What, if anything, has Christianity to do with American national power? Consider the relation of the Christian faith to the establishment of the country. The founders of the New England colonies came to these shores because of religious conviction. Here they sought and found freedom to worship God according to conscience. Our national independence has two chief sources: on the one hand, the deism of men like Jefferson and Paine, who were strongly influenced by the French enlightenment and the philosophy of John Locke; on the other hand, the Calvinism of our Puritan, Scotch-Irish, French-Huguenot, and Dutch forebears. The Calvinistic idea of the sovereignty of God, and its correlate of man, responsible to God with a dignity upon which others may not trespass, was one of the great formative influences in our national origin. As the historian Leopold von Ranke said, “John Calvin was the virtual founder of America.”

While the dominant spiritual force in America has been, and still is, Protestant Christianity, constitutionally Protestantism has no more official status than Roman Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, or Christian Science. To say this is not to imply that America is committed to secularism. The First Amendment to the Constitution was meant in no sense to banish religion but simply to keep the government from establishing any church. Our founders openly acknowledged God and his sovereignty.

In Young John Adams, a study that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Catherine Drinker Bowen tells of an incident at the Continental Congress, meeting in Carpenters Hall, Philadelphia, in 1774. A clergyman was asked to lead the Congress in prayer. A report came that Gage’s soldiers had seized the powder stores “at some town near Boston.” The author tells how the Reverend Mr. Duché in his black gown walked into the hall the next morning, followed by a clerk bearing the Bible. He took his place before the desk and, after reading prayers, announced the Thirty-fifth Psalm. “He had a voice of great sweetness and warmth; he read slowly with no show of dramatics: ‘Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me: fight against them that fight against me. Take hold of shield and buckler and stand up for mine help.…’ The effect was electric. Men bowed their heads and wept.”

The acknowledgment of Almighty God is a part of our American tradition. Indeed, the public recognition of God is woven into the fabric of our national life. The inauguration of a president partakes of the nature of a solemn religious ceremony. There is deep meaning in the opening of Congress with prayer, though to some it may seem an empty formality. The phrase “under God” in the flag salute and the motto “In God We Trust” on coins are things we take for granted. But in times of national emergency, as in the tragic experience of President Kennedy’s assassination, the nation instinctively reaches out to God for help.

The founders of our country showed farsighted wisdom in providing such a clear safeguard against the establishment of religion in the First Amendment. But it must not be forgotten that the First Amendment also guarantees “the free exercise” of religion. Thus religious initiative is left to the people. Just as no man may be required to pay lip-service to the living God, so no man may be prevented from confessing and practicing his faith.

Christianity may exercise a vital and determinative influence in the nation, but only upon its own terms. It is never to be used merely to bolster patriotism, or just to support the political, economic, or military status quo. To think of finite man using the infinite God for his own ends is impious folly. Every nation, the United States included, stands under the judgment of God. It is, therefore, a great and dangerous perversion to consider the Christian faith merely as a kind of national convenience to be turned on when we need it and to be used for our own purposes. Christ is not subject to our direction; he directs us. God’s ways are not our ways, nor his thoughts our thoughts. The power of Christianity in national life is effective only when men submit themselves humbly to God and to his Christ.

This is why churches, ministers, and laymen need to keep their priorities clear in these critical days. Christianity speaks to every aspect of life. It relates inescapably to spiritual and moral questions—and most issues having to do with human beings involve ultimately spiritual and moral issues, because man is a creature not only of time but also of eternity. But Christianity meets these issues primarily through regenerated persons who know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation and who are committed to his teaching every day and in every area of life.

What is the place of Christianity in American life today? The answer is that the great and awesome role of ministering the most powerful thing in the world belongs to the Church and to its members. Said the Apostle Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.” The word translated “power” is the Greek dunamis, from which we get the word “dynamite.” Paul knew nothing of atomic power. But it may well be that, had he known it, he might have said that the Gospel is the atomic power of God unto salvation. Yet even that would be an understatement. The Gospel can do what even atomic power cannot do. It can take broken, disintegrating human lives and put them together into new persons reconciled to God and living in peace and love with other people. The Gospel creates. As Paul elsewhere says, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”

Article continues below

Lord Acton’s dictum that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, admits of only one exception. There is an utterly incorruptible power. It is the power of the living Christ, the only uncorrupt person who ever lived, and his power is available for the healing of the nations.

The obligation of the churches and their members, stewards all of God’s power, is so to proclaim and live the Gospel and all its implications as to send into the life of the nation men and women who are new beings in Christ—who know, not theoretically but practically, his power, and who are committed to personal witnessing and to applying his truth to shaping the society in which they live and work. Greater than all the military, industrial, and cultural resources of the nation are the spiritual forces resident in Christian men and women and in various forms of our national life.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.