Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Christian faith and the American founding: the evangelical-deist alliance

Historian Thomas Kidd, one of the sharpest evangelicals working as a professional historian today, has a well-worth reading post over at the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission website asking the question: Founding faiths: Was America founded as a Christian nation? This nuanced and deeply thought out post examines the alliance of devout evangelicals and more skeptical deists that brought about the unique American experiment in ordered liberty, especially religious liberty. As Kidd writes:
Even Thomas Jefferson, a deist hailed as a hero of today’s secularists, took a generous approach toward the public role of religion after disestablishment. For example, Jefferson routinely attended religious services in government buildings as president. Jefferson was the author, of course, of the 1802 letter in which he argued that the First Amendment had erected a “wall of separation” between church and state. But the same weekend he sent this letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, a Baptist minister named John Leland preached before a joint session of Congress, with the president in attendance.

The actual history of faith and the Founding, then, confounds our expectations. Evangelical Baptists were the staunchest advocates of church-state separation, and their union with deists like Jefferson made the Baptists’ vision of religious liberty a reality. You could hardly imagine this collaboration of skeptical politicians and traditional believers today. Their partnership worked, however, because deists such as Jefferson realized that religious liberty did not require rigid secularism. The Baptists, for their part, knew about Jefferson’s personal skepticism, but they supported him because he was the champion of real religious freedom.

Not all America’s Founders were devout Christians, but America was founded with Christian principles in mind. Among the most vital of those ideals – one that could bridge the gap between evangelicals and deists – was an expansive concept of religious liberty.
Read it all.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Pretty much, anyone not Presbyterian/Congregationalist or Anglican/Episcopalian] had an interest in pluralism, since they would be the loser in any establishmentarian scheme.

But pluralism is not secularism, today what we call strict separatism.

As we see even with Jefferson, who pretty much hated all established religion[s], they held religious services of every stripe because religion was seen as a public good, nad as a solution to the problem of sectarian tyranny, pluralism says let 1000 flowers bloom, the more the better.

Voltaire of 1730s London:

Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt. There the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Church of England man accepts the promise of the Quaker. On leaving these peaceable and free assemblies, some go to the synagogue, others in search of a drink; this man is on the way to be baptized in a great tub in the name of the Father, by the Son, to the Holy Ghost; that man is having the foreskin of his son cut off, and a Hebraic formula mumbled over the child that he himself can make nothing of; these others are going to their church to await the inspiration of God with their hats on; and all are satisfied.

If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other's throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace.

Mark in Spokane said...

Thanks, Tom, for pointing that out. Pluralism is without question one of the key reasons behind the American experiment in religious liberty. Not the only reason, but a key one. And thanks for sharing that quote from Voltaire. I wasn't aware of it!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Cheers, Mark. And may I restate that the Founders indisputably considered religion a public good. They were neutral on which church's dogma was correct, but not "neutral" on the subject of God or no-God.

Mark in Spokane said...

That's right Tom, even the less-religious among the top tier -- like Franklin and Jefferson -- supported religion as a source for social good. They might disagree with orthodox Christianity, but they supported religion of various stripes in order to foster moral virtue and the habits of self-government in the people. And both Franklin and Jefferson had strong religious views -- they weren't really Deists as that term is used today, they were strongly theistic, believing in a God who intervened in human affairs and who directly governed the universe through his providence.