Davis on America’s Theocratic Planting

As opposed to its non-theocratic “Founding.”

From historian Kenneth Davis. Quote:

From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.”

Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan.

This is a theme I’ve long explored. For instance, in my recent post entitled, Would the Puritans Have Executed John Adams For His Religious Heresy?

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12 Responses to Davis on America’s Theocratic Planting

  1. Heidegger says:

    Jon, not that these are your sentiments, but why would disagreements, “pitched battles”, between different Christian sects contradict the notion that America was a Christian nation? That still happens today. It’s not like the Christian battles were between Muslims, Jews, Hindus, pagans or even atheists. Just squabbles within the Christian “family.”

  2. Murali says:

    Heidegger, I’m not Mr Rowe, so I really should let him answer, but I think it goes into what we mean by nation. Reasonably speaking, you cannot call it a nation if they were so divided against eachother.

    When we talk about american nationalism, and how americans first defined themselves as a nation etc etc, their incidental identity as christians does not make the founding of the nation a christian founding.

  3. Jon Rowe says:

    Murali gives a good answer.

    I would argue if you look at the US Constitution, Federalist Papers and DOI as “Founding” documents, it cannot be said they give a “Christian” political-theological foundation, at least not “Christian” as the David Barton types understand as minimal “Christianity.” The DOI is a Providential document, not a “Christian” document. Were it, Jesus would be invoked as either God or Messiah, but He is not.

  4. Heidegger says:

    Murali, okay, are you now, or have you ever been a member of the communist party of the United States??!! Sorry–couldn’t resist, with the name, Murali, who was a rabid communist activist in India. But, I feel your pain–with a “name” like Heidegger, I’m constantly being accused of being a Nazi!

    This business of trying to figure out the underlying founding father’s religious philosophy s almost a more difficult challenge than the abortion debate. Were they deliberately trying to drive all future generations nuts? I mean, look at this– John Adams writing to Thomas Jefferson–“The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were. . . . the general principles of Christianity. . . . I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature.”

    Do words mean anything, anymore?

  5. Matty says:

    Based on my understanding of what Mr Rowe has written, the problem isn’t that words mean less now but that they meant more then. In brief, Adams had a different definition of Christian principles to that used by most churches so we can’t read into his words what you or I might mean by Christian, at least not without a bit more work on exactly what he was discussing.

  6. Jon Rowe says:

    Yes, if you read the context of Adams’ “general principles” quote, it’s actually pretty radically heterodox.

  7. Mark Boggs says:


    As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

    – Treaty of Tripoli, signed by John Adams and unanimously ratified by the US Senate.

    I realize this one has been beaten to death by “Christian Nation” opponents but I think it kind of highlights some of the contradictions that you find in the founding era, often out of the mouths of the same person. Jon Rowe and others who are well versed in the subject do some good blogging on this subject at http://www.americancreation.blogspot.com.

    It ain’t anywhere near as cut and dried as absolutists on either side might wish it to be.

  8. tom van dyke says:

    The problem with Jefferson and Adams is that their well-mined correspondence on religion was private and confidential, and comes from after they left public life, Adams in particular.

    The same John Adams who signed the Treaty of Tripoli issued this Thanksgiving proclamation two years later:

    “I have thought proper to recommend, and I do hereby recommend accordingly, that Thursday, the 25th day of April next, be observed throughout the United States of America as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens on that day abstain as far as may be from their secular occupations, devote the time to the sacred duties of religion in public and in private; that they call to mind our numerous offenses against the Most High God, confess them before Him with the sincerest penitence, implore His pardoning mercy, through the Great Mediator and Redeemer, for our past transgressions, and that through the grace of His Holy Spirit we may be disposed and enabled to yield a more suitable obedience to His righteous requisitions in time to come…”

    …what with a “Most High God,” a “Redeemer,” and a “Holy Spirit,” is Christian enough for rock’n’roll.

    As Mr. Boggs notes, it is not cut and dried.

  9. Jon Rowe says:


    You may be right about the JA/TJ correspondence, but the “general principles” quote is one of the Christian Nationalists’ favorite. The context of the quote shows it to be pretty heterodox.

  10. Jon Rowe says:

    And of course there is another private letter from JA lamenting the thanksgiving proc. on the grounds that it was not just “too Christian” but “too sectarian” for a top down national proc. Perhaps that’s one saving grace of the Davis observation. The line between “Christianity” on the one hand and “sectarian” on the other is — and was to the Founders — arguably too impossible to navigate to say we had a “Christian” civil religion (or Founding political theology). There is the common law idea of “Christianity generally” which unitarians Joseph Story and John Marshall endorsed and unitarians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did not. “Christianity generally” is one of David Barton’s mantras. But this is not CS Lewis’s “mere Christianity” which equates a Christian minimum with orthodox Trinitarianism. And too many of Christian Nationalists are so fanatical about their theology that they can’t bear to call something outside of Lewis’ minimum “Christian.” Though the Glenn Beck-Barton-Lillback connection is sorta driving this point home for them.

  11. tom van dyke says:

    And of course there is another private letter from JA lamenting the thanksgiving proc. on the grounds that it was not just “too Christian” but “too sectarian” for a top down national proc.

    Adams did not indicate “too Christian.” He indicated “too sectarian,” as in being seen as allying with the Presbyterians, who BTW, were the pushiest of all sects.

    I agree that Adams’ “Christian principles” line is weak evidence. At this point [in his retirement], Adams was exploring the universality of such “Christian principles,” to be found in ancient Greece and “Hindooism.” The question here is whether you’re writing to clear the fog on all sides, or on just one side.

    [Adams’ “Christian principles” here is a good argument for “natural law” in the Founding, however, a tertium quid between the inflexible reason vs. revelation dichotomy, and the Biblical theocracy vs. strict secularism one.]

  12. Murali says:

    Murali, okay, are you now, or have you ever been a member of the communist party of the United States??!! Sorry–couldn’t resist, with the name, Murali, who was a rabid communist activist in India. But, I feel your pain–with a “name” like Heidegger, I’m constantly being accused of being a Nazi!

    1. Heidegger, first of all, I had no idea about the communist activist who shared my name. You are the first person to have ever mentioned it. A link would be nice. People have asked me about the cricket player though (I think it was TVD)

    2. Murali, is quite possibly the Indian/Hindu equivalent of Patrick. i..e. it is not exactly as common as John, but not so rare as Eddard. i.e. in my 25 years, I have met 2 or 3 other “Murali”s. Of course most “Murali”s are named for Muralidharan, one of the names of Lord Krishna

    3. Murali is not just a handle, its my name, if not quite what is printed on my identy card (That says Anantharaman Muralidharan). My parents gave it to me, and I’ve been writing it on whichever piece of homework I got around to submitting since primary school.

    4. I’m not american, and living in Houston, Texas for two years did not give me the opportunity to join any kind of political party communist or otherwise as I was only 2 years old

    5. In your case “Heidegger” is just a handle right? With all the post-modernist and Nazi associations, why did you choose it?

    Sorry for the thread jack! The rest of the stuff about the american founding is quite beyond my own knowledge.

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