Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Importance of the Christian Heritage of the United States

I was recently sent a video by David Barton pointing out some of the religious influences of that can be seen in a simple tour of the Capitol Building in Washington DC. To some degree, the video was promotional and trying to increase awareness of the group producing it—a video commercial. But the video itself was highlighting a greater program of the evidences of our Christian history that even our Federal Government was not unwilling to hide in the past.

The email with the video was sent out to a large email list. One person chose to “reply to all” with a criticism. His main points were that our country has not always lived up that faith and therefore attempts to “restore” this heritage are misguided and impractical considering modern America and how we have progressed beyond the intentions of the Founders.

I took the “reply to all” response, rather than a private email to the sender, as an invitation to discussion and replied. I realize that I’m only showing my response and that may be considered unfair, but I have not asked for permission to print his words.

I responded with the following (and yes, it’s long). My point is not arguing contemporary issues of Church & State but rather the foundation of our freedoms and how the erosion of that foundation jeopardizes every freedom we have today.

There’s a lot to respond to.

I think the overall point of the video is sadly lost. Whether or not efforts are made to “return” to our Christian roots is presumed by the watcher and he is presuming the motives and goals of those who would agree with the perspectives. No one is proposing turning America into a Theocratic state with mandatory church attendance or state sponsored church—that too is a straw man used to denigrate the opposing view.

Rather, the greater point is how the history and influence of Christianity in America has been systematically removed from public knowledge. Influence enough to be beautifully painted and hung in the halls at great expense, which, until the last century was taught as part of our collective national identity.

Without that heritage, the freedoms we now enjoy have lost their context and make no sense as to how and why they were derived. The effort to secularize our history and downplay that influence is perpetuating ignorance at best and disingenuous at worst. I do not believe it is done innocently, nor without some malicious intent.

In my opinion, the removal of this history from the public knowledge is just as dangerous (if not as revolting) as those who dismiss and deny the Holocaust. People like the Iranian President deny the Holocaust for one primary reason; their own perspectives are discredited and impugned if the true history is known and accepted.

In the case of our national freedom, a people’s rights can be systematically removed if the basis for making them “inalienable” is undermined. These rights were considered inalienable because they are derived from a source that is greater than the government itself and are imparted as part of the design and image of God. Governments do well to recognize those inherent rights, they do not merely grant them. If they are merely granted or tolerated, then they can be removed when the mood suits them or public opinion changes.

The foundation of our rights and freedoms which are for all people, is God. That is how they understood and argued them. That is the source of authority which gave them confidence to oppose the greatest nation of the day. We are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights”: rights that are irremovable, rights that are inseparable, rights that are inherent regardless of what government is in place. If the knowledge of the source of our rights is ever removed from our public conscience and awareness, then the government has greater ability to manipulate, distort and remove the rights we enjoy and many men and women fought and died for.

Here is an example of the systematic removal of religious influence. In searching for “Who wrote the Bill of Rights?” many of the returns echo an answer like the following:

Who Wrote the Bill of Rights?

James Madison, is the one who has written the bill of rights. However, it is George Mason who is known as the 'Father of the Bill of Rights' as his ideas in the Virginia Declaration of Rights had a great influence on James Madison, the one who wrote the bill of rights.

It is true that James Madison has written the bill of rights, but there are a few factors which make his status as the writer, a little complicated. Firstly, James Madison was never in support of a bill of rights and wanted the constitution to be ratified without any such amendment. This is because he believed that the federal government was not strong enough to become a powerful government and would fall in some time. It was Thomas Jefferson who tried hard and eventually succeeded in convincing Madison to support the formation of a bill of rights. Certain rights mentioned in the First amendment were considered to be heavily influenced by Thomas Jefferson's ideas and thoughts. It is also believed that George Mason's thoughts in the Virginia Declaration of Rights formed the base for the bill of rights. These thoughts were mainly influenced by the works of John Locke, a European philosopher. The free speech protections written in various state constitutions, are also considered to have inspired the language of the bill of rights.

While this description is not inherently inaccurate, it is historically misleading.  There is no mention of a religious influence at all in this answer. I expect that most school textbooks and history museums reflect this “religion free” history. It is true that Madison first opposed the necessity of a BoR and that Jefferson was an influence. However, it was not until Madison was opposed in an election process by a Baptist minister, John Leland, that Madison relented. Leland was a third party candidate opposed to the Constitution that had no guarantee of freedom of religion. Leland’s presence in the race siphoned votes away from Madison that made him vulnerable to defeat. It was not until the two candidates met and Madison conceded to add a Bill of Rights that Leland dropped out of the race and Madison won. Leland’s religious convictions compelled him to move in the political arena—something considered abhorrent by today’s secular society.

An Abstract from the Penn State and Pepperdine University School of Law (April 2009) titled John Leland and James Madison: Religious Influence on the Ratification of the Constitution and on the Proposal of the Bill of Rights says this:


Itinerant Baptist preacher John Leland (and Baptists generally) strongly influenced James Madison's elections to the Virginia ratifying convention and to the First Congress, with possibly substantial effects on American history. New insights include evidence making it seem nearly certain Madison had a key letter concerning Leland in hand at a critical time and evidence showing that George Eve's famous defense of Madison at a Baptist church meeting was in pivotal Culpeper County, rather than Orange County. The paper also notes Leland's relationship with Thomas Jefferson; Leland's consistent advocacy of religious liberty for all persons; his criticism of slavery; and the unusual accessibility of his straightforward and humorous prose. Leland deserves more attention, especially now that his works are very easily accessible on Google Books. As L.H. Butterfield (an editor of the papers of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams) put it, Leland "was as courageous and resourceful a champion of the rights of conscience as America has produced." Leland (in Philip Hamburger's phrase, "Jefferson's friend and ally, the irrepressible John Leland") is worth getting to know.

Regarding the first amendment, I had always wondered why so many topics: religion, speech, press, assembly; were all lumped into one amendment. Could they not make up their mind which was the most important and just take the “we’re all winners” approach?

Not at all. The Establishment and Freedom clauses are separated from the remaining subjects by a “;”. This minor punctuation signifies that what follows is a list of abuses that have been enacted at various times by various governments to stifle religious expression. Speech in the form of preaching was denied to minority ministers, many of which were thrown in jail. Press is referring to more than newspapers. Rather, it is referring to individuals (often ministers) going to the local Kinko’s (Printing press) and printing flyers expressing their beliefs or invitations to an event. If these were not approved by the local or ecclesiastical authorities then those pages could warrant arrest and confiscation. The British had prohibited English Bibles to be printed in America and allowed only imports from England (from which they could tax), which is why it is significant that one of the first acts of our Congress was to order the printing of Bibles here in America as mentioned in the video. The peaceable assembly is not only referring to protests, marches or clubs, but church gatherings that were meeting without licenses from or payment of fees to the local government.

In other words, the entirety of the First Amendment deals with religion and limits the power of the government to silence and repress its expression. Now it has been expanded to other issues of speech, assembly and press, and rightfully so, let us not teach a false history that they have no connection to religion. Sadly, I would guess that 90% or more of the public sees the issues raised in the first amendment as separate from religion and in many cases excluding religion (e.g. – “freedom from religion” is not the government’s job).

A strong, historical argument can be made that the climate of revolution in our pre-independence was shaped in the hearts of the people by the preaching in the churches. While not perfect in its expression, the moral foundation of Christianity upon the Founders and the general population is what made the revolution a success in stark contrast to the Libertarian philosophy dominant in France. Their revolution was bloody & corrupt, the people spiraled into anarchy and the revolution failed quickly. France returned to the dictatorship of Napoleon who promised a return to order.

Many saw the revolution not just as means to political freedom but to a religious freedom as well. “No taxation without representation” also meant a freedom from a mandatory state/church tax for which one did not claim membership. They did discuss religious freedom in terms which included Jews, Hindoos (as spelled then) and Mohammedans or Turks (as called then). You can see that in samples like “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable” – by John Leland.

Many people were recruited to fight the British from the pulpit. Many ministers led the men of their congregation with their rifles. The Presbyterian, Rev. James Caldwell, took part in the Battle of Springfield, NJ by passing out hymnals so his soldiers would have wadding for their muskets—portrayed in the painting of the battle and the phrase, “Give ‘em Watts” (in reference to the hymn writer Isaac Waats). Of the signers of the Bill of Rights, the top was the first Speaker of the House of Representatives, Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg, himself a Lutheran minister

The case for freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state is clearly there in our early history. Separation in the understanding of that day is necessary and vital for a free people. Today’s understanding of Separation is wholly different: that being the removal of public expressions of faith. Many levels of our governments have moved from creating a climate of freedom to a stifling and suffocating climate. In doing so, they are trampling on the “prohibition” line of the First Amendment. There are now serious discussions regarding people who hold to serious religious conviction being unfit for public office or appointment as a federal judge or tenure as a professor in a public university.

The new favored religion has become a secular, non-religious one. Under the guise of tolerance and progressivism, the foundations of our freedom has been eroded to the point that we do not even recognize when they are being trampled upon.

The primary goal of this particular video is to awaken an awareness of where our freedoms came from, where that evidence can still be seen, and the danger of losing that knowledge.

To paraphrase a famous line about history:

Those who forget the foundation of their freedom are doomed to be deprived of it.


Doug Indeap said...

The principle of separation of church and state is derived from the Constitution (1) establishing a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office and the First Amendment provisions constraining the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions.

James Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

While there is controversy about the religiosity of various founders, it is safe to say that many were religious and Christian of one sort or another. Care should be taken, though, not to make too much of the founders’ individual religious beliefs. In assessing the nature of our government, the religiosity of the various founders, while informative, is largely beside the point. Whatever their religions, they drafted a Constitution that plainly establishes a secular government and separates it from religion as noted above. This is entirely consistent with the fact that some founders professed their religiosity and even their desire that Christianity remain the dominant religious influence in American society. Why? Because religious people who would like to see their religion flourish in society may well believe that separating religion and government will serve that end and, thus, in founding a government they may well intend to keep it separate from religion. It is entirely possible for thoroughly religious folk to found a secular government and keep it separate from religion. That, indeed, is just what the founders did.

Barton, by the way, should be taken with a grain of salt. As revealed by the analysis of Chris Rodda and others, zealotry more than fact shapes his work, which is riddled with shoddy scholarship and downright dishonesty. His opening bit in the video, for instance, is a lie. Contrary to Barton's assertions, Congress did not order any Bibles imported or printed; it merely helped a Colonial printer by passing a resolution stating that, based on its chaplain's report, it was satisfied that his edition was accurately printed. See Chris Rodda, Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History (2006). Rodda presents Barton's claims (including some others repeated in your post), reviews the evidence and explanations he offers, and then shines a bright light on the evidence omitted, misinterpreted, or even made up by Barton, all with documentation and references so complete one can readily assess the facts for one's self without the need to take either Barton's or Rodda's word for it. The irony is that, by knowingly resorting to lies, this would-be champion of a religious right version of history reveals his fears that the real facts fall short of making his case.

Christianity said...

Informative video! Christian heritage is a private Christian school. It supports the home education endeavors of its member families in academic services and programs, achievement tests, accountability to fulfill legal requirements, etc. Thanks a lot...