Debates like those swirling around school vouchers and the Pledge of Allegiance inevitably spark arguments about the religion of America's chief architects. If we could just tease out what the framers of the Constitution believed and intended, the refrain goes, we could settle all of these nagging church-state questions. Several people think they've already found sufficient evidence to close the major cases.
Of the many problems with this line of thinking, perhaps the greatest is that 2002 is not 1789. As the following excerpts from Yale historian Harry S. Stout's article in Christian History's issue 50: Christianity and the American Revolution should show, even one of the most-studied stretches of this country's own past is a wildly foreign country:
- [In 1775,] there are no presidents or vice-presidents, no Supreme Court justices or public defenders to call on . In many colonies, including Massachusetts, there are not even elected governors or councilorsthey have all been appointed by the British crown and are answerable to it.
- Over the span of the colonial era, American ministers delivered approximately 8 million sermons, each lasting one to one-and-a-half hours. The average 70-year-old colonial churchgoer would have listened to some 7,000 sermons in his or her lifetime, totaling nearly 10,000 hours of concentrated listening. This is the number of classroom hours it would take to receive ten separate undergraduate degrees in a modern university, without ever repeating the same course!
- Events were perceived not from the mundane, human vantage point but from God's. The vast majority of colonists were Reformed or Calvinist, to whom things were not as they might appear at ground level: all events, no matter how mundane or seemingly random, were parts of a larger pattern of meaning, part of God's providential design. The outlines of this pattern were contained in Scripture and interpreted by discerning pastors.
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