small but independent people, boasting a representative Parliament, chartered liberties, and rights of conscience. Against them was ranged a coordinated, global threat: an arbitrary, tyrannical pope who lorded over kings and consciences; absolutist Catholic rulers who trampled underfoot chartered liberties and representative assemblies, and aspired to universal empire in Europe and around the globe—first Hapsburg Spain and then Bourbon France.
When Britain triumphed over France in the great Seven Years’ War (which Rev. Samuel Davies had hailed as “the commencement of this grand decisive conflict between the Lamb and the beast”) colonists were at first ecstatic about the religious overtones of the victory. Soon, however, their enthusiasm cooled, as they observed the British Parliament increasingly adopting top-down French methods for administering their newly-expanded imperial possessions. It was against this backdrop that John Adams discerned the “Romish policy” of the “whore of Babylon” lurking behind the inconveniences of the Stamp Act. The Quebec Act of 1774, with its quasi-establishment of Roman Catholicism in Canada—right along with the oppressions of the French civil law—seemed to confirm these fears. The First Continental Congress, in a statement penned by John Jay, argued that the colonists’ neighbors to the north,
are now the subjects of an arbitrary government, deprived of trial by jury, and when imprisoned, cannot claim the benefit of the habeas corpus act, that great bulwark and palladium of English liberty. Nor can we suppress our astonishment that a British Parliament should ever consent to establish in that country a religion that has deluged your island in blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder, and rebellion, through every part of the world.
Such conspiratorial thinking even found its way into the Declaration of Independence, whose reference to Britain’s aim of reducing the colonies “under absolute Despotism” would have been understood by its original readers as a reference to political popery. Convinced that Britain had now embraced both the popish dream of “universal monarchy,” and the popish forms of rule it required, the colonists increasingly saw it as their vocation to carry forward Protestant Britain’s original world-historical mission as a lamp of liberty. Now that “all the spirit of patriotism or of liberty now left in England” was but “the last snuff of an expiring lamp,” America herself would “ere long will build an empire upon the ruins of Great Britain; will adopt its constitution purged of its impurities, and from an experience of its defects will guard against those evils which have wasted its vigor and brought it to an untimely end.”
The Founders’ conception of America as a specifically Protestant nation was certainly blunted by the necessities of a wartime alliance with Catholic France, but it quickly re-asserted itself in the mentality of Federalist New England during the 1790s, helping to drive a sharp wedge between northern Federalists and the Francophilic followers of Jefferson. As late as 1812, on the eve of renewed war with Britain, Gov. Caleb Strong of Massachusetts lamented any conflict with “the nation from which we are descended, and which for many generations has been the bulwark of the religion we profess,” and declared his hope that God “would preserve us from entangling and fatal alliances with those governments which are hostile to the safety and happiness of mankind”—i.e., France.
To be sure, Christian narratives were not the only sources for American political imagination. Both leading statesmen and ordinary citizens also drew on a repertoire including British history, classical republicanism, etc. But they saw these sources as mutually reinforcing rather than contradictory. Over and over, then, throughout the Founding period, soldiers and statesmen, pamphleteers and preachers did not hesitate to invoke the narratives of God’s deliverance of Israel, and of the Protestant Reformation’s liberation of Europe from Rome’s despotism, to make sense of their own struggle for liberty. Armed with these stories, and deeming that they still inhabited the same larger story of God’s great historical project to humble tyrants, strengthen liberty, and diffuse knowledge, all levels of American society were enabled to face their own trials with remarkable courage and confidence.
The Virtues of a Christian Nation
Confidence, however, was not the same as complacency. Over and over, Revolutionary-era churchmen and statesmen admonished their fellow citizens that success in their great experiment was not a foregone conclusion. The glorious past upon which they drew would not automatically translate into a glorious future. On the contrary, it was almost a truism of the Founding era that it was only through the cultivation of public virtue in the present, anchored on a religious foundation, that the American people could continue to enjoy the blessings of liberty. On this basis, we may describe most Americans of the late eighteenth century as not merely inhabitants of a “Christian nation,” descriptively, but as “Christian nationalists,” those who believed prescriptively that this identity should continue to be publicly manifested.
Historian Mark David Hall has recently written that “With few, if any, exceptions, every founding-era statesman was committed to the proposition that republican government required a moral citizenry, and that religion was necessary for morality.” James Hutson has called this near-universal conviction “the Founding generation’s syllogism.” And for this generation, “religion” meant some version of Christianity. As John Marshall put it, in America, “Christianity and religion are identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity.” Let’s unpack the logic of this syllogism.
It began with the conviction that society cannot flourish without virtue—to most generations before our own a truth so obvious that it needed no argument. This was especially the case for a society that valued freedom and was committed to republican government. Human beings had an innate propensity to destroy themselves and one another; these vicious instincts had to be held in check from without or from within. Despotic governments in every era had enforced order from above by fear, but free governments were only possible in a citizenry taught to discipline themselves. “Will men never be free?” exclaimed Samuel Adams. “They will be free no longer than while they remain virtuous.” Republican self-government was predicated on a more basic foundation of individual self-government. On such a basis, laws could be relatively benign and mechanisms of enforcement minimal; without it, the machinery of government must proliferate to compensate for the absence of virtue. As Daniel Dreisbach summarizes the Founding era consensus: “A self-governing people, in short, had to be a virtuous people who were controlled from within by an internal moral compass.”
Moreover, despite the fact that many leading Founders harbored an appreciation for Enlightenment philosophy, few were so naïve as to think that philosophical reason alone would suffice to nurture virtue in society at large. As Hamilton put it, in his original draft of Washington’s Farewell Address, “Concede as much as may be asked to the effect of refined education in minds of a peculiar structure—can we believe—can we in prudence suppose that national morality can be maintained in exclusion of religious principles? Does it not require the aid of a generally received and divinely authoritative Religion?” Few disagreed. Noah Webster would write nearly four decades later, “the moral principles and precepts contained in the scriptures ought to form the basis of all our civil constitutions and laws. … They are the best principles and precepts, because they are exactly adapted to secure the practice of universal justice and kindness among men; and of course to prevent crimes, war and disorders in society.”
Such views were strongest and most explicit, of course, among New England Federalists. Timothy Dwight, for instance, declared in 1797: “Rational Freedom cannot be preserved without the aid of Christianity. … Would you preserve these blessings [of freedom] during your own lives, would you hand them down to posterity, increasing multitudes of those who are not Christians, and all those who are, with one voice tell you ‘Embrace Christianity.’” But even the noted Philadelphia Republican freethinker Benjamin Rush did not hesitate to say, “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in RELIGION. Without this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” Thomas Jefferson might have famously sounded a discordant note with his breezy declaration that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But few of his countrymen could agree with such a jarring claim, and for the most part, Jefferson labored to keep his radical opinions private. More representative was John Mason of New York, who during the election of 1800, drew his readers’ attention to this Jefferson’s statement with the remark, “ponder well this paragraph. Ten thousand impieties and mischiefs lurk in its womb.”
To be sure, nearly all the leaders of this era advocated a significant broadening of religious toleration from the narrow standards that generally prevailed in the Old World. But it was not enough to permit private religious exercise in hopes that it would nurture private virtue, and thus secure peace and harmony in civil society. No, the political institutions of the states and of the nation had a responsibility to give voice to broadly shared religious convictions and actively foster the public virtues demanded by Christianity. George Washington put it crisply in his famous Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789: “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.” Such public proclamations, as Mark David Hall and Jonathan den Hartog have amply documented, were commonplace in the early decades of the Republic, and were often startlingly Christian in their language—especially in times of national peril or tribulation. A case in point is John Adams’s presidential call for a day of fasting during the Quasi-War with France in 1799:
Call to mind our numerous offenses against the Most High God, confess them before Him with the sincerest penitence, implore His pardoning mercy, through the Great Mediator and Redeemer…that He would interpose to arrest the progress of that impiety and licentiousness in principle and practice so offensive to Himself and so ruinous to mankind; that He would make us deeply sensible that ‘righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.’
This declaration gives voice to a final element of the Founding-era consensus about the importance of public Christianity. In line with millennia of Christians, and indeed non-Christians, leaders in early America accepted that not only would individuals be judged by the divine power for their deeds, but so would whole nations. The passage quoted by Adams was Proverbs 14:34, on which Dreisbach remarks that “few biblical texts were more frequently referenced or deeply embedded in the political theology of the founding era.” The conviction it voiced was amply attested throughout the Scriptures, and especially in the documents central to Israel’s own founding, such as Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Moreover, it was simply common sense: if there were a supreme God, and he were just (propositions few denied), it stood to reason that he would bless nations that honored him and practiced the virtues he commanded, and would punish nations that forgot him and fell into wickedness. Leaders both North and South, Federalist and Anti-Federalist, joined in this reasoning, and they stressed this point in order to call Americans to a higher moral standard.
In the darkest days of the Revolutionary War, John Jay admonished his fellow New Yorkers, “If we turn from our sins, He will turn from His anger. Then will our arms be crowned with success….Let us do our duty and victory will be our reward. Let a general reformation of manners take place; let no more widows and orphans…complain that you make a market of their distress, and take cruel advantage of their necessities.” George Mason of Virginia, speaking in the Constitutional Convention, was even bolder, taking square aim at the great national sin of slavery, which, he said, will “bring the judgment of heaven on a Country. As nations can not be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes & effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities.”
Mason, of course, was not the last American statesman to employ the concepts of the Christian nation to warn his people of the terrible costs of racial injustice. Seventy-eight years later, Abraham Lincoln would famously adopt the same trope to assert, “If God wills that it [the Civil War] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
Lincoln, indeed, was comparatively muted compared to many contemporaries; Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is surely one of the clearest exhibits of Christian nationalism in American history. Throughout America’s history, preachers, statesmen, and ordinary citizens have constantly appealed to the language and the images of the Christian scriptures to make sense of their experiences and to call one another to a higher ideal. Anchoring themselves confidently within the Exodus and Reformation narratives of liberation from bondage, they have exhorted their fellow citizens to pursue the virtues befitting a Christian people and have demanded the liberation of the oppressed. Voting to begin the extinction of slavery in 1780, Pennsylvania legislators declared, “grateful … of the manifold blessings which we have undeservedly received from the hand of that Being from whom every good and perfect gift cometh [James 1:17] … we conceive that it is our duty, and we rejoice that it is in our power to extend a portion of that freedom to others, which hath been extended to us.”
Two centuries later, Martin Luther King Jr. would draw on the same language and the same narratives, encouraging his hearers that “we, as a people, will get to the promised land” and “that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low.” And even today, America remains, in the words of political essayist Michael Lind, “the most biblicist national culture in the world.” Over time, to be sure, the Christian identity that once saturated the national imagination has gradually waned, diluted by new influxes and weakened from within—first losing its specifically Protestant character and today, increasingly at risk of being forgotten altogether. But for much of the nation’s history, the language, narratives, and virtues of Christianity have played a foundational role in shaping, renewing, and reforming the American character; to do away with them, indeed, would be to do away with most of the impetus for justice and freedom that has helped make America a beacon to other nations.
Indeed, we may make a stronger point. It is not merely that America as a nation has been saturated and shaped by Christianity; it is rather that Christianity (and initially, specifically Protestant Christianity) provided one of the key ingredients that made American nationhood possible. As noted above, a nation is the product of moral imagination forged by shared meaning and shared history, a matrix of shared values and convictions, and a fellowship of shared bonds and loyalties anchored in the past and extending into the future. As this essay has shown, Protestant Christianity perhaps more than anything else provided this indispensable glue in the formative days of the American nation.
To say this, of course, is by no means to resolve contemporary debates over “Christian nationalism”: whether America remains in any meaningful sense a Christian nation, or whether it ought to strive to be one again. Even many scholars more sympathetic to the conception have persuasively argued that it is out of reach in the pluralistic America of the 21st century. And yet the conclusions of this essay certainly ought to challenge those who, eager to minimize the role of Christianity in the present, would try to sweep the history under the rug, conveniently forgetting the Christian nationalism of the past. At the very least, it should induce a bit more humility on the part of contemporary sociologists and pundits eager to analyze what they clearly regard as the pathologies of today’s “Christian nationalists.”
Perhaps the flag-waving Jesus freaks in flyover country are sometimes tone-deaf to current political realities—and plenty of them aren’t even Jesus freaks, but simply wear Christianity as a convenient identity label. Still, many of them intuitively grasp truths about their nation’s history that their critics seem unable to grasp or unwilling to reckon with. If there once was, indeed, a mainstream and coherent Christian nationalism in American public life, then the burden is on today’s anti-nationalists to better explain just why and how today’s form is fringe and incoherent. And the opportunity beckons for thoughtful Christians today who love their country to recover this richer heritage and render it serviceable for the needs of a nation increasingly hungry for God and increasingly lost without him.
- Samuel Perry and Andrew N. Whitehead, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford: OUP, 2020). ↑
- Perry and Whitehead, 35. ↑
- It is worth noting, of course, that in using the term “founding” and “founders” to refer to the period c. 1770-1800, I follow the convention of modern discourse; in the early period of the American republic, however, such terms referred not to the architects of American independence but to the founders of the original colonies in the seventeenth century. If we adopt this earlier usage, then it is beyond debate that we are dealing with Christian polities; however, one might fairly question whether it is meaningful to speak of a singular American nation so early on. ↑
- See Edling, Perfecting the Union; Hendrickson, Peace Pact. ↑
- See for instance Martin E. Marty, Church Attendance Wasn’t Always Robust in Past – Good Faith Media (2012) ↑
- Unpublished Appendix to Did America Have a Christian Founding?, shared by the author. ↑
- Mark David Hall, in his very helpful new book Did America Have a Christian Founding? makes some similar points about the difficulty (and irrelevance) of analyzing Founders’ personal faith, and although the question he is seeking to answer differs slightly from mine here, his proposed method—to demonstrate that “the founders were influenced by Christian ideas” is in broad continuity with the approach here. ↑
- Cited in Daniel Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (Oxford: OUP, 2017), 2. Note that Lutz’s study dramatically under-represented sermons. ↑
- James P. Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: the Bible and the American Revolution (Oxford: OUP, 2017), 7. ↑
- Gregg L. Frazer, God Against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the American Revolution (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2018). ↑
- Dreisbach, 211. ↑
- “Amanda Gorman References ‘Hamilton’ in ‘The Hill We Climb’” (https://bookstr.com/article/amanda-gorman-references-hamilton-in-the-hill-we-climb) ↑
- Quoted in Byrd 82. ↑
- Quoted in Dreisbach 138. ↑
- https://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch1s2.html. ↑
- John Adams, Political Writings of John Adams, ed. George W. Carey (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2000), 9. ↑
- Nathan Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millenium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 87. ↑
- John Jay, Correspondence and Writings, I:19. ↑
- Jay I:20. ↑
- Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture – NTWrightPage ↑
- Byrd 48. ↑
- Byrd 52, 58. ↑
- Jay Correspondence I:160-61. ↑
- Quoted in Hall 78. ↑
- Quoted in Byrd 71. ↑
- See Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, 50th anniversary edition (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2017), 122-23. ↑
- See further my article forthcoming in Humanitas, “The Whore of Babylon and the Specter of Universal Monarchy: Protestant Roots of American Foreign Policy.” ↑
- Quoted in Nathan Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millenium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1977), 41. ↑
- John Jay, Correspondence and Papers I:28. ↑
- Even Haefeli, “Protestant Empire? Anti-Popery and British-American Patriotism, 1558-1776,” in Haefeli, ed., Against Popery: Britain, Empire, and Anti-Catholicism (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2020), 224. ↑
- Matthew Robinson-Morris, Lord Rokeby, Considerations on the Measures Carrying on with Respect to the British Colonies in America, 2nd ed. (London, 1774), 148, quoted in Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017),141 ↑
- Ebenezer Baldwin, The Duty of Rejoicing under Calamities and Afflictions … (New York, 1776), 38, quoted in Bailyn, Ideological Origins, 141. ↑
- Caleb Strong, A Proclamation, for a Day of Public Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer (Boston: Russell and Cutler, 1812), quoted in Jonathan L. den Hartog, Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 70. ↑
- Hall 31. ↑
- Quoted in Hall, 31. ↑
- Quoted in Hall, 31 ↑
- Quoted in Thomas Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 98. ↑
- Dreisbach 68. ↑
- Hamilton, Writings, 862. ↑
- Quoted in Dreisbach 45. ↑
- Quoted in Jonathan den Hartog, Patriotism & Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press,) 53. ↑
- Quoted in Kidd 110. ↑
- Thomas Jefferson, Political Writings, ed. Joyce Appleby and Terence Ball (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 394. ↑
- Hall 6. ↑
- Quoted in Kidd 236. ↑
- Quoted in Hall 109. ↑
- Quoted in Hall 112. ↑
- Dreisbach 145. ↑
- Jay Correspondence I:110. ↑
- Quoted in Dreisbach 152-153. ↑
- Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address,” in Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865, 687. ↑
- Quoted in Hall 97. ↑
- “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”: https://www.afscme.org/about/history/mlk/mountaintop ↑
- “I Have a Dream”: https://www.ihaveadreamspeech.us/ ↑
- Michael Lind, The Next American Nation, 271-72. ↑
- See for instance Sam Goldman, After Nationalism. ↑
Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.