About Corazon

Friday, March 20, 2009

Christian Nation Thesis (and Jasper Adams in Particular) Debunked

In the past couple of posts at American Creation, fellow blogger Tom Van Dyke and I have been engaged in a "heated" discussion over the validity of the Christian Nation thesis. In his piece below, Mr. Van Dyke notes that the Christian Nation thesis is poorly served by the "extremists" on the right (David Barton, D. James Kennedy, etc.) who in their quest to legitimize their claims, make America's Christian heritage "look like balderdash."

On this I couldn't agree more. The "fringe" of the Christian right has done little to promote the belief in America as a Christian Nation. In fact, I believe they have done more harm than good. Mr. Van Dyke will receive no disagreement from me on this issue.

However, my interest was peaked by Mr. Van Dyke's reference to one Jasper Adams, who in 1833 delivered a sermon entitled, "The Relation of Christianity to the Civil Government in the United States." Mr. Van Dyke states:

The definitive Christian nation thesis argument remains
the Rev. Jasper Adams sermon of 1833 [later published with footnotes and
distributed all across America], which was highly praised by not one, but two
sitting Supreme Court justices, America's first great constitutional scholar
Joseph Story, and Chief Justice John Marshall.
And while that all may be true (I have no reason to doubt TVD's integrity), not everyone was accepting of Jasper Adams' comments. James Madison, who was no small player in the establishment of the United Sates Constitution as we all know, had this to say in a letter to Mr. Adams regarding his sermon:

There appears to be in the nature of man what insures
his belief in an invisible cause of his present existence, and anticipation of
his future existence. Hence the propensities & susceptibilities in that case
of religion which with a few doubtful or individual exceptions have prevailed
throughout the world.

The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the
other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best
guarded agst by an entire abstinence of the Govt from interference in any way
whatever.

[...]

In most of the Govt of the old world, the legal
establishment of a particular religion and without or with very little
toleration of others makes a part of the Political and Civil organization and
there are few of the most enlightened judges who will maintain that the system
has been favorable either to Religion or to Govt.

In the Colonial State
of the Country, there were four examples, R. I, N. J., Penna, and Delaware,
& the greater part of N. Y. where there were no religious Establishments;
the support of Religion being left to the voluntary associations &
contributions of individuals; and certainly the religious condition of those
Colonies, will well bear a comparison with that where establishments existed.

As it may be suggested that experiments made in Colonies more or less
under the Control of a foreign Government, had not the full scope necessary to
display their tendency, it is fortunate that the appeal can now be made to their
effects under a complete exemption from any such Control.

It is true
that the New England States have not discontinued establishments of Religion
formed under very peculiar circumstances; but they have by successive
relaxations advanced towards the prevailing example; and without any evidence of disadvantage either to Religion or good Government.

And if we turn to the Southern States where there was, previous to the Declaration of independence, a legal provision for the support of Religion; and since that
event a surrender of it to a spontaneous support by the people, it may be said
that the difference amounts nearly to a contrast in the greater purity &
industry of the Pastors and in the greater devotion of their flocks, in the
latter period than in the former. In Virginia the contrast is particularly
striking, to those whose memories can make the comparison. It will not be denied
that causes other than the abolition of the legal establishment of Religion are
to be taken into view in account for the change in the Religious character of
the community. But the existing character, distinguished as it is by its
religious features, and the lapse of time now more than 50 years since the legal
support of Religion was withdrawn sufficiently prove that it does not need the
support of Govt and it will scarcely be contended that Government has suffered
by the exemption of Religion from its cognizance, or its pecuniary
aid.
When we look at Rev. Adams' sermon it becomes clear that he, like so many others, banks his "Christian Nation" claim on two key points: (1) America was founded by settlers who clearly established Christian settlements, and whose ideas were paramount in the establishment of the United States, (2) The constitutions of the various states make it indelibly clear that America is a Christian Nation.

Point #1:
In his sermon, Adams states:

The Colonies, then, from which these United States have
sprung, were originally planted and nourished by our pious forefathers, in the
exercise of a strong and vigorous Christian faith. They were designed to be
Christian communities

And:
The originators and early promoters of the discovery and
settlement of this continent, had the propagation of Christianity before their
eyes, as one of the principal objects of their undertaking. This is shewn by
examining the charters and other similar documents of that period, in which this
chief aim of their novel and perilous enterprize, is declared with a frequency
and fulness which are equally satisfactory.
I agree, in part, with what Rev. Adams is trying to say. Clearly America was PLANTED as a Christian Nation...at least in most colonies. However, are we to automatically insinuate from this history that the United States was/is founded as a Christian Nation?

The answer to this question can be found by addressing Rev. Adams' second key point; that the various state constitutions clearly establish a Christian nation. He states:

We are, therefore, now prepared to examine with a good
prospect of success, the nature and extent of the changes in regard to Religion,
which have been introduced by the people of the United States in forming their
State Constitutions, and also in the adoption of the Constitution of the United
States.

In perusing the twenty-four Constitutions of the United States
with this object in view, we find all of them recognising Christianity as the
well known and well established religion of the communities, whose legal, civil
and political foundations, these Constitutions are. The terms of this
recognition are more or less distinct in the Constitutions of the different
States; but they exist ill all of them.
But do STATE charters prove that the United States is a Christian Nation? Again, I will quote Madison from his above mentioned letter:

It is true that the New England States have not
discontinued establishments of Religion formed under very peculiar
circumstances; but they have by successive relaxations advanced towards the
prevailing example; and without any evidence of disadvantage either to Religion
or good Government.

And if we turn to the Southern States where there
was, previous to the Declaration of independence, a legal provision for the
support of Religion; and since that event a surrender of it to a spontaneous
support by the people, it may be said that the difference amounts nearly to a
contrast in the greater purity & industry of the Pastors and in the greater
devotion of their flocks, in the latter period than in the former. In Virginia
the contrast is particularly striking, to those whose memories can make the
comparison. It will not be denied that causes other than the abolition of the
legal establishment of Religion are to be taken into view in account for the
change in the Religious character of the community. But the existing character,
distinguished as it is by its religious features, and the lapse of time now more
than 50 years since the legal support of Religion was withdrawn sufficiently
prove that it does not need the support of Govt and it will scarcely be
contended that Government has suffered by the exemption of Religion from its
cognizance, or its pecuniary aid.
And even Rev. Adams seems to recognize this when he states:

No nation on earth, perhaps, ever had opportunities so
favorable to introduce changes in their institutions as the American people; and
by the time of the Revolution, a conviction of the impolicy of a further union
of Church and State according to the ancient mode, had so far prevailed, that
nearly all the States in framing their new constitutions of government,
either
silently or by direct enactment, discontinued the ancient connexion
[my emphasis].
Yes, the Reverend Adams provides an eloquent and well-prepared argument for his side, and I personally find much to praise in his sermon. However, colonial heritage and state constitutions are not sufficient grounds for calling America a Christian Nation. The federal Constitution is clearly a secular document, a fact that Adams gives very little attention to in his sermon. In addition, as Adams himself notes, these state constitutions eventually removed all religious preference, making the states secular as well.

No comments: