The first thing one needs to know about Barry Alan Shain's The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought is what he means by "Protestant." He does NOT mean Pat Robertson.
So let's cool our jets and hear him out.
What Shain does mean is that American Christians in the Founding era [90+% of the population] were almost all Protestants. But what does that mean?
It means they largely rejected any and all central theological authority, be it the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, or any other establishment. If your pastor pissed you off, you either kicked him out or started a new church down the road. That's American Protestantism in a nutshell, and there were dozens of varieties of Protestantism that arose in the Founding era, and there are perhaps hundreds now.
Very Protestant, and very American.
A man [or woman] had the Bible, and they made of it what they would or could, and God help the clergyman who got in the way. If anything, the Founding generation and their ancestors fled Europe's clergy and their politics as much as they fled Europe itself.
No surprise, then, we ended up with the First Amendment, and that's largely what Dr. Shain means by "Protestant"---decidedly not Roman Catholic, but other Protestants too are kindly invited---keep your hands off my religious conscience!
Do you believe Jesus is God?
---I dunno. The Messiah, probably. You know, special.
That Jesus died for our sins?
---Mebbe. But mebbe he died for ALL men's sins. The Bible's a little unclear on whether there's definitely a Hell. My mother didn't believe in God much, but I'd still like to see her in heaven, y'know? Hate to think of Mom burning in Hell.
Is Christ present in the Eucharist?
---I have no idea. Tastes weird to me.
Is the Bible true?
---Sure. But people might have messed it up. People are people. And when it comes to interpreting the Bible, Rev. Smith is an idiot like Rev. Mayhew says---as if Romans 13 says I have to believe Charles II was some sort of saint, and now I have to obey King George III, who's a total bastard.
Look, the wife takes care of religion for the both of us, and I got a field to plow. Whatever. Just Don't Tread on Me, OK?
It went down sorta like that.
So with that necessary preface, what the hell is Barry Shain talking about? What was "liberty" as the Founding era saw it?
Page 277 of the book isn't available in the Google book preview. What were the odds? In the Founding days they used to call it Providence, that Brother Pinky took the time to type out the exact key graf for us:
"By the 19th century, at least some of the confusion surrounding the meaning of civil liberty had been resolved, as civil and political liberty were no longer readily confused. Noah Webster explained that 'political liberty is sometimes used as synonymous with civil liberty. But it more properly designates the liberty of a nation.'
Civil Liberty properly described 'the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty, so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interests of the society, state, or nation.' And regarding the two meanings of civil liberty that were distinct from political liberty, Webster continued in the middle of the 19th century to use the communal understanding of civil liberty.
This is evident because he defined civil liberty as the residue of the individual's natural liberty that remained after the society's needs were met as determined by the political community.
This is the traditional sense of the term. The more modern alternative held that civil liberty defined a set of individual privileges and exemptions (radicalized prescriptive liberties) from corporate intrusion--in effect, a private space into which the corporate body could not legitimately intrude."
...and that's difference between the Founding era and a lot of the talk in ours.
Perhaps 2009's understanding of "liberty" is better than the Founding era's, perhaps not. But there's a bigass difference. And until can we appreciate what the difference is, well...
Well, this blog is about learning how to tell the difference. The rest is up to each of us according to his or her own conscience, but first things first. You gotta know where you've been before you can tell if the grass might be greener somewheres else.