02 July, 2007

PRESBYTERIAN THOUGHTS on Independence Day and our "Christian" Nation

What were Christians of the time of the writing of the Constitution of the United States thinking?

Today intellectual circles spill ink over whether Washington was a deist or a Christian (deist). They want to know if the founding fathers were believers (despite holding a secret society to write the Constitution, members of the Masonic Lodge, and deny biblical authority for civil government). Despite these aspects of the intellectual debate over the "Christian-ness" of the States, we need to ask, what were Reformed Christians thinking at the time of our national law's writing?

Here is a quote from WM Glasgow that sum up the position of the Presbyterians of the day:

While civil society is founded in nature, it is one of the “all things” that are put under Christ as Mediator, and the nation flourishes or decays as it is obedient or disobedient to His law. Now as our highest allegiance is due not to the state, but to Christ, it is the duty of every Christian to stand aloof from such a government and refuse to incorporate with the political society which refuses or neglects to acknowledge the authority of Christ and His word in its fundamental law. The document reads: “We, the people of the United States * * * do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” This declaration is historically, philosophically and scripturally untrue. The Constitution in all its essential elements was in existence before the document thus called was penned; constitutions are not ordained of men, but grow; and the Scripture affirms that the powers that are legitimate powers at all, are ordained of God. These glaring defects, with the denial of any religious qualification, the absence of the name of God from the oath, and the license of immorality and crime upon which it sets its official seal, give the document, called the Constitution, such a character of infidelity and irreligion that no true Christian ought to give it his full sanction.

For some further thoughts on this issue, check out this site.


steveandjanna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Notliberal said...

You've really gotten sucked into the RPCNA's nonsense on this subject haven't you? Independence Day celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence which as you will recall states outright that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights and so on. Considering that at the time we were an outright Christian nation (several of the states had state denominations) it was obvious that the Creator was indeed the Lord God of scripture.

If you're going to take the position that unless the United States outright declares Christ King, then I'll expect that you'll join the other extremists in the RPCNA in refusing to vote next year.

Mark said...

Y'know, it's always struck me as odd the way we take an all-or-nothing approach to the founding fathers. One camp says they were all deists, and puts a pox on their works. The other upholds them as pure examples of the faith, and overreacts to anybody who suggests the Constitution is anything less than inspired.

It seems to me that there were a lot of good Christians who did their very best, although some were influenced by non-Christian thought from men like Thomas Paine. We have the benefit of hindsight, which they obviously didn't, so we should be somewhat forgiving with them.

Meanwhile, Christian founding or no, it's not a stretch to say we're no longer a Christian nation. We should thank God for preserving our freedoms and for being so incredibly patient with us, and tremble that we've squandered the freedom given us. 40+ million aborted makes the Aztecs look warm and cuddly in comparison.

Nathan said...

This is actually NOT the position of the RPCNA- it used to be the position.
As for the old school position, it was that the US WAS a Christian nation, but they sinned in not acknowledging the 'crown rights of King Jesus'. Later the RPs came to the conclusion that the US was NOT a Christian nation.

Many RPs fought in the war for independence but then were upset when a deistic set of laws was adopted. As far as I know, the RPs were in favor of independence, but then opposed the Constitution as an 'unlawful' document.

As for the men who framed this country- I am sure that there were Christians- even a good number- but they rejected biblical government in favor of reflecting the government that ancient philosophy and the humanists of the day promoted. Example: "The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"?? Where is any of that in the Scriptures? It is not, it is humanistic to the core!!

As for voting- I am not going to vote for the lesser of 2 evils, but I would vote for a professing Christian who was sound in life and in theology.

steveandjanna said...

What a load of nonsense Nate. Our nation was founded on Christian principles by Christians. The 'former' RPCNA position is alive and well within the denomination. The fact of the matter is that the Constitution doesn't need to declare Christ as King because it was presupposed by the founders, it was presupposed by the several states. How were they to know that 225 years later a bunch of loony left-wingers would try to destroy the meaning of our nation by declaring we aren't a Christian nation. If we go back to the 1780's, it was obvious that our nation was a Christian nation and no one needed to outright declare it. If we look at the speeches given in Congress and by Presidents for the first 100+ years God is spoken of over and over again. There was never a need to declare something when it was obvious to everyone.

This notion that freedom is some sort of humanist value is poppycock. The principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence are Christian values, plain and simple. Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are Christian values and furthermore if one understands the politics of the day one will understand the original phrase was 'life, liberty and property.' The only reason why this wasn't use is because it was overtly British. But to suggest that these principles are somehow not Christian is absurd.

The RPCNA was wrong from the start on this issue, the 'former' position which many still prescribe and apparently you do as well is wrong. America was founded as a Christian nation, it may be a post-Christian nation today but that doesn't change the absolute fact that this nation was founded by Christians with Christian principles.

Nathan said...

I disagree. Deists speak of God. It is a generic term. Rush Limbaugh speaks of God all the time- that does not make his talk show a Christian one.

Could I have some biblical evidence that life, liberty, and happiness are Christian values? The fall brought sin, bondage, and suffering. It is called total depravity. We are not 'entitled' to anything from God other than hell. The bible makes that pretty clear.

I do understand that there are a few different positions on this in Reformed circles- and you are entitled to your position- it is not the Westminster Standards position though. Magistrates are required to establish the church and defend her- and that would take acknowledging Christ and establishing the true religion.

Many of the Anti-federalists were holding this position.

Nathan said...

One other thing- I agree that many of the states had Christian constitutions before the US one was developed. This does not mean that they were valid after the big federal one was written though.

Geneva Switzerland WAS Christian once, that does not mean that it is today or that all of Switzerland was/is!

Andrew Duggan said...

In light of your remarks about the constitution, I think you might find the dedication to Political Polytheism by Gary North.

This book is dedicated to the
members, living and dead of the
Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America ("Covenanters")
who for 190 years have smelled a rat in Philadelphia

While I have some serious disagreements with Dr. North in the areas of theology I think there is something to be learned from his analysis of theological basis of American History.

All of that notwithstanding, every nation on earth needs to take Psalm 2 very seriously. Christ is King of King and Lord of Lords. All the kings, presidents, etc. of all the governments of the nations of the earth serve at His pleasure and as His ministers without regard to their acknowledging that fact. He replaces them when they no longer serve the purpose of God. The fact that we don't speak Latin I think is demonstrative of that.

Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him. Psalm 2:10-12.

steveandjanna said...

I don't know Nate, let's start with the 10 commandments which provide a right to life in terms of thou shall not murder. Does that mean it is an absolute right that God cannot take away? Of course not, the Declaration of Independence doesn't suggest that. Liberty is found throughout scripture. A right to happiness is not found in scripture, nor is such a thing found in the Declaration of Independence. The PURSUIT of happiness is found and are you to suggest that we do not pursue happiness in Christ?

An understanding of American history requires the understanding that the Constitution did not apply the first amendment to the states until after the War Between the States. Most of the states were outright Christian, many had a state ordained denomination.

You can't apply Rush Limbaugh tossing around the term God to what the founders did 200+ years ago. Language has changed, standards and presumptions have changed. When the founders speak of God, they aren't coming at us from a deist position, despite what the extremist RPCNA has said. They're coming from a position of faith in scripture, they are speaking of Christ.

The church does not need or require the state to legitimize it. Such notions aren't based in scripture, they are the result of the political climate of the Reformation. The state must be obedient to scripture but the church in no way needs or requires the state to create or legitimize it.

The anti-Federalists were not all about the Federal government declaring Christ King, they were all about not having a strong central state. The issue was political not religious.

Anonymous said...

Addressing all here:
The PURSUIT of happiness is found and are you to suggest that we do not pursue happiness in Christ?

-We're not to take isolated phrases here and there, and then slap a meaning on to it that is not according to its original sense.

Exegete and demonstrate, without Esq. sophistry what was meant by "Pursuit of Happiness". This is to Nate and Steveandjanna

Anonymous said...

I thought the language was more in the order of "state recognized church"...

Mark said...

Y'know, we can squibble all we want about whether America was founded as a Christian nation or not, but it's not as though proving it was is going to cause a bunch of atheists to slap themselves on the forehead and shuffle over to Christ. I really think I Timothy 1:4 applies here - "Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do."

Now, don't get me wrong, history is objective and as such, the pursuit of truth is worthy. But arguing about it while calling each other extremists or taking condescending tones isn't doing anything to build each other in the faith. Really, if we're going to argue, we should be arguing about how best to bring America back to God in the present and future (recognizing our efforts our futile without the Spirit, of course), not whether or not it was Christian in the past.

shawn said...

A few thoughts...

1) I admit that it is difficult to determine the religious convictions associated with particular historic figures involved in the Independence of this nation, not to mention how those convictions influenced the broader assembly.

However, looking more objectively at the Declaration itself, we ought to commend the document where it promotes Biblical Principles, and identify the principles which contradict the revealed will of our Creator, Savior and King.

2) I agree that Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are purchased for the Elect by Christ, but to call them "inalienable rights" of all men is questionable in light of Scripture's testimony of Mankind being slaves to sin, and without rights, only meriting death apart from Christ's intervention; to further assert that men are "endowed by their Creator" with these rights obscures, if not denies the antithesis between the World and the Elect.

3) Yet we ought to commend the Colonies in their opposition to the tyranny (or obstinate abuse of authority) of England. When we read the RPCNA Testimony on the Civil Magistrate, we find that there is such a thing as Biblical political dissent. I know that part of the debate centers on whether or not their dissent was rooted in Biblical intentions, to which I reply...

4) Hear, Hear Mark! I appreciated both of your comments.

I lean towards thinking that it is irrelevant to debate whether this Nation was rooted in Christian principles or not. It may be helpful to distinguish the difference between a Nation established by Christians versus an established Christian Nation. The Constitution explicitly denies the nation's duty to recognize Christ's Kingdom, the Church, let alone King Jesus and His reign over the Nation, or neglecting to (as the Psalmist says), "Kiss the Son".

But does it make an effective difference today? Do we want to argue from the illogical basis that whoever staked their flag in the land first, or whoever represented the majority of the assembly gets to decide the outcome of the abortion debate, or whether prayer can be allowed in schools?

5) Christians need to encourage the Civil Leaders in rewarding good and punishing evil from the Scriptural definitions of good and evil. Jesus is King, His law rules the Earth, He gets to decide everything, and the civil leaders have a duty to recognize these things.

6) At the same time, I like what the Westminster Confession and the RP Testimony have to say about the magistrate not towing the Biblical duty, and our dutiful response to them, which definately applies to our circumstances:

WCF 23.4
"...Infidelity, or difference in religion, does not make void the magistrates' just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them:"

RP Testimony on WCF Ch. 23
"23. The failure of a civil government, through negligence, ignorance, or rebellion, to recognize the authority of Jesus Christ does not cancel its just authority. A civil government, though guilty of many sins, still has authority in so far as it furthers some of the scriptural ends of civil government.
Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:1; Rom. 2:14; Acts 23:5; Ex. 22:28.

24. Due submission of all persons, cheerfully rendered, to civil officers and to civil government in general, is pleasing to God. No person, however, is required by God to obey civil authority when such authority demands that the citizen or subject do that which is clearly contrary to the law of God as revealed in the Scriptures. In such cases the duty of the Christian is to obey God rather than men. The Christian has a special obligation to render due submission to civil authority in order to express his loyalty to Jesus Christ, to prove his concern for the welfare of all men, and to bring honor to the name of Christ.
1 Pet. 2:13-14; Rom. 13:5; Acts 5:29; Titus 3:1."

For a broader application that the Confession and Testimony calls us to, check out my blog at:

Nathan said...

For the record, I do not think that Steve has an extremist position. Both Steve's and my position have been acceptable positions within the Presbyterian churches.

Rev. Lanning and I have an article that is coming out as the introduction to the History of the RPCNA from 1888. The articles stresses that the 3 major groups of Presbyterians that were here in the 1800s were quite similar EXCEPT in regards to political dissent.

As for life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness- all of those things are IN CHRIST alone and are not for all men. That is unbiblical.

I can still say, happy independence day though- it is just what follows that was a slippery slope down hill.

Again, Mark, your comments are always edifying.

Mark said...

Shawn, ya done hit the nail on the head on all points. Very well thought out and charitable. Well done, sir.

Nate, when is that article coming out, and will it be available publicly? Sounds like an interesting read.

MarkPele said...

There seems to be a lot of controversy over the Constitution. First of all, let me say that the Constitution did not nullify the state Constitutions' establishment clauses. In fact, one of my arguments is that the states COULD NOT have constitutionally have ratified a federal constitution that voided their own constitution, without a proper amendment process. Thus the understanding in those states which had establishment clauses was that the U.S. Constitution would not have denied them that right. The First Amendment, which further clarified this restricted only Congress, and did not restrict states from establishing religion. It is widely believed that the 14th amendment is, in fact, the part of the Constitution which denies establishment nationwide.

While we believe that true life, true liberty, and true happiness can only be found in Christ, we also believe that there are temporal blessings (through Common Grace) that apply to both believer and non-believer. For example, if we believe that the right to life exists only for believers, then is it not logically consistent that we should be like the Muslims who demand, repent or die? If we believe that the right to liberty exists only believers, should we not incarcerate all non-believers? It is a fallacious argument to argue from the specific (our blessings in Christ) to the general (the created order).

MarkPele said...

While I believe that all authority comes from Christ, I believe that the authority of the state is invested in the governed, not the leaders. It is the elders of Israel who chose King David (in this we see a picture of ordination where the person God calls is also chosen by the people).

Again thinking of logical conclusions, if the right to government is invested in the government itself and not the governed, then there is no right to rebellion under tyranny. The only right would be to refuse to obey a sinful command. While it's historical narrative and not direct doctrine, we see that the split between the northern and southern kingdoms was brought about due to tyranny. The elders (representatives of the people) came to Rehoboam requesting that he reduce the oppressive burden laid by his father. Rehoboam then imposes more tyranny and causes a split (I believe a just split) in the nation of Israel. Jeroboam is then elected and furthers the rift by leading his people away from the true religion.

voxstefani said...

I wish to thank Nathan, Shawn and Mark for their comments, with which I am in rather substantial agreement, and which have given me much to ponder.

I still remember a conversation I had with Shawn over lunch at Arnie's concerning this and other related topics. I was deeply intrigued by the similarities with the Byzantine views on the "Civil Magistrate," and made a mental note to further pursue the matter, which I have not followed through, however. Maybe now that I have some time I can pursue it!