Saturday, May 31, 2008

On Political Protestantism and Liberty:

On the American Revolution Blog, I participated in long discussions on the key American Founders' personal faith, in particular, on George Washington's. I've conceded that unlike the case with J. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin, with Washington, there are no "smoking gun" quotations, one way or the other. Rather, you have to "fit" pieces together in a puzzle. And even though Washington doesn't "fit" with a strict Deist, Thomas Paine-like faith, he "fits" perfectly with the middle ground, softer form of what the orthodox termed "infidelity" that J. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin clearly believed in and what Madison very likely believed in.

Indeed, Washington in his cabinet surrounded himself with those softer, milder Protestant infidels, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, G. Morris and others. And J. Adams and Jefferson, the two Presidents who followed Washington -- indeed perhaps the next three, four, or more -- were likewise closet heretic-infidels (again, according to orthodox Christian standards). That's why one Reverend Wilson from Albany, New York -- erroneously thought by historians to be Bird Wilson (James Wilson's son) but in reality was a Presbyterian Covenanter named James Renwick Willson -- could decry in a sermon in 1831, on the religion of the Presidents from Washington to Jackson, “among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism.”

Few realize how controversial this sermon was in 1831. The public in Albany burned James Renwick Willson in effigy for it. Willson was a member of the "non-respectable Right," and as with the "non-respectable Left" (like Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen) such figures weren't afraid to tackle sacred cows, even if it meant having their public reputations ruined. In all historical ages, including the present one, we live by public myths or at the very least have certain public sacred cows which might not necessarily be true, but that only non-respectable sides willingly challenge. Sometimes public figures unknowingly venture into such minefields (see for instance Larry Summers) and pay the consequences for it.

What few appreciate about the religion of America's key Founders is that their personal, heterodox religious views were non-respectable for their time (the mid to late 18th Century). The Right tends to deny that they possessed such views. And the Left seems to argue America was proudly, publicly, and openly founded on such "infidelity." The innovative ideas that drove the American Founding came in large part from elite sources whose heretical religious views were closeted as they did their best to pass off unconventional, non-traditional ideas as perfectly compatible with "Christianity." America's Founders were the "cultural elite" of their day. These were also men who guarded their public reputations with their lives and lived by a very civilized, "gentlemanly" code of conduct and honor. As such, regarding their religious secrets, they treaded with great caution. They saw how Thomas Paine's loud infidelity ruined his public reputation. And quite frankly, Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin, did NOT, like Paine, want to overthrow the institution of "religion," but rather wanted it to further reform and liberalize its doctrines (which raises a whole new can of worms: "liberalization" of Christianity to them meant getting rid of such "irrational" doctrines like original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, eternal damnation and infallibility of the Bible, arguably transforming Christianity into a different animal).

It really was not safe to "come out of the closet" as a non-Trinitarian Christian in America until the late 1790s, around 1800. But you can thank America's Founders for that safe environment: Recognizing the rights of conscience as unalienable meant that the forces of orthodoxy could no longer use the power of the state to enforce conformity. The orthodox could and did scold deists and unitarians as heretics and infidels. But with the rights of conscience secure, such heterodox thinkers were now free to form their own societies and social groups and begin to publicly argue their case without fear of civil penalty. By the 19th Century in New England, although the orthodox still considered it a soul damning heresy (as they still do), Unitarianism became a socially respectable form of liberal Protestant Christianity. Harvard University officially went Unitarian around 1805.

It's my contention, after a few other more notable scholars, that the political dimension of Protestantism as a movement of dissidence, NOT the theological dimension of Protestantism as an orthodox creed, is responsible for religious and political liberty. When Jefferson rejected "[t]he immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.," he was being a good political Protestant, not a good orthodox Christian. Jefferson, J. Adams, arguably most of the key Founders held to such heretical unitarian religious beliefs at a time when doing so was socially (and in some instances legally) prohibited. As such one motivation in bringing the rights of conscience to America was so that secret heretics such as themselves would feel more comfortable "coming out." And indeed, that's exactly what occurred.

3 comments:

Brad Hart said...

In his book, "A Religious History of the American People," historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom - one of the foremost historians of religion in American history - discusses at length how Harvard became a Unitarian stronghold. What I find most interesting is the fact that this change occurred in a relatively short time period. Unitarianism - which was nothing short of a resurgence in Arian doctrine - walked hand-in-hand with the larger cultural changes brought on by the Revolution itself. Or as Ahlstrom put it, “The doctrine of the Unitarian movement continued along lines drawn by the early Arians…as was advanced through the political upheaval of the Revolution itself.”

Jonathan said...

That book is definitely on my reading list. Dr. Frazer's PhD thesis references it quite a bit.

Brad Hart said...

I think you will really like Ahlstrom's book. It is a little long and is not much of a page-turner in parts, but overall it is one of the best books that I've ever read on the topic.