The United States of Ambivalence

Celebrating the Founding of Imperfect Freedom

This Fourth of July, many Christians are feeling ambivalent about patriotism and the American nation.

Abortion on demand, the Supreme Court’s gay marriage mandate, increasing pressures to affirm such marriages, and other moral and legal problems in America make some believers feel more like they’re living in a degenerating Roman Empire than a supposed “Christian nation.” And we are still dealing with the ramifications of Donald Trump’s election, the most divisive political event among American Christians in the past four decades.

“Ambivalence” is not such a bad posture for Christians to adopt toward America, however. We have always had reasons to celebrate and reasons to lament America’s history. Even in 1776, Christians shared in the founding of America, but they did not dominate in the new nation’s leadership. Many of our founding principles accorded with Christian ones, but horrid violence toward Native Americans and the sinful institution of chattel slavery contradicted the Founders’ talk of universal liberty and God-given rights.

We find much to commend in the American tradition, but it can’t be our ultimate allegiance. As with Christians everywhere, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Nevertheless, as we keep our eyes on the heavenly kingdom, Christians in America have many reasons to thank our King for the blessings he’s given to this imperfect nation.

Religious Liberty

What should Christians celebrate about the American founding? Religious liberty should be at the top of the list. Americans in the 1770s had little experience with religious liberty, as both England and most of the colonies had official state-backed denominations (“establishments”). Pastors were often on the government payroll, breeding complacency and political compromise among many ministers. Even though groups like the Puritans had fled England to find religious freedom in America, colonists often did not afford religious freedom to dissenters.

Baptists received some of the roughest treatment, as they endured episodes of expulsion, public whippings, and imprisonment from the earliest colonial times to the eve of the Revolution. Dozens of Baptist ministers languished in Virginia jails in the 1760s and 1770s, convincing observers like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson of the urgent need for full religious liberty.

Jefferson was becoming an Enlightenment-inspired skeptic about Christianity, but he and Madison partnered with legions of Baptists and other evangelical Christians to secure the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia in 1786. This was a critical precedent to the First Amendment’s guarantee of “free exercise of religion,” and its prohibition on congressional laws respecting an “establishment of religion,” or a national denomination.

These commitments to religious liberty have resonated down to the present, such as in the recent Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley, which ruled that Missouri could not deny state funds for playground resurfacing to a church simply because it was a religious institution.

Foundation Full of Bible

We can also be thankful that the Founders based many of the American nation’s principles on biblical concepts. Among the most salient biblically based principles of the Revolution were equality by creation (“all men are created equal”), and the idea that the best governments accounted for the flawed nature of humans. As James Madison put it in Federalist #51, “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Biblical principles and even biblical quotations come up so often in the Founders’ writings that we could easily get the impression that they were all converted believers. But among the major Founders, this was not the case. As I show in my religious biography of Benjamin Franklin, Founders like Franklin often combined deep knowledge of the Bible with skepticism about key Christian doctrines, such as the divinity of Christ.

Because of his Puritan family background in colonial Boston, Franklin knew the text of Scripture intimately. Although he and Thomas Jefferson both harbored serious doubts about Trinitarian Christianity, those doubts did not stop them from proposing an image (one not ultimately adopted) from Exodus for the new nation’s seal. It would show “Moses standing on the shore, and extending his hand over the sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh.” Over this image, Franklin suggested, a banner would read, “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

Many rank-and-file Patriots, and some leading Founders such as Patrick Henry, were serious Christians. But ironically, the American founding transpired in a heavily biblicist culture, while being led by key figures who did not completely accept the Bible.

Peace and Quiet

Perhaps the best reason to give thanks this Fourth of July is that America overall remains a place where Christians “may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way,” as Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 2:2. That kind of peace and quiet is what the Founders hoped for when they adopted the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.

And the extent to which the Declaration of Independence and Constitution reflect biblical principles about equality and human nature helps account for the enduring strength of the American republic, in spite of its many imperfections.