Articles and book excerpts used in and referred to on Issues, Etc.
from Christians in the Public Square
by John Warwick Montgomery
"Laugh-in" recently presented its "Flying Fickle Finger of Fate" award to state automobile-license bureaus that sell names and addresses for direct-mail advertising. I have no idea whether this is the source of the vast quantities of junk mail I receive; perhaps such mail simply represents one of the occupational hazards of the ministry. The invitations to join Hefner's Bunny Clubs at a reduced rate I can stand (they are invariably well printed); what I have great difficulty in tolerating is the not inconsiderable quantity of politically rightist propaganda misdirected to me, Behind it seems to lie the thoroughly fallacious assumption that anyone who is "conservative" theologically must of course believe that the United States is "God's country" and must join the crusade to. "bring America back to the Christian political philosophy of the Founding Fathers."
That this viewpoint is by no means limited to pamphleteers was evident when I received as a Christmas gift from an evangelical publisher Benjamin Weiss' book, God in American History, whose preface sets the tone of the entire volume: "The purpose of this book is to present documentary evidence that the source of our nation's strength from its beginning has been faith in God. . . Schools, colleges, charitable institutions, hospitals, orphanages, and other institutions are monumental proof of the Christian character of the United States."
Now there is an element of truth in these. claims. As the dean of American church historians, William Warren Sweet, pointed out in his epochal work Religion in Colonial America, the biblical orthodoxy of seventeenth-century colonists cannot be disputed, nor can the religious motivations leading to Puritan and Pilgrim settlement in the new world. Such influence continued in the eighteenth century: "between 1717 and the Revolutionary War some quarter of a million Ulstermen came to America" (J. G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History), and these Ulster Scots were the products of a strict yet dynamic Presbyterian confessionalism. Moreover, the "natural rights" theory underlying the Declaration of Independence had its direct source not in the thought of French philosophes but in the work of Christian philosopher John Locke, and his ideas in this regard can be traced back to medieval Christian 'natural law." Thus the efforts of Mrs. O'Hare and her ilk to rewrite American history in unqualifiedly atheistic terms are doomed to failure.
But what about the opposite viewpoint with which we began-the view that equates America with "God's country"? This stands no greater chance of success, and in fact turns out to be a kind of reverse mirror image of Mrs. O'Hare Oust as extreme left and extreme right tend to display the same mentality across the political spectrum). The most influential Founding Fathers of the eighteenth century were not Christian in any biblical sense of the term: they were either outright deists or mediating religious liberals.
Among the deists were Jefferson, Paine, and Franklin. Jefferson had so little respect for the Scriptures that he created his own Bible-the so-called Jefferson Bible consisting of the ethical teachings of the New Testament (with the miraculous and divine aspects of Jesus' life carefully excised). Julian P. Boyd's account of The Spirit of Christmas at Monticello is a chilling barometer of the kind of religion maintained by one who endeavored, in his own words, "to shew by example the sufficiency of human reason."
Paine's Age of Reason set forth the religion of deism as a specific alternative and corrective to historic Christianity. The "Book of Nature" was now to replace the "Book of Scripture," and Paine devoted the entire second half of his work to a demonstration of alleged errors, contradictions, and immoralities in biblical religion.
As for Franklin, though his motion in behalf of morning prayer at the Constitutional Convention in 1789 has led some to speculate that he experienced Christian conversion before his death, there is no doubt that deism and not Christian belief informed his political action during his career. George Whitefield found it necessary to confront Franklin with the claims of Christ throughout their long acquaintance. Wrote Whitefield on one occasion: "As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity, I would now humbly recommend to your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and study the mystery of the new birth'
If outspoken deists were few in number among the Founding Fathers, their influence was nonetheless considerable. Their philosophy of the natural goodness of man entered directly into the foundation documents of the nation. And the opponents of deism among the Fathers of our country were not so much spokesmen of historic Christianity as advocates of religious liberalism who considered deism too radical. The liberals themselves "generally held an Arian view of Jesus" (H. S. Smith, American Christianity, I , 487), and therefore found deistic anthropology quite hospitable.
In many ways the American frontier experience reinforced the anthropocentric self-confidence instilled by the Founding Fathers. F.J. Turner observed the "do-it-yourself' kind of religion which so easily developed in a frontier situation where self-reliance was the prime virtue. Americans have not generally been known for a sense of unworthiness or a willingness to accept aid from others-though such attitudes are fundamental to the Christian Gospel ("Except ye become as little children . . ."; "I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance"). Bertrand Russell shrewdly points up an American characteristic of which Americans themselves are often oblivious:
If Job had been reincarnated as an inhabitant of New York, and had been twitted, as the original Job was, with the great size of Leviathan and Behemoth, he would have been unimpressed, and would have replied: "Gee, they ain't half as big as a skyscraper." (The Impact of America on European Culture, 1951, pp. 9,10).
In reality, ours is no more "God's country" than is any other part of this sin-impregnated globe. We are not the Israelite theocracy repristinated, nor are we the pinnacle of Christian civilization. What we have accomplished positively as a nation is due, not to ourselves, but to God's grace. And for our Hiroshimas and My Lai massacres we stand under the wrath of the Almighty just as others do for their Pearl Harbors and Buchenwalds. Perhaps the judgment against us is even greater, "for unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required."
Let us therefore demythologize our American religion, cease our presumptive removal of motes from the eyes of other nations and ideologies, and return to the Christ who stands in judgment (and-praise heaven-in grace!) over the history of all peoples.
Taken from Christians in the Public Square by John Warwick Montgomery, David Kilgour and C. E. B. Cranfield. Used by permission of the Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy, copyright 1996. You can purchase Christians in the Public Square by calling the Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy at (780) 461-3076.
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