The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Fiddling with History

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The Texas textbook wars and the role religion has played in the founding of America reminded me of a line of argument put forth by Rob Boston. Boston served as the Assistant Director of Communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State since 1987 and is now Senior Policy Analyst. He writes that David Josiah Brewer’s The United States: A Christian Nation “is very interesting, and needless to say, never quoted by the Religious Right since it is completely at odds with their view.” [1] How does he know this? What study has he done in an attempt to make his case? Like the critics of the new history standards developed and voted on in Texas, Boston doesn’t seem to have a handle on the whole story of Brewer and his book. Brewer (1837–1910) was the Supreme Court Justice who declared in The Church of the Holy Trinity vs. United States (1892) ruling that America is a “Christian nation.”

Boston’s conclusions have no basis in fact. I do a lot of reading on a subject before I go into print. I was not aware that Brewer’s book even existed until I saw it referenced in Stephen L. Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief, and that only in a note. [2] Robert T. Handy also referred to Brewer’s book in Undermined Establishment: Church-State Relations in America, 1880–1920, also only in a note. [3] Once I knew of Brewer’s book, I located a copy, read it, quoted extensively from it in America’s Christian History, and found that it supported what advocates of America’s Christian history have been saying for years. In fact, American Vision was so impressed with the book that we re-typeset it and brought back into print.

Boston leaves the impression that secular advocates of church-state separation are aware of Brewer’s book and interact with it regularly. Such is not the case. For example, in the “Suggestions for Further Reading Section” in his own book Why the Religious Right is Wrong, Boston lists Leo Pfeffer’s Church, State and Freedom (1967) as a “classic volume” that “thoroughly examines the history behind the religion clause of the Constitution and looks at contemporary church-state issues.” [4] This “classic volume” nowhere refers to Brewer’s book, neither in the five-page “Selected Bibliography” (650–654) nor in its discussion of Brewer’s Church of the Holy Trinity vs. United States ruling.

Anson Phelps Stokes and Leo Pfeffer co-authored Church and State in the United States, a revised and updated one-volume edition of the original three-volume work. [5] Like Church, State and Freedom, the nine-page bibliography of this book does not mention Brewer. In its discussion of Church of the Holy Trinity vs. United States and the Christian nation thesis, Stokes and Pfeffer neglect to cite Brewer’s book The United States a Christian Nation.

More recent books like Frank Lambert’s The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (2003), Jon Meacham’s American Gospel (2006), Forrest Church’s So Help Me God (2007), Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith (2008), and Gary Kowalski’s Revolutionary Spirits (2008) make no mention of Brewer or The United States: A Christian Nation. How can Boston accuse “Religious Right” authors of never quoting Brewer’s book when authors and books he recommends do not mention it, list it in their bibliographies, or interact with it?

Boston claims that Brewer’s book “is completely at odds” with the views of the Christian Right, that is, with those who maintain that America was founded on fundamental Christian principles. Boston writes, quoting Brewer:

“But in what sense can [the United States] be called a Christian nation?” asked Brewer. “Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or the people are compelled in any manner to support it. On the contrary, the Constitution specifically provides that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ Neither is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either in fact on in name Christians. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within its borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all.” [6]

As far as I know, advocates of the Christian America thesis do not believe that the State should compel people to become Christians or have tax monies collected to support churches. Moreover, the Christian America thesis is not dependent upon the idea “that all its citizens are either in fact or in name Christians.” Brewer is simply supporting the constitutional doctrine that Congress—America’s only national legislative body—is prohibited from establishing a single Christian denomination as the nation’s tax-supported religion. If Brewer does not mean this, then why does he, for example, commend Maryland’s 1776 constitution which states that “the legislature may, in their discretion, lay a general and equal tax, for the support of the Christian religion”?7 Furthermore, why does Brewer recount that “in several colonies and states a profession of the Christian faith was made an indispensable condition to holding office.”8 He even mentions North Carolina’s constitution that remained in force until 1868, eighty years after the drafting of the United States Constitution and the First Amendment. North Carolina’s Constitution reads in part: “That no person who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Christian religion, or the divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.”9 States were permitted to require a religious test for office holders, a stipulation that Brewer does not refute or take issue with.

Brewer states that the people are not compelled “in any manner to support” the Christian religion, and yet he asserts that the setting aside of Sunday “from the other days as a day of rest is enforced by the legislation of nearly all if not all the States of the Union.”10 Notice that the legislation is enforced. Enforcement is the prerogative of civil government and its courts. Brewer summarizes the historical record this way: “By these and other evidences I claim to have shown that the calling of this republic a Christian nation is not a mere pretence but a recognition of an historical, legal and social truth.”11

Boston first uses Brewer against “Religious Right” supporters by claiming that his position is “completely at odds with their view.”12 Then he turns around and maintains that the Holy Trinity case is “a legal anomaly,” an “obscure ruling that has no bearing on the type of church-state relationship the Framers intended for this nation.” He goes on to claim that it “cannot seriously be considered today as [an] appropriate guideline for American society.”13 So which is it? Does Brewer support or oppose the agenda of Americans United and other secular advocates? Let the reader decide by carefully reading David Brewer’s The United States: A Christian Nation. Here’s a preview:

“[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)

It will be back in print very soon. Keep an eye out for it.

  1. Robert Boston, Why the Religious Right is Wrong About Separation of Church and State (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993), 84.[]
  2. Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, [1993] 1994), 292, note 8.[]
  3. Robert T. Handy, Undermined Establishment: Church-State Relations in America, 1880–1920 (Lawrenceville, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 13, note 11.[]
  4. Anson Phelps Stokes and Leo Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, revised one-volume edition (New York: Harper and Row, [1950] 1964).[]
  5. Anson Phelps Stokes and Leo Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, revised one-volume edition (New York: Harper and Row, [1950] 1964).[]
  6. Boston, Why the Religious Right is Wrong, 245. Brewer’s quotation is found on page 12 of the original edition of The United States: A Christian Nation (Philadelphia, PA: The John C. Winston Co., 1905).[]

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