God and the Americans
1. The City Upon a Hill
No other country in history enables us to examine more closely the interaction among religious belief, culture, and public life than the United States of America. To begin with, this is the first and only instance in which we can watch a major Christian community coming into being by the light of documentary sources. America did not mysteriously emerge in prehistory. Its early evolution was not prescriptive. It was born in the clear light of recorded history and its first Christian inhabitants were only too anxious to explain what they were doing, and why.
In a way, the first American settlers were like the ancient Israelites. They saw themselves as active agents of divine providence. They were a chosen people. It was commonly believed among 16th-century English Protestants, and especially by those connected to the sea—ship captains, explorers, navigators, ocean traders, and adventurers—that the English were not only chosen by God, an elect people, but were given by Him a special mission to spread the Gospel overseas. As one of these nautical ideologues, John Davys, put it:
There is no doubt but that we of England are this saved people, by the eternal and infallible presence of the Lord predestined to be sent into these Gentiles in the sea, to those isles and famous kingdoms, there to preach to the people of the Lord: for are not we only set upon Mount Zion to give light to all the rest of the world?. . . It is only we, therefore, that must be these shining messengers of the Lord, and none but we.
This same view was put, in more practical terms, by the poet John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s, in his sermon to the shareholders of the Virginia Company, who were proposing to settle America in 1622. He told them that, by their energy and investment, “You shall have made this island, which is but as the suburbs of the old world, [into] a bridge, a gallery to the new; to join all to that world that shall never grow old, the kingdom of heaven.” In true biblical style, he assured them: “You shall add persons to this kingdom, and to the kingdom of heaven, and add names to the books of our chronicles, and to the book of life.”
In the event, the settlement of America by English Protestants was to be more than this. It was to be the greatest, indeed the only, realized experiment in post-European Christianity. The birth of Protestant America was a deliberate and self-conscious act of church-state perfectionism. For most of the early settlers, especially in New England, were dissenting groups fleeing the Anglican England of James I where, in their view, the Protestant “reformation” had failed. John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company (formed in 1628), made it clear why they were leaving England and going to America:
All other churches of Europe are brought to desolation, and it cannot be but the like judgment is coming upon us. . . . This land [England] grows weary of its inhabitants, so as man which is the most precious of all creatures, is here more vile and base than the earth they tread upon. . . . We are grown to the height of intemperance in all excess of riot. . . . The fountains of learning and religion are so corrupted . . . that most children, even the best wits and of fairest hopes, are perverted, corrupted, and utterly overthrown by the multitude of evil examples and the licentious government of those seminaries.
Winthrop and his colleagues believed that previous colonies had failed because they were “carnal and not religious.” They dismissed with scorn the Pilgrims who had settled at Plymouth ten years earlier—they were a mere separatist group, looking for a hole to hide in. Winthrop’s band of Puritans stayed in the church to reform it from within. They were aggressive and ambitious, a direct challenge to the existing secular and ecclesiastical government.
Winthrop started a diary on Easter Monday 1630 as his ship, the Arbella, was off the Isle of Wight in England, and like the ancient Israelites, he noted in it all the signs that God supported the enterprise. In a shipboard sermon to the settlers, he explained that they had entered into a collective covenant with God. They were chosen and exemplary: “For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
As the ship neared America, Winthrop excitedly recorded the signs that offered parallels with the Hebrew Bible: “There came a smell off the shore like the smell of a garden. . . . There came a wild pigeon into our ship, and another small land bird.” Winthrop was delighted to discover and record that, for 300 miles around the point of settlement, the Indians “are swept away by the smallpox . . . so God hath hereby cleared our title to this place.”
It is very significant that the earliest European inhabitants of what was to become the United States should regard themselves as under the special watch and care of God and, as such, designated to be seen by the rest of the world as performing an apostolic role. This image of the City upon a Hill was in time to become secular—the United States was to become the first model republic, the first mass democracy, the first benign world power, and so on. But in its origins the idea was religious. Here was the opportunity to build the first true Christian commonwealth, in the light of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, in accordance with apostolic example, and in congruence with the signs given by the Lord Himself.
In 1645, Winthrop delivered a speech setting out the ideology of this holy commonwealth and defining the limitation imposed by religion on the liberties of the people. Man, he insisted, had
a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest. . . . This liberty is maintained and exercised in a way of subjection to authority, it is the same kind of liberty whereof Christ hath made us free. . . . If you stand for your natural corrupt liberties, and will do what is good in your own eyes, you will not endure the least weight of authority . . . but if you will be satisfied to enjoy such civil and lawful liberties, such as Christ allows you, then you will quietly and cheerfully submit unto that authority which is set over you . . . for your good.
In Winthrop’s opinion, therefore, there could be no question of religion being a “private” matter. It was a public matter, because religious belief, society, and state were inseparable. Government was not just a secular institution but a religious one, too. Another architect of America, William Penn, wrote in 1682 in his Preface to the Frame of Government of Pennsylvania:
Government seems to me a part of religion itself, a thing sacred in its institution and end. . . . It crushes the effects of evil and is as such (though lower yet) an emanation of the same divine power that is both author and object of pure religion, government itself being otherwise as capable of kindness, goodness, and charity as a more private society.
It is important, I think, to grasp that these early settlements of English-speaking America were both individual and collective contracts with God to set up a church-state, not just a religious settlement. The earliest, the Mayflower Compact of 1620, reads:
We, whose names are underwritten . . . having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and of one another, covenant and combine ourself together in a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid.
The church was formally constituted in exactly the same manner, as at Salem in 1629:
We covenant with the Lord and with one another; and do bind ourselves in the presence of God, to walk together in all His ways, according as He is pleased to reveal Himself unto us in His blessed word of truth.
Hence the men who founded the English colonies in America drew no distinction between church and state: both were at one in enabling the City upon a Hill to be built.
But not all men were equal. The system of church government was congregationalist. The settlers were divided into church members and nonmembers. Only those of righteous life and true belief were admitted as members, and their righteousness was determined by the minister of religion. And, initially at least, only church members had legislative powers. The system was approvingly described in 1673 by Urian Oakes, later president of Harvard:
According to the design of our fathers and the frame of things laid by them, the interests of righteousness in the commonwealth and holiness in the churches are inseparable. . . . To divide what God hath joined . . . is folly in its exaltation. I look upon this as a little model of the glorious kingdom of Christ on earth. Christ reigns among us in the commonwealth as well as in the church and hath his glorious interest involved and wrapped up in the good of both societies respectively.
It followed that the civil authority had the right to punish religious offenses as well as what we would call secular ones. In Winthrop’s Massachusetts, all, whether freemen or not, had to swear an oath of loyalty to the government and undertake to submit to its authority, whether wielded in religious or in secular matters. The magistrates were officially described as “nursing fathers” (in a reference to Moses’ self-description in Numbers); they were to tackle heresy, schism, and disobedience among the adult “children” of the colony, who were to be “restrained and punished by civil authority.” And this was exerted in ruthless manner to uphold religious truth and public decorum.
In August 1630, for instance, Governor Winthrop accused and convicted Thomas Morton of Boston of “erecting a maypole and reveling.” Morton’s house was burned down and he was put in the stocks while awaiting execution of sentence to be shipped back to England. The following June, Winthrop recorded in his journal that Philip Ratcliffe was whipped and had both his ears cut off for “most foul, scandalous invectives against our churches and government.” Sir Christopher Gardiner was banished for what was described as “bigamy and papism.”
In theory, then, New England might have evolved like Calvin’s Geneva into a fierce fundamentalist theocracy, only on a much bigger scale. But there were many reasons why this did not and could not happen.
In the first place, the colonists were too independent-minded, unruly, and divided among themselves to be docile citizens of a theocracy. Governor Winthrop discovered this for himself, being deposed from office, reelected, and deposed again as public opinion shifted.
Indeed, religious disputes, about the precise mechanism whereby men and women were saved, were the first expression of politics in America. Anne Hutchinson held that man could not prepare himself for election as one of God’s chosen by good works—rather, God bestows grace on the elect through direct revelation. Winthrop thought this a leveling, anti-intellectual creed which, by denying the effectiveness of practical good works, challenged the discipline of the colony. But Governor Vane, who had succeeded Winthrop in office, agreed with Mrs. Hutchinson’s antinomian views. The church in Boston itself was antinomian, the rest orthodox. The first historian of the colony wrote: “It began to be as common here to distinguish between men, by being under a covenant of grace or a covenant of works, as in other countries between Protestants and papists.”
The result was the first real contested election on American soil, which took place on May 17, 1637, at a crowded outdoor meeting in Cambridge. “There was great danger of a tumult that day,” it was recorded; the antinomians “grew into fierce speeches, and some laid hands on others. But seeing themselves too weak [in numbers] they grew quiet.”
In the event, they were defeated by the orthodox party. Governor Winthrop was restored. He promptly expelled Mrs. Hutchinson and others, and had 75 of their supporters disenfranchised and disarmed. He also sent details of his action back to England so that “all our godly friends might not be discouraged from coming to us.”
But not even Governor Winthrop thought it possible to prevent colonists who disagreed with his form of orthodoxy from creating their own religious enclaves. The year before Anne Hutchinson was expelled, another dissident, Roger Williams, who took the view that church and state ought to be separated entirely, was secretly warned by Winthrop (then out of office) that a plan was afoot to deport him to England. Winthrop “privately wrote to me,” said Williams, to slip off from Salem and “to steer my course to Narrangansett Bay and the Indians, for many high and heavenly public ends, encouraging me, from the freeness of the place from any English claims and patents.”
Thus it was that Williams founded Providence, Rhode Island, termed by the orthodox “the sewer of New England.” Writing of his new colony, Williams laid down: “I desired it might be a shelter for persons distressed for conscience.” In 1644 he published his defense of religious freedom, The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience Discussed, and his new instrument of government declared that “the form of government established in Providence Plantations is Democratical, that is to say, a government held by the free and voluntary consent of all, or the greater part, of the free inhabitants.” Williams listed the various laws and penalties for specific transgressions but added:
And otherwise than thus, what is herein forbidden, all men may walk as their consciences persuade them, every one in the name of his God. And let the saints of the Most High walk in this colony without molestation, in the name of Jehovah their God, for ever and ever.
This was confirmed by royal charter in 1663:
No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and who do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all . . . may from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments.
This was the first commonwealth to make religious freedom, as opposed to a mere degree of toleration, the principle of its existence, and to make this a reason for separating church and state. Its existence of course opened the doors to the Quakers and the Baptists, and indeed to missionaries from the Congregationalists of the North and the Anglicans of the South.
Hence, in addition to the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state, Rhode Island introduced the practice of religious competition. In a sense, it became the prototype for the future United States. But it is important to note that, as such—and particularly in its secularism—it was a minority breakaway from the prevailing orthodoxy. And even Williams’s secularist doctrine was couched in the phraseology of Christian fundamentalism.
The ease with which Roger Williams broke from orthodoxy to found his own free colony illustrates the central geographical fact of American religious history: the country was too big to enable any form of orthodoxy to triumph—its very vastness made heterodoxy possible.
Strict Calvinists were not the only believers who felt persecuted in 17th-century England. The Roman Catholics had many more legal disabilities to bear and in 1632 one of them, George Calvert Lord Baltimore, secured a charter from Charles I to found his own colony on their behalf, the future Maryland, called after Charles I’s papist wife, Henrietta Maria.
Father Andrew White, who kept the first diary of the settlement, adopted the same providential approach as Governor Winthrop. He too saw his fellow settlers as chosen people under divine dispensation, and Chesapeake Bay as the promised land. “This bay is the most delightful water I ever saw,” he enthused. The land was “sweet, firm, and fertile.” There were plenty of fish, fine woods of walnuts, oaks, and cedars, “salad-herbs and suchlike,” strawberries, raspberries, mulberry vines, rich soil, “delicate springs of water,” partridge, deer, turkeys, geese, ducks—and delightful squirrels, eagles, and herons—“the place abounds not only with profit but pleasure.” Moreover, Maryland, being halfway between the extremes of Virginia and New England, “has a middle temperature between the two and enjoys the advantages, and escapes the evils, of each.” Thus God, he concluded, had been generous to his Catholic Englishmen, and had indeed set them up in a land of milk and honey.
However, the Maryland Catholics, though they might feel they were chosen people too, had no intention of repeating the competitive persecutions of the Old World. When in the 1640’s the outbreak of civil war in England threatened to involve their colony in religious strife, they deliberately joined forces with persecuted Puritans to reaffirm a policy of toleration. In 1649 they passed a solemn Act Concerning Religion, later known as the Toleration Act, which not only affirmed the right of all Christians to practice their faith in peace but—in a distant adumbration of political correctness—imposed heavy fines on those who jeered at the religion of others by using offensive terms, “such as heretic, schismatic, idolator, puritan, independent, Presbyterian, popish priest, Jesuit, Jesuited papist, roundhead, and separatist.”
There were, it is true, limits even to the toleration of the Marylanders: you could also be fined for denying the existence of God, repudiating the Trinity, or blaspheming against Christ, and a Jew might get into trouble (though few did). But the Toleration Act was an amazing document for its time, since it laid down that henceforth no Christian “would be any ways troubled, molested, or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereto”; and no man or woman could be “any way compelled to the belief or exercise of any other religion against his or her consent.”
Of course, all was not clear sailing. The principles of freedom and toleration have always had to be fought for not once but again and again, even in America. Maryland fell first into the hands of Puritan extremists, then came under the sway of Anglican bigots, who made acceptance of Anglican oaths a prerequisite for office, so that Catholic descendants of the original settlers had to convert in order to sit in the assembly. But Anglican rule was superficial, especially in Baltimore which for much of the 18th century was the fastest-growing city in America, with Christians of all denominations—and many sects way beyond any customary definition of Christianity, as well as Jews—practicing their religion freely.
Again, the principle of vastness enabled the Quakers, who were fiercely persecuted in parts of New England—it was customary to strip their women to find marks of witchcraft—and were sometimes bullied even in Maryland, to found their own colony in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania has sometimes been called the key colony in American history. It was the last great flowering of Puritan political innovation. At its heart was the City of Brotherly Love. The harbor of Philadelphia led to Pittsburgh at the gateway to the Ohio Valley and the West, and astride the valleys to the back-country of the South, so that it was the national crossroads. Hence it became, simultaneously, the center of Quaker influence throughout the world, a stronghold of Presbyterianism, the headquarters in America of the Baptists, an Anglican center, a place where many important German religious sects—Moravians, Mennonites, Lutherans, German Reformed, etc.—established their headquarters, and yet a place where large numbers of Catholics and Jews were tolerated.
Pennsylvania was also the home of the first African Methodist Episcopal Church, the earliest independent black body in America, as well as an area where deists, the earliest Unitarians, and even humanists could feel safe and at home. Philadelphia was the seat of the American Philosophical Society and, granted its religious and nonreligious composition, it is no accident that it was the city which gave birth to the libertarian and separatist principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.
But in addition to being contentious and vast, there was a third reason why America evolved into a multireligious society. Most of all, it was, in the deepest sense, non-clerical. This was the real reason why it could never have become a theocracy—the clergy never had the power to impose one.
Right from the start, and even in New England, America gave the clergy themselves less actual authority than they enjoyed under any other government in the Western world at the time. The minister’s power lay in determining church membership—and stopped there. The churches were always managed by laymen. Hence the religious establishment, such as it was, was popular, not hieratic. This was the foundation of the distinctive American religious tradition. There was never any sense of division in law between laymen and clerics, between those with spiritual privileges and those without—no jealous juxtaposition, and therefore no confrontation, of a secular with an ecclesiastical world.
In other words, America was born Protestant and did not have to become so through revolt and struggle. It was not built on the remains of an all-embracing Catholic church, or a Protestant establishment. It had no clericalism or anticlericalism.
In all these respects America differed profoundly from the European world which had been shaped by the principles of St. Augustine, who had set down “Compel them to come in” as the totalitarian principle of a compulsory and inclusive Christian society. America, by contrast, had a traditionless tradition, starting afresh with a set of biblical principles, taken for granted, regarded as self-evident, as the basis for a common national creed.
These assumptions inevitably became more moral than doctrinal as the American colonies expanded and enriched themselves with more human raw material from Europe. Economic factors reinforced the drift toward diversity, religious liberty, and the noninterference of the state in religious matters. The later waves of immigrants had not, for the most part, experienced “conversion” and “saving grace.” They tended, increasingly, to be a mere cross section of ordinary Englishmen (and later of Ulstermen and Scottish Presbyterians).
Even in New England this fact of life had to be accommodated. In 1662 its synod declared that baptism was sufficient for church membership (not for full communion). This was denounced as a “Half-Way Covenant” by the elect, the beginning of the end of a “pure” church—and calamitous Indian attacks were interpreted as a sign of divine displeasure.
In 1679 it was decided to make “a full inquiry . . . into the cause and state of God’s controversy with us.” A “Reforming Synod” was set up and reported: “That God hath a controversy with His New England people is undeniable, the Lord having written His displeasure in dismal characters against us.” A new covenant was produced; but historical events moved against the elect. The triumph of Anglicanism in England weakened Calvinism across the Atlantic, not least by imposing a franchise based on property rather than on church membership. And Puritan church leadership was discredited by the witchcraft mania at Salem in 1692, and weakened by the powerful backlash of public remorse that followed it.
Then, too, the merchant element of Boston, who loathed the strict interpretation of Scripture, especially the commercial restrictions derived from the Pentateuch, published in 1699 a manifesto “on broad and catholic” lines, which accorded full status to any who simply professed Christian belief.
In 1702 Cotton Mather, spokesman for the old elect, published his Magnalia Christi Americana, documenting “Christ’s great deeds in America,” and felt he was bound to conclude: “Religion brought forth prosperity, and the daughter destroyed the mother. . . . There is danger lest the enchantments of this world make them forget their errand into the wilderness.” But by this time the wilderness had become an increasingly rich country, and the original Calvinist monopoly of New England had gone for good. The liberal elements captured Harvard in 1707 and founded Yale at New Haven nine years later.
Yet the collapse of the idea of a total Christian society in America did not lead to secularism. In America as a whole, religion continued to be the dynamic of society and history. The difference was that Christianity now became a voluntary movement, or series of movements, rather than a compulsory framework. And it was these movements which determined the shape of America’s constitutional and social development.
Here we come to the most important point of all. The multiplicity of America’s religious structure, and the continuance of the millenarian ideal, gave religious revivalism the opportunity to act as a unifying, national force. The revival known as the Great Awakening, which began in 1719 and continued for the next quarter-century and more, was the formative event in the history of the United States, preceding the movement for independence and making it possible.
The Great Awakening crossed all religious and sectarian boundaries, made light of them indeed, and turned what had been a series of European-style churches into American ones. It would almost be true to say that it created an ecumenical American type of religiosity which affected all groups: certainly it gave a distinctive American flavor to a wide range of denominations. This might be summarized under the following heads: evangelical vigor; a tendency to downgrade the clergy; little stress on liturgical correctness, or on parish boundaries; and above all an emphasis on individual spiritual experience. Its key text was Revelations 21:5, “Behold, I make all things new,” which was also the text for the American phenomenon as a whole.
The great awakening was a much more complicated phenomenon than similar European movements such as John Wesley’s revival in England, since it combined rumbustious and unsophisticated mass evangelism with the ideas of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Revivals on both sides of the Atlantic shared a distrust of doctrine, a stress on morality and ethics as opposed to dogma, an ecumenical spirit. The Awakeners agreed with Wesley when he declared: “I . . . refuse to be distinguished from other men by any but the common principles of Christianity. . . . Does thou love and fear God? It is enough! I give thee the right hand of fellowship!” But Jonathan Edwards, the most influential of the Great Awakeners, was also in the mainstream of the intellectual tradition of Erasmus. He stressed reason and natural law, rather than theological distinctions, as the guide to Christian belief and conduct.
Edwards said he read John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding with more pleasure “than the most greedy miser finds when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold from some newly-discovered treasure.” But he brought to Locke’s presentation of the case for reasonable Christianity the warmth and emotionalism it lacked. That might be termed providential. Locke was writing after a successful revolution—the Glorious Revolution of 1688—and Edwards before one, at a time when unifying and energizing emotions were needed to create a popular will for change.
Much of Edwards’s writing seems to strike political as well as theological notes. He sought in his preaching to arouse what he called “affections,” which he defined as “that which moves a person from neutrality or mere assent and inclines his heart to possess or reject something.” This was the message of his widely-read book, A Treatise Concerning Human Affections (1746), where Edwards argued strongly that the deeds of men were caused by God’s will. There was thus no essential difference between a religious and a political emotion—both were God-directed. A man was born again not just as an active Christian but as an active libertarian and republican.
Rationalist Edwards might be, but he was also a millenarian. He wrote that in human history, “all the changes are brought to pass . . . to prepare the way for the glorious issue of things that shall be when truth and righteousness shall finally prevail.” Men must know the hour when God “shall take the kingdom,” and he looked toward “the dawn of that glorious day.” In his last work on original sin (1758), he prophesied that there was no reason why God “may not establish a constitution whereby the natural posterity of Adam, proceeding from him, much as the buds or the branches from the stock or root of a tree, should be treated as one with him.”
It was against this exciting eschatological background that the Great Awakening took off, being reanimated whenever it showed signs of flagging by the advent of new and spectacular orators, such as Wesley’s friend George Whitefield, known as “the Grand Itinerant.” He seems to have had the gift of tongues—German converts said they could get his message even though they understood little or no English. He preached, as he put it, “with much Flame, Clearness, and Power. . . . Dagon falls daily before the Ark.” When he left Boston, he was succeeded by a native evangelist, Gilbert Tennent, who caused a jealous Anglican to record bitterly: “People wallowed in snow, night and day, for the benefit of his beastly brayings.”
Another Awakener who helped to “blow up the divine fire lately kindled” was John Davenport of Yale, who was arrested and judged mentally disturbed at one point when he called for articles of luxury such as wigs, cloaks, and rings, as well as many books on religion, to be thrown into the fire. It was the beginning of American personal evangelism, which continues to this day. Not everyone liked it, then as now. Its roots were in the country areas, where it helped to democratize society and aroused opposition to the restrictions of royal government. But it also took fire in the towns, where hearers fainted, wept, shrieked, and generally gave vent to their “affections”—almost exactly as they do at the more extreme kind of popular revivalist services today. The noises, trances, and contortions, so far as we can see, were identical.
It was the marriage between the rationalism of the American elites touched by the 18th-century Enlightenment and the spirit of the Great Awakening among the masses which enabled the popular enthusiasm thus aroused to be channeled into the political aims of the Revolution—itself soon identified as the coming eschatological event. Neither force could have succeeded without the other.
Nor is the American Revolution conceivable without the religious background. The difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution is that the American Revolution, in its origins, was a religious event, whereas the French Revolution was an antireligious event. As John Adams was to put it long afterward, in 1818: “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people: and change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.”
We must remember that until the mid-18th century at least, America was a collection of disparate colonies with little contact with one another and often (as in all Latin America then and later) having more powerful links with cities and economic interests in Europe than with neighboring colonies. Religious evangelism was the first continental force, an all-American phenomenon which transcended colonial differences, introduced truly national figures, and made colonial boundaries seem unimportant. Whitefield was the first “American” public figure to be well-known from New Hampshire to Georgia. When he died in 1770, there was comment from the entire colonial press. Thus the form of ecumenicalism based on religious enthusiasm preceded, and shaped, political unity.
Of course religious unity was not complete. The British authorities were encouraged to resist demands for change, and later for independence, by the existence of a powerful loyalist sentiment which, they fondly believed, represented majority opinion. This centered around the Anglican church. Their clergy, and especially their missionary clergy, hated the Great Awakening, and tried hard and with some success to isolate their congregations from it. They likewise hated the Revolution which it bred. A leading New York City Anglican, Charles Inglis, called the rising “the most causeless, unprovoked, and unnatural [rebellion] that ever disgraced any country.”
Numerically, Anglicanism was not at all negligible. It had 406 churches. But the Congregationalists had 749 and the Presbyterians 495. Culturally, these two groups were dominant. They were separated chiefly by their forms of church governance and their areas of settlement. But they saw eye to eye on most things, especially the question of political independence, and they worked closely together when they wanted. If you include the Congregationalists with the Presbyterians, then King George Ill’s remark that the American Revolution was essentially “a Presbyterian rebellion” makes a lot of sense.
To be sure, they were joined by other groups. The Dutch and the German sects felt no loyalty to the English crown and it posed no crisis of conscience to them to resist authority—so they rebelled. The Catholics, too, felt no loyalty to the House of Hanover, which maintained a penal regime against their coreligionists in England. The Baptists and the Methodists, who had expanded rapidly during the Great Awakening, joined the rebel armies in vast numbers. The Quakers would not exactly fight, but Benjamin Franklin persuaded them and other pacifists to serve as a kind of civil-defense force. The Anglicans were the hard core of loyalism—and there were not enough of them.
So American freedom and independence were brought about essentially by a religious coalition, which provided the rank and file of a movement led by a more narrowly based elite of Enlightenment men. John Adams, who had lost his original religious faith, nonetheless recognized the essential role played by religion in unifying the majority of the people behind the independence movement and giving them common beliefs and aims:
One great advantage of the Christian religion is that it brings the great principle of the law of nature and nations, love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others as you would have that others should do to you—to the knowledge, belief, and veneration of the whole people. Children, servants, women, and men are all professors in the science of public as well as private morality. . . . The duties and rights of the man and the citizen are thus taught from early infancy.
What in effect John Adams was implying, albeit he was a secularist and a nonchurchman, was that the form of Christianity which had developed in America was a kind of ecumenical and unofficial state religion, a religion suited by its nature, not by any legal claims, to be given recognition by the republic because it was itself the civil and moral creed of republicanism.
Hence, though the Constitution and the Bill of Rights made no provision for a state church—quite the contrary—there was an implied and unchallenged understanding that America was a religious country, that the republic was religious not necessarily in its forms but in its bones, that it was inconceivable that it could have come into existence, or could continue and flourish, without an overriding religious sentiment pervading every nook and cranny of its society. This religious sentiment was based on the Scriptures and the Decalogue, was embodied in the moral consensus of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and manifested itself in countless forms of mainly Christian worship.
Since American religion was a collection of faiths, coexisting in mutual tolerance, there was no alternative but to create a secular state entirely separated from any church. But there was an unspoken understanding that, in an emotional sense, the republic was not secular. It was still the City upon a Hill, watched over and safeguarded by divine providence, and constituting a beacon of enlightenment and an exemplar of conduct for the rest of the world.
This is what President Washington clearly intended to convey in the key passage of his farewell address of 1796. Though he was careful to observe the constitutional and secularist forms, the underlying emotion was plainly religious in inspiration. He implied, indeed, that the voice of the American people was a providential one, and that in sustaining him both as their general and their first President, and enabling the republic to be born and to survive and flourish, it had been giving expression to a providential plan:
Profoundly penetrated by this idea, I shall carry it with me to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that heaven may continue to you the choicest token of its beneficence—that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual—that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained—that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue—that in fine the happiness of the people of these states, under the auspices of Liberty, [may be preserved] by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing, as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation, which is yet a stranger to it.
In Washington’s world view, then, the city was still upon a hill, the new nation was still elect, its creation and mission were providential, or as he put it, “sacredly maintained,” under heaven, the recipient of a unique “blessing” in the historical plan of the deity for humanity. That is not so far from Governor Winthrop’s view, though so much had happened in the meantime; and it would continue to be the view of the American majority for the next century and a half.
2. The Moral Theology of the Melting Pot
Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America, published in 1835, said that the first thing which struck him in the United States was the attitude of, and toward, the churches. At first he found it almost incredible:
In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other: but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country.
He added: “Religion . . . must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of [the United States]; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of free institutions.” And Americans, he concluded, held religion “to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”
Many Americans of religious bent saw American religion as much more than this, much more than a merely defensive force. It was progressive. In the century after the Great Awakening, the two formative sects of American Protestantism, Presbyterianism and Congregationalism, ceased to be dominant, and—in numbers, at any rate—the Wesleyans and the Baptists took over.
In New England, under the impact of the Enlightenment, many well-educated Presbyterians became Unitarians, and it was the Unitarians of New England who created the so-called American Renaissance, centered around the North American Review (1815) and the Christian Examiner (1824). These were periodicals whose editors included William Emerson (the father of the poet and essayist), Richard Henry Dana, James Russell Lowell, Henry Adams, and Edward Everett Hale. Harvard—with a staff including John Quincy Adams, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—was Unitarian in spirit.
Unitarianism was to a great extent the religion of the elite, critics joking that its preaching was limited to “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of Man, and the neighborhood of Boston.” Actually, it traced its pedigree not so much to the Pilgrim Fathers as to Erasmus himself, who saw true Christianity in full alliance with the Renaissance. William Ellery Channing summed up this argument for progressive religion:
Christianity . . . should come forth from the darkness and corruption of the past in its own celestial splendor and in its divine simplicity. It should be comprehended as having but one purpose, the perfection of human nature, the elevation of men into nobler beings.
In this progressive, religious process, the prime instrument was the American republic itself. That was what Jonathan Edwards had predicted in 1740:
It is not unlikely that this work of God’s spirit, that is so extraordinary and wonderful, is the dawning or at least the prelude of that glorious work of God so often foretold in Scripture, which in the progress and issue of it shall renew the world of mankind. . . . And there are many things which make it probable that this work will begin in America.
To the Unitarian elite it was obvious that the work had already begun. In fact, the old Calvinist theory of the elect nation infused American patriotism in the 19th century. As Longfellow put it:
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate.
Within the framework of this 19th-century version of the chosen people, or what was termed “the favoring providence” at work by using America as its “melting pot”—a new nation being mingled and molded from the debris of the old—American Christianity and the republic it infused acquired their modern characteristics.
America’s most typical churches tended to look back from the 19th century straight to the New Testament, dismissing the totalitarianism of the Middle Ages and the age of religious wars as nightmares which had little to do with true religion. They refused to associate Christianity with compulsion in any form. The assumption of the voluntary principle, the central tenet of American Christianity, was that the personal religious convictions of individuals, freely gathered in churches and acting in voluntary associations, would gradually and necessarily permeate society by persuasion and example. Thus the world was seen primarily in moral terms.
This became a dominant factor whether America was rejecting the Old World and seeking to quarantine itself from it—a concept epitomized by the Monroe Doctrine and invoked as recently as during the Cuban missile crisis—or whether America was embracing the world and seeking to reform it. It was characteristic of the American state first to reject espionage on moral grounds, then to undertake it through the Central Intelligence Agency, a moralistic institution which perhaps had less in common with its Soviet equivalent than with St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Society of Jesus.
In American religion, the reflective aspect of Christianity was subordinated, almost eclipsed. The old medieval emphasis on the perfection of God, and of man’s mere contemplation of Him, was replaced by the idea of God as an exacting and active sovereign, and man’s energetic service in His employment. It was not the Christian’s duty to accept the world as he found it but to seek to make it better, using all the abundant means God had placed at his disposal. There was little mysticism, little sacramentalism or awe before the holy. There was no place for tragedy, dismissed as an avoidable accident, and its consequences as remediable.
American religion, in its formative period, owed nothing to writers like Pascal. For essential purposes it had no detailed theology at all. All agreed that theological matters were points on which various religions and sects happened to differ. This aspect of religion was important to individuals but not to society and the nation, since what mattered to them was the deep Christian consensus on ethics and morality. So long as Americans agreed on morals, theology could take care of itself. Morals became the heart of religion, whether for Puritans or revivalists, orthodox or liberal, fundamentalist or moralist—the eccentric hot-gospeler at the street corner shared in this consensus as wholeheartedly as the Episcopalian prelate.
Moreover, this was a consensus which even non-Christians, deists, and rationalists could share. Non-Christianity, preeminently including Judaism, could thus be accommodated within the national framework of American Christianity. It could even accommodate Roman Catholicism. Both American Catholicism and American Judaism became heavily influenced by the moral assumptions of American Protestantism, because both accepted its premise that religion (meaning morality) was essential to democratic institutions.
Now here we arrive at a crucial stage in the development of American Christianity. In most earlier Christian societies, education had been a monopoly of the clergy, and in America, too, the Pilgrim Fathers saw education and faith as inseparable. Communal schools were established in Boston as early as 1635, and in 1647 the Massachusetts General Court passed a law requiring towns within its jurisdiction to set up public schools. Harvard had been founded eleven years earlier.
These institutions were run entirely by religious bodies, were instruments of the church, and were designed to serve religion. The pattern varied but the principle was the same throughout the early states. Virginia set up in 1661 the future College of William and Mary in these terms:
Whereas the want of able and faithful ministers deprives us of those great blessings and mercies that always attend upon the service of God, be it enacted that for the advance of learning, education of youth, supply of the ministry, and promotion of piety, there be land taken up or purchased for a college and free school.
This tendency was reinforced during the 18th-century Great Awakening.
However, at about the same time, American Christian rationalists were making their own contribution. Benjamin Franklin’s Proposal Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania (1749) put forward a scheme to treat religion as one subject in the curriculum and relate it to character-training. Similar theories were advanced by Jonathan Edwards when president of Princeton. This was the solution adopted when the modern American public-school movement, directed by Horace Mann, came into existence in the 19th century. The state took over financial responsibility for the education of the new millions by absorbing all primary and secondary schools, but not (after the Dartmouth Decision of 1819) higher education, where independent colleges survived side by side with state universities.
Thus the true American public school was non-sectarian from the very beginning. But it was not nonreligious. Mann thought that religious instruction should be taken “to the extremist verge to which it can be carried without invading those rights of conscience which are established by the laws of God, and guaranteed by the constitution of the state.”
What the schools got was not so much non-denominational religion as a kind of generalized Protestantism based on the Bible. As Mann wrote in his final report:
That our public schools are not theological seminaries is admitted. . . . But our system earnestly inculcates all Christian morals; it founds its morals on the basis of religion; it welcomes the religion of the Bible; it allows it to do what it is allowed to do in no other system, to speak for itself.
Hence in the American system, the school supplied Christian “character-building” and the parent at home topped it off with sectarian trimmings.
There were disadvantages in this system. The Reverend F. A. Newton expressed one of them on behalf of some Episcopalians:
A book upon politics, morals, or religion, containing no party or sectarian views, will be apt to contain no distinctive views of any kind, and will be likely to leave the mind in a state of doubt or skepticism, much more to be deplored than any sectarian bias.
Another objection, as America increasingly took on the characteristics of a secular state—which it had been by definition from the start—and as it accepted millions of immigrant Catholics, Jews, and other non-Protestants, was the association of moral character-building in the schools with specifically Protestant labels. Therefore, gradually, and particularly in the cities, religion as such was eased out of the schools. The Presbyterian leader Samuel T. Spear put it thus in 1870:
The state, being democratic in its Constitution, and consequently having no religion to which it does or can give any legal sanction, should not and cannot, except by manifest inconsistency, introduce either religious or irreligious teaching into a system of popular education which it authorizes, enforces, and for the support of which it taxes all the people in common.
But something had to supply the cultural machinery by which the immigrant millions were turned into Americans; and, Spear added, the schools had to have some spiritual foundation. Since the state was not Christian but republican, republicanism should constitute that foundation. The solution was neat because in effect republicanism was itself based upon the old Protestant moral and ethical consensus, which was what the schools already taught—the two concepts stood or fell together. So in this manner the American way of life began to function as the operative creed of the public schools and it was gradually accepted as the official philosophy of American state education.
Horace M. Kallen, writing in July 1951 in the Saturday Review under the title “Democracy’s True Religion,” summarized the theory: “For the communicants of the democratic faith, it is the religion of and for religion. For being the religion of religions, all may freely come together in it.” When in 1952 J. Paul Williams published What Americans Believe and How They Worship, he spelled out the ideology in more detail:
Americans must come to look upon the democratic ideal . . . as the Will of God, or, if they please, of Nature. . . . Americans must be brought to the conviction that democracy is the very Law of Life . . . government agencies must teach the democratic idea as religion. . . . Primary responsibility for teaching democracy might be given to the public school. . . . The churches deal effectively with but half the population, the government deals with all the population. . . . It is a misconception to equate separation of church and state with separation of religion and state.
It was on the basis of such assumptions, imperfectly carried out though they might be, that the two great non-Protestant religions of America, the Catholic and the Jewish, became to some extent Protestantized, thereby aligning the political ideals and practices of the United States with a broad-based form of Christianity.
The system could work granted two preconditions. The first was what might be termed a high level of religiosity in the nation. Religious enthusiasm must be continually replenished to make the ethical and moral ideology seem important. This was supplied by the American system of creedal plurality. Having abandoned the advantages of unity, the Americans sensibly turned to exploiting the advantages of diversity—and these proved to be considerable. It was the very competitiveness of rival religions in the United States, acting by analogy to the free-enterprise system, which kept the demands of the spiritual life constantly before the people, producing an atmosphere of perpetual revival.
This was especially true along the expanding frontier and in the areas of 19th-century settlement. The second Great Awakening, starting in the 1790’s, continued until the middle decades of the 19th century. The Wesleyans and Baptists spawned multitudes of cults and subcults, and the camp meeting became, for several decades, the characteristic form of American religious experiment.
There was nothing exactly new in this form of religious enthusiasm. In the time of the ancient Israelites, prophets and other God-exalted preachers had led multitudes into the wilderness for instruction and worship. The apostles themselves had first learned to “speak with tongues” at the time of Pentecost. The camp meeting reproduced the goings-on of the 2nd-century Montanists. But it was only in America that this type of religious performance involved literally millions of believers and became a permanent part of the national religious heritage.
A great and typical meeting was held at Cane Ridge in Kentucky in August 1801. The Presbyterian pastor who organized it, Barton Stone, left a description of what happened. What is interesting about these exercises, as he calls them, of the “saved,” is that they had already taken place, in an identical manner, during the first Great Awakening 70 years before, and can still be witnessed, at meetings of American charismatics today, nearly 200 years later.
For instance, there was the falling exercise: “The subject of this exercise would, generally with a piercing scream, fall like a log on the floor, earth or mud, and appear as if dead.” Then there were the jerks: “When the head alone was affected, it would be jerked backward and forward, or from side to side, so quickly that the features of the face could not be distinguished.” This led to the barking exercise: “A person affected by the jerk would often make a grunt or bark from the suddenness of the jerk.” Then there was the dancing exercise, or solo automative dancing, while “the smile of heaven shone in the countenance of the subject.” The laughing exercise produced “loud, hearty laughter. . . . The subject appeared rapturously solemn, and his laughter excited solemnity in saints and sinners. It is truly indescribable.” Then there was a running exercise and a singing exercise, “not from the mouth or nose but entirely in the breast, the sounds issuing from thence—such music silenced everything.”
In Europe, sects which practiced such antics had always been closely watched by the authorities, ecclesiastical and secular, and sometimes harassed, dispersed, and persecuted. In America they were allowed to manifest themselves, for the first time in history, virtually without supervision by the state or by a state church.
There were hundreds of such politico-religious communities in 19th-century America. As Emerson wrote to Thomas Carlyle in 1840: “We are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket.”
One of the most rational such communities was Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, founded by a Boston Unitarian, George Ripley. It included the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne on its agriculture committee, produced books, pottery, and furniture as well as its own food supplies, and ended in bankruptcy. (Hawthorne later lampooned the community in The Blithedale Romance.)
Many Central and East European sects also established themselves successfully, and some still flourish today. Others mutated. A German pietist group settled at Harmony, Pennsylvania, in 1804, practiced confession, opposed procreation and marriage, and dogmatized itself out of existence. Another, the Oneida Community of New York State, combined socialism with free love and brought up its children communally in a sort of kibbutz, but stumbled on a method of making steel traps, eventually becoming a successful Canadian corporation and losing its faith.
Other sects became gnostic—that is, they claimed to have discovered secret codes, texts, or systems of knowledge which provided keys to salvation. They tended to part company with Christianity since they replaced the Scriptures with arcane documents of their own.
In about 1827, for example, Joseph Smith, Jr. was given by the angel Moroni a new bible in the form of golden plates inscribed in “reformed Egyptian” hieroglyphics with a set of seer-stones, called by the biblical name Urim and Thummim, with which to read them. The Book of Mormon, as Smith translated it, was put on sale in 1830, after which the angel removed the plates. Smith was “providentially” murdered by a mob in Illinois in 1844, after which Brigham Young was able to take the sect on a great exodus to Salt Lake City in 1847.
Under the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ,” sects did not become unlawful if they merely offended Christian dogma. But Christian morals and social customs—and their expression in common and statutory law—were a different matter, and Mormonism was in continual battle with the state until it renounced polygamy in 1890.
Gnosticism was thus perfectly acceptable within the American voluntary Christian society, but only provided that it genuflected to bedrock Christian morality, in which monogamous marriage was a central axiom.
It was subject to a similar qualification that Catholicism was tolerated. It was not so much forced to change itself as to develop a highly defensive posture, which to some extent came to the same thing.
To many Protestants, a number of Catholic institutions infringed the moral consensus in spirit, even if they did not actually defy it legally, as Mormon polygamy did. One example was convents of nuns, the object of a campaign by the Protestant Vindicator, founded in 1834.
In that same year a Boston Protestant mob burned down an Ursuline convent and those responsible were acquitted—Protestant juries seem to have swallowed the rumor that Catholic convents were subterranean dungeons for the murder and burial of illegitimate children conceived by the lascivious nuns.
The next year saw the publication in Boston of Six Months in a Convent, and in 1836 Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal, written by a group of New York anti-Catholics. This was followed by Further Disclosures and The Escape of Sister Frances Patrick, Another Nun from the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal. Maria Monk herself was arrested for picking pockets in a brothel and died in prison in 1849. But her book had sold 300,000 copies by 1860 and is still in print in various versions today.
There were also fears of a Catholic political and military conspiracy, fears which the Pilgrims had brought with them in the Mayflower. In the 1830’s, Lyman Beecher’s Plea for the West revealed a plot to take over the Mississippi Valley, the Emperor of Austria being in league with the Pope to promote it. Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph—who had harbored anti-Catholic feelings ever since he had failed during a visit to Rome to doff his hat to a papal procession and one of the Swiss guards had knocked it off—argued that the reactionary kings and emperors in Europe were deliberately contriving to swamp Protestant America by forcing Catholics to immigrate there. This conspiracy theory was made more plausible by the fact that, during the 1850’s, America’s population rose by 50 percent, more than a third of the increase being due to immigration, and much of that immigration consisting of Catholics.
The Catholic issue came into national politics with the emergence of the secretive ultra-Protestant American party, whose “I don’t know” answer to a key question led to their popular title, the Know-Nothings. Maria Monk’s book was termed “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Know-Nothingness” and the party became a national force before being merged into the Republican party in 1854.
It was notable that, whereas the Republican party became identified with the antislavery issue, the Roman Catholic hierarchy tended to remain noncommittal about it and took virtually no part in the crusade. Catholics tended to vote Democratic, and still do, not because they ever owned slaves but because of a lingering association in their minds of the Republican party with Protestant extremism. And conversely, until John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, it was argued that a Catholic could never enter the White House because of associations in the minds of too many Protestants with popish conspiracies against religious and political freedom.
The fact that Catholics mostly sat on their hands during the long controversy about slavery, which was primarily a religious one, brings us to the second precondition needed to make the American politico-religious system work.
There was no difficulty about the first precondition—the high level of religiosity. But the second precondition was a level of agreement on certain basic moral and ethical notions as interpreted in public institutions. It was here that the system broke down, for American Christianity could not agree about slavery.
The dilemma had been there right from the start, since 1619 marked the beginning both of representative government and of slavery. But it had slowly become more acute since the identification of American moral Christianity with democracy made slavery come to seem both an offense against God and an offense against the nation.
On the other hand, were not Southern slave owners Christians, too? Indeed they were. There had been a strong antislavery movement among the churches in the South, particularly the Baptists and Quakers, in the 1770’s. It had petered out because the churches came to terms with Southern practice. But this did not, and could not, remove religion from the slavery question. The doctrinal position might be arguable, but the moral position—which was what mattered—became increasingly clear to the majority of American Christians.
The Civil War can be described as the most characteristic religious episode in the whole of American history since its roots and causes were not political and economic so much as religious and moral. It was a case of a moral principle tested to destruction, not of the principle but of those who opposed it. And in the process Christianity itself was placed under almost intolerable strain.
The movement which finally destroyed American slavery was religious in a number of different senses. It reflected a degree of extremism in the Northern Christian sects. William Lloyd Garrison, a Baptist converted to activism by Quakers, who founded the Boston Public Liberator, wrote in its first issue: “I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, to speak, or write, with moderation.” Extremists on this issue had many links with revivalism, which gave it a nationwide platform and constituency.
Then, too, there was the theology of abolition which, as might be expected, was primarily a moral theology. In 1845 Edward Beecher published a series of articles on what he termed the nation’s “organic sin” of slavery, which invested the abolitionist cause with a whole series of evangelical insights. Again, Uncle Tom’s Cabin itself had a background in religion and especially moral theology: it was an improving tract as well as a piece of political propaganda.
There was little internal opposition to slavery among white Southern Christians, and a notable closing of ranks after the black preacher Nat Turner led the Virginia slave revolt of 1831, in which 57 whites were killed. Revivalism, which in the North strengthened the cause of abolition, was put to exactly the opposite use in the South, where it was, if anything, even more powerful. The South Carolina Baptist Association produced a biblical defense of slavery in 1822, and in 1844 John England, Bishop of Charleston, provided a similar one for Southern white Catholics. There were standard biblical texts on alleged Negro inferiority, patriarchal and Mosaic acceptance of servitude, and St. Paul on obedience to masters. Both North and South could and did hurl texts at each other.
Having split, the churches promptly went to battle on opposing sides when the war actually came. Leonidas Polk, Bishop of Louisiana, entered the Confederate army as a major-general and announced: “It is for constitutional liberty, which seems to us to have fled for refuge, for our hearthstones and our altars that we strike.” Thomas March, Bishop of Rhode Island, preached to the militia on the other side: “It is a holy and righteous cause in which you enlist. . . . God is with us . . . the Lord of Hosts is on our side.”
To judge by the hundreds of sermons and specially-composed church prayers which have survived on both sides, ministers were among the most fanatical of the combatants from beginning to end. The churches played a major role in dividing the nation, and it is probably true that it was the splits in the churches which made a final split in the nation inevitable.
In the North, such a charge was often willingly accepted. Granville Moddy, a Northern Methodist, boasted in 1861: “We are charged with having brought about the present contest. I believe it is true we did bring it about, and I glory in it, for it is a wreath of glory round our brow.”
Southern clergymen did not make the same boast, but it is true that of all the various elements in the South they did the most to make a secessionist state of mind possible. Southern clergymen were also particularly responsible for prolonging the increasingly futile struggle. Both sides claimed vast numbers of “conversions” among their troops and a tremendous increase in churchgoing and prayerfulness as a result of the fighting.
The clerical interpretation of the war’s progress was equally dogmatic and contradictory. The Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney blamed what he termed “the calculated malice” of the Northern Presbyterians and called on God for a “retributive providence” which would demolish the North. Henry Ward Beecher predicted that the Southern leaders would be “whirled aloft and plunged downward for ever and ever in an endless retribution.” The New Haven theologian Theodore Thornton Munger declared that the Confederacy had been “in league with Hell,” and the South was now “suffering for its sins” as a matter of “divine logic.” He worked out that General McClellan’s much-criticized vacillations were an example of God’s masterful cunning since they made a quick Northern victory impossible and so ensured that the South would be much more heavily punished in the end.
By contrast, there were the doubts, the puzzlings, and the agonizing efforts of Abraham Lincoln to rationalize God’s purpose. His evident and total sincerity shines through his speeches and letters and private musings as the war took its terrible toll. Although he was theoretically a Baptist, we have his wife’s word for it that he never truly belonged to any church. It is not clear to this day whether he believed in a personal God in the traditional sense. Yet he declared himself “satisfied that when the Almighty wants me to do or not to do a particular thing, He finds a way of letting me know it.” He thus waited, as the cabinet papers show, for providential guidance at certain critical points of the war. He never claimed to be the personal agent of God’s will, as everyone else seemed to be doing. But he wrote:
If it were not for my firm belief in an overruling providence it would be difficult for me, in the midst of such complications of affairs, to keep my reason in its seat. But I am confident that the Almighty has His plans and will work them out; and . . . they will be the wisest and the best for us.
When asked if God was on the side of the North, he replied: “I am not at all concerned about that, for I know the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.” Hence his determination throughout to do the moral thing: “I am not bound to win but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to the light I have.”
In thus arguing within himself, Lincoln, it seems to me, incarnated and embodied the national, republican, and democratic morality which the American religious experience had brought into existence. He caught exactly the same mood as President Washington in his farewell message to Congress, which I quoted above, and that is one reason why his conduct of the events leading up to war, and the war itself, have seemed so unerringly in accord with the national spirit, so just, so American.
Unlike Governor Winthrop and the first colonists, Lincoln did not see the republic as the Elect Nation because that implied it was always right, and the fact that the Civil War had occurred at all indicated that America was fallible. But, if fallible, it was also anxious to do right. America, as he described it, was “the almost-chosen people,” and the war was part of God’s scheme, a great testing of the nation by an ordeal of blood, showing the way to charity and thus to rebirth.
The majority of Northern Christians took a more triumphalist view of events. They came to look upon the Civil War not as a Christian defeat, in which the powerlessness and contradictions of the faith had been exposed, but as an American-Christian victory, in which Christian egalitarian teaching had been triumphantly vindicated against renegades and apostates.
Such a view fit neatly into a world vision of the Anglo-Saxon races raising up the benighted and ignorant dark millions, and bringing them, thanks to a “favoring providence,” into the lighted circle of Christian truth; thus the universalist mission of Christ would be triumphantly completed. The Civil War was the prelude to an enormous American missionary effort throughout what we now call the third world, followed in due course by actual military intervention in some places.
This agenda still had a Protestant moral coloring to it. The thinking behind it was conveyed in Leonard Woolsey Bacon’s History of American Christianity, published in 1897 at the height of the era of imperialism:
By a prodigy of divine providence the secret of the ages [that a new world lay beyond the sea] had been kept from premature disclosure. . . . If the discovery of America had been achieved . . . even a single century earlier, the Christianity to be transplanted to the Western world would have been that of the Church of Europe at its lowest stage of decadence [before being purged by the Reformation].
So he saw “great providential preparations as for some ‘divine event’ still hidden behind the curtain that is about to rise on our new century.”
No wonder, then, that in the McKinley-Theodore Roosevelt era, the Protestant churches were often vociferous supporters of American expansion, especially at the expense of the crumbling remains of the Spanish empire, which they saw as a God-determined process by which “Romish superstition” was being replaced by “Christian civilization.” President McKinley justified the American occupation of the Philippines in Christian evangelical terms:
I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance that one night. And one night late it came to me this way. . . . There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and educate the Filipinos and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.
However, by then this kind of Christian, more specifically Protestant, triumphalism was already beginning to ebb in Europe. There, the 1880’s saw Christianity, in terms of church attendance, at its maximum extent per head of the population. Thereafter there was slow but progressive decline for most churches.
It was a different matter in the United States. Church attendance continued to increase throughout the first half of the 20th century. But these decades also demonstrated the limits of specifically Protestant power. Protestant churches campaigned against prizefighting as a moral evil, and succeeded in banning the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries fight in California. But the campaign as a whole failed.
The crusade against alcohol was even more ambitious. If the churches could overcome Negro slavery, it was argued, why would not the slavery of alcohol be a possible target? By 1900, thanks to largely Protestant pressure groups, 24 percent of the population lived in dry territory. By 1906, this had been extended to 40 percent. By 1917, there were 29 dry states and over half the American people lived on dry territory. In 1920, total prohibition became a fact.
But what looked at first like the greatest victory for American evangelicalism turned instead into its greatest defeat. The legislation was undiscriminating and too comprehensive. It bore the marks of an unreasoning religious fanaticism and it ignored much sympathetic and wise advice. It not merely excluded but alienated major religious groups such as the Catholics, many of whom, perhaps perversely, saw Prohibition as an attack on their religion. Hence the movement failed to make Prohibition stick, and it was not merely defeated but routed. This was a disaster for organized American Protestantism. It was accompanied and followed by a rapid decline in its domestic political power.
Traditional Protestant moral theology seemed to have no answer for the Depression. It regarded the New Deal and similar interventionist schemes as unscriptural and sinful. Except in the South, most Protestant ministers and periodicals favored the Republicans and opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1936, over 70 percent of 21,606 Protestant ministers polled voted for Roosevelt’s Republican opponent, Alf Landon, who also got the votes of a large majority of all Protestant church members. He lost by a landslide nonetheless. Thus the middle decades of the 20th century marked a Protestant political retreat before a Democratic coalition in which Jews and Catholics and secular progressives all had increasing roles to play.
At the same time, however, those attending church regularly continued to increase. In 1910, the proportion of the population affiliated with all churches was calculated at 43 percent. It was the same figure in 1920. By 1940 it had risen to 49 percent, and this was followed by an impressive postwar “revival” lifting the percentage to 55 in 1950 and a remarkable 69 percent in 1960.
Even so, the detachment of American popular religion from its doctrinal basis continued. Ordinary churchgoers, for instance, showed themselves less and less inclined to read the New Testament. Religion seemed to be less and less about suffering and repentance and more and more about happiness. As long ago as the 1830’s Tocqueville had complained of American preachers: “It is often difficult to ascertain from their discourse whether the principal object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the other world or prosperity in this.” Now, more than a century later, religion and churchgoing served almost as a national talisman to ensure that economic expansion would continue into the 1950’s and 1960’s—an insurance policy against the end of affluence.
This period was also marked by the adoption of psychological concepts to induce tranquility and felicity, seen by some critics as a debased modern form of mysticism. Americans in vast numbers read Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s Peace of Soul (1949), Norman Vincent Peale’s Guide to Confident Living (1948) and The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), and Billy Graham’s Peace with God (1953).
These were variations on harmonial and gnostic themes which had long flourished in the United States, producing such phenomena as Christian Science, Theosophy, and American Rosicrucianism. They were thus Christian. But many cults, like Theosophy and the system pushed by Rudolf Steiner, had little common dogmatic ground with Christianity. And the religious spectrum shaded off into domestic revivals of other imperial religions such as Indian Vedanta, Persian Bahai, Zen Buddhism, and—especially among blacks—forms of Islam. Even in President Eisenhower’s Washington, which symbolized the Christian revival of the mid-century, and where the tone was superficially ecumenical Protestant, the actual content was patriotic moralism and sentimentalized religiosity rather than specifically Christian.
In 1954 the phrase “under God,” which had been used by Lincoln in his Gettysburg address, was added to the United States pledge of allegiance. In 1956 the device from the coinage, “In God We Trust,” became the nation’s official motto. But the nature of God was left undefined. President Eisenhower, himself the archetype of the generalized homo Americanus religiosus, asked the nation only for “faith in faith.” He told the country in 1954: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply-felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.”
Well, of course he did care, really. What he understood by faith was something compatible with the Protestant morality, vaguely based on Scripture, with which he was familiar. He could not define it any more than his predecessors, Washington and Lincoln, had been able to define the heavenly providence which they relied upon to see America right. But Eisenhower’s trusting vagueness—or, as some would say, vacuity—was no longer enough, because in the second half of the 20th century America’s religious, republican, and democratic consensus began to dissolve into new forms of civil warfare.
3. Sodom, Gomorrah, and Middletown
Beginning in the 1960’s, and proceeding with increased emphasis since then, something strange has been occurring to the place of religion in American life. It is not so much that the number of Americans affiliated with particular churches has declined—though it has: the figure of 69 percent in 1960 has never been surpassed and is now appreciably lower. On the other hand, it is generally accepted that more than half the American people still attend a place of worship once a week, an index of religious practice unequaled anywhere in the world, certainly in a great and populous nation.
The difference, rather, lies in the status of religious belief in American life. Until the second half of the 20th century, religion, as we have seen, was held by virtually all Americans, irrespective of their beliefs or nonbelief, to be not only a desirable but an essential part of the national fabric. Therefore those who preached from the pulpit were acknowledged to be among the most valuable citizens of the country. As Tocqueville observed, there was no such thing as anticlericalism in America. Whereas in Europe religious practice and fervor were often, even habitually, seen as a threat to freedom, in America they were seen as its underpinning. In Europe, religion was presented, at any rate by the majority of intellectuals, as an obstacle to “progress”; in America, as one of its dynamics.
This huge and important difference between European and American attitudes is now becoming blurred, and is perhaps in the process of disappearing altogether. In Europe, the anticlericalism so marked in the first half of this century has declined sharply. In the United States it has come into existence, and is rising.
Indeed, for the first time in American history there is a widespread tendency, especially among educated people, and above all among intellectuals, to present the clergy as enemies of freedom and democratic choice. The suspicion and in some cases hatred focuses particularly on two types of clergy: the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the popular evangelicals. But it is directed against clergy from any religious group, including Orthodox Jewish and Islamic ones, who proclaim their religious beliefs, and their moral notions, in a nonapologetic and forthright manner.
Secondly, there is a further tendency among the same people to present religious belief of any kind which is held with certitude, and religious practice of any kind which is conducted with zeal, as “fundamentalist”—a term of universal abuse.
An adjectival ratchet-effect has been at work here. The usual, normal, habitual, and customary beliefs of many Christians (and Jews) have first been verbally isolated as “traditionalist,” then as “orthodox,” next as “ultra-orthodox,” and finally as “fundamentalist,” though they have remained the same beliefs all the time. This hostile adjectival inflation marks the changed perspective of many Americans that religious beliefs as such, especially insofar as they underpin moral certitudes, constitute a threat to freedom.
It is exactly the same attitude, part rational, part irrational, which in Europe underlay the old anticlericalism, and its progeny, militant secularism and atheism. Its appearance in America is new, and potentially very dangerous. For it is a divisive force, a challenge to the moral and religious consensus which was such an important part of American republican and democratic unity—and strength.
The new American anticlericalism has two notable features, both characteristically American in themselves. The first is fear, accompanied by a conspiracy theory. The tendency to see huge and malevolent enemies, threatening all that Americans hold dear, who turn out to be creatures largely or even entirely of the imagination, is a recurrent feature of American history, and of “the paranoid style in American politics,” as Richard Hofstadter has called it.
America’s new anticlericals and antifundamentalists are very much in this tradition. They present the Vatican of Pope John Paul II and the fundamentalism of the Protestant “moral majority” as modern and almost revolutionary conspiracies of religious zealots to undermine the traditional right of Americans to enjoy divorce on demand, easy abortion, free love, homosexuality, and a life of unqualified hedonism. The fact that there is not the smallest element of novelty in the Vatican’s teaching, or that the great majority of American religious believers have always been so-called fundamentalists, or that the “rights” threatened by the “conspiracy” were themselves unimaginable two generations ago—all this is brushed aside in the prevailing paranoia.
The second feature of the new hostility to religion in America is its very insistence on these human rights. This, too, is in the American tradition, though with an important qualification.
American independence was from the start based upon the assertion of rights: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights speak for themselves. One of the principal objects of the Congress, and still more of the Supreme Court, throughout American history has been to defend, uphold, extend, reinterpret, and embellish the rights of all Americans. Superficially at least, the great engine of American law has been fueled and driven by a rights-based philosophy.
However, underlying this political philosophy of rights—balancing, correcting, and making it workable in practice—has been an even deeper-rooted and more pervasive religious philosophy of duties. The distinction is all-important. The notion of rights is essentially political and secular. The securing of individual rights compatible with social cohesion is the whole art of politics. And the quest for rights is a secular activity precisely because the nonreligious approach sees the individual as an autonomous being with purely social obligations.
But equally, it is impossible for any religious philosophy to be rights-based. From a religious perspective, strictly speaking, no being has rights except God. Human beings merely have duties—to God and to each other—and the function of a church is to teach and endeavor to enforce those duties.
I personally would argue that the exact performance of duties is the only way in which valid human rights can in practice be upheld. But that is another question. What I am trying to suggest here is that, in a society whose political process is designed to secure and enlarge rights, but which is also a society driven, at a popular level, by powerful religious forces, the two are sooner or later bound to come into conflict—and that is what has now happened in the United States, on a great and increasing scale.
The historic American religious consensus, which allowed an ecumenical form of Judeo-Christian morality to be identified first with republicanism and then with democracy as well, was based upon an unspoken assumption that duties were wide-ranging and imperative. Congress and the courts could properly concentrate on enforcing rights because the churches, and the ardent men and women who composed them, could safely be left to ensure that all were aware of their duties too, and would perform them.
Once the stress on duties ceases to be sufficiently powerful, or ceases to operate at all among large sections of society, then a rights-based public philosophy tends to break down. There are more human rights, real or imaginary, than there is justice available to satisfy them. When the element of duty is subtracted from the drive for rights, the result is merely a conflict of rights.
Such conflicts of rights have always been inherent in American republicanism. The Civil War was a conflict of rights: between the collective rights of citizens organized as states and their collective rights as citizens organized in a union; between the property rights of white owners and the human rights of black slaves. Equally, one might add that until 1890, the right of Mormons to practice their religion, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, was in conflict with the right of Congress, reflecting the moral majority, to legislate against polygamous unions. This conflict was resolved at the time in favor of the majority, though similar conflicts over other issues are liable to recur as Islam becomes more potent in American life.
A more characteristically contemporary conflict of rights in America took place not long ago inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, when feminists and homosexuals united to interrupt the celebration of the Catholic mass in order to assert their right to abort their unborn children and to follow their sexual orientation.
The right of New York Catholics to practice and preach their religion without interference is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, as amended; the right to abort has been upheld by the Supreme Court, and the right to engage in some forms of sexual deviance has been laid down by various ordinances. So here we have two sets of rights coming into conflict, and angry and even violent conflict. Moreover, the conflict of rights is reinforced by the conflict between rights and duties, since the Catholic congregation at St. Patrick’s believes its right to hear mass celebrated is accompanied by its collective duty to follow Catholic teaching, which holds abortion to be abhorrent and homosexual practices sinful.
This kind of conflict in American society is envenomed by the fact that, at bottom, it is not a conflict between the religious and the secular impulse, but a war of religion. America is a deeply religious society even in its secularism. Its atheism, its agnosticism, above all its human-rights hedonism can be seen as a form of religious sectarianism—or, more precisely, of paganism. For when the tide of conventional belief ebbs away, the incoming surge deposits strange objects, often relics of a distant past, on the shore.
Thus, Rachel Carson, whose book The Silent Spring, published in 1963, inaugurated the popular ecological movement, inadvertently set in motion a modern form of crusade which was indeed a recrudescence of paganism. Where the animists of prehistory attributed living souls to rivers and groves, springs and mountains, so the more zealous environmentalists hold holy the tropical rain forests, the unsullied seas and lakes, the ozone layer, and all the multiple sacral phenomena of the ecosphere. The greenhouse effect substitutes for hell, the Society of Friends becomes the Friends of the Earth, the Mother of God is reincarnated as Mother Earth.
No shortage of sacred cows, either: where the ancient Egyptians venerated the ibex-god Thoth or the lion-god Bast, there are now those who campaign piously to save the whales or restore the white rhinoceros to its pristine jungle or ensure that the leopard keeps its spots. Fur coats and crocodile handbags are denounced as “unclean” or, worse, diabolical artifacts.
At various intellectual and emotional levels, many extinct forms of paganism have been revived, or survivals huffed and puffed into flame again. These cults exist in great numbers, especially in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and parts of New England. Some are merely self-regarding and self-isolated curiosities. Others are hostile to established religion and aggressively anti-Christian. They even put up signs: “Christians keep away: pagans dwell here.” There is a form of pop sound, known as death-metal music, which actually advocates violence against Christians and their institutions, and in some places has led to vandalism against churches.
But these are self-conscious attempts to reanimate extinct rites whose spirit died long ago. Far less marginal and infinitely more significant is the neopaganism of the rights movement, for here we have a new and truly modern form of animism which exercises genuine cultic appeal to millions of educated people whose scientific knowledge and rationalism are matters of pride to them.
Almost every form of contemporary ideology can be assimilated into the pantheon of the new paganism. The god of gods—the Yahweh, or Allah, or Jupiter, or Zeus, or Amon-Ra—of the pantheon is the rights deity, who omnipotently presides over all efforts, from whatever angle of the progressive spectrum, to make claims upon the law, state, and society.
There is the god of health, who stands for the right to be free from sickness, or obesity, or cancer, or death itself; the sex god, whose cult is the unrestricted pursuit of one’s sexual orientation and desires; the god of multiculturalism; the god of political correctness; the god of youth; and the god of children, who presides over a panoply of rights including the right to divorce their parents. There is the god of hedonism, whose votaries put the right to experience any or all available pleasures as the prime purpose of human existence.
And of course there is also a feminist deity, a god of the homosexuals; a goddess of the lesbians; and deities for the transvestites, the transsexuals, the handicapped, the mentally, vertically, or horizontally challenged, indeed, all those who can establish claims to special places in the hierarchy of rights.
That there should be inherent or actual conflicts of rights in such a pantheon is inevitable, and is only partly avoided by uneasy or unnatural coalitions. The feminist deity, campaigning against the commercial exploitation of women, is at war with the god of pornography, campaigning for the total abolition of censorship; the deity who presides over the rights of children is at odds with the god of the pedophiles; and there is a danger that with the expansion of medical knowledge of the unborn child in the womb, the goddess who campaigns against the abuse of living infants will be locked in deadly combat with the goddess of unrestricted abortion. The ancient Greek pantheon, which reverberated with the wars of the gods, was always in danger of toppling over into divine chaos, and a similar discord grips the neopagan rights pantheon from time to time, as when the god of multiculturalism indulges in a fit of anti-Semitism or the god of the sexual deviants locks horns with the god of genetics.
Now I do not want to carry this analogy too far and risk disbelief in its validity. But it is an extraordinary fact how closely these neopagan cults, in the guise of single-issue rights groups, resemble religious bodies, with their charismatic leaders, their creeds or agendas, their slogans or incantations or litanies, their catenae of cardinal virtues and deadly sins, their demonstrations or processions of faith, their hieratic vernaculars and rituals. They often start in the catacombs and then emerge in public to profess their faith openly: they “come out,” as Christians began to do in the 3rd century; adherents stress “black pride” or “gay pride,” as Christians once made the sign of the cross publicly to confess their faith, and as Roman Catholics still do. Militant feminists refer to themselves as “wymin” or even “sisters,” as do enclosed nuns. There are countless identifying clothes, fashions, and hairstyles, performing the same functions as Quaker collars, monkish tonsures, Greek Orthodox beards, hasidic caps and garments. Chains and lockets and earrings are sported like phylacteries or rosary beads.
Not least, these rights groups or single-issue cults produce their own scriptures or literatures. I am struck, when I visit a large campus bookstore, by the way in which these special publications are now grouped together in a distinct section, which is often—usually—larger than that devoted to traditional religious literature.
Most mainstream church hierarchies, in responding to the challenge of the new pagans, have been weak and indecisive. Almost without exception these churches have been systematically penetrated by rights groups in their guise as lobbyists and activists.
An important watershed was the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65. Hitherto, the Catholic Church had been exceptionally rigorous in repelling boarders from pressure groups, especially those with aims which could be described as “modernist”; and American Catholic bishops had been unusually ultramontane and obedient in carrying out this isolationist policy. The effect of the Council was to relax Catholic guards everywhere, but the consequences in the United States were disproportionately radical.
From being one of the most conformist, the American hierarchy rapidly became one of the least, and this pattern of behavior was adopted by many religious orders, including the once ultra-orthodox Jesuits. American Catholic universities and publications, from being citadels of doctrinal zeal, propagated the new heterodoxies and welcomed infiltration by the single-issue lobbies. And while the Catholics wavered and succumbed, the Episcopalians held out their hands even more eagerly, followed in turn by Presbyterians and Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists, and most of the rest.
On issues such as the ordination of women, artificial contraception, abortion, the remarriage of divorced persons, homosexuality, revision of the liturgy to permit new cultic practices and music, there were, during the 1960’s and still more in the 1970’s and 1980’s, some notable accommodations with the new—or, as critics would put it, some scandalous surrenders of principle. In many cases, the lines of demarcation between the mainstream churches and the neopagan cults became blurred or even invisible.
The removal of distinctive landmarks was hastened, naturally, by the ecumenical movement within Christianity. This had been gathering speed since 1900 or thereabouts, but the really striking acceleration occurred during and after the 1960’s, when the Catholic hierarchy began to cooperate in earnest. Ecumenicalism came easier to the United States than to most Christian societies, since the stress on divisive dogmas had never been great—often nonexistent—and the American Christian moral consensus, underpinning republicanism and democracy, was an ecumenical movement in itself. Hence the official ecumenical movement endorsed by the mainstream church hierarchies proceeded smoothly.
However, unlike the American consensus itself, this development has borne few of the marks of a popular movement. It has been a largely clerical affair of bishops and pastors and moderators and ministers, moving serenely through a labyrinth of committees and statements and resolutions, generating quiet satisfaction or self-satisfaction, rather than mass enthusiasm—the hieratic not the demotic.
Nevertheless, by embodying a search for the lowest common denominators of agreement, on morals not less than in dogmatic theology, the ecumenical movement has facilitated acceptance by the mainstream churches, or at any rate by their governing bodies, of the agendas of the neopagan pressure groups and single-issue lobbies.
By contrast, and in reaction to this slide into moral confusion, there has been an unofficial but infinitely more powerful and popular—and very largely spontaneous—movement within the established churches to uphold the traditional moral consensus and to emphasize its core beliefs, springing from the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Decalogue.
This coming together of what might be called Ten Commandment Christians, joined also by large numbers of traditionalist Jews—and watched with some sympathy by Muslims and members of other more remote faiths—constitutes the alternative ecumenicalism, which is largely nonclerical, nonhierarchic, unofficial, and unstructured, led by laymen and, above all, popular. In one way or another it expresses the Moral Majority—that is, those Americans who feel that the old republican-democratic moral consensus, loosely termed the American Way of Life, is still true, valid, and central to America’s survival as a united, healthy, law-abiding, and prosperous society.
This alternative ecumenicalism, unlike the official ecumenicalism of committees and resolutions, has a genuine demotic ring to it, and is characterized by the usual marks of spiritual enthusiasm—overflowing services, mass meetings, demonstrations, activism—sometimes even violence. It is in itself a form of religious revival, another Great Awakening, and it is indeed fundamentalist in that it seeks to reassert fundamental moral truths once taken for granted and virtually unchallenged.
The emergence of this popular form of ecumenicalism, largely in response to the encroachments of neopagan hedonism, has brought about a new wave of religious warfare in the United States. Some see it as a battle between megalopolis and the rest—between supposedly godless metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and the countryside of farms and of small and medium-sized towns where churchgoing is the norm and traditional moral values are respected—between, as it were, the Cities of the Plain and the City upon a Hill; between Sodom and Gomorrah and Middletown.
The new religious war can be seen, too, as a conflict between the values of the Bible and the values of the mass media. It is certainly a conflict between an approach to citizenship based on rights and one based on duties.
It is a war fought over many issues: the state schools and what is permitted within them; the use of taxpayers’ money; the interpretation of the Constitution by the courts; the enactment of congressional and state legislation on private and public morals; and the selection of candidates for public office. But there is one issue which transcends in importance all the others and which, in a determining way, sums up all the arguments and attitudes on both sides—abortion.
This, as I noted above, can be described as a conflict of rights—between the right of an unborn child to life and the right of a childbearing woman to control over her body. But it is much more than this because it also and once again involves the conflict between rights and duties, between a humanist society which puts the interests and views of men and women as the paramount guide to conduct and a religious society which acknowledges the higher law of an external deity.
There are some who see the argument, and indeed the physical, legislative, and political battle over abortion, as the greatest challenge to the unity and conscience of the American people since the Civil War itself. There are certainly many uneasy parallels. The complex of issues which brought about the Civil War—slavery, states’ rights, the survival of the union—rumbled away almost from the beginning of the union itself, occasionally breaking surface and threatening open discord, then subsiding as a compromise was patched up. But in the end it had to be resolved one way or the other and the result was the Civil War, leaving scars which, in the South at least, took a century to heal.
Abortion is a similar kind of problem, involving a complex of moral, constitutional, and social issues, which arouses great passion and obstinacy on both sides and which cannot be resolved by compromise or good will. Society can be anesthetized about the facts of abortion, just as it once could be about the facts of slavery, but the more the facts are exposed the uglier they seem, especially since scientific advances allow us to perceive what is taking place in the womb and at what an early point following conception the fetus becomes a child, indeed a person. The humanization of the fetus, like the humanization of the slave, is fatal to the case for the institution of abortion.
All this indicates that the conflict will deepen as the years go by, just as the conflict over slavery did until it was resolved by the victory of one side. The abortion argument also resembles the argument over slavery in that it transcends the issue itself and involves entire attitudes and mentalities. Around it and reinforced by it are the arguments between belief and the suspension of belief, between church and state, right and duty, freedom and obligation.
These issues have tended to divide societies since the dawn of history, but America, with its open society, with its passion for free debate, and, not least, with its lingering sense of mission to teach the world what is good and noble, provides the perfect forum for the contest to be fought to a finish.
The tragedy is that this heated, divisive issue, which is both the chief battleground and the symbol of American’s civil war of religion, comes at a time when the integrity of the United States and the unity of the American people are also threatened by other powerful forces.
As we have seen, American society was from the outset, even when it was merely a collection of fragile English colonies, an attempt to build a special kind of society, a City upon a Hill, uniquely dedicated to the godly life, whose sacral character—according to Calvinist philosophy—was reflected in its worldly prosperity. For such a society to function at all, it needed a focus of unity. This was originally provided not merely by the Protestant faith and later, as the diversity of religious worship increased, by a common moral code; in the 17th and for much of the 18th century there was another focus of unity: the English language, English law, political customs and assumptions.
Gradually, however, a growing number of immigrants arrived to whom the English language was foreign and the American version of English culture alien. From this point, the importance of the religious consensus increased, as the melting pot, that great social cauldron, which transmuted a multiracial and multiethnic human material into a single people, was constructed, heated, and stirred, and did its marvelous work.
The adoption of the English language was the ostensible sign that the melting pot worked. But in some ways it was a superficial sign, and to the historian it is clear that the principal ingredient which transformed an alien immigrant into an American citizen, and someone able, eager, and proud to pursue the American way of life, was precisely the moral ecumenicalism, the religious consensus on what constituted right conduct. Indeed, it was more than an ingredient, it was the psychological and moral framework within which the melting and transmutation could take place.
Today the obstructions to the melting machinery are formidable and growing. Forces are present which seek to prevent it from working at all, or even to reverse its workings. Many wish to keep the foreign elements in the immigrants of today in their pristine and alien state, and even to realienate those already absorbed. One of America’s leading historians, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has written a book about this phenomenon, entitled The Disuniting of America.
Now what is significant about this process, and I would say sinister, is that it is driven by the same machinery—the single-issue lobby—which empowers and makes formidable American neopaganism. The American political system is peculiarly susceptible to single-issue politics, and single-issue politics are peculiarly adapted to work on ethnic feelings and cultural, racial, and linguistic separateness. America’s sheer ethnic diversity makes the spread of single-issue political lobbying, conducted on an ethnic basis, peculiarly destructive of unity. The seamless garment of nationhood is in danger of being unraveled, with unpredictable consequences for America itself and the world.
And it is not just the ethnic and cultural divisions among Americans that are being stressed by this process. Americans are also being presented, in the political process, in the media, in society as a whole, as divided by sex or gender, by sexual orientation and preference, by age-grouping presented as antagonistic, by physical ability or disability, by size and shape—by any distinguishing characteristics which present opportunities for lobbying and for the manufacture of a single issue. The same forces which obstruct the melting-pot process by stressing ethnic and racial origin also stand behind one of the antagonists in America’s religious civil war.
Now there are some who argue that there is nothing sacrosanct about American national unity, that the American nation as such is not an unmitigated good, that the American way of life is by no means the most desirable or reputable way of life—that, in short, the United States of America is not the ideal political and social creation it has claimed to be. These critics dwell savagely on the sins of America in recent decades, in Vietnam and elsewhere, and they even point to the forces of disintegration in American society as in some respects salutary, as signs of repentance. They say there is too much nationalism in the world, as witness the fate of former Yugoslavia, and that American nationalism is not necessarily more righteous than any other. From this perspective, the disuniting of America is a welcome thing.
But this seems to me to turn the nationalist argument on its head. The object of the melting pot—or one of its objects anyway—was precisely to disarm the mutually competing and destructive nationalisms of the old world, based as they were on ancient linguistic, ethnic, and cultural antagonisms, and replace them by a new form of nationalism which was international, irenic, ecumenical, and benign.
The point was to transform warring peoples into one people at peace with itself, the chosen people or at least (in Lincoln’s phrase) the almost-chosen people. It was to be a new kind of nation-society, republican in its form, democratic in its politics, in its tone and social intercourse following an agreed moral code. All this was underpinned, in fact made possible at all, only by the religious consensus I have described. It was the cement of the entire sublime and adventurous construct.
I submit that the dramatic global events of the 1980’s and 1990’s, far from diminishing, have actually strengthened the case for the existence of such a construct in the world: a great and mighty nation which is something more than a nation, which is an international community in itself, a prototype global community, but which at the same time is a unity, driven by agreed assumptions, accepting a common morality and moral aims, and able therefore to marshal and deploy its forces with stunning effect.
It is impossible, looking back, to see how the world would have survived the strain of the cold war without the United States; still more difficult to see how it can survive the disturbed and unpredictable aftermath without an America which is still united behind an agreed morality and a common purpose. There is now, and for the foreseeable future, only one superpower in the world, and that is the United States. This may or may not be desirable—I believe it is—but it is certainly a fact.
As the sole superpower it is essential that the United States retain the purity of its republicanism and the efficiency of its democracy, and that it debate its aims and actions with all the thoroughness which its immense diversity of ethnic origin makes uniquely possible—but having debated, and voted, and decided, it must then act with the unity and resolution which its position of world leadership demands.
For all these reasons, the peculiar form of religious and moral consensus which has been developed in America is not an anachronism but is more urgently needed than ever.
I often wonder what Abraham Lincoln, who provided America with the leadership it needed in the greatest crisis in its history, would have felt about the nation’s task today, when it is asked to provide leadership for a distracted and dangerous world. He was himself a typical product of the religious consensus: a man who believed in providence rather than a personal, describable God, nominally a Baptist but a member of no regular church—a loose cannon on the religious deck in the eyes of the right-thinking. With it all, he was a man in whom the religious consensus had done its moral work to extraordinary effect—a man who could distinguish clearly and accurately, under the greatest stress of events, what was right and what was wrong, and who could make his decisions plain and acceptable to a vast electorate, to the point where it would expend a great quantity of blood and treasure to carry them out. In short, a man for all seasons, and an example of how the peculiar religious process of American nation-building could deliver exactly what was required.
What would this remarkable man think today? He might, I believe, still be inclined to categorize Americans as the almost-chosen people: a nation seeking the ideal but falling some way short of it. But he would also, I feel sure, consider its unity to be as much worth preserving—even fighting for—as in his own day, and he would look eagerly for those forces which could sustain and, if need be, rebuild that unity. Among those forces he would recognize, despite all his own skepticism, that by far the most important is the deep religious emotions which have always inspired, and still do inspire, the conduct of most Americans. And, forced to choose between Sodom and Gomorrah and Middletown, it would be in Middle-town that he would set up his standard.