Religion was far from absent in the Founding.
Jul 25, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 42 • By DAVID AIKMAN
Kidd points out that “during the Revolution, a new blend of Christian and republican ideology led religious traditionalists to embrace wholesale the concept of republican virtue.” By the 1770s even Calvinists and other conservative believers agreed with Samuel Adams (the notably evangelical cousin of John) that if America remained virtuous it might be possible to create a “Christian Sparta.” Kidd pronounces this idea “a unique amalgamation of the Christian and classical Republican traditions.”
A final area of creative overlap between evangelical Christians and Enlightenment revolutionaries, Kidd suggests, was the belief that God—or Providence, as deists might prefer to name the entity—moved in and through the doings of nations. Even Washington, far from being a “Christian nationalist,” repeatedly referred to “Providence” or “the author of the universe” as central to the success of the revolution. Equally emphatic about America’s purposes having been ordered by a divine hand was the fastidiously deist Benjamin Franklin: “If it had not been for the justice of our cause,” Kidd quotes Franklin as ruminating in 1784, “and the consequent interposition of providence, in which we had faith, we must have been ruined” in the revolution.
Is there any personality among the Founders who bridged the Jefferson-Leland philosophical gap? In a way, Kidd argues, that personality was John Adams:
Adams had been raised in a conservative Congregationalist family and was the descendant of a devout generation of founding Puritans. His father had wanted him to become a minister, but Adams could not stomach the core of Calvinist theology about man’s fallen state. He nevertheless wrote emotionally about the effect upon him of the thought of God’s abiding presence in his life, and he interpreted the controversy with Great Britain as a contest between spiritual liberty and spiritual tyranny. During his presidency, Adams pronounced a national day of prayer and fasting to ask God for “his infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the world, freely to remit all our offences, and to incline us, by his Holy Spirit, to that sincere repentance and reformation” which would elicit God’s favor. Adams’s estimation of the value of human liberty, according to Kidd, was explicitly theological: “Liberty must at all hazards be supported,” he asserted, “because all people have ‘a right to it, derived from our Maker.’ ”
John Adams did not go as far as many Americans of his day who (according to Kidd) “conflated America’s political affairs with divine purposes, which lent an aura of redemptiveness to the war and to the agenda of a fledgling nation.” He nevertheless shared with all the Founders the conviction that republican freedom could not survive unless the people were virtuous. That conviction, Kidd notes, grew directly out of the Great Awakening. This opened up, for many Americans, exciting spiritual possibilities, and imbued them with the fortitude required to challenge established power. But it also led the Continental Congress to appoint days of prayer and fasting in 1774 and 1775 because of the broad conviction that sin among the people led to national punishment!
Kidd is careful not to adopt an explicitly “Christian nation” view of the role of religious faith, especially evangelical Christian faith, in the nation’s founding. He demonstrates effectively the variety of faiths among Americans of the revolutionary era, including an increasingly visible community of Jews. But he is unequivocal in stating that the majority of Americans at the time were Christian believers of some kind or other, and that the evangelical component of them (Patrick Henry, for example) played a formative role in creating the new republic.
David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East.