Religion was far from absent in the Founding.
Jul 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 42 • By DAVID AIKMAN
God of Liberty
George Whitefield (1714-70) preaching in the open air
World History Archive / Newscom
A Religious History
by Thomas S. Kidd
Basic Books, 304 pp., $26.95
On New Year’s Day 1802, nine months after Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration as America’s third president, a gigantic block of cheese—1,235 pounds of it, to be precise—arrived at the White House as a gift for the president. A gesture of solidarity from old French revolutionary comrades? A sigh of relief from grateful Virginians and perhaps a gaggle of agnostic hangers-on? No indeed: The mammoth gift had been delivered by the farming community of Cheshire, Massachusetts, on the instructions of none other than the leading Baptist evangelical of his day, John Leland. It symbolized one of the strangest, but most significant, political and cultural alliances of the early post-independence nation: what Thomas S. Kidd calls “an unlikely alliance of evangelicals, Enlightenment liberals, and deists working together to win religious freedom.”
What made the alliance significant is that the evangelicals and the Enlightenment liberals—meaning, principally, Jefferson himself—were profoundly aware that each party’s ultimate goals differed glaringly. Leland unabashedly declared that his “only hope of acceptance with God is in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ.” Jefferson, as is well known, didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or had even claimed to be such, and he considered the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to be sheer foolishness. What brought them together, however, was more than the motto inscribed on the crust of the cheese: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” It was a subtle, but important overlapping of shared convictions about freedom of conscience, about the role of Providence in American life, and about the essential nature of virtue in the governance of a healthy republic.
Of course, there has long been a growling debate among historians, popularizers of history, and general polemicists over the issue of what role Christianity, especially zealous evangelicalism, played in the cultural and political currents that led to the American Revolution. Some advocates of the “Christian nation” point of view barely credit theologically liberal Christians, let alone deists and Unitarians, with any significant contribution to the goals of the revolution. On the other hand, ardent secularists sometimes try to portray the revolution as merely the logical outcome of American absorption of the lessons of the Enlightenment.
As Kidd shows in this eloquently argued study, both perspectives overlook significant facts. To be sure, it was evangelicals like Leland who “led the charge” against state-supported religious establishments; but, Kidd notes, “they often gained crucial assistance from liberal Christians or deists like Jefferson who shared their goals.” Kidd points out that Jefferson was the architect of the second major point of agreement between deists and evangelicals: “The idea of a creator God as the guarantor of fundamental human rights.” Despite his reputation among critics of his own era as an “atheist,” Jefferson was far from being any such thing: He believed in the deist God, creator of everything in the universe, including human rights. He also believed that God intervened in history—not a typical deist concept—and thus was closer to being a Unitarian.
Leland and other evangelicals believed firmly in the Calvinist notion of the utter sinfulness of human beings and their tendency to behave in depraved ways. Kidd shows that key Founders such as George Washington himself did not share this outlook: He notes, however, that “a wide spectrum of Americans” during the revolutionary era did believe in the inherent danger of too much political power residing in any one sector of the new republic, or in any one person, and in the tendency of people to succumb to the temptations of power.
During the writing of the Constitution, this belief reinforced a fastidious attention to the separation of powers. But it also led to much hand-wringing among the generation of the Founders about the need to preserve virtue in the new republic. Conservative Christians did not believe in the inherent existence of republican virtue because advocates of this view seemed to believe that people could be good independent of Christianity. Almost everyone, however, believed that if citizens of the new republic were not virtuous, the republic would fail.
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