The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford University Press, 2006), 225 pp., $20.
In 1998 a small town in southwestern Missouri—a berg aptly named Republic—erupted in controversy. It seems that eight years earlier a local artist had created a new design for the municipal seal, which featured, among other things, a symbol of a fish (ichthus). The artist said she thought the fish represented all religions. In 1995 Jean Webb, a practitioner of Wicca, a neopagan religion, moved to Republic. Finding the seal prominently displayed around the community, Webb wrote an opinion piece for the local paper opposing it. That is when the trouble started. Webb claimed that as a result of writing the editorial she suffered harassment and financial loss. In 1998 Webb and the ACLU sued the town, arguing that the seal, an “unambiguous symbol of Christianity”, violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Having grown up in southwestern Missouri, I happened to be back that summer visiting friends and family. I followed the controversy on the radio and in coffee shops. As far as I could tell, the region was still as overwhelmingly Evangelical and Republican as I remembered it. It was, after all, the home base of Missouri Governor, Senator and, later, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Predictably, partisans of the town council invoked the majority’s right to express its deepest values. Equally predictably, academics from colleges in nearby Springfield invoked the minority’s right to be protected from official endorsements of any religion, let alone a particular one. Tempers flared. And then, in the midst of the furor, something quite unpredictable happened. One morning over coffee, a local Evangelical clergyman quietly said to me that if the fish symbol represented not the majority’s power to impose its will but rather its commitment to heal the sick, feed the hungry and welcome the stranger, no one would care where the symbol appeared. The following year Republic lost the legal battle, but at least one thoughtful Christian won the moral war.
Jon Meacham, who is the managing editor of Newsweek, does not tell this story in his highly touted book American Gospel. But he could have, for it exemplifies, in miniature, the perennial controversy about the proper relation between religion and society and between church and state. He also could have used the clergyman’s interpretation of the event as a template for his view of America’s promise.
Meacham argues that the American gospel—or what he more often calls public religion—has resided pre-eminently in the Declaration of Independence and its emphasis on liberty, equality and the divine order that seemingly sustains those values. In the early 17th century, the founders of the Virginia and the Massachusetts colonies embraced the notion of divine order, but not liberty for outsiders or equality among themselves. But by the late 18th century, the Founders of the American Republic had embraced all three notions (albeit imperfectly, as the persistence of slavery and establishments of religion in many of the states showed). The Founders’ convictions, rooted in Nature and Nature’s God, prompted them fervently to guard liberty of religious expression and equality of protection from religious privilege or oppression. These principles eventually found embodiment in the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment.
Meacham claims that the Founders cherished yet another principle: common sense. Finding the balance between the free exercise and the establishment ideals required a delicate touch and constant fine-tuning. They knew that the formula was not given in the stars and that nothing was for keeps. Each generation would have to figure out its own way, in its own context, for its own needs.
Meacham ably summarizes the religious world of the main Founders, focusing on Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison. He emphasizes the beliefs, practices and styles they shared, constituting an elite movement other historians often call Deism. The main Founders espoused a transcendent God, whom they typically described in distant, impersonal terms like “Creator”, “supreme judge of the world”, and “beneficent Ruler.” Yet their God also was a God of providence who paid attention to the unfolding of human history. He expected to be worshiped, held humans accountable for the way they treated each other, and esteemed cardinal virtues for individuals, such as honesty and kindness, and for societies, such as liberty and equality. The Founders said next to nothing about heaven but assumed that humans would be rewarded in the life to come as they lived their lives today. And for all, freedom of religion—both freedom for and freedom from—was not a gift granted by any monarch or legislature but an unalienable right.
If we judge Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison the main Founders, then none (with the partial exception of Adams) came close to being an orthodox Christian. They carefully skirted or explicitly denied basic doctrines like the Holy Trinity and the forgiveness of sins. To be sure, a fair number of second-rank figures like the Congregationalist Samuel Adams, the Anglican John Jay, the Presbyterian John Witherspoon, and the Catholic John Carroll were recognizably orthodox. But Meacham’s portrait of the principal Founders is accurate. Contrary to many modern secularists on one side and fundamentalists on the other, the Founders were men of rational belief—and both terms, rational and belief, are critical to understanding their position.
American Gospel highlights the handful of years in the late 18th century when, in Thomas Paine’s memorable words, the architects of the American Republic really did suppose that they had it in their power to “begin the world over again.” One does not have to subscribe to a great-person theory of history in order to believe that Americans have seen few occasions when political genius displayed itself so lavishly—or to feel the heart-pounding exhilaration that singular moment provided. But if the Founders saw more clearly than most, they also saw farther. And so it is that tracing the permutations of their vision over the rest of U.S. history occupies the larger part of the book.
Meacham’s drama of the post-revolutionary (like the pre-revolutionary) years seems largely stocked with two kinds of actors: those who distinguished themselves by pursuing the American gospel of public religion, and those who did not. The former understood that the life of the commonwealth should be guided by values actually or putatively rooted in a divine order of things, enduring values like humility, freedom of thought, equal opportunity, respect for difference, forgiveness of enemies and concern for the weak. They also understood that government should not support religious privilege or oppression. Religiously informed opinions should enjoy a place in public life, but only insofar as they are based on reasoned persuasion, not coercion or intimidation. The roster of post-revolutionary actors who furthered the American gospel includes Andrew Jackson, Charles Finney, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, Sandra Day O’Connor and William O. Douglas. The roster of post-revolutionary actors who furthered other gospels—ephemeral or narrow or sectarian or even destructive—included Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, James G. Blaine, William Jennings Bryan, Billy Sunday, Gerald Winrod, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Madalyn Murray O’Hair. A few of Meacham’s actors are hard to place. Some, such as Robert Ingersoll, seem to belong on both rosters, while others, such as Billy Graham, changed over time from a narrow to a broad vision of the public good.
Meacham’s work is ambitiously conceived, but not everything is peaches and cream. He treats us to plenty of fine prose, flashes of wit and memorable character sketches (“Jemmy” Madison “habitually dressed in black”, seemed “preternaturally solemn”, and, quoting another historian, was “no bigger, it was said, than half a piece of soap”). But he also confronts us with meandering paragraphs. The absence of an index in a work of serious scholarship is inexcusable. Most troubling, however, is Meacham’s tendency to substitute rhetoric for analysis when it comes to defining the boundaries and assessing the ambiguities of public religion. Some of today’s most divisive issues prove incorrigible precisely because both sides think their positions stem from public, not private, religious values. To take the most obvious case, many proponents of reproductive rights and most proponents of the rights of the unborn insist that they represent the high center ground of public religion. Or consider Jerry Falwell’s influential 1980 book Listen America! In that work Falwell goes out of his way to address “moral people . . . from all walks of life and from every religious persuasion”, to base his positions on the Old as well as the New Testament, to invoke the authority of the “Founding Fathers”, and to call for a republic governed by biblical laws rather than democratic, majority rule.
That said, Meacham’s work possesses many virtues, the most obvious being the high-mindedness of his vision. With impressive learning, he plumbs American history to find warrants for the complementary ideals of freedom for religious expression as well as freedom from religious privilege and oppression. And the story he tells is largely defensible. For the majority of settlers, colonial America was no haven of religious liberty. Most of the main architects of the American republic valued rational belief. And many American presidents expressed religious faith in public. This last point merits special note. In the din created by George W. Bush’s real or alleged attempts to support his policies with theological language, it is easy to forget that some of the most explicit invocations of divine help came from presidents on the political Left. One hundred million Americans may have heard Franklin Roosevelt’s self-written radio prayer for the troops on the day of the Normandy invasion. John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address could have been preached from virtually any American pulpit: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s rolling Hebrew Bible cadences and the mature Billy Graham’s calls for nuclear disarmament offer powerful evidence that the American gospel stands in the mainstream of American history, at least in the nation’s aspirations if not consistently in its practices.
David Holmes’ The Faith of the Founding Fathers is a very different kind of book. Simply and elegantly written, it could be used as an introduction to early American religious history by a wide range of readers, including sharp high school students, college graduates, religious laity and serious Barnes & Noble browsers.
Holmes, a distinguished historian of American religion at the College of William and Mary, plays his cards close to his chest. At first glance he seems to carry no interpretative agenda. He offers no preface or introduction, no hint about what his main point might be. Instead, he seems to want us to examine America’s religious past simply for its own sake, for the sheer antiquarian joy of it. But what seems to be the case isn’t, for the book does make a point, and an important one, of which more in a moment.
The opening chapter offers a remarkably lucid description of the patterns and demographics of American religious settlement on the eve of the Revolution. Though Native Americans receive almost no attention—a grievous omission—most groups find their place, geographically, sociologically and theologically. Holmes shows that the colonies exhibited what William James, in a different context, called “one great blooming, buzzing confusion” of competing groups from small to large—Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Moravians, Brethren, Baptists, Methodists, African-American Christians, Puritans and Anglicans, among others. At the same time, Holmes also shows that the last two, Puritans and Anglicans, exercised real and painfully disproportionate power through the instruments of social privilege and legal establishment. Though the colonies differed in their ability to enforce establishment, the fact remains that nine of the 13 had religious establishments. Even in the colonies best known for religious liberty, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, none actually granted it to everyone.
Against this backdrop of great diversity but limited religious liberty, Holmes systematically describes the religious views and devotional practices of Franklin and the first five presidents—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. He also describes the religious position of significant second-rank figures and some of the Founders’ wives and daughters. Focusing on the main figures, Holmes groups them into three categories: non-Christian Deists, Christian Deists and orthodox Christians. Often it is hard to tell where individuals properly fit, for the Founders, like most people, changed their positions, maintained a private and a public face, and did not say everything they thought. Still, on the whole, Monroe seems best to fit the first category and all the others the second, though Adams came closest to orthodoxy. By any measure, Jefferson was the most religiously complex. Though vilified as a skeptic and an iconoclast, he was, in the apt words of the historian Edwin Scott Gaustad, “the most self-consciously theological of all America’s presidents.” Holmes’ depiction of the Founders’ faiths is less vivid than Meacham’s, but it is clearer and better organized. His analysis of Deism’s sociological scaffolding, showing why it turned up exactly when and where it did, is particularly astute and mercifully succinct.
One underlying argument of The Faiths of the Founding Fathers finally emerges in the closing chapter. Here Holmes surveys the religious views of all American presidents (and some wives) from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush. Specialists will find nothing new, but the total is more than the sum of its parts. By the end, what materializes—with force—is the astonishing impact of Evangelical Protestantism on the American presidency from 1974 to the present. In that period, every presidential election except that of 1988 involved at least one self-professed Evangelical—and not quietly self-professed either, for most candidates made a point of it. Holmes is not an alarmist; he does not argue that Jefferson’s wall of separation has been washed away in the Evangelical flood. But he does make clear that the first five American presidents would find the religious assumptions and atmosphere of the modern White House very strange indeed. With good reason, L. P. Hartley’s famous line—“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”—serves as the epigraph for the book.
Taken together, Meacham and Holmes offer guidance to a nation riven by recurrent culture wars. Partisans of the religious Right, searching for a usable past in the gardens of the founding generation, will find men and women deeply troubled by the prospect of any one group of believers gaining the upper hand. They also will find individuals with little interest in the revivalists’ “loving Lord.” At the same time, partisans of the secular Left will find that the Founders were remarkably unworried about the free expression of religion. Perhaps they sensed, to reverse Marx, that religion was not an opiate but the “heart of a heartless world.” Perhaps they really believed, as Lord Acton later put it, that liberty is not the freedom to do what you want, but the freedom to do what you ought.