September 28, 2006


An Almost-Chosen People (Paul Johnson, First Things, June/July, 2006)

It is important to grasp that American society embraced the principles of voluntarism and tolerance in faith in a spirit not of secularism but of piety. Almost unconsciously the consensus grew that voluntary adherence to one faith, and tolerance of all others, was the foundation of true religion. In this respect English and American society bifurcated as early as the 1650s. While England was debating whether to have a Presbyterian or a Congregationalist settlement, and then in practice getting an Anglican one, the former governor of Massachusetts, Sir Henry Vane, was expounding the principles of civil and religious liberty, arguing that they were inseparable and that freedom of religious belief was essential to the maintenance of a Christian society: “By virtue then of this supreme law, sealed and confirmed in the blood of Christ unto all men...all magistrates are to fear and forebear intermeddling with giving rule or imposing in those matters.” This document, and the sentiments it articulated, were more instrumental in determining the spirit of the American Constitution in religious matters than were the writings of the Enlightenment.

It is probably true that the American Revolution was in essence the political and military expression of a religious movement. Certainly those who inspired it and carried it through believed they were doing God’s will. Its emotional dynamic was the Great Awakening, which began in the 1730s. The man who first preached it, Jonathan Edwards, believed strongly that there was no real difference between a political and a religious emotion, both of which were God directed. The right kind of politics were, to his way of thinking, no more than realized eschatology. He said he saw no reason why God should not “establish a constitution” whereby human creatures should cooperate with him and all might know that the hour was coming when God “shall take the kingdom”; he looked for “the dawn of that glorious day.”

Edwards saw religion as the essential unifying force in American society, and that force was personified in his evangelical successor George Whitefield. Until this time America was a series of very different states with little contact with each other, often with stronger links to Europe than to their neighbors. Religious evangelism was the first continental phenomenon, transcending differences between the colonies, dissolving state boundaries, and introducing truly national figures. Whitefield was the first American celebrity, as well known in New Hampshire as in Georgia. His form of religious ecumenicalism preceded and shaped political unity. It popularized the real ethic of the American Revolution, which was not so much political as social and religious—the beliefs and standards and attitudes that the great majority of the American people had in common. It was a Christian and to a great extent a Protestant ethic, infinitely more important than the purely dogmatic variations of the sects.[...]

Even those most strongly influenced by the secular spirit of the Enlightenment acknowledged the centrality of the religious spirit in giving birth to America. As John Adams put it in 1818, “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. [It] was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.” He saw religion, indeed, as the foundation of the American civic spirit: “One great advantage of the Christian religion is that it brings the great principle of the law of nature and nations, love your neighbour as yourself, and do to others as you would that others do to you, to the knowledge, belief and veneration of the whole people. Children, servants, women and men are all professors in the science of public as well as private morality....The duties and rights of the man and the citizen are thus taught from early infancy.”

The United States of America was not, therefore, a secular state; it might more accurately be described as a moral and ethical society without a state religion. Clearly, those who created it saw it as an entity, to use Lincoln’s later phrase, “under God.” The Declaration of Independence in its first paragraph invokes “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” as the entitlement of the American people to choose separation, and it insists that men have the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” because they are so “endowed by their Creator.” The authors appeal, in their conclusion, to “the Supreme judge of the world” and express their confidence in “the Protection of Divine Providence.”

An observant outsider can’t help but notice that one thing that unites all Americans is their fealty to the ideals of the Revolution and the principles of the Founders. The difference seems to be between those who think they meant what they said and those who hold that it was all just a feint for popular consumption in their goal of emulating France, which would have happened had the glorious experiment not been hijacked by an oppressive alliance of big business and privileged religion within a few weeks of Yorktown.

Posted by Peter Burnet at September 28, 2006 5:52 AM

The genius of the Founding is that rather than Establish a state religion, the religion established a state.

Posted by: oj at September 28, 2006 9:07 AM

The difference between conservative & liberal Americans is that liberals identify with the direction the Founders were moving, whereas conservatives identify with where they actually ended up.

Posted by: Timothy at September 28, 2006 1:03 PM

So it took 230 years to get to that "oppressive alliance of big business (merging of Corporate and Government sector) and privileged religion (Secular Humanism preached through forced attendance in tax supported schools).

It's time for a new Declaration laying out all the "abuses and usurpations" [DHS, TSA, IRS, Kelo, McFein, Public Education] of our current system.

It is our right, it is our duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for our future security.

Posted by: Bruno at September 29, 2006 1:01 AM