Thursday, October 25, 2007

Building a Culture of Faithfulness (Part 7)

Enlightenment and the Tension of the American Founding

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,

The proper study of mankind is Man.

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,

A being darkly wise and rudely great:

With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,

With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,

He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest;

In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast;

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;

Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,

Whether he thinks too little or too much;

Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;

Still by himself abused or disabused;

Created half to rise, and half to fall:

Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd;

The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

(Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle 2)

Pope’s words capture the worldview tension of the era of the American founding. The cutting edge thinkers of the day were working their way more and more toward pagan ways of thinking (or perhaps I should say that they were working out more and more consistently the pagan impulses of their hearts), yet Christianity remained an enormous influence. This unstable mixture was reflected in the social framework incorporated into the new United States of America.

In Reason We Trust

The American founding occurred at the high tide of the Enlightenment, which was a movement to enthrone human reason as the sole and independent arbiter of truth. Thomas Paine wrote, “My own mind is my own church.” But Paine was more extreme than most American founding fathers. Some were genuinely orthodox believers, such as John Witherspoon and Patrick Henry. Many were basically pagan in their thinking with generous dashes of Christian seasoning, most notably men such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. These men did not throw God out altogether, for they could not make sense of a world without him. But they did remake him into a god more suitable to human reason, and thus they stripped him of any real authority in the public realm of the new nation. They accomplished this largely by thinking in the same kinds of dualistic categories that Kant had.

This thinking is enshrined in the most important statement of the philosophy of the founders, the Declaration of Independence. Edwin Meese says that “the Declaration provided the philosophical basis”[i] for the new government. The Declaration pronounces these famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” After listing the colonists grievances against the crown, the Declaration concludes, “We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States…. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

Upon reading the Declaration of Independence, you will notice immediately the mention of the Creator who gives rights to men. He is appealed to for morality and for providential protection. These concepts certainly fit with the Christian worldview. But we must also notice that this god is not sovereign in two important areas – knowledge and authority. Revelation was not considered necessary to establish the rightness of the colonists’ cause. It was “self-evident” to any rational mind. Furthermore, the people were given ultimate authority for the government. It was not considered necessary to appeal to God for authorization. This is a direct challenge to the Christian worldview, and a definite departure from earlier European practice.

Yet this approach fit perfectly with the temper of the age. Most men did not try to jettison a divine power. After all, how could they explain the existence of the world and of morality without him or it? But this divine being was put into a box separated from the empirical realm of real facts and knowledge. The supreme law of the land could be forged and enforced without him or his revelation. All that was necessary was properly functioning reason.[ii]

This faith in reason also tied in with commitment to the idea of Progress. According to this idea, mankind is getting better and better. Faith in Progress, in all its varied forms, is as American as apple pie, although it is as old as the Tower of Babel. Are we not always building bigger and better things, enjoying more and more wealth and comfort, and accomplishing greater and greater feats of technological prowess? But we should also ask, Are we happier today than we have ever been? Are we wiser or more peaceful? Has all of our progress satisfied our souls, or has it made them more ravenous than ever before?

The American founding also included the seeds of individualism. If all truth is determined by human reason, then the individual eventually becomes the sole arbiter of truth. Social relationships must be determined by contracts freely chosen.

Our American commitment to autonomous reason and progress still drives us today, even though the failures of the Enlightenment version of paganism are becoming increasingly evident. For example, appealing to the Bible as revealed fact and relevant truth in public discourse is a sure-fire way to be dismissed as a superstitious crank. Another example – if you have listened to the discourse justifying Operation Iraqi Freedom, you will have heard a great deal about making a better world through democracy. A third example – education is considered the savior from all kinds of ills. A fourth example – the current congressional drive for tax money to support research on embryonic stem cells reveals an unbridled trust in technology to provide the good life, totally divorced from moral concerns. The list of examples goes on and on. We will return to these thoughts in Section 3.

Separation of Church and State

The separation of church and state has been one area of continuous battleground between pagan and Christian ideas in America. The Constitution itself actually says nothing about “separation of church and state.” The first amendment to the Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The precise application of this amendment has been debated ever since it was adopted. In the early years of our nation it was primarily aimed at the claims of rival Protestant sects. But as our nation grew more and more diverse, starting with the influx of Roman Catholics, the debates grew more intense. The Supreme Court itself has not been consistent in the way it interprets the Free Exercise of Religion clause. Nevertheless, we can see both positive and negative effects of this amendment on American thinking.

Positively, America became the first modern Western nation to effectively separate institutionally what had been welded together beginning with the Roman emperor Constantine in A.D. 313. This union of church and state throughout European history was contrary to the NT teaching on the nature, purpose, and function of the church, and it resulted in much corruption of the church. Freeing the church from its yoke with state governments provided an opportunity to reestablish a more biblical conception and practice of the church.

But there were some unintended negative effects as well. Religion became something relegated to the private sphere of faith, not the public world of “facts.” This is admittedly a fluid generalization. At times throughout our history Christianity was more prominent in Americans’ thinking, and at times it was less prominent. Nevertheless, I believe the generalization still holds. This separation of religion from public policy was something more than the separation of the institutions of churches and government. It was the old dualism surfacing again. Religion became a private matter and men were free to hold whatever opinions they wished in this realm. However, they were not allowed to let that religious belief dictate public policy. Thus, Americans today tend to believe that we are free to invoke God’s blessing on our nation, but they also do not believe that God’s revelation has any tangible bearing on how we conduct the affairs of our nation. We are more likely to identify God’s will with Americanism than with biblical religion.

Thus, America is not now nor has it ever been a Christian nation except in the most general sense.[iii] America has been influenced greatly from its founding onward by the Christian worldview because many of its citizens have been Christians. Nevertheless, pagan thinking has always had a place at the head of the table in the discussions that formed our country. Therefore, Christians should not believe that America is the last, best hope of the world. Our hopes for the present and the future do not hinge upon the rise or fall of America. America is not the kingdom of God incarnated.

Where then do we place our hopes? We trust in the living God who is actively accomplishing his purposes in the world today. The focal point of his activity, as we have already seen in Section 1, is the church.

As Christians who live in American society, we need to be wary of letting the common American ideals supplant truly biblical thinking in our lives. The following posts will deal with that topic in the context of our American history.



[i] The Heritage Guide to the Constitution (Washington, D. C.: Regnery Publishing, 2005), 1.

[ii] Later, there was a Romantic reaction to rationalism in American life. However, for our purposes we need to note that this romanticism still grew from the soil of a pagan worldview. The romantics, like the rationalists, looked to man and nature for their justification, not to God.

[iii] T. S. Eliot gives a thoughtful consideration to what might be called a “Christian Society” in his work Christianity and Culture. I am not opposed to such usage of this terminology as long as we remember the fundamental distinction between the biblical idea of a Christian and the use of the term “Christian” to describe nations and civilizations. In Scripture, a Christian is a person who is publicly identified and labeled as a follower of Jesus Christ. That is to say, he is one who has confessed faith in Christ through baptism and is now living according to Christ’s teachings with other disciples (the church). In the biblical sense, the term “Christian” cannot technically be applied to nations.

In American history, it is common to call 19th century America a Christian nation, even from such erudite and diverse sources as Alexis de Tocqueville, A. A. Hodge, and the U.S. Supreme Court. This is an extension of the meaning of “Christian” to cover the underlying ethos of the people which informed public discourse. It is true that Protestant Christianity influenced the mode of thought, mores, laws, etc. of America at this time.

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