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.
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.
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