Pillars of Integrity
What was the role of Christianity in the formation of the United States? Was it key? Minor? Non-existent? The answer to this question is complex, but it is easy to see that Christianity has served as a pillar of integrity and morality since the earliest days of America’s history. Christianity has provided a shared language, with which Americans can debate their contentious issues in a respectful, civil way, even during the most heated political and historical debates.
The Declaration of Independence, arguably the most important document of America’s founding, is rife with references to Christianity, some subtle, some not so subtle. In the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson penned that “all men are created equal”, echoing the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
After the Founding Fathers crafted the Constitution, they were even more clear in their faith-inspired intentions. Several of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, contain statements and language directly taken from the Bible. For example, the First Amendment’s guarantee of the “free exercise of religion” echoes both the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ teaching to his disciples in the New Testament.
Many of the Founding Fathers themselves were devoutly religious, notably James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. It is rumored that the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence would start each day of writing while composing the Declaration by jotting down Bible verses. The Christian faith was certainly in the veins of the men and women who helped shape the United States, both behind the scenes and out in the open.
Nevertheless, Christian faith did not shape every hot topic in early America. That would be too easy. Rather, Christian thought stood in the background, informing the moral decisions made by the leaders of the new nation and their constituents. Most of the Founding Fathers understood the importance of religious freedom, that individuals of any faith should be given that same freedom to practice their religious beliefs. This is still seen in the United States today: individuals of any religious background can practice their faith and prosper, though some begrudge that same freedom to others.
Those who would argue that the United States was not founded on any particular faith must take into consideration the overwhelming evidence that Christianity had a significant role in the establishment of the country, though other religious beliefs may have had an impact. In almost every major document, document that outlined the structure and moral code of the fledgling nation, we see tributaries to the Christian faith. Whether or not the United States was explicitly founded on the Christian faith is an argument that can rage on, with passionate proponents on both sides.
The Difficulties of Nationalism
That the United States was founded on the belief of religious freedom does not mean that the nation was entirely welcome to all religious belief systems. Christianity was the predominant faith at the time, and followers of other faiths—like Native American religions—were the ones who suffered from religious persecution. This speaks to the complex relationship between Christianity and nationalism in the United States, particularly in the early days when the idea of a unified country was relatively new and fragile.
The concept of nationalism morphed into something more aggressive and militaristic in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Christian rhetoric was often co-opted as an excuse to conquer, control and “civilize” other nations. This warped interpretation of Christianity has been used to fuel wars and conflicts, as well as to oppress certain sectors of the population. Despite this, the core of Christian teaching remains the same, and is still relevant today: love of God and love of neighbor.
Although nationalism and Christianity have been linked throughout history, it is important to remember that they are two distinct and separate entities. While certain aspects of Christianity were used to advance the cause of nationalism, the Christian faith itself is not held prisoner to these same prejudices. Rather, the teachings of Jesus, an itinerant preacher from first-century Judea, are as relevant and powerful today as they were then.
Christianity as a faith has grown and spread,, integrating itself into the structures and institutions of everyday modern life in the United States. It has shaped our politics, our economy, and our society. As the world has grown and changed, so has the Christian faith, adapting to the challenges and changes of a complex and ever-changing world.
As with any body of religious teaching, not all Christian interpretations are the same. Modern Churches have adapted their beliefs and doctrines to reflect the changing world, and many Churches preach a message of inclusion, compassion and understanding of all different faith backgrounds. When discussing Christianity in the context of the United States, it is important to keep in mind the plethora of interpretations.
The Catholic Church, for example, has long held views on social issues that differ greatly from more conservative interpretations of the Christian faith. The Church, through various official documents, has expressed an understanding of and sympathy for refugees, immigrants, and those facing poverty. Conversely, some more hard-line Christian sects heavily emphasize values of personal morality and inaction towards social issues.
The same can be said of other interpretations of Christianity as well. Non-denominational churches often offer “modern” messages that combine traditional elements of the Christian faith, such as the teachings of Jesus, with the realities of today. These churches have become increasingly popular in recent years, as more Americans are looking for a more “flexible” version of Christianity.
It is important to remember that Christianity has always been a source of moral guidance and spiritual nourishment. While it may be used as a tool by some to as a tool to propagate certain political agendas, the real power of Christianity lies in its ability to bring grace and peace to those who follow its teachings.
Erosion of Separation
The concept of a separation between church and government has become increasingly blurred in the United States. The Supreme Court has weighed in on issues of religious freedom and the interpretation of the First Amendment, delivering judgment on both sides of the debate. When the Court previously made decisions on issues concerning religion, it caused a massive rift between the liberal and conservative camps of America.
Today, though, the idea of a separation between church and state has become less pronounced in American culture, as many politicians have used Christianity as a rallying cry or a framework for their policies. While it is important to remember that the United States Constitution prohibits any sort of official state religion or preference among faiths, Christianity (or certain interpretations of it) has certainly colored much of the political and social discourse in the United States.
The 2016 presidential election was a prime example: both candidates made references to their own religious beliefs and those of the general electorate. It goes to show that the role of religion in American society is still a contentious one. It remains to be seen whether the United States will continue to be a nation founded on religious freedom and tolerance, or whether the country will succumb to the more rigid interpretations of Christianity.
Darker Sides of Faith
Though Christianity has undoubtedly played a role in the formation and maintenance of the United States, there have been plenty of times when it has been used as an excuse for bigotry and hatred. This is not unique to the United States, but it is worth noting that Christian faith has been used to further certain negative ideologies, ranging from racism and sexism to xenophobia and homophobia.
These versions of Christian faith are often known as the Christian “right” or “conservative” movements. Although these versions of Christianity differ greatly from versions of Christianity that emphasize tolerance and love, some still use their faith as a justification for their extreme views.
Furthermore, they often find remarkably creative ways to justify their views. For example, they often cite certain Bible verses that seem to support their ideologies, while conveniently ignoring other passages that contradict them. This creates a narrow and often dangerous worldview, one that is not indicative of the teachings of modern Christianity.
Certain Christian denominations have attempted to counter these restrictive interpretations of Christianity, offering a more open and progressive version of the faith. Nevertheless, the version of Christianity that emphasizes intolerance and restriction is still prevalent in the United States, and it will take a concerted effort to move away from this increasingly antiquated view of faith.
Courage and Carrying On
A conversation on the role of Christianity in the United States will always be complex and difficult. Even given the overwhelming evidence that Christianity has been a major factor in the formation and maintenance of the United States, we must remember that it is not the only factor. There are numerous religious influences that have helped shape our country, and each one deserves consideration and respect.
At the end of the day, the only real way to understand the role of Christianity in the United States is to look at the core principles of the Christian faith: love, mercy, justice, and humility. If we stay focused on these noble aspects of Christianity, then no matter what our political leanings, we can all find common ground and understanding.
Ultimately, the strength and beauty of Christianity lies in its ability to bring people together, whether those people believe in a religion or not. In a time of intense division, it can be difficult to remember that Christianity is still a powerful force for positive change. It is as much an inspiration for courage and kindness as it is a pillar of hope for a better tomorrow.