Christianity in America and Christian Political Thought
Christianity has had a lasting effect on the United States’s founding and development. Several JMC fellows have written on Christianity’s impact on western political philosophy, American political development, and the contemporary political landscape. The Jack Miller Center presents the following collection of resources on Christian political thought and Christianity’s role in American political and historical development.
Below is a collection of resources recognizing Christianity’s influence in American political thought and historical development. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:
From Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, 1835
Book 1, Chapter V: Of The Manner In Which Religion In The United States Avails Itself Of Democratic Tendencies
“I showed in my former volumes how the American clergy stand aloof from secular affairs. This is the most obvious, but it is not the only, example of their self-restraint. In America religion is a distinct sphere, in which the priest is sovereign, but out of which he takes care never to go. Within its limits he is the master of the mind; beyond them, he leaves men to themselves, and surrenders them to the independence and instability which belong to their nature and their age. I have seen no country in which Christianity is clothed with fewer forms, figures, and observances than in the United States; or where it presents more distinct, more simple, or more general notions to the mind. Although the Christians of America are divided into a multitude of sects, they all look upon their religion in the same light. This applies to Roman Catholicism as well as to the other forms of belief. There are no Romish priests who show less taste for the minute individual observances for extraordinary or peculiar means of salvation, or who cling more to the spirit, and less to the letter of the law, than the Roman Catholic priests of the United States. Nowhere is that doctrine of the Church, which prohibits the worship reserved to God alone from being offered to the saints, more clearly inculcated or more generally followed. Yet the Roman Catholics of America are very submissive and very sincere.
Another remark is applicable to the clergy of every communion. The American ministers of the gospel do not attempt to draw or to fix all the thoughts of man upon the life to come; they are willing to surrender a portion of his heart to the cares of the present; seeming to consider the goods of this world as important, although as secondary, objects. If they take no part themselves in productive labor, they are at least interested in its progression, and ready to applaud its results; and whilst they never cease to point to the other world as the great object of the hopes and fears of the believer, they do not forbid him honestly to court prosperity in this.Far from attempting to show that these things are distinct and contrary to one another, they study rather to find out on what point they are most nearly and closely connected.
All the American clergy know and respect the intellectual supremacy exercised by the majority; they never sustain any but necessary conflicts with it. They take no share in the altercations of parties, but they readily adopt the general opinions of their country and their age; and they allow themselves to be borne away without opposition in the current of feeling and opinion by which everything around them is carried along. They endeavor to amend their contemporaries, but they do not quit fellowship with them. Public opinion is therefore never hostile to them; it rather supports and protects them; and their belief owes its authority at the same time to the strength which is its own, and to that which they borrow from the opinions of the majority.
Thus it is that, by respecting all democratic tendencies not absolutely contrary to herself, and by making use of several of them for her own purposes, religion sustains an advantageous struggle with that spirit of individual independence which is her most dangerous antagonist.
Selected online resources on Christianity in America:
The Influence of Christianity on America’s Founders
In September 2019, JMC faculty partner Mark David Hall and Andrew Seidel debated whether America’s founders were influenced by their religious beliefs. The debate, held at the University of Louisville, was filmed for C-SPAN and is available for viewing:
Presidential Inaugurations: The Oath of Office and the Bible
When a U.S. president is sworn into office, he traditionally places his hand on the Bible. The tradition, begun with our first president George Washington, has continued to the present day with many presidents choosing a significant Bible or Bible verse for the moment. Time Magazine has gathered an extensive list of presidential inaugural Bible verses drawing from both the Old and New Testaments.
In 2010, PBS aired an American Experience episode on “God in America.” As a bonus feature to the film, the PBS website has an article “God in the White House,” that examines each of the president’s religious convictions from George Washington through Barack Obama.
“Religion and the Founding of the American Republic” at the Library of Congress
The Library of Congress exhibit, “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” explores the religious background and convictions of colonial Americans and revolutionaries. The online resource touches on scripture-based law in the New England colonies, early evangelicalism as seen in the Great Awakening, and the religious implications of the American Revolution.
Interactive Timelines from the Association of Religion Data Archives
The Association of Religion Data Archives provides a treasure trove of information on religion in America, both historically and in the present. As part of its database, the website offers interactive timelines on a variety of religious topics and denominations spanning from the 1500s to the modern day.