Every once in a while a kerfuffle bubbles up about whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation. The question can take many forms. Were the Founding Fathers personally committed Christians? Did they expect the Bible or parts of it to be the bedrock of the country? Was Christianity intended to be the unofficial established religion of the land?
such questions are raised in the context of justifying calls to reinsert Christian customs or values back into the public culture. Since the country was founded on such a basis, so the argument goes, we should return to these founding principles.
I was rereading a book by twentieth-century apologist Francis Schaeffer the other day, and I think he got it just right over forty years ago.
If one were to ask whether Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson personally were Christians, the answer, as best we can judge from what they said, is no. Nonetheless, they produced something that had some sort of Christian framework because they were producing it out of a Christian consensus of Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex.* Thus from a Christian framework Jefferson and Franklin were able to write that men have certain inalienable rights, a notion derived from a specifically Christian world view.
In essence, Jefferson, Franklin and most of the other Founders used ideas built on a Christian foundation to frame a country and a political system, not to promote Christianity.
What is interesting about Schaeffer’s point is that he makes it in a book that’s not about politics at all. It is in Art and the Bible that Schaeffer explains how artists might not have personal Christian convictions but nonetheless do their work out of a Christian consensus. To illustrate how this might happen, he makes his comparison to Jefferson and Franklin.
two millennia Christianity has influenced great artists, great political thinkers, great scientists, great humanitarians, great business people, great inventors, great educators. They fought slavery, reduced poverty, cured diseases, increased literacy, made amazing discoveries. Sometimes they were Christians and worked toward Christian purposes. Sometimes not. Schaeffer knew that. Now we do too.
*A seventheenth-century book by a Scottish Presbyterian minister published with the subtitle The Law Is King that emphasized the importance of covenant and which influenced John Locke’s political theory.