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Myth-Making America's Christian History

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With a title like The Myth of a Christian Nation, one would think that the author would have spent more time on the nuances of how the phrase “Christian Nation” is used by scholars in the field. If you’re going to critique a concept, it’s necessary to deal with those who make the claim and define the phrase, which I do in America’s Christian History. [1]

America's Christian History: The Untold Story

From the founding of the colonies to the declaration of the Supreme Court, America's heritage is built up on the principles of the Christian religion.  And yet the secularists are dismantling this foundation brick by brick, attempting to deny the very core of our national life. You weigh the evidence. 

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Gregory A. Boyd does not do this. He defines “Christian Nation” to mean “‘Christ-like,’ and there never was a time when America as a nation has acted Christlike” (107). With such a narrow definition, then Israel could not be described as God’s chosen people because they didn’t always act like it.

Kirk Fordice, the former and late governor of Mississippi, said on a CNN interview, “The media always refer to the Jewish state of Israel. They talk about the Muslim country of Saudi Arabia, of Iran, or Iraq. We all talk about the Hindu nation of India. America is not a nothing country. It’s a Christian Country.” [2] To be accurate, Boyd should have titled his book The Myth of a Christ-Like Nation, but even with this title he would not be telling the whole story.

Like so many who attempt to deal with this subject, Boyd is very selective in whom he quotes to support his claim. Instead of arguing the case himself, he appeals to Richard T. Hughes’ Myths America Lives By. Boyd should have made the argument himself using historical sources.

Then there is his obligatory appeal to the 1797 Treaty with Tripoli which states that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” (199, n. 13). Boyd does not explain the context of the phrase or why the 1805 treaty does not include it. The Treaty explains in the next sentence in what way the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion. The phrase is qualified by the following phrase: “as it has in itself no character of enmity against the law, religion or tranquility of the Musselmen.”

Even anti-theist Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011) admitted in his article “Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates” (2007) that the statement is often misused by critics of America’s Christian founding principles: “Of course, those secularists like myself who like to cite this Treaty must concede that its conciliatory language was part of America’s attempt to come to terms with Barbary demands.” [3]

Why doesn’t Boyd mention other treaties that are explicitly Christian?

Let’s look at just two contrary opinions. There are many more. The first is the French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville and his comments found in Democracy in America:

Each sect [in the United States] adores the Deity in its own peculiar manner, but all sects preach the same moral law in the name of God…. Moreover, all the sects of the United States are comprised within the great unity of Christianity, and Christian morality is everywhere the same. It may fairly be believed that a certain number of Americans pursue a peculiar form of worship from habit more than from conviction. In the United States the sovereign authority is religious, and consequently hypocrisy must be common; but there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America. [4]

David J. Brewer, who served on the Supreme Court from 1889 through 1910, made the following observations in his 1905 book The United States: A Christian Nation:

“This republic is classified among the Christian nations of the world” (11).

“[W]e constantly speak of this republic as a Christian nation—in fact, as the leading Christian nation in the world. This popular use of the term certainly has significance. It is not a mere creation of the imagination. It is not a term of derision but has a substantial basis—one which justifies its use” (12).

Brewer then spends twenty-six pages convincingly supporting his claim with historical evidence.

“In no charter or constitution is there anything to even suggest that any other than the Christian is the religion of this country. In none of them is Mohammed or Confucius or Buddha in any manner noticed. In none of them is Judaism recognized other than by way of toleration of its special creed. While the separation of church and state is often affirmed, there is nowhere a repudiation of Christianity as one of the institutions as well as benedictions of society. In short, there is no charter or constitution that is either infidel, agnostic, or anti-Christian. Wherever there is a declaration in favor of any religion it is of the Christian” (31–32).

“You will have noticed that I have presented no doubtful facts. Nothing has been stated which is debatable. The quotations from charters are in the archives of the several States; the laws are on the statute books; judicial opinions are taken from the official reports; statistics from the census publications. In short, no evidence has been presented which is open to question” (39).

“I could show how largely our laws and customs are based upon the laws of Moses and the teachings of Christ; how constantly the Bible is appealed to as the guide of life and the authority in questions of morals” (39).

“This is a Christian nation....” (40). [5]

The United States a Christian Nation

The United States A Christian Nation is U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Josiah Brewer’s lecture series on the unmistakably Christian origins and values of the United States.Drawing from a wealth of original sources, such as the colonial charters, state constitutions, and legal statutes of early American history, Justice Brewer makes the undeniable case for the Christian character of this nation, and encourages his listeners to preserve and contribute to America’s Christianity in the face of adversity.

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Boyd makes some good points in his book, but his definitions are anachronistic and his analysis of the nature of God’s kingdom is naïve and narrow. Not all Christians can be as easily categorized as Boyd describes them.

I wrote a brief introductory review of Gregory A. Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation a few years ago. I pointed out that Boyd was dependent on Richard T. Hughes’ Myths America Lives By for many of his historical arguments. At the time, I did not have a copy of Hughes’ book, but I suspected that his “Myth of a Christian Nation” chapter did not include much real history to make his case. As usual, Hughes appeals to the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli in an attempt to make his case. Like Boyd, Hughes does not do his own research but depends on William G. McLoughlin’s Soul Liberty: The Baptists’ Struggle in New England. [6] So we have Boyd quoting Hughes quoting McLoughlin. What none of these authors does is quote the whole range of historic documentation on the founding of America.

Quoting one line of a treaty without considering its textual and historical context is like trying to use the Bible to support socialism and communism by appealing to Jesus’ discussion with the rich young ruler and Luke’s account of Christians in the church in Jerusalem who voluntarily sold some of their land to benefit those in need (Acts 4:32–37; 5:4). [7] Those who do this neglect to consider passages where we are told that God blessed Job with great wealth (Job 42:10–12), and He gives us power to make wealth (Deut. 8:18).This says nothing about the warning given to Israel about wanting a savior-king, something that would be required to create a socialist “paradise” (1 Sam. 8).

All of God’s Word must be studied, not just bits and pieces yanked out of a larger context. In the same way, if you are going to write on the founding of America, then you must look at all the documentation. Why is it that the Treaty of Tripoli is singled out, but nothing is said about official documents that are specifically Christian like the official congressional declarations calling for special days of fasting, prayer, and humiliation “through the mediation of Jesus Christ” to “obtain his pardon and forgiveness”? While the Declaration of Independence “affirmed a minimalist religious sentiment,” according to Hughes, these documents—one drafted on March 16, 1776 and the other on November 1, 1777—affirm a maximalist Christian sentiment.

Hughes mentions the Trinity as a particular Christian truth that “never define[s] the nation’s legal tradition” (66). If this is the case, then why does the 1783 treaty with Great Britain open with “In the name of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity”? Like the 1787 Treaty with Tripoli, this treaty was also signed by John Adams. Benjamin Franklin also signed it! In 1822, the United States, along with Great Britain and Ireland, ratified a treaty that begins with “In the name of the Most Holy and Indivisible Trinity.” The 1848 Treaty with Mexico begins with “In the name of Almighty God.” The treaty also states that both countries are “under the protection of Almighty God, the author of peace.”

Even with his minimalist approach, Hughes must admit “that in spite of the stipulations of the First Amendment, America nonetheless emerged in several respects as a Christian nation” (67). Like so many other Mythstorians, Hughes seems to be clueless on the meaning of the First Amendment. The prohibition was addressed to Congress because the state Constitutions were explicitly Christian.

Gregory Boyd has leaned on a weak reed in the work of Richard Hughes. One should be careful to rely on a book that includes almost no historical documentation and is endorsed by Peter J. Gomes, an admitted homosexual who wrote in the August 17, 1992, Op-Ed section of the New York Times, “Homophobic? Re-Read Your Bible.

  1. Gary DeMar, America’s Christian History, rev. ed. (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2005), chap. 1.[]
  2. “Mississippi Governor Criticized for ‘Christian Nation’ Remark,” Dallas/Fort Worth Heritage (January 1993), 14. Quoted in John W. Whitehead, Religious Apartheid: The Separation of Religion from American Public Life (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1994), 149.[]
  3. See Gary DeMar, America’s 200-Year War with Terror: The Strange Case of the Treaty of Tripoli.”[]
  4. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), 1:303.[]
  5. David J. Brewer, The United States: A Christian Nation (Philadelphia, PA: The John C. Winston Company, 1905). Reprinted by American Vision, 1996.[]
  6. Hanover, NH: Brown University Press, 1991).[]
  7. For a discussion of these passages, see John R. Richardson, Christian Economics: The Christian Message to the Market Place (Houston, TX: St. Thomas Press, 1966), 60–69. []
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