Paradoxes and Contradictions in American Christianity

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Since reading D. G. Hart’s A Secular Faith, which deals with Christianity in/and America, I grabbed George Marsden’s Religion and American Culture.  Both are fascinating and well worth the investment and time.  I am always dismayed when reading of the history of Christianity in America, from Finney to Fundamentalism to faith-healing, though I suppose most Western countries have at least some distressing parallels to our situation here.  One particular thing that has always amazed me is how Deism and Christianity coupled together to get this country rolling, so to speak.  Here’s a bit of Marsden’s commentary on that.

“[Thomas] Jefferson and [Benjamin] Franklin and some of the other leading revolutionaries were ‘Deists’ who believed in what they viewed as ‘rational Christianity.’  They abandoned those parts of Christian heritage that they thought were not based on reason, yet they retained faith in a creator deity since they believed it was unreasonable to think that the wonderful machine of the universe appeared without a designer.  They also believed in a created moral order, reflecting the wisdom of the Supreme Being and necessary for the practical ordering of society.  They admired the moral teachings of Jesus, but did not consider him to be God incarnate.”

“You might suppose that the nation Jefferson, Franklin, and their Deist friends helped create would become a very secular place, accelerating the forces in the society away from the impact of traditional Christianity.  The relationship of American culture to such secular trends, however, has always been far more complicated than the trends, filled with paradoxes and contradictions” (41).

“Paradoxes and contradictions” – that explains it well.  The moral side of Christianity and the moral side of Deism fused, then wedded some Enlightenment elements and political distaste for British rule, and the outcome was a pretty solid constitution and country.  Fascinating!  Do we read “God” in the early American documents in the Deist (non-trinitarian) sense (god) or in the Christian (trinitarian) sense (God)?    These paradoxes and contradictions are also captured in one of Marsden’s main points in this book: “Even at its most religious, the United States was in many ways a very secular place” (12).

If you want a great study of the history of religion (specifically Christianity) in America, read these two books together (A Secular Faith and Religion and American Culture).  I also now want to read this one by Marsden.

Above quotes taken from George Marsden, Religion and American Culture 2nd ed.(Orlando: Hardcourt College Publishers, 2001), 41.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

3 Replies to “Paradoxes and Contradictions in American Christianity”

  1. Also recommend you check out Nathan Hatch’s classic “The Democratization of American Christianity.” It is priceless.


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