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The Great Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part One


By Shlomo Phillips © 1989
(most recent update February 23, 2015)

America the Religious

Despite what many revisionist historians are now teaching, the United States was established firmly on religious principles and on the premise that each person should be free to practice religion as led by Divine Providence without government interference. While the theological views of the founders varied and included some Deists, John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States (appointed by George Washington, a staunch Christian and Sunday school teacher, in 1789) made the following statement about American religious life:

"It certainly is very desirable that a pacific [i.e. non-violent] disposition should prevail among all nations. The most effectual way of producing it is by extending the prevalence and influence of the gospel [i.e. faith in God as understood by Christendom]. Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others, and therefore will not provoke war.
Almost all nations have peace or war at the will and pleasure of rulers whom they do not elect, and who are not always wise or virtuous. Providence has given to our people [i.e. the Americans as a whole] the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers" (source and full letter).
At the same time, we must understand that we live in a radically different world today. Regardless of what our founders believed, the question confronting us today is what WE believe. What kind of society do we collectively wish to leave to our children and to theirs? In this determination, knowledge of religious history is vital, but we must not be governed by it. For religion to be meaningful it must have current relevance. If religion is to remain a significant element of human society each generation must struggle with it and determine its personal and communal practices. This is seldom a clean cut process, but then, it never was.

Consider this balanced wisdom by Paul Gottfried:

One of the stupidest historical debates I've ever tried to follow concerns the personal religious conviction of our founding father George Washington. Presently there seem to be two opposing schools of propagandists. They can be divided more or less into Beckites and Obamaites, and both seem obsessed with Washington's theological leanings....
Current attempts to understand the social-religious view of eighteenth-century Virginia gentlemen by relating them to modern-day fixations are an infantile project. The most we can hope to do by making comparative studies is to understand how different the past was from the present. Washington was no more a precursor of our egalitarian, post-Christian times than he was Donald Duck. And he could easily entertain theological doubts without wishing to hand over his country to cultural radicals, and especially not in a government that he would no longer have recognized as his. Equally important, his understanding of religion was anchored in non-modern social concepts, like deference and authority. Washington may have been the commander who finished the work begun with the Tea Party in 1773, but his solution in the end was as stately as the man himself and the holiday [i.e. U.S. Thanksgiving] he proclaimed (Source).
This is vital to understand. American religion was built on its inherited belief systems, but those systems was redesigned for the realities of the New World. Today what they viewed as the New World is no more new to us than their Old World was to them. We must determine who we are as a people and what role if any religion will play in our present day. With the rise of global Jihadi Islam and the decline of Christianity and its values systems this determination is as vital as ever. One Nation Under God

Although amended in 1954 (in response to the perceived threat of "godless Communism") to specifically include faith in "God" (undefined but contextually Judeo-Christian), the motto "one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" expressed the convictions of the nation as a whole. To that nation as a social entity, being "religious" meant being a good and moral person who believed in Divine Providence from a traditional Judeo-Christian perspective.

For Christians Divine Providence was dependant on the acceptence of the Christian faith. For Jews it was not as clearly defined, but had Torah observance at its basis. The religious guiding convictions of the day, even among the Deists, were deeply and firmly rooted in Torah, from within the Judeo-Christian paradigm. In the U.S. the two religions mainly peacefully co-existed and upon their essential values "New Zion" (i.e. the United States) was established and prospered.

When considering the development of religion in the United States we therefore do well to begin with the Judeo-Christian ethics of the majority of the founders. Before doing this however we will briefly consider the origins of those beliefs.

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