That was the dream of the founders. Ben Franklin stopped going to hear the Presbyterian pastor, Jedediah Andrews, because the printer believed Andrews’ turned his hearers not into good citizens but good Presbyterians:
Tho’ I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. He used to visit me sometimes as a friend, and admonish me to attend his administrations, and I was now and then prevailed on to do so, once for five Sundays successively. Had he been in my opinion a good preacher, perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday’s leisure in my course of study; but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforced, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.
Serious Presbyterians (and other Protestants) may not have agreed with Franklin’s civil religion (though at the Revolution Presbyterians turned out in force for generic and patriotic devotion), but in today’s debates about the nation and its identity Franklin dominates. Consider a couple examples of how the word “Christian” obscures differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants who would have had very decidedly different estimates of each other and the nation in 1790.
James Conley, the Bishop of Lincoln, NE, thinks we need to return to the vision of the founders:
If the American experiment is to survive, it needs Christianity—and the influence of all religious believers. And if our legal system is to survive, it needs your influence. Our obligation is to work to restore a sense of the common good and a sense of the transcendent in American public discourse. If law continues to be an agent of self-interest, we will see more instances of religious persecution and family disintegration. On the other hand, if law helps us to identify, proclaim, and seek a common good, then we will have turned the tide and served the vision of the Founding Fathers.
But why would a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church ever be satisfied with the Christianity of a bunch of patriotic Presbyterians and skeptically Protestant statesmen? That seems a long way from what Rome taught then and now about the nature of Christianity.
Mark David Hall in similar fashion glosses differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants to talk about the influence of Christianity (could he mean Eastern Orthodoxy?) on the founding:
I believe that this is the most reasonable way to approach the question “Did America have a Christian Founding?” In doing so, it is important to note that nominal Christians might be influenced by Christian ideas, just as it is possible for an orthodox Christian to be influenced by non-Christian ideas. I believe that an excellent case can be made that Christianity had a profound influence on the Founders.
Before proceeding, I should emphasize that I am not arguing that Christianity was the only significant influence on America’s Founders or that it influenced each Founder in the exact same manner. Clearly there were a variety of different, but often overlapping, intellectual influences in the era. The Founders were also informed by the Anglo–American political–legal tradition and their own political experience, and like all humans, they were motivated to varying degrees by self, class, or state interests. My contention is merely that orthodox Christianity had a very significant influence on America’s Founders and that this influence is often overlooked by students of the American Founding.
But which Christianity? Doesn’t a historian have to do justice to the antagonism that has evaporated but that used to make Protestants and Roman Catholics suspicious (if only) of each other, and which led the papacy to condemn accommodations of Roman Catholicism to the American setting?
And so what always happens to biblical faith in the pairing of religion and public life continues to happen: Christianity loses its edge and becomes a generic, pious, inspirational goo. Even the Seventh-Day Adventists are worried about losing religious identity while gaining public clout.
One of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s most famous sons, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, is seeking evangelical support for a likely 2016 presidential bid. But the global leader of his church worries that the thriving denomination is becoming too mainstream.
In 2014, for the 10th year in a row, more than 1 million people became Adventists, hitting a record 18.1 million members. Adventism is now the fifth-largest Christian communion worldwide, after Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and the Assemblies of God.
Meanwhile, Team Religion doesn’t seem to notice that religion divides believers from unbelievers (as well as serious believers from other serious and not-so-serious believers). You gotta serve somebodEE.