Godless: Thoughts on the Spirituality of American Society

May 15, 2024

By Joseph D. Klotz

A Scout is Loyal United States. 1935, by Norman Rockwell.

Do we live in a godless society? If the God we are lamenting the absence of is Jesus, then I would say, officially, yes. We have indeed, as a culture, spent a lot of time and effort driving Jesus Christ out of public life in America.

But I wouldn't say that American society is godless.

I also wouldn't say that it is, or ever was explicitly a Christian society. Just because there were Christians present at the founding of the country does not make the country Christian. We were, instead, founded on principles which have more to do with the Enlightenment than with orthodox Christianity.

I can hear the moans of all my fellow right-of-center/Conservative/Constitutionalist/Republicans already, some of whom, ironically enough are not Christians themselves. But the country was founded by the Puritans! Many states had established religions! Mentions and invocations of God and Religion are littered throughout our founding documents! And all those things are true enough. They still don't make America a Christian nation.

When the Puritans came to America, they were fleeing religious persecution in the mother country, England. They wound up in a land far across the sea. They established, not a new country, but rather a colony in subjection to the mother country. Moreover, the Puritans, for all their bravery and pioneer spirit, were religious separatists. They were unorthodox Christians, to put it charitably. If they are rightly to be called the founders of the Christian United States, then the best we can say is that the Christian foundation upon which that country was built was polluted and corrupted by false doctrine.

Many colonies did indeed establish state religions at their founding. This happened for the same reasons that the Puritans came to America - so that they could practice their version of Christianity without having to worry about being burned at the stake as heretics. But that's kind of the point. Great Britain is a Christian nation, with an established Christian church, with the British monarch as it's temporal head. That's why all the religious dissenters who left England, left England. They weren't Christians, or weren't Christian enough, or weren't the right sort of Christians, and they had to get out of Dodge. When they got out of arms-reach of persecution, they established their own states how they wanted. Some had state churches, some did not. And when they came together after the Revolutionary War, they certainly did not establish an explicitly Christian country. They didn't try to establish a country based on Judeo-Christian principles, whatever that might mean. They established an Enlightenment state based on the philosophies of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, and they expressed it in moralistic language.

So, don't be fooled by their god talk. Just because someone mentions "god" or talks about "religion" doesn't mean they are talking about the Christian God or the Christian religion. Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the document that establishes the moral foundation for dissolving our political bands which connected us to Great Britain, was not a Christian. When he wrote in the Declaration about the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God, he was not speaking as a Christian. He was talking about so-called natural law. Jefferson called Jesus the greatest moral teacher who had ever lived, but Jefferson did not confess either Jesus' divinity, or His atoning sacrifice on the cross for the sin of the world, or His resurrection.

Jefferson, a true product of the Enlightenment, had no time for the supernatural nonsense of Christianity. He even created his own version of the New Testament that does not contain any of those things. He literally cut the miracles out of the Bible and pasted the remaining Law devoid of Gospel into a book. It's called the Jefferson Bible. It was handed out to members of Congress. Whatever such a belief system is called, it most decidedly is not Christianity. It is instead the appropriation of God's Law, the Ten Commandments, into a system of pseudo- Christianity. This system may indeed be a religion, but the object of it's worship is not Jesus Christ. It is something else. It is liberty, or rights, or man-defined virtue, but it isn't Jesus. And that isn't Christianity, no matter how much it might resemble Christianity. It is holding up as virtue, God's Law, and calling man to keep it by his own power. That is the religion of the Pharisees; it is the religion of works-righteousness that Jesus came to rescue us from. It is America's true national religion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (I wish I could take credit for that term, but I borrowed it from the guys at the White Horse Inn podcast). But, I digress.

American society is not godless. There are plenty of gods to go around. About 350 million of them, in fact, give or take a few. The sad fact is that, instead of worshipping the One True God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as revealed to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ, we instead have chosen to gratify the desires of the Flesh and to worship ourselves.

To (very loosely) borrow from Martin Luther: there are only two religions in the world. We can either worship the God of Holy Scripture who came to redeem us in the person of Christ, or we can, from our own selfishness, worship ourselves. Ultimately no matter how we dress it up worship of anything other than the True God is to set up the idol of self in His place.

Dr. Luther summarized the First Commandment, You shall have no other gods, this way: "We should fear, and love, and trust in God above all things." When we fear all those civic virtues, love and trust in them as our highest good, as the things that will save us and make everything right, we have removed God from His place. We have set up an idol to worship.

This false religion, the worship of not-God, is evident in our country today. To me it is most glaring in how most of us look at politics. The Left has chosen to worship the god of man. There is no supreme authority in the universe. Morality is relative to time and culture. We are all ultimately our own judges. We may do as we please because God is dead.

The Right is no better. There is a supreme authority, but it is not Jesus. It is the market. Capitalism. Commerce. We will save everyone from all their problems, from crime, from hunger, from poverty, from sickness, and even death itself through the action of patriotic consumers operating in a free market economy, which is guided by Capitalism's invisible hand. There is precious little room in the this system for Jesus either. For, when the market decides, nothing else matters. The will of the people, not God or Scripture, is the final authority. That's fine if the people's will is in line with God's will. Sadly, due to our fallen state, we must concede that this is not the case.

So, I would not be too quick to lament the godlessness of American society. There are plenty of gods to go around if you know where to look.

What we should lament instead is our sin. If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is no in us. But, if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

He cleanses us from our unrighteousness by the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross. He gives us new birth from above by water and the Spirit. He comes to us in our baptism and saves us by the washing of regeneration and renewal, which comes by the working of the Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament. ###

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