Early Americans: Religious by Choice

“The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.” Alexis de Tocqueville

In an earlier column, I wrote about the tendency of textbook authors to deny or denigrate the role of religion in their depictions of the founding of the United States. Historians like Professor Eric Foner teach their students that the Founding Fathers were able to embrace progressive ideas like freedom and equality because they viewed Christianity and the Bible as “outdated superstitions that should be abandoned in the modern age.”1

The truth is very different.

College history professors, like other left wing extremists, are loath to acknowledge that religion has played a positive role in the development of this nation; yet any honest portrayal of American history would have to acknowledge it. The rights and freedoms enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were, the Founders thought, quite literally sacred; having been bestowed on the human race by God Himself.

The American people of the late eighteenth century were more generally devout in their Christianity than the citizens of any other nation, and there is a reason for that. In America religion was not imposed on the people by government, it was freely chosen.

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Freedom From Religion?

“If God is dead, everything is permitted.”  Dostoevsky

In the 1830’s a French nobleman named Alexis de Tocqueville spent several months touring the United States, then wrote an influential and popular bookabout what he had learned. Everywhere he went he was struck by the fact that American beliefs about freedom and civil rights seemed to be based in the Christian religion. “Upon my arrival in the United States,” Tocqueville wrote, “the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there the more did I perceive the great political consequences resulting from this state of things, to which I was unaccustomed.” Tocqueville went on to say “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to conceive the one without the other.”

Don’t expect to hear Tocqueville’s words in a typical college history class. The perspective taught in most mainstream history texts is that humanistic philosophies had to unshackle America’s leading thinkers from the Judeo-Christian traditions of Europe before ideas like democracy and human rights could gain any traction.

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“Endowed by Their Creator”

“The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”  John F. Kennedy

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Today most of us take for granted that each human being is born with civil rights, but when Thomas Jefferson put these words in the Declaration of Independence he was expressing a philosophy that was still quite controversial.

Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers largely borrowed the concept of God-given human rights from seventeenth century philosopher John Locke, who got the idea from the Bible; but don’t expect to hear that in a typical university history class. The standard treatment in college history textbooks is that society had to move beyond a childish belief in the Bible before people could have widely recognized human rights.

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Obama, Jefferson, and the “Holy” Koran

In his much-ballyhooed speech of June 4, President Obama spoke in soothing terms of all the areas where Islam and the rest of the world could find common ground.  His speech was praised by many in the media and the political class, but criticized by some students of the history of the United States and the Islamic world.  Most shocking to students of American history is the way the President implied that Thomas Jefferson had been on comfortable terms with Islam.

In his speech President Obama said “when the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Qur’an that one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, kept in his personal library.”  (The congressman the President is referring to is Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who first took the oath of office in January of 2007.)

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