Malone panel discussion: Is America a Christian nation, or a nation of Christians?

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"The Apotheosis of George Washington" was painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865 in the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building portrays the nation's first president as a near-deity. A debate continues to rage over whether the U.S. should be described as a "Christian" nation.
"The Apotheosis of George Washington" was painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865 in the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building portrays the nation's first president as a near-deity. A debate continues to rage over whether the U.S. should be described as a "Christian" nation.

CANTON – Is America a Christian nation?

Last week, Malone University's Spring Worldview Forum, in conjunction with the Center for Faith & Culture, examined the question during "Christianity and the American Founding" with guest speakers, John Fea, chair of the history department at Messiah University, and Mark David Hall, the Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics at George Fox University.

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Hall pointed out that while America has been "profoundly influenced" by Christian ideals, neither the Declaration of Independence or Constitution contain specific references to the faith. Article 6 of the Constitution, in fact, specifically prohibits religious tests for people in public office.

"The answer is clearly no," he said. "America was not founded as a Christian nation."

But Fea said it's a question that does not have a definitive answer.

"Too often, the question emerges as a political question," he said. "But it's not what the Founders probably asked. I think we need to sort through why we are superimposing the question on 18th century (documents). It's a contemporary political question, but that doesn't mean religion didn't shape them."

Though they hold different views about Christianity's influence on the Founders, both historians agree that the Constitution is not a Christian document.

Hall, whose books include "Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth," and "America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding," noted that 98% of the colonists were Protestant Christians; 2% were Catholic; and 2,000 were Jewish, but that still doesn't put the question to rest.

"We know very little about the Founders and where their hearts lie," he said. "For instance, James Madison; it was very unclear what he believed, but it was clear he was influenced by Christian ideals."

Letter to a Synagogue

Hall also cited President George Washington's Aug. 18, 1790, letter to the Hebrew Synagogue at Newport, Rhode Island, in which he wrote in part:

"The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy ... All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."

"I don't like the language like 'Christian nation,'" Hall said. "I don't think that is at all what the Founders intended."

But Protestantism was the dominant faith, Fea said.

"I would argue that on the grounds of the culture and the way people lived, Protestantism, for the most part, was the only game in town," he said. "Do you define a Christian nation as the people in the Colonies, who were Christian? Then, of course. When the Founders talked about morality and things that were healthy for the Republic, Christianity is one of the sources they drew from."

Hall argues that none of the Founders would classify as "evangelical" in the modern sense.

"Washington kept his faith private, expressing his belief in letters," he said. "This tells us a lot about the culture. You would not get elected dogcatcher in Virginia if you didn't believe in the Virgin Birth or other Christian dogma."

Hall said that when you examine less prominent founders such as John Jay, Roger Sherman and Patrick Henry, it's clear they were orthodox Christians. He noted that while it is true that Washington, a High Church Anglican, never took Holy Communion, "It may have been because he thought so highly of it."

Fea agrees.

"Sam Adams and John Witherspoon might have felt comfortable in an evangelical church." he said. "But no evangelical church would put George Washington on its elder board. Thomas Jefferson was a skeptic who rejected Jesus' deity and the Trinity but evangelical Christians loved him because defended religious liberty."

Jefferson's secret

Both men noted that Ben Franklin made no pretense of being a Christian, John Adams considered himself a Christian but rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, and although Thomas Jefferson was baptized in the Anglican church, he rewrote the Bible, deleting Jesus' claims of deity and stories of miracles.

However, Jefferson didn't broadcast his unorthodox beliefs, and Hall said that had they been widely known prior to the 1800 presidential election, he would have lost.

"His Bible wasn't revealed until the 20th century," Fea said. "His saving grace was his strong belief in religious liberty."

Fea, author of the book, "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?" said the Founders' quotes about faith have been misused by people across the political spectrum.

"I was particularly interested in the rise of people such as D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell using and cherry-picking from the past in order to promote a political agenda," he said, "The left does this too."

Examples of this, he said, are Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States."

"The crowd that annoys the heck out of me is academics who know better, with such arguments as most of America's Founders were Deists, or that they insisted on a wall of separation of church and state." Hall said. "Franklin, Jefferson and Adams respected traditional Christianity."

Fea and Hall said historians are ethically obligated to present history in a factual manner.

"I deliberately chose a Christian publisher," Fea said. "My book was aimed at the church because evangelicals were being deceived by really bad history."

Hall said calls by some on the Christian right to eliminate the Constitution's Establishment Clause is "A horrible idea."

"Muslims have as much right as anyone else to build mosques," he said. "Conversely, voucher programs, some of which are used at Christian schools, are not unconstitutional, as my friends on the left say."

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A laughing Hall recalled that during a debate with Andrew Seidel of the Freedom From Religion, Seidel described him as "the Zamboni of Christian nationalism."

"Simply getting history right is a contribution to historical literacy," he said.

Malone history Professor Jay Case, who served as moderator, asked the historians why they think modern Americans are fascinated with the Founders' religious beliefs.

Fea said it's a fun exercise.

"People want to have some spiritual connection with the Founders," he said. "It's interesting. But I'm not sure it tell us a whole lot about what they thought of how church influences society."

Hall said the nation's founding documents contain four references to a deity, but not a specific religion.

"You could make a a good argument that most Americans believed that all men were created equal, which is later the basis for abolition," he said. "The Founders articulated their understanding of liberty to be not doing whatever you wanted, but within the context of what was right. But the Constitution is not a Christian document."

Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or charita.goshay@cantonrep.com. On Twitter: @cgoshayREP.

This article originally appeared on The Repository: Malone panel examines Founding Fathers religious views