Institution Granting Degree
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
This dissertation offers a critique of the idea that America is a Christian nation, either by virtue of its founding as such or because of a unique choice made by God for a special purpose and/or relationship. Rather than being a Christian nation, America is a nation with religious liberty.
The first chapter asks and answers the question, between the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the enacting of the U. S. Constitution, how did conceptions of the relationship between religion and the state change? Massachusetts Bay Colony was established in 1630 as a Christian commonwealth. It was one of the first of the British North American colonies that would eventually become a state in the American Union on the basis of the Constitution. But the Constitution did not establish a Christian nation, but provided for full religious freedom in the First Amendment. Three movements of thought brought about this shift from 1630 to 1789: 1) the Great Awakening, 2) the English Enlightenment, and 3) radical Whig ideology. These dynamics, over the course of a century and a half, were central in shaping the American attitude toward the role of religion in the state—from that of defining the state‘s identity to being separate from it altogether.
The second chapter addresses the Christian America thesis (CA) as it has been manifested since the publication of The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall and David Manuel in 1977. The publication of this work, combined with the formation of the Moral Majority and the rise of evangelical Christian influence in American political life, encouraged the development of the CA thesis over the past three decades. Thirteen historical, philosophical, and theological themes, appearing predominately in the CA literature since 1977, are surveyed in order to set the stage for the critique. These themes include: from an historical perspective, 1) the Christian faith of the founders, 2) the Christian character of the sources drawn from by the founders, 3) the Christian character of colonial documents and early state constitutions, 4) the Christian character of early colleges, and 5) the powerful Christian influence of the Great Awakening and radical Whig ideology on the revolutionary generation; from a philosophical perspective, 1) the original intent of the founders may be accurately discerned by applying the same evangelical hermeneutical method as used when interpreting Scripture, 2) the original intent of the founders was to build Christianity into the heart of the nation, and 3) the role of the Enlightenment is not as significant as the role of Christianity in the founding; and from a theological perspective, 1) a providential view of history, 2) American exceptionalism as evidence of God‘s unique blessing on the nation, 3) America as God‘s chosen nation, a new Israel, 4) liberty as a biblical notion finding its consummate application in the civic life of America, and 5) the Bible as the primary source of the founding national documents. Finally, the commonly held belief among all the CA works surveyed is that America must recover its Christian heritage from a culture that is drifting deeper into secularism.
Prior to the presentation of the critique of CA, the dissertation will briefly acknowledge the role of Christian theology in the American notion of liberty. This will take place in chapter 3. It is important to recognize that the Christian religion, as an intellectual source for American revolutionary and founding ideas, played an important role alongside other intellectual sources. Primary and secondary sources are consulted in order to show that Christian theology, particularly Puritanism, was an important contributor to the idea of freedom in America.
The fourth chapter presents the critique of the CA thesis as it has been articulated in the works surveyed in chapter 2. The critique follows six lines of argument: 1) the CA thesis is ambiguous on the definition of ―Christian nation,‖ 2) the CA thesis is ambiguous in defining the contours of the Enlightenment, 3) the Protestant consensus which was predominant in America from its founding until the early twentieth century is no more, 4) religious pluralism was the intent behind the First Amendment, and it dominates contemporary American culture, 5) the Bible is not the primary source of the American founding, and 6) American exceptionalism, while significant to the CA argument, is not sustainable theologically or historically.
The fifth chapter offers closing arguments in critique of the CA thesis. Much of the work of evangelicals in the past thirty years has been devoted to defending the idea that America is a Christian nation, either because of its founding or because God chose it out of other nations for a special purpose. Rather than standing on the CA thesis, evangelicals can and ought defend the idea that religious freedom is central to the identity of the American nation. After the closing arguments are made, the chapter concludes by offering suggestions for further research and study.