In 1954, Time Magazine's religion section included coverage of a Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Some 600 dignitaries, businessmen, and politicians met in the Mayflower Hotel for a "sturdy breakfast (grapefruit, scrambled eggs, sausage, ham, hominy grits and gravy)." Among those present were President Eisenhower and Vice-President Nixon (who read from John 15:"[T]his is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you...").
Time was especially interested in the last speaker, Chief Justice Earl Warren. An Eisenhower appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Warren had been the liberal Republican governor of California. (California conservatives knew him as "pinky Warren.") Warren is remembered today as the architect of "judicial activism" on the Supreme Court and as the head of the infamous Warren Commission, which investigated the Kennedy assassination.
Fifty years after the fact, however, it is fascinating to read excerpts of Warren's speech. "I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Saviour have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses," wrote Warren. "Whether we look to the first Charter of Virginia ... or to the Charter of Massachusetts Bay ... or to the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut ... the same objective is present: a Christian land governed by Christian principles.... I believe the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their express belief in it ... I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so no great harm can come to our country."1 The address raises interesting questions about Warren's convictions and his understanding of the role of religion in American history.
Christianity in the Colonial Documents
There can be no dispute that the Virginia Charter of 1606 had a Christian focus. The colony was founded, in part, for "the propagating of the 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 ... to human Civility and a settled and quiet Government."2 The baptism of Pocahontas, shortly after the arrival of the settlers, seemed a confirmation of what the Charter had commissioned.
Similar goals were clearly stated in the Massachusetts Bay Charter of 1629. The Puritan colony's religious and peaceful administration was intended to win "the Natives of the Country, to the Knowledge and Obedience of the only true God and Savior of Mankind, and the Christian Faith, which is ... the principal end of this Plantation...."3
Connecticut was founded in 1639 by zealous Puritans from Massachusetts under the leadership of Thomas Hooker. The "Fundamental Orders of Connecticut" is usually remembered as the first written constitution in the colonies, and one that created a more democratic order. But Earl Warren remembered what historians today often overlook: this early constitution was clearly Christian. The settlers entered into their confederation "to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus, which we now profess...."
Warren's reference to the religious roots of the Bill of Rights is particularly interesting. In March 1991, I attended a Symposium on the Bill of Rights, which was sponsored by the U.S. Congress and held in the Senate Office Building. We met just down the hall from Ted Kennedy's office, and former Chief Justice Warren Berger delivered the opening address. In an address on the "Pedigree of the Bill of Rights," Constitutional historian Donald Lutz argued that the roots of our American liberties could be found in colonial documents, many of which were authored by ministers. Three-fourths of the provisions from the U.S. Bill of Rights, in fact, were outlined in the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, a Puritan document that came complete with Bible verses attached to each of the rights. (Conference participants gasped in horror when they realized that for their cherished liberties they were indebted to the hated Puritans.) Keep this as a handy fact with which to shock liberals: the roots of our Bill of Rights are in New England Puritanism.4
Please do not get me wrong. I am not arguing a reconsideration of Earl Warren. One could easily document the mischief of the Warren Court, in decisions on federal supremacy, and school prayer, and the special privileges given to criminals. Nor should one read the 1954 Prayer Breakfast address uncritically. (Prayer breakfasts are not known for theological depth, or for the spiritual commitment of the participants. They typically combine neighborliness with generic spirituality, and offer a "can't lose" political photo-op.) Warren's references to "the spirit of the Saviour" and the "spirit of the Christian religion" are very broad and very vague, and could be used to justify almost anything. It is, furthermore, important to look at the address in context. In 1954, "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and the United States was in the middle of a Cold War with atheistic Communists. 1954 was a prudent time to celebrate a Christian America.
It is also important to read founding documents critically. The Virginia Charters, for instance, refer to specific Christian motivations. But what did the references to Christianity mean? For early Virginians, was "the Christian Religion" a redemptive religion offering salvation through Christ's sacrifice? Or was it purely moralistic, creating an ethical system and the observance of outward commandments? Or was Christianity merely a cultural ideal, involving the maintenance of a civilized government and a European standard of living? (Or, as I suspect, did they see "Christian religion" as some combination of such things?) The Third Virginia Charter (1612) perpetuates this ambiguity, listing as colony goals "the Propagation of Christian Religion, and Reclaiming of People barbarous, to Civility and Humanity."5
America's Christian Roots
That said, it is important to stress America's unique Christian roots. We live at a time when Christianity and vestiges of the Christian past are hated by the cultural elite. The recent attack on the posting of the Ten Commandments is an example of the secularist jihad against Christianity. Rushdoony notes: "Historically, there are two major stages in the attack on religious liberty. First, the state is secularized in the name of freedom, and second, every prerogative of the church is attacked in an indirect manner so that, in a disguised fashion, its right to exist is denied."6 Rushdoony proceeds to show, drawing upon George Washington's brilliant Farewell Address (1796), that there is a necessary connection between religion, and morality, and social stability.
Fifty years ago most Americans would have had a positive view of the United States, the importance of religion, and the role of Christianity in the nation's past. Academics and the secularist cultural leaders, today, however, are largely hostile to the legacy of America and the role of religion. Christians who stress the importance of faith in history are invariably criticized. When Jerry Falwell emphasizes America's Christian heritage, he drives liberals and the ACLU crazy. But what is now considered a right-wing conservative perspective on history was commonly understood and broadly accepted a half-century ago, even by the lefties.
I don't care much for Earl Warren, but what he said in 1954 was true. America was a Christian land, governed by Christian principles. The country was built upon the Good Book, the Savior, and the principles of the Christian religion. And as long as we are faithful to our Lord, no great harm will come to us.
1. Time (February 15, 1954), 49.
2. "First Charter of Virginia," in Documents of American History to 1898 (9th edition), ed. Henry Steele Comomager (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1973), 8. Three years later, a subsequent charter affirmed that a key goal of the colony was "the Conversion and Reduction of the People in those Parts unto the true Worship of God and Christian Religion" and also warned about and took preemptive action against the "Superstitions of the Church of Rome." 3. "The First Charter of Massachusetts," ibid., 18. Spelling modernized. The official seal of the Bay Colony depicted the English Christians arriving, with the Word of God in hand, preparing to offer it to an Indian who is stretching forth an ear of corn. It is a great symbol of the missionary impulse emphasized by the early charters.
4. Charles Hyneman and Donald Lutz, American Political Writing During the Founding Era, 1760-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1983). Unfortunately, Lutz interprets the 1641 Body of Liberties from a "rights consciousness" perspective, thus de-emphasizing the Biblical roots of the document. The paragraph above is adapted from my article "A Celebration of Infidels," Contra Mundum (Fall, 1991) http://www.visi.com/~contra_m/cm/features/cm01_celebration.html.
5. "Third Virginia Charter," in Settlements to Society, 1607-1763, ed. Jack Greene (N.Y.: Norton, 1975), 12. One must also be careful of documentary collections; critical information is sometime edited out of the texts. The information about religious motivations in the Third Virginia Charter, for instance, contained in the Greene text, is edited out of the Commager documents reader.
6. Rousas Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1978), 45.