James H. Hutson, ed. Religion and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America. Lanham and Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000. viii + 213 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8476-9434-1.
Reviewed by William Breitenbach (Department of History, University of Puget Sound)
Published on H-SHEAR (September, 2001)
"I reapproached the wall. I replied to the yells of him who clamored. I re-echoed--I aided--I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamorer grew still." (Edgar Allan Poe, "The Cask of Amontillado")
Many Americans who debate the implications or applications of Thomas Jefferson's dictum about a "wall of separation between Church & State" take up the task in the spirit of Poe's narrator, Montresor. If only I shout loudly enough, they think, I'll silence my opponents, and we can proceed promptly to the story's proper conclusion: "In pace requiescat!" Recently, I discovered this truth anew and found myself almost wishing for Fortunato's fate. I was at home awaiting the blinds repairman. When he arrived (an hour late), he was naturally curious about how I could manage to be idling away my time in the middle of the workday. "If you don't mind my asking, what do you do for a living?" "History professor," I replied. After the customary declaration of a deep love for reading history (How come such people never appear in my classes!?), he quizzed me thoroughly enough to find out that I was reviewing this book. Oh boy! Before I could say "antidisestablishmentarianism," I was hearing about the nefarious plot by the ACLU and its minions, the Supreme Court, to sweep aside the will of the democratic majority, make "our" religion illegal, and promote the preachings of rock stars who exhort their disciples to rape and murder their mothers. Jeez, I might not be qualified for my job, but he certainly was in the right profession.
Given the tone of that discussion, I was delighted to read this refreshing comment by Jon Butler in the essay that concludes this volume: "Let's be blunt. It is no longer possible for historians generally, or for a historian--this historian--to pretend that any judgment about this question is merely an exercise of abstract scholarship...Only by acknowledging the sheer partisanship that now invades these matters can we go back to the eighteenth century with any sense of honesty. Perhaps, we ought to return to it with relief" (pp. 188-89).
For the most part, it is indeed a relief to follow this book's seven essayists back in time as they attempt to puzzle out what it was that eighteenth-century Americans thought about religion and government. Not surprisingly, what the essayists have found in the past varies, for, as editor James H. Hutson admits, when the Library of Congress sponsors a symposium on "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic," as it did in June 1998, it must take pains "to ensure that a variety of views are represented" (p. vii). (With one exception, the essays in this book are revisions of papers delivered at that symposium.)
As Butler's remark implies, the journey into the past comes with a round-trip ticket. Each of these essayists wants to suggest--some more strongly than others--that what revolutionary Americans thought and did has some relevance to current debates about religion and the republic. The best of the essays, however, return to the present with a complex sense of historical context, a sense which, if widely shared, would hush those clamorous partisans who delight in yelling at one another across the wall. I'll take the essays up in the order of their appearance.
John Witte, Jr., is Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and the director of the Law and Religion Program at Emory University Law School. His essay, "'A Most Mild and Equitable Establishment of Religion': John Adams and the Massachusetts Experiment," looks at the religious establishment sanctioned by the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Witte's main point is that Jefferson's model of religious liberty, which called for the complete detachment of the state from religion, was not the only model blessed by the founders. Jefferson's friend and rival, John Adams, shared with the Virginian an abhorrence of ecclesiastical tyranny and a commitment to liberty of conscience, but he nonetheless believed that "the freedom of many private religions" was perfectly compatible with "the establishment of one 'Publick religion'" (p. 3).
Article III of the Massachusetts Constitution attempted to create, or rather preserve, the type of mild religious establishment that Adams favored. It protected rights of conscience and permitted religious pluralism but it also authorized the state legislature to require towns to institute the public worship of God; to provide tax support for elected "public protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality"; and to "enjoin attendance upon the instructions of the public teachers" for residents who could conscientiously and conveniently attend (p. 13). Those townsfolk who regularly worshiped with other denominations could direct their taxes to their own ministers, but everyone else would have his taxes go toward the maintenance of the community's chosen public minister.
Although John Adams did not draft Article III and indeed had left the country before the constitutional convention completed its deliberations, he supported the Massachusetts model of religious establishment. He believed that a common religion and a shared sense of morality were essential foundations for liberty and republican government: As Witte puts it, Adams assumed that "too much freedom of religion would only encourage depravity in citizens" (p. 18). Hence, Adams defined freedom of religion as a right to religion: "the right of each individual to discharge divine duties--which duties the Constitution helped to define" (p. 17). According to Witte, Adams considered religious rights to be as much social as individual in character; they were shaped by the needs of society for public virtue and public peace.
Witte observes that the "slender" religious establishment in Massachusetts had three manifestations. In addition to the "institutional establishment" (p. 22) perpetuated by Article III, there was a "ceremonial establishment" (p. 19) that drew upon Puritan covenantalism by invoking the name and presence of God in public rituals, as when public officials swore their oaths of office. There was also a "moral establishment" (p. 20), which took the form of constitutional endorsements of religious morality as the prerequisite for civil liberty. The institutional establishment, controversial even in 1780 and "unworkable in practice" (p. 29), continued to arouse opposition until it was overturned by constitutional amendment in 1833. But the ceremonial and moral establishments, Witte suggests, remain entombed to this day in the Massachusetts Constitution, waiting to be resurrected (p. 22).
Witte's concluding paragraphs reveal the destination to which he wants to return after his journey to the eighteenth century. Jefferson should not be viewed as the exclusive spokesman for the founders. We should also (instead?) listen to Adams, who would "likely insist" that we recognize the "dialectical nature of religious freedom and religious establishment": "Too firm a religious establishment breeds coercion and corruption. But too little religious establishment allows secular prejudices to become constitutional prerogatives" (pp. 30-31). In favoring "a complete disestablishment of religion," the Supreme Court has done a disservice to "a people so widely devoted to a public religion and a religious public" (p. 31). Americans today should follow Adams's example and seek a new constitutional balance "between extremes" (p. 31), by which Witte presumably means judicial affirmation of "modern theories of accommodationism and religious communitarianism" (p. 4).
As I was reading Witte's essay, I kept thinking of a chapter title in Gordon Wood's Creation of the American Republic: "The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams." Why should we follow Adams in matters of religion when we follow him in so little else? Witte is clearly right to note that not all revolutionary Americans wanted a complete separation of religion and government. After all, Massachusetts did retain its institutional establishment for half a century after the Revolution. But Massachusetts was hardly typical or representative in doing so. And even in Massachusetts, the mild establishment was nearly flushed away by "a torrent of objections" (p. 23). Article III actually failed to receive the requisite two-thirds majority from the people when the Constitution was ratified in 1780 (though the constitutional convention ignored the vote). So, if we want to look to eighteenth-century Massachusetts for "noble instruction" (p. 31) on religious liberty, a case could be made for choosing Isaac Backus over John Adams as the Revolutionary whose opinions should count. For that matter, it might make sense to listen to the anti-ecclesiastical Adams of A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765) rather than to hearken, as Witte does, to the cranky old man who spent the 1810s deluging his correspondents with lamentations about the loss of republican virtue. Still, even if Witte does not prove Adams to be the best guide for the present, he does demonstrate convincingly that Jefferson's views on church and state were not universally accepted, not even by other famous founders who shared his Enlightenment culture and his revolutionary experience.
In "The Use and Abuse of Jefferson's Statute: Separating Church and State in Nineteenth-Century Virginia," Thomas E. Buckley, S.J., shows, among other things, that not even Jefferson adhered to Jefferson's principles. Nor did the nineteenth-century Virginians who claimed to be applying them. Buckley, who is Professor of Historical Theology in the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, offers a fascinating discussion of the ways that Virginians regularly transformed the meaning of church-state separation to meet the culturally conditioned needs of their particular circumstances. Like many other commentators, Buckley takes as his central text Jefferson's famous Statute for Religious Freedom (1786). But unlike those who treat it as a timeless precept, Buckley considers it historically, examining Virginians' "lived experience of the Statute in the nineteenth century" (p. 43). In particular, his essay focuses on three issues: the exclusion of clergymen from public office, the legal incorporation of religious organizations, and the place of religion in public education.
Jefferson's Statute called for a strict separation of church and state. Declaring that "our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions," it denounced as a violation of "natural right" any measure that linked public office to religious profession or that diminished or enlarged people's civil capacities because of their religious beliefs (pp. 41-42). Yet when a Methodist preacher named Humphrey Billups was elected to the House of Delegates in 1826, the legislature disqualified him by a vote of 179 to 2. In disregarding the language of the Statute, Billups's opponents appealed to its supposed purpose, which they said was to prevent sectarian domination of government. When the Virginia Constitution was revised in 1830, Jefferson's prohibition against religious tests was incorporated into it but so too was clerical exclusion. The inconsistency was again justified on cultural grounds: the clergy should be excluded lest they be corrupted by "the rough and tumble" of politics. And so it went for forty more years. Ignoring Jefferson's principles of civil and natural rights, Virginians drew the line between church and state according to the current values of their culture. It was only when the culture changed and Reconstruction-era reformers wanted to "elevate the moral tone of politics" (p. 45) that the disqualification of ministers was dropped from the Constitution. Jefferson's notions of natural rights had nothing to do with it.
Buckley makes a similar argument about cultural context trumping abstract rights in his section on the incorporation of religious organizations. After repealing the incorporation of the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1787, the Virginia legislature routinely refused to incorporate churches, seminaries, or religious charities. Restrictions of one sort or another continued through a succession of constitutional revisions, all the way into the twentieth century. What motivated this policy was not the doctrine of separation but the widespread cultural fear of powerful and wealthy churches. Virginians persisted in their policy even though its consequences seemed to violate the principles of Jefferson's Statute. For example, the state's courts found themselves continually entangled in the temporal affairs of unincorporated churches, and many of the state's citizens found themselves denied rights merely because they chose to gather themselves into religious associations.
Buckley's third case--religious education--reveals how the evangelical culture of the nineteenth century reshaped church-state separation. Jefferson had hoped to eliminate religion from his proposed public university by removing theology from the curriculum. But as evangelical Protestantism came to dominate Virginia's culture in the early nineteenth century, Jefferson realized that he would have to compromise: he accepted nonsectarian religious education at the University of Virginia so long as it was taught under the name of moral philosophy. The separation of church and state apparently did not require, even for Jefferson, an unreligious public education. Jefferson's compromise was reenacted at other colleges, and even denominational colleges were required to be nonsectarian (though they were permitted to be religious). By the end of the nineteenth century, the separation of church and state meant, in Virginia's public school system, the inculcation of nonsectarian evangelical Protestantism, complete with Bible-reading, praying, and hymn-singing. Few seem to have complained, as long as students were not subjected to denominational coercion or compulsion.
Buckley's conclusion sounds like a historian's conclusion, one sensitive to context and change: "The meaning of the Virginia Statute, of separation of church and state, not only unfolded in Virginia, it changed. Its application, like that of the First Amendment, has been and always will be culturally contextualized" (p. 55). The "always will be" is a clue, however, that Buckley, like Witte, returns from his historical journey with a contemporary destination in mind. It turns out to be a destination pretty close to Witte's position on accommodationism. If "culturally contextualized separation" (p. 54) was good enough for Jefferson, Buckley implies, it should be good enough for us. Jefferson and his nineteenth-century disciples in Virginia "refused to follow rigid principles to their logical, absolute conclusions when they perceived that higher concerns and values were at stake" (p. 55). What's at stake--then and apparently now--is the "welfare of the commonwealth," something seemingly so dependent upon religion that "the government should recognize it and support it" (p. 55). Since "most Americans today" would agree, since "we" understand "the important benefits the religious faith of our people confers on our republic" (p. 55), we should presumably tolerate a little cultural contextualizing of our principles. Hmmm, is that sound I hear the wall shifting?
Daniel L. Dreisbach, Associate Professor in the Department of Justice, Law, and Society at American University, examines Jefferson's wall with the care of a structural engineer. His essay, "Thomas Jefferson, a Mammoth Cheese, and the 'Wall of Separation Between Church and State,'" discusses the origins of the "wall of separation" metaphor in Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association and the subsequent use of the metaphor by courts and commentators to describe the constitutional relationship between church and state. Dreisbach's purpose is to advance a new interpretation of Jefferson's metaphor, an interpretation consistent with the text and context of the Danbury letter and consistent too with his preferences for church-state relations today.
Dreisbach's essay is long, diffuse, and quite repetitive. Some of the sections seem to bear little relationship to the main point, including the introductory one that describes a half-ton cheese sent from Massachusetts to the White House by Jefferson's Baptist supporters. (This may be my only professional opportunity to urge someone to cut the cheese, so I'll seize it.)
When Dreisbach gets down to business, he makes the following points. The phrase "a wall of separation between Church & State" appeared in Jefferson's reply to a letter written by the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, congratulating him on his election to the presidency. Jefferson wrote his response carefully, even circulating a draft to two New Englanders in his cabinet, because he was acutely aware of its political implications. Indeed, Jefferson's letter was fundamentally a political document, not a theological or jurisprudential one. He wanted to shore up electoral support among the New England Baptists by reassuring them that he was devoted to their religious liberty. He also wanted to cuff the Federalist-Congregationalist establishment that had denounced him as an infidel during the presidential campaign of 1800. His hope was to sow some "'useful truths & principles' that 'might germinate and become rooted among [the people's] political tenets'" (p. 72). As Dreisbach notes, this horticultural wording of the letter's purpose implicitly admits that Jefferson's position on church-state separation did not reflect prevailing public attitudes. Hence it is not legitimate for historians and jurists to use the letter as an epitome of the founders' generally accepted understanding of the proper constitutional relationship of church and state.
When Dreisbach moves from the context to the text of Jefferson's letter, he discovers that it was not as far-reaching as historians and jurists have sometimes taken it to be. Here is the relevant sentence: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State" (quoted at p. 74). Following Jon Butler, Dreisbach argues that Jefferson narrowed the scope of his statement by using the word church rather than the word religion. Jefferson also narrowed the reach of the other key word, according to Dreisbach, by making it clear that the "State" he referred to was the national government, not the governments of the states. From the restrictive wording, Dreisbach concludes that Jefferson was not using the wall metaphor to announce a universal principle nor was he expressing "his views on the constitutional and prudential relationship between religion and all civil government" (p. 75).
What then was he doing? Dreisbach advances a "jurisdictional interpretation of the metaphor," contending that Jefferson's wall was intended to separate "the legitimate jurisdictions of federal and state governments on religious matters" (p. 75). In other words, Jefferson was offering a gloss on the First Amendment, explaining to the Danbury Baptists the nature of federalism, not the nature of church-state relations. In effect, his letter was alerting them that the federal government might be constitutionally barred from interfering in religion but that state governments were "authorized to accommodate and even prescribe religious exercises" (p. 78).
As evidence for this jurisdictional interpretation, Dreisbach points to Jefferson's own "willingness to issue religious proclamations in colonial and state government settings" (p. 77). From this apparent inconsistency, Dreisbach concludes that Jefferson's wall metaphor applied solely to the federal government. Next, he shifts his analysis from the Danbury letter to the First Amendment, arguing that Jefferson and his contemporaries viewed the Bill of Rights as "essentially a states' rights document" (p. 79). The First Amendment was, he says, a guarantee to the states that the federal government could not interfere with their religious establishments: "The use of a First Amendment wall to protect dissenters' religious rights in the states would have dangerously undermined that other great protector of civil and religious liberty--federalism" (p. 81). Hence those who take the wall metaphor as "the quintessential symbolic expression" of Jefferson's views on church and state are using it in ways that he "almost certainly would not have recognized and, perhaps, would have repudiated" (p. 84).
But to prove this claim, Dreisbach must ignore the three introductory clauses in Jefferson's wall sentence quoted above. And he must also disregard the sentence in the Danbury letter that follows the wall sentence: "Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties" (quoted at p. 74). To me at least, these words suggest that Jefferson was attempting to state universal principles about religion and government, principles that the federal constitution had incorporated and that he wished to see extended more generally.
Besides, Dreisbach's argument confuses Jefferson's understanding of his constitutional powers with his personal principles and preferences. It is rather like reasoning that President Lincoln wished slavery to flourish in 1861 because he said that he lacked constitutional authority to free the slaves. Even Dreisbach seems to concede that he has pushed too far. After insisting that the wall metaphor was not a general statement of Jefferson's views on church-state relations, he acknowledges, "It is plausible, even likely, that Jefferson desired each state through its respective constitutions and laws to erect its own wall of separation..." (p. 83).
If so, why all the jurisdictional huffing and puffing? Dreisbach's real quarrel seems to be not with historians who have misunderstood Jefferson's values but with jurists who have misapplied his words. If the courts had not seized on the wall metaphor as the authoritative explication of the First Amendment, it is hard to imagine that Dreisbach or anybody else would have attempted to argue that the Danbury letter was about Jefferson's views on federalism rather than his views on church and state. But if Dreisbach is to get where he wants to go today, he must either change legal doctrine or change history. It is easier to change history. Unlike judges, historians don't subscribe to the principle of stare decisis.
After three essays that seem intent upon finding historical grounds for a flexible and "accommodationist" reading of the First Amendment, it is refreshing to encounter one that has no obvious policy goals for the present. Catherine A. Brekus, Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School, seeks to explain how the Revolution's religious settlement helped to change the status of women. Her essay, "The Revolution in the Churches: Women's Religious Activism in the Early American Republic," makes the following resolutely historical argument. Before the Revolution, when church was closely tied to state, "women were almost universally excluded from positions of religious leadership" (p. 118), and they were disciplined--by church and state alike--if they challenged males' authority in religion. The exceptions were dissenting sects like the Baptists, Quakers, and Separates. Because these sects had divorced religion from politics, they did not view women's public religious leadership as threatening their legal, economic, and political subordination to men. Brekus acknowledges that theology was also a factor, but she contends that there was "a strong correlation between religious dissent and female leadership in colonial America" (p. 121).
When the First Amendment "shattered the traditional relationship between religion and politics" (p. 121), all churches became, in effect, dissenting sects. As voluntary associations that depended on persuasion for their success, they occupied a middle ground "between the private world of the family and the public world of the government" (p. 123). Because they were no longer quasi-governmental institutions, the newly disestablished churches could accept women's religious activism and leadership without seeming to countenance political disorder. Indeed, the notion of republican motherhood suggested that women's participation in church-sponsored reform movements actually secured public order. Thus the ante-bellum churches offered women an entrance into public life. Women of all kinds--Protestants, Catholics, and Jews; blacks and whites; Northerners and Southerners; middle class and working class--surged through the opening. The most striking and controversial examples of women in the public sphere were female evangelical preachers. Although these women preachers typically denied any desire to overturn male authority, it was but a short step from their defense of women's religious rights to feminists' demands for women's political rights: if women could be preachers, "why couldn't they also vote or hold public office?" (p. 130).
Now, one might object that Brekus gives too much weight to disestablishment and the First Amendment (though her emphasis is understandable, given the book's subject). It is quite likely that women's religious activism would have increased had there been no Revolution. After all, religious women in England actively participated in nineteenth-century missionary and moral reform movements. Moreover, in the United States women's activism in religion and reform was greatest in New England, the region where established churches held on the longest.
Still, Brekus's essay offers an intriguing, fresh look at some old topics. Although it might seem that she is saying the same thing that Nancy F. Cott said a quarter century ago in The Bonds of Womanhood, Brekus gives her argument a slightly different spin. She stresses women's agency and leadership more than male ministers' control and direction. And she describes religious and reform societies not as sororal extensions of women's domestic sphere but rather as public arenas in which "women worked side by side with men" (p. 124; see also p. 126). Other historians have observed that the women's rights movement had religious roots. But when Brekus says that the political revolution for American women was preceded by a religious revolution (p. 117), she helps us realize that this fact belongs as much in the history of American religion as it does in the history of American feminism.
Finally, this essay is a useful complement to the currently popular argument that the American Revolution constructed a definition of citizenship through gender (and racial) exclusion. Without disputing that claim, Brekus nevertheless restores some revolution to the Revolution by showing that once the "founders set in motion a religious revolution" (p. 130), they inadvertently started a gender revolution as well. This is a nice essay. It made me think anew about matters that I thought I already understood.
The next essay, "Evangelicals in the American Founding and Evangelical Political Mobilization Today," is great. Written by Mark A. Noll, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, it is the one essay that was not delivered as a paper at the Library of Congress symposium. Noll, who is widely admired as an evangelical Christian scholar dedicated to intellectual candor and historical rigor, sets out to correct the misuse of history by contemporary disputants, especially by politically mobilized evangelicals who claim that America's founders embraced evangelical beliefs.
Noll begins his essay with a long, careful doctrinal, sociological, and historical analysis of political mobilization among white conservative Protestant evangelicals during the past twenty-five years. Resentful of "national standards of moral practice" (p. 145) that accompanied the expansion of federal authority, these evangelical Protestant conservatives felt "a sense of historical violation": "the deep conviction that the United States was once a Christian country in a meaningful, if nonestablishmentarian, sense of the term, which in the fairly recent past has been hijacked by secularists in a great conspiracy to negate that historical reality" (p. 145). In reaction to this evangelical myth of the founding disseminated by the New Christian Right, there has emerged a liberal, secularist counter-myth, typified by R. Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick's book The Godless Constitution: The Case against Religious Correctness. Noll explodes both myths. In so doing, he reveals that good history makes for complex truths and that complex truths in turn make for good politics, which is to say politics based on understanding and tolerance.
Noll shows that "evangelicalism as defined by its conservative Protestant exponents today played at best a negligible role in the founding era of the 1770s and 1780s" (p. 146). True, the political leaders of the Revolution spoke of the deity with respect, but they were not born-again Christians or believers in original sin. They were not atheists, but neither were they evangelicals. Nor, for the most part, was the public that they led. Both inside and outside the leadership ranks, the public political discourse during the Revolution was "overwhelmingly this-worldly" in character (p. 147). In fact, what we would recognize as evangelical Christianity did not begin to flourish in America until after 1800; in other words, it emerged after the framework for church-state relations had been set by the decidedly non-evangelical founding generation. The founders had determined that there would be no religious establishment, but they also had assumed that religion would be relied upon to "provide the morality without which a republic would collapse"(p. 151). In the nineteenth century, voluntarist evangelical denominations responded to the founders' challenge, successfully moralizing American culture. But even as they spread their values, they never produced a unified evangelical politics. Throughout the ante-bellum period, evangelicals were divided politically along regional, class, denominational, and doctrinal lines.
Having proved that the founders' guidelines for religion and society emerged in a situation "more theistic than some modern liberals admit" but "much less explicitly Christian than modern evangelicals wish" (p. 154), Noll ends with four contemporary applications. First, he urges Americans to engage in honest political debate rather than search the mythic past for a "constitutional silver bullet" (p. 154). Second, he urges evangelicals to recognize that while political mobilization is traditional in America, a unified evangelical politics is not. Third, he urges evangelical conservatives to consider the dangers of political involvement by reflecting on the lessons of the Civil War, which weakened evangelicalism "as a spiritual force" in both North and South (p. 155). Finally, he urges all Americans to understand that though today's evangelicals are wrong to appropriate the founders, they are right to insist that the founders rested their hopes for the republic on the virtue that religion promotes.
Noll's balanced arguments and judicious tone are models for historians who seek to study a past that has become the present's battleground. This essay should also be required reading for anyone tempted to arm himself with a quotation from Washington's Farewell Address and fire off a letter to the editor about the Faith of Our Fathers. As if to demonstrate, however, that good advice is generally ignored, Noll's sensible contribution is followed by Michael Novak's harangue on "The Influence of Judaism and Christianity on the American Founding." Novak, who occupies the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, has written the kind of essay that Noll's is designed to prevent. To a historian, this essay will seem the weakest one in the book, not simply because it has the most overt political agenda but also because it displays the least concern for historical context.
A swashbuckling op-ed style is evident in the deliberately provocative question that begins the piece: "Can an atheist be a good American?" (p. 159). That style is also apparent in the breezy contention that "few historians or political philosophers" possess sufficient familiarity with "the traditions of religious reflection on liberty" to descry the thesis that Novak intends "to lift into view" (p. 159). Once hoisted, however, the thesis does not appear to be all that novel. Novak asserts that the founders drew upon both "Whig and Jewish-Christian theories of liberty" (p. 159). Reason and revelation converged to teach them that liberty required virtue, that virtue required religion, and that all three--religion and virtue and liberty--were precarious and easily lost. To secure all three and preserve republican government, the founders chose not to establish a national church but rather to foster "religious habits of the heart" in the American people (p. 173). Their efforts to build the republic on a moral foundation meant that they accepted and even encouraged the "free exercise" of religion in public life (p. 174).
Unlike Noll, who contrasts the unevangelical American Revolutionaries with their nineteenth-century evangelical descendants, Novak contrasts them with their near-contemporaries, the infidel Jacobins. Whereas the future-oriented French Revolutionaries followed the Enlightenment's abstract principles of Reason to their destructive, radical, atheistic conclusions, the American Whigs were traditionalists who shunned utopian abstractions and sought instead to restore ancient Saxon liberties and Jewish-Christian religion. In Novak's version of comparative revolutions, Robespierre bade his countrymen lose their heads in the Terror; Washington bade his bow their heads in prayer.
But, Novak warns, the founders' foundation is being sapped. During the past fifty years "important elites in American life" including political philosophers, law school professors, and judges "have come to regard religion as a force inimical to democracy" (p. 163). They have been "Europeanizing" (p. 163) the American Revolution by denying its religious sources and stressing instead the secular ideas of Enlightenment thinkers, especially Locke, who is being used by certain unnamed "interpreters" to drive our country "down the winding road to Gomorrah, into the decadence that has destroyed many nations" (p. 184, n.37). The first step downward is to define humans in Lockean terms as solitary and atomistic individuals. The second step is to define all obligations and responsibilities as merely volitional. The third step is "to empower the government to root out every vestige of religious expression from every aspect of public life" (p. 176). Novak apparently believes that if these anonymous elites succeed in giving the Revolution a French roll, the "extinction" of Judaism and Christianity "in private life" is sure to follow (p. 176). Can tumbrels and the guillotine be far behind?
To avert this apocalypse, Novak pries quotations from their context and hurls them indiscriminately at the "elites." (Much of the ammunition was already assembled for him in William J. Bennett's arsenal for non-elites, Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems, and Speeches.) Passages by Benjamin Rush and Rev. Samuel Cooper are flung out to prove that republics require religion. Utterances by Joseph Story and Noah Webster are plucked from the nineteenth century and heaved. Even Jefferson and Madison, collaborators on Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom, have their words seized and shied at the irreligious. Novak's evidentiary standards are not high. If in 1860 John Wingate Thornton declared that "To the Pulpit, the Puritan Pulpit, we owe the moral force which won our independence" (quoted at p. 164), well then it must be so.
But quibbles about evidence are ultimately irrelevant, for this piece is a jeremiad, not a work of historical scholarship. The quotations that fill it serve about the same purpose that scripture citations serve in a Puritan sermon. Novak's essay begins by asking if an atheist can be a good American. It ends by calling for virtue and vigilance and by promising that "America's experiment in liberty is especially dear to Providence. Looking down on it, God smiles" (p. 178). Perhaps so, I'm not sure. I can't see God's face. I am certain, though, that a historian winced.
Editor Hutson has saved the best for last: "Why Revolutionary America Wasn't a 'Christian Nation'" by Jon Butler, the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies and History at Yale University. Asking if late eighteenth-century America was a Christian country, Butler proposes to "look at government, society, and people to recover what men and women of the time did and believed" (p. 189). He discovers that the answer to his question is complicated.
In some ways, America on the eve of the Revolution was more religious than it had been in the seventeenth century. Revivalism and denominational expansion during the eighteenth century caused a tremendous growth in the number of congregations. Moreover, the "state church apparatus" (p. 189) was also becoming stronger, with seven of the thirteen colonies giving legal support to a single Protestant church. Even in colonies without an establishment, Catholics, Jews, and blasphemers frequently endured legal discrimination and penalties.
But despite congregational growth and legal support for churches, most eighteenth-century Americans remained indifferent to religion. Before the Revolution, about eighty percent of adults did not even belong to a church. America was only nominally and formally Christian. Indeed, Butler argues that the laws establishing state churches and favoring Protestant Christianity were needed "precisely because actual Christian adherence in the population was relatively weak" (p. 191).
After the Revolution, denominational rivalries and Enlightenment objections to religious coercion led states "to withdraw from or greatly reduce government involvement with religion" (p. 192). In state after state, single-church establishments fell after religious pluralism provoked bitter political squabbles over tax support and legislative favoritism. The culmination of Americans' increasing suspicion of government partiality in religion was the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Going far beyond the prohibition of an established church, the First Amendment "banned government activity in religion generally" (p. 196).
Revolutionary Americans understood that theirs was "a society where Christianity was important yet not ubiquitous" (p. 197). It was not a Christian nation. There was too much indifference, heterodoxy, and atheism to call it that. Given their religious diversity and its potential for turmoil, Americans realized that they could preserve civil peace and promote spiritual renewal only by keeping government from meddling in religion. If the United States were ever to become a Christian nation, it would do so as "a matter of practice, not law or governmental encouragement" (p. 198).
Looking back, Butler marvels at the "remarkable risks taken by remarkable men and women in remarkable times" (p. 189). In separating government and religion, they boldly devised an arrangement that was, in its day, virtually unprecedented and that became, in the days to follow, notably successful. As Butler comments, their risks and their achievements still "challenge modern Americans who would pretend to exercise equal leadership on still difficult questions of religion, the state, conscience, and faith" (p. 189).
If that challenge is to be issued to modern Americans, it will be historians who deliver it. We should be grateful, I suppose, because we have here a subject--religion and the Revolution--about which modern Americans actually care to hear what we think. There's always a danger, though, when historians are handed an audience, especially an audience eager to act on instruction. The opportunity can bring out the worst in us. We don't do our duty as historians when we oversimplify and overstate, when we ignore historical context, when we disregard the differences between present and past circumstances, when we pretend that the words of a few great men express the convictions of all their contemporaries. We do our duty as historians when we help our contemporaries comprehend a past that was, as Butler shows it to be, more "complicated, fascinating, and historically unique" than they might have imagined (p. 189). Fortunately, in this collection of essays historians can find several models of duty well done.
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William Breitenbach. Review of Hutson, James H., ed., Religion and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America.
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