Losing My Religion

Neither King nor Prelate: Religion
and the New Nation, 1776-1826
Edwin S.  Gaustad

A while back I lamented the fate of philosophers. Today, I’m expressing my sympathies for historians.

I’ve always loved history; if I had known, or encountered, some of the more recent historiography  I might even have chosen it as my major. The siren song of quantification, though, drew me across campus though the underlying motivation was the same: to help me understand the mess we find ourselves in.

After all, that’s what history is really about. We study  decisions made in the past to better understand how they contributed to the present. It is a narrative discipline, not a causal one, with plenty of room for interpretation.

Which brings us to the ever-present notion that ours is a Christian nation. Note the verb tense. I did not say was founded by Christians. I did not say has deep religious roots. No, I said what people of many stripes will aver is so.

Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826
The ur-designer.

That’s not by design and the designers might express dismay if they heard such assertions.  At least I think that’s what Professor Gaustad would say.

Edwin S. Gaustad (1923-2011)  was one of the pre-eminent scholars of religion in the United States. In this monograph he focuses on the period from the Declaration of Independence until the same-day deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson fifty years later.

These are the formative years of our republic and Gaustad focuses on the writings and actions of five key players in helping set the tone and place of religion in the emergent nation. As an organizational scheme he begins with the state of religion at the time of Independence and how that had come into being. For the heart of his study he divides his five players into three pairs and looks at them in terms of their roles before ending with a summary of what happened after the period in question.

James Madison, 1751-1836
In the telling Madison is not just important as a theorist, he gets the important parts enacted.

“Wait,” I hear an arithmetically-minded reader say. “You said five key players and three pairs. That makes six. What gives?”

In a word, Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson is so important to the ideas built into our governance that he does double duty. Gaustad categorizes his duos under three headings– the idealists, the icons and the philosophes.  Jefferson appears in both the first and the last.

A fair criticism of history–especially the popular histories people are more likely to read–is that there is a bias toward the ‘great man’ perspective.  That’s another reason I headed for the social sciences; no man or woman acts in a vacuum. Academic historians seek to minimize that tendency toward hagiography by establishing the setting in which actors operate.

So Gaustad begins with a review of the state of religion in the colonies on the eve of independence.  Readers who know their US history are well aware that the original colonies have all sorts of religious affiliations. In Massachusetts initially, you had the dissenting Puritans and soon after, because there’s nothing quite like orthodoxy to create heterodoxy, you had the tolerant settlements of Rhode Island.

George Washington, 1732-1799
The American substitute for a religious icon: 1

Further south, Pennsylvania was chartered by a Quaker and Maryland by a Roman Catholic. And yet at the time of Independence little of that mattered from a political perspective. The fact was, the Anglican church was the established church in most of the colonies and the Congregationalists dominated New England. It was beyond the realm of comprehension that a government could exist independent of religion.

About that critical word: establishment. The First Amendment famously says the government will not establish a religion. That means there will be no national religion supported by taxes. After that, the arguments start.  Suffice it to say the Founders saw no need for a formal relationship even though some, the clergy in particular, bemoaned such shortsightedness.

Gaustad  demonstrates  that, among the Founders,  the absolutists when it came to keeping religion out of government were Jefferson and  James Madison. So absolute, and well-known, was Jefferson’s long-standing antipathy to the idea that it was an issue used against him in the election of 1800 when he was styled Red Tom the Atheist. (The color was a reference to his hair, not his pre-Marx politics.)

Madison, the subtler thinker because he worried about codifying, actually made it stick, first in Virginia and then at the national level.  A bonus in this volume is that Madison’s Remonstrance and Memorial Against Religious Assessments is provided in the appendix so you can read for yourself the words that turned the tide against no less a persuader then Patrick Henry.

Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790 The American substitute for a
religious icon: 2

What’s a new nation to do when it finds itself set apart from all others? Why invent a civic religion, of course. Every religion needs iconic figures, the American civic religion embraced two: Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Or, if you care about the underlying purpose of icons, wisdom and virtue.

Gaustad never actually says that last bit but those are the roles these two played. Even if you were the worst history student ever you know that Franklin was a printer, a writer, a scientist, an inventor and a diplomat. And Washington, well, he’s the Father of Our Country, the modern Cincinnatus who returned to his farm at the end of hostilities, who reluctantly presided over the Constitutional Convention, who could have been acclaimed President if he had not been overwhelmingly elected and who set the bar for service with a time limit that had to be written into law at a later date. Few nations have been so lucky to have such a pair around at the same time.

Yet, as we saw, by 1800 religion was fair political game despite the constitutional prohibition against religious test for office. What happened? In part, public opinion exerted a counter-force. Even as the American civic religion was accepted formal denominationalism never went away. In fact, the age of Independence occurred between the first two Great Awakenings. If anything, the lack of government backing made for a more robust environment than establishment ever could have, at least according to Gaustad.

John Adams, 1735-1826
Arguably the least likeable of the Founders, I’ve always had a soft spot for his rigor.

That left Adams and Jefferson, the idealist and the consolidator, to put aside their political differences and agree on the nation and religion. Adams, in fact, foresaw a day when all men would be Unitarians which, if you ask me, makes him the true idealist in the group. Any honest social scientist will tell you people group themselves and define those groups, in part, by  differences.

What does any of this have to do with the present? Well, we’re still arguing about the proper place of religion in our republic. I think, though, that it also speaks to the state of our civic religion. We’ve spent decades now tearing down the Founders, finding faults in them for not living up to our present standards. We’d have done better to acknowledge what they did accomplish despite their human flaws and limits.















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