An examination of how the theology of America's founders shaped how they conceived of the new nation they began.
2010-07-04 The Theology of America
There are certain occasions when events on the secular calendar give us the
opportunity to pause and reflect on religion in America in some particular. The
Fourth of July is an obvious occasion. I want to take this day to reflect on the
religious underpinnings of our country and explain why I believe there is an actual
theology of America and what it means.
I think that the theology of America was best summarized by Thomas
Jefferson in his 1774 essay, "A Summary View of the Rights of British America."
There he stated, "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time. The
hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them."
Editorialist James Freeman wrote that based on the standards of our day,
Thomas Jefferson was a religious nut.
Jefferson was a big believer in religious liberty, but he certainly
wasn't shy about mentioning God in official proceedings. In the final
paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson asks twice
for God's help in creating the country. And the Declaration was not
the only work of Jefferson's in which he gave credit to a higher power.
. . .
In his Notes on Virginia of 1782, Jefferson writes: "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 of
the gift of God?"
So, by modern standards, that Jefferson guy sure seems to have been a
Bible-thumping fruitcake. And one great things about the USA is that you're free
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to call him a Bible-thumping fruitcake. Jefferson would definitely approve. On his
tombstone he wanted it recorded that he wrote the Statute of Virginia for
Still, if you toss out the Founders’ religious faith, a difficult question is left for
us: Where do our rights come from? Jefferson's crazy religious ideas, shared by
equally crazy representatives from 13 crazy colonies, are the reason we have a
United States and the reason that We the People are in charge.
However much it is claimed that Jefferson and most of the other Founders
were more secular than religious, there is no escaping that Jefferson's writings are
permeated with God consciousness. It's true that Christ does not figure into his
political writings, but God does, and frequently. What gave Jefferson and his
fellow revolutionaries the right to be so, well, revolutionary? What gave them the
right to start this country? Whence came their idea that the people should rule
instead of a king or a parliament of nobles? How could they claim that the right to
life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was "unalienable," meaning beyond the
power of a government either to grant or deny? Why did they talk about human
rights to begin with and where do rights comes from?
According to Thomas Jefferson and his fellows, the ultimate answer to all
those questions was simple: God.
Historians say that commercial interests were prominent in the minds of
Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and all the rest. Probably so, but only cynics say
that the religious convictions of the Founders were not central to their
determination to risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor for a single
claim: that all human beings are created equal and that they are endowed by their
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Creator with certain rights that may not be rightfully denied them. And yes, let us
acknowledge that the Founders did exclude African-Americans from this claim,
but let us also acknowledge that Jefferson, among others, said explicitly that God's
righteous day of reckoning and judgment upon slave-owning America would
come. And it did.
The whole justification for the American revolution was that the divine rights
of the people trumped the divine rights of kings that European monarchs claimed
to have. Human rights come from God, not government. When the British
government usurped them, it was the God-given right of the people of America to
cast off the that government and form their own. That is what the Declaration of
Independence says, and that is what the Founders did. Freeman wrote, "If you
could sum up Jefferson's political views in one sentence, you would say: He
believed that God and reason allow people to rule themselves."
One of the genius things our Founders did was create a civil society in which
enormous numbers of different Christian denominations and nowadays, different
religions, find a home. Our history has seen times of sectarian strife, but it never
descended to open combat as it has in, say, northern Ireland. A lot of Protestants
were suspicious of whether Catholic John F. Kennedy would cleave to the Vatican
rather than the Constitution, but their fears were unfounded. Ten years ago,
orthodox Jew Joe Lieberman ran for president and then was the nominated
candidate for vice president and no one worried whether he would cleave to
Jerusalem rather than the Constitution.
The American ideas of freedom and liberty are drawn from religion. Jefferson
was saying that human liberty is inherent in the creative acts of God in bringing
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forth humankind to begin with. Thanks to God we exist, and in God we live and
move and breathe and have our being. Creation was not a static event, it is a
dynamic process of bringing forth the image of God in humankind and the world
at large. The creation stories in the book of Genesis show that the realms of the
divine and creation overlap. God is powerful, but not exclusively so, as creation
unfurls. Creation has power too; a certain degree of independence and freedom is
built into creation by God's very acts of creating.
In the original paradise, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were given the
run of the garden and meaningful work to do. They were free agents of their own
will. Yet there were limits. God commanded them that they could eat the fruit of
any tree except one. Their freedom had its limits. When they crossed that limit,
they were less free, and Genesis relates that as generations passed, humankind
became steadily even less free.
Eventually the story leads to Egypt, where the Hebrews found themselves in
chattel slavery to Pharaoh. They had no freedom at all.
The twin images of slavery and freedom shape the entire theology of both
Jews and Christians. Never is God presented as an enslaver. Always God is a
liberator. The central story of the Jews is that of Moses leading the children of
Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. At their start,
slavery. At their ending, freedom. But neither the slavery nor their freedom is the
high point of the story. The high point is what happened at Sinai. The high point,
the defining moment, was when God gave them the Law.
The Law of Moses defined freedom in two ways. On the one hand, the law
defined what was forbidden. On the other, it stated what was obligatory.
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There is always a tension between the forbidden and the mandatory. But the
Bible seems clear that human freedom is found somewhere between the limits of
what must not be done and what must be done. With no limits there is no freedom
because there is no orientation on God. Without obligations there is no justice,
without prohibitions there is no community. The surest way for persons or
societies to fall into bondage is to ignore prohibitions or obligations. Falling into
slavery is easy, staying free is hard. Jefferson said that the price of freedom is
eternal vigilance. The reason is that the natural state of human beings is not
freedom, but slavery.
The apostle Paul said that creation itself is in bondage to decay, an amazing
statement for a pre-scientific man to make. Science today confirms that the
universe is running down and cosmologists now seem convinced that the universe
will keep expanding forever, until the time comes when energy states will be
even, and nothing will ever change.
As for we men, women and children, we are born slaves to this decay. At the
end lies the grave. We know that. We fear death because our mortality looms over
everything we do. Human customs and culture are shaped by the end of life in
ways we cannot even uncover, to degrees we do not recognize. Such is our slavery
to the fear of death.
Christians have tended to think of Jesus' gift of life as some sort of afterlife,
but Christ is concerned about far more of our lives than what happens after they
end. Christ frees us not only from the fear of personal death but from our slavery
to a death-shaped culture. With death overcome, the family of God is empowered
to inaugurate a new order of living and a new kind of life.
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Jesus explained in the Gospel of John (8:34-36), "Very truly, I tell you,
everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a
permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the
Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."
Through Christ, we are freed from sin and from servitude to the things of this
world which inhibit godly living: greed, jealousy, anger, resentment, racism,
selfishness – all the hundreds of things we put under the general label of sin. We
are freed from sin and the fear of death.
So liberated, we should be able to live positively in ways not possible before.
Justice, the right ordering of things in human affairs, is the result of this spiritual
freedom. So the fuller Law of the Hebrews recognized this fact. Deuteronomy
10:12-13 and 17-18 says to the nation of Israel:
12 So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you?
Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him,
to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your
soul, 13and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and
his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own
well-being. 17For the LORD your God is God of God's and Lord of
lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and
takes no bribe, 18who executes justice for the orphan and the widow,
and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.
Those are some of the divine obligations people have as they live in
community. Yet our nation's founding documents make no mention of the
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obligations and responsibilities, they seek to ensure only our rights. In fact,
Jefferson wrote that the whole purpose of government is to secure the rights that
God gave us. He ignored codifying the obligations God lays on us.
I think that is a good thing. I shudder to think what our civil life would be like
if our Constitution required things of the people rather than limited the power of
government. Any list of obligations can be twisted into tyranny, whether by civil
or religious authority. It is always too easy for the law, whether civil or religious,
to cease being a guide and begin being a slavemaster. George Washington warned
that even democratic "Government is not reason; ... it is force. Like fire, it is a
dangerous servant and a fearful master."
In both our civil and religious life, we would do well to remember Paul's
admonition to the Corinthians, 1 Cor 10:23: "‘Everything is permissible' – but not
everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible' – but not everything is
constructive.'" The absence of limits in America's founding documents is not an
oversight. The Founders expected the people to understand the limits of libertine
anarchy on the one hand and political slavery on the other.
John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife, "We have no government armed with
the power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and
religion. . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It
is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
Justice William O. Douglas wrote in a majority opinion of a Supreme Court
case, "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."
The Constitution guarantees our rights, but not our liberty. It is our religion
under the providence of the God of the Bible that secures our liberty. Liberty is
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maintained by faith in powers greater than government, by living out God’s call to
know the truth of freedom in God’s way of life. When we make government the
object of our faith, when we decide that our liberty depends on government, we
will return to political bondage. How? Alexis de Tocqueville described it in 1831:
“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can
bribe the public with the public's money.”
Various commentators of the American religious scene point out that America
is becoming less and less religious. A lower percentage of Americans regularly
attend church or synagogue than in past times.
But the fact is that Americans are still just as religious as before, it's just not
Jewish or Christian religion they are practicing. Increasing numbers of people are
turning to forms of spirituality that are private and personal, not public and social.
These forms of religion are, at their base, selfish and self-centered. While this is
certainly their right, I fear that over time the obligations of freedom will be
ignored and the justice of our freedom will be degraded. Self-centered persons do
not prosper, and neither do self-centered societies or nations. Paul warned the
Galatian Christians (Gal 5:13-14):
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not
use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence . . . For the
whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love
your neighbor as yourself."
Freedom is God's will. Certain rights are God-given and cannot be rightfully
denied by human authority. God's gift of freedom carries the obligation to live
godly lives under his guidance and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our rights
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and our obligations reinforce one another, guard one another, preserve one
another. Together they comprise our freedom.
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