Harry S. Stout
Don't Ask the Founders
Religion and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America, edited by James H. Hutson, Rowman and Littlefield, 213 pp.; $22.95, paper
This volume of essays, growing from a June 1998 conference at the Library of Congress, addresses the relation of government to religion in the Founding period. The timing of its publication could not be better. With presidential candidates tripping over themselves to claim a religious faith—and, by extension, a religious American republic—the question of church and state has assumed a visibility, and vitriol, not seen since the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy.
What did the Founders of the American Republic intend when they drafted Constitutional amendments separating church and state and guaranteeing freedom of religion for all? In fact, the Founders differed profoundly over the meaning of separation of church and state, and have not turned out to be very good role models for their twenty-first century descendants. Despite their great wisdom in conceiving a new republic and designing its constitution, their clashing interpretations and personal behavior can only be described as deplorable.
Differences over religion in the public sphere helped anchor larger partisan debates pitting Jeffersonian "Republicans" against Adamsonian "Federalists" in an almost life-and-death struggle for hegemony. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, pushed through by an angry John Adams in an effort to arrest "disloyal" Republicans as seditious traitors, was merely the most conspicuous act of a very dirty war in which neither side would recognize the legitimacy of the other. Only at the end of their lives could Adams and Jefferson begin to apologize to one another for the folly of their ways.
Two centuries later, thanks in part to the Founders, the issues remain equally divisive. Major Supreme Court decisions, together with a vastly more empowered federal government, have prompted rancor and debate over church and state on a level not seen since Adams and Jefferson. Issues like prayer in the public schools and before football games, paid military chaplains, the posting of Ten Commandments in public schools, school vouchers, the charitable choice legislation, and our national motto have fueled ongoing debate. Of most immediate moment are the debates surrounding personal faith and politics in the current presidential election.
Inevitably, all sides on church/state issues claim that history is on their side, invoking the words of the Founders on a selective basis as if they were uttered yesterday—and eternally. But the actual history of church/state relations in early America is less well known, making it nearly impossible to draw any useful lessons from the past. Instead of actually exploring the history of what was said and done publicly by the American people and their leaders from the early Republic to the present, contemporary preachers, polemicists, pundits, politicians, and "public intellectuals" have simply manipulated the past with random quotes and examples (called "pre cedents") culled from a handful of sources in a shameless exploitation of the past to fit their current agendas.
In a marked departure from such practices, this volume of essays is de signed to replace heat with light, re storing some historical perspective to the vexing issues threatening to engulf us. From the start it is clear that the scholars are not of one mind, but in a refreshing departure from the op-ed pages of the press, they manage to explore their differences within a context of curiosity and civility rather than confrontation and denigration.
The volume opens with three essays contrasting the Adamsonian/New England perspective to the Jeffersonian/ Virginia perspective. Though hardly a cultural monolith, Colonial New England came as close to a closed corporate and Reformed Protestant state as any in Anglo-American history. In cultural and legislative terms, Boston was closer to Calvin's Geneva than Revolutionary Philadelphia or Virginia.
By the time of the Revolution, Puritan sensibilities had liberalized, but strong collective memories of a coercively established religion prevailed so that even a more deistic John Adams would reflect their prejudices and predilections. Though aghast at earlier Puritan intolerance and infringements upon liberty of conscience, Adams never took the next step of advocating a complete severance of public support from any and all religious or moral institutions. Nor could he imagine public office-holding without a religious test of legitimacy (meaning belief in the Christian God). A successful republic, Adams argued, required not only "virtue" in the Classical and Enlightenment senses of the term, but a more particular virtue grounded in "Christian" (i.e. Protestant) orthodoxy.
Adams was not alone in New England. While dissenting Baptists and Quakers railed loudly against the "tyranny" of tax-supported "establishments," they were in the minority. In the famous Article III of the Massachusetts State Constitution, citizens embraced a tax for the establishment of religion: "the legislature hath, therefore, a right, and ought to provide, at the expense of the subject, if necessary, a suitable support for the public worship of GOD, and of the teachers of religion and morals." Long after the Federal Constitution mandated a national separation between church and state, Massachusetts and New England Federalists generally supported an on going religious test oath for public office, mandated ecclesiastical taxes at the state level, and issued national proclamations of days of fasting and thanksgiving.
In "The Use and Abuse of Jefferson's Statute: Separating Church and State in Virginia," Thomas E. Buckley, SJ, describes a very different cultural and religious ethos prevalent in Colonial Virginia. Unlike New England's established Congregational church, Virginia's established Anglicans were destined to be losers in the Revolution and thoroughly compromised by their loyalty to the crown. Try as they might, Virginia Anglicans—later Episcopalians—would never be able to re cover their lost Colonial legacy. The religious future lay with the evangelicals. Radical theorists like Jefferson wanted a religion that was thoroughly defanged in the public square, and took the necessary legislative steps to insure that it happened.
Yet even in Jefferson's Virginia, the extent of separation would fall short of what some contemporary separationists advocate in Jefferson's name. Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom did not avoid significant overlaps between religion and politics that led to unceasing litigation. In many ways, Buckley points out, Virginians in the early Republic were hardly "Jeffersonian" by today's strictly separationist positions; they wrangled frequently in court over such issues as clerical office-holding (clerics, like women, were forbidden to hold political office in Virginia), the legal incorporation of churches (until the Civil War, churches were denied corporate status, and in legal terms were treated as a nonentity), and public education (theology represented a required subject under the heading of "moral philosophy"). In all of these areas, church and state were hopelessly interlocked, prompting Buckley to conclude that "instead of separating church and state in any modern American sense, these restrictions on religious groups continually entangled the legislature and the courts in the churches' temporal affairs and provided numerous occasions for legislation and litigation."
Indeed, the archseparationist Jefferson hesitated to take principles to their logical conclusion, if that conclusion augured ill for the well-being of the commonwealth. At one point Jefferson favored the barring of clergy from political office, but later backed off. At an other point he allowed clergy and religion courses at the borders of his prized University of Virginia if that was the price that state establishment exacted. Pragmatic necessities precluded absolutist declarations and rigid policies.
Another masterful explication of Jefferson's views on church and state, Daniel L. Dreisbach's "Thomas Jefferson, a Mammoth Cheese, and the 'Wall of Separation Between Church and State,'" explores the legacy of Jefferson's 1802 letter to a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association on the subject of national fast days and the separation of church and state.
Seldom, if ever, has a single letter exerted greater influence in the American public square than this seemingly innocent epistle to a group of obscure Jeffersonian Baptists in Federalist New England. In fact, Dreisbach concludes, the letter was not innocent, but a politically calculated instrument designed to serve the cause of party. Jefferson knew his words would be widely read and "used his response … to communicate his true convictions on matters of faith and morality to loyal 'Republicans' in New England, who might be sensitive to or confused by the Federalist press's unrelenting attacks on Jefferson's alleged immorality and irreligion." Even more important, Jefferson sought to use the letter to outline his often misunderstood refusal to proclaim national days of fasting and thanksgiving as the Federalist president Adams had done.
In the course of his letter, Jefferson introduced the metaphor of a "wall of separation between Church & State." At the time, the metaphor went unnoticed. In fact, the contemporaneous gift of a giant cheese from the Republican citizens of Vermont attracted far more commentary and attention in press and politics. But a century and a half later, Jefferson's phrase would be resurrected in post-World War II landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings, including Everson v. Board of Education and McCullum v. Board of Education. In today's Supreme Court, the term enjoys sacred juridical status.
While it is clear that Supreme Court justices have recently attached an immense and literal significance to the wall of separation between church and state, it is not as clear what Jefferson understood by the term. Through careful textual and contextual analysis, Dreisbach concludes that it meant less rather than more. As far as historians can tell, Jefferson never used the term again, nor did he ever expand its meaning in universalist ways to preclude all religion from civic life or political discourse. In using the metaphor Jefferson was thinking only about the federal government and its relation to ecclesiastical institutions. Church-state relations at the state and local level continued as usual. The Bill of Rights, Dreisbach reminds us, is essentially a states' rights document. In fact, Jefferson allowed considerably more room for religion in the public sphere than his present-day champions realize. Although he never proclaimed national days of fasting or thanksgiving, he did approve of executive fast proclamations at the state level and even proclaimed one day of fasting while serving as governor of Virginia.
Though not specifically limiting his essay to New England, Michael Novak's "The Influence of Judaism and Christianity on the American Founding" presents an interpretive essay on the meaning of the Founders that draws heavily from the New England perspective. In contrast to academicians who so "stress the Enlightenment that the religious sources of American habits and institutions are abruptly dismissed," Novak wishes to redress the imbalance and put religion foursquare at the center of the founders' republican ideology. While this is useful, Novak errs in assuming that his view challenges the academic establishment. Anyone even remotely familiar with the work of scholars like Gordon Wood, Donald Weber, Ruth Bloch, Patricia Bonomi, Nathan Hatch, or the late Alan Heimert would see they actually support Novak's position, if not his enthusiasm.
If Novak's emphasis on the influence of religion on the Founders hardly constitutes a rebuke to the academic consensus, nevertheless some scholars would take issue with the big picture sketched by his essay. In "Evangelicals in the American Founding and Evangelical Political Mobilization Today," Mark Noll addresses the question of religion and the American republic with conclusions almost directly opposite from Novak's. Noll too is interested in the present, and in particular the evangelicals (defined intellectually in ways that can and do include "mainline" Protestants and Roman Catholics), but his grounding is in the Colonial era. Instead of emphasizing the role of neo-Puritans and proto-evangelicals in the Revolution, Noll argues that other, more traditional forces defined the revolutionary experience.
In fact, Noll says, in the Colonial era there were hardly any "evangelicals" as that term is understood today: "Protestants like today's evangelicals came into existence only in the early nineteenth century." Nor were there many Puritans. Like other historians, Noll recognizes that, quite possibly, not a single delegate to the Constitutional Convention adhered to the Calvinist doctrine of Original Sin. With Puritans dead and evangelicals not yet born again, the void was filled by old-line territorialists who retained medieval notions of religion and virtue enforced at the point of a sword. Not until the 1820s would recognizably American evangelicals become actively involved in politics and civic culture. This involvement would continue up to the present. White evangelicals would evidence surprising unanimity, though often on opposite sides of the political fence from their black evangelical fellow-believers. Left unexplored is the pressing question of race and evangelical faith in orienting evangelical political behavior.
In "Why Revolutionary America Wasn't a 'Christian Nation,'" historian Jon Butler goes even further than Noll in minimizing the self-conscious role of Christian piety in shaping the American republic. In fact, Butler argues, Christianity was a far less pervasive, active religion than it is today. Based on his own and other historians' meticulous research into Colonial and early national church membership records, Butler reconstructs growth patterns and comes to some surprising conclusions. Throughout the Colonial era "it is all but impossible to calculate church membership at more than 20 percent of colonial adults before the American Revolution." Even more surprising, the chief engine of this growth was not evangelical revivals from rapidly rising Baptists and Methodists, but powerful "established" institutions enjoying coercive legislative support, and capable of applying techniques of corporate organization to ecclesiastical and moral reform agencies.
To say that America was not a Christian nation in its formative era is not to say that it didn't try. Public school indoctrination and the forced resettlement of the American Indians into "Christian nations" in the 1870s reveal to Butler a dark side to Christianization that would not concede to "others" the liberty of conscience that it reserved for itself. Meanwhile, the Protestant elites who dominated America's most powerful institutions shamefully re wrote American history to recast early America as a "Christian nation," when the phrase itself is virtually impossible to discover in any documents created between 1760 and 1790.
In saving historian Catherine A. Brekus's essay on "The Revolution in the Churches" for last, I am not mindlessly following a custom acidly observed by Aileen S. Kraditor, according to which women always come last be cause they are deemed somehow "extraneous" to the real issue at hand. On the contrary, I reserve Brekus's essay for last because more than any other essay in this collection it is a primer for future research.
Brekus's essay rests on a body of vast personal research into itinerant women preachers and activists following the Revolution. Her findings lead to an ironic conclusion. Many recent studies of gender and the Revolution have minimized the Revolution's significance for women, pointing out that despite rule "by the people," women were not al lowed to vote, hold public office, make contracts, or own property. But, Brekus asks, is politics the only public arena? The answer is no. Religion, no less than politics, had a "public sphere," and in that sphere women moved with alacrity to redraw sexist boundaries in anticipation of the Women's Rights movement. The most extreme—and controversial—republican female activists were itinerant preachers, but women's involvement and leadership on a more general level was prodigious: "Thousands of women in the early republic—white and black, northern and southern, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—organized home mission societies, distributed religious tracts, and founded charities and orphanages."
Brekus's insights give scope to an expanding research agenda that is only now gaining the momentum it deserves. When churches are seen in the public sphere, many generalizations and stereo types require revision. Though "voluntary organizations," churches were not insignificant in the public sphere any more than political parties, also "voluntary organizations," were. When their achievements are fully explored and appreciated, the conclusion is obvious: "The early women's rights movement … had deep religious roots."
Considered as a whole, this volume is not going to contribute many insights that specialists don't already have. Nor does the editor help the cause with a perfunctory "preface" that belies his own understanding of the subject. The chief beneficiaries will be students and general readers in search of a balanced overview of religion and the new republic. For such readers—and they would include most of the readers of this journal—the volume provides a newly washed window into a complex and conflicted issue, without the smudges and smears of polemics and preconceived positions.
It is fashionable these days to contrast retrograde academic intellectuals, who are aloof and insular, to "public intellectuals" who bring light and truth to the masses in a language they can readily understand. But as this collection confirms, such a stereotype is naive. One reads much of the public intellectuals' offerings in vain for any sustained engagement with the more dispassionate research of scholars in the trenches, such as this volume represents. The lack of empirical grounding, on both sides of the various debates conducted loudly in journals of opinion, is scandalous. In fact, the pronouncements of public intellectuals show a callow disregard for scholarship. All too often they behave less like public intellectuals than political intellectuals hired out to gloss political agendas and denigrate the "opposition." They behave, in other words, just like the Founders.
For Americans today, the question in the end is not, What would the Founders have done if they were here to confront the problems we face? We already know what they did to their "enemies." The question is, How do we improve and move beyond the Founders in a still unfinished revolution? Through the tone of this volume as much as the substance, we gain some purchase on the problem of civility and American republicanism. In its balance, restraint, and respect for a long tradition of reasoned debate, it provides us with a role model we can live by.
Harry S. Stout is Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale University, general editor of the Works of Jonathan Edwards from Yale University Press, and general editor of the Oxford University Press series, Religion in America.
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine.
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