Friday, November 19, 2010

Tom Kidd on Elections, Baptists, Jefferson, and A Very Big Cheese

From a solid piece at Patheos by Thomas S. Kidd, a Baylor history prof:

But what of evangelical Tea Party candidates? They didn’t fare quite as well as some had expected.


On balance, the election of 2010 reveals Americans’ discomfort with evangelical candidates who wear their faith on their sleeve, or even worse, use evangelical lingo on the campaign trail.


This was a distinction that evangelical Christians would have readily understood at the time of America’s founding. Baptists and Methodists were just emerging as a major religious force on the American landscape in 1776, and they could not necessarily expect candidates to share their faith. In some situations, this led them to cooperate with some very unusual allies, especially the nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson, a notorious skeptic that one Federalist opponent called a “howling atheist.”

Jefferson was no atheist, but he did not believe in Jesus’ divinity or resurrection, either. Nevertheless, Jefferson depended heavily on evangelical support in his political career, from the passage of his 1786 Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, to his election as president in 1800. He made common cause with evangelicals in order to disestablish America’s official state denominations, many of which had badly persecuted dissenting evangelicals like the Baptists. This was the essential cause of religious liberty in Revolutionary America. Thus, Jefferson wrote his famous “wall of separation between church and state” letter in 1802 to a group of evangelical Baptists in Connecticut.

Jefferson sent that letter on New Year’s Day of 1802, a time Jefferson chose to symbolize his steadfast alliance with his evangelical friends. On New Year’s, Jefferson publicly received a prodigious gift from Baptist evangelist John Leland, a 1200-pound block of cheese, a gift from the admiring Baptists of Cheshire, Massachusetts (which, like Connecticut, still had an official tax-supported church). The newspapers called it the “mammoth cheese.” Then, that Sunday, Leland preached before a joint session of Congress in the House of Representatives chambers, with Jefferson in attendance. Jefferson’s presence at Leland’s sermon indicates that he never understood separation of church and state to mean outright secularism, or government hostility to religion. He and the Baptists believed in real religious liberty, yet they honored America’s religious vitality. The Baptists had found their great political champion in Jefferson, who was both a heretic and a true friend of religious freedom.

Like the man says, read the whole thing.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I don't think Baptist at the time of the Founding adhered to the evangelical political movement, like it does now. The Baptists were sectarian in regards to political alliance with the State, as they believed in a supernatural realm. This was the whole point, of separation of Church and State, wasn't it?
The Puritans believed that their own community was a they wanted to set up a "theocratic" understanding of government.

Today, this is a dangerous endeavor (a theocracy) because it alligns us with Islam. And we don't want to go back to a "puritanical commonwealth", do we?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

BTW, being a Catholic, do you understand it differently?

America was not to be the place for a politicalized spirituality, or a spiritual politicalization, although it did not negate that spiritually inclined people would be involved in politics.

Tim Polack said...

Nice piece. Ironies were full force in early American life, and the Baptists paired with the unorthodox Jefferson was a perfect example.

Speaking of Baptists, Baylor Univ is hosting an impressing gathering on "The King James Bible and the World It Made" in celebration of the Bible's 400th anniversary.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't think Baptist at the time of the Founding adhered to the evangelical political movement, like it does now.

BTW, being a Catholic, do you understand it differently?

I suppose I'm a Catholic. I try not to let it interfere.

Angie, my answer is that I don't know. There are 34,000 varieties of Protestantism [true figure!], so I defer to Prof. Kidd here.

"Fundamentalism" as we know it is a phenomenon of the early 20th century. "Evangelical" is not synonymous.

Tellya the truth, I just googled "evangelical" and "definition" and am more confused than when I started.

I'm not sure evangelicals themselves can tell you.

As for your associating the Religious Right with theocracy, I'll never agree about that. I wrote a piece in the comments section of a very theologically liberal blog, which I would definitely call "Religious Left." I'll park it here in this comments section, since it's inappropriate for our main page.

Tom Van Dyke said...

In response to

...and Evangelical Conservatives"

Acid, amnesty and abortion, as they put it back then.

Until then, the Christian cognoscenti took care of politics for the family---the academic, the erudite, the articulate. The evangelical, "enthusiastic" types were happily disengaged from this world, their eyes focused on the next.

Someday, instead of studying the Religious Right like bugs in a bottle, someone will write about the other half of the continuum, the Christian cognoscenti who folded before [or into] the counterculture and left the traditional Christian "worldview" without a coherent voice in the polity.

Yes, there were good reasons to not offend their political allies of the left, Great Society "social justice" and of course Vietnam. Still, the end result has been that there's not an ounce of daylight between the Christian and secular cognoscenti.

This left the job of articulating the Christian "worldview" to the previously politically apathetic evangelicals. Politics is one thing, but the cultural assault on society via politics was something else entirely.

As Peter Wehner points out, unfortunately, they used their evangelical language, which sounded harsh, judgmental and even apocalyptic [Hal Lindsey!] to mainstream ears.

As a result, the Christian cognoscenti were appalled and embarrassed to be associated with their more "enthusiastic" Christian brethren, so much so that signalling agreement with them on sexuality, dope, the family, or even anti-communism was not something they, to borrow Chesterton, would be specially anxious to touch with a barge-pole.

And so, here we are. I wasn't initially particularly taken with Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner's thesis, but in the context of this good blog and others like it, it makes better sense to me now.

Where the Religious Left [and they didn't call it that; there was no Religious Right] once was the public voice for Christianity in the polity, today there is little that is distinct from mere humanism---except what's directed unappreciatively at the Religious Right, it seems to me. And the formerly silent evangelical wing is now the loudest, for ill or good. [Ill and good, by my reckoning.]

Gerson and Wehner suggest that a gentler, more "Christian" tone is necessary, and is indeed in process, as the old lions of the Religious Right like D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell die, or like Robertson and Dobson, head out to pasture. Further talk of America being punished by hurricanes for its wickedness is not on the menu.

It's the relevance of the Christian cognoscenti I wonder about. The academics will continue to speak to each other and write for each other and hold conferences with each other, but the world---and the Christian world---continues to spin 'round more without them than around them.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Breathe of fresh air, Tom. Thank you for your honesty. (I had already begun to like you, anyway :-)).

Why do you think that the world, and the Christian world does not spin around academia? Can't the academic bring their language to the level of us "common people"? I don't think it has to do with a specially coherent view of reality, because I believe that the individual is a developing animal. As s/he develops, the understanding of different aspects of being human change (moral, intellectual, social, faith). So, there really isn't a correct "worldview'.

Really since modern science has given us different understanding of reality, there has been less and less ability to agree about interpretive aspects of reality. Most former "Christian" schools are now "secular"....Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, etc. But, then it was really about "Christians" (which everyone was at the time) founding schools to educate the public. There was really no secular back then....

Since Martin Luther, and the undermining of authority of the Catholic Church, and the Enlightenment, the individual has understood himself by/through education. This is where free societies allow the individual to freely choose his course in life and grow in understanding himself and his world.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You speak of "mere humanism" in a negative way. You surely don't mean it negatively do you?

I just think that humanistic undertakings undermine the political realm, in real world politics, because of the nation-state and the laws which bind men's conscience and identity. "Humanity" in this sense does not exist.

It used to be that the Church bound men's conscience, but now, with the argument of "natural rights" with the undergirding of civil rights/legal rights, the humane is what binds men's consciences.

My question is: in light of how tribal societies still understand themselves as "under God" (religion/superstition) how can one think that these will understand "civil liberties"? Their understanding is framed and constrained by religious undestanding (faith). Theirs is a "inside" understanding to and of life. One can only understand from within that frame of reference. And they certainly will not be prone to understand ours, as it challenges their very perception of "self" and their fear of "leaving God".

This is true of the Religious Right, as well. They really believe that God exists and they know him. And everyone should know him like they know him. But, when we talk about understanding, then realities become quite different. Because one's understanding is based on some form of cognitive "connection" to the transcendent realm...this is what bring the transcendent into the reality of the individual.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Angie. Perhaps we're getting there, you and I, to a common ground, and corresponding with you---and those other "academic" Religious Left fellas, has brought me closer to being able to speak some common language.

A common language we have yet to achieve.

Former George W "compassionate conservative" speechwriter Michael Gerson and a guy named Peter Wehner wrote a book recently, "The City of Man," which echoes St. Augustine's "City of God" from over 1000 years ago.

You can look up the book at Amazon, but screw that, an interview with Wehner that cuts to the chase:

Coming from the Catholic perspective, and from an American religious pluralism perspective, I have no dog in the Protestant fight. I don't like anti-theism and I don't like anti-Christianity, and I think I'm with the Founders on this.

The rest of it, is Jesus God or died for our sins or if faith alone saves, whatever, that's between you and God. My opinion ain't gonna make a bit of difference.

[And judging by some people who want to see other people go to Hell, I'm glad it's up to God and not a vote.]

It used to be that the Church bound men's conscience

That was the plan, but Protestantism figured out that man's conscience can't be bound by anyone else but God. And Aquinas was onto that too, more than 200 years before the Protestant Reformation.

[Dates are a drag in the study of history, but getting 200 or 1000 years in perspective is a very cool thing.]

"Humanism" is a difficult term. The question is whether man is the measure of all things, or if there's some bigger cosmic yardstick to measure what is wrong and what is right.

"Natural law" says there's a bigger yardstick.

And to return to our topic, the evangelicals are rediscovering "natural law," which made sense to the ancient Greeks, the Roman Stoics, and the Christians who followed.

"Natural law" is that bigger yardstick, beyond man's desires, plans, and rationalizations. It's not rooted just in the divine---or else Barney the Dinosaur would be divine---but in the reality of man's unchangeable nature.

We are flawed---venal, egotistical, lustful, dishonest---we even lie to ourselves. No politics is ever gonna fix that.

But as The Bard said,

What a piece of worke is a man! how Noble in
Reason? how infinite in faculty? in forme and mouing
how expresse and admirable? in Action, how like an Angel?
in apprehension, how like a God? the beauty of the
world, the Parragon of Animals; and yet to me, what is
this Quintessence of Dust? Man delights not me; no,
nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seeme
to say so...

It's all there. That's why he's The Bard, second only to The Bible itself in its poetry and truth.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I have that book. It was given to me. But, it is printed by Moody Press, which I have an aversion to. Why? Because it is fundamentalistic, in that, it is evangelical.

Christians are an "in-group"> They define themselves like any other group. I don't especially care to "fit their group". They can love me or leave me. And they will feel compassion for such a "lost soul", etc. But, I have seen enough. And they want to manipulate just like anyone else. Why not just be in the "real world" and know what rules are played?

Religion is useful to get one's own way and claim innocence because of "religious conscience". Look at what is happening about Muslim women and their ability to get out of being "frisked" or checked by the scan....while everyone else has to abide by the rules, or the laws....

I don't have anything against Church history, as a subject, that can be understood like any other subject. In this sense Aquinas is of interest.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's a mistake to view Aquinas only as a member of his church.