Sunday, April 19, 2009

Christian Nation or Not? What Would John Adams Say?

One can find quotes to support a lot of things. One that I see often is especially misleading, where John Adams is quoted as saying, "This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it." That particular quote is even used on this page as a clear example of how context can change the entire meaning. The whole quote is:

"Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been on the point of breaking out, 'this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!!' But in this exclamation, I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in public company—I mean hell."

One doing more research on Adams would see that the shorter version of the quote seems entirely out of character. Keep in mind that President Adams also declared a day of Solemn Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer for the nation in 1798:

Adams' Proclamation

So perhaps it would be a better indication of the Founders' feeling to note their actions. Before the ink was dry on the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment's religion clauses, they: opened their first official meeting with a 3-hour prayer; they authorized positions and pay for chaplains; they commissioned a printing of 20,000 Bibles to be used in schools; the authorized the use of the U.S. Capitol Building for Christian worship every Sunday (a practice that lasted for decades), which they attended; they accompanied President Washington after he was sworn in to a church service; and so on.

Yet documents like the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which was a carefully-worded document intended to help make peace with Muslim pirates who were holding U.S. seamen hostage and enslaving them, can say honestly that we are not a Christian nation if they mean that we are not forced to adhere to Christian faith. That is certainly true. But our heritage and foundation are Christian, or Judeo-Christian if you prefer. For example, House Resolution 888 states in part, "Whereas political scientists have documented that the most frequently-cited source in the political period known as The Founding Era was the Bible;" (read the whole resolution here.)

It seems to me undeniable if you look at the whole of the actions and writings of the Founders that we have a Biblical heritage, much of which is literally carved in stone throughout the buildings in Washington, D.C.


LaProfeViajera said...

It was one nation under God, not one Nation under Jesus Christ. Our forefathers simply believed in God, whether they called the Supreme Being God, Jesus, Allah, Jehovah, or any name you can think of. However, when people push and shove Jesus all over the place, this religious fanaticism, which is radical, it tramples upon people's rights. The Bill of Rights said freedom of religion, or freedom of worship, not freedom of worshipping Jesus and no one else.

The founding fathers were Panentheists, not Christians. They were Freemasons, and these people are not famous for worshipping Jesus and bully pulpiting around, that is why they also believed in the separation of Church and State.

Obama was absolutely right when he said "....we have a very large Christian population -- we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values." This was a mature statement that only a mature citizen of the world can express. Whomever says the opposite and pushes and shoves with Christian Zealotry will only show immaturity. Think Thomas Jefferson, he thought that way.

History Matters said...

Thanks for the comment, LaProfeViajera. I think your point is good that saying "Christian" is too limiting. However, saying Judeo-Christian is very much in keeping with the Founders. If you look over my blog you will see many, many examples of references to the Bible. You will also find research reported in Newsweek that said the Bible is by far the most common source of quotes used by the Founders. It seems to me an undeniable part of our heritage.

The Supreme Court has declared on different occasions that this is a Christian country. Many of our Founders said the same thing. So even that phrase can be considered part of our heritage and history. A common slogan used by our people in the Revolutionary War was, "No King But King Jesus."

But you point to Jefferson as an example. I believe many of his words and actions have been used out of context, although I would not personally stand behind Jefferson as a Christian in my definition. It would be fair to mention that Jefferson himself stated that he is a true Christian.

The entire text of U.S. House Resolution 888 is on the blog. Parts of it say:

"Whereas President Jefferson not only attended Divine services at the Capitol throughout his presidency and had the Marine Band play at the services, but during his administration church services were also begun in the War Department and the Treasury Department, thus allowing worshippers on any given Sunday the choice to attend church at either the United States Capitol, the War Department, or the Treasury Department if they so desired;

"Whereas Thomas Jefferson urged local governments to make land available specifically for Christian purposes, provided Federal funding for missionary work among Indian tribes, and declared that religious schools would receive `the patronage of the government';"
Or you might see this post:

Jefferson at Church in the Capitol (Library of Congress information)

In his diary, Manasseh Cutler (1742-1823), a Federalist Congressman from Massachusetts and Congregational minister, notes that on Sunday, January 3, 1802, John Leland preached a sermon on the text "Behold a greater than Solomon is here. Jefferson was present." Thomas Jefferson attended this church service in Congress, just two days after issuing the Danbury Baptist letter. Leland, a celebrated Baptist minister...And this post:

More of Jefferson's ActionsOn April 26, 1802, Jefferson extended a 1787 act of Congress where lands were designated "...For the sole use of Christian Indians and the Moravian Brethren missionaries for civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity."

And on Dec. 3, 1803, Congress ratified Jefferson's treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians, which stated:

"Whereas the greater part of the said tribe have been baptized and received into the Catholic Church ... the United States will give annually, for seven years, one hundred dollars toward the support of a priest of that religion, who will engage to perform for said tribe the duties of his office, and also to instruct as many of their children as possible. ... And the United States will further give the sum of three hundred dollars, to assist the said tribe in the erection of a church."
And this one, keeping in mind that the person quoted was appointed by Jefferson:

Chief Justice John Marshall on Christian LeadersChief Justice Marshall was appointed in 1801 by Thomas Jefferson, and said: “No person, I believe, questions the importance of religion to the happiness of man even during his existence in this world. The American population is entirely Christian; and with us Christianity and religion are identical. It would be strange indeed if, with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, and did not often refer to it and exhibit relations with it.”Still, much of what President Obama said is correct. As I have said many times, while Christians may be the majority, our very framework as a country does not permit forcing anyone to be a Christian. As I said in the post you are replying to, "...[one] can say honestly that we are not a Christian nation if they mean that we are not forced to adhere to Christian faith." But one can also say that a tremendous chunk of our heritage is Judeo-Christian, and it MIGHT be fair to say that a pretty good chunk is just plain Christian.

Not everyone agrees with my point of view. Certainly one doesn't have to look hard to see examples in the media to see opposite positions. I am trying to present a view based on real history (as you were as well).

And while I too am a citizen of the world, my FIRST loyalty is as a citizen of the United States. President Obama's job that he was elected to is to be the President of and a citizen of the United States first and a citizen of the world second. His job description is defined in the Constitution, which is what gives him his authority. He, as well as Congress, are sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. Our country's various alliances, aid to other countries, etc. are all means to help the USA, but they are tools; they are not the primary job.

Jonathan Rowe said...

You will also find research reported in Newsweek that said the Bible is by far the most common source of quotes used by the Founders. It seems to me an undeniable part of our heritage.I can't remember if we've run into one another before. I've seen the Lutz study that shows most founding era literature (mainly comprised of sermons) was Bible quoted as source. However, you don't see any quoting of the Bible in Federalist Papers, and no quoting of the Bible for the propositions found in the US Constitution at the Constitutional Convention.

No doubt the Bible/Christianity was *an* important ideological influence for the Founders; but the "Christian America" view tends to ignore the non-biblical influences, which, when taken together were far more important than the Bible in constructing the foundations upon which the American principles of government were built.

History Matters said...


Thanks for your comment. I believe I have tried to use "an" in phrases like "an important source" when referring to the Bible. That is how my wording was formed it in the original post here.

There are a couple other examples (taken from earlier posts here):

From Newsweek, 12/27/82: [In America’s early history] Bible study was the core of public education…” … “Scripture had profoundly shaped the new world to which [the immigrants] had come.”


This quote is from Newsweek magazine, the December 27, 1982 issue: "In 1776, Benjamin Franklin proposed to the Continental Congress that the great seal of the United States bear the image of Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. Thomas Jefferson also urged an Exodus image: he wanted the new nation represented by an Israel led through the wilderness by the Biblical pillar of cloud and fire. In the end, they settled for an inscription that blends Enlightenment ideals with scriptural inspiration: Annuit Coeptis, Novus Ordo Seclorum - He favored this undertaking, the new order of the ages."

When the U.S. Supreme Court declared that this is a Christian Nation, I don't suppose they were referring to the foundation of government being Christian. As you said, one can not look at the most important government documents and conclude that and I assume The SCOTUS knew that.

But I usually speak of the founders themselves and the people being strongly influenced by religion. And my overall desire is to restore some recogniation of the original meaning of the First Amendment. That's why I quote Jefferson often. His metaphor of "separation" is distorted badly today.

If you want to experiment, ask 10 people you know where we find "separation of church and state" (or where it came from). I'm betting you will hear Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, and that you will seldom hear "a letter of President Jefferson." That's what drives me.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think you are right about a fundamental misunderstanding re Jefferson's Danbury Baptist letter and the religion clauses.

But, a misunderstanding on the other side drives me; I think David Barton and company are pushing a myth that distorts the record just as badly. But they weren't the first to do this. The Holy Trinity case doing the same thing. Sometimes the Supreme Court gets it badly wrong! In 1892 they gave us Holy Trinity. In 1947 (I believe) they gave us Everson.

The proposed Great Seal is good evidence. What you quoted is all Barton will tell us about. He won't THEN tell us how there were pagan proposals as well. Jefferson proposed the Anglo-Saxon Hengist and Horsa. John Adams proposed Hercules.

It was Judeo-Christian mixed with pagan Greco-Roman, mixed with Enlightenment and some other ideology as well.

If you look at the architecture from founding era DC what's striking is not all of the biblical stuff, but all of the pagan Greco-Roman stuff.

Also, I wouldn't use the following quotation of Jefferson's as it is "unconfirmed" in the record.

“No person, I believe, questions the importance of religion to the happiness of man even during his existence in this world. The American population is entirely Christian; and with us Christianity and religion are identical. It would be strange indeed if, with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, and did not often refer to it and exhibit relations with it.”

History Matters said...


You make some good points. But I don't think I ever attributed the words you quoted to Jefferson. They were from MarshallAnd you certainly correct that the SCOTUS does not always get right or even follow their own precedent. The oft-quoted Holy Trinity case's words are not actually all that central to the case itself. But they are good to quote as rebuttal to thinking that Everson had it all right. That latter brought the phrase "separation of church and state" into the argument, but did not quote the First Amendment's actual words. Also, Black managed to find a LOT of limitations that Madison did not see in the First Amendment.

As I said before, much of what I post here is rebuttal. I am not intending to argue both sides of the issue; there is plenty of argument that seems to assume "separation of church and state" is the actual edict.

You could read the post Danger of a Metaphor, which is pretty much where I am on the issue (that post is a reprint from Imprimis.)

Jonathan Rowe said...

Ooops. I'm sorry. That was my mistake; my mind is baked from teaching some many credits this semester (24). You are right that that is an accurate quotation from John Marshall (one in which I am very familiar). I thought you had posted Thomas Jefferson's "unconfirmed" quotation recited by the Rev. Ethan Allen on why TJ was going to Church if he didn't believe in the Christian religion. I'll have to look back in your original post to see if I cut and paste the wrong passage of your post or if I was just seeing something that wasn't there.

There is a good webpage by Jim Allison that has that Marshall quotation along with a similar one by Joseph Story and a very dissimilar one by James Madison. All three of them were reacting to the sermon sent to them by one Jaspar Adams. With Story and Marshall affirm Christianity's organic connection to civil govt., Madison uses the term "separation of church and state."

Something interesting to know is all three of these men (Story, Marshall and Madison) were theological unitarians. So the "Christianity" that Story and Marshall thought had some kind of organic connection to the US civil government was one in which the Trinity and Atonement were not part of the equation. The question then is: Is this ("civil Christianity") really Christianity?

Most of the evangelicals who fervently promote the Christian America idea would say no.