An Anemic ‘American Way’
By David D. Hall
Above the blackboard in my third-grade classroom was a colored print of George Washington kneeling in the snow at Valley Forge, his hands elevated in prayer. I liked looking at this picture because, every evening, I too knelt and silently prayed, as I had been taught to do by my parents. My elementary school was in the northern Virginia town where Washington had attended church during his years at Mount Vernon, making the image doubly appropriate: to me as a child practitioner, and to the teacher and the wider community as an emblem of civic leadership in a Christian society. Down the street, an American flag decorated the stage of our home missionary Presbyterian church. The one cloud that threatened this harmony of nation and religion was Roman Catholicism, for my father had absorbed some of the dark warnings about its principles and practices he encountered in Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949).
Memories of my classroom came back to me this summer as I was reading the letters page in a local Maine newspaper. “Where has our country gone?” one of these letters was headed, the answer being a list of practices (school prayer, certain evocations of Christmas) familiar to the writer “when I was a kid” but no longer sanctioned. The list was not surprising. Neither was the point with which the male letter writer concluded an unfamiliar one: “We are a nation of Christians: always have been and always will be!” The real point of the letter was to appeal to voters to support certain candidates who would reverse the ways in which “America is being fundamentally changed.”
Were I still in third grade, I might have piously cried out, “amen!” But, like my father, who gradually (and emphatically) came to despise intolerance of any kind, I have changed. As a teacher and scholar of the American past, I have some responsibility for reporting the past as it really was (to echo a famous phrase), though I gladly concede that the past can be turned into several kinds of stories, some of them certain to be as contrary to the historical record as the version of the past evoked in the letter from which I have quoted.
But what is the proper academic understanding of the place of religion in the making of the early republic? Thomas Kidd, a young historian at Baylor University, attempts to answer this question in a breezy, quotation-filled narrative that ranges across two centuries of time: “revolution” broadly construed. The central arguments are two: first, that religious themes and agitation helped bring on the Revolution of 1776 and account for some of its consequences; and second, that the Revolution (considered much more broadly) brought about a new understanding of church and state that Kidd names “the American way.” Underneath both of these arguments lies a third, the crucial importance of “evangelicalism” as the faith that united most Americans.
Kidd thus takes sides in a debate that shows no signs of waning because of its perceived relevance to present-day agitation about the relationship between religious commitments and assertions of our First Amendment rights to “free expression” and “no establishment.” Crudely put, the debate pits “accommodationists” against “separationists,” the former insisting that the founders of our republic, although firmly against state support for any particular branch of Christianity, believed that Christianity had a vital role to play in sustaining public virtue and therefore wanted it to flourish. Kidd’s “American way” is a quintessential expression of this perspective, and if any of the readers of this periodical think that the founders wanted to eliminate the influence of religion on public life, his is a useful corrective. Thomas Jefferson regarded orthodox Christianity as hooey and, worse, as (historically) obstructing the free operations of “mind,” but he also endorsed its virtue-making capacity.
At the same time, Kidd’s use of the term “American way” begs a host of questions. If we speed past the immediate period of the early republic and land ourselves in mid-nineteenth-century America, we are suddenly in the presence of large groups of people who rejected the synthesis Kidd regards as normative—Catholics for one, by the 1850s the largest single grouping of Christians in the country, and Mormons for another, for Joseph Smith wanted to reestablish a theocratic kingdom in which the sacred and the secular, the religious and the political, were merged.
The blandness of Kidd’s “American way” is replicated in the blandness of the “liberty” he sees as the central motif that united religious and political agitation. Here, the Catholic community is again a useful witness, for it perceived in Protestant evocations of liberty an agenda of moral and social regulation aimed at imposing all sorts of restraints on public life—for example, sabbatarianism and the mandatory reading of a Protestant Bible in common schools. The deeper failure of Kidd’s analysis is thus his failure to ask what all those ministers who intoned the word “liberty” actually meant by it. What would such an inquiry discern? It is safe to assume that these men had read the Pauline epistles and, in keeping with Paul’s instructions, understood liberty not as “rights” but as obligation and submission. This indeed was their point of view, and for them, therefore, the accommodation between religion and republic was not a matter of accepting Jefferson’s un-Pauline understanding of liberty, but of imposing on civil society a particular set of values and practices. No hint of this attitude and the practices that flowed from it appears in Kidd’s narrative. Perhaps intentionally, or perhaps out of a blindness he shares with many other historians of evangelicalism, he never notices the disciplinary aspects of nineteenth-century evangelicalism that accompanied every allusion to liberty.
Kidd approaches the terms “private” and “public” in the same manner as he does the master term of “liberty.” Attempting to portray the effects of disestablishment on churches and religious life, historians have sometimes argued that religion became “private.” Not so, says Kidd; religion was always intended to play a public role. Here, however, he ignores the reasoning on the part of many in the early republic that, if the civil state was to allow religion a public role as promoter of virtue, the price of doing so was that every denomination set aside matters of theological doctrine, for the state could not prefer any single group’s point of view. Truth claims—central to competition among denominations within the contours of voluntary religion—were irrelevant at best and, at worst, harmful to civic peace and order.
Consistent with this reasoning, great chunks of religious stuff became “private,” i.e., treated as meaningless by the civil state. What survived as legitimately public was a truncated version of religion, the kind that a Jefferson and, for that matter, a Baptist fearful of civil states meddling with matters of belief could accept as loosely public. Hence the necessary indifference of the civil state in today’s America to theological arguments about the beginnings of life. And hence the pertinence of a “separationist” perspective as we argue about what can or cannot count as publicly useful.
Methodologically, Kidd practices what might be termed the fallacy of the transparent: words are never ambiguous but have a single explicit meaning. He seems to feel, too, that “evangelicalism” is a self-evident category or agent. But his own evidence suggests otherwise: some evangelicals were Tories, and although he looks forward longingly to the rise of the Baptists in the nineteenth century, their version of evangelicalism (or of liberty) was not the same as that of Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Methodists, to cite but three examples.
The case for evangelicalism as a key driver of political action during the revolutionary era and in the early republic must always be set against the case for traditions of political discourse that operated independently of Protestantism. The most important of these traditions goes under various names, including “Radical Whig” and “republicanism.” Anyone wanting to understand the language of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights must immerse him- or herself in those traditions and the understanding of European history (extending back to republican Rome) on which they relied. Commendably, Kidd acknowledges those traditions. But any reader of his book needs to know that his enthusiastic embrace of evangelical influences is not shared by historians of the political processes that brought about the new nation.
Evangelicalism (construed as “liberty”) is problematic as a cause of our revolution for other reasons. The groups that pressed for independence (haltingly) in the 1770s, and the groups that actually mobilized to fight the British, did not frame the war they had caused as a war of religion, that is, between Catholic and Protestant. Nor did they mount a crusade to dismantle a state religion, as happened in some phases of the French Revolution. To the contrary, many of the “revolutionaries” thought there was nothing wrong with state-mandated support for religion, i.e., a relatively weak form of “establishment.” And as the historian Melvin Endy Jr. pointed out a good many years ago, the New England ministers who spoke about the war and its religious significance were careful not to pronounce it “holy”: just, yes, but not a moral crusade, for they knew that the British monarchy was resolutely Protestant.
Let us suppose that a political party came into power today intending to reclaim and restore the “American way.” This is presumably the hope of my letter writer, but a dubious premise; even in the hands of a Ronald Reagan or a George W. Bush, the national government has never put its full political weight behind a particular evangelical demand (and neither have most state governments). Nonetheless, let us assume that a school prayer amendment is added to the Constitution, and some evangelicals are delirious with joy. I visit my grandchildren in their classrooms—classrooms which are emblematic of the currents of immigration and religious change in contemporary America. Some of these children mumble a prayer; others say nothing; and many teachers and administrators are ignoring the new amendment. Is God on high moved by those mumbled prayers? No self-respecting evangelical in the nineteenth century would have answered this question affirmatively, for prayer was effective when and only when it was “sincere,” or from the “heart.” That, like my letter writer, some contemporary evangelicals are unaware of what was once a central premise of their tradition adds to the confusion that surrounds the term “American way.” Indeed, if my letter writer were more historically alert, he would bewail the collapse of sabbatarianism and the temperance movement, the two moral rules or causes that animated my family in the 1940s. And, if we return to the early nineteenth century, Protestant evangelicals had little good to say about Christmas, for them a superstitious relic of Catholicism.
Thus do the contents of “Christian America” mutate before our very eyes, as does the meaning of “American way.” To return to that printed picture that intrigued me in my childhood, is it worth asking if God responded to Washington or to the prayers uttered in my Virginia classroom? True, the Allies defeated the Axis powers, but surely we can point to other circumstances for that victory than divine intervention. Let the letter writer and those of his ilk beware. Within much of the evangelical tradition, at its best, divine providence was historically regarded as working to rebuke nations for their arrogance or for versions of idolatry within them.
David D. Hall is Bartlett Research Professor of New England Church History at Harvard Divinity School.