The authors of the U.S. Constitution intentionally made it a “Godless” document, as we discussed yesterday. Neither God nor religion is mentioned in it. Historian John Fea points out, however, that the framers “did not exclude God because they wanted to establish a completely secular society devoid of any religion.” Rather, they thought this was a matter best left to the states—an example of the “federalist” nature of the Constitution. And many original state constitutions did include explicit references to God, religion, and Christianity; many had religious tests for officeholders. (Here’s a thoughtful piece about federalism and civility today.)
These explicit Christian themes in original state constitutions highlight that fact that the early American republic was profoundly influenced by Christianity. “If the United States was ever a ‘Christian Nation,’” says Fea, “it was so during the period between the ratification of the Constitution (1789) and the start of the Civil War.” In that period, “Christianity, and particularly Protestant evangelicalism, defined the culture.” In his new book—“Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?”—Fea explains the confluence of forces at work in the early republic that made it a Christian nation.
The First Amendment to the “Godless” Constitution spurred a religious revival by creating a religious marketplace. Religion was voluntary and churches had to compete for members and money. Evangelical groups like Methodists and Baptists grew in response, fueling what became the Second Great Awakening—a period of intense revivalism. Religion combined with politics—religious groups that benefited from religious freedom backed Jefferson in his successful run for the presidency.
Technology and media also played roles. This period of American history, says Fea, “also saw a revolution in print—newspapers, magazines, books—that would be used to advance the idea that the United States was a Christian nation.” Many of the nation’s first historians believed that God had backed the American Revolution. God’s providential role was featured in textbooks.
Today, those who lament what they see as America’s abandonment of its Christian heritage often look to this period as the Golden Age. But was it really?
What do you think of this era in American life?
Is that period relevant today?
Does it change your view of religion in American life?
Please Comment below.
(Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.)