Belief Matters as Much as Action

Do beliefs matter that much?

I have had some trouble in the past few years seeing beliefs affecting action. For example, does belief in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity affect daily life that much?

Building off of this, I entertained that beliefs don’t matter so much as one’s actions. This is a very America idea. Maybe even Marxist.

But then I read something interesting this week for class on the American Revolution and on ideas concerning women at the time.

According to Amanda Porterfield, it was common to see women as naturally the intellectual inferiors of men.

Aaron Burr (vice president to Thomas Jefferson) took a different approach. He gave his daughter Theodosia the opportunity to learn. Broadly. By age 10, she read French and Latin. At 12 she took up Greek. By 18, she had obtained Italian in addition to competence in the piano, dance, geography, and history.

Theodosia proved what Burr already assumed: women aren’t dumb.¹

Source: University of Chicago Press
Source: University of Chicago Press

This got me to thinking what beliefs can accomplish in the world. In this case, a belief had inhibited the vast potential of women. If people saw women as naturally the intellectual inferiors of men, why attempt to change that? It was natural, right?

The beliefs that matter most—in the sense that they have the most impact due to their presumption—are those we attribute to some natural, unchangeable, “real,” stable essence. What goes unquestioned? What is off limits to probe?

Beliefs matter. When left unquestioned and unprovoked, they foster a stupor that can be potentially dangerous.

Consider the relatively recent movement #blacklivesmatter. There has been a conservative backlash to it called #alllivesmatter. What gets lost on #alllivesmatter is that it superficially focuses on the phrase #blacklivesmatter without taking time to attend to the movement’s interests.

#blacklivesmatter already assumes that all lives matter: their point is black lives haven’t mattered historically (while technically it could be #blacklivesmattertoo, that gets too long to be catchy). In this case, black bodies have taken the brunt of the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, and increased surveillance.

What’s the point of connecting #blacklivesmatter to women’s education in the late 1700s? Both are responses to naturalized beliefs that inhibit groups.

Women’s education was a response to women’s inferiority. #blacklivesmatter is a response to latent (and sometimes extremely overt) white supremacy that just wants black people to shut up, throw away their identity, stop complaining, and be like white people.

#alllivesmatter promotes inaction to change the killing of black lives by ignoring the actions already happening against black lives.

Beliefs matter. Probe them.


¹Amanda Porterfield, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 42-44.

The United States Wasn’t Founded as a Christian Nation

Hatch- DemocratizationThe United States was not founded as a Christian nation either politically or demographically.

The Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment makes this clear on the political side, but what about the people? Weren’t the people of the United States mostly, if not all, Christians?

Nathan Hatch in his work The Democratization of American Christianity highlights that the Christianization of America didn’t really occur until after the Revolution. We have the Second Great Awakening to thank for that.

Furthermore, while the United States was primarily Protestant for quite a while, no group really commanded a national hegemony. In other words, this Christianization was not a unified group of Christians; it was a plurality.

In the 19th century, the Methodists and Baptists commanded a majority of religionists, but they (especially the Baptists) did not have a centralized structure until a decade or two before the Civil War. In fact, according to scholars like Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, this very centralization and move away from massive evangelistic campaigns led to decline in the Methodist Church. They see this same phenomenon in churches that don’t evangelize, particularly liberal ones.

Hatch’s work also showed how the religious market in the States allowed by the Establishment Clause prevented one group from ever imposing its will on the country because there was too much competition. The freedom to exercise any religion allowed for explosive growth but not one established Church.

What would a Christian nation look like anyway? Is that dependent on sheer numbers or numbers of devoted followers? If the latter, how would you even quantify that?

On the sheer numbers side, church attendance has been steadily decreasing in nearly every church for around a decade. Denominations like the Assemblies of God have seen increased attendance, but this is primarily due to immigration.

What’s the point of saying the U.S. wasn’t founded as a Christian nation? I think it’s important to remember, because this phrase tends to be thrown around as a rhetorical device, particularly when a group sees its idea of Christianity being thwarted in the public arena. It can also be used to maintain the boundaries of a group that feels its ideals are in danger, not necessarily from outside forces.