Science in Christian Perspective



Christianity and the American Form of Government*
Dean of Gordon College

From: JASA 4 (December 1952): 9-13
*Paper given at the Sixth Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation in New York, N.Y., August 28-31, 1951.

In the American scene few popularly held ideas have had a more ready acceptance than that which affirms some relationship between Christianity and the American government. Like the Bereans, however, (in methodology the New Testament counterpart of the inquiring mind of today) it is well to discover by inquiry whether such a relationship has indeed existed, and if so, to what degree and in what areas of concept and function.

In undertaking such a study almost at once the problem of definition presents itself. With respect to Christianity, scarcely ever has there been general agreement over any exact definition of it, in America or elsewhere; and a glance at the early history of our nation confirms the fact that concurrence in this matter was just as difficult then as now. Differences in doctrine and policy produced cleavages which on occasion were so profound that a veritable chasm separated some ecclesiastical groups. The efforts of moderates to permit the simultaneous existence of variant groups may have encouraged tolerance but did not effect the identification of any one group as exclusively Christian. On the other hand, even under such circumstances there were elements of common agreement among nearly all who accepted the label Christian. Most called themselves Protestant, were frankly supernaturalistic in owning a God who had created the universe and who had established a moral order in it, affirmed His creation of man as a spiritual being, acknowledged the existence and validity of Divine revelation, agreed that human society and laws to govern it rested upon this revelation and recognized the significance of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of human conduct.1 Beyond this minimal statement the points of agreement between any given groups sharply decreased in number. It would be inaccurate to assert, however, that the truths having a common acceptance did not therefore properly deserve inclusion within the term Christian. As a matter of fact the most sustained and effective affirmation of these truths, particularly in the United States, has consistently emanated from those called Christian, whether the term be loosely or exactly defined. Moreover, in consisting the Interplay between Christianity and a governmental system admittedly having elements of a secular nature, the factors Just enumerated have a greater relevance than others equally significant but more narrowly applicable.2 Hence, it should be understood that, in making subsequent reference to Christianity, the term identifies the conception just enunciated.

It is no less important to indicate with some precision the use of the phrase American government. The most popular of the descriptive terms presently utilized for this purpose is that ambiguous word, democracy. Fundamentally, it carries the meaning that the people rule, and in this sense it is understood to embody both the thought of their direct rule or the idea of their indirect governance through the medium of representatives. In a functional sense the latter meaning is true of the government of the United States, but it is incomplete in representing the organic structure of that government. It should be apparent that the varying desires of the people of the United States are not permitted uninhibited expression, but rather are regulated and directed within the boundaries of certain well-defined areas. The embodiment of this regulatory principle was achieved in the promulgation of the Constitution which from the first was designated as the supreme law of the land.3 Admittedly, the Constitution was made subject to amendment and interpretation, and treaties and relevant legislation were considered an essential part of this law; but such were understood as augmenting or buttressing the Constitution, not vitiating it. Furthermore, all departments of the government were made subject to it, with the legislative branch expected to implement it by statute, the executive, to apply it by proper administration, and the judicial, to interpret and safeguard it by reasoned decision.4 Its acceptance as such permitted the establishment of this government as one "of laws and not of men,"5 not a broad and unrestricted democracy of the people - as the comments of Edmund Randolph and Roger Sherman indicate.6 It may be concluded, therefore, that if the American government is to be called a democracy, it should at least be known as a constitutional democracy. Or, if this appear to be a contradiction of, terms, the appellation constitutional republic might well be selected as preferable.

This foundational character of the government suggests a most significant correlation between it and Christianity. To be sure, in the history leading up to the Constitutional convention there may be traced a relationship between revival and revolution, as in each case old and established forms were shattered and then recast in new and unusual patterns. But active as religious forces may have been in contributing to the spirit which later achieved independence, their endeavors In this respect were not central but peripheral. Of far greater worth were those employed to bring into being a document which confirmed and established the worthwhile achievements of the movement for independence within the framework of constitutional law. Moreover, it is not without significance that the members of constitutional convention were politically conservative in opinion and that the liberals - the leaders in 1776 - were either absent or played insignificant roles in the positive formulation of the Constitution7 It is this law, then, which is basic to the American system of government, and It is precisely this fact which makes possible the assertion that a relationship exists between it and Christianity.

Such an assertion rests, first of all, in a consideration generally held by those who drafted the Constitution and which undoubtedly affected their thinking, namely, that God was the ultimate source of law and that He had made this law explicable in and through His creation.8 As such it was considered to be self-evident and could be, through the human intellect, composed into specific precepts. Although these were commonly denominated natural law, it was usually agreed that their derivation was in fact divine.9 Beyond this, many of these same men had a more than casual acquaintance with the content of the Scriptures, considering them, in one way or another, expressive of the wisdom and will of God. At precisely what point the one or the other concept of revelation just enumerated could be said to have been operative In their thinking it is almost impossible to say, for without question some interaction must have existed. Furthermore, when the framers of the Constitution allocated to the people of the United States the responsibility for the ordering and establishment of that document,10 this was not necessarily a denial that its principles had their derivation from a divine source. It is quite true that some modern scholarship has tended to call into question the view ascribed above to the founding fathers, often doubting the existence of natural law or at least questioning its linkage with Christianity, however defined. Yet, while the constitution admittedly does not even approach the stature of divine revelation, neither is it a contravention of it in any Important particular.11 Further, critical scholarship does not by its findings alter the basic proposition of the supremacy of law in the American constitutional system.

Moreover, in the promulgation of a specific document, which professedly embodied all of the general principles needful for the governing of the Republic, the Constitutional delegates in a remarkable way reflected in the political realm a circumstance which was true in the Christian church. For the instruction and guidance of His people God had been content neither with the general revelation found in Creation nor with a subjective spiritual illumination as such, but had provided a more distinctly enunciated expression of His truth in . the Holy Scriptures. Drawn within the confines of a single great volume, these writings were accepted by the church as its rule of faith and practice, and, as has been indicated, were highly regarded by those who composed the text of the Constitution.12 With such an example before them as a precedent worthy of emulation and with a profound faith that human society was sustained by laws and principles which were not subject to change, the delegates fashioned a written constitution as a practical and forthright exemplification of their convictions.13 By so doing they produced what was, in the 18th century, virtually a political innovation later to be widely imitated but itself imitative of something distinctly Christian.

Between a political society governed by such a law and the entity of which Christians are a part it is reasonable to expect that, in a general way at least, a functional parallel exists. If in addition, it is assumed that there also is present a certain harmony of principle, then it should be possible to note in the activities in which each group engages some observable, tangible similarities. Particularly will this be true if the individual member of either group is similarly adjudged with respect intrinsic worth and the scope of his activities. this respect the American system of government has enunciated the role of the individual in a way which closely corresponds to that assigned the Christian by the Scriptures. While the individual in neither case has been permitted untrammeled exercise of his own will, yet he has in both instances been id entified as being of peculiar dignity and worth, possessing stipulated rights and enjoying privileges which rightfully are his as one of the group. Directly related to such a standing has been, of course, the responsibility of active participation in the meaningful activities of each group through intelligent and loyal interest.

There remains now the task of assessing the American scene in order to select specific repre sentations of the generalizations just suggested. In so doing the factors of time and space are introduced, and these inevitably render complex any attempt at analysis. Even within the relatively brief span of less than two centuries enough has transpired in this country to warrant the attention of a considerable group of trained investigators and analysts. Hence, it will be possible only. to suggest in an arbitrary fashion certain illustrative data which may be con strued as relevant. In particular, me ntion may be made of instances long recognized as demonstrating the rel ationship between American government and Christianity. Beginning with Washington's inaugural address and continuing until the present in such pronouncements as those issued each Thanksgiving season, acknowledgment regularly has been made by the executive officers of the nation concerning the beneficent hand of God upon this country. Similar
formal recognition of the responsibility of the govern ment to Deity can be seen in the administration of the oath of office to the President and others about to be inducted into positions of governmental responsibility, with a copy of the Scriptures in these cere monies symbolizing the sacred character of such commitments. Reference may also be made to the long-established practice of appointing chaplains to both Houses of Congress and to all branches of
the armed services.14 Furthermore, in the constitutions of nearly all of the state governments recognition is given to the blessing and favor of God.15 The con tinuance of these practices, despite the oftentimes formal character of their observance, tends to under score the impact made upon our political institutions by Christianity.

Allusion has already been made to the way in which religious activities in the colonial period con tributed to the political happenings which followed. The revivals in particular made a distinct contribution in determining such political considerations as the separation of church and state and the removal of religious qualifications for the holding of office. These were but reflections, however, of a notable transformation which tended substantially to modify the inherited, traditional patterns. It is a matter of record that, whereas the established old-world denominations were present and active in the new nation, the more radical groups such as the Congrega, tionalists, the Baptists and the Methodists tended to experience the greater growth and to become more widely dominant. Even these, however, did not encompass all of the religious population found outside of the long-established denominations, for beginning particularly with the revivals of the first two decades after adoption of the Constitution, an unprecedented religious diversity fragmented still further the visible Christian community.16 Such a development was not wholly deleterious, even as far as the established groups were concerned, for it stimulated recurrent adjustments in organization and practice needful to relate them more directly to the American environment. Such a situation the political scene tended in many ways to reflect for, following the profound realignment effected by the Revolution, parties representing nearly every shade of political persuasion periodically challenged the American people to endorse suggested modifications of the established practices of government. The success of these groups was not fully achieved by their infrequent accession to office, but was more substantially, if less directly, realized by the incorporation of much of which they espoused into the platforms of the politically more successful parties. While it may be suggested that in this regard the political and the religious communities were subject to forces external to both groups as for example the influence of the frontier-it is well to note that similar conditions elsewhere did not necessarily produce the results manifested in the American scene. Due quite probably to the fact that the political and religious foundations had been soundly constructed the dynamic of change was effectively counterbalanced by the more static quality of established practice, thus preserving progress while preventing anarchy. Seldom could this be said to be true elsewhere.

Beyond this significant impingement, the broadening and deepening of spiritual life caused by the revivals, particularly those under the ministry of Finney, made a distinct contribution to the movement for action by the government in effecting reforms' too broad in scope to be accomplished by lesser means. Such issues as the abolition of slavery, prohibition, woman suffrage, world peace, prison reform, and better treatment of the blind, insane, deaf and dumb-all had their champions from the ranks of the Christian church. Time and again ameliorating action was initiated by those whose sensibilities had been made responsive by religious convictions.

In this same realm of social reform, on the other hand, history seems to show that forces were at work which tended to modify the standpoint both of the government and of the Christian community. To be sure, other issues which were of great signficance theologically tended in a sense to influence the church, but in several instances the religious leadership seemed to utilize such debatable issues as higher criticism or evolution to confirm rather than to modify their thinking, It is distinctly probable that industrialization and urbanization, which increasingly were to characterize America, affected the point of view of the religious leaders then concerned with social problems more than the theological issues contemporaneously undergoing debate; and found articulation in what popularly became known as the social gospel. The interest and concern of the government while somewhat later chronologically, obviously stemmed from the same sources and was generally similar in point of view. The most dramatic exposition of this social consciousness America labeled the New Deal.

These further illustrations of the common reaction of organized Christianity and government may be adduced. The growing complexity of an industrialized world, which has made well nigh inevitable an increasing enlargement and centralization of government, has in turn prompted ecclesiastical integration which is both within and between denominations. And as this country, impelled by the stern fact of a world shrunk by technological advance, has sought to join with other nations in construction of an international organization, so the religious world now sees American Protestantism actively engaged in the cooperative establishment of international religious groups. Finally, in the minds of the politico-religious opponents of America and of Christianity there is really but one enemy, of which these two units form a part. They, in turn, have agreed that such is indeed the case and, with very few exceptions, act accordingly.

A rather provocative aspect of the interrelationship under consideration must needs at this point be mentioned, There seem to be instances in which, in matters significant both politically and religiously, the political considerations have tended to eclipse the religious. One of the most vivid illustrations is provided by the controversy over the abolition of slavery. In the bitter dispute which culminated in the sanguinary Civil War both sides had the active support of their respective religious constituencies, each of which claimed Scriptural justification and, hence, divine sanction for its political counterpart. Further, almost without exception the church In the United States has supported the prosecution of war by this nation, despite the fact that in the inevitable reaction against armed conflict which followed previous struggles, such a stand has been categorically disavowed by important components of this group.

The foregoing should serve to indicate that although American Christianity has been a significant force in the organization and functioning of the government, it has not, at the same time, been beyond the influence of forces external to it. In this may be seen both a cause for encouragement and for concern. Properly conceived, the influence of the church can be invaluable in the support of government which is consistent with Christian principles. On the other hand, there is a continuing need for an Intelligent and informed Christian constituency who will function, not according to the dictates of circumstance-no matter how compelling, but in conformity to the revealed will of their spiritual Sovereign.


Mr. R. Splers asked the speaker for his opinion on war

Mr. H. T. Armerding: As I construe war, it would be a phenomenon which will continue in any society in which sin is still present and, as such, there is going to be involvement on the part of the individual, including the Christian, in the question of war. My own personal point of view, which is conditioned by the - fact that I am a veteran and in the reserve and therefore you may consider this biased, but as a Christian I believe that an individual Christian has a responsibility to the state, to discharge functions which includes those of bearing arms. I believe that the state has the prerogative of bearing the sword. I believe that deriveq from that, the iWividual. citizen, Christian or otherwise, has therefore the responsibility of seeking to help to exercise that function. The individual who feels a conviction that he cannot do that does not certainly get my criticism but that is a viewpoint which I believe can be acceptable for the majority of those who are part of the Christian church.

Mr. R, Richter: Mr. Armerding, in the light of what Mr. Fetler said of the needs of the world and as individuals, don't you feel that there should be some re-assertion of the social gospel with a Christian fundamental basis for it? Surely the influence of the Western - revival in the past resulted in good and benefits that came of it for the whole, ministers who propagated the faith in that time, from labor unions, and of schools and hospitals and colleges and universities which grew as a result of it. I think there should be a re-assertion of those basic principles once again.

Mr. H. T. Armerding: I should like to say that I have no quarrel with the social gospel if we may provide it to be placed in its proper setting . . . I assert that the basic need is spiritual. I am sure that everyone here agrees. Now then, subsidiary to that, related or derived from that, I believe the social benefits can and do flow and that's demonstrated in history, as I pointed out on my paper, especially through the revivals which occurred in this country.

As a result of the revivals under Finney, great efforts in social report were accomplished but they were derived from the meeting of a need which was primarily -spiritual and hence, in dealing with the question of ~'communism, whereas most assuredly we must not neglect nor forget the economic aspect of it, it seems to me that it is insufficient to argue that if by filling men's stomachs we are thereby saving souls or can reach their souls. We fill their stomachs, to be sure, whether they will listen to a message for their souls and to the redemption of their spirits.

It seems to me that there we must place first things first, which are spiritual, and derive from these material benefits which are unrelated to that.

Mr. R. Richter: The credo says Christians are filled, meeting the needs of those around them.

Mr. H. T. Armerding: I would give a qualified assent to that. It seems to me that conservative Christianity has been active on the mission field particularly in meeting those needs. If you will study the history even of such a thoroughly conservative organization as the Charleston mission, you will find that they were oftentimes the first to establish schools, hospitals, clinics of all sorts, in provinces where no one else had gone-. There was conservative Christianity and validly so but it was an action providing for the needs of men spiritually but not neglecting. by any means their needs in a material way.

If you would care to suggest in terms of the reaction against the growing liberalism in this coma". maybe you have a point there. I think all of that is fading away, fading away more in this country than the continent perhaps.

Dr. N. L. Peterson: I think that we have gotten to the crux of the whole matter and perhaps Mr. Fetler would like to comment upon this--this matter of semantics which may be complicating our understanding of what's going on, of what we are talking about. It has been mentioned in the matter of the social gospel which carries, in a group of this kind, a certain emotional charge. Now that means one thing but it isn't Christian. It is anti-Christian, the social gospel is, but the gospel of Jesus Christ has very strong and very necessary and very important social aspects, and that is the point that I think our brother has brought up here and that we should differentiate the social aspect of the gospel; the assuring of our faith by our works to those who only understand works. They don't understand theology and so let us not talk about a social gospel in a Christian gathering because it isn't Christian. But let's talk about the social aspect of the gospel and what we should do about that.

Mr. F. E. Houser: I should like to address a question to either Dr. Kamm or Dr. Armerding. This is a practical question, one which vexes me. We have been told today that God ordains order and he ordains liberty. He ordains human worth and dignity. Of course the great problem of political science, I suppose, is how to reconcile order and liberty. I should like to ask-what do we do when we have to answer questions like the following one:

Is regulation of monopolies anti-Christian and socialistic, or is it in the interest of order? Does it impinge too much on the human worth, the freedom of the monopolist? The same question, of course, could be phrased in regards to federal legislation controlling discrimination on the part of employer against our negroes and so on.

Is there anything which you gentlemen can tell me which will establish our line? Is there any legalistic control on this? Is there any way of telling when we move too far in the direction of atomism or uncontrolled freedom which is anarchy? Is there any way of telling when we move too far in the direction of totalitarianism which is fully controlled from the top, giving no freedom?

1. Kenneth _Sott Lalourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1941), IV. Pp. 381-388.

2. See Ralph Barton Perry, Puritanism and Democracy (New York: Vanguard Press, 1944), p. 152. Other elements, commonly recognized as vital to Christianity, scarcely can be made applicable. For exam le, it is unrealistic to think of the establishment of the Kingdom of God in any earthly sphere without the personal and visible rule of the Lord Jesus Christ and -without the spiritual regeneration of each member of that Kingdom. In neither case could there be construed any possible relevance to the American scene. either Dow or at any other point in our national history.

3. Article VI, Paragraph 2.

4. See Robert Phillips, American Government and Ito Problems (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1937), pp. 61-63.

5. James Kent, An Address, 1936. P. 4. Quoted by Ralph Henry Gabriel. The Course of American Democratic Thought (New York: The Ronald Press, 1940), p. 17.

6. See Herbert Agar, The Price of Union, Boston, Houghton Miffhn Co., 1950; Max Farrard, The Records of the Constitutional Convention, 4 vol.

7. See Max Farrard, The Framing of the Constitution of the United States, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1913.

8. See James Wilson, Works, 4 Vol. Philadelphia.

9. P. Merle Curti, The Growth of American Thought (New York: Harper and Brothers), pp. 71, 77.

10. See the Constitution, Preamble.

11. Ibid., Article It, Seption 1, Clause 7, Amendments 1, 13, 14, 15.

12. Curti, Growth of American Thought, P. 54.

13. Gabriel, Course of American Democratic Thought, p. 18. See also Perry, Puritanism and Democracy,, pp. 402-404.

14. Perry, Op. cit., pp. 151-152.

15. Latourette, Op. cit.,
P. 41,0.

16. Ibid., pp. 381-386.