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As we ask ourselves… how did we lose our liberty … it might be a good idea to look at the church first.
Except the LORD build the house, they labourin vain that build it. —Psalm 127:1
The Struggle for Liberty
Liberty is truly the fruit of Christian faith. So, to ask how we lost our liberty is to ask how we lost our Christian faith. The issue then is faith and understanding that faith has a supernatural nature. Here’s why that’s important: There is no physical or mechanical process by which one generation can pass its own faith onto the next. There is no formula by which the Church can manufacture revival and bring millions to Christ.
That said, there are patterns of covenant life and evangelism that God has promised to bless according to His sovereign purposes. And when we reject the patterns God has set and try to acquire His blessings by our own wisdom, using our own traditions or our own methods, God will eventually give us up to our own devices.
Walking with God requires constant trust, intelligent faith, and a heart commitment to the gospel. The history of American liberty is the history of the American churches’ struggle with that sort of Christ-centered faith.
Even before the War for Independence, the Colonial churches struggled with spiritual dullness and intellectual compromise. This left the Colonies open to spiritual attacks on two major fronts:
First: there was the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which is at base, the temptation to trust one’s autonomous reason.
Second: the emotionalism of Romanticism, which is the temptation to trust one’s autonomous feelings.
Puritanism in its decline fell to both temptations. On the one hand, Puritan scholars confused the laws of Newtonian science with God’s orderly providence and in all too many cases turned to the perception of science as authoritative rather than Scripture for solutions to real-world problems. On the other hand, over time Puritan pastors began insisting that prospective church members give a dramatic account of their deep and sudden conversions before being admitted as a church member.
The pastors’ goal was to maintain the purity of their churches (visible “saved” saints only), but in the process, they created a reductionist Christianity. These pastors reduced Christianity to a “conversion experience.” Further, they reduced an obedient faith to the strictly emotional. In the process, they gutted not only the social influence of their churches but the very faith itself.
A few generations later a force appeared that would, once again, change American history forever… the Great Awakening. This mighty revival emphasized individual and emotional faith but continued to downplay a faithful and covenant life in local churches. While God used the Awakening to lead thousands to His Son and to unite the Colonies in a single religious experience … there was a dark shadow behind the movement.
In many ways, the Great Awakening created a growing coldness toward doctrine and understanding God’s word. The desire to know God better was replaced by an obsession with emotion as if high passion and the work of the Spirit were identical. This created a further decline in covenant life in both church and family. In fact, denominations began dividing, sometimes bitterly, on the whole subject of the Great Awakening, its methods, and its fruits.
About the same time, Colonial leaders like Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams fell under the spell of Enlightenment rationalism. They continued to believe in a providential God of some sort, in the immortality of the soul, and in the importance of religion as a basis for public morality. But their Enlightenment rationalism left no room for the Trinity, the deity of Christ, or God’s propositional revelation of Himself in Scripture.
In the end, Franklin embraced a Gnostic-like religion of lesser and greater deities. Jefferson literally took a scissors to the gospel to create a rationalized “Life of Christ.” And lastly, John Adams sat passively in his Congregationalist church watching its ministry became blatantly Unitarian. The Founders then were not all on the same page theologically.
Which is why there’s still confusion with respect to the nature of our independence. When the War for Independence came, many saw it as a religious revival, a defense of Christian liberty in terms of biblical principles, while others saw it as a rational defense of political liberty rooted in natural law and described by John Locke’s contract theory of government. Few Christian voices at the time questioned the unholy alliance of these very different worldviews.
The New Republic
When the War was finally over, the religious landscape had changed drastically. The new Constitution appealed to “We the People” as authoritative rather than to the crown rights of Jesus Christ. The new Constitution forbade any religious test for federal office, which included the simple “Trinitarian Tests” used by almost all of the Colonies as a condition for the office of Magistrate. False concepts of equality and democracy also gained favor both in political and religious contexts.
The new nation became a “synchronistic hodgepodge” of competing Christian traditions. Many denominations were Christian only in name or by very loose association. And, as the Frontier opened, settlers marched West with a version of Christianity very different than the early Colonies had. (some would say unrecognizable)
The Western Frontier needed God and needed to be evangelized, sure enough, but the country needed to be educated in a doctrinally sound Biblical truth, which is more than simple emotion and a nebulous natural law. Sadly, the church, now stripped of doctrine, had little to say to its members regarding applying Scripture to everyday life. All of this weakened the vibrancy of the faith and in a very practical sense, the church became irrelevant.
Evangelism and Reform
The Presbyterian church took the brunt of the casualties in the War for Independence. And as a result, its membership was decimated. But it also had trouble getting men onto the mission field. Presbyterians wanted an educated ministry. To them, that meant fluency in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. They also wanted a rigorous college training which included theology, philosophy and the liberal arts. Many wanted further study beyond that even, possibly in England or Germany.
Bottom line:The cost in time and money of training Presbyterian ministers was high and as a consequence, very few doctrinally trained pastors actually made the journey West.
This left the evangelism of Frontier to determined, but untrained Methodist circuit riders and well-meaning, but poorly equipped Baptist lay preachers. As a result, the expansion West embraced a sincere but very unbalanced doctrine of individualism. The faith was real, even vibrant at times, but its intellectual and doctrinal roots were shallow. As a result, the church fell easy prey to superficial moralism and outward reform without an inward change of heart.
Meanwhile, the Eastern part of America had its own problems. The 2nd Awakening and especially the “revivals” of Charles Finney that followed continued to popularize the idea of emotional excitement and external reform as the proper and right way to change men’s hearts. Prohibition, women suffrage, abolition, prison reform, public schools, and even fad diets all offered ways of freeing man from an enslaving social environment.
And it’s right here we find a very Romantic notion of the perfectibility of man, baptized with the name of Jesus.
The Church Fails Miserably On Reform and Education
As the century moved on, education passed out of the hands of the home and the church. Teachers looked for a curriculum that would emphasize the civic virtues that the new republic desperately needed … honesty, sobriety, thrift, patriotism, and hard work. But they also wanted a curriculum that would steer clear of all theological controversy. Education they thought, should be theologically neutral. And for a time, McGuffey’s Readers filled the bill.
But when a rush of immigration brought millions of non-Protestants to America’s shores, Protestant America seemed at a loss for a single message that would unite the country theologically.
The Unitarians had a solution, or so they thought. They proposed the idea of a publically funded educational system that would turn the new immigrants into moral, hard-working Americans. Unitarians writers then convinced Bible-believing Christians to join them in this campaign as a way of evangelizing the immigrants and converting the Catholics and others to a kind of vague, non-doctrinal Protestantism.
And it’s right here that I find it remarkable to think that American Christians would buy into a system that was explicitly designed to take children from their parents for six hours a day in order to “Americanize” and “Christianize” them … all without any reference to Christ or the gospel … but that’s precisely what happened. From this compromise with moralism, American Christianity has yet to recover. For the next hundred years or more the public schools became a powerful engine for promoting a vague, loose morality and national unity without the cross of Christ.
What happened in education also happened across the entire range of American culture. Emotional and rationalistic solutions were offered to social problems … all argued in terms of an increasingly “far away” God and a safely closed Bible.
The fledgling Republican Party, for example, represented precisely this type of thinking and approach. It came together as an ad hoc collection of “true believers” bound and determined to use the Federal Government to impose moral reform … from the top down. Not everyone bought into their reforms. This included the South.
The Civil War And The Church
Slavery, while not the main reason for the Civil War,was presented as such. Scripture tells us that all men and women are made in the image of God. (Man stealing in the Bible is a Capital Offence) God also requires us to treat other men and women the way we want to be treated. Further, the New Testament epistles insist that believers are one in Christ and that on the Lord’s Day all believers ought to worship together as brothers and sisters in Christ. But here’s the deal:
Both the North and South both appealed selectively to Scripture. Very few churches took a firm stand on the word of God. Most were afraid of controversy.
It’s right here we must also remember the many treaties and covenants that the Federal Government entered into with Native American tribes … were broken. Worse yet, American Christians did little to offer these tribes true friendship, understanding, aid or help of any kind.
Americans living today can say and even perhaps should say, that we had no part in these things and that we renounce them in the name of the gospel. But my point is, at the time, most churches said nothing. After all, what would a strictly emotional or Rationalistic perspective on such things be? Just like the Church today, the Church then, surrendered to the attitudes of the surrounding culture.
The Gilded Age
About this time, new systems of interpreting Scripture began to emerge. Many of them drew sharp and non-Biblical distinctions between Law and Grace as well as the Old Testament and the New. In these systems, the Old Testament, The Ten Commandments and the Law, in general, belonged to Israel only, while the New Testament and grace belong to the Church. In other words, the Church should focus its message on the preaching free grace. The Church then is not supposed to apply God’s word to family, social and cultural issues. It certainly isn’t to present God’s moral law as Jesus’ law for the nations. Besides, many false prophets in the 1800s said Jesus is coming back soon. Very soon. Which of course didn’t happen.
By the end of the 19th century, it was clear that the church had failed to disciple the American people in the great truths of God’s word. For example, ignorance of basic Scriptural principles was so vast that a grassroots movement turned political party (Populism) could call for a graduated income tax and government ownership of railroad, telegraph, and telephone, all in the name of liberty and basic morality. Again, the churches at the time said nothing. (It was busy preaching free grace only.)
Such sloppy thinking and lack of Biblically based morality opened the door for more direct assaults on American liberty. For example, certain cartel “capitalists” worked to monopolize the railroads by calling for reform. “Reform” meant Federal regulation, regulation that kept new competitors out of the market and secured the established “market monopolies” for the rich and powerful.
To make matters worse, what happened with monopoly railroads set the pattern for Wall Street’s relationship with Washington in general. That meant in industry after industry, the wealthy used Federal regulation to further enrich themselves. American politics became the playground of the entitled rich who could buy legislation with money and lobbyists.
Eventually Wall Street turned its attention to banking and the money supply. And again, in the name of banking reform, a cabal of Wall Street bankers and Washington politicians created the Federal Reserve System. (a system for creating money out of debt) The 16th Amendment (income tax) devised a way for the American middle-class to pay that debt.
World War I ran up the debt and entangled America in world politics. The phrase “New World Order” was in the air. But when the War finally ended, the American public wanted no part of world government. The “deep-state rich” however, created a parasitical organization … the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) … to steer America back into international affairs and toward a cozy financial relationship with the struggling Soviet Union. The CFR continues to staff our State Department to this day.
The Great Reversal
In 1925 the cultural clash between secular humanism and Christianity reached a crescendo in the Scopes “monkey” trial. William Jennings Bryan, a supposed creationist and three-time presidential candidate … took up the battle against evolution before a watching world … only to admit in the end that he didn’t take Genesis 1 literally either.
The press had a field day. The American church “inherited the wind” so to speak. Christians willfully withdrew from the public arena for fifty years. Again, the prophets of the day told Christians in the pews that … Jesus was coming back soon and it didn’t matter anyway.
As a side note, every supposed scientific piece of evidence brought in to the Scope trial in an effort to make a case for Evolution has since been refuted. (Does anyone know this?)
World War II and the subsequent Cold War discouraged Christians even farther. “Gog and Magog” were on the horizon and Israel was reborn as a nation. It was common knowledge that the Soviet Union was coming from the North. Apparently, the end was near and there was no time for revival or reformation. Again, the Church lost ground.
Later, the Supreme Court pulled prayer and Bible reading from the public schools in the early sixties. In Roe v. Wade (1973) it legalized the murder of babies in the womb. Meanwhile, the sixties counter-culture wanted “Freedom!” and let loose a torrent of relativism, drug use, and flirtation with the occult. The church for the most part… said nothing.
That was fifty years ago. Jesus still hasn’t come as the self-styled prophets promised and our political and civil liberties continue to slip away.
Antithesis. The word means absolute opposition. Jesus said, “He that is not with me is against me” (Matt. 12:30). The gospel has to be the gospel. Remember here the Gospel is NOT something lukewarm. The Church must preach Christ crucified without qualification, supplement or addendum. The Church must be faithful to all of Scripture, even when that means questioning or challenging our oldest institutions, traditions or our own private, sacred cows.
At the dawn of the 21st century, it’s the Church’s mission to press this antithesis in every area of thought and life. To do this, we’ve got to embrace the balanced gospel as total truth:
Truth about the God who is there and who has spoken in Scripture. Truth about Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Truth about salvation for those made in God’s image … not just salvation of the soul … important as that is … but salvation for the body, mind, family, culture and entertainment. Even the concept of salvation applied to the very way we think and reason.
The gospel is the power of God in Jesus Christ. It’s salvation for a corrupt, sinful and broken world. The gospel is transformation and brings life. But as long as we water it down … as long as we compromise its message with the junk of our current culture … as long as its presented in an unbalanced way … we will see our churches fail, and we will see our liberties slip away.
Ever wonder why so many young people are leaving the church? We can examine demographics and psychographics. We can look at trend analysis, read Barna research reports and go to seminars to discover what went wrong. But Because its right here that judgment has already begun.
Thanks for reading this. I know it was a bit long.
Can we talk?
If you disagree with my conclusion (there’s always room for disagreement of course), I’d love to get you on a radio show to discuss the issue. It’s a big topic. But we should do something more than watching our kids and grandkids lose their faith as well as watch our liberty turn to tyranny.