August 26, 2007
If by that question one means, “Which religion is dominant in America?” then, yes, America is a predominantly Christian nation - indeed it has a decidedly Protestant cast.
There are a great many Americans who believe that Christianity should have a privileged place in American society and that it should set the tone for American life. Others would disagree vehemently, even suggesting that religion should have no place in public life.
Just as Christians left and right seek to defend their own positions with biblical references, partisans left and right seek out historical proof texts that would support their viewpoints. For some, George Washington is the epitome of Christian piety, while for others the Founders not only were skeptics, they despised Christianity.
Much of what we hear and read, unfortunately, is more myth and legend than facts of history, and these myths are told and retold largely for political benefit. The truth, like America itself, is complex.
Fortunately there are resources that set the story straight. Among the more recent works are two books. Jon Meacham's “American Gospel” (Random House, 2006) and David Holmes's “The Faiths of the Founding Fathers” (Oxford University Press, 2006) tell a much more nuanced story, one that recognizes the contributions of Christianity to the nation's history, but which also acknowledge other important contributors such as the Enlightenment. While Meacham's book lays out the broader story of America's religious life, Holmes deals specifically with the founding generation, especially the first five presidents.
A noted historian and an Episcopalian, Holmes demonstrates that the first five presidents, along with Benjamin Franklin, were Christian deists. That is, they belonged to their respective Protestant churches but weren't orthodox in their beliefs or practices. Their God was largely disinterested in our personal daily lives, but this creator did guide the broad currents of history (providence). They believed in life after death and revered Jesus as a teacher, but they weren't Trinitarians nor did they believe in the divinity of Jesus. Their wives and daughters, on the other hand, tended to be quite pious - the exceptions being Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison. Still, this deism was balanced by other very orthodox expressions of Christian faith on the part of people like Samuel Adams (cousin to John), John Jay, and Patrick Henry.
Whether in their orthodoxy or in their skepticism, the founding generation recognized the need for religious freedom, and they also understood something that seems lost today - we can work together to accomplish great things, whether spurred on by faith or not, and our differences needn't get in the way. I'm a person of faith and my faith is the driving force in my life and in my political convictions, but I know that there are people of good faith who differ from me in their religious perspectives and their political perspectives. I should be able to work with them when and where it's appropriate.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (www.lompocdisciples.org). He blogs at http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o First Christian Church, P.O. Box 1056, Lompoc, CA 93438.