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Home Features Biermann: Founding Fathers influenced by enlightenment more than Christianity

Meredith Boster
Sower Staff


The Rev. Dr. Joel Biermann talked with Concordia students and faculty this week about how Christians should view Christian nationalism, Enlightenment liberalism and Anglo-American conservatism, noting that while many Christians believe America was founded on Christian principles, the Enlightenment influenced the founding fathers more than Christianity.

Biermann, a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, outlined five pieces of evidence – based on the ideas of truth, rights, free will, work and goals – that show the America of the 21st century is a realization of the ideals held by the founders.

“The America we see today is not a departure from the Founding Fathers,” he said. “It is a fulfillment of the Founding Fathers.”

Biermann began with the foundation of truth, using two different lines of thought to emphasize the thinking of the Enlightenment and the thinking of Christianity. The Enlightenment presented the idea of individualism, that each individual must make a decision for themselves, leading to a hyper-emphasis on pluralism and diversity. Christian thinking finds a singular truth in God, in that God revealed His truth to each individual, rather than in each person finding a truth for themselves.

“Jesus says, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ This is the core of our confession,” Biermann stated.

Americans protect their sacred rights, given to them by the Creator, Biermann said. The Enlightenment brought about the idea that people have to capture and defend their rights because they are inherent to their humanity.

He said Christians should not define themselves by the rights America says they have, but by the faith they have. Biermann pointed out that Jesus calls His disciples to take up their cross and follow Him, which means that they have to give up everything they have and serve God and their neighbor – including what they believe to be their rights.

Biermann said the Founding Fathers worked from the perspective that people have autonomy and are independent of others. Lutheran Christians, on the other hand, believe that they are completely dependent on God for everything, whether that be for basic necessities or for bigger decisions.

“If you think that you have free will to make a decision, you deny the efficacy of Christ,” he said. ” It’s either all Jesus, or it’s nothing.”

Biermann said there is a difference between American and Christian ideas of work. The American idea is that work defines a person and is the most valuable thing a person can do, so people should pick something that they are good at doing. Christians look at work as a way to serve their neighbor, not actively benefiting from their work themselves.

Biermann also discussed the goal of Americans versus the goal of Christians. Americans are focused on living a rich, full life while on Earth, because that is what will fulfill them, he said. Christians are focused on “pouring [themselves] out for the sake of the neighbor, just as Christ poured Himself out for Christians in His Body and Blood.”

Biermann said people cannot live both as a great American and as a great Christian. There is such a marked difference between the ideals of an American citizen and the beliefs of a Christian, that the two schools of thought cannot be reconciled. One can be either a great American or a great Christian – not both.

“If you’re going to follow Christ, it is going to put you at odds with following the American way of doing things,” Biermann said. “Stay invested in the culture, stay invested in the world, don’t forsake it. But, don’t ever forget who you are and what’s going to drive you forward in the culture.”

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