But McCain was precisely correct to say that Judeo-Christian values were a cornerstone of Enlightenment thinking that led men like Madison, Jefferson and Adams to believe in individual autonomy [bold mine-DL].

These men were critical of some aspects of Christianity. But to deny that Christian principles were a powerful force behind the founding of this nation, from the impulse to flee Europe to the justification for war to the guiding principles at the Constitutional Convention [bold mine-DL], is to deny historical reality. 

The political thinking of the Founders was profoundly shaped by Christian teaching. Pointing that out would hardly be controversial were not so many people irrationally afraid of religion in general and Christianity in particular. But as John Adams said, men “may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.”  ~ New Hampshire Union-Leader

That first paragraph is remarkable.  Naturally, I don’t agree.  Far more overreaching than anything McCain said, which was ridiculous mostly because it was McCain saying it, the editorial maintains that “Judeo-Christian values were a cornerstone of Enlightenment thinking.”  To which I respond: “what part of the Enlightenment do we mean?”  I have been known to refer very broadly and negatively to “the Enlightenment,” when I am really objecting principally to political and social theories of Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau, and I have been reminded on a few occasions that it is worth keeping in mind the differences between Enlightenment thinkers.  Here this is especially worth doing. 

Leibniz, for example, was probably the closest to matching the image of an Aufklaerer who also respected what the editorial calls “Judeo-Christian values” (which is still pretty far removed from being “profoundly shaped by Christian teaching”), but he was an early figure and not representative of the kind of thought that influenced the Founding generation.  Algernon Sydney’s Discourse Concerning Government, which had a great influence on 18th century colonial political thought, is a weighty tome replete with references to Scripture, but it is not so much “profoundly influenced by Christian teaching” as it is Whig political philosophy trying to shield itself against Filmer with the Bible.  It is difficult to say that Harrington and Bolingbroke, significant for us because of their influence on Montesqieu and the later Country tradition, were “profoundly influenced by Christian teaching” beyond the reality that they belonged to Christian confessions and lived in a culture that was steeped in Christianity.  In my modern Greek history class, I could also say that Moisiodax and Korais were “profoundly influenced by Christian teaching”–profoundly influenced, that is, to run away from that teaching when it conflicted with their philosophical and political programs.  In general, wherever people have been ”profoundly influenced by Christian teaching” they have had no time for prattle about natural rights, the social contract and “individual autonomy.”  It seems right and good to me that they should respond in this way.  Understandably, Christians try to construct some preeminent place for Christianity in the story of “the Founding,” which has itself been given quasi-mystical status by nationalist historians and ideologues, because they have come to recognise that it is only through having a claim to being a key part of “the Founding” that they will be permitted to have any real role in a system dominated by Americanist/proposition nation ideology.  The problem lies not so much with attempts to baptise ”the Founding” as with the distorted and ideological treatment of the early republican period by later nationalist politicians and historians.  If Americanism and American identity itself are to be defined by political propositions, as the adherents of the proposition nation view would have it, it becomes necessary for people to interpret ”the Founding” in a such a way that their beliefs are discovered as the ultimate sources of those propositions.    

As a recent instructor of mine was fond of saying, let’s take this step by step.  It makes sense to describe America as a Christian nation in the following ways:

1) Anglo-American culture, what Russell Kirk referred to as our “British culture,” owes an enormous debt to European Christianity and is inconceivable without it.  North American colonial societies were and are derived from European and Christian civilisation and ultimately belong to that civilisation.  Christianity was a public religion and was, at the state level, an established religion in one form or another in many of the colonies, and this arrangement prevailed for many decades after independence.  Those who think they have found justification in the early republican period for their drive to push religion into the corner and isolate it from public life don’t know what they’re talking about.   

2) It is not possible to understand the evolution of America’s “language of liberty” without referring back to the 17th century religiously-charged constitutional struggles of the British Isles.  In this sense, our constitutional inheritance, which was at the heart of the War for Independence, depended on and derived from precedents that were set during a civil war that had both political and religious dimensions. 

However, the constitutional settlement that emerged out of these conflicts involved to a very large extent the complete abandonment of all political theology.  Any endorsement of ideas of “individual autonomy” would represent a significant departure from “Christian principles.”  “Judeo-Christian values,” fairly meaningless phrase that it is in this formulation, do not lead anyone to believe in individual autonomy.  On the contrary, whether in the Old Testament or the New, what we call individual autonomy is what Scripture defines as sin and pride.  Scripture is brimming with commands for social obligation, fraternity, charity, self-sacrifice and the corporate unity of the People of God.  Traditional Christian social teaching does not recognise an idea of “individual autonomy.”  Unity in the Body of Christ does not obliterate distinctions and personality, but it does preclude autonomy of any kind.  Enlightenment social theories along these lines were considered–and were–subversive because they contradicted the Christian teaching that allegedly so profoundly influenced the thought of Jefferson (!).  It should be enough that Jefferson was a great proponent of decentralism and liberty; we should not need to remake him into a crypto-theologian to appreciate his contribution to our country.  

It is correct to observe that Christian respect for the dignity and integrity of the human person and scholastic arguments on natural law paved the way for later applications of these reflections in political and legal reform.  It is true, as studies of the rhetoric of the Revolution have shown, that the use of originally religious language of covenants, which had already been introduced into political discourse during the English civil war, shaped broader popular understanding of the patriot cause more than did familiarity with Lockean contractual theory.  It is true that the broad mass of the population of the colonies was made up of professing Christians.  In this sense, the people constituted a nation of Christians.  To the extent that they still do, they may be called a Christian nation.  As Dr. Fleming said on this subject:

The United States was never a ‘Christian country’ in a confessional sense, though it was once a nation of mostly Christians.