A Republic — If God Keeps It

“Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?”

So asked a curious lady on the streets of Philadelphia in September 1787, giving voice to the question of her fellow citizens. The “Doctor” to whom she directed her query was none other than the aging Benjamin Franklin, who was emerging from the Constitutional Convention. Delegates from across the colonies had met all summer in their city. Beyond Pennsylvania, twelve other colonies waited to hear from the Franklins, Washingtons, Madisons, and Hamiltons, What is it?

“A Republic,” Franklin replied, and then, with his typical wit, added, “if you can keep it.”

For almost 240 years, the collective American psyche has often suspected — sometimes mildly, other times more acutely — that the republic was fragile, and someday soon, an ascendant Caesar would take it away, as happened with Rome’s republic. Frequently, left- and right-leaning parties have suspected the other side. Franklin’s memorable condition “if you can keep it” has been explained against an array of looming threats.

No Christian Founding

Such suspicions played out ferociously in the 1790s, the Constitution’s first full decade. Some suspected Washington; more suspected Hamilton, his de facto prime minister. By 1800, the Federalists suspected Jefferson. Long had Jefferson and Hamilton suspected each other, and now both suspected Aaron Burr. Hamilton and Burr would soon suspect each other — even after both had fallen from power — and take it to the dueling grounds.

Those early administrations in the new republic were not idyllic, peaceful, and pristine, like we might presume from elementary history lessons. Nor were the 1790s as culturally Christian as many today might assume. An early form of what we might now call “secularism” was on the rise, and it was widespread, particularly in the halls of influence. (Conservative evangelicals at the time would have called it “infidelity,” their watchword for Deism and progressive, Enlightenment Christianity.)

The Declaration of July 4, 1776, had mentioned “Nature’s God” and “Creator,” but that is a far cry from any distinctively Christian notion. A decade later, in 1787, the drafters of the Constitution found no need to mention the divine at all. Jefferson, of course, made his own Bible of what he was willing to accept (and not) in the Gospels, and Washington, despite his public mentions of Providence, was conspicuously reticent to say the name of Jesus. Formally, the founding of the United States was not distinctively Christian. In fact, at the time, perhaps as few as 10 percent of Americans were church members.

That is strikingly low compared to almost 40 percent in 1860, on the cusp of the Civil War, and more than 60 percent in the post-WWII era of the 1950s and 1960s. So, what happened that made America feel so culturally Christian from the Civil War until Civil Rights?

God’s Surprising Work

Given the acute sense of decline that U.S. Christians today have lived through — from the heights of church membership and attendance in the 50s and 60s, to the subsequent dip in the 70s and 80s, the small uptick in the early 90s, and now the rapid decline of the last two decades — we should not be surprised that many alive today assume a simple declension narrative. That is, they observe the decline of the last twenty years, or the decline of the last seventy years, and project that trajectory back onto the full 250 years of the nation, presuming the founding to be the height from which we’ve fallen. But such is fiction.

For many, the present sense of alarm stems from a recency bias, comparing their own sense of the state of our union to what’s been mediated to them in their own lifetime — whether in school, in conversation, through television, or now through social media. But the 1950s proves to be a very different standard of comparison than the 1790s.

As for Christianity and the church, American history has been far less a smooth downward trajectory and far more a story punctuated by the surprising work of God. Some historians talk of third and fourth “great awakenings” in the late nineteenth century and in the 1960s and 70s. But most fundamentally, the Second Great Awakening significantly altered the landscape of American life in the early 1800s and produced a nation that felt different, more Christian, than the founding.

How was it that this Second Great Awakening made America feel more Christian? The answer isn’t government power. Neither the Apostles’ Creed nor even God was added to the Constitution. Governments at the national, state, and local levels did not newly mandate Christian professions or church membership, or censor free speech by those deemed heretical.

What changed the social landscape was widespread revival and Christian mission. It was the growing and bearing fruit of the Christian gospel — the power of God, not government, through the movement of his Spirit, making much of his crucified and risen Son. From around 1810 to 1840, the tenor of American life changed, in a way Franklin and Jefferson never would have foreseen, through a Second Great Awakening that lasted far longer and had a far greater impact than the First of the 1730s and 40s.

Religion Indispensable?

Whatever lay behind Franklin’s sly “if you can keep it,” Washington, through the pen of Hamilton, expressed his concerns for the republic in his 1797 farewell address. Framed as “the disinterested warnings of a parting friend,” he warned first of the destructive forces of partisanship, and he praised “religion and morality” as “indispensable” to the prosperity of the republic. And note again that the “religion and morality” in view is not expressly Christian.

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” he wrote, “religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Moreover, “let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.”

Now, on the one hand, from a Christian point of view, these are surprisingly measured commendations of “religion and morality.” Our Scriptures, from beginning to end, aren’t the least bit affirming of paganism so long as it’s religious and moral. So too, Washington’s frame honors and appreciates religion not as true and valuable in itself, but in terms of its usefulness for the life and prosperity of the republic.

But on the other hand, in our increasingly secular climate, with immorality or amorality seemingly on the rise, Washington’s affirmation of “religion and morality” is met with enthusiasm by many Christians. Oh, for a return to virtue and order, for more men and women of principle, for a moral citizenry — the kind that Washington and Franklin believed would be necessary to keep a republic.

‘We Need to Work’

In a recent interview with Kevin DeYoung, Allen Guelzo (who, according to George F. Will, is “today’s most profound interpreter of this nation’s history and significance”) calls American Christians to remember the heart, and hands, of that Second Great Awakening that so transformed the nation’s life. When DeYoung asks, What can we do if it seems like interest in virtue, and the Christian foundations for that societal virtue, have almost disappeared? Guelzo answers, “We need to work.” He explains,

When I hear people say today, “Oh, if we could only get back to a Christian America,” my response is, Then we need to work as hard as the people who created the Second Great Awakening. We need to dedicate ourselves that way, rather than sitting on our hands complaining about it, whining about the situation we find ourselves in, and then imagining, as I’m afraid some of our friends do, that all we need to do is to put some kind of authoritarian regime in place that will enforce the Ten Commandments.

No, that’s the lazy way. If you really want to transform the culture, then you have to take on the culture itself, and you have to meet it on its own terms, and you’re going to have to arm wrestle with it. And my recommendation is that we take a serious leaf out of the book of the Second Great Awakening. If what we want are the recovery of those mores, then my recommendation is that this is a signal that some very hard work has to get done, and we are not going to accomplish it simply by waving our hands and introducing some kind of authoritarian solution.

To the degree that we would like American life to feel more Christian, or at least less anti-Christian, the lesson to take away — both from the New Testament and from our own history — is that of the Second Great Awakening and the power of God through conversion to Christ and spiritual revival and renewal. American life was first transformed not through any seizure of political power nor through the ballot box. Rather, it was transformed through Christian awakening, through the constant preaching of the gospel, through Christian disciple-making, through the widespread movement of the Holy Spirit to grant new birth and spiritual growth, and through Christian initiative and energy and hard work to plant new churches, and build Christian institutions, and establish gospel witness and vibrancy in new places.

Hands to Prayer and the Plough

Here on this 248th Fourth of July, we remember not only the nation’s markedly unevangelical founding, but also the remarkable societal changes brought about by Christian revival — and the prodigious evangelistic efforts and Spirit-blessed industry that served as kindling for that awakening.

On this anniversary of the Declaration, American Christians concerned for the state of the republic will do well not to settle for wish-dreams about seizing power but, like the evangelists and missionaries of the early nineteenth century, put their faith and hands to the plough, believing, in the Spirit, we need to work.

Revival and its lasting ripples has changed the social feel of this nation before. It remains to be seen how long we might “keep” this republic. I don’t presume it will endure until Christ’s return. But being real, rather than nostalgic, about our history, and God’s surprising work, might feed fresh hope that he could work the same remarkable changes in the days ahead, beginning in us.