Monday, April 3, 2017

Was America Founded as a Protestant Nation?

Perhaps the better question. From Jody Bottum's essential essay from a few years back, The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline:
In truth, all the talk, from the eighteenth century on, of the United States as a religious nation was really just a make-nice way of saying it was a Christian nation—and even to call it a Christian nation was usually just a soft and ecumenical attempt to gloss over the obvious fact that the United States was, at its root, a Protestant nation. Catholics and Jews were tolerated, off and on, but “the destiny of America,” as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835, was “embodied in the first Puritan who landed on those shores, just as the whole human race was represented by the first man.”
Even America’s much vaunted religious liberty was essentially a Protestant idea. However deistical and enlightened some of the Founding Fathers may have been, Deism and the Enlightenment provided little of the religious liberty they put in the Bill of Rights. The real cause was the rivalry of the Protestant churches: No denomination achieved victory as the nation’s legally established church, mostly because the Baptists fought it where they feared it would be the Episcopalians, and the Episcopalians fought it where they feared it would be the Congregationalists. The oddity of American religion produced the oddity of American religious ­freedom.
The greatest oddity, however, may be the fact that the United States nonetheless ended up with something very similar to the establishment of religion in the public life of the nation. The effect often proved little more than an agreement about morals: The endlessly proliferating American churches, Tocqueville concluded, “all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man.” The agreement was sometimes merely an establishment of manners: “The clergy of all the different sects hold the same language,” he added. “Their opinions are in agreement with the laws, and the human mind flows onward, so to speak, in one undivided current.”
Morals and manners, however, count for a great deal in the public square, and, beyond all their differences, the diverse Protestant churches merged to give a general form and a general tone to the culture. Protestantism helped define the nation, operating as simultaneously the happy enabler and the unhappy conscience of the American republic—a single source for both national comfort and national unease.


JMS said...

Bottum’s first error is to conflate a “nation” (i.e. a culture – beliefs & behaviors, which was predominantly Protestant Christian) with a “nation-state.” The “founders” differentiated between the two, but what became known as separation of church and state did not mean that Americans were not a religious people. The U.S. Constitution is a legal document creating a secular state by delineating the governmental authority and structure that governs “We the People.” The Constitution does not proclaim jurisdiction over religion because liberty of conscience was one of the natural rights that the people retained for themselves.

Bottum’s second error (via de Tocqueville, who clearly had his “ear to the ground” in 1830s America, but certainly not the 1630s) is to conflate Puritans as the sole progenitors of religion in American society. They were not. They were one strain of Protestantism, yet very influential in terms of their covenant theology and communitarian ideals, but there were other Protestant faiths (e.g., the radical dissenters: English Separatists (Brownists), English Baptists, Anabaptists (Mennonites) and Quakers) who had a much stronger influence on our modern notions of “religious liberty.”

Bottum should have compared John Winthrop’s Puritan “city upon a hill” with the U.S. Constitution if they are linked directly. The Constitution derives its authority from “the people,” whereas Winthrop’s model invoked a “special overruling Providence” and the “Churches of Christ.” The Constitution is a secular legal document with “no religious test” for office-holding, and no invocation of God in the oath of office. Winthrop, who was not a minister, delivered a sermon espousing sacred goals, and ultimately the Body of Liberties invoked Mosaic law.

At least Bottum gives a grudging “hat tip” to the Enlightenment, but still reifies Protestantism as the basis for religious liberty. One should ask, which Protestants? Certainly not the “magesterial” Luther-Melanchthon, Calvin-Bea, Zwingli-Bullinger, or the Henry VIII-Cranmer lines.

But as with so many of these “theocon” articles, why not examine what was actually done by our founders, along with what they left undone. If we were such a “Protestant nation,” why didn’t they adopt William Williams’ preamble, “We the people of the United States, in a firm belief of the being and perfections of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governour of the world, in his universal providence and the authority of his laws; that he will require of all moral agents an account of their conduct; that all rightful powers among men are ordained of, and mediately derived from God.” Why did the “no religious test” clause elicit little debate or dissension? Why did the constitutional convention adopt the Virginia model of Jefferson and Madison teamed with John Leland and evangelical Baptists and Presbyterians versus the Anglican establishment, instead of the Massachusetts model of a “narrow” establishment (shaped by John Adams) or South Carolina’s broader Protestant establishment?

An honest answer to these questions does support Bottum’s religious pluralism thesis. While the founders thought that religion inculcated some measure of virtue and morality, from their reading a history since the Protestant Reformation, religion was a divisive, rather than a unifying force. In an increasingly pluralistic America (after the Great Awakening), any hope of getting the Constitution ratified would weakened fatally if it attempted to support any religion, or even Protestant Christianity in general. So, the crux of disestablishment, free exercise and no religious test, or what we call separation of church and state a la Jefferson and Madison, represented a radical departure from other governments from the past (e.g., Mass Bay colony) and around the world. It was the most revolutionary outcome of the American Revolution.

Tom Van Dyke said...

what we call separation of church and state a la Jefferson and Madison

It was the competition of Protestant sects that necessitated religious pluralism and a level of "separation. That is the entire point. Jefferson and Madison and the secularists are improperly given credit.

For one thing, religion was left to the states, and Massachusetts' state church did not violate the First Amendment. America was "founded" as a pluralistic but not necessarily secular nation. It was free to choose either path.

And again, we see that the question "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?" is improperly formulated, as it contemplates only the "nation-state." This is the modern, secularist view that excludes all notion of an organic, civil society--one that America herself did not hold--that a "nation" is no more than the sum of its laws.

France had a monarchy, the Directory, Emperor Napoleon, and all sorts of other political arrangements since then, but she has always been France.

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