At the beginning of October conservative news outlets were bemoaning the fact that a controversial statue of the 10 Commandments was removed under cover of darkness from the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds, after the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that its placement was a violation of state law. On social media the story about the removal of the 10 Commandments statue was juxtaposed against a story about a statue of Baphomet being erected in Detroit (Jenkins 2015). Baphomet, for those who aren’t up on their satanic worship, is a goat-headed representation of Satan. The two stories together were meant to show the change in American culture – from a Christian to a pagan, or at least an immoral, nation.
Some lawmakers have promised to bring the issue of using public money and/or property for religious purposes to the voters (KOCO News 5 2015). These legislators have vowed to introduce such a resolution when the Legislature reconvenes in February. KOCO news in Oklahoma City reports the following:
Its placement at the Capitol prompted requests from several groups to have their own monuments installed, including a satanic church in New York that wanted to erect a 7-foot-tall statue that depicts Satan as Baphomet, a goat-headed figure with horns, wings and a long beard. A Hindu leader in Nevada, an animal rights group and the satirical Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster also made requests (KOCO News 5 2015).
I am certainly no worshipper of Baphomet or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but this time opponents of the 10 Commandments statue have a point. Either all expressions of religion should be allowed on public property supported by public money, or none should. I tend to lean toward the idea that we should keep the Left and Right hand kingdoms separate. Bruce Prescott, a Baptist minister from Norman, OK who complained the statue violated the state constitution had this to say:
Frankly, I’m glad we finally got the governor and attorney general to agree to let the monument be moved to private property, which is where I believe it’s most appropriate…I’m not opposed to the Ten Commandments. The first sermon I ever preached was on the Ten Commandments. I’m just opposed to it being on public property (KOCO News 5 2015).
These cases, we are supposed to believe, illustrate just how far the Christian United States has fallen from the principles of its founding. While the Founding Fathers would certainly be shocked at our careless treatment of the Constitution, the idea that America is a Christian nation just isn’t supported by the facts. Certainly Christians were involved in the founding, but so were non-Christian deists and atheists. Also, what I will call American civil religion bears no resemblance to actual Christianity, though it borrows its language and forms. I present four prominent examples from among our Founding Fathers to illustrate my point.
Much is made of the fact that Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence and third President, published a New Testament. He is often said to have extolled the moral teachings of Jesus as, “…the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man” (Monticello n.d.). His work, however, often called the Jefferson Bible, is anything but orthodox. The Jefferson Bible is notable for its exclusion of all of the miracles of Jesus, or anything supernatural. Jefferson literally used a razor to cut out the moral teachings he admired, pasting them into a volume while leaving out such trifles as the Resurrection and any indication that Jesus was Divine (Monticello n.d.). It is not a work that would be accepted by any orthodox Christian body, and could arguably be called blasphemous. The words recorded in Revelation 22:18-19 come to mind; Jefferson will surely have to give an account for removing and discarding God’s word in such a manner.
George Washington is rightly considered Father of Our Country, as the nation looked to him to set precedent and offer guidance during the early days of the republic. Perhaps that is the beginning of the confusion and ambiguity regarding America’s collective spirituality. The subject of Washington’s religion is still hotly debated today. What we know for certain is that Washington was an Anglican. He served as a vestryman and as a church warden. He attended worship services regularly, but very rarely participated in Communion (Neill 1885). He believed that religion was important to public order, morality, and virtue. Washington also believed in prayer as evidenced in his writings, and his presidential executive orders. When speaking about things religious, he often referred to “God,” “heaven,” and “Providence,” but rarely to Christ, something which is also odd for a devout Christian. This is exemplified by Washington’s National Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1789:
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us. And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions– to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best (Washington 1789).
Washington was also a Freemason, something which would not be tolerated, or at the very least be frowned upon, by orthodox Christian bodies today (The George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association, Inc. n.d.). Judging him by his church participation, and putting the best construction on it, Washington was perhaps a grudging Anglican, who saw religion – specifically Christianity – as a way to provide an additional layer of stability for the nation he was integral in creating.
Though he sometimes wrote and spoke in deistic terms, John Adams was a Christian, who professed that Jesus was the redeemer of mankind. He was a Congregationalist, though later in life he became a Unitarian (McCullough 2008). Confessional LCMS pastors would certainly have barred him from receiving the sacrament of the Altar but, in the context of the Founding Fathers, John Adams was a strong Protestant Christian. He argued with atheist Thomas Paine, who derided orthodox Christianity, and Adams viewed the morality of the Christian religion as important to the life of the country (Paine Relief! n.d.).
Benjamin Franklin considered himself a Christian, but stated in his autobiography that he was a deist (Franklin, Franklin’s Autobiography 1916). He believed in “virtue” which, to be certain was informed by his Puritan upbringing, but he did not claim any of the spiritual aspects of the Christian faith. In fact, Franklin wrote in his autobiography that he believed the most acceptable service to God was doing good to man (Franklin, Franklin’s Autobiography 1916). In 1728 Franklin published a formal statement of his religious beliefs. This statement omitted any mention of the religious dogma one would expect from even a liberal Puritan. Most conspicuous by its absence was any statement of belief in the divinity of Jesus or in the substitutionary atonement. Even a cursory reading of his statement will show that Christian theology played little part in Franklin’s thinking:
I CONCEIVE then, that the INFINITE has created many Beings or Gods, vastly superior to Man, who can better conceive his Perfections than we, and return him a more rational and glorious Praise. As among Men, the Praise of the Ignorant or of Children, is not regarded by the ingenious Painter or Architect, who is rather honour’d and pleas’d with the Approbation of Wise men and Artists. It may be that these created Gods, are immortal, or it may be that after many Ages, they are changed, and Others supply their Places. Howbeit, I conceive that each of these is exceeding wise, and good, and very powerful; and that Each has made for himself, one glorious Sun, attended with a beautiful and admirable System of Planets. It is that particular wise and good God, who is the Author and Owner of our System, that I propose for the Object of my Praise and Adoration (Franklin, Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion 1728).
Franklin, like many people in our day, wanted to claim the label of Christian while redefining Christianity to be rationalism mixed with whatever “spiritual” things tickled his fancy, as well as with a liberal helping of good works. In fact, I believe it to be true that the “Christianity” of America – American civil religion – is a religion of works.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive survey of the religious beliefs of the founders. These examples, however, show what the founders all seemed to have in common, and it wasn’t Christianity; it was moralism. Moralism is not Christianity. Luther once commented:
All religions that depart from the true Christian religion are ex opere operato (by the outward act), that is, teach, ‘This I will do, and that will please God.’ But one must hold fast to the rule that every opus operatum (outward act…work) is idolatrous (Luther 1967).
There are really only two religions in the world – Christianity, and idolatry. Christianity is characterized by fallen, sinful human beings, who are saved by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Idolatry, in particular the worship of self, is characterized by man, feeling some vague need for redemption, attempting to redeem himself through some outward act, or work. This religion of virtue and good works is what united the founders, atheist, deist, and Christian. And, in terms of civil righteousness, one could say that the United States has a morality based on Judeo-Christian principles. The United States is not, however, Christian, and never has been, because Christianity is not a works-based religious system.
The Constitution is a social contract in which the rights of man, given to him by Nature and Nature’s God, are protected and enshrined. Like any other contract, the duties of the parties to that contract are enumerated. For the purpose of keeping civil order, the American civil religion of virtue is sufficient as it basically adopts the second table of the Law as its basis. Theoretically, however, any defined system of morality could be substituted for the base. It is a system which is concerned with behavior and adherence to the rules – whatever those rules might be. It is a religion devoid of Christ. It certainly does not address the primary problem of mankind, which is sin.
The perfect illustration of what I mean is the prayer of the VFW chaplain on Memorial Day, one of the American civil religion’s sacred services:
Almighty God our Heavenly Father, in Your hands are the living and the dead; we give You thanks for all those, our comrades and sisters, who have laid down their lives in the service of our Country. May they rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon them. May the good work of seeking justice for the oppressed and peace for all mankind be rewarded with success, that their sacrifices shall not have been in vain. And may we never fail to remember the awesome cost of the freedom which we enjoy (Veterans of Foreign Wars 2012).
O Lord God of Hosts, as we gather to honor and pay respects to our comrades and sisters who have departed this life, it is fitting that we remember first our great Nation. You have given us a rich and beautiful land for our heritage. We humbly pray that we may always prove ourselves a people constantly aware of Your favor, and therefore anxious to demonstrate our gratitude in seeking to know and to do Your will. May our land be blessed with honest and productive industry, and a people of integrity who are anxious to learn and willing to respect one another. All this we ask of You, Almighty God, in Your Holy Name (Veterans of Foreign Wars 2012).
To whom are these prayers made? Who is the “Almighty God?” The second prayer makes its petition in “Your Holy Name.” Which name would that be? It doesn’t really matter, as long and it is sufficiently generic to allow all people to insert the god of their choice. Christianity, though, is not a generic religion. It all hinges upon the question, “Who do you say that I am?” to which Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The American civil religion of virtue which is practiced by well-meaning Christians in the public square does not allow its practitioners to assert Peter’s answer. If they did, they would also have to accept Baphomet and Flying Spaghetti Monster statues. Rather than allow the square to become cluttered with idols, they opt to cleanse Christianity of Christ in an effort to make it acceptable to everyone. They know that the chaplain means Jesus when he says, “…in Your name…” and that’s a work acceptable in their sight.
Christianity, contrary to the American civil religion, is the life and salvation God has given to mankind in and through Jesus Christ. It is the truth that mankind, having been plunged into sin by the disobedience of our first parents Adam and Eve, cannot please God, and are by our very nature sinful and unclean. We deserve nothing but God’s wrath and eternal punishment. But God, before mankind ever did anything to merit his favor, graciously atoned for our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and counts as righteous all who believe in Jesus. Moreover, man cannot by his own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him. God instead grants man repentance and faith through the working of his word.
There it is, Christianity in a nutshell: The blessed exchange of Christ’s righteousness for my sin. This has nothing to do with the religion of morals and virtue to which the majority of our Founding Fathers adhered. Theirs is a religion of works, partially designed to provide stability to a government and society. It also appeals to something deeper in mankind’s sinful nature, whether the founders meant to do that or not. The American civil religion of virtue and morality also appeals to our sinful spiritual desire to please God on our own terms, by our own works, rather than through faith in Christ and his work on the cross.
We should not, therefore, lament the decay of the American civil religion of virtue. We certainly should not attempt to establish, through the reimagining of history, a bastardized Christianity, devoid of Christ, as the American civil religion, pretending that our Founding Fathers were pious, churchgoing, orthodox Protestant Christians. We should instead gather regularly around Word and Sacrament. We should pray for our leaders, our nation, and our fellow man. We should deliver the Gospel to them in the context of our vocations, as Christ intends us to.
We should not spend so much time trying to “church up” the court square. Saving faith in Christ cannot come from American civil religion. Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). The word of Christ has no place in American civil religion. Besides causing problems with those among whom we live, setting up a nativity scene – or a 10 Commandments statue – does little to evangelize our neighbors. I’m not saying we should retreat from the public square, just that we shouldn’t allow the Left Hand Kingdom usurp what belongs to the Right Hand Kingdom. We are, after all, free to be faithful, and we must listen to God rather than men. So, when the government attempts to infringe on our right to free expression of religion, or to redefine the meaning of the First Amendment to be freedom of worship, or force us to do something against our conscience, then we must resist. Until that time, though, we must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.
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Franklin, Benjamin. Franklin’s Autobiography. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1916.
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KOCO News 5. 10 Commandments Statue Removed from Oklahoma Capitol. Oklahoma City, October 6, 2015.
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