Sunday, December 23, 2007

American Religious History (part two of six)

Families and sometimes entire church congregations headed out to try and start over. The hope was that good, pure Protestants could set an example of what a real godly community looked like. They would be the “City on a Hill,” and even if they couldn’t send the message over to Europe, at least they’d have saved themselves.

This is the beginning of many views of America as God’s chosen country. Early on involvement in the church was considered a stepping stone for political involvement, and not even because the church and government were the same body. It was simply assumed that all good citizens were also good Christians, a view which persists today and still shows in the tendency of even the most secular presidents to attend church services regularly.

However, despite their best intentions at the start to remain aloof of Europe’s depraved and increasingly corrupt lifestyle, things like the Enlightenment still had an impact. In England people were becoming interested in natural laws like gravity and even laws of human social behavior. Deism started to become a more popular worldview, that argued even the presence of God did not explain everything because there were many things God must have left to occur on their own.

This was a very disturbing trend for many Christians. The First Great Awakening was potentially the only event in our early history that hit all thirteen colonies at once thanks to the rise of traveling ‘fire and brimstone’ preachers carrying the message of religious revival. This period of religious revolt against the secularism and corruption of England was when most of the United States’ founding fathers grew up. This was America to them.

When economic and political stresses started to drive a wedge between England and the colonies, non-Anglican pastors were very supportive because it was a real chance to shake off the corruption of England. As a result of all these vocally activist clergy, George III at one point called the American Revolution a “Presbyterian revolt.”

The founding fathers themselves were often of dubious personal faith, but seemed to agree that religion was an important part of American culture as they saw it and hoped to see it in its future. Even the most disinterested and apathetically-Christian founding fathers attended church services and expressed support of a role for Christianity in the lives of American citizens.

For all of Jefferson’s legendary criticisms of organized Christianity, it wasn’t until Aaron Burr that the USA really saw a political leader who was really and totally on board with the French Enlightenment and the secular ideas it bred. Most everyone else believed there was a place for religion (assuming that religion refers to varieties of Christianity) in America.

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