Time to Bury the Bibles?
November 8, 2016
Few things bring out the hysteria in all of us like a presidential election. Perhaps only the close of a millennium (anyone remember Y2K?) can compete for catapulting Americans into a posture of fear and anxiety about their nation's collective future (or lack thereof). Don't get me wrong. I like to indulge in a bit of anxiety just as much as the next guy. And as I've contemplated, over the past few months, the direction our country might take under the leadership of candidate A or candidate B, I have often felt like I was nine years old again, reading a choose-your-own-adventure book where I'd managed to pursue a plot line with no remaining positive outcomes. If asked, I suspect many American Christians would judge this most recent election the worst in our country's history (in terms, that is, of the perceived quality of their choices for supreme leader). But according to Daniel Dreisbach--in an article titled "The Wall of Separation" written several years ago for Christian Today--American Christians in election year 1800 felt just as worried, if not more so, than American Christians have in recent days about the future of their country under the leadership of either prospective president. The rather grim choice of leaders facing voters in 1800 was between the incumbent John Adams and Adam's own vice-president, Thomas Jefferson, two men who had played pivotal roles in the founding of the young nation. The biggest problem early nineteenth-century Americans had with Jefferson was his purportedly suspect religious views and his supposed sympathy for the revolutionaries who had turned France on its head a decade earlier. Actually, the two worries went hand in hand. The French revolution, whatever aims it originally embodied, had evolved into pronounced efforts in 1792 and 1793 (during Robespierre's "reign of terror") to eradicate Christianity entirely from the country (the "de-Christianization of France"): Christian Scriptures and artifacts were destroyed; Church buildings were converted into stables or temples consecrated to Human Reason; towns, streets, and squares were stripped of their Christian names; the seven day (Christian) week was replaced with a more "rational" ten day week and the year of the French revolution was declared "year one" in the new dating system. Many Americans assumed that Jefferson's election would set America on a similar course, and that hard won religious freedoms of recent years would be forfeited. Jefferson's stated religious convictions did little to assuage such fears. To be sure, Jefferson's religious views were considerably more conservative than those of the atheistic revolutionaries across the Atlantic who were championing the Cult of Reason. His views were closer, perhaps, to those of Robespierre, who himself championed the Cult of the Supreme Being as an alternative to the blatantly atheistic Cult of Reason. But to most Americans that seemed a distinction without a difference. Most Americans--quite rightly, in fact--recognized that you either accept God's own revelation of himself at face value or not, and that a "God" made in man's own image offers little improvement upon no God at all. In other words, Americans appropriately saw through Jefferson's claim to be a "real Christian" since the Christianity he embraced disallowed Christ's deity, Christ's virgin birth, Christ's resurrection, and other biblical accounts of the miraculous. The Gazette of the United States summarized Americans' perception of Jefferson's religious convictions when, shortly before the election of 1800, it declared a vote for Jefferson equivalent to a vote for "NO GOD". But to many Americans, Jefferson was the lesser of two evils. Adams, after all, was the incumbent (and who ever likes that guy?). Plus he was a Presbyterian, and many Americans -- though not most, as things turned out -- deemed Presbyterianism one degree worse than rabid atheism. No matter his suspect religious views, Jefferson remained particularly popular among New England Baptists who were more invested (for obvious reasons) than other religious identities in disestablishment. Fears that Adams was secretly plotting to impose Presbyterianism on the nation in toto seemed to be reaching fulfillment when Adams called for a national day of fasting and prayer during his time in office -- no doubt Adams intended that everyone should pray to the Presbyterians' God! In the end, of course, Jefferson won. And, as Dreisbach observes, that fact led some American Christians to bury their bibles in their back yards or hide them down their wells (presumably above the water line), confident that governmental forces would be knocking on their doors shortly to inaugurate the de-Christianization of the United States of America. Of course, those authorities never came knocking. In fact, the bulk of the peoples' worst fears about what would come after 1800 never materialized. And, to bring it back to the present, I'm guessing the worst of our present-day fears about what's coming under our now president-elect probably won't be realized either. In part, that truth is simple testimony to our tendency towards hyperbolic anxieties. In even greater part, it's testimony to the fact that, come what will, "God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne" (Psalm 47:8).