Another 4th of July is almost upon us, making me wish I could get into Boston early enough Thursday morning to hear the Declaration of Independence read from the balcony of the Old State House. But missing that annual event doesn’t disappoint me nearly as badly as the evangelical assumption that America began as a Christian nation.
Some of America’s Founding Fathers may have been genuine Christians, but I haven’t studied enough of their biographies and writings to determine how many of them actually demonstrated signs of true conversion. I’ve read some of David Barton‘s materials, which warrant great skepticism, so I seriously question his assertion that 52 of the 55 Declaration of Independence signers were “orthodox, evangelical Christians.” (Actually, Barton’s orthodoxy might well be questioned also…but that’s another blog post.) So let’s agree that we really don’t know how many of the Founding Fathers really knew the Lord Jesus Christ.
I’m certain fewer of them than we think did.
Our ignorance of the true spiritual condition of these men means that we probably shouldn’t insist on believing that the United States of America began as a Christian country. Our Constitution certainly drew on very broad Biblical principles, however, as evidenced by this quote by John Adams:
Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
So one could make the case that the Founding Fathers intended our country to operate under some level of Scriptural influence. But let’s not confuse the cultural assent to Christian principles with genuine faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s remember that our Founding Fathers were just as influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment as by the writings of the Puritans.
I’m a great admirer of Abigail Adams, and came to love her almost two decades before I moved to the Greater Boston Area. Back then, my admiration focused on her devotion to her husband during their long separations for the sake of American Independence. As I’ve read more about her and John Adams, however, I’ve learned how much of a role she actually played in our country’s formation.
I’ve also learned that Abigail Adams, though she was the daughter of a Puritan minister, rejected the doctrine of the Trinity in her later years and embraced Unitarianism. I’m unsure whether her husband shared her beliefs, though I know they’re both buried beneath a Unitarian church in the heart of Quincy, Massachusetts. Every time I go to Quincy Center, my heart breaks a little to see the Unitarian church which stands over her crypt.
When I hear David Barton argue that Abigail Adams was a Christian, I am appalled at his determination to shoe horn an evangelical narrative into United States history for no other purpose than to conflate Christianity with American patriotism. Certainly, our Constitution was based on Christian principles. But it was also based on principles of Enlightenment philosophers. Christians must honestly accept that reality.
Scripture teaches us to value truth. Even when truth disrupts our narrative.