God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution
God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution
Thomas S. Kidd
Basic Books, 2010
304 pp., $26.95

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Matt Reynolds

Revolutionary Faith

A religious history of the American Revolution.

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Kidd enumerates five major precepts around which evangelicals, skeptics, and other Revolutionary compatriots coalesced: the campaign to disestablish state churches, the belief in a creator God who endowed all men with inalienable rights, the reality of human sinfulness, the corresponding need to foster private and public virtue, and the certainty of Providential governance over the affairs of mankind. Although evangelical and Enlightenment rationales often differed dramatically, both camps could identify common ground—and, in the British threat, a common enemy.

Underpinning these individual ideals was a ferocious, all-encompassing devotion to the "sacred" ideal of liberty: Coercive religious establishments trampled on it; divinely anchored human rights safeguarded it from tyrannical abuses; restraints on sinful passion and exhortations to virtue slowed its descent into selfishness; and God, in his good judgment, might restore or rescind it based on a nation's faithfulness, or lack thereof. Many of Kidd's finest passages revolve around anguished speculation, during this or that pivotal battle, that God—angered by a retreat from righteousness—might suddenly withdraw his protection.

To communicate the odd-couple quality of the Revolutionary coalition, Kidd periodically juxtaposes Jefferson against the Baptist minister and religious liberty champion John Leland, who embodied the evangelical ethos as unmistakably as our third President embodied the Enlightenment alternative. Although they "could not have been more opposed in their personal religious views," both men "believed that government should afford liberty of conscience to its citizens and should not privilege one Christian denomination over another." While battling to secure religious liberty in Virginia, Jefferson assiduously courted evangelical support. And Leland, mirroring the sentiments of his Baptist brethren, rejoiced in Jefferson's ascent to the presidency, believing it portended a waning of persecution.

Of course, as Kidd readily acknowledges, Revolutionary ideals commanded nothing like universal assent, and not infrequently did entrenched interests and ingrained prejudice conspire to thwart their full flowering. Established churches, clergy tax support, and religious tests for public office lingered on for decades. And slavery, despite the Declaration of Independence's ringing endorsement of equality, endured even longer, provoking the bloodiest conflict in American history. Still, Kidd shows how the evangelical-Enlightenment consensus set in motion religious and political forces whose progress, if halting, was nonetheless inexorable.

If God of Liberty forces us to rethink the religious nature of the American Revolution, it also forces us to rethink its historical scope. To say that the Revolution began at Bunker Hill and ended at Yorktown is pitifully insufficient. Even including the French and Indian War and the ensuing Parliamentary taxation schemes leaves too truncated a picture. Kidd's narrative doesn't shortchange battlefield history, and he provides a riveting chapter on the beleaguered band of chaplains who helped boost morale, preach virtuous conduct, and meditate on the war's providential meaning. But he recognizes that any genuine history of this period must transcend the military showdown and its proximate political causes. Kidd's vision is capacious, stretching back generations before gunfire rang out over Lexington and Concord, and peering ahead to the revivalist upsurge of the early 19th century.

Without descending into anti-American hyperbole, Kidd's epilogue ponders certain tensions and dangers within the Revolutionary mindset bequeathed to subsequent generations. Providential awareness, for instance, can inhibit self-criticism: If God smiles upon the American cause, by what standard can imperial misadventures be questioned, or brutalities condemned? Kidd seems most interested, however, in thinking through the possible permutations of liberty, virtue, and religion in American life. This leads him to a sustained discussion of Alexis de Tocqueville, who so famously limned the early American synthesis of Christianity and liberal democracy. Liberty, by its nature, chafes at moral constraints. With Tocqueville, Kidd finds in religion's virtue-generating potential an essential solvent for selfish appetites.

Somewhat offhandedly—and forgivably, in a book so blessedly free of contemporary political allusions—Kidd links "rampant greed and deception" to America's recent recession. Leave the experts to decide whether this suffices as macro-economic analysis (when, one wonders, have greed and deception not been rampant?), but there's no gainsaying the underlying point: Untrammeled self-interest undermines the common good.

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