The Great Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

© John of AllFaith*

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Video 1
Parts 1-7

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 somewhat 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), made the following statement in 1789 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. 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).

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 the People" believe. What kind of society do we collectively wish to leave to our children and theirs? In determining how we will develop as a nation, we should be informed by our past insights and experiences in harmony with our present realities and needs. Knowledge of religious history is vital here. 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 relevancy and practices. Religion is seldom a clean-cut process.

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 are 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. Furthermore, he could easily entertain theological doubts without wishing to hand over his country to cultural radicals, 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 established on its inherited belief systems, but those systems were redesigned for the realities of the New World as European religion became American religion. Today, what the founders 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 societies. We are no longer contending with Anglican and Puritan pressures; with the partial rebirth of Israel, the rise of global Jihadi Islam, and the severe decline of Christianity, we are facing wholly different, and yet in some ways similar, decisions.

"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. As a nation, we acknowledged our indebtedness to and dependence upon the God of the Bible. We viewed this nation as "religious," meaning a good and moral country that believed in Divine Providence from a traditional Judeo-Christian perspective. Today, many view any religious connection as cultic and inappropriate.

Divine Providence depended on our collective embrace of the Christian or Jewish faith. For Jews, Divine Providence was not as clearly defined but had Torah observance as its basis. The religious guiding convictions of the day, even among the Deists, were profoundly and firmly rooted in the Torah from within the Judeo-Christian paradigm. In the U.S., the two religions mainly peacefully coexisted (although Jews often were banned from certain activities), and upon their essential values, "New Zion" (i.e., the United States) was established and prospered.

When considering religious development in the United States, we do well to begin with the Judeo-Christian ethics of most of our founders. Before doing this, however, we will briefly consider the origins of those beliefs that deeply impacted the establishment of our embattled republic.

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John of AllFaith

* By John of AllFaith, © 1989, John F Kennedy University, updated October 22, 2023

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