American Religion: Patriotic or Critical?
The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic
By William Lee Miller
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
An Invitation to American Catholic History. By Martin E. Marty. Thomas More Press. 221 pages. $14.95.
Haven and Home: A History of the Jews in America. By Abraham J. Karp. Schocken. 401 pages. $9.95.
Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans. By R. Laurence Moore. Oxford University Press. 243pages. $24.95.
In 1987 Americans will commemorate an epochal event: 200 years ago, in the oppressive heat of a Philadelphia summer, 55 men bargained, bickered, and compromised their way to the founding document of the United States. In celebrating the drafting of the Constitution, Americans will reaffirm the blessings of united nationhood. For two centuries we have preserved the common endeavor fashioned by the men of ‘87; through the trials of continental expansion, fratricidal warfare, industrialization, urbanization, massive immigration, foreign strife, and economic boom and bust, we have remained one people: E pluribus unum. The unum can be deceptive, for as this anniversary approaches we disagree not only on where we have been and where we are, but on where we should go. Fireworks, encomia to liberty, and self-congratulatory proclamations will not erase the disquiet and division among our people.
Religion, and the political and social frictions it engenders, lies near the heart of our discontent. Who speaks for the soul of America? Are we a Christian people? What role does the United States play in the divine scheme? Such questions fall easily from the lips of Americans. In searching for answers we confront — either to accept or deny its veracity — a venerable mythology that still wields considerable authority. It runs something like this: America was born as a haven from the religious fracases and persecutions of Europe. The colonists tamed the land, prospered, and grew in numbers. John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” waxed strong under the superintending eye of God. A century and a half after the Puritans stepped ashore at Massachusetts Bay a God-fearing and freedom-loving people rebelled against a foreign oppressor and forged 13 colonies into a nation united under God, a land of some religious diversity, but most assuredly Christian. Throughout the next century these Christians strode from success to success; with God’s blessing they carved out a great nation on this continent, and in the early 20th century it emerged as the supreme Christian country on earth. America was the New Israel, chosen of God to implement providential design.
Somewhere in the 20th century — so the mythology continues — the snake slithered into the garden. The robust self-assurance that had spurred Americans toward an ever-brightening future attenuated. Beset by internal discord, foreign foes, and a slackening of self-confidence, Christian America shuddered on its foundations. By the penultimate decade of the century some Americans were feverishly laboring to shore the edifice against ruin, others standing by nonchalantly to see if it would topple, still others gleefully pitching in to hasten its crash. If most Americans anticipate 1987 as an occasion for celebration, some of them prepare to mark the event in mourning for a once-proud Christian nation now inextricably mired (to switch metaphors) in the quicksands of secularism.
In The First Liberty William Lee Miller strikes at the vitals of this reading of the American experience; to put it bluntly: the men of ‘87 were not Christians. With his scholarly eye trained mainly on Jefferson and Madison, Miller argues that the Founders were Deists, proponents of an Enlightenment creed that ill-suits them to be hailed as formulators of Christian nationhood. That Deism roiled the intellectual waters of the time cannot be denied; Jefferson and Franklin, for example, richly deserve the tag. But to ascribe such views to the Founders as a whole is a problematic exercise, given that 55 men — Jefferson not among them — participated in the Constitutional Convention. M.E. Bradford, in a recent book entitled A Worthy Company, painstakingly scrutinizes the religious beliefs of the delegates and finds more Christians than Deists among them. Since Deism was not an organized religion but a loose set of cosmological and ethical principles, it is often difficult to pin down who was and who wasn’t a Deist. Miller counts George Washington as one; Bradford points to the General’s lifelong adherence to Anglicanism as evidence of his Christianity. For every Jefferson or Franklin who slides easily under the rubric of Deism, there are 10 others whose beliefs are more ticklish to categorize.
Miller’s Founders — secular-minded men who wore their Christianity lightly, if at all — bear little resemblance to the Bible-believing statesmen who populate the fundamentalists’ pantheon. For Miller, the key Founders were secularists who erected a Jeffersonian wall to keep the state neutral in religious matters. The villains in the story, as he relates it, are evangelical Protestants — Baptists and Methodists especially — who, in the wake of the surging piety and effervescent revivalism of the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s, “soaked the nation’s culture” with their enthusiastic religion. They distorted the teachings of the Fathers, appropriated them to their own ends, and created a Protestant “establishment” that insisted that public institutions, notably the schools, nurture their brand of Christianity. Protestant hegemony lasted well into the 20th century; the Religious Right represents a last-ditch effort to restore evangelical primacy.
Although Miller claims that strict separation of church and state implies no hostility to religion, he admits that its architect, Thomas Jefferson, endeavored to replace “the old communal and social role of an established religion” with a “civic republican system”: religion must surrender to political ideology. Those recalcitrant fundamentalists, whom Miller scores, perceive this. They may be lamentably unsophisticated and a mite frantic in their denunciations of secular humanism, but they correctly discern that those who most fulsomely laud state neutrality are often the same ones who would kick religion out the front door, while leaving the back door ajar so that an ideology hostile to the sacred can sidle in.
Miller is no jaundiced secularist who longs to cleanse America of religion’s baleful influence. He suggests, for example, that Catholicism could leaven republican theory and practice with a “personalistic communitarianism” to offset the “individualistic libertarianism” of Protestant sectarianism. However gratifying Catholics might find this tribute to their Church’s teachings, it is at bottom the time-worn social-utility notion in new guise. Even Benjamin Franklin, arguably the most thoroughly secular American statesman of his era, believed that Christianity was good for the masses: by checking their baser impulses and schooling them in sobriety and orderliness, it transformed them into tractable citizens. Miller’s praise of Catholicism partakes of this tradition. The transcendent truth of Catholicism — or of any version of Christianity — is irrelevant; what matters is religion’s efficacy for the public weal.
Martin E. Marty, a distinguished and effective advocate of liberal Protestantism, shares this slant, for he approves of Catholics the more closely they approximate liberal Protestants. For him, the story of American Catholicism is the tale of how the outlook of Archbishop John Carroll — a “disestablished and non-imperial faith inside a pluralist republic” — fought heroically to defeat “papal Catholicism,” a pernicious clericalism that “seemed to go out of its way to make things difficult for the American Catholics.” Marty applauds “the three Johns” — Kennedy, Courtney Murray, and XXIII — who allegedly completed the adaptation of the Church to American pluralism. Those who continue to resist this denouement are chided for purveying “Catholic nostalgia” and for bemoaning the “Bad New Days.”
In criticizing Marty I intend no dispraise of church-state separation or religious pluralism. No more than him would I want papal dictates or the pulpit pronouncements of Baptist preachers to carry the force of legislation; integralism boasts few followers in the U.S. Pluralism and state neutrality have served America well in most respects. They have shielded unpopular religious minorities — Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists — from the ire of more numerous Christian bodies. They have imbued America with religious liveliness, a vitality that has not only benefited individuals, but, when transposed into humanitarian causes, has ameliorated worrisome social afflictions. Moreover, as Abraham Karp shows in Haven and Home, pluralism has encouraged Christians to accept Jews as members of another religious group, free to practice their faith, rather than regard them as pariahs to be harried from the and. Despite the anti-Semitism that has flourished at times in the past — and still exists, albeit more surreptitiously — “Jews in America,” writes Karp, “early felt that freedom and equality were theirs in full measure.” Pluralism and church-state separation have enabled Americans to escape much of the turmoil, contentiousness, and murderous rage that have soaked much of the world with the blood of religious minorities.
Admitting all these boons, one still feels a tug of uneasiness, a sense of “yes, but…. ” The American way has permitted every imaginable variety of religious experience to thrive on these shores, but concurrently, it has promoted consensus in the interests of Jefferson’s “civic republican system.” As many commentators — most notably Robert N. Bellah — have pointed out, America’s religion is not Christianity but republicanism. Men and women of strong religious conviction may cultivate their spiritual ardor privately, but as actors on the public stage they must adhere to Caesar’s religion. By Marty’s reckoning. Catholics become authentic Americans by conforming their Catholicism to American norms; Washington, not Rome, is the eternal city. Miller calls upon Catholics, Protestants, and Jews to contribute their particular insights to an amalgam that will provide America with “the necessary base for a true republic in the interdependent world of the third century of this nation’s existence.” The religion of republicanism lures one toward a patriotic spiritual unity.
If Miller and Marty speak for an enlightened consensus in which a nonsectarian religious belief provides the republic with moral depth, Laurence Moore views the American scene (both past and present) from a more radical vantage point. By focusing on “religious outsiders” — most importantly, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals, and various fundamentalist assemblies — he gives a special twist to the idea of utility. His outsiders have served the republic best not through unqualified support, but by adducing a radical critique of American culture. Though such groups today number among the most unswervingly patriotic of Americans, Moore recognizes that in their beginnings they “did a great deal to expose the shabbiness and the arrogance of the culture surrounding them…. ” Unlike Marty, who extols the “Americanizers” who sought to domesticate the Catholic Church, Moore sympathizes with ultramontanists who resisted conformity. Their ultimate defeat meant that “rather than furnishing a critical perspective on American life, the Catholic Church became a patriotic vehicle for reinforcing many of the least interesting and least sophisticated aspects of American life.”
One spies in this a terrible tragedy, for such groups originally possessed a fierce vision that transcended America’s bland “civil religion.” Without such a vision, the City of Man holds sway over the City of God, and sucks all into itself. America is a formidable land in which to be in the world but not of it. Its attractions are many and its lures seductive. The imperative for Christians lies in resistance; as Moore writes of the Catholic “non-Americanizers”: “They knew that…the difficulty was in preserving a tension between the things that God demanded and a regard for a continent that was too easily loved.”
Whether the Founders were Christians or not is perhaps irrelevant in this late stage of the republic. With secularists in the saddle, Moore’s “outsiders” might consider a different strategy: rather than clinging to a threadbare mythology of national blessedness, they might reclaim their “outsiderness” and proclaim the news that those who invest their love in a society fabricated by man risk forfeiting their citizenship in the eternal City of God.
©1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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