Does the United States have Christian roots?
Those skilled in repelling craggy-faced peaks are scrubbing Thomas Jefferson’s face on Mt. Rushmore. Grime builds up. Pollution eats like acid into Mt. Rushmore’s presidential faces. It’s time to lighten Jefferson’s profile with scouring agents. Cleaners skilled at repelling down rugged precipices land on TJ’s prominent nose. They are sprucing up his profile, ridding granite of ugly soot pollution has deposited.Like Mt. Rushmore’s cleaners, some evangelical religious leaders desire to spruce up recollection of our nation’s roots. They tell us we are a nation conceived in Christian liberty, given birth by patriots’ faith in Christianity’s Triune God. When arguments flare up over posting the Ten Commandments in public places, ardent defenders of the faith remind us how Pilgrims established colonies with biblical names called Providence or Salem. Moreover, since revolutionary days, political leaders have called citizens to national days of prayer and thanksgiving. Our jurist prudence, we are told, is based on a “higher law” ordained by God who desires justice spread in the land.We hear the lament that our nation no longer honors its Christian roots. When the Supreme Court decrees that it’s against the law to post the Ten Commandments in some public squares, evangelical leaders assert that Justices sever our tradition from its religious roots. In one of the Vail Valley’s interfaith chapels, I portrayed Thomas Jefferson to a group of Christian men on a ski retreat. They desired a stronger personal faith that permeates our national way of life. David Barton, a Texan who heads Wallbuilders, spoke prior to Jefferson’s appearance. Barton argued that most of our Founders practiced strong Christian faith, as evidenced by their wills. Virtually all these wills signed off with an ascription to Jesus Christ.Then Jefferson appeared, contradicting Barton. Jefferson reminded retreat participants that wills in his day often included a traditional sign-off recognizing Jesus. It was merely a formulaic custom both believers in Christ and atheists used. Barton errs when teaching that the lion’s share of Founders held evangelical faith because their wills included a reference to Jesus. TV preacher James Kennedy, plus traveling teachers Barton and Peter Marshall, charm audiences with pitches to our nation’s Christian roots. They urge renewal to a “vision of our Founding Fathers, as expressed in America’s founding documents.” They challenge our nation to repent from wayward ways, declaring that we have forgotten the need “to defend and implement the biblical principles on which our country was founded.” We must get on our knees, remembering that “when the righteous people triumph, there is great glory, but when wicked people rise, people hide themselves” (Proverbs 28:12). Kennedy, Barton and Marshall and their legions contrive a history Jefferson would not recognize. They imply that divine glory is bestowed on our land when we pay homage to our Christian roots. The top-notch journal Christianity Today, started by Billy Graham and his associates, chastises Kennedy, Barton and Marshall for inventing a United States history just to satisfy what their constituencies want to hear. In a July 2005 “Where We Stand” editorial, Christianity Today upbraids these inaccurate historians who automatically link their evangelical faith with our nation’s Founders. “The not-so subtle equation of America’s founding with biblical Christianity has been shown time and again to be historically inaccurate. The founding was a unique combination of biblical teaching and Enlightenment rationalism, and most of the founding fathers, as historian Edwin Gaustad, among many others, has noted, were not orthodox Christians, but instead were primarily products of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, we should recall, has never been much of a friend of biblical Christianity.”What did Jefferson believe that separated him from evangelical Christian roots? He hid his private faith from evangelical critics who castigated him for being an atheist. In an October 31, 1819 letter to William Short that he never sent but retained in his correspondence files, Jefferson denied that evangelical Christians possessed the real faith in Jesus. They put their trust in “the fictions of pseudo-followers” like Roman Catholic priests and Reformers such as John Calvin who got just about everything wrong regarding Jesus. Jefferson listed reasons why his evangelical opponents spread a faith foreign to Jesus. How did they confuse errant creeds with Jesus’ simple faith?Jefferson denied in his letter held back from Short “the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election orders of Hierarchy &c.” This list wipes out the evangelical Christian faith as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Does this sound like Jefferson’s faith was tied to Christian roots?Historian Adrienne Koch sums up how TJ viewed Jesus: “Jefferson was aiming to humanize the deified conception of Christ. He says again and again that Jesus must be understood only as a man, whose way of life was unexcelled for integrity. Christ was first and foremost a man, but one of magnificent inspiration. His inspiration must not, however, be shrouded with mystical properties or with talk of supernatural origin and destiny.” Is thinking of Jesus as merely a good guy all that Christian?The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the tax-exempt, nonprofit Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through dramatic presentations and storytelling. Van Ens’s book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado