The myth of godliness

I’m not a fan of people believing that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  I could probably spend several blog posts outlining why that isn’t true.  I could point to a number of scholars who have done some actual research into the history of the U.S. and the Founding Fathers in order to determine that fact—including many who are Christians themselves.  But that isn’t my real problem with the claim that we used to be a nation of God-fearing people.

No, my real problem with that belief is that it is so chock full of privileged bullshit that it’s hard to unpack it all.  There was never a time in United States history when the majority of people behaved in a way that resembles genuine Christian faith.

Oh, sure, we had a time when people at least had the semblance of living in a way approved by twenty-first century evangelicals.  Men worked, women tended hearth and home, and people dressed modestly and didn’t talk too openly about sex.  People owned Bibles and attended churches (if there were any nearby).  But that’s pretty much where it ends, in terms of an overall code of conduct.

While some people may actually have been living out real faith, other people were busy hunting witches, killing natives, owning people, and preventing women from voting.  (You could try to argue that slavery isn’t forbidden by the Bible or that slaves in the U.S. weren’t all treated badly, I suppose, but I’d like to see you try to argue that one race owning another race is okay even by the Bible’s standards, or that there haven’t been lasting consequences of chattel slavery.)

Maybe we should move forward in time to the twentieth century.  You know, the idyllic times of the first half of the century, before the 1960s ruined everything.  You know, the time when we put Japanese people in internment camps, stuffed our cities full of immigrants, made people with brown skin drink out of separate fountains, and hunted witches communists.  Oh, wait.

When the things we’ve done wrong catch up with us and creep into our quiet, “good” suburban neighborhoods and schools, we sit up and take notice.  We think that we’re going to hell in a handbasket, unlike all those previous generations who were blissfully unaware of where we went wrong.  We’re sure this is because more and more people are identifying as something other than Christian, an obvious sign that we’ve collectively abandoned Jesus.

None of that is remotely true.  The reason it seems so bad now isn’t that we’re less moral or less Christian than we used to be.  We’re just a hell of a lot more honest about ourselves.  It’s time to stop living in the past.  It doesn’t help anyone to demand to return to the “Christian values” of yesteryear.  That does nothing to make the world a better place.  Instead, we need to find ways to live our faith that don’t just come off as moralizing.  We need to actually right the injustices in the world, rather than pointing out what we think are other people’s moral failings.

When are we going to live what Jesus says in Matthew 25?

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.


7 thoughts on “The myth of godliness

  1. Amy, you and I disagree on a number of things and I am not one to mince words when we disagree. However, I think this is the first time you have posted something that I don’t just disagree philosophically, but where you are actually wrong on the facts.

    The fact is that this IS a Christian nation. There is no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. This nation was founded as a Christian nation and will continue to be one as long as the foundations of law remain. You say that this is untrue, that there are a number of scholars who have done actual research who can demonstrate your point. However, I AM a scholar who has done such research and can prove that this IS a Christian nation, was founded as such and continues to be a Christian nation.

    You may remember that I have a BA in history, specifically American History. You may know that I am an attorney. My concentration in law school was on American Constitutional and First Amendment law. I have done the research myself (not just read some book written by some scholar but read the primary sources and know the beliefs of the founders, the works and arguments they used when they wrote the Constitution, and I have read the scholars that they cited in their letters and arguments with England and with each other). You say you could write several blog posts on why that isn’t true, I have seen all the arguments as to why this is not a Christian nation and could personally refute every one of them.

    While I could fill your page with argument after argument demonstrating that this is a Christian nation, one need only look at the US Supreme Case of Holy Trinity v. US where the court stated definitively that this is a Christian nation. Justice Brewer not only makes that statement but spends numerous pages providing the proof for his conclusion both in law and in society. (He calls them organic utterances and unofficial declarations). Brewer looks at the Constitutions of each state (at that time forty four) and even the Constitution of the United States which makes provision touching on the Fourth Commandment and concludes “There is no dissonance in these declarations. There is a universal language pervading them all, having one meaning; they affirm and reaffirm that this is a religious nation. These are not individual sayings, declarations of private persons: they are organic utterances; they speak the voice of the entire people.”

    Brewer quotes “Chancellor Kent, the great commentator on American law, speaking as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New York, said: “The people of this State, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity, as the rule of their faith and practice. . .”

    To argue that this is not a Christian nation is not to argue against me, you argue against a Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

    The founding fathers (no matter how you define that term) were universally Christian. With the exception of Thomas Jefferson and possibly Ben Franklin, all were professed Christians. Jefferson was a Deist who believed in the general principles of Christianity but also believed that God no longer involved himself with the affairs of men. Many believe Washington was also a Deist but this is impossible. The US Constitution provides for an oath of office for President. The oath is very short. After reciting the oath, Washington himself added the words “So help me God.” This tradition has been followed by every President since. No Deist in their right mind would have added these words to any oath. Deists believed God was too big or too uncaring to involve himself in this world. God set it in motion and left it alone. To ask God to give any assistance is like asking a King what color socks you should wear today. No one would presume to ask such trivial things of a king just as no Deist would ask God to help in any human endeavor. Washington was no Deist.

    Your argument that this is not a Christian nation because of all the alleged moral failings is also incorrect. Putting aside your “PC” notions of American history for the sake of argument, I must ask when you became perfect? Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to attack you personally, but the question is, if you are not perfect, are you not a Christian? The presence of sin in my life and your life does not make us any less a Christian. Supposing that everything you have read in the history books and have recited here is correct (and it isn’t, but that is not the point), why would any of that make us any less Christian? If you and I still consider ourselves Christian and we still sin, why should our country be considered less than Christian even despite imperfections and moral failings in our society? I suppose you would not take kindly to people referring to you as not Christian because you support gay marriage (as an aside, I disagree with your position, but do not question your salvation because of your position). I do would not take kindly to people who question my Christianity because I represent people in divorces, or am an attorney at all (yes, there are people who seriously question if you can be a Christian and an attorney at the same time).

    Our county does have moral failings. Our country is not perfect. Perfection will only come when Christ returns and establishes his Kingdom for eternity. But the moral failings of this country does not alter the fact that our founders established this as a nation based on Christian principles and we as a people have a Christian heritage that is worth honoring. While we should strive to seek God’s will done not only in our own lives but in this country, we should not point to imperfections and shy away from the fact that this was and continues to be a Christian nation.

  2. You make a very important point. There have always been bad Christians claiming to be good Christians. It’s almost certainly no worse now than it was before. I’d conjecture that we talk about some sins more than we did before, and certainly some things aren’t considered such a big deal. But at its core, yes…bad Christians still exist, and it wasn’t any better in the “good old days.”

    As for that series of blog posts, perhaps you need to write them.

  3. The founder of Chik-Fil-A has been quoted as saying one of the most meaningful lessons he ever learned happened at a meeting of Christian business people when the speaker shared (and I’m paraphrasing the quote) “There is no such thing as a Christian business. No business is a person, Christ did not die for entities that aren’t people. Christ died for individuals.”

    The question is not whether any country is or was or will be Christian. Christ did not die for a country, a business, or any kind of a collective group of people. the question is whether or not this was or is or will be a country with individual Christians who live within the borders.

    Of course, if I’m gonna ask the question, much like pointing a finger, there are three fingers pointed back at me, and a thumb slightly elevated reminding me of the accountability I have with God. Whatever I ask of someone else, I believe I should expect of myself at least three times as much. Am I a Christian living in this or any country? Am I living out what is shared in Matthew 25 in the ways that can only be done by someone with my unique set of gifts and personality? if I’m not there, am I seeking God’s help in finding out what it takes to get to those kinds of places in my life?

    I’m a Christian and I live in a country that has had Christians in it, who have provided a wonderful legacy of faith to aspire to; that has other Christians in it now, with whom we can have these kinds of dialogue; and that will have Christians in it in the future, for whom I need to consider my example and pray that one day they will believe I was faithful, and maybe there will be elements of my example they will find encouragement in following.

    i’m not a fan of calling this a Christian country, i prefer to think of this as a country where Christians live. I’m thankful its God who knows who is on that roster and i’m thankful God always has room for more to share in relationship with God. I’m thankful my calling is to seek God and let the rest fall wherever it may.

    I’m also thankful this is a place where I can voice this kind of opinion and have others agree or disagree with me as they choose. Christian country or not, that one seems rather God inspired to me. Just saying.:)

    • Of course, by that logic, there is no such thing as Christian music, Christian principles, Christian teachings, Christian doctrine, Christian bands, a Christian school, Christian Bible, or Christian Church either (Christ died for his church, not a church).

      As you know, Christian literally means follower of Christ. A person who follows Christ is a Christian person. A business that follows Christian principles would be a Christian business, and a country that was founded on Christian doctrine would be a Christian nation. I would think that any country that would write a provision in their Constitution that directly follows the Fourth Commandment would be one that might be considered Christian. A country that, in its Declaration of Independence cites Biblical principles and references “the Law of Nature and Nature’s God” (a direct reference to Blackstone who used that phrase to mean the God of the Bible), would very much be considered a Christian nation.

  4. Have you ever seen the movie Midnight in Paris? It effectively deals with this theme of how we all tend to idealize the past. American evangelicals definitely have a collective case of it for the glory years of the early 1900’s which they essentially equate to Leave It To Beaver. In all fairness, us Anabaptists often have a case of it with the early church, too, glossing over things like the man who was sleeping with his stepmother.

  5. “You could try to argue that slavery isn’t forbidden by the Bible or that slaves in the U.S. weren’t all treated badly, I suppose, but I’d like to see you try to argue that one race owning another race is okay even by the Bible’s standards…”

    Amy –

    George Whitefield (1714-1770) was probably the most popular roving preacher in the colonies during the Great Awakening. He successfully argued for the legalization of slavery in Georgia. His sermons and arguments may have the answers you are seeking.

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