Saturday, September 6, 2008

History of Religion and Politics in Presidential Elections: A Rejoinder

Has anything has really changed since the Founding era?
By Tom Van Dyke


At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is: “Shall I continue in allegiance to


Or impiously declare for


Oh, my. And we think we've got it ugly.

But that's what the semi-official Federalist newspaper, The Gazette of the United States, asked in the runup to the 1800 election. True fact.

Now, it was well-suspected, but not commonly known for sure, that Thomas Jefferson held unorthodox views about religion and specifically, Christianity. Turns out, he did. But as previously noted, to call Thomas Jefferson an atheist or even a Deist was not only demagogic, it was inaccurate. Jefferson was quite religious, in his way.

[Oh, I hate quoting myself, but so many things slip down the memory hole these days...]

As Edward J. Larson points out in his recent book A Magnificent Catastrophe, the election of 1800 came down to the New England Protestant establishment supporting John Adams versus Jefferson's cobbling together of all the rest of the out-crowd.

And Jefferson only won that hair-thin election due to political manipulation of Virginia's elector rules, and perhaps because his chosen VP, Aaron Burr, was the grandson of the New England fire-and-brimstone preacher Jonathan Edwards, Burr comfortably conveying the decisive electoral votes of his home state of New York.

Oh, but we're not quite done yet. Oh, no, not by a long shot...

Because if people hate religion being shoved down their throats, what they hate and fear far more is somebody else's religion used as a tool for political power. By "religion" we mean here not atheist vs. theist, not Christian vs. Mohammedan, not even Protestant vs. Catholic, but Presbyterian vs. Baptist, Quaker or Mennonite! Religion is religion and it gets quite slippery and abstract, but power is power, and it's quite real.

See, President Adams attributed his loss in the 1800 election to putting his presidential seal of approval on a Thanksgiving proclamation, which backed a Presbyterian move, the Presbyterians being the most powerful and politically ambitious sect of Christianity in America. Adams wrote:

"The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of office. It was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has allarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, & & &, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicon prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment of a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whisper ran through them “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.” This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings. Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion."

So, when you read the word "Religion" when the Founders use it, think of what it meant to John Adams, picking through the ashes of his loss to Jefferson in 1800.

Me, I'm pretty sympathetic to the role of "religion" in the public square. But I agree with Adams' analysis of the election of 1800: Faced with the choice for president between a Jehovah's Witness or Thomas S. Monson, the new "president and prophet" of the Mormon Church, or Pat Robertson, or even Pope Benedictus XVI, I meself might go with a suspected atheist, as long as I, you know, didn't know for sure.


Brad Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brad Hart said...

And for those that may think I am being's just sarcasm. All in good fun, right???

Tom Van Dyke said...

Um, if you say so, Brad. If you're referring to one of our regular contributors---not me---I'm not sure it's entirely fair to him, even in jest.

Regular readers of this blog know I usually argue from the Catholic perspective, and I'm sure they noticed the name of a certain pope on my list.

I have also added a well-known Protestant minister for balance.

Glad you enjoyed the post.

Phil Johnson said...

Just follow the historic argument on religion until you come to the place where Higher Criticism checks in. There is where the rubber hits the road. It has finally come to be about biblicism.
There's nothing wrong with religion being on the docket of American politics.
But, when will we be allowed to discuss the subject in an objective manner?
We will NOT be able to do that until the Religionists quit their whining about their always being under attack--so sanctimonious.

Brad Hart said...


Where exactly did you find this? Is there a source on the web? I'm not questioning its authenticity or anything like that. I would just like to have it for my personal collection.

Excellent stuff.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brad, I was alerted to the Gazette thing when I caught Larson on C-SPAN hawking his book. It's in many credible places on the internet, including the New Yorker article to which I linked.

The Adams quote is from a letter to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812. James H. Hutson via Jonathan Rowe, but also ubiquitous on the 'net.

Mr. Johnson, as you can see, the inquiry between men of good will goes on just fine regardless of whining from any quarter. Forgive me if I don't get drawn into more of the same. I'm done with the subject, and I hope those here gathered are too, at least for now.

Brad Hart said...

That's some great stuff. Thanks for the info, TVD.

Our Founding Truth said...

I have correspondence that presbyterians had nothing to do with Adams' proclamation, he had to blame someone for losing, and you see who. His writings are laced with rants against presbyterians.

Adams has to be wrong, because the state constitutions show ALL the Christians were trinitarians.

Adams lost because he couldn't unite the Federalists, the majority of, were Hamiltonians.


Eric Alan Isaacson said...

OFT is mistaken. John Adams's church was (and is) Unitarian. My family paid a visit this summer.

Tom Van Dyke said...

All Christians are men.

All men are animals.

All animals are not squirrels.

All Christians, then, are not squirrels.

If we're going to write nonsense, then I want in on the fun, too.

OFT, Adams did not blame the Presbyterians. He blamed his own foolishness in letting himself be seen as politically aligned with them.

Mr. Isaacson, what John Adams "believed" is of little import. He was the George Herbert Walker Bush of his age, scoring a single term [but not a second] on the coattails of a great man.

An examination of his writings reveals a man who knew little or nothing of other religions yet declared them all equally true. A shallow man and a theological twit.

Anonymous said...

After reading your post there is nothing to do but agree “Religion is religion and it gets quite slippery and abstract. And that sir is why it is so important to have a personal relationship with the Lord God of the Holy Bible. There is to be no doubt the practice of religion is a tool of the devil and a divisive separator for America. Mr. Van Dyke your quote of Mr. Adams is quite appropriate. “Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion”

There should be no doubt that in America there is freedom of religion. This privilege is granted us by our Constitution. There comes to mind a question. There are many denominational differences in Christianity however; the common denominator is a relationship with Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and savior. Christianity is not a religion it is truly a way of life. All be it many claim to be Christian and are not. Religions may be theological, philosophical, anthropological, sociological, and psychological phenomenon of human kind and lack or question the concept of relationship. Religion is complicated to define as noted at this alone could be stated as a main reason the practice of religion does not work.

Of this you can be sure the Lord God of the Holy Bible is the one true God. Proverbs 3:5-6 says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. But, in all your ways acknowledge him and he shall direct your path”

Relationship or religion the Choice is yours to make.
United we stand and divided we fall

American Voice 1

Brad Hart said...

Yep...Our Founding Truth has YET AGAIN jumped off the boat and missed the ocean.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Brad, I admit enjoying bagging on OFT, perhaps to prove my independence since the casual observer might think I'm on his "side."

But mostly because he's ignorant, as he once again proves here. And OFT once called me a "revisionist" and lumped me in with the "liberal, progressive secularist agenda."

Does this sound like any Tom Van Dyke you know? Heh.

Mr. Isaacson, upon further review, I think I sounded harsh toward you. Please know if there's anything I enjoy more than bagging on OFT [and our former colleague U-Know-Who], it's calling John Adams a twit. I didn't read the McCulloch book or see the TV show, I've just read his writings for myself.

The next time I see him writing something interesting or incisive---except about his loss in 1800---it'll be the first. A total twit, the Chauncey Gardner or Al Gore of the Founding.

OK, OK---I withdraw that. Vice-president Gore couldn't even win ONE term following a successful two-term president!


Phil Johnson said...

I have the sense--maybe correctly so--that we should keep our mind on the Founding in all of these blogs and the ensuing commentaries.
But, the commentaries ARE the issues of the blogs.
So, let me ask the question of those who have more stake in this blog than yours truly. Is it appropriate here to address the issues as they impinge on us in present day society?