American Christians today are as diverse in opinion and doctrine as ever. One place this seems to play out with great passion is in the world of politics, especially with national and state elections of such great significance now before us. Our diversity affects how we vote, our culture, our priorities and our values.
You may have a tendency to think life among people of faith has not always been this way, that there was actually a time when the focus was predominantly on unity and agreement within the body of Christ. That perception of both past and present would be inaccurate and incomplete.
The annals of Church history describe many ups and downs and a number of disagreements over doctrinal beliefs and the broader definition of truth. This was a reality for the reformers and founders who established our great Republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the Constitution, represented two predominant groups of religious-oriented statesmen: Christians and Deists.
Those who identified themselves as Christians were as diverse in doctrine and modes of worship as we are today. However, they were united in their view of God as Creator, infinite, transcendent, omniscient, sovereign, personal and loving. Deists, who were dedicated to reason and natural law, questioned the deity of Christ, miracles and intervention from God. They understood God as Creator, but also as a being who was somewhat remote and withdrawn from the day-to-day affairs of men.
With such a difference of opinion and belief, on what basis did these men find enough common ground to create a form of government that has been a model for the world over two centuries and one in which Abraham Lincoln described as being, “Of the people, by the people, and for the people?”
Then and today, people of faith ask, “What is my civic responsibility as a Christian? What part should the church play in influencing the American government and culture in general? Should we be more focused on building the “Kingdom of God” rather than the “kingdom of man?” These are familiar and reasonable questions being asked by sincere Christians all over the country.
The answer is found in the ‘Creator-Redeemer distinction’ which was a core concept found in colonial Christianity. Drawing from lessons learned through the Protestant Reformation and the enlightenment, these leaders, whether Christian or Deist, agreed on the existence of a Creator, while not necessarily in one accord about the need for a Redeemer. Due to this shared belief, our Founders and the framers of the Constitution were in agreement about recognizing and acknowledging their responsibility toward a sovereign God.
As Creator and the Author of the Laws of Nature, God revealed how His moral precepts should be applied to man’s outward behavior, as well as the interactions between persons. Laws in civil society were not formulated and written to address so much what men and women believed, but how they behaved. It was in this realm that the Creator ruled through the “laws of nature” and established His moral order. Civil law was to reflect God’s moral law, which was then integrated into colonial culture and the faith community.
Most Christians today focus primarily on Christ as Redeemer, with less appreciation for God as Creator. In colonial Christianity, the focus on this aspect of God had the same critical importance as did the focus on Christ as Redeemer. Christians emphasized both parts of the Creator-Redeemer distinction.
In the 18th century, Christianity was reform-oriented and believers had a vision for reforming individuals, reforming their churches and reforming culture. Despite differences regarding the most effective strategy, Catholics and Protestants alike still agreed that Christians should not only be personally reformed, but they were also responsible for reforming and shaping their culture. Surely, we too are called to be salt and light in a society whose faith-based values risk further erosion.
Early colonial documents verify that the Creator-Redeemer distinction was evident. Author Gary Amos points out that Virginia’s first colonial charter, written in 1606, clearly describes the two reasons for planting the colony:
“First, the colonists would serve God as Creator by building a society in a wilderness, taking dominion over unclaimed lands and resources, and building harbors, towns, and settlements. Second, they would serve Christ as Redeemer by propagating of Christian
Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God, and may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility.”1
Amos argues that this is not an isolated case; for example, the Mayflower Compact written in 1620 at Massachusetts Bay, also reflected the same Creator-Redeemer distinction.
More is at stake, of course, than overtly Christian political involvement. People of faith need to realize when they oppose the principles of the Declaration of Independence, they are opposing many of the very principles to which the Bible and the church gave birth. By accepting a flawed version of America’s founding and one that has been skewed by countless media outlets, too many have been misled into relinquishing their heritage.
Believers should not be ashamed of America’s rich Judeo-Christian foundation, nor should they embrace the false narrative of anti-Americanism. We do not have to be politically irrelevant, always on the outside looking in. The church did in fact, directly influence the moral, legal and political theory so wonderfully expressed in the words of the Declaration of Independence. The church was not on the fringe of culture, but at its forefront.
The Scriptures also give us a sense of purpose and the admonition that we are to be fully engaged in the affairs of God and of men:
* “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” Psalm 33:12
* “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice.” Proverbs 29:2
* “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in godliness and dignity.” 1 Timothy 2:1-2
As the people of God, we must once again recognize our responsibility to join the Creator as He seeks to form, reform and transform individuals and culture—never neglecting one for the other, but giving both their due diligence.
On November 6th, we have the privilege and responsibility of fulfilling our duty as Americans and casting our votes for those who would lead this nation. Countless citizens believe this election will determine the direction of the country for years to come. Many of the issues before us—the sanctity of life, religious liberty, the role of American Exceptionalism, free enterprise, national security, the economy, the fate of the next generation—as well as the candidates at almost every level running for office, stand in stark contrast to one another.
Why some ask, does the church need to be active in the process…because those who lead us are also given the authority to rule us, to appoint our judges, to write our laws, determine our course and watch over our freedoms. Whom will you choose and on what value system will your choices be made?
On June 30, 1788, just after the ratification of the Constitution, George Washington penned the following words to General Benjamin Lincoln, his former deputy who had accepted Cornwallis’ sword at the surrender in Yorktown:
“No country upon Earth ever had it more in its power to attain these blessings. Much to be regretted indeed would it be, were we to neglect the means and depart from the road which Providence has pointed us to, so plainly. The great Governor of the Universe has led us too long and too far to forsake us in the midst of it. We may, now and then, get bewildered; but I hope and trust that there is good sense and virtue enough left to recover the right path.”2
May God grant each of us the necessary discernment, wisdom, moral clarity, and determination to participate in our great democracy and do so in a manner that honors the God of our Founding Fathers.
1 In, Richard Perry, Sources of Our Liberties: Documentary Origins of Individual Liberties in the United States
Constitution and Bill of Rights (Chicago: American Bar Foundation, 1978), 40.11. Perry, 40.
2 Federer, W. J. (1994). America’s God and country. Coppell, TX: FAME Publishing, Inc.