America is in the midst of a war between the religious and the secular: so declared the right-wing presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan in 1992. In 1994, the liberal historian Alan Brinkley agreed. “Much of the history of the postwar United States,” Brinkley wrote in the American Historical Review,
has been the story of two intersecting developments. One is the survival of fundamentalist private values among people who have in other ways adapted themselves to the modern public world. The second is the unprecedentedly vigorous assault on those values by liberal, secular Americans.
Actually, however, today’s “culture war” is as old as the Republic, and has waxed and waned ever since a temporary alliance forged between deists and more traditional Christians in the American Revolution broke down in the Revolution’s immediate aftermath. From the beginning, that war has centered on a bitter feud between the intellectual children of the Enlightenment and the forces of conventional religion. But it has also, more interestingly, featured a more rarefied debate within and among the Enlighteners themselves—a debate over the nature of man, of truth, and of progress.
James D. Hunter, the leading scholar of today’s culture war, hints at this debate when he remarks that in a certain sense “the relevant divisions in the American context are no longer defined according to where one stands vis-à-vis Jesus, Luther, or Calvin, but where one stands vis-à-vis Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, and Condorcet.” In the 18th century, America’s philosophes were themselves torn along precisely that line. Some, like the French thinkers named by Hunter, clung to a radical desire to transform society root and branch. Others, however, held to a more moderate outlook, and sought less sweeping reforms. Within this debate, the place of religion was a central battleground.
The family feud within the American Enlightenment can be seen in high relief in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two Presidents who in retirement disagreed so thoroughly that an exasperated Adams wrote, “You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other.” In this, at least, if in little else, Jefferson concurred.
Both men were Unitarians, but in matters religious shared little more than that label. Jefferson’s brand of Unitarianism did not differ much from deism. In his scheme, God was the creator of the universe, of man, and of morality; but the idea that God was an active presence in the world he dismissed as mere superstition. As for Jesus, although he was the greatest moral teacher, he was not divine, nor was he the anointed servant of the divine. Not surprisingly, the adult Jefferson never uttered a word in prayer.
Like many other Enlightenment thinkers, Jefferson saw the sum total of man’s religious past as one long line of crusades and persecutions piling abuse upon abuse and spewing rivers of blood. The only way to end such violence, he concluded, was to bring religion into line with reason, as he himself had done. Supposing “belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition,” he regarded those who based their beliefs on a faith or a sacred text as relics of a less enlightened time, and he simply refused to accord those beliefs any respect. “It is too late in the day,” he scoffed at Trinitarians, “for men to sincerely pretend they believe in Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three.”
Jefferson’s religious progressivism shared something else with the French Enlightenment: virulent anti-Judaism. To Jefferson, ancient Israel constituted a nasty sect, which
had presented for the object of their worship a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust. . . .
Moses had bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries and observances, of no effect towards producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue . . . [and] instilled into his people the most anti-social spirit towards other nations. . . . [Jesus had to contend with] the priests of the superstition, a bloodthirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel. They were constantly laying snares, too, to entangle him in the web of the law.
Though in principle a proponent of tolerance, Jefferson was thus hardly free of bigotry. Faith, especially orthodox faith, had no place in his world. How could it, indeed? Arguing by syllogism, Jefferson postulated that if God had given man a moral sense and sufficient reason to understand His will, and if men turned instead to sacred texts and traditions, then they were suffering from what in a later age would be called false consciousness. The blame lay in the power wielded over men’s minds by religious establishments, and the answer lay in disestablishment.
Hence Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation.” In an officially godless state, issues of belief would be uncoerced. Good religion would drive out bad religion—“I trust,” Jefferson wrote enthusiastically, “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian”—and peace would ensue as man’s naturally harmonious and benevolent passions ceased to be corrupted for violent ends.
John Adams’s Unitarianism was of a markedly different stripe. Adams came to Unitarianism from Calvinism. Rejecting the latter’s doctrines of predestination and salvation of the elect, he concluded instead that God granted free will and would save or damn each individual according to the merits of his deeds on earth. In other words, Adams became a Unitarian because he found the idea of original sin irreconcilable with the idea of moral freedom.
Adams’s disagreement with Jefferson centered on their respective conceptions of human nature. Where Jefferson placed his hopes in a future free of religious fanaticism, Adams thought this was a Utopian pipe dream. Science, both natural and political, could advance, and so could human knowledge and understanding, thus making the world more livable; but moral progress was something else again. “Human Reason, and human Conscience,” he lectured his friend, “though I believe that there are such things, are not a Match, for human Passions, human Imaginations and human Enthusiasm.”
Adams believed in, for want of a better term, the sufficiency of human nature. God endowed man with certain attributes that could not be changed, but were good or bad depending upon the ends to which they were put. Looking to the past, he saw an unending story not only of religious wars—Adams was second to none in his disgust at the abuses performed in the name of religion—but of genuine piety and faith. Since the religious impulse was inherent in man, trying to uproot it was misguided on two counts: it could not be done without gross tyranny, and it would wreck something with much potential good in it. Nor was fanaticism itself to be dismissed altogether. Adams’s Puritan ancestors had been religious zealots, but
far from being a reproach to them, [it] was greatly to their honor: for I believe it will be found universally true, that no great enterprise, for the honor and happiness of mankind, was ever achieved, without a large mixture of that noble infirmity.
Significantly, Adams also appreciated Judaism in a way precluded by Jefferson’s zealous desire to crush infamy. The leading general of Alexander the Great, he reminded Jefferson, “was so impressed with what he learned in Judea, that he employed 70 learned Men to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, nearly 300 years before Christ.” In a striking passage written to his friend F. A. Vanderkemp, Adams declared:
. . . in spite of Bolingbroke and Voltaire, I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believed or pretended to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and to propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.
Conventionally portrayed as something of a curmudgeon and misanthrope, Adams was actually more tolerant than Jefferson. Precisely because he did not expect to be able to remake religion, he held it in a more sympathetic regard. But there was more to it than that. Unlike Jefferson, who believed that in practice God’s will was relatively simple to grasp, once one liberated the moral sense from the shackles of faith, Adams stressed the inscrutability of God’s ways. For him, the most important lesson to be gleaned—from reason—was that “there is [not] now, never will be, and never was but one being who can Understand the Universe. And that it is not only vain but wicked for insects to pretend to comprehend it.” Thinking God’s will unfathomable, but convinced as well that man desired nothing so much as to know the ultimate truths, Adams sympathized with the varied human attempts to understand the deity, and searched for the good in all of them.
Finally, when it came to church-state relations, Adams, building on the expectation that religion would remain in the future what it had been in the past, sought a creative balance of power. “Checks and Balances, Jefferson, however you and your Party may have ridiculed them,” he wrote to his Virginia friend,
are our only Security, for the progress of Mind, as well as the Security of Body. Every Species of these Christians would persecute Deists, as soon as either sect would persecute another, if it had unchecked and unbalanced Power. Nay, the Deists would persecute Christians, and the Atheists would persecute Deists [emphasis added], with as unrelenting Cruelty, as any Christians would persecute them or one another. Know thyself, human Nature!
Though a strong disestablishmentarian, Adams did not invest millennial hopes in disestablishment. Whereas Jefferson hated establishments because in the past they had led to religious wars, Adams hated them because they were prima facie immoral, forcing one man to contribute to the support of another man’s religion. But he did not think disestablishment would end religious strife.
On the contrary, the attempt to separate religious discourse from public life seemed to Adams nothing but a stalking horse for a new orthodoxy, no less absurd than that of the sternest Bible-thumping Calvinist. If Jefferson’s brand of intolerance and anti-religious bigotry had its way, it would surely provoke an equal and opposite reaction, destroying civic peace. Real civic peace, Adams thought, would emerge only when deists and atheists could have it out publicly with religionists, not when the latter were made to sit quietly in their churches and stay out of the public square.
While the argument between Adams and Jefferson has been around since the nation’s founding, our age features a particularly intense version of it. This is the result of two long-term trends, of which the first is the secularization of the American intelligentsia. According to a recent report by James D. Hunter and Carl Bowman, America’s
social elites are the most negative of all social groups toward words like “traditional,” “conservative,” and “Christian.” Moreover, they are the most positive of all social groups toward terms like “ethnic diversity,” “multiculturalism,” “tolerance,” and “empowerment.” . . . Social elites are the least likely to say they believe in God.
This represents a real change from the time when America’s cultural and social elites, whether or not they attended church, freely and openly had recourse to a religious perspective in apprehending and interpreting reality.
The second trend is the growth of the American state. In an earlier era of limited federal government and a restrictive understanding of the Bill of Rights, states and localities offered wiggle-room in which politics could more easily accommodate belief. As government has expanded and federal courts have drawn an ever stricter separation between church and state, we have made it increasingly more difficult for orthodox believers and those who side with them on moral questions to put their opinions into law in any manner short of a constitutional amendment. In response, orthodox believers have become increasingly angry and resentful, and have either withdrawn into a parallel culture of their own or declared “war” on the social and legal system erected by America’s secular elite.
Could it be that Jefferson’s aggressive prescription for church-state relations, the prescription we follow today, has led us down a blind alley? In the age of the centralized megastate, the wall of separation has indeed become what Jefferson intended it to be—a means of favoring a certain set of values at the expense of others. But just as Adams predicted, this has threatened civil peace. What if Adams was right in contending that the notion of religious consensus was a dangerous fantasy, and that as long as people continued to believe, religious opinion would and, more importantly, should play an important role in public debate?
It is, in short, past time for us to recall that our founding fathers were not all of a single mind on the issue of church-state relations, and that, even among the Enlightened, wisdom on the matter did not reside in one quarter alone. To the contrary, on this question as on others, the greater part of wisdom is undoubtedly-to be found among those who wished to make a virtue of necessity by designing a system that would seek to accommodate eternal conflicts, rather than, once and for all, to win them.