Dennis Downey, professor emeritus of history at Millersville University, recently wrote a column for LancasterOnline entitled, “Christian nationalism poses a threat to democracy in US.” In that piece, he offered critiques of an event about Pennsylvania and Christianity and an outreach to a local festival celebrating homosexuality.
Downey wrote that groups like the Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society and The Lancaster Patriot “have a misguided understanding of history—including Pennsylvania’s 1701 Charter of Privileges.”
Is that so? Tell us more, prof.
“Leaders of the Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society mistakenly believe William Penn purposefully designed his proprietary colony to be an explicitly Christian state,” he said.
We are mistaken that Penn “purposefully designed” his colony this way? Should we instead think that Penn accidently and inadvertently included the explicit references to Christianity and God’s Law in his Act for Freedom of Conscience or the Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania?
Was it not purposeful when Penn wrote that it was his desired intention to make and establish “such laws as shall best preserve true Christian and civil liberty in opposition to all unchristian, licentious, and unjust practices”? Did Penn accidently enact a law forbidding profane speech against “almighty God, Christ Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or the scriptures of truth”? Was it a slip of the pen when sodomy was outlawed?
It would seem to me that we ought to at least give Penn enough credit to assume that he purposefully established the colony in this way.
Downey goes on: “Penn did imagine a ‘Holy Experiment,’ but one whose origins were rooted in religious tolerance and liberty. The 1701 Charter of Privileges and the Constitution of 1776 affirmed this practice.”
That Downey would seek to paint these documents as promoting the pluralism or “tolerance” of today is disingenuous. To borrow his phrasing, he is “at war with the American mainstream” of the founding generation. It would be more respectable if he at least acknowledged the facts and recognized that Pennsylvania was founded as an explicitly Christian state—that is, Jesus Christ was acknowledged in the governing documents, rulers were required to affirm Christianity, and the laws were heavily based on biblical law (e.g., sodomy, adultery, and blasphemy were outlawed). Penn established a colony with religious freedom within the realm of godly laws. People were free to believe in any religion, but the open demonstration of certain sinful behaviors were outlawed. To deny these facts is unbecoming of a respectable historian.
Other religions did exist at the time, but the framers recognized the Christian worldview as the true one. Even as late as 1787, most of the citizens of the United States believed that only Christians should govern. Gerard Bradley, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, writes: “The founding generation entered the process of constitution-making firmly convinced that only Christians (and largely, only Protestants) should hold public office.” He explains that Thomas Jefferson’s lack of faith in Christianity was not representative of the public: “Virtually everyone else believed that a man’s belief in God and a future state of rewards and punishments was profoundly relevant to his fitness for public affairs.” The plethora of “religious” clauses in the original state constitutions affirm Bradley’s claim.
In support of his position, Downey refers to the 1701 Charter of Privileges. But the 1701 Charter of Privileges simply affirms what has already been established. Here’s the text: “all Persons who also profess to believe in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, shall be capable (notwithstanding their other Persuasions and Practices in Point of Conscience and Religion) to serve this Government in any Capacity, both legislatively and executively.”
Downey may disagree with the 1701 Charter, but it is false to suggest that the Charter promoted an idea of “religious liberty” that would allow non-Christians to serve in government. The charter did nothing of the sort. It limited civil office to those who “profess to believe in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World.”
But Downey knows this.
Later in his column he affirms that the “commonwealth’s original constitution required elected officials to pledge their belief in ‘one God’ and in the Bible’s ‘Divine inspiration’—it was effectively a religious test for public office.”
The U.S. Supreme Court may have overstepped its bounds and asserted such a clause was unconstitutional, but that does not negate the fact that the framers of both the federal constitution and the state constitutions saw no conflict between no religious clause in the federal constitution and explicit ones in the state constitutions.
This was, in fact, part of the ideal of federalism—the states were at liberty to freely adopt state constitutions based on the Christian worldview. Downey fails to recognize this when he writes that the Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society claimed “that this nation was intended to be an ‘explicitly Christian state.’” That could be a discussion for another time, but the event was about the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and its governing documents, not the federal government.
Neutrality Not an Option
What Downey and others fail to understand (or acknowledge) is that moral claims underpin all societies and governing documents. Furthermore, all worldviews are not created equal.
Groups like the Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society affirm that a religious worldview is inevitable in any governing document—this does not make them dangerous, it makes them correct. Downey may disagree that the Christian worldview should undergird society, but he still must posit an alternative worldview that officeholders ought to affirm.
The current Pennsylvania Constitution requires officeholders to solemnly swear (or affirm) their commitment to the worldview and values espoused by the commonwealth’s constitution. If they cannot make that affirmation, they must forfeit their office (Article VI, Section 3). (By the way, the text of the current constitution still forbids atheists from serving in office, see Article I, Section 4.)
Just as the current constitution was freely adopted by the people and excludes certain people from holding office due to their beliefs about the constitution, so too was the original oath in the Pennsylvania Constitution freely adopted by the people and excluded certain people from holding office due to their beliefs about the constitution.
Every society will be based on a moral framework. Those who reject that moral framework are logically excluded from governing in that society. To claim that the religious clause was undemocratic or a threat to democracy is befuddling. The truth of the Christian worldview was freely adopted by the people as the highest standard in society.
Every society believes in some standard as the ultimate standard. Biblical Christians affirm that such a standard is “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.” People like Downey reject this. But do not be fooled: they still posit some ultimate standard of morality. They are every bit as “religious” and “dogmatic” as Penn was when he barred non-Christians from holding office.
Downey’s column muddles back and forth between critiquing the principles of Christian statecraft and misrepresenting what groups like the Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society teach. Furthermore, he adds ample references to white supremacy/nationalism so that his readers can only assume the worldview of groups like the Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society and The Lancaster Patriot are racist.
Downey is, once again, mistaken.
Neither the Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society nor The Lancaster Patriot promote a worldview wherein the tone of your skin color or your ethnic background is of any relevance. The fact that Downey and others continue to cast pejorative terms such as “white nationalist” reveals more about their unwillingness to do their homework and engage the arguments than it does about the views of those of us who acknowledge that Christ is King and affirm biblical law.
Are there racists who claim to be Christian? Sure. But there are also racists who claim to be atheists. And let’s not forget that the Ku Klux Klan was the arm of the Democrat Party. Should we label all atheists and Democrats as racist because some are?
While people have been perverting the truth for millennia, true Christian doctrine eschews racism. And while I should not need to point out to a historian such as Downey that it was the Christian worldview which led to the demise of the Atlantic slave trade, I will anyway.
I know Professor Downey might have a hard time accepting this, but I couldn’t care less about anyone’s skin tone. The ones obsessing about race are not those promoting a biblical worldview.
Downey notes that an outreach to a homosexual festival included a sign that said “Christ Hates Pride.” To his credit, Downey did not repeat the now widespread libelous claim that the Christian group had a sign that said “Burn Gays.” (However, LancasterOnline, one of Downey’s chief sources, has yet to retract that false claim.)
What Downey does say is that he “was raised to believe that Jesus hated no one and to claim otherwise is heresy.”
The sign said “Christ Hates Pride,” which is undeniably the teaching of Scripture. The New Testament book of Hebrews describes Jesus Christ as the one who has “loved righteousness and hated wickedness” (Hebrews 1:9). In Proverbs 8:13, the Wisdom of God says, “Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.”
True Christians, likewise, hate wickedness, including the perversion of sexuality. We do so because we love God and love our neighbor. The outreach in Lititz revealed many people confused and lost because they had embraced the lie of sexual “freedom.” One participant allegedly vowed that if a “sex change” operation did not bring him happiness, he would commit suicide. We know it certainly will not bring him happiness, but we can hope he will not follow through on his threat. Thankfully, Christians could offer him the message of hope and forgiveness and cleansing—a message the twisted worldview of our day knows nothing of.
Jesus’ love for righteousness compelled him to warn people of the wrath to come if they do not turn from sin. True Christians have always done likewise. That Downey was not taught this growing up is a shame. But I would be more than willing to get together with him and share the truth of the Christian worldview. Professor Downey, consider this an open invitation.
In the final analysis, it would seem Downey’s column is the one perpetuating a “misguided understanding” of both American history and biblical theology.
Downey claims that seeking to reconstruct America based on the Christian worldview is a “backward-looking vision.” If that is the case, then so too is the attempt to reconstruct America based on Marxist and humanistic principles a “backward-looking vision,” foolishly fixated on the failed attempts to build societies on those false worldviews.
No, William Penn did not get everything correct. I certainly never claimed that. Furthermore, he is not the standard. The Law-Word of God is. “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20).
Chris Hume is the managing editor of The Lancaster Patriot. Follow @ChrisHume1689 on Twitter.