Some scattered thoughts on politics and religion. I don’t usually indulge but I’m starting to find the situation irresistible.Driving University Avenue in Provo, Utah is not a zero-sum game. It brings to mind the appellation “Christian.” I occasionally hear, “that’s not very Christian!” Meaning, I suppose, that some bit of speech or some action doesn’t measure up to the Sermon on the Mount.
The political season has affected public speech in numerous ways. News cycles, which tend to repeat conflicting claims rather than analyze them with some sort of objectivity (I know, I know), pound us with nearly meaningless sound bites. In all this we frequently hear that the United States of America is (claimed to be, or was, or should be) a “Christian Nation.” It is true of course that the majority of American citizens self-identify as Christian (what they may mean by this is certainly up for grabs, but about 45% seem to claim Evangelical or Mainline Protestant connections.)
America is full of self-identified denominational Christians, but this represents a present fact, not a historical one. We hear from political pulpits around the country that America was founded on Christian principles and even that the founders were believers.One can call out names on either side of the issue here and people love to cull quotations that suggest folk like Jefferson and Washington were card-carrying Protestants.
If we cede that the “founders” had varying beliefs from closet atheism to full-blown Calvinism, what about Americans in general? Here the story seems less visibly contested and some statistics can be marshaled. Still you have to be careful about it. I happen to be very interested in American sermonizing and along with my book project on Joseph Smith, I’ve done some reading in the extant sermon collections of American preachers in the colonial, early national and antebellum periods. The record there is surprisingly large and I doubt many have mastered it completely. To the question of whether early Americans were Christian, I’d say it is more than just finding a quote from someone who happened to use the word “Christian.” Colonial preachers answered the question (who is a Christian) in one way, later preachers in another. The question and the answer evolved over time.
So, were early Americans Christian? Was America, at its founding, a Christian nation? The facts are that among American social and political elites, deism (or agnostic skepticism) were popular views. As much as anything, the preaching of contemporary ministers reveals this in the frequency of sermons condemning the situation. It was only after the Revolution that Christianity took off. Methodists in 1783 had one “conference” in the U.S. By 1843 there were 32 (population increased by a factor of 8 I believe). Baptists of 1780 had 6“associations.” By 1860 there were nearly 500. Colonial congregations were dominated by Congregationalists/Puritans in New England with Anglicans in the middle and southern colonies (of course, Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians and other Dissenters were present). But in most areas, adherents were rather few. In Maryland for example, colonists of the 18th century were not religious freedom seekers. They came for economic reasons. And they didn’t go to church. The same was true in most of the rest of the colonies, for example places like Virginia and the Carolinas. After the Revolution, as the government’s power in religious matters faded, the institutional denominations filled the vacuum – at first decrying disestablishment – they found both new authority and prosperity in it.
But if America was only nominally Christian in some sense at its beginnings, the drive to secure it as a nation founded in and guided by Christian beliefs began rather early. The rewriting of both denominational issues/meaning and the classification and characterization of Christian in the service of exclusion began more than 150 years ago. Well before that, denominations sought a new narrative for the founding, one which framed Christian foundations for constitutional text. Much of this was in reaction to evident belief systems of public figures like Jefferson and Franklin. The post Revolution rush to proselytize America was, if not staggering, of high velocity. New congregations sprouted out of (often) hard-nosed competitions among denominations. Loads of missionarying went on, preachings to half-interested laymen, new settlers and anybody who would come for a spectacle. Crash courses in (orthodox?) doctrine were the order. If membership proved even a little reliable, members could request a permanent rather than a circuit preacher. Denominational leaders read the maps of new settlements at least as fast as the land speculators. They were out there! Tract and Bible societies worked to make trees into converts at astonishing rates. Tens of Billions of pages were being produced yearly in America by the time the Book of Mormon appeared.
The approaching end of the antebellum period saw a number of formal tries at rereading the American past as a Christian history of America. Presbyterian minister Stephen Colwell’s 1853 The Position of Christianity in the United States pushed back against the burgeoning religious marketplace, styling Catholics (and contextually Mormons, Jews, Muslims and others) as anti-American because they infected the true historical orthodoxy of America. The First Amendment was now seen as not anti-establishment but as a prop for Orthodoxy. Colwell and others advocated that the First Amendment meant that Catholics (and again by argument, other “non-Christians”) could and should be proscribed by the government, while the FA proscribed the government from any interference with true Christianity. This was a popular denominational theme that read from Protestantism’s worst batches of name-calling literature and so the narrative of the founding of America became a singularly Christian one, indeed, an orthodox Christian one. The great success of sectarian expansion but the puzzling institutional failures in active adherency, required a secondary effort. And so, the new narrative added a moral imperative subtext to preaching: it was your duty to attend if you were a loyal American. And so it is, people, so it is.
The present GOP run is therefore interesting on three counts: two Catholics and a Mormon. All three hoping for evangelical status.
A Christian Nation? What does this mean to you?
 Via Pew Religious Landscape Survey.
 The double standard here is mentioned briefly below. I’m afraid I’m on the side of the rationalists on this point. You can’t argue with people over this. Facts don’t count.
 A good place to look at this explosive growth in denominational congregants is in architectural statistics. Sacral space (church building) magnified exponentially in the antebellum period. Few pulpits were open to every creed however. Franklin’s position of welcoming Muslim teachers in a non-demoninational church in Philadelphia was a minority one. (See chap. 10 of his autobiography.)
 It’s a little remarkable that about the same time many voices began to demand re-establishment. Probably this resulted from, despite the huge efforts, a somewhat disappointing retention success. Where have we heard that before?
 See Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith (HUP, 1990), 280ff. Gilles Kepel, The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern West, trans. Alan Braley (PSUP, 1994)
 I want to say that there is linkage with American narratives of the war of 1812, but I won’t. (For example, Howe, What Hath God Wrought.) The Presbyterians were, more than any other denomination, intent on saving the Mormons in Utah. They played a tiny but interesting role in JS sermon imprints. Colwell was concerned about immigration as much as anything. Diluting the purity of Christianity with Catholic, Mormon and Jewish community and theology, etc.
 <grin> A few days ago the Rev. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, made sure we knew that he was just a little fuzzy on Santorum and Gingrich, but he definitely has to question Obama’s and Romney’s Christian status. And besides, you know something that’s getting really old: the “Church of Latter-day Saints.” Great honking HELL. It’s not like these people know something about the Ohio period.