Saturday, June 09, 2007

Is America a Christian nation?

I just finished reading The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, by Frank Lambert, professor of history at Purdue University.
Lambert does a good job of answering the question, "Was America founded as a Christian nation?"
Basically, his answer is "yes and no." He shows how America was first settled for religious reasons, whether it was Puritans in Massachusetts, Anglicans in Virginia, Baptists in Rhode Island, or Quakers in Pennsylvania. These early settlers clearly wanted to make America a model Christian nation.
However, Lambert says that the Founding Fathers decided it would be more practical to keep church and state separate in the new government, since there were many different religious groups and there was no way that one denomination could become the established state church.
Men like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, who were influenced by the Enlightenment, felt that men should be free to use their own reason in matters of religion. The Baptists and others who benefitted from the rapid growth of "free" churches in the Great Awakening were persecuted by established churches and wished to have no established church, so they joined with men like Jefferson in calling for separation of church and state.
Lambert shows that there was great division over these issues, and gives interesting anecdotes and quotations from both sides. He quotes frequently from religious leaders on both sides of the issue. However, near the end of the book he spends much more time quoting Republicans like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and gives little space to Federalists like George Washington and John Adams. At one point, on page 161, Lambert implies that John Adams was a deist, even though biographies of Adams have shown him to be a devout Christian with a Puritan heritage.
Lambert shows his view in his conclusion, as he criticizes accomodationists such as Judge William Rehnquist and "religious right" preachers like Pat Robertson. While Lambert gives both sides of the argument, he clearly leads the reader to his own separationist interpretation. Because the book is so full of useful information, I highly recommend it as a textbook on the subject, but let the reader understand that Lambert has his own bias, too.
Lambert's book is full of interesting quotes. Here are a few that I found fascinating:
"Christ Jesus never called for the sword of steel to help the sword of the Spirit." -- Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island
"Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad." -- William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania
"I believe, that to defend the Christian religion is one thing, and to knock a man in the head for being of a different, is another thing." -- William Livingstone, New York lawyer
"Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are the gift of God?" -- Thomas Jefferson
"If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free." -- John Leland, Baptist minister

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