In Search of Christian America

Harry S. Stout

[Adapted from a talk given at Yale Divinity School on Feb. 12, 2007, during the “Voices & Votes” conference, organized by the Yale Forum on Faith & Politics, a student group based at the Divinity School.]

How do we understand and define America today? There are those who would define America as a secular republic. Others would define America as a Christian republic. Or they say, well, it is secular, but it should be Christian and that’s what we’re striving to achieve. Both have a lot of resonance in our society today.

The Puritans were a people gripped by the power of ideas. Theirs would be the first really ideologically driven colonization effort of the New World.

All I want to add to the conversation is to say these debates today are hardly new to American history. It’s no exaggeration to say the debate about whether America is or should be a Christian nation goes to the heart of the question: What does it mean to most Americans to be an American?

The idea of Christian America came to me personally quite early: I was brought up in a fundamentalist household in Philadelphia and sent to a fundamentalist school. I think I would use those terms now to describe it. We had to memorize a chapter of the Bible every week, we were told that it would be sinful to vote for John Kennedy because he answered to the Pope, and we can’t trust Catholics, let alone atheists, and that America was very much a Christian republic or ought to be. This was the unquestioned orthodoxy in my household.

Then I went off to a Christian college—Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan—and I had a new professor there named George Marsden. And he in no uncertain terms proceeded to disabuse me of the notion that it’s appropriate even to talk about Christian America. Such things bordered on idolatry rather than truth, he said.

On two fronts he disabused me of the idea of a Christian America. He did this first theologically, arguing that the idea of a covenanted society, God covenanting with nation-states as well as with individuals, modeled on ancient Israel as kind of the template for what such a Christian society would look like, simply didn’t bear scrutiny. God’s covenanting with nations stopped with Christ and ancient Israel; there was subsequently no such thing as nation-states enjoying a peculiar—maybe the word is exceptional—relationship with God that set them apart from all other nations and imposed on them a responsibility to bring unique redemption to the world in the same way that ancient Judaism brought Christ to the world. He said that’s nonsense; these things simply don’t exist. That was an eye-opener to me.

The other dimension, besides the theological, was the constitutional. Marsden said America as a nation-state in fact did not begin in 1630; it began in 1776 and assumed constitutional shape in 1787, when church and state were explicitly separated. This was, indeed, the genius of the Constitution— this radical idea of the separation of church and state, liberty of conscience without restraint.

Now, in the colonial period, there were many right here in New England who simply couldn’t abide the idea that you could have a functioning republic without some kind of established religion, without some kind of religious test to ensure its virtue. Connecticut and Massachusetts, notably, held out and did not disestablish the Congregational Church until the early decades of the 1800s.

But other states abandoned the idea of a state church very quickly, so that in constitutional terms, according to Marsden, the very idea of creating a Christian nation-state here, or claiming the founders were somehow closet Christians and closet evangelicals who wanted to create a Christian republic, was patently nonsense.

So, I grew up being taught that there was such a thing as a Christian America. Went to college and learned that such an idea is idolatry. I more or less stuck with that second camp. Then I went to graduate school, a secular university, and again revisited the question of a Christian nation, this time as a historian who wanted to understand how this idea originated, this notion that God covenants with nations even now on terms not dissimilar to the terms that governed God’s relationship with ancient Israel in what was essentially a theocracy.

The search brought me back to the beginnings—to New England, which was the last region to disestablish religion, and to a group known as the Puritans. If you take my survey class, we’ll spend a whole hour talking about the Puritans. Here I’ll simply say that when we look at the English settlement in North America we find this group in New England who comes for motives very different from those of the colonies to the south, with people who are very different from the other colonists to the south. Most colonial experiences, prior to the Puritans, were primarily driven by economics. They were virtually all-male in settlement, arriving with a boom-or-bust mentality. But the Puritans were a people gripped by the power of ideas. Theirs would be the first really ideologically driven colonization effort in the New World. It represents the first folk migration to the New World. Women and children are integral to the whole experiment. They’re here to create a permanent settlement.

What kind of settlement? First governor John Winthrop spells it out in words that continue to refrain in American history. He gets the colonists under way with seven ships going over to the New World. He preaches a sermon on the lead ship, the Arabella, after they get past the halfway point, so there can be no swimming back. And he says, You might wonder why we’re on this voyage. This is not about making money, it’s not about dispersing inland and everyone going their own way looking for their own fortune. It’s something very different. He said, We’re coming over to this New World to establish a model society. At the core of this model society will be the idea of a covenant.

Covenant terminology was hardly original to John Winthrop and the Puritans. It’s part of the stock of Christian rhetoric. But now it had an unfamiliar twist, unique for North America. That twist was that God not only saves individuals through what the Puritans called the covenant of grace, based on the sacrificial atonement of Christ and other familiar Reformation terminology, but God also establishes covenants with nations or with peoples in which the terms and the meaning are going to be very similar to what ancient Israel enjoyed. That’s why the Puritans could call their society a new Israel, and that’s what they were here to create, under the aegis of a Christian dispensation, rather than a Jewish dispensation, a national covenant.

Now note that national covenants are different from the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace is forever. You’re incorporated and grafted into it and it’s forever: eternal damnation or eternal salvation. National covenants are different. National covenants are contingent. They succeed only so long as you honor the terms of the covenant. The minute you cease to observe those terms, God can give you your Babylon, just as He gave Israel its Babylon for refusing to honor the terms of the covenant.

The Whole World Is Watching

This becomes an extraordinarily powerful metaphor. But not only a metaphor. It is broadened to encompass the very laws of New England. Then in famous terms that reverberate in high school civics texts down to the present, in presidential rhetoric and oratory, Winthrop makes that ringing allusion to words in Matthew when he says: you’re going to be a city upon a hill. The eyes of the world are going to look upon you because we’re doing something unique. We’re creating a covenantal society. We’re going on public record to say we aren’t like other nation-states. We’re going on record as a new Israel. And if we succeed in this, the world will want to emulate us. They won’t be able to resist.

Consider the chutzpa of this guy. He’s got seven little boats, about eleven hundred people, and he’s convinced that the whole world will be watching this new city on a hill. And he thinks, If we succeed in this covenant, God is going to use us as His redemptive agent in the same way that He used ancient Israel as His redemptive agent in producing Christ. And this new Israel will hold forth, if it honors the terms of the covenant, until Christ’s second coming.

This was a novel idea, and it didn’t die in colonial New England. It survives through the colonial period and into the early Republic. It’s a powerful idea. It promises you uniqueness. Scholars who aren’t necessarily scholars of Puritanism or colonial America have long recognized what they call the doctrine of American exceptionalism—that we aren’t like the other nations of the world, and we don’t have to be held to the same standards or the same accounts because we’re on a mission, a redemptive mission in some of the same ways that ancient Israel was.

And being God’s special people doesn’t mean happy people. This is a jealous God who will punish you if you don’t honor the covenant. This God can come down very hard on you. So the Puritans tended to read the signs of the times for how well they were observing the covenant. If there were droughts, pestilence, storms, wars with Indians, these were signs that God is displeased and you need to reform. If you repent and reform, because you’re in this special relationship, God will withdraw these “loving reprieves” and restore you to your privileged place. For the Puritans, all was contingent on the covenant.

Fast-forward to the Revolution, the new order of the ages. Here we see the creation of the republic, the separation of church and state. Yet for many Calvinists with Puritan origins, the conclusion they draw is that the Constitution and the new republic do not eliminate American exceptionalism. It’s just that God, as a blessing to New England, is going to graft the other states into this covenanted status so that this national covenant is still binding.

So we see two different rhetorics at work in American history. For a period after the Revolution, the two could coexist. And at many points in American history they can coexist. But inevitably there were flashpoints, moments of contest.

For many Americans that first great contest came in the War of 1812, which was hotly disputed in New England and the North. They called it Mr. Madison’s war, created by stubborn cavaliers who were looking for wars of imperialism and aggrandizement. There was a great protest by New England clergy against this. Supporters of the war said, The president of the United States has authorized this war, and it’s your constitutional duty as an American citizen to honor that president and honor that war. But these clergy in New England said, Nonsense—that’s not our ultimate allegiance. Our ultimate allegiance is the covenant.

These opponents of the War of 1812 came to see that a great mistake had been made when the Constitution was drafted, excluding God, not invoking God. By 1812 there was an outcry of disillusionment with the Constitution and a desire to add an amendment that would explicitly name America as a Christian nation to make up for this oversight.

Yet Jefferson and Madison were saying, This was no oversight. It’s exactly what we had in mind for this new republic, the separation of church and state. So it’s easy to see how tensions would emerge from the very start of the republic between those who envision a Christian republic and those who explicitly disavow that idea and were very deliberate in their exclusion of God, any god, any faith’s god, from the language and terminology of the Constitution.

For the most part, these tensions, not to say contradictions, never erupted in violent upheaval, but they did divide American society in profound ways that persist down to the present. For the school of thought called the “Christian America” school, a major proposition was that religion must be both a matter of private conscience and public policy; the two can’t be separated. They argued that only Christians should be elected to public office; there should be an actual religious test. There should be Christian legislatures, Christian legislators creating a Christian republic that harkens back to 1630 and to the covenant.

Explicitly excluded, according to this school, were atheists and deists—that is to say, the framers of the Constitution, or many of them. Such habitually irreligious people, one minister declared, were “unfit for human society.” They were considered national enemies. Atheists were said to depersonalize the cosmos and could not be tolerated in a Christian America.

Civil War, Religious War

This strain of debate still lies very much at the center of questions of American identity. It doesn’t disappear. I encountered it in my early work with the Puritans. I encountered it again in the American Revolution, in the aftermath of the Revolution, in what is sometimes called the Second Revolution in the War of 1812, and then again when I looked at the role religion played in the Civil War.

There, I was astounded to see once again, at the center of many debates, especially once the war erupted between North and South, the idea of a Christian America. This is something that a lot of Civil War historians, Civil War buffs, never saw because they hadn’t read the Puritans, they didn’t realize the long history that went into this thinking, and so they tended to dismiss the rhetoric. But as I started looking at the newspapers and speeches of the time, I saw the laments again for Christian America. And the first and loudest voices were the Confederates.

The Confederates seceded from the Union and drafted their own constitution, which in many ways resembled the federal constitution, with two exceptions: one is, it guaranteed the foul institution of slavery in perpetuity. But the other thing it did was declare its Christian identity. In the Confederate constitution they deliberately insert the phrase, “invoking the favor and guidance of almighty God.” The Confederate national motto, from the Latin, means: “with God as our defender.”

God in the Details

The Confederacy reeks with the rhetoric of a Christian republic, and they continually throw it in the face of the North. Especially in the early days, when they had victories, they said, See, we’re blessed with our victories because we’re a Christian state, and we have gone on record as such. We have a unique covenant with God. They granted legitimacy to the Puritans, saying the Confederates were the real heirs of the Puritans, carrying the covenant forward and receiving God’s blessing. The North, they said, is filled with degenerates—with deists, Mormons, free thinkers, free-love advocates. That’s the North— atheistic. They don’t even mention God in their Constitution.

This really rankled northern Republicans because they bought into the same theology. Northern Republicans said, The Confederates are absolutely wrong to think they’re a Christian republic; they’re an abomination, they’re rebels, they are the enemies of God’s covenant, but they’re right about one thing—we didn’t invoke God in our Constitution. So, there’s much agitation in the North, among Republicans, to add a constitutional amendment that would explicitly invoke God. By 1862 or 1863 the push intensified to out-Christian the Confederacy. There was an effort to amend the Constitution to invoke God, Jesus Christ as savior, and the infallibility of the Holy Scriptures. These were to be part of our national creed.

But President Lincoln didn’t agree with that. Lincoln embraced separation of church and state along the model of the framers of the Constitution. Lincoln’s scripture was not the Puritans’ covenant. His scripture was the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And little did he know that he would contribute the other two of the nation’s four great scriptures of an American civil religion: the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural.

But the pressure was intense from ministers throughout the Northeast and New England particularly. Finally, Lincoln says, Okay, I’m going to do two things: we’re going to have fast days, and I will invoke God to bless these fasts. The South rightly pointed out that they had two times as many fasts as the North. Jefferson Davis had proclaimed eight fasts, Lincoln only two. So Lincoln adds this—a national motto. And the national motto will be “In God we trust.” And it will be emblazoned on the nation’s coinage. What better way to fuse Christianity and the Republic than to put that motto on the nation’s coinage?

There were voices of bitter dissent in the North. It’s easy to forget that even in the second presidential election in 1864, something over 40 percent of northern Americans voted Democratic. They’re the forgotten northerners. They don’t survive in the myths of the era—it’s all Lincoln. But the Democrats were the only sustained voice saying, “This is nonsense, there is no such thing as a Christian republic. These fast days are an abomination. The worst thing we can imagine is to have a constitution invoking God because that’s not the America we bought into.” They shouted loudly, with virtual hatred for Lincoln and the Republicans, but the Republicans won the day, though not without ongoing bitterness.

After the Battle of Bull Run, which of course was a decisive victory for the Confederacy, northern ministers became more convinced than ever that the reason they lost that battle was (a) because it was fought on the sabbath and (b) because they didn’t have God written into their Constitution. For these people, the reason for the defeat at Bull Run was not tactics or politics but bad philosophy.

Hartford’s famous minister Horace Bushnell delivered an address after the defeat at Bull Run, pointing out that America’s idea of freedom and what America stands for is not grounded in Lockeian and Jeffersonian epistemology or in the naturalistic premises of the Declaration of Independence, but in the Puritans. He’s very explicit in this. This is the true America. Without mentioning Lincoln by name, Bushnell complained, “Our statesmen or politicians, not being generally religious men, take up with difficulty conceptions of government or the foundations of government that suppose the higher rule of God. Our political theories never gave us a real nationality but only a co-partnership. And the armed treason is only the consummated result of our speculations. When nothing exists but a consent, what can be needed to end it but a dissent?” Interesting question.

For Bushnell, this clearly meant that the triumph of the American republic could only happen if and when the Americans move beyond these abstract Jeffersonian principles that all men are created equal, that the people are sovereign, that there should be no laws regarding the establishment of religion. Only after these ideas are reined in and subordinated to America’s true providential inception in 1630 on board the Arabella with Governor Winthrop will the Union start winning battles.

And so the debate and the tensions live on.

As I look at the debates in the present, it’s very interesting to note that the strongest centers for the idea of a Christian America haven’t changed. They’re the South and the Republican Party. That’s where the voices are strongest. And the largest voices of dissent in 2007, no less than 1862, are the Democrats and the Democratic Party.

The lesson to be taken from this? Myths die hard, and, for many Americans, the one truly intolerable, unacceptable notion even now is that America is one more profane nation in the wilderness of this world.

Harry S. Stout is Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006), which Penguin released as a paper- back this year He is general editor of the Works of Jonathan Edwards (Yale University Press).