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The American Revolution is nothing like the French Revolution

Old engraved illustration of George Washington's Continental Army leaving the winter camp at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War. Digitally restored.
Old engraved illustration of George Washington's Continental Army leaving the winter camp at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War. Digitally restored. | Getty Images/mikroman6

I am a self-confessed bibliophile. I always prefer reading an old-fashioned hard print copy of a book to its online version. One advantage of this strong preference is that it is much easier to browse through old, familiar volumes.

As I was doing this the other day, I came across Niall Ferguson’s influential Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011). Ferguson, a former Harvard Professor and Hoover Institution fellow, caused quite a stir with the publication of this volume.

As I was flipping through the heavily annotated and underscored pages, one particular quote jumped off the page. It was a statement from scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences which Ferguson quoted in the volume:

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“We were asked to look into what accounted for the preeminence of the West all over the world. At first we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past 20 years we have realized the heart of your culture is your religion, Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to Democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”

Isn’t it ironic that while many people in America and the rest of Western civilization are attempting to minimize or erase the influence of Christianity, the atheist social scientists from Communist China have come to understand that it is impossible to understand America and Western Civilization without the transcendent values of the Christian faith?

If we abandon these values, we shatter the foundation of who we are, who we have been, and who we hope to be. That would be civilizational suicide.

The irony presented by America’s chief international civilizational competitor’s brightest scholars identifying Christianity as our unique civilizational strength and advantage is stark.

As I pondered the Chinese scholars’ observations, I have been reminded of the basic and seminal differences between the American Revolution and the French Revolution, which is in many ways the ancestral progenitor of the Chinese Communist Revolution.

While some have mistakenly perceived the American and French Revolutions as similar in nature, they could not be more dissimilar.

The French Revolution in a shockingly short time led to a horrendous and bloody “reign of terror” and a Napoleonic dictatorship that became the model for modern totalitarian regimes. In contrast, the American Revolution led to the longest-sustained democracy in the history of the world — America.

The essential and defining difference between the two revolutions can be identified in their foundational statements. The American Revolution declared to the world, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” that “all men are created equal,” and that they are endowed by their Creator with these unalienable Rights.

Anyone who watched King Charles III's coronation ceremony last weekend could not have failed to observe the overtly Christian nature of that ceremony. The civilization that produced that coronation ceremony, produced the colonists who created the American Revolution.

In contrast, the French Revolution asserted the principles of “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” based purely on the assertion of those rights, as opposed to the American Revolution’s basing them on the “Creator” and natural law.

When our American founders declared their independence from Great Britain, they asserted their firm belief in such moral political convictions as all human beings having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as rights from God.

They then appealed to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of their intentions with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence. One Declaration signatory, Samuel Adams, said, “We have this day restored the Sovereign to whom all men ought to be obedient and from the rising to the setting of the sun, let His kingdom come.”  When they issued their Declaration of Independence, they never intended to declare their independence from God.

Conversely, that is exactly what the French Revolution did — declare their independence from God. They wanted to jettison Christianity and go all the way back to the pre-Christian roots of European civilization — back to Greco-Roman paganism. They dressed up a French actress as the goddess of reason, placed her on the altar of Notre Dame Cathedral, and worshipped her.

Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor instead of King, harkening back to Greco-Roman times, and the French “Empire” gowns (which resembled Roman togas) became the fashion of the day.

The Judeo-Christian roots of the American Revolution had the foundation that protected human rights instead of sacrificing them to the glory of the secular state.

Thank God our forefathers were American, not French, and they worshipped the one true God rather than themselves.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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