Thomas S. Kidd on Five Ways We Misunderstand American Religious History

Image: Library of Congress

Thomas S. Kidd is the Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University. This essay is drawn from his new book America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation (Zondervan).


Is America a “Christian nation”? When we worry about the direction our nation is heading, or celebrate when we see as a positive religious turn in American culture or politics, we are making assumptions about our own religious background as a country. Most of these assumptions are based on civics classes we took in primary and secondary school. While our assumptions claim a historical basis, there are a number of misunderstandings, some subtle and some overt, that Americans often have about their religious history. Here are five of the most common:

1. Religion had little to do with the American Revolution.

The American national Congress during the Revolutionary War was ostensibly secular, but it sometimes issued proclamations for prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving that employed detailed theological language. Whereas the Declaration of Independence had used generic theistic language about the creator and “nature’s God,” a 1777 thanksgiving proclamation recommended that Americans confess their sins and pray that God “through the merits of Jesus Christ” would forgive them. They further enjoined Americans to pray for the “enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth ‘in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost’ [Romans 14:17].”

Some have argued that the Declaration of Independence illustrates the “secular character of the Revolution.” The Declaration was specific about the action of God in creation, however. A theistic basis for the equality of humankind was broadly shared by Americans in 1776. Thomas Jefferson did not let his skepticism about Christian doctrine preclude the use of a theistic argument to persuade Americans. Jefferson was hardly an atheist, in any case. Like virtually all Americans, he assumed that God, in some way and at some time in the past, had created the world and humankind.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights, which had been adopted just weeks before the Declaration of Independence, had spoken blandly of how “all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights.” Drawing on the naturalistic theory of government crafted by John Locke, this first section of the Virginia Declaration made no explicit reference to God. Yet when Jefferson and his drafting committee wrote the Declaration of Independence, they made the action of God in creation much clearer. “All men are created equal,” and “they are endowed by their Creator,” Jefferson wrote. The Declaration was not explicitly Christian, but its theism was intentional. This is not to say that the founding documents are uniformly theistic. The Constitution hardly referred to God at all, save for a paltry reference to the “Year of our Lord” 1787.

2. Religious conflict and violence is worse today than it has ever been before.

Religious vitality in America has always existed alongside religious violence. To cite just one example, in 1782, during the latter years of the Revolutionary War, an American militia in the Ohio territory attacked Moravian mission stations in Native American communities along the Muskingum River. The Moravian Delaware Indians were pacifists, having embraced the German-background Moravian missionaries and their teachings about Jesus, the Prince of Peace. The interethnic mission station attracted unwanted attention from many of its neighbors. The Delaware converts sought to allay the suspicions of hostile forces surrounding them—including non-Christian Indians, American Patriots, and British authorities—by employing Christian charity. They shared what food they had with their neighbors, even in times of scarcity.

American militiamen, however, were certain that the Moravian station at Gnadenhütten (“tents of grace”) was a staging ground for Indian attacks on frontier settlers. Driven by genocidal rage against all Indians, Christians or otherwise, the white volunteers imprisoned and methodically murdered almost a hundred Moravian Delaware men, women, and children around Gnadenhütten, even as the doomed converts were reportedly “praying, singing, and kissing.”

The stage was set for the Gnadenhütten massacre by a convergence of white Americans’ hatred for Indians, the violence of the American Revolution, and the earnest missionary labors of the Moravians. Not all religious violence in American history has been as grotesque as that at Gnadenhütten. Sometimes the violence has taken rhetorical, legal, or other forms (what we generically would call religious “conflict”). Unfortunately, religious fervor and religious viciousness are not only part of a distant colonial American past.

Indeed, episodes of religiously tinged mass murder have become common in the years since the September 11, 2001 jihadist attacks in New York and Washington, DC. Mass shootings have become almost a routine feature of American life, often targeting places of worship. These include shootings at congregations such as the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin (2012), the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas (2017), and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh (2018). The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 was unusual only in the sense that the congregation had endured a similar paroxysm of violence almost two centuries earlier, when an alleged slave rebellion led by Denmark Vesey led to the execution of dozens of African American Charlestonians and the burning of the church building.

Religion has been a source of hope for many Americans and a focus of hate for others. The vitality of faith has endured, even in the face of murderous animosity, especially toward religious and ethnic minorities.

3. The concept of religious liberty primarily grew out of Enlightenment theory.

Only the colonies of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island offered religious freedom in any way resembling its modern meaning. The great religious diversity of many colonies caused conflict and elicited calls for religious liberty. These calls included Maryland’s 1649 Act Concerning Religion, which promised the “free exercise” of religion for all Christians. Nevertheless, well into the Revolutionary era many of the established churches still treated dissenters with contempt, if not outright violence.

The Great Awakening of the 1740s generated a new wave of activism for religious liberty. Especially in New England, where the Congregationalist Church was established, evangelical Separates (those who started illicit separate meetings) and Baptists called on authorities to allow them to worship God in freedom. In Connecticut in 1748, a group of Separates petitioned the colonial legislature for religious liberty, calling freedom of conscience an “unalienable right” upon which the government should not intrude. Connecticut refused to act upon the Separates’ plea.

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Source: Christianity Today