Some good books on Christianity in America

Patrick Allitt’s Religion in America is organized around the paradox of religion in American culture  from the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan in September 1945 to the attacks of September 11, 2001. This paradox is defined in these terms: America is the great exception to the Western nations, in that religion is an active force in the culture and politics of the nation, and yet, it is profoundly secular, especially because of the separation of church and state in American society. The book narrates the major religious issues, trends, and events between the end of World War II and the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is a very helpful work, especially in helping the reader to understand the significance of religious pluralism in America since 1965.

     Frank Lambert asks the question, how did the Puritan vision of a Christian nation change into the separation of church and state by the Founders? Lambert finds the answer in the “changing meaning of freedom in the concept of freedom of religion” (3). The main difference between the Puritans and the Founders was that the Puritans found their source of religious freedom in divine revelation. The Founders looked to free, individual, rational inquiry in addition to basing their arguments on divine revelation. Lambert identifies three dynamics of change in colonial America which accounts for the shift in the way the relationship of religion in the state was viewed. The Great Awakening, the Enlightenment, and radical Whig ideology all helped to transition American conceptions of the role of religion in the state from that of a Christian commonwealth to a nation with religious freedom.
     Carl Becker, in his classic work on the Declaration of Independence, seeks to show that the conclusions of the Declaration were less important that their premises, namely 1) “that all men have imprescriptible natural rights; 2) that the British empire is a voluntary federation of independent states” (ix–x). While not a book dealing directly with Christianity in America, the Declaration is the only founding document that mentions God and bases natural rights on the assertion that God grants them, not the state. Becker noted that the idea of natural rights was so taken for granted in the 18th century, that Jefferson defended it by appealing to common sense. Locke does the same thing, but it is perhaps more surprising that Jefferson felt the necessity to do this, since the Declaration was addressed in part to the British king who would also have taken individual rights for granted. This work should be required reading for every American citizen.
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