27 October 2010

God of Liberty

"[I]t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

--Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia.

"Let my neighbor persuade himself that there is no God, and he will soon pick my pocket, and break not only my leg but my neck."

-- William Lind, Serious Considerations on the Election of a President (1800)

One of the ironic details Thomas S. Kidd puts toward the front of his new book, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution is the fact that, at the end of the 18th century the religious denomination perhaps most in favor of the "separation of church and state" as understood by Jefferson were the Baptists, the group perhaps most identified with the modern "religious right" and as such presumed to oppose the separation principle. Likewise, many Baptist voters supported Jefferson despite negative campaigning that portrayed him as a militant atheist, because he was understood to support the separation principle. It helps to understand what Jefferson and his Baptist supporters understood by the "wall of separation," and God of Liberty is an admirable exercise in clarification.

Kidd contests extremist interpretations of America's founding that would portray the Founders as mostly rational Deists, on one hand, or as born-again Christians on the modern fundamentalist model, on the other. Some were one, some the other, and some were Anglicans and some were Quakers. There was no American consensus on Christian doctrine during the Founding era, though there was general agreement that belief in a creator and a day of judgment was useful if not essential to maintaining public order. Even those like Jefferson, Franklin and Washington, who verged on Deism, readily made public statements endorsing religious faith as the foundation of virtue. Beyond the two most general premises -- God and Hell, if you will, -- Christians differed on points of doctrine. That forced the question: if the state should encourage religious observance, what sort should it endorse? That question formed the context for the First Amendment and Jefferson's understanding of it as a separation of church and state.

Taxophobia in America has roots further back in time than the usual revolutionary narrative reveals. Before colonists complained against taxation without representation, many protested against one form of tax that could almost literally be interpreted as robbing Peter to pay Paul. That was the tax levied by colonies with official religious establishments for the support of sectarian clergy. Your tax dollars went to support Congregationalists in Massachusetts and Anglicans in Virginia, whether you were a Congregationalist, and Anglican, or not. As the "Great Awakening" accelerated the growth of dissenting sects like the Baptists and Methodists, dissenters increasingly resented having to subsidize denominations they didn't agree with, whose faith they sometimes questioned. The "birthers" of the 1740s were those dissenters who openly questioned whether established, subsidized pastors were really born again -- call them "rebirthers" if you like. For their trouble, dissenters often suffered persecution in colonies with official churches, at the hands both of governments and mobs.

In their long struggle against religious establishments (Massachusetts subsidized the Congregational church until 1833) the dissenters found forceful allies in the rationalists and Deists among the Founders who saw no reason for colonies or states to favor one denomination, or even one religion, over others. Under their combined influence, an American public Christianity emerged that was a kind of minimalist monotheism, acknowledging the existence of a creator (or a less anthropomorphic "Providence") and the certainty of afterlife rewards and punishments, but indifferent to finer points of controversy beyond those. Even this, however, was not a state religion, as the Framers resisted demands to embed religious qualifications for political office in the Constitution. As some critics realized with horror, the Constitution itself placed no barrier blocking Catholics, Jews, "Mahometans" or even atheists from participating in public life. Nor, Kidd adds frequently, did it block any of these people from acting publicly on the basis of their faith. None of the Founders, Kidd argues, contemplated the total "privatization" of religious morality now identified by some as a condition of the separation of church and state. None of them would have seen "legislating morality" as a breach of the Jeffersonian wall of separation. They believed it the state's essential business to encourage public morality -- which extended in their minds to the people fulfilling their obligations to the state by paying their taxes promptly.

As a "Religious History of the American Revolution," God of Liberty demonstrates how Christian concepts shaped perceptions of the conflict between the colonies and Britain. Even then, I'm afraid, people were crazy about the End Times. During the Seven Years' (French and Indian) War, colonial preachers denounced Catholic France, or the Pope France presumably served, as the Beast of Revelation. That made the British Empire a godly force for righteousness and religious liberty. But when Britain subjected the colonies to new taxes and regulations after the war, and took steps to accommodate the Catholic populations of conquered Quebec, the mother country itself assumed the Beast's role, while America became a providential nation in its own right. Even a scheme to have the Archibishop of Cantebury appoint a bishop to supervise American Anglicans drove Anglicans themselves nuts; they'd grown accustomed to local control over clergy and didn't want to give it up to an implant from Britain. Anti-Catholicism subsided once the former French enemy took the Patriots' side in the Revolutionary War, only to resurge in different circumstances in the 19th century.

On a more intellectual level, Kidd emphasizes the Christian origins of the egalitarian ideal that drove many Founders. Jefferson himself described equality as a fact of Creation in the Declaration of Independence, and Kidd shows that Jefferson gradually revised that crucial document to make God's role more "theologically explicit." This was consciously done to make the Declaration accessible to the general public, consistent with what Jefferson called "the harmonizing sentiments of the day." He could have toned the rhetoric down by following the model of his own state's Declaration of Rights, which stated simply that men were "by nature equally free and independent," but Jefferson's goal was to persuade the broadest possible American audience. This may be disappointing to some modern readers, but Kidd's account does make it clear that the Declaration's invocation of a Creator is primarily a rhetorical device rather than an affirmation of Christian faith.

Kidd saves his own editorializing for an epilogue which warns against both the abuse of Christian doctrine and rhetoric by politicians (e.g. George W. Bush) and a secularist impulse to purge religion entirely from public life. He advises today's skeptics to adopt Jefferson's pragmatism, and to recognize that "there are times when the challenges facing us require transcendent justification and moral courage beyond mere pragmatism or political preference." The Civil Rights movement under Martin Luther King's leadership was such a time, Kidd notes. He concludes that "from the Revolution to today, many Americans cannot make sense of equality and justice as rootless human preferences." At the same time, "Believers should not seek to use government to coerce anyone into religious practice." In Kidd's opinion, "it is still difficult to imagine a better source than religion for channeling American freedom toward benevolent ends." In his defense, it wasn't his job, as a historian of the 18th century, to do that imagining. But a determined secularist can still note that this final statement is something that Kidd does not prove with the thoroughness of the rest of the book. Whether the situation is really unchanged from the 18th century, or is essentially unchanging, must be learned elsewhere.

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