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American Religion: The Great Retreat

It’s never been easy to reconcile religion with politics. We know that not only from the bloody sectarian strife taking place today in Iraq but also from the passionate disputes we ourselves are having at the present time—though as yet we haven’t been bombing one another. From stem cell research to intelligent design, from prayer in the schools to the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance, issues of religion and politics bitterly divide Americans. While some think that the country has forgotten God and its Christian heritage, others fear that the government and the culture are being taken over by religious enthusiasts out to create a theocracy.

Inevitably, over the past decade or more the disputants on both sides have flooded the country with books on religion and government, each pushing their own positions, with most of them having much to say about what the Founders intended the role of religion to be. Indeed, showing that the Founders would have approved of the writer’s position seems to be essential to any argument over religion and government.

The two books under review are attempts to intervene in the current heated controversies. Both of them seek to reconcile national differences and bring Americans closer together by recounting the actual history of religion in America, especially at the founding of the nation. As both writers would agree, we Americans have a very unusual religious tradition. We are not born into our religion in the way we are born into citizenship. Religion is very much a voluntary affair, a matter of free choice. There is no religious establishment here and not much formal connection between religion and government; in fact, over the past generation there has been an almost obsessive concern to keep religion apart from the public culture and affairs of the state.

Yet this voluntarism and this separation of church and state have not led to religious indifference or religious apathy. Indeed, with the exception of Ireland, the United States is the most religious society in the Western world. Nearly 90 percent of Americans say they consider themselves religious believers of one sort or another, about 80 percent identify with some Christian faith, 79 percent believe in the Virgin Birth, 78 percent say Jesus physically rose from the dead, 48 percent claim to have had a “born again” Christian experience, and more than 40 percent of Americans say that they are weekly churchgoers, although those who actually attend church may be closer to 25 percent. At any rate there is an enormous number of different religious groups, over 1,500 by one count, with seventy-five different kinds of Baptists alone. Even in the face of the relentless “secularization” of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, religion in America still flourishes. And, except for being freed of tax, it flourishes without the support of the government or the state, without any of the traditional establishments that have maintained religions elsewhere in other nations. How did such an unusual religious culture develop? What historical circumstances created this remarkable religious world?

It was not that way at the outset. At the time of the first settlements in the seventeenth century most of the colonists who migrated to the New World brought with them the traditional attitudes of Europeans about religion. Religion was all-encompassing, and despite the advances of science in the seventeenth century it was still the major means by which most people explained the world. Most of the migrants to America, like most Europeans at the time and like many people elsewhere in the world today, assumed that the well-being of the state depended upon there being religious uniformity within it. They assumed that there existed a single orthodox religious truth to explain the world and that it was the responsibility of the state to enforce that truth. Most settlers could scarcely conceive of any real separation of church and state; religion and government were two parts of one whole whose ends were the same—the glory of God for the one commonwealth. Religion was so important to the welfare of the public that the state necessarily had a major responsibility to support it in every possible way—from gathering tithes and paying the clergy to punishing heretics and dissenters.

It is true that the Puritans who came to Massachusetts Bay in 1630 were fleeing from the persecutions of Archbishop Laud and the hierarchical Anglican Church of England. But they were not seeking religious toleration or liberty in any modern sense. They simply wanted to practice the orthodox religious truth as they saw it, and once in control of the churches of Massachusetts Bay they established just as much religious uniformity in the New World as Archbishop Laud had sought in the Old World. They required all inhabitants to attend their Puritan churches and quickly stamped out all dissent by either exiling or hanging the dissenters. Because the church structure they favored was based on congregations, and thus ideally suited to the localizing tendencies of American life, the Puritans of Massachusetts were remarkably successful in establishing their religion; indeed, their Congregational religious establishment in Massachusetts eventually became the longest-lasting of any in the United States, maintaining itself until 1833.

Elsewhere, however, circumstances in the New World conspired to transform traditional European religious establishments. The English colonists in Virginia aimed only at erecting the kind of church they had known in the Old World—an overseas branch of the Church of England. But no archbishops or bishops came to America, and therefore the elaborate hierarchy of the Church of England was not duplicated in Virginia or any place in the New World.

In some of the colonies the presence of several sects within the same community forced changes in thinking. The colony of Maryland, for example, was settled as a refuge for English Catholics. But since the Catholics never made up a majority of the colonists, the Catholic proprietors of Maryland, the Calvert family, felt pressed in 1649 to issue Maryland’s famous act of toleration. The act stated that in order to ensure public tranquillity—and for that reason alone—all Christians who accepted the Trinity were granted the right to practice their religion freely.

This was not a modern document. It said nothing about separation of church and state or about the freedom of individual conscience. It was simply a limited, pragmatic instrument designed to meet the exigencies of maintaining order in a community where several religions existed. The act tolerated only those groups that it had to tolerate; it forbade calling religious groups names “in a reproachful manner,” and punished with death all blasphemers and deniers of the Trinity.

The middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania contained even more religious diversity. These religious groups included Anglicans, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Huguenots, Dutch and German Reformed, and even some Jews. Without doubt this pluralism, this multiplicity of peoples and faiths, was the basic fact shaping the character of religious life in early America. The sheer diversity of ethnicities and religious groups (the two were virtually indistinguishable in early America) made it very difficult to erect any sort of religious establishment and to enforce uniformity and orthodoxy, although successive governments in New York and New Jersey tried.

Two colonies in the seventeenth century were actually founded on the visionary principle of religious freedom. In 1681 the English crown granted to the Quaker aristocrat William Penn a huge tract of land that became the colony of Pennsylvania and a refuge for the persecuted English Quakers. Part of Penn’s dream of establishing a community of brotherly love was the rejection of any religious establishment. But the rejection of a religious establishment and the allowing of religious freedom to the colony did not mean any separation of religion and government. “Government,” Penn wrote, “seems to be a part of religion itself, a thing sacred in its institutions and purpose.” And his conception of the role of the government in regulating morals, punishing blasphemers, and supporting the Sabbath was little different from that of the Puritans of New England.

A similar situation developed in seventeenth-century Rhode Island, where Roger Williams, a renegade from Puritan Massachusetts, sought to build a religious community of Puritan dissidents uncontaminated by state corruption. “God,” Williams wrote, “requireth not an uniformity of Religion” nor a church establishment. In fact, said Williams, the inner spirit of people needed to be protected from the state, and thus a “wall of separation” had to be erected to insulate the church from worldly affairs. Williams, however, fully expected the state to enforce moral discipline in the colony.

Despite these anomalies, however, most American colonists as late as the mid-eighteenth century continued to believe that religious truth was unitary and the responsibility of the state was to support it. But the presence of many different sects within the same community slowly and begrudgingly compelled people into toleration. At the same time Enlightenment theorists like John Locke were offering intellectual and philosophical justifications for toleration and freedom of conscience that weakened the traditional beliefs in orthodoxy and the establishment. Everywhere the state-supported churches in the colonies were surrounded by growing numbers of dissenters whom the churches were forced to recognize and tolerate. Yet despite concessions to toleration, older assumptions remained strong almost everywhere; everyone in the community still had the obligation to support religion, and if that religion were not that of the established church, it could only be that of one of the Christian sects explicitly recognized and tolerated in law. No one, including Jews, was molested or hanged anymore for his or her religious beliefs, but in almost every colony all except Protestant Christians suffered political discrimination.

The Great Awakening—a series of revivals that swept through communities up and down the North American continent in the middle decades of the eighteenth century—further altered the American religious landscape. Much of the revivalism was carried on by itinerant ministers who invaded established parishes and challenged the authority of the traditional clergy. In the process communal churches were shattered, people were cut loose from ancient religious bonds, and the individualistic logic of Protestantism was emphasized as never before. The ideas of orthodoxy and uniformity lost more and more of their meaning for Americans. Revivalist clergymen urged the people to trust only in “self-examination” and their own private judgments, even though “your Neighbours growl against you, and reproach you.” Some revivalist preachers went so far as to assert the “absolute Necessity for every Person to act singly…as if there was not another human Creature upon Earth.” The burden of people’s new religious attachments now rested clearly on themselves and their individual decisions.

The consequences of the Awakening were radical. It accelerated developments that had been in motion since the seventeenth century. It transformed further the role of the clergy, it fragmented as never before the institutional churches, and it undermined even more the traditional belief that religion was a communal obligation. Religion in America became less a matter of rituals and rites and more a matter of personal conversion. The clergy became less a priestly group of ministers performing sacerdotal duties to a fixed community and more a group of evangelical preachers seeking to persuade individuals to come and be saved. The clergy were now to be judged not by the well-being of the society they presumably served but by the number of individual souls they saved. Consequently the clergy became even more dependent on the people they were trying to persuade. Under these circumstances it was hard to think of church and society having much unity.

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