BI 3223 Worldviews, Lipscomb University
American Worldviews (part 1)
In Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, he argued that the Christians in that church were confusing the “wisdom” of the world with the true wisdom of God. As they demonstrated by their divisions, arrogance, and selfish behavior, they were still following the values and priorities of the society around them rather than being transformed by the standards of Christ. This temptation remains a serious challenge for believers today.
In this unit we will see how too often we can confuse American values and distinctive Christian faith. Was America truly founded as a Christian nation on biblical values? Was this country chosen by God for a special role in the world, making us unique? Does Christian freedom mean the same as American freedom? Is wealth the true measure of success, the absolute good? Do political goals always coincide with Christian values? All of these are worldviews questions.
The American creed
- Unlike most other countries of the world, being American does not depend on a shared cultural heritage rooted in common ancestry, religion, language, territory. “Born out of revolution, the US is a country organized around an ideology … As G. K. Chesterton put it, ‘America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.’ … Being an American is an ideological [i.e. worldview] commitment” (Lipset 31). Even with all our differences, Americans share certain values that make up the American worldview.
- “The American Creed” was popularized by Gunnar Myrdal in 1944. The creed includes the values of “the essential dignity of the individual human being, the fundamental equality of all men, and certain inalienable rights to freedom, justice, and a fair opportunity” (Huntington, Who 67).
- America has “hundreds of sects and factions, each different from the others, yet all celebrating the same mission. … Even most American dissidents throughout history have sincerely phrased their protests not as a rejection of the American Creed but rather as a demand that Americans or the American government return to a purer form of the Creed.” Martin Luther King: “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its Creed” (Lieven 50-1).
America: a Christian nation?
- While some of the values of the American Creed can be found in scripture (the dignity of the individual made in the image of God, the demand for justice especially for the poor), others derive from Renaissance humanism and Enlightenment principles, not the Bible.
- For instance, in Galatians 3 Paul says that we are all equal in Christ, but the Bible doesn’t teach the Enlightenment idea of political equality. The Bible doesn’t mention the right of free speech in society, the right of people to vote and govern themselves, the right to own a gun, or the idea of free enterprise. Scripture neither endorses nor prohibits these American values. So those who claim to have a “God-given right” to these things are not speaking from a biblical perspective.
- Polls show that a majority of Americans believe that the Constitution established America as a Christian nation (Tennessean 9-12-07). In the 2017 Baylor Religion Survey, 26% said that America has always been a Christian nation; 32% said that it was at one time in the past but no longer is. Of those who hold to the Authoritarian idea of God (described in Unit 1), 53% said they agreed or strongly agreed that the federal government should officially declare America to be a Christian nation.
- A 2023 study confirmed these beliefs in Christian Nationalism. Nearly one-third of Americans either completely or mostly agreed with the following statements: The U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation; U.S. laws should be based on Christian values; if the U.S. moves away from our Christian foundations, we will not have a country anymore; being Christian is an important part of being truly American; God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society. The majority of those who hold these beliefs are white evangelical Protestants and Republicans (source).
- However, this was not the view of the founding fathers. Many of them considered themselves Christians, but they did not allow their religious beliefs to dictate American law. One can find several quotes about God or Christ from these founders, but their statements of personal beliefs did not make it into the Constitution which is the law of the land.
- The Constitution clearly states that the federal government cannot promote any particular religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In this way our system of laws can protect the freedom of religion of all people, not just Christians, as well as protecting the freedom of those who are not religious. In other words, the Constitution remains neutral on the subject, not biased toward any particular religion or based on its teachings.
- The Constitution is not a religious document. It never mentions God, Christ, or the Bible. Shortly after the Constitution was written, President John Adams stated in an official capacity that the US was in no way founded as a Christian nation (“Treaty with Tripoli” 1796).
- The Declaration of Independence does refer to “Nature’s God,” but this is not a reference to the God of Jesus Christ or the Bible. (Christians always seem to jump on the word God as if we own it. Many people then and now refer to God without agreeing on what “God” means.)
- Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Ben Franklin were Enlightenment deists, believing in a creator but one who left the universe alone after creation. In their view there were no miracles, no inspired revelation, no incarnation, no resurrection. Jefferson cut out all passages in his New Testament which referred to anything supernatural. Jefferson’s belief in a creator in no way supports the idea that America is a Christian nation. In any case Jefferson’s personal religious beliefs were not made into law; thankfully we don’t have a “deistic” nation, either.
- The Constitution prohibits religious tests for those running for public office (although voters often use them to elect or denounce candidates).
- The phrase “One nation under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 as a response to “godless” communism. But it’s not part of the Constitution or our legal system. A person does not have to pledge allegiance to God (any god) in order to be an American. This is why some people refuse to say the pledge, and I would have to agree with them. No one in America should be forced to acknowledge God; each person is free to believe or not believe.
- The following are some of the false arguments one often hears claiming that America is a Christian nation:
- Some claim our system of laws is based on the Ten Commandments, but only three (concerning murder, theft, and false witness/ perjury) are found in American law. Our laws say nothing about worshipping one God, taking his name in vain, respecting the Sabbath, obeying parents, or prohibiting adultery. Certainly no American law condemns covetousness, an attitude which our entire consumer economy runs on.
- Some point to the fact that many of the original immigrants in the 1600s came to America for religious freedom, which is true. However, when they arrived, some established colonies where only their particular brand of Christianity was acceptable. This was especially true in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Those who practiced their faith in other ways, such as Baptists, Catholics, and Quakers, were banished from the colony and threatened with death if they returned. We should be grateful that our Constitution was not written by these people who had a very limited view of religious freedom, believing that it applied only to them.
- Some will argue that since Christianity has historically been the faith of a majority of Americans, this makes our country a Christian nation by default. However, the laws of the land were designed specifically to protect minorities from the “tyranny” of the majority (see discussion on this idea below). America cannot be defined exclusively by the values of the majority. A Hindu or Muslim or atheist citizen of this country is no less an American because he does not share the beliefs of the majority. Contrary to the statement of Christian Nationalism given above, a person does not have to be Christian to be “truly American.”
- This principle goes back to the beginning. When the first colonists left Europe, many were escaping persecution from the majority religion of their particular countries. The Constitution’s prohibition on the federal government establishing any one religion over others was set in place for this reason, to protect the rights of all citizens, not just the majority. If a majority of voters passed a law saying that everyone should worship on Sunday at a Christian church, the Supreme Court would – and should – declare such a law unconstitutional, in other words, un-American. One of the fundamental principles of the American Creed is the protection of individual freedom of belief. Such principles, not the religious faith of the majority, define what it means to be American.
- Sometimes we hear people say, “If only we returned to Christian values, America would once again be a Christian nation.” However, even if every person who claims to be a Christian actually lived up to that high standard, America would still be a secular country. We might be a much better country if Christians in fact practiced more righteousness and humility and kindness toward their fellow citizens, but it would not change the basic nature of our nation as established by the founding fathers.
- Contrary to the assumptions of many Christians today, America has a distinctively secular legal system with constitutional guarantees against religious bias. Christianity has flourished in America because of the freedom of religion protected by the Constitution, not because America is uniquely Christian. Christians should be thankful for this freedom without the presumption that our faith in some sense defines what it means to be an American.
God on our side?
- Our country has a long history of claiming to fulfill God’s will on earth. The early Puritans had a strong sense of divine mission for themselves. John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay, described the role of the Puritan colony as a “city on a hill” where they would be a shining example to the world: “the eyes of all people are upon us.” But he warned that “if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and byword through the world” (“A Model of Christian Charity,” 1630).
- In their sermons and writings, the Puritans compared themselves to the Israelites, a chosen people, brought to a promised land. Native Americans were seen as Canaanites, heathens to be conquered or wiped out.
- Another common theme in colonial times was America as the kingdom of the new millennium which God had promised. Minister Cotton Mather described New England as “the spot of Earth which the God of Heaven spied out … as the center of the future kingdom.” Jonathan Edwards claimed to see in America “the dawning of that glorious work of God” (Judis 19).
- In contrast, in the 19th century Pres. Lincoln in his second inaugural address warned that it is presumptuous of any group or nation to claim God’s special favor, ignoring that God’s judgment stands against all human pretensions: “Both [sides of this civil conflict] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other” (Hughes, Myths Americans Live By, 2003). God does not take sides among the nations but judges all nations by his standards of righteousness.
- Throughout our history, Americans have had a presumptuous habit of sanctioning our foreign policy by claiming we are doing God’s will, despite the atrocities that have been committed in his name. We are not unique in this regard as examples can be found in nearly all major nations, but we should not point fingers at others without acknowledging our own faults.
- Before the Spanish American war (1898), prominent minister Henry van Dyke in a sermon said: “Not for gain, not for territory, but for freedom and human brotherhood!” Despite such pious claims, after the war the U.S. took over Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam from Spain, claiming them as our territories, and denying these lands true freedom. “This was actually two wars, one in which the US came to the aid of patriots fighting against Spanish colonialism, and then a second in which we repressed those [Filipino] patriots to assure that their newly liberated nations would be American protectorates rather than truly independent.” Over 200,000 Filipinos died fighting the U.S. for their own independence. Pres. McKinley claimed that God had told him to bring “Christianity” to the Philippines. Military historian Walter Millis: “Seldom can history have recorded a plainer case of military aggression; yet seldom has a war been started in so profound a conviction of its righteousness” (Kinzer 2, 39).
- As evidence that our leaders need to study American history, Pres. Bush2 in a 2003 speech in Manila said, “America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people. Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule. Together we rescued the islands from invasion and occupation” (Judis 1). In fact, the US didn’t relinquish power over the Philippines until 1946, and finally removed its military bases in 1992.
- Bush2 (speech August 28, 2000): “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world of justice” (Smith 17). In interviews Bush claimed that he thought God had brought him to the presidency for the purpose of war with Saddam Hussein, sanctioning political decisions with religious rhetoric. If the President says “It’s God’s will,” who are we to question it?
- Eugene Peterson in The Message: “Religion is the most dangerous energy source known to humankind. The moment a person (or government or religion or organization) is convinced that God is either ordering or sanctioning a cause or project, anything goes.” (Wallis 137-141)
- Nationalism is the belief that one’s country is superior to all others because God has chosen us above all others. “Nationalism becomes idolatry when it replaces the scriptural values of love and peace with secular values of power, arrogance, contempt and hate. … Nationalism makes a religion out of the nation, with the flag commanding loyalty that belongs to God.” (link)
Freedom in America
- For most Americans, freedom means “I am free to do whatever I want,” rather than the biblical view that we should seek to do what God wants, “seek first his kingdom and righteousness.” Christian freedom as taught in the Bible means we are free from the bondage of sin and selfishness, free to serve others rather than ourselves, a very different idea from American freedom.
- American concepts of freedom (free speech, free press, free elections) are not found in scripture, nor is the idea of a free market economy. Unfortunately, politicians and Christians often mistake one kind of freedom for the other. In his 2004 Inaugural address, during the time when we were at war with Iraq, George Bush2 said that God has given Americans the task of bringing freedom to the world. But what kind of freedom? We certainly did not bring Christian freedom to Iraq.
- Some early colonists understood the dangers of freedom. John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, associated the word liberty with license for sin. Freedom opens the door to disobedience and a life of self-centeredness. “Freedom alone is a mixed blessing. Uninformed by morality, freedom is, at best, a neutral value and not a virtue” (Church 8).
- Some cultures do not want the freedom which America wishes to give them, sometimes by force. “Politicians, asked to define what we are fighting for in the ‘war against terrorism,’ will always say freedom. But, taken by itself, freedom means the emancipation from constraints, including those which might be needed if a civilization is to endure. If all that Western civilization offers is freedom, then it is a civilization bent on its own destruction. Moreover, freedom flaunted in the face of religious prohibitions is an act of aggression, inviting retribution from those whose piety it offends” (Scruton xiii). We must recognize that freedom can be dangerous as well, to others and to ourselves, when it is abused.
The Paradox of Religious Liberty
- The idea of religious freedom, that is, the freedom to worship as one sees fit or not worship at all, is not directly taught in scripture but implied. If God has given us free will and leaves us free not to believe in Him, then it follows that no individual, church, or government has the right to coerce belief in others. This argument was the approach taken by Enlightenment scholar and Christian John Locke and followed by Thomas Jefferson (Smith 75).
- Some believe the principle of separation of church and state is suggested by Christian teaching: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matt 22:21). In the 5th century Augustine developed the idea in City of God, followed by pope Gelasius who said God granted two swords for earthly government, the church for the care of men’s souls and the state for temporal affairs (Scruton 4).
- Historically, the principle of religious freedom arose from wars of religious intolerance. Bloody and prolonged conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Europe in the 16th-17th centuries eventually provoked revulsion in Enlightenment thinkers who began to advocate freedom of conscience in matters of faith. Even so, toleration applied only to the various forms of Christianity, not to Jews, Muslims or other religions. The development of true religious freedom to all has come slowly in modern society.
- It’s ironic that those who escaped Europe for religious freedom were not so tolerant of others when they got to America. Puritans fought with each other, and against Quakers, Baptists, and Catholics. There was no place for Jews, Muslims, atheists, or Native Americans.
- Roger Williams was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay colony for his outspoken beliefs on religious freedom and separation of church and state, a revolutionary idea at the time. He founded the colony of Rhode Island, the first civil government in the world to achieve complete religious liberty, and formed the first Baptist church in America (1638), supporting adult baptism and the right of individual conscience in religious matters (Church 14).
- President Taft (1909) said, “Our ancestors … if you are going to be exact, came to this country to establish freedom for their religion and not the freedom of anybody else’s” (Church 2).
- In the 18th century, the founding fathers recognized this error and thus wrote the Constitution as they did, prohibiting the establishment of any religion, guaranteeing freedom of religion for all.
- An interesting statistic: in a 2017 survey of religion, 35% said they feared Islam because they thought Muslims wanted to limit freedom in America. The same survey found that 36.2% felt that conservative Christians wanted to limit freedom.
Democracy and Republic
- “In 1900 not a single country [even the US] had what we consider today a democracy: a government created by elections in which every adult citizen could vote. Today 119 do, comprising 62% of all countries in the world” (Zakaria 13).
- The ancient Greeks gave us the term democracy, meaning “rule of the people,” but in ancient Athens only free male citizens could vote (no women or slaves). In Athens all male citizens could be called to serve on the 501-member assembly and vote directly on issues.
- Democracy can have a dangerous side. Without a system to allow for tolerance of dissent and respect for minority rights, left unchecked, democracy can become the tyranny of the majority. The Athenian majority put to death their wisest citizen, Socrates, whose crime was promoting free thinking. For this reason, the philosopher Plato in his Republic (4th century BC) argued for the rule of guardians over the people, experts committed to the general good and superior to others in knowledge of the means to achieve it.
- The problem lies with human nature: good governing takes more than knowledge, but also incorruptibility, a firm resistance to the enormous temptations of power. The Russian revolutionary Lenin described his vision of a proletariat democracy; he spoke for the common workers, but didn’t trust them to rule, placing decision-making in the hands of the Communist Party. The elite may be called upon for their expert advice but they should not be given final control over major decisions, or else they will serve themselves rather than the public good (Dahl 71).
- If ancient Greece gave us the concept of democracy, the Romans gave us the concept of a republic with the rule of law, the rights of citizens (not all people yet), and a constitution with separation of powers, checks and balances.
- According to James Madison (1787) America is not a democracy governed directly by the people with majority rule, but a republic where representatives are elected to stand for the will of the people (before Madison the two words were considered synonymous). Madison feared direct rule by the masses, and wanted representatives with “enlightened views and virtuous sentiments” capable of overruling common prejudices and factions. (Note that the names of our two political parties have nothing to do with this distinction.)
- George Washington saw rule by the common people as a threat to good government: “We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation. Experience has taught us that men will not adopt and carry into execution measures best calculated for their own good, without the intervention of a coercive power” (Fresia, Toward an American Revolution 23).
- Democracy protects the rights of the majority, while a constitution protects the rights of the individual against tyranny by the majority.
- In America, laws are seen not primarily as restrictions on freedom but the very foundation for freedom. Harvard law school reminds its graduates that laws are “the wise restraints that make men free.” In America the Beautiful we sing, “Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law” (Zakaria 26).
- Measuring the success of any democracy, including the US, we should consider the extent to which a country nourishes those qualities of character that enable its citizens to be self-governing, such as education for all, strong local government, balance of powers, and freedom of expression.
Equality for all?
- “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal” (a reasonable presupposition needing no proof). Thomas Jefferson originally wrote “We hold these truths to be sacred,” but Ben Franklin recommended changing it, wanting to base this principle not on divine authority but human reason.
- Even when these words were written, they did not include everyone, only white, free men of property. Jefferson owned 175 slaves when he wrote these words, and had over 200 at his death; he did not free them in his will but sold them to pay his debts. His actions were in contrast to his words as he condemned slavery as a “hideous blot” on the U.S. and a violation of the principles of the Revolution. But he accepted the prejudicial view of his time that blacks were inferior, and feared that if they were all freed at once, they would be like children, unable to govern themselves (Smith 85).
- Conservatives tend to believe with little doubt that America is the land of opportunity for everyone. In their view each person has the same opportunity to succeed; all it takes is some ability and hard work. Liberals stress the problems within the system that from the beginning place some people behind in the race at the starting line. Liberals seek equal opportunity as an ideal goal, not as a present reality in America.
- For instance, conservatives emphasize the values of self-reliance, hard work, and personal responsibility, but where do people learn these values? Most of us learned them from our parents; we were born with this privilege, often without acknowledging it, which puts us ahead in the race from the start. What about the children of an unwed teenage mother who dropped out of school and lives on welfare? More than likely these children do not have the same positive example to follow, learning the importance of education and self-reliance. Due to no fault of their own, these children are not starting the race equally with those who were born into prosperous, educated families. Liberals argue that the disadvantaged need extra help in order to equalize the playing field, so that they too may have the chance to succeed.
- “Conservatives emphasize equality of rights, and they are quite willing to endure inequalities [in society] that are the product of differential capacity or merit,” recognizing that not everyone has the talent or will to succeed in a competitive society. “Liberals emphasize the equality of outcomes, and they tend to attribute inequality to the unequal opportunities that have been provided by society” (D’Sousa 8).
- “The single biggest gift that America has shared with the impoverished billions on our planet is hope. America has taught the people of the world that one’s fate is not determined at birth. Anyone can succeed in a meritocratic society. … [But] Americans have always had a stronger belief in the ability of the individual than reality would support. … There’s enough truth to that idea for it to survive but never as much social mobility as the myth suggests. Often, however, myth is more important than reality” (Mahbubani 1, 4).
- Counter-view: “Disadvantaged groups have long been told by the more candid among the fortunate that life is unfair. Nothing is more hypocritical than people who have acquired their status largely by virtue of their ancestry and good fortune, … who now earn incomes and exercise power out of all proportion to their modest talents, moralizing about fairness and merit” (Patterson 9).
- A former student in this class made this comment: “The theory of capitalism reminds me of social Darwinism. Frankly I do not agree that we should live in a society with a ‘survival of the fittest’ mindset. I believe in the idea of working hard in order to succeed. However, something that capitalism fails to take into consideration is that not everyone has the same starting point. With this in mind, all the hard work in the world that a person does will not beat someone born in a more privileged position.” (We will discuss these ideas more in part 2)
Threats to democracy
- An uninformed populace: An effective democracy depends on an informed voting public to make wise decisions. However, Americans in general take little interest in finding out about the key issues of the day. Polls show that more people know the contestants on American Idol than their state representatives in Congress. Even those that do keep up with issues tend to focus on one or two that are highly emotional, such as abortion or gay marriage, and care little about the rest (Wolfe 47). Too many people today get their “information” from unsubstantiated rumors circulating through social media. People believe what they want to, whatever confirms their already-held conclusions, with little concern for facts or evidence. They believe every rumor about the opposing side but discount any criticism of their own party.
- Lack of accountability: Americans express dissatisfaction with their representatives in Congress but do a poor job of holding them accountable for their actions. Most incumbents are re-elected time after time. In 2018 it was 91%. “Americans dislike congressmen in general while liking their own in particular” (Wolfe 55). Many argue for term limits but fail to enforce them in the voting booth.
- Too much corporate influence: Democracy implies that people have an equal say in decisions that affect their lives. When it comes to elections, equality means that one person has one vote. No one has more or less a vote than anyone else. However, in America wealthy corporations have enormous influence over the political process outside the voting booth, much more than the individual voter. This is not a new problem: President Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) said that America is “a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations” (Hertz 104). “It is precisely because religion takes the problem of evil so seriously that it must always be suspicious of too much concentrated power – politically and economically – either in totalitarian regimes or huge multinational corporations that now have more wealth and power than many governments.” (Wallis 5)
- Failure of disinterested regulators: In sports one needs disinterested referees to insure that both sides follow the rules. American society is losing the disinterested organizations that keep watch over the political system. The court system has become increasingly politicized, with appointees merely representing their own party.
- The scientific community should be able to offer disinterested research to aid public decision-making on matters such as health care. However, recent administration decisions have been criticized by sixty top scientists, Nobel winners, and science advisers to previous Republican presidents, for trying to suppress scientific findings about the environment, food safety, stem cell research, public health policies, and to make appointments to scientific review boards based on political commitments rather than professional credentials (Wolfe 132).