The panicked Americans Goldberg has in view in making this observation are not typical middle Americans – who themselves are Christians. Rather, the Americans who are in a panic over Christians in public life are the secular elite who dominate the university-media complex, where a kind of functional atheism has firmly established itself as the official orthodoxy.
Those who uphold this orthodoxy now curiously regard themselves as the only true guardians of the American way, the embattled defenders of American democracy. Emboldened by historical amnesia, this secular-minded elite would prefer that Americans simply take their word for it when they assert that this nation’s political foundations rest firmly on Enlightenment rationality and not on religious conviction.
But such secularist assertions come in for very rough treatment from Dr. John Howard in a new book examining the powerfully Christian impulses that have shaped America’s political heritage. The book is Christianity: Lifeblood of America’s Free Society (1620-1945).
Readers remember again that religious faith inspired the first settlers of this country. In the wintry November days when a hardy Pilgrim band landed at Plymouth Rock, it was their firm commitment to the “advancement of Christian faith” that guided their efforts to build a new “civil body politic” under conditions so harsh that fifty-one of the original one hundred and two died during the horrific first winter.
Christian faith not only survived but even grew more intense in the decades leading up to the American War of Independence. During what historians call the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards of New England joined forces with the visiting English preacher George Whitefield in kindling in American souls a deep desire to serve God in all aspects of their lives, including their politic and civic lives. Howard points out that even as Whitefield urged his listeners to turn to Christ, he also urged American colonists to resist the “secret plot of the British Ministry” against their “civil and religious liberties.”
The political attitudes incubated by the Great Awakening thus proved critically important in emboldening the brave 18th-century patriots who broke with Great Britain and established an inspired new form of government.
As a Protestant, Howard lacks the understanding afforded Latter-day Saints by modern Scripture identifying the Constitution as the work of “wise men” whom the Lord raised up for the very purpose of writing and ratifying it (D & C 101: 80). But he nonetheless recognizes in the Constitution something of a miracle, a miracle made possible only because the Framers were – like the Pilgrims before them – “armed with the Peace of Christ.”
Faith of the Fathers
Of course, not all of the Framers were actually Christians. But Howard will not let 21st-century secularists go very far in claiming as their own a Benjamin Franklin who urged upon his fellow delegates to the Constitutional Convention the need of “humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understanding.” Nor will he let these secularists suppose they are the true heirs of a Thomas Jefferson who soberly asked, “[C]an the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”
In any case, Howard rightly discerns a distinctively and profoundly Christian faith in the indispensable titan of the Revolution and of the Constitutional Convention – namely, George Washington. A devout Anglican vestryman, Washington considered it part of his political duty as President to ask the nation to join him in “humbly offering our prayers and applications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations … to enable us … to render our National Government a blessing to all the people.”
The Christian faith that sustained Washington in the waning years of the 18th century grew even stronger as a political presence during the first half of the 19th century. Thus, when Alexis de Tocqueville made his famous visit to the United States in 1831, he marveled at how intensely “Americans feel the necessity to instill morality into democracy by means of religion.”
Trial of Faith
Tocqueville, however, did not anticipate the events that plunged America’s singularly religious democracy into the horrific bloodletting of the Civil War. Hardly alone in his perplexity, Lincoln contemplated with particular pain the way in which this fratricidal war pitted the faith of the Northerner against the faith of the Southerner.
“Both read the same Bible,” Lincoln poignantly remarked, “and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” Howard concedes that that doubts fostered by this national tragedy grew stronger in the 20th century, as new economic patterns undermined the family farm long central to America’s rural life. Millions of ill-prepared Americans thus found themselves thrust into hostile urban environments that exposed them to corrosive new temptations, including alcohol, crime, and illicit sex..
Still, Howard discerns potent Christian impulses still informing many aspects of 20th-century America. Only the persistence of Christian faith can explain, for instance, why in the years that following World War I, Woodrow Wilson hoped to build a better and more secure civilization “permeated with the spirit of Christ.”
American Christianity did not, of course, prevent the outbreak of World War II. But as a decorated veteran of that war, Howard affirms that only firm Christian beliefs can account for the unwavering courage of ordinary farm boys accepting perilous duties in that conflict or the far-sighted magnanimity of General MacArthur in dealing with a defeated foe.
But even as he lauds American warriors for their fortitude in defending the country’s the Christian heritage, Howard laments the moral lassitude of a cultural elite – artists, writers, and professors – who have neglected or attacked that heritage. Howard particularly indicts the nation’s universities and colleges for undermining traditional religious and moral commitments.
Howard claims an exceptional perspective on the moral confusion infecting higher education in recent decades: he served as the President of the American Association of Independent Colleges and Universities from 1969 to 1972, a period of intense campus disruption. In his valiant effort to reaffirm the Christian moral obligations of higher education, Howard came into close association with Dallin Oaks, then serving as President of Brigham Young University. BYU subsequently awarded Howard an honorary doctorate in 1976, in recognition of his exceptional educational leadership.
Lamentably, few have joined Howard in his efforts to bring Christian convictions back into cultural prominence. Instead, thousands of intellectuals, entertainers, and artists have dismissed or ridiculed the Judeo-Christian beliefs of ordinary Americans, offering in their place a strange synthesis aptly labeled by commentator Tom Brokaw as “a new form of popular religion … the rock-and-roll church, with its narcissistic, mischievous, and anti-authoritarian creed.”
This new church, Howard warns, conduces to neither spiritual redemption nor social order. Rather, it threatens a dark future of violence and social breakdown.
Most Latter-day Saint readers will share Howard’s deep concern over secularization of American culture. In deploring the way America’s cultural elite is now systematically suppressing any expression of religious beliefs, Howard indeed sounds recognizably like Mormon when he decries the work of those who in his day were “seeking to put down all power and authority which cometh from God” (Mor. 8: 28).
With good reason, Howard fears that the extirpation of America’s religious traditions is turning millions of young men and women into “cultural orphans.” We can only hope that this timely book will – by reminding us of our country’s precious religious patrimony – help Americans recognize the path that leads from a dark and ugly orphanage back to our faith-filled home.
Christianity: Lifeblood of America’s Free Society (1620-1945), by John A. Howard. Manitou Springs, CO: Summit Ministries, Dec. 2007. 185 pages.