Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

February 12, 2010

You need to know history to talk about history

The New York Times Magazine has a long piece, How Christian Were the Founders?, which outlines the efforts of school board members of fundamentalist inclinations to shift the narrative about the founding of the American republic. In short, these activists would like children to understand that the United States was founded as a Christian nation by Christian men. From this generality follows specific points, such as the rejection of the legal validity of the concept of church-state separation. In any case, I tend to endorse this position:

In fact, the founders were rooted in Christianity — they were inheritors of the entire European Christian tradition — and at the same time they were steeped in an Enlightenment rationalism that was, if not opposed to religion, determined to establish separate spheres for faith and reason. “I don’t think the founders would have said they were applying Christian principles to government,” says Richard Brookhiser, the conservative columnist and author of books on Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris and George Washington. “What they said was ‘the laws of nature and nature’s God.’ They didn’t say, ‘We put our faith in Jesus Christ.’ ” Martin Marty says: “They had to invent a new, broad way. Washington, in his writings, makes scores of different references to God, but not one is biblical. He talks instead about a ‘Grand Architect,’ deliberately avoiding the Christian terms, because it had to be a religious language that was accessible to all people.”

Or, as Brookhiser rather succinctly summarizes the point: “The founders were not as Christian as those people would like them to be, though they weren’t as secularist as Christopher Hitchens would like them to be.”

I suspect that a knowledge of historical context really makes this much more comprehensible But most people are either too ignorant or plain stupid to really attain any level of knowledge which would allow for context. And we do not live in a culture which cedes to men such as Richard Brookheiser, a biographer of the founders, any special credibility.

We do have personal and public pronouncements of men such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The issue with moderns interpreting their words and associations is that these men must be understood in the context of their times, not our times. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson seem to have been proponents of Unitariantism. Today when we talk about Unitarianism in the United States we are talking about a predominantly non-Christian religion (i.e., the Unitarian-Universalist association does not affirm a Christian creed, or, for that matter any creed, though a minority of Unitarian-Univesalists are part of a Christian faction within the denomination). Adams was a public Unitarian, not atypical in New England where the sect was a liberal movement within Congregationalism (his son, John Quincy Adams, was also a Unitarianism, though he admitted to personally being attracted to Trinitarianism in his correspondence). Jefferson was in private a proponent of Unitarianism, but his religious associations in public were with the traditional Episcopal (formerly Anglican) church of his class and region. Both of these men rejected Trinitarianism, while for most of his life Jefferson seems to have strongly leaned toward a spare Deism. To modern Christians and non-Christians living in the United States these men would not be considered Christians. But, it seems that both would consider themselves Christian (Jefferson may have sworn off the term earlier in his life when his hostility toward religion was strongest).

I think a major issue is that the Second Great Awakening transformed the religious landscape of the United States, in particular the South. Prior to the Second Great Awakening the elites of the American South were arguably the most enthusiastic proponents of what orthodox Christian New Englanders might label the “infidel persuasion.” This tendency was evident even relatively late in the Antebellum period, as I have noted before the prominent partisan of Southern sectionalism, John C. Calhoun, switched from the Presbyterian Calvinism of his youth to Unitarianism as adult, along with rising up to the pinnacle of the Southern gentry from more modest beginnings. But overall the religious demographics of the South in 1850 were radically changed from what they were in 1800. The Anglicanism dominant in that section during the period when the founders were at their peak gave way to evangelical Methodism, Baptism, and even more radical dissenting sects.

In the process I believe that the conceptualization of what religion was in the lives of individuals changed quite a bit. These new religious factions were not the customary denominations of the regions where they now flourished, and their emergence ushered in an era of denominational competition and ferment which comes down to the present day. As some readers have noted it is acceptable in the South to inquire as to the religious preferences of new acquaintances; e.g., “Do do you have a ‘Church home’ yet?” This is comprehensible in light of the social history of the region since the Second Great Awakening. There has been a transformation of the dominant Colonial sect, the Episcopalians, into a preserve of the aristocracy (the Presbyterians traditionally take this position in the “up-country”).

Interestingly, the rise of the Baptists in New England, the subsequent disestablishment of the Congregational church, and the later influx of Roman Catholics, seems to have produced a totally different equilibrium and direction. Religion seems to have withdrawn into the private realm, and it is incongruous to many moderns that New England produced the most vociferous and vocal public polemicists on the need for Christian orthodoxy in the early republic.

But we also need to move beyond the personal, and evaluate the political order and its peculiarities which the founders constructed. Today a republic is not peculiar, but at the founding many were skeptical of the feasibility of a republican government on the scale of a continent. Even some American notables were opponents of opening up the lands west of the Appalachians precisely because they worried about the scalability of a transcontinental republic. The American experiment was then a wild sui generis gamble. The preference of some, such as Alexander Hamilton, for a life term for the president or even a monarchy, may seem strange to us today, but it likely seemed a more prudent position at that time, balancing out the radical experiments with conservative tried & tested institutions.

Similarly, the fact that the federal government omitted mention of God in its organizing document was also radical. Prior to the Enlightenment it was accepted that a polity needed divine favor. Even states which tolerated some level of religious pluralism such as Great Britain and the Netherlands gave preference to a particular sect. A general provision or preference for the Christian religion as a whole would have been a moderately radical position, one promoted by luminaries such as Patrick Henry. But the consensus of the founders rejected this compromise and shocked many foreign observers by leaving religion out of the framework of the state.

This does not mean of course that the United States was not a Christian nation, it was a nation of Christians. Initially it was a nation of Protestants, evident through the sectarian conflict with Catholics which persisted from the 19th century down to the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. The key is that the government took a hands off policy toward the whole process, which was a radical innovation. Today most of the founders would be milquetoast liberal Protestants, but in their day and age those beliefs denoted a very different social stance.

Which brings us to the fundamentalists, who wish to interject their own counter-narrative into public school textbooks. Though often termed “religious conservatives,” they themselves are products of history, going back to radical Protestant movements which dominated the Second Great Awakening, but fundamentally shaped by the rise of dominance of liberal religious scholars in most of the mainline Protestant denominations in the late 19th century. Their’s is a reactionary movement which crystallized in the early 20th century as a rearguard action. This is not the place to rehash the innovative and radical aspects of American Protestant fundamentalism which contradicts its own self-perception as the most pure and authentic of Christian traditions, but suffice it to say one of the most bizarre aspects of many fundamentalist attempts to reinterpret the founding is that during the period of the founding their own particular presuppositions would have seemed peculiar to most of the founders. The founders were certainly the products of Christian European civilization, whether they professed or practiced Christianity personally, but modern American Protestant fundamentalists are a very specific and recent distillation of the various strands which culminated in the values which the founders espoused in the late 18th century.

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