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'God of Liberty': The Role of Religion in American Independence

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For some relevant reading on this Independence Three-Day Weekend, one can hardly do better than "God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution". At a time when both American history and religion are hotly contested territory -- caught between purported dichotomies of holiness and nihilism, theocracy and secularism, provincialism and pluralism -- a bit of perspective, fact-checking and a brief immersion into the genesis of an independent America is in order.

"God of Liberty" dispels the false dilemmas by showing that America has always been religious -- and also religiously diverse. The historical narrative suggests that it's this special combination to which the United States owes its existence, and this that made the American Revolution so revolutionary.

Professor Thomas Kidd's thesis is that the founding of the United States "saw an unlikely alliance of evangelicals, Enlightenment liberals, and deists working together to win religious freedom" and the disestablishment of state religion.

"The evangelicals wanted disestablishment so they could freely preach the gospel; the rationalists and deists wanted disestablishment because they felt an enlightened government should not punish people for their religious views. The combination of the two agendas would transform America, helping make it both intensely religious and religiously free."

While all history books see the seeds of American independence in the many dissenting denominations that fled England seeking spiritual independence, Kidd locates the motor of rebellion in the advent of evangelical Christianity three decades before the shooting started. Protestant preachers bristled against any worldly authority, and all the more so against the spiritually dictatorial English empire with its collusion of crown and church. The prospect of revolution, says Kidd, "presented an opportunity to end all forms of religious discrimination and let the gospel run free." The significance of such redemption for these evangelicals was more than mere civil rights -- they were animated by an apocalyptic and providential vision that read the coming of the Rapture in the events leading up to the Revolution.

Meanwhile, the Patriot politicians came to liberty from quite a different direction. They were all Christians of one sort or another; but none of them were evangelical. Among them were famous deists like the pragmatic Ben Franklin, the great pamphleteer Thomas Paine and, of course, Thomas Jefferson -- both of which Thomases appropriated plenty of Protestant imagery in their writings but were frequently accused of heresy for their iconoclasm. Dubbing them the "Enlightenment rationalists", Kidd glosses a few of their much-mentioned intellectual influences like Locke's philosophy of religious tolerance and Montesquieu's humanism, but leaves out equally important sources like the highly heterodox Cicero and Voltaire.

The spiritual ideas of the Enlightenment rationalists were eclectic and complex, often ambivalent and beguiling; but crucially, they didn't need definite religious doctrines to find common cause with the liberty-seeking evangelists. Armed with liberal theory, writes Kidd, James Madison could posit that "civil authorities should never try to coerce people into holding uniform religious opinions and should only regulate religious practices in the interest of the state's well-being," and "Jefferson could appeal to universal moral principles established by God as 'self-evident' truths while avoiding the thicket of theological specifics."

The founders' genius lay in just these non-denominational and universalizing tendencies, which proved a crucial catalyst to the formation of American religious liberty. Like the founders, the sectarian evangelists "had to justify their resistance by appeals to God-given rights of conscience"; but unlike them, sectarians did not generally envision extending those rights to all of their religious rivals. While admitting this point, Kidd doesn't go far enough in acknowledging the ingeniously innovative coup of the founding philosophers who generalized from the resistance of particular sects to the religious rights of all.

Ironically, the Constitutional clause that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" was ultimately a concession to Baptists and other evangelicals -- many of whom otherwise opposed the Constitution -- by controversy-averse framers who had been avoiding any mention of religion. It was not that the founders wanted to write religion out of the new nation; Kidd insists that they tended to view robust religion as indispensable to a good society, but that there was a widespread current of thought -- among both the preachers and the Patriots -- that involvement with worldly power tended to enervate and corrupt true religion, so they were careful to reserve ministry for the ministers.

Against Christians concerned that the disestablishment clause "threatened the nation's commitment to Christianity," says Kidd, "dissenting evangelicals and Enlightenment skeptics like Jefferson and Madison ultimately won the argument by convincing people that religion was more likely to thrive with no state oversight or funding. As a matter of fact, they were correct." The separation of church and state was not an attempt to secularize America, Kidd argues -- on the contrary, it was a move that achieved the goal of making American soil uniquely fertile for the efflorescence of religion.

The founders' assumption of the desirability of a religious society is seen over and over again in the meanderings of Kidd's narrative. "God of Liberty" doesn't follow the straightforward chronological pattern of classical history texts, nor does it adhere to clear thematic groupings or progression; Kidd's history of ideas is a hermeneutical, sometimes repetitious loop-de-loop, along the way connecting religious themes to the major figures and events of the Revolution and beyond, from Bunker Hill to Jefferson's presidency.

As an argument about our past, it's powerful: taking into account the spiritual dimension of the revolution renders it far more intelligible than a mere uprising against import taxes, a cause for which it seems hard to imagine an entire culture of men fighting and dying. Once seen as a struggle for their souls, though, the picture looks very different: just as relatively minor grievances about fiscal governance grew into a war against authoritarianism writ large, isolated demands for sectarian self-preservation are seen to blossom into protection of spiritual life in general.

Following the argument to its logical conclusion, one wonders if it might have been the principles of religious freedom and equality that opened the very possibility of the existence of the United States. After all, we're talking about a union of states with widely diverse and often antagonistic spiritual constituencies -- from Congregationalist Massachusetts to Catholic Maryland, Anglican Virginia to Quaker Pennsylvania. Each of them wanted their own state religion, and federal disestablishment might have been the only compromise that could bring them all into the American fold.

And so one of the morals that Kidd draws from this story is about coalition-building, reaching across party lines in defense of greater goals. In contrast to the current perceived polarization of American society, "evangelicals in the founding era often cooperated with people who held personal beliefs that were very different from their own." Deists are not quite secularists, but compared to evangelical doctrine, they're not too far off. Perhaps Kidd's portrayal provides a model for how some contemporary antagonisms might be approached.

Of course, modern America faces a diversity very advanced from that of 17th century society. What does the historical founding mean for a truly pluralistic culture, with non-Christian communities? Kidd documents Jefferson's indifference to atheists and polytheists, and George Washington's openness to the rights of conscience of Jews and Muslims; on the other hand, he devoted a previous book to the long history of Protestant hostility toward Islam, which was apparently of a different echelon of odium from that directed at Catholics or Jews. In any case, there's reason to believe that the founders, with their probing prescience, were prepared for the U.S. to become a truly pluralistic place.

But it would, of course, not be until the 20th century that non-European religions and the non-religious would truly gain traction in American society, enduring all manner of legal and social discrimination along the way. And it remains to be seen what the 21st century will bring for religion and regimes. That will have to be the subject of yet another book; but Kidd's "God of Liberty", for one, has foreordained an America at once spiritually vibrant and free.