The Republic's Religious Foundations
by Barbara_Donnelly_Lane
 Religion
March 19, 2012 09:37 AM | 1256 views | 8 8 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
While the root of our conversation involved the morality of a capitalist society—the moral efficacy of an economic model when put into practice by a nation—a former classmate at Georgia State University took me to task about Christianity’s role in the formation of American government while we were on the MARTA. I took the position that while democracy may be fostered in lands with a different majority religion today, the development of the American republic could not have happened in the eighteenth century without a Judeo-Christian foundation in place.

My friend countered democratic ideals predate Christianity and cannot be married to religion. I asked for examples, but we arrived at his stop, he disembarked, and I was left alone on the train yelling inside my head, “And I’m not talking about the Greeks!”

Of course telepathy is not a viable option for continuing a conversation, so I sank into a seat, stared out a window, and got so lost in my own thoughts that I promptly missed my transfer station and added a half hour to my journey home.

But why do I think the way I do? Is there any basis for my firm belief that Christian tenants of faith were so important to the development of the American republic that they were actually the germinating seeds, which blossomed into our current system? Or is this thinking so influenced by my own ideology that I’m blinded to the real history?

It is inarguable that democracy was born thousands of years before any upstart Colonials wrote the Declaration of Independence and hundreds of years before a man called Jesus was even born. However, we remember that version of democracy did not really promote equality amongst peoples. Of course, our nascent republic did not practice equality amongst peoples, but the ideal of equality was there from the very beginning, and that ideal was self-evident because people are creations of God. In other words, in the midst of the Age of Enlightenment, Judeo-Christian beliefs undergirded the philosophies that were necessary intellectual elements for American self-government to eventually extend opportunity to all.

So what was the foundation for Greek democracy? The Greeks also had a religious framework upon which they hung their politics, but that framework was one with arbitrary gods who did not value individuals. As we recall, Socrates was put to death for not ascribing to the government’s endorsed views on religion. He was sacrificed for the needs of the state. There was no reason to develop any notions about human equality that would extend to all people. For this we would need a different kind of theology: a God who valued slaves and women as much as He valued each and every man.

The Roman Republic is a similar story. While having many characteristics worthy of admiration, the idea of “equal” in Rome did not include the barbarians at the gate, and the “worth” of Romans themselves was determined by military conquest rather than something that was intrinsically good. By the time Constantine changed this vast empire into a Christian one, the Republic had long fallen, and the problems of the state were so entrenched that the empire itself was destined for decline.

But that’s antiquity, so let’s fast-forward a decade beyond 1776 to the French Revolution, which also threw off the shackles of monarchy and was built solely on the secular philosophies of the day, no God to temper the passions of man. Here the Cult of Reason eschewed religion entirely for “liberty” in France, and the aristocrats who painted Paris with their blood were butchered in such a way as to horrify most Americans. Nobles, supposedly, were not “equals” in the new brotherhood, as neither God nor reason ruled. Nor, might I note, did that republic last.

So whilst one cannot deny that American ideology has sometimes been at war with itself, it is hard for me to not return to my original premise. The American republic as it stands today would not have evolved into what it is without the influence of Judeo-Christian thinking in the beginning. Of course, there are other factors, but the cultural supremacy of the individual especially can be tied to this religious foundation… the radical teachings of Christ.

It goes without saying that these are giant ideas, difficult to put into smaller sections in three stops on the MARTA or a short blog post. However, I would like to thank my classmate for challenging my thoughts on the matter.

I’m still thinking…

Comments
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EM Buckner
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April 10, 2012
It is genuinely hard to understand why anyone thinks the contributions of secularism--the real basis for American "exceptionalism" and this nation's most envied and valuable contribution to humanity--has been "mostly negative." Anyone who demands government support for the "one, 'true,' religion or philosophy--Catholicism, Judaism, Baptists, atheists, Buddhists, etc.--would oppose secularism, of course. But if you value religious freedom, for yourself and others, you should join me and the founding fathers in demanding that government not make any religious decisions for citizens.
Off Balance
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April 07, 2012
Sort of a part 2.

EM Buckner,on the other hand, accurately points out that secularism has had a major impact on our development. I agree, but I feel most of it is negative. To be fair, I will say what they said, some good some bad.

While I agree with secularism in its definition, I do not agree with it in practice. It has come to mean a path to the generation of the Eloi rather than the separation of state and church.

As to the Declaration, I am puzzled:

"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."

Is it because the Creator is mentioned? Should it bother me , so long as it lives up to its intent? It seems more an atheist treatise than a constitutional argument.

I am not an active member of any religion, I believe that a system of laws based on respect for our fellow man is a far better guide than no guide at all. In America that guide happens to be what Barbara Lane Donnelly has described above.
Off Balance
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April 07, 2012
An interesting thesis and I enjoyed reading it. I also find the comments section quite interesting.

Deanna, for example,seems to be one of those who be;lieves the First Amendment was written to protect the government from religion, while, in fact,it was quite the opposite. She also states that it is the Republicans at fault for her incorrect reading of that amendment. There are other parts I disagree with in her post, but I will just say she took it from an article about the foundation of our government into an issue about heaven, hell, Catholicism, murder, civil war and one religion forcing its belief on all peoples when that too, is quite the opposite.
Deanna P
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March 29, 2012
Our founding as a separate nation was due in part to an enforcement of one person's beliefs onto a country, ie. King Henry VIII's creation of the Anglican Church. Of course, this was nothing really new, as the Catholic Church was usurped for a while by French Kings.

What most Republicans seem to forget is the message of the Amish and others who follow the original concept of church and state, ie. they do not force their religion on anyone. But we have today the Catholic Church forcing it's idea of religion onto the people, mandating laws that conform to their specific beliefs.

Do you think someone like Newt Gingrich is more likely to get to heaven than a Amish man?

Do you realize how much murder and civil wars occur because of one religion forcing it's beliefs on others? America has been pretty much free from these types of wars, but with all the religious laws coming from the Republicans, how long do you think it will be before we end up becoming a Christian version of Iran???
anonymous
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March 22, 2012
EM Buckner

As to anonymity when posting:

I hold strong political and religious opinions. If I wish to debate them, I prefer to do so in an arena where I can leave and leave the debate behind to enjoy my daily pursuits on a pleasant basis. Not all people are able to respond on a pleasant basis and , temporarily, ignore the differences of opinion. So, I post with anonymously.

I do not know this for a fact, but I have always assumed that those who provide their names are not troubled by continuation of arguments or having the world know where they stand because they are prepared at all times to continue the debate. I am not.

I mean nothing negative by the above. I am merely discussing personality types.

R. Lee Bays
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March 20, 2012
I agree with Dr. Buckner in that my reading of early American history has the founders, particularly Jefferson, Madison, and Paine, the authors of some of our most critical foundational documents, the Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution to include of course the Bill of Rights, drawing their ideas from Hume, Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau and others. This was an age of American enlightenment and while no doubt the 17th century colonization of parts of the Continent by Puritan settlers brought from England a homogeneous religious zeal, the realized dangers of that homogenization (see Puritan punishment of non-conformists) were dealt with in the aforementioned formative 18th century founding documents. Our founders ensured that the nation would not be held captive (although it has lapsed at times) to any particular set of religious dogma by separating from the beginning, church and state.
EMBuckner
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March 20, 2012
JR in Mableton--why don't opinion posters have actual names, I always wonder--is completely mistaken. Ms. Donnelly-Lane's thoughtful post needs much *more* thinking, by many people, including her. While theists do in fact all too frequently want people to stop thinking, that is not the path to truth or understanding, in this or in much else. Of course religion, especially Christianity, did have influence in America's founding--some of it positive, some negative. But the most important influences, ultimately, in our development as a secular republic were directly counter to Christianity.

Those who take the Bible (Old or New Testaments) seriously will certainly understand that the Constitution's acceptance of human slavery and of politically powerless women mirrors biblical acceptance, even encouragement, of both anti-democratic, anti-individual ideas. On the other hand, the revolutionary ideas embodied in the Declaration are decidedly unchristian. (A search on the internet for the unchristian roots of the Fourth of July will lead readers to an essay by my son, Michael, on the subject--an essay with enough details to persuade any reasonable person.) This larger subject--American exceptionalism as being not God-given but profoundly based instead on secularism--would take a whole book to properly explain, as Barbara Donnelly Lane hinted. Such a book is due out this fall from Prometheus Books. Tentatively titled "In Freedom We Trust," the book is by Ed and Michael Buckner. More later.
JR in Mableton
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March 19, 2012
Stop thinking....you are correct! Just like at the influence of George Whitefield during that time.
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