Tuesday, October 10, 2006

On "Theocracy," 8: Notes on the Christian influence on the American Republic's Founding

It is generally accepted that the founding of the American republic, once it demonstrably succeeded, set the agenda for the global shift to democratisation over the past Century or so. But now, in that great nation, there is a hot dispute over its foundations, and particularly over the connexions of the Judaeo-Christian worldview and the covenant theology pioneered in the Calvinist-influenced wing of the reformation, as we have discussed in recent days here and here.

At stake in this, is the recent and increasingly widespread attempt to frame Bible-believing Christians as dangerous, potentially violent, "fundamentalist" enemies of "liberty" and "tolerance." Indeed, we are often now spoken of in the same contempt-filled breath as Al Qaeda terrorists or the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. [Cf. the linked article in Jamaica's Gleaner, by a theologian, published only a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks.]

But if it can be shown that such Christians have made a material contribution to the rise of modern liberty through the key liberation struggles set in motion once the Bible was put inthe hands of the ordinary man, then such an argument would plainly fall to the ground. This, of course is the subject of part of an online note here, in the companion Kairosfocus reference web site. It hardly needs be said that such Christians are -- or should be -- enemies of licence, libertinism and amorality; which are not at all the same thing as liberty.

The American Revolution is a key test case, and the Library of Congress notes, though a recent display, that:

The Continental-Confederation Congress, a legislative body that governed the United States from 1774 to 1789, contained an extraordinary number of deeply religious men . . . both the legislators and the public considered it appropriate for the national government to promote a nondenominational, nonpolemical Christianity . . . . Congress was guided by "covenant theology," a Reformation doctrine especially dear to New England Puritans, which held that God bound himself in an agreement with a nation and its people . . . The first national government of the United States, was convinced that the "public prosperity" of a society depended on the vitality of its religion. Nothing less than a "spirit of universal reformation among all ranks and degrees of our citizens," Congress declared to the American people, would "make us a holy, that so we may be a happy people."

This certainly would give a Christian context to understand the ringing declarations in the American Declaration of Independence, such as:

When . . . it becomes necessary for one people . . . to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness . . . . [details follow] . . . .

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

However, it is often hotly contended that such a covenant theology understanding is a misleading reading of this declaration, which is held in many quarters to be in the main shaped by Enlightenment, rationalist thought. So, imagine my astonishment earlier today to come across this treasure trove collected by Dr George Grant, of proclamations of days of penitence, prayer, fasting and thanksgiving issued by the various presidents of the US Congress during the struggle for Independence.

I excerpt a few highlights:

March 16, 1776
President John Hancock [First signer of the Declaration, July 4, 1776]

In times of impending calamity and distress; when the liberties of America are imminently endangered by the secret machinations and open assaults of an insidious and vindictive administration, it becomes the indispensable duty of these hitherto free and happy colonies, with true penitence of heart, and the most reverent devotion, publickly to acknowledge the over ruling providence of God; to confess and deplore our offences against him; and to supplicate his interposition for averting the threatened danger, and prospering our strenuous efforts in the cause of freedom, virtue, and posterity . . . . Desirous, at the same time, to have people of all ranks and degrees duly impressed with a solemn sense of God's superintending providence, and of their duty, devoutly to rely, in all their lawful enterprizes, on his aid and direction, Do earnestly recommend, that Friday, the Seventeenth day of May next, be observed by the said colonies as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that we may, with united hearts, confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and, by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his righteous displeasure, and, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness; humbly imploring his assistance to frustrate the cruel purposes of our unnatural enemies; and by inclining their hearts to justice and benevolence, prevent the further effusion of kindred blood . . .

December 18, 1777
President Henry Laurens

. . . . It is . . . recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States, to set apart Thursday, the eighteenth day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise; that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor; and that together with their sincere acknowledgments and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favour, and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance; that it may please him graciously to afford his blessing on the governments of these states respectively, and prosper the public council of the whole; to inspire our commanders both by land and sea, and all under them, with that wisdom and fortitude which may render them fit instruments, under the providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States the greatest of all human blessings, independence and peace . . .

March 20, 1779
President John Jay [First Chief Justice, US Supreme Court]

Whereas, in just punishment of our manifold transgressions, it hath pleased the Supreme Disposer of all events to visit these United States with a destructive calamitous war, through which His divine Providence hath, hitherto, in a wonderful manner, conducted us, so that we might acknowledge that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong: and whereas, there is but too much Reason to fear that notwithstanding the chastisements received and benefits bestowed, too few have been sufficiently awakened to a sense of their guilt, or warmed our Bosoms with gratitude, or taught to amend their lives and turn from their sins, that so He might turn from His wrath. And whereas, from a consciousness of what we have merited at His hands, and an apprehension that the malevolence of our disappointed enemies, like the incredulity of Pharaoh, may be used as the scourge of Omnipotence to vindicate his slighted Majesty, there is reason to fear that he may permit much of our land to become the prey of the spoiler . . . . Resolved, That it be recommended to the several states to appoint the first Thursday in May next, to be a day of fasting, Thanksgiving humiliation and prayer to Almighty God, that he will be pleased to avert those impending calamities which we have but too well deserved: that he will grant us his grace to repent of our sins, and amend our lives, according to his holy word: that he will continue that wonderful protection which hath led us through the paths of danger and distress . . . That he will have Mercy on our Foes, and graciously forgive them, and turn their Hearts from Enmity to Love . . .

March 20, 1781
President Samuel Huntington

In times of calamity and impending danger when a vindictive enemy pursues with unrelenting fury a war of rapine and devastation to reduce us by fire and sword, by the savages of the wilderness and our own domestics to the most abject and ignominious bondage; it becomes the indespensible duty of the citizens of these United States with true penitence of heart publicly to acknowledge the over ruling Providence of God, to confess our offences against him, and to supplicate his gracious interposition for averting the threatened danger and preparing our efforts in the defence and preservation of our injured country . . . . The United States in Congress assembled, therefore do earnestly recommend, that Thursday the third day of May next, may be observed as a day of humiliation, fasting and prayer, that we may, with united hearts, confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and by sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his righteous displeasure, and through the merits of our blessed Saviour, obtain pardon and forgiveness: that it may please him to inspire our rulers with wisdom and uncorruptible integrity, and to direct and prosper their councils: to inspire all our citizens with a fervent and disinterested love of their country . . . that the blessings of peace and liberty may be established on an honourable and permanent basis, and transmitted inviolate to the latest posterity . . .

October 26, 1781
President Thomas McKean

Whereas, it hath pleased Almighty God, the supreme Disposer of all Events father of mercies, remarkably to assist and support the United States of America in their important struggle for liberty, against the long continued efforts of a powerful nation: it is the duty of all ranks to observe and thankfully acknowledge the interpositions of his Providence in their behalf. Through the whole of the contest, from its first rise to this time, the influence of divine Providence may be clearly perceived in many signal instances . . . . It is therefore recommended to the several states to set apart the 13th day of December next, to be religiously observed as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer; that all the people may assemble on that day, with grateful hearts, to celebrate the praises of our gracious Benefactor; to confess our manifold sins; to offer up our most fervent supplications to the God of all grace, that it may please Him to pardon our offences, and incline our hearts for the future to keep all his laws; to comfort and relieve all our brethren who are in distress or captivity; to prosper our husbandmen, and give success to all engaged in lawful commerce; to impart wisdom and integrity to our counsellors, judgment and fortitude to our officers and soldiers; to protect and prosper our illustrious ally, and favor our united exertions for the speedy establishment of a safe, honorable and lasting peace; to bless all seminaries of learning; and cause the knowledge of God to cover the earth, as the waters cover the seas . . .

And, much more like that.

In short, it appears that it is abundantly plain that the US founding was in fact materially as described by the Library of Congress, one in which Christian sentiment and people, with their representatives duly assembled, had a lot to do with it. Further to this, it is obvious that key words and phrases in the Declaration of Independence [as excerpted above] and Constitution [e.g the preservation of the blessings of liberty for the founding generation and its posterity] should now take on a plainly and demonstrably Christian context in our readings.

In short, while indeed there are a great many sins in and around the US Founding -- and, more broadly the long history of the Christian Church and Christianity-influenced cultures [as with any other major movement made up of sadly fallen and fallible human beings] -- it must also be in fairness reckoned that Biblical thought and biblically influenced people; once the Bible was put in the hands of the ordinary man, have made here a signal contribution to the rise of modern liberty. So, in all fairness, that should now change the tone of much of the harsh commentary out there today, as linked above. END


Bart Nielsen said...

One of the things I've noticed in watching you ably debate those who like to refer to us as the "Christian Taliban", etc. is that when they are presented with facts like these they will retreat to a position something along the lines of "of course there was some Christian influence in the thoughts of the founders..." but then go right back to essentially denying any Christian influence at all. I think the best hope for the future of America is the children who are being home schooled. Thank God we have the ability to shield our children from all the Multi-Culti propaganda afoot in the public schools.

Gordon Mullings said...

Facts are stubborn things, aren't they! [But if you can drag a red herring across the trail of facts, then lead out to a handy strawman, you can then burn it and announce victory as if you have dealt witht he real matter at hand.]

I think yu will find the update to the reference online note useful, as discussed in the next post in the series.