Christian Institutionalism in Miles Smith IV’s “Religion and Republic” (Jeffrey Cimmino on July 8, 2024, Providence)

Smith’s critical contribution is to eschew the rhetorical extremes of the left and right that recast late 18th century America as either embodying rigid church-state separation or as a purer, more sacral time in our erstwhile Christian republic. Smith characterizes the early United States as “a republic of Christians committed to what I have termed ‘Christian institutionalism.’” Christians “wanted to maintain Christian precepts in their nation’s various social and political institutions without sacralizing those principles or subordinating the American republic to a church.”

Phrased in negative terms, Smith proposes “that the United States Constitution’s disestablishment did not secularize society, nor did it remove institutional Christianity from the civic, state educational, or political spheres.” It also “did not create a unitary social or semi-sacralized Christian nation as some conservative evangelicals and neo-theocrats argue.” The “religious order” enacted by the Constitution “was liberal in its views on establishmentarianism and at the same time conservative on its conceptualization of Christianity’s place in the civil and social orders and in its intellectual influences.”

There was a widespread view in the early republic among Christians (and the few non-Christians) that church and state, even with disestablishment, retained “their mutual purpose of creating and upholding a moral order committed to historically Christian conceptions of virtue.” The notion of a strict wall of separation between church and state, moreover, finds little currency in the views of the authors of the Constitution. Congress, for example, used public funds to pay for Congressional chaplains and reauthorized the Northwest Ordinance, which went so far as to declare religion “necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.”

Transcending notions of state churches and establishment, Smith writes that “Christians remained committed to upholding Christian institutions in the civil, political, and social structures of the American republic,” in order to sustain America as a Christian nation. This institutionalism can be seen across numerous spheres of the early republic.