“That this nation—under God—shall have a new birth of freedom. That Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”1
|These words concluded the Gettysburg Address. They received no thunderous applause or immediate praise,2 and after giving, “a few appropriate remarks”3 to honor those who died in the recent battle, Lincoln left without event. Yet those few words forever changed a nation. Ironically, Lincoln never intended to say, “Under God.” They do not appear in his original drafts.4 In the spur of the moment, Lincoln—a man who never professed Christianity5—felt strongly enough about the phrase to end his speech with the mention of God. To those who heard it, the ad lib meant nothing, washed away in the sea of that day’s speeches, but to Americans today the words mean everything. Less than a year after Lincoln’s speech the motto “In God We Trust” first appeared on U.S. currency,6 and upon creation of the Pledge of Allegiance in 1942, the words “Under God” were added in Lincoln’s honor.7 The idea of America as one nation under God caught on quickly with the American people.
Yet is America truly a Christian nation? The argument seems to forever persist. Every year new books and articles attempt to identify the character of the United States—Christian or otherwise, by retelling American history in a manner most accommodating to their objectives. It is not uncommon to hear among the political banter of news pundits and Facebook posts a reference to “our Founding Fathers” as the ultimate ace in the hole to their current argument. Similarly, common understanding among American Evangelicals often suggests that America was founded as a Christian state, and that by voting for this candidate, or that bill, American Christians may return America to its intended condition, and while doing so, advance the gospel.
The problem for Christianity in America is that evangelicals have chosen a battle they cannot win. America is not a Christian nation. It never has been, nor was it ever intended to be. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it doesn’t matter. If the Church in America ever wants to truly impact the Unites States, they must stop asking if America is a Christian nation and instead ask, “Is the Church proclaiming Christ?” The fact of the matter is that with every picket sign and political argument, the Church wastes an opportunity to conquer a nation in the way God intended: through making disciples, preaching and baptizing in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit.8 The sooner the American Church recognizes the facts of history the sooner they can share the truths of salvation.
Many falsely assume that the United States began as a Christian nation. Although Christianity played a dominant role in the North American colonies, the ideals which drove them to revolution were not biblical, but rather political and philosophical. The Declaration of Independence represents this clearly. The document was a letter of petition, listing grievances against the British Empire giving reason for their revolt.9 The Declaration of Independence contained 27 reasons as to why they wished to break away from Great Britain, none of which were religious. Some of these include, “quartering large bodies of armed troops among us,” “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world,” and “imposing taxes on us without our consent.”10
Likewise, in the proceeding paragraphs, Jefferson gives philosophical reasoning as to why such action was being taken. Jefferson famously borrows and slightly alters the phrase “Life, Liberty, and Estate” from John Locke,11 and mentions God, but in a deistic sense. Deism held that a god existed, but that does not interact with creation and cannot be known, save by reason and observation.12 This explains why God is described as “the God of Nature” in the text.13 This ideology fit perfectly with the contemporary enlightened thinking of Thomas Jefferson, which centered heavily on reason and questioning. Our Founding Fathers wished to declare independence, and eventually form a new nation, because they believed that certain rights were naturally inherited by all men, not because Christian doctrine articulated such.
Similarly, no mention of God occurs in the U.S. Constitution. However, it would be rash to assume that this omission was a result of a lack of interest or devotion to God by the Founders. As historian Gregg Frazier states, “The founders of the United States believed that ideas have consequences. Some of the most important and powerful ideas held by men and women concern religion or religious belief. Because they are so important and powerful, religious ideas inevitably influence political thought and practice.”14 Albert Mohler further suggests that it is impossible to label the Founding Fathers as either “Christian” or “Secular”, as they are broad terms which overtime have lost meaning and distinction.15 The best process would be to evaluate the life of each Founder individually, and make a determination as to their religious beliefs according to their own actions, other than blanket assertions of the entire group. Some Founders were Christian, some were not. Mentioning God would be counterproductive to the Founders’ intention in the sense that the purpose of the Constitution was to secure the rights of the individual.16 Mentioning God in the supreme law of the land would in effect establish a state religion. The Establishment Clause was created specifically as a means of preventing such in order to ensure the religious freedom of the individual.17 The Establishment Clause, along with the Free Exercise Clause, was inserted into the First Amendment as a means of protecting religious freedom—not inhibiting it. Therefore, although God does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, it can be concluded that religious freedom was prioritized by the Founders.
In summary, the Founding Fathers built America on truths which appeared to them to be self-evident, not on truths found in Scripture. They did not wish to create a Christian empire, but rather, “to dissolve the political bands that connected them,”18 and “to form a more perfect Union.”19 As stated in the Treaty of Tripoli, a peace treaty signed by President John Adams, “The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”20 The American Revolution began because the people wanted independence from a foreign nation. It did not begin because the people wanted religious freedom. Many godly men and women fought, taught, lived and died for the shaping of the United States, but to say that American government came about by some desire for Protestant piety would be an embellishment of fact.
Even still, Americans today look back to their history as a time of great decency. “The good ol’ days” as many call it. Evangelicals often articulate the idea that in order to prosper, America must return to its Christian roots. That president “X” and legislation “Y” cannot come to pass, because doing so would distance America from its original Christian disposition and remove God’s blessings from them. Yet several problems stand in the way of this thinking. America has arguably never been any better or worse than it is today. While we currently suffer through the horrors of school shootings and deal with the rise of homosexual marriage, Americans forget the Trail of Tears, the gangs of New York, the sweatshops of the Industrial Revolution, and the physical owning, beating, and dehumanizing of other human beings based on skin color. This of course does not excuse or minimize the issues of sin currently present in America today. However, Christians in America must come to grips with the realization that mom and grandma and great-grandma smoked and parked and kissed just as much as they do. America has never been a nation of righteousness, but it has always been a nation of opportunity. The sooner the American church realizes that America has never acted that Christian, the sooner they can begin acting more Christian themselves.
And still, a false understanding of God’s sovereignty distorts many Christians understanding of America’s identity. No conditional promise exists between God and the United States as it did with Israel. And likewise America is not the new Israel. Under the dispensation of the Church, God at this time does not work primarily through a nation, but through His Body.21 While God causes empires to rise and fall, this does not all occur in the same manner in which it occurred with Israel, since no covenant has ever been made with another nation.22 The American Church wrongly assumes that God ever found any favor in America at all. A suffering economy, while an effect of human choices, does not necessarily represent God’s call to repentance. Even more interestingly, Christians falsely assume that national prosperity constitutes as a spiritual blessing. If having more money, power, land, and nuclear weapons than the other guy represents God’s blessing, then certainly the Roman Empire and the Third Reich found favor with God. While American Christians fight to return some false sense of righteousness and blessing back to America, they forget that they themselves serve as God’s blessing to the world.23 America did not begin as a Christian nation and never acted like one, and that’s okay. America, too, shall pass. Only Christ remains, and unfortunately, He does not plan on running for office in 2016.
So then, does this nullify the purpose and power of American Evangelicalism? By no means. The purpose of the American Church has not been lost, but hopefully rediscovered. Although American government never intended to be Christian, this does not discount the millions of missionaries, theologians, pastors and evangelists who called themselves citizens both of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the United States of America. The Church must take advantage of that freedom to preach the good news of Jesus Christ: in season and out of season, during an election year and a non-election year. Because even if Christians succeed in their political endeavors and Washington becomes the new Jerusalem, it will not be the true God of the Bible. It will be a watered-down, politicized version of Him. The Church must fight for the God of Israel and the God of their hearts—not the God of their pennies.
Abraham Lincoln walked away from arguably the greatest speech in American history, lived only two more years, and died. America remembers him for freeing the slaves and preserving a Union, but now he is dead. When he stands before the throne of God and before eternity, it will not matter how many slaves he liberated, but the decision he made for or against Christ. Today, the American church faces the same dilemma. In the end, a Republican becoming President will not matter in light of eternity. Whether or not that Republican put his trust in Jesus Christ will. Certainly, believers in Christ should excel in all spheres of life– politics included. Christians should run for office and involve themselves in politics, but their aim should not be merely to the White House, but to the house of God—a house not made with hands.
“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands.”24
1. Lincoln, Abraham.“Gettysburg Address.” ourdocuments.gov. National Archives. Web.
2. Hark, Ann. “Mrs. John T. Myers Relives the Day She Met the Great Emancipator”. Recollections of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. Abraham Lincoln online.
3. Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, pp. 24–25
4. “Gettysburg Address—Nicolay Copy.”myloc.gov. Library of Congress. Web.
5. Noll, Mark. “The Ambiguous Religion of President Abraham Lincoln.” adherents.com. Web.
6. “History of ‘In God We Trust.’ treasury.gov. U.S. Department of the Treasury. Web. 2 May 2013
7. “Joint Resolution of June 14, 1954, Public Law 83-396, 68 STAT 249, to Amend the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America.” research.archives.gov. National Archives. Web.
8. English Standard Version. Matt. 28. 18-20
9. To Henry Lee-Thomas Jefferson, The Works, vol. 12 (Correspondence and Papers 1816-1826). oll.libertyfund.org.The Online Library of Liberty. Web.
10. Jefferson, Thomas. “Declaration of Independence.” archives.gov. National Archives. Web
11. Locke, John. Sec. 87 “Of Political and Civil Society: Sec. 87” constitution.org. Web.
12. “Deism.” brittanica.com. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web.
13. Jefferson, Thomas. “The Declaration of Independence.” archives.gov. National Archives. Parse. 1. Web.
14. Frazer, Gregg. “What Did America’s founders Really Believe? A Conversation with Historian Gregg Frazer.” Albertmohler.com. (2012). Pars. 6. Web.
15. Mohler, Albert. “What Did America’s Founders Really Believe? A Conversation with Historian Gregg Frazer Transcript.” albertmohler.com. (2012.): pars. 7. Web.
16. “U.S. Constitution: Preamble.” law.cornell.edu. Cornell University Law School. Web.
17. “Establishment Clause.” law.cornell.edu. Cornell University Law School. Web.
18. Jefferson, Thomas. “Declaration of Independence.” archives.gov. National Archives. Web
19. “U.S. Constitution: Preamble.” law.cornell.edu. Cornell University Law School. Web.
20. “Treaty of Peace and Friendship.” avalon.law.yale.edu.
21. Ryrie, Charles. Dispensationalism. Chicago: Moody Press. 1995. Print.
22. English Standard Version. Deut. 11.26-28
23. English Standard Version. 1 Pet. 2.9
24. English Standard Version. 2. Cor. 5.1