Saturday, November 8, 2008

Revival of the Election Sermon?

In a recent post on Founding Era political sermons I wrote:

Those who want to lower the wall of separation between church and state sometimes cite these sermons as ammo; indeed pulpits of the Founding era were quite politicized! One fascinating dynamic they invariably miss (and I invariably stress) is how many of the "Whig" and "republican" ideas peddled in these sermons are foreign to historic biblical Christianity and how often these preachers distorted the biblical record to justify their Whig-republican politics.


Indeed, I just came across a post [hat tip to the Acton Institute] that perfectly illustrates this misunderstanding common among many otherwise informed religious conservatives. From Andover Newton theologian Mark Burrows who writes:

Election Day sermons represent a venerable but long extinct New England tradition. What are they, and might we dare to preach them today? And, if so, how might ministers do this – and still keep their jobs?

In their day – and this stretched from the early colonial period through the later 19th century in Massachusetts – such sermons depended on assumptions that no longer make much sense to us. Ministers could still presume that the Scriptures were the authoritative text governing how the “public” discerned its way. These occasions also displayed the gendered nature of authority among elected officials of both church and state: male minister stood before a gathering of male elected officers together with male citizens having the right to vote. These sermons presumed that the “public” of the colony and later nation, while eventually tolerating a minimal pluralism, was understood to be exclusively Christian. Toleration and inclusion were unheard of virtues at this time, at least in the political arena.


The following reproduces an email I sent Mr. Burrows in response:

Hi Mark,

[...]

I saw your post on election sermon (linked to by the Acton Institute). I must say I disagree with a core premise of your post. You wrote:

"In their day – and this stretched from the early colonial period through the later 19th century in Massachusetts – such sermons depended on assumptions that no longer make much sense to us. Ministers could still presume that the Scriptures were the authoritative text governing how the 'public' discerned its way."

Well yes, that describes *some* of the election sermons in the history of Mass. to which you refer, but by no means all ("most" is debatable). I wonder if you are aware of the history of heterodoxy/unitarianism in your state during this time period and how many of the most notable election sermons, especially those that argued for the American Revolution and republicanism, were given by theological unitarians and were premised on the idea that natural reason was at least on par with if not superior to scripture.

It's true that the population back then was almost all "Christian" in some formal or nominal sense; but as is the case today, it's not at all clear that the majority of folks who identified as "Christians" considered themselves orthodox, trinitarian or "regenerate" as opposed to Christian in some kind of nominal sense. And many of those unitarian preachers (Mayhew, Chauncy, Gay, Howard, West from the early era and Sparks, Channing, and more names that I can list from the 19th Century onward) more or less defined being a "Christian" with mere morality. America's Founders like J. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Madison and others likewise believed in this understanding of Christianity that equated it with mere morality. And this was, I believe, key to making America much more religiously diverse as time progressed. As long as they are good people, they are "Christians" and should have no problem assimilating in America, as it were.

14 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

One fascinating dynamic they invariably miss (and I invariably stress) is how many of the "Whig" and "republican" ideas peddled in these sermons are foreign to historic biblical Christianity and how often these preachers distorted the biblical record to justify their Whig-republican politics.

This lies at the heart of your current thesis, Jon, but I don't see how you've remotely proved it, nor that the construct "historic[al] biblical Christianity" even existed in any definitive form.

The "divine right of kings" reading of Romans 13 was a political construct pushed by monarchs such as James I, and had been discredited theologically before and during his reign.

Where are these "distortions of the biblical record?"

Jonathan Rowe said...

Okay. I guess I should dig Dr. Frazer's thesis out and do some more work, start quoting from it and the primary sources to which it refers.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm sure there are quotes, but first we must prove the existence of a normative "historic[al] biblical Christianity," or a normative Christianity, or even a normative Protestantism for them to transgress.

Considering the zillion sects flying around America at the Founding, that's a tough nut.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I am going to have to double check Dr. Frazer's thesis. I remember a chart that shows EVERY single established denomination INCLUDING the Roman Catholics (but I think minus the Quakers) adhered to a baseline orthodox Trinitarianism.

And indeed, out of all of them, the Quakers were most similar in religious creed (or lack thereof) to the unitarian/theistic rationalists who worshipped in Trinitarian Churches. And indeed, perhaps this sheds light on why the key Founders were so willing to give the Quakers a "pass" for their pacifism at a time when they needed all of the able bodied fighters they could get.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, your topic of "'Whig' and 'republican' ideas peddled in these sermons" seems tangential at best to Trinitarianism. I was under the impression your nexus was revolution's compatibility with the Bible. As the British had already pitched out two kings during the 1600s, it seems to me the problem was theologically surmountable.

As for the Quakers, the accommodation may have been mostly expediency. I believe that Hamburger fellow covers the debate. I was looking for the article in First Things about the Founding discussions of freedom of religion vs. freedom from religion. Unfortunately it's behind the subscription wall. The result was that Quakers could decline compulsory military service, but not get out of paying taxes for things they disapproved of, like war.

Not specifically related, but this article on Hamburger may be of interest hereabouts:

http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=2112&var_recherche=hamburger

Jonathan Rowe said...

From what I have seen, the key Founders genuinely adored the Quakers' theology.

Re Romans 13, that's one part of it and I would admit the Christian sources that argued on behalf of the right to resist tyrannical Kings. There are other components as well. The natural law dynamic is compatible with a Thomistic Christianity but foreign to "Sola Scriptura" Francis Schaeffer kind of Christianity.

There's more though; look for it in a future post.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, you highlight my problem here. What we know today as fundamentalism/evangelicism didn't really exist until the 20th century. Francis Schaeffer, Karl Barth-type Lutheranism. The English-American Episcopalians were more "catholick" than they were Lutheran. The rest were all over the map.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I agree with your analysis of Anglican-Episcopalians and Lutherans. However, I disagree that there were no fundamentalists-evangelicals back then. It may be true that pre-millennial rapture kind of fundamentalism is a new thing. But Schaeffer et al. well fit with the "Calvinists" of the Founding era, with men like Morse, Hopkins, Dwight, et al. Fundamentalist today would claim Witherspoon. But Witherspoon engaged in too much Scottish Enlightenment influenced philosophical rationalism for their taste.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Though I will admit Tom that if I fall into any kind of error, one that perhaps Dr. Frazer falls into as well, is an all too ready presupposition to define orthodox Calvinistic Christianity as "real" or "historic" Christianity to the exclusion of other theological systems that might vie for the label. Jefferson and Adams and the unitarian preachers that followed them were insistent that they were "real" Christians as well. This was our friend EAI's major critique of my thesis.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And as you know, for the normative, I lean toward the pre-Reformation Christianity ["Catholicism" for a handy term] as well as Church of England Protestantism, which is basically Catholicism shed of popery. This gets us from the 1st century CE to the Founding, and accounts for a healthy chunk of the religious landscape of that time.

But I see your point, which is not necessarily "error." I admit my Calvin is weak, as is my Schaeffer. The link below reinforces your position, and some of your concerns about the present day.

http://mainstreambaptist.blogspot.com/2006/02/on-francis-schaeffers-christian.html

But as I defend these things at least in the abstract, I think it's important to keep in mind that loyalty to our constitutional system cannot oblige a man to turn his back on his conscience, whether it be a religious conscience or one of reason or a combination of both. And as we are all citizen-rulers in this democracy, Aquinas-as-ethicist [not theologian here] argues that no man is guiltless who participates in the furtherance of evil. This should not be seen as an overly religious or even controversial assertion.

Pinky said...

To think or claim that "fundamentalism" was a force during the Founding era completely misunderstands Christian Fundamentalism which is an early twentieth century outgrowth from nineteenth century problems with Bible oriented sermonizing about the imminent Second Coming of Jesus Christ..

Pinky said...

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BUT, as Fundamentalism is truly a purifying process in Christianity, it has to be seen as a continuation of the Puritan roots of American society.

Pinky said...

"A group blog to promote discussion, debate and insight into the religious history of America's founding. Any observations, questions, or comments relating to the blog's theme are welcomed."
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I'd like to see a good blog that deals with how understanding Strauss can help us gain some "insight into the religious history of America's founding."
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I think it is appropriate to this site.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

http://www.city-journal.org/html/9_4_urbanities-why_the_foundin.html