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Independence Day and the Christian Connection

Jul 4, 2020

The Fourth of July has decidedly Christian roots:

Let me begin by saying two things. First, Happy Fourth of July (OK, maybe I am a day early given that I live down under). Second, this article is really due to a phone call I received yesterday. A good friend mentioned July 4 and the US Constitution, and with tears talked about how God was such a big part of America’s founding. Thanks Stan. This article is for you.

And for those of you not fully up on the American holiday and what it means, a few quick words. Independence Day of course commemorates the Declaration of Independence of the United States on July 4, 1776. Thus for 244 years now we have celebrated this day – the day America got its independence.

While the English may not have been too pleased with this event back then, it did lead to what has become one of the great nations on earth. To set the stage for what I want to discuss in this piece, it is worth quoting the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence:

IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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.

As this and many other documents, writings and speeches from the time make clear, God did indeed feature prominently in the establishment of the United States of America. Sure, debate has long raged about this, with some arguing that the Founding Fathers were mainly deists and not really biblical Christians.

Plenty of ink has already been spilled on that discussion, with numerous books and articles that one can appeal to. I have written about all this before as well. See these pieces for example, which include some useful titles for further reading:

billmuehlenberg.com/2015/05/26/america-rising-america-falling/

billmuehlenberg.com/2014/04/12/america-christianity-and-secularism/

billmuehlenberg.com/2013/05/08/obama-versus-the-founding-fathers/

Here I want to draw upon just one new resource on this matter. I refer to a very helpful 2019 volume by Mark David Hall, the Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics at George Fox University. The book is this: Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth.

In over 200 well-documented pages Hall carefully makes the case that America’s founding did indeed rest primarily on solid Christian convictions. As he says at the very beginning of his important book:

Scholars and popular authors routinely assert that America’s founders were deists who desired the strict separation of church and state. . . . These claims are patently and unequivocally false. This book demonstrates why, revealing the hollowness of assertions that most of America’s founders were deists; that they created a “godless” Constitution; that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison desired to build a high wall of separation between church and state; that the founders thought governments should never encourage religion; and that they advocated religious liberty because they were children of the Enlightenment. In addition to showing why and how these claims are wrong, I argue that America’s founders were influenced in significant ways by Christian ideas when they declared independence from Great Britain, drafted constitutions, and passed laws to protect religious liberty.

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Did America Have a Christian Founding?: Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth by Array Amazon logo

Yes, there were various influences at work upon the founders, such as “Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, the Scottish Enlightenment, and so on. I contend that an excellent case can be made that Christianity had a profound influence on the founding generation.”

Another paragraph found early on in this book is worth presenting here:

Practically, and positively, a central argument of this book is that America’s founders drew from their Christian convictions to create a constitutional order that benefits all Americans, not just Christians. Their convictions led them, for example, to carefully limit the national government’s power; value checks and balances; support the rule of law; and protect a robust conception of religious liberty. There were few non-Christians in late eighteenth-century America, but there were some, and most of America’s founders were convinced that the right of these non-Christians to believe and act according to the dictates of their consciences must be protected.

Consider the issue of deism, which states that God created the world but then has taken a hands-off approach to it. There are often eight main figures held up as deists, including Franklin, Washington, Jefferson and Paine. But, says Hall, it is “striking that there are few instances of civic leaders in the era openly embracing deism or rejecting orthodox Christian doctrines.”

And in part it depends on how we define the term. Says Hall, “if deism includes the idea that ‘God set the world in motion and then abstained from human affairs,’ it is possible that only one of these men, Ethan Allen, was a deist. With the exception of Allen, all the founders regularly called deists are clearly on record speaking or writing about God’s intervention in the affairs of men and nations.”

As to the Declaration of Independence, God is referred to four times in the document. But critics say the references are too generic and nebulous, and just refer to things like “Creator” and “Providence.” However, Hall reminds us of other documents that are clearly biblical in nature but often did the same:

“For instance, the Westminster Standards, a classic Reformed (Calvinist) confession of faith, refer to the Deity as ‘the Supreme Judge,’ ‘the great Creator of all things,’ ‘the first cause,’ ‘righteous judge,’ ‘God the Creator,’ and ‘the supreme Law and King of all the world,’ both in the original 1647 version and in the 1788 American revision.”

Hall also examines the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1788. At the close of the chapter on this he says:

Those who argue that the United States has a godless Constitution must do more than point out that the Deity is not referenced, or is referenced only once, in our nation’s fundamental law. Far more relevant are the religious convictions of the framers and ratifiers, and the sources and ideas from which they drew as they created America’s constitutional order. As we have seen, there is no good reason to accept the assertion that “many” or “most” of the founders were deists or even heterodox Christians, whereas there are excellent reasons to believe that they were influenced by the Bible and Christian political ideas.

Hall looks in more detail at various other matters, such as Jefferson, Madison and the First Amendment. All of this is well worth examining. But let me bring my piece to an end by offering his closing paragraph:

Having argued throughout this book that America did, in fact, have a Christian founding, I want to close by reemphasizing that the constitutional order the founders created has benefited citizens of every faith – as well as those who do not hold to any faith at all. One need not be a Christian to profit from limited government, checks and balances, and the rule of law. With respect to religion, the founders were clear that citizens of any faith are free to worship and act according to the dictates of their consciences. If we desire to honor their memory and legacy, we must continue to advocate these ideals today.

Happy Independence Day!

(Australians can find this book here: www.koorong.com/product/did-america-have-a-christian-founding-separating-modern_9781400211104?ref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.koorong.com%2F )

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4 Responses to Independence Day and the Christian Connection

  • Dear Bill, Thank you for the very interesting article on the US day of Independence. I am English but like Stan I worry about the US considering the unsettled times we live in. However, we must not lose hope and pray fervently that for the sake of the free world the US Constitution founded on Christian values will always stand.

  • Thanks Bill, as always.

    Just want to add a view, not to detract from your piece, but to support with an additional perspective.

    At the beginning of the article you stated this: “Independence Day of course commemorates the Declaration of Independence of the United States on July 4, 1776. Thus for 244 years now we have celebrated this day – the day America got its independence.”

    We had been fighting for over a year, since April 1775, to win our rights as Englishmen, and when they were not restored, we declared Independence. But we still had to fight, and Independence was not actually won until October 1881 at the Battle of Yorktown, when we, along with French troops and a French naval blockade, trapped General Cornwallis, defeating the British Forces once and for all.

    So far as the argument as to whether we are a Christian nation, the argument has been well stated. Again, it is the Declaration that stated we are separate from Britain and established as a sovereign nation. It was the Constitution in 1789 that established us as a United nation of States, replacing a Confederation of States, and establishing the Declaration as the foundation and reason of the Law of the Land in the Constitution. The main point of importance here is that it is in the Declaration that it was established our rights under our Creator to become independent. It is in the Declaration that we are a Christian nation. The Constitution establishes that under law. It also establishes that the Church does not govern the state, and the state does not govern the State either. It does not divorce one from the other.

    Let me declare here that this is not an argument, but a further comment in agreement with the truths you have stated here.

  • Happy 4th of July! (A day late sorry). I don’t know why, but I get quite emotional when talking about America. I feel a heavy burden in my heart and am constantly in prayer for the President and the country. I believe that America is under judgement at the moment, but that God’s character is to show mercy and I believe we Christians should be on our knees in prayer for the USA. Prayer that both government and the people will return to “In God We Trust”. Thank you for this informative article. May God Bless you Mr Muehlenberg and May God Bless the United States of America.

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