Keynote speaker Dr. Glenn Moots of Northwood University (and author of Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology) spoke on "God and Constitutionalism" by first addressing the notion of "Christian America." Sociologically, 71% of Americans continue to report as Christian in religion. That statistic does not, however, seem a satisfactory definition. Speaking historically in a politically popular way, the David Bartons of the United States cherry-pick snippets from the Founding era to demonstrate that American was a Christian nation but is no longer. From a more serious historical point of view, however, long before the Founding there was a a distinct notion of what it meant to be a Christian nation but that notion--Christendom with an established church (even with toleration for other Christian sects)--doesn't garner much traction even among today's most fervid devotees of Christian America.
Drilling down on eighteenth century America, Moots demonstrated that in fact there was a consensus among the colonial Americans of English extraction on what constituted their Protestant nation: (i) the rule of law, (ii) liberty secured by the rule of law, and (iii) the social structures/institutions necessary to secure the first two elements. The collective opposite of these three was the exercise of arbitrary power, which in turn was regularly summed up with some rhetorical flourish as "Papist" or "Jesuitical." Not exactly what most conservative evangelicals mean today by Christian America.
What is a bit odd about such a distinctively Protestant self-understanding of their nation is the reality that all three elements found their historical roots in the Papal Revolution of the eleventh century. Yet for the American colonists, their English cousins, and indeed the citizens of the newly independent United States, it was these elements, drawn from the history of English constitutionalism, that defined a Christian nation.
What caused the colonists to think in such sectarian terms? In other words, how had the Reformation and the following century and a-half changed the self-understanding of English Protestants? More on this next time.