Republicanizing the American Religion (Evangelicalism and Secularism part 2)
In the previous article in this series we explored how under Gnosticism the ‘Christ of culture’ paradigm collapsed into ‘Christ against culture.’ In this article and the following article, I will be exploring how a similar process has occurred within the evangelicalism of the 18th and 19th century.
In the 3rd century, the temptation for Christians came from a Platonism that denied the importance of the physical realm and rewrote soteriology in esoteric terms. Succumbing to these canons of popular culture produced the Gnostic variants of Christianity which, as we have seen, set an itinerary which ended in denying the importance of culture. For Americans in the 18th and 19th century, the temptations for the church was to blend Christianity with the canons of popular republicanism within the culture which, paradoxically, set an itinerary which ended up denying the importance of culture.
Republicanism, in its original sense, refers to the political philosophy that lawmakers ought to be representatives of the citizenry. It differed from democracy in that republicanism favoured checks and balances to prevent government from collapsing into a populist free for all; it differed from constitutional monarchy in that its advocates almost universally assumed that liberty was inherently antithetical to nobility or any social privileges derived from birth. On this last point Alexander Hamilton could not have been clearer, stating, “the prohibition of titles of nobility…may truly be denominated the corner-stone of republican government.” Similarly Thomas Jefferson believed that “a foundation laid for a government truly republican” involved “a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of ancient or future aristocracy”. Republicanism thus became a conduit for Enlightenment egalitarianism, and the entire network of ideas that the language of equality could instantly invoke.
Prior to mid 18th century, Christians throughout both Europe and North America had generally associated the language of republicanism, especially when laced with egalitarian rhetoric, with heterodoxy rather than Christian orthodoxy. The example of France seemed to confirm the connection between the new equality rhetoric, on the one hand, with explicitly antireligious sentiments, on the other. This association began to change in the thirteen colonies during the period of the French and Indian Wars (1756-63). Evangelicals began to progressively align themselves with republicanism and with a subtle egalitarianism that, though a popular feature of the Enlightenment, had generally been eschewed by the Christian community . However, the emerging republican narratives became in many ways the new de facto religion for the colonists. The sermons and pamphlet literature from the period show this happening in two ways: first, through the politicizing of religion and, secondly, by making political ideals (especially those connected with liberty and equality) the object of a new type of civic religion. Sometimes this was quite explicit, as when Declaration signatory Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) wrote to Thomas Jefferson to say that “It is only necessary for republicanism to ally itself to the Christian religion to overturn all the corrupted political and religious institutions in the world” or when he wrote to Granville Sharp that the language of American independence “has for many years appeared to me to be the same as that of the heavenly host that announced the birth of the Saviour of mankind.” At other times the intersection of republicanism with colonial Christianity was more subtle for being the more thoroughly fused. But the net result, in the words of Hatch, was that “Christians in America began to redeem a dual legacy. They yoked strenuous demands for revivals, in the name of George Whitefield, with calls for the expansion of popular sovereignty, in the name of the Revolution.”
Over time the strains of this double legacy became so thoroughly fused that the 19th century French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, could remark that everywhere he expected to find a clergyman, he found a politician. Edmund Morgan noted with irony that “In 1740 America’s leading intellectuals were clergymen and thought about theology; in 1790 they were statesmen and thought about politics.” But it was probably Robert Smith of Pennsylvania who had expressed the mood most succinctly, stating in 1782, “The cause of America is the cause of Christ.”
The key issue was not that Christians suddenly became interested in government. The type of Christianity that had exercised such a formative influence on the American colonies had always encouraged reflective engagement with politics, as in every other area of culture. Unlike the Lutheran tradition which taught that government operated according to a different set of principles than religion, Calvinists believed that the principles of the Bible applied to government no less than to literature, science, art, agriculture, music and every other area of life and culture. Nothing was neutral or independent of the need for proactive Christianization. What was different in mid to late 18th century America was the subordination of the faith to political principles – principles derived more from the general societal mood than from careful biblical reasoning.
What emerged out of this milieu was a new narrative of “liberty and justice for all” that could invoke a vague connection with the once robust religious categories while simultaneously being a conduit for the latest political fashions. Such fashions were rarely substantiated through the type of careful reflection from theological first principles that had characterized either the early Protestants or the later Puritans. In short, the “American way” forged in the fires of Enlightenment republicanism, and the evangelical way forged in the fires of the democratic revival, were merely assumed to be synonymous. This can be seen in the way the adjective “Republican” could attach itself to the name of a church to give it more clout among the laity. Paradoxically, this fusion would have the long-term effect of bringing evangelical political reflection to a standstill, thus isolating evangelical Christianity from the public sphere in a functional dualism reminiscent of the Gnostic project. In his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Noll has tried to show that this seizure of political reflection was one of the many factors leading to the breakdown of the American Christian intellect.
“So deeply entwined were publican and Christian themes” he writes, “that there seemed to be no need for re-examining the nature of politics itself. It could simply be assumed that the American way was the Christian way. That assumption is not necessarily baseless. But as long as it functioned as an assumption, that belief was not conducive to the development of a Christian mind. …the greatest damage from the assumption that linked Christian faith and republicanism was its very character as an assumption. If the Christian truth about politics was so clear, there was no need to think about politics at all.”
The conflict with Britain solidified the dual legacy between revivalist Christianity and republican egalitarianism into a single indivisible movement, permanently altering the contours of New World evangelicalism. The struggle that followed the Stamp Act cemented egalitarianism with evangelicalism through the symbiotic relationship between revival with revolution. The implicit egalitarianism in the revolutionary mood took root not simply with the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration, but with a democratized, populist Protestantism which extended the rhetoric of equality to its broadest application. It became an American distinctive to think for yourself and what that meant in practice was that inherited authorities, including the Christian creeds and catechisms, would increasingly become the subject of deep suspicion. Unlike in 17th century and early 18th century New England when most of the leaders of opinion in New England “made it clear that liberty had, in practice, to be narrowly defined” , Americans in the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period were being conditioned towards expansive, all-encompassing applications of liberty. Liberty could be invoked to justify the persistent levelling and the rejection of all status, whether monarchical, intellectual or clerical. Liberty could also be invested with messianic overtones, as when Madison spoke in 1792 of the new epoch liberty had brought to America and France which had bypassed all previous generations. “Liberty”, among the propagators of revival, was not without a similar sense of entering into a new epoch, unlike anything that had ever occurred in the past. Under the banner of the new liberty, Christians were liberated from the routines, structures, governments, institutions and confessions that had previously defined the churches.
Previously, it had been left to sceptics such as David Hume (1711-1776) to condemn religious authorities as being the enemies of liberty and free government. By domesticating the Enlightenment’s categories, however, American evangelicals were able to join the chorus of egalitarianism, now appropriated to their own ends, and raise the revolutionary banner against ecclesiastical tyranny. Anti-British sentiment helped to solidify this, especially among colonial non-conformists who were quick to associate anything resembling Anglicanism with British oppression, even as the French and Indian wars had amplified the anti-Catholic mood. But it wasn’t merely foreign religious authorities that came under fire from the new temper. In 1740 Gilbert Tennent preached a sermon at Nottingham Maryland urging believers to leave their churches if they judged that their pastors were unconverted. It is a legacy to the new spiritual cadences that in 1809 Elias Smith could lament that there still existed Christians who had not embraced this synthesis of Christian and republican categories: “Many are republicans as to government, and yet are but half republicans, being in matters of religion still bound to a catechism, creed, covenant or a superstitious priest.”
In this way the new populism became a potent force for disrupting the foundations of the North American religious establishments as much as it had been for disrupting Parliamentary taxation. “The shift towards a democratic or informal Christianity,” D.G. Hart observed, “nurtured by revival and revolution, turned American Protestants’ piety from forms and routines oriented around the church and the ministry of its officers to religious practices geared towards the experience of the individual, the reformist activities of voluntary associations, and small groups of zealous converts.”
By contrast, in Canada where the winds of political revolution never blew hard enough to foment armed conflict, traditional structures remained much more intact, while the effect of the Enlightenment was mitigated. No one has documented these dynamics better than Mark Noll who has noted that
In their shared efforts, both political and religious figures were tailoring the project of republican independence to fit the language of traditional Protestant religion. After only a few years, America’s religious population, with Protestant evangelicals in the forefront, began in similar fashion to tailor their religious projects to fit the language of republicanism. The implications for both politics and religion from this tailoring were momentous. In the immediate context, the argument against Parliament acquired the emotive force of revival. In the longer term, religious values migrated along with religious terms into the political speech and so changed political values. But the migration also moved the other way: a religious language put to political use took on political values that altered the substance of religion.
The populist, anti-authoritarian nature of colonial Protestantism came, in fact, to be one of the key distinguishing features that foreign observers noticed. When the Anglo Irish statesmen, Edmund Burke, urged Parliament to reconcile itself with the colonies on 22 March 1775, he did so on the ground that the colonists were “protestants; and of that kind, which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.” The linkage of the colonists’ religion with their aversion to authoritarian structures is a significant signpost to the fact that late 18th century colonialism had comfortably aligned itself with the popular egalitarianism of the Enlightenment. The potency of this alignment can be seen in the way revolutionary politicians could propel their cause forward by dressing it in religious categories even when they did not themselves personally hold to those categories.
By the 1790s the evangelical Episcopalian Devereux Jarratt (1733-1801) expressed fear for what Hatch has prescriptively termed “the volatile mix of things evangelical and egalitarian.” Jarratt objected that Christianity had passed “under the supreme control of tinkers and tailors, weavers, shoemakers, and country mechanics of all kinds.” “In our high republican times,” Jarratt complained in 1794:
there is more levelling than ought to be, consistent with good government. I have as little notion of oppression and tyranny as any man, but a due subordination is essentially requisite in every government. At present, there is too little regard and reverence paid to magistrates and persons in public office; and whence do this disregard and irreverence originate but from the notion and practice of levelling?
What emerged in both politics and religion is what can be described as the era of the common man. Wesley’s dictum “plain truth for plain people” took on a new and radical meaning. The war for independence not only instilled in ordinary people a conviction that they had a responsibility to think for themselves: it gave them a sense of entitlement to be heard. In religion this included lay people as well as clergy, women as well as men, self-appointed ministers as well as ordained pastors. Patrick Henry’s admonition to the King of England, that he must “bow with utmost deference to the majesty of the people,” became the watchword for the churches, which found that they too had to bow with deference to the authority of the people. One consequence of this is that by 1800 it had become anachronistic to speak of dissent anymore, since there was no commonly recognized centre by which new groups could be measured. The new liberty meant more than merely freedom to worship as one liked; it meant the necessity that Christianity must cast off all external encumbrances even as the colonists had cast off British rule. As a Presbyterian minister said in 1781:
This is a time in which civil and religious liberty is attended to…It is a time in which a spirit of liberty prevails, a time in which the externals of religion may properly be new modelled, if needful, and fixed upon a gospel plan.”
Hatch has identified the dominant features that which emerged out of this “profoundly democratic spirit.”
“…they denied the age-old distinction that set the clergy apart as a separate order of men, and they refused to defer to learned theologians and traditional orthodoxies. All were democratic or populist in the way they instinctively associated virtue with ordinary people rather than with elites, exalted the vernacular in word and song as the hallowed channel for communicating with and about God. …these movements empowered ordinary people by taking their deepest spiritual impulses at face value rather than subjecting them to the scrutiny of orthodox doctrine and the frowns of respectable clergymen.
“This stringent populist challenge to the religious establishment included violent anticlericalism, a flaunting of conventional religious deportment, a disdain for the wrangling of theologians, an assault on tradition, and an assertion that common people were more sensitive than elites to the ways of the divine.”
In the 19th century many Christians would stop attending church altogether and feel pious for doing so. In 18th century America, however, it was still unthinkable that a Christian would choose not to go to church. However, the Great Awakening and the crude revivalism that followed in its wake had begun to prime colonists for this transition. It did so, not merely by undermining the authority of established churches and their parish boundaries, but by rendering redundant the role of the clergy. If everyone is equal, then why is a clergyman necessary to administer communion? If everyone is equal, then why should I give special heed to the teachings of ordained ministers? If everyone is equal, then why should the traditions of my people’s ecclesiastical past be allowed to exert any primacy over what I do, how I think, or where I worship?
The new atmosphere was one in which churches and revivalists began to compete for the attention. It is significant in this regard that the revivalists of the Great Awakening described their work with images drawn from the marketplace. Whitefield himself spoke of “trafficking for the Lord.” To give themselves the competitive edge in this “de facto free marketplace of religion” , it was necessary for itinerant preachers, and later pastors, to replace church music with rousing Gospel choruses, to downplay the canons of inherited understandings, to invoke novelty, spiritual innovation and whatever the current spiritual fashion might be. Richard Webster noted that the pioneers in the Presbyterian frontiers of New York and Georgia were particularly susceptible to the riveting innovation of the Awakening preachers, as they, “sought excitement rather than instruction and wearied of the customary methods….. They desire to enjoy a sensible impression on their hearts; an exhilarating cordial… They wanted preaching suited to warm and enliven them, – undervaluing the slow enlightening, the gradual process of the leaven in the three measures of meal.” “One observer” Lambert significantly recounts, “called the English evangelist [Whitefield] and the religion that he brought an ‘imported Divinity,’ likening Whitefield and the revival he sparked to the latest London fashions.”
Within the emerging template Americans began to instinctively associate religion that was authentic with religion that was current – a prototype that still dominates American religion to this day. One’s own fiat, informed by personal preference, replaced land-based communities as the central organizing feature of the religious constituency. The spiritual individualism that this invoked effectively disengaged the Christian from the community, although it would not be until the 19th century that the full ramifications of this shift would become evident. By the late 18th century, however, the implicit and unofficial theology of the Awakening had succeeded in oriented huge swabs of Americans to look with suspicion on the visible church, its offices and ministries. The result was a levelling influence that was felt the strongest in the colonies where the population began to have political incentives for embracing the Enlightenment rhetoric of equality.
It would not be until the, so called, Second Great Awakening, that this levelling process would reach full fruition and turn against the church itself. In the hands of itinerants like Lorenzo Dow, egalitarian arguments which had been focused against aristocracy in the preceding century, began to be funnelled against the distinctions between clergy and laity and the institutional church which, it was often alleged, existed for the sheer purpose of preserving such distinctions.
The antagonism against the church was also felt by the growing separation between church and scripture, a separation that was embodied in Abraham Lincoln’s 1846 confession, “I am not a member of any Christian church, but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures.” The subtext is crucial for understanding the religious culture of 19th century America and seems to have run something like this: while scripture is necessary for the Christian life, church is an optional accessory.
In its more extreme manifestations, church was even seen to be a liability. One publication entitled A New Testament Dictionary, was typical of this more hostile mood. Not only did the dictionary offer the true meaning of the New Testament, but it condemned all Protestant denominations as limbs of the Antichrist. The general anti-establishment mood was rendering a little more plausible the outlook of utopian revolutionaries who claimed to offer their votaries the skeleton key inaccessible to the rest of Christendom.
The world-denying praxis of the Awakening’s crypto-Platonism, when conjoined to this individualistic, egalitarian and anti-establishmentarian impulse, may have helped to give a subtle legitimacy to what became an innumerable company of theological pioneers and sects all claiming to have found the salvific formula that had bypassed the rest of the visible church. For the more extreme sects, the new formulas made separation a central requirement for redemption: those who continued to embrace to the older notion of a universal church or a culture that could be sanctified were unwittingly clinging to their damnation in the process.
H. Richard Niebuhr grasped this atmosphere when he remarked that “Protestant against the established order, attracts into the camp of reformers and awakeners individuals and groups with motivations very diverse from their own save at the point of antagonism against the prevailing institutions…. Niebuhr was echoing concerns that the Rev. Samuel Porter’s grasped in the early days of the Second Great Awakening. Addressing a synod at Pittsburgh in 1811, Porter complained that
“A spirit of innovation, hostile to all existing systems, has gone forth into the world, and is to be found in operation within the precincts of the Christian church….The prevailing taste is so much in favor of a liberality in sentiment, which affects to look down on systems and confessions of faith as old-fashioned, musty, useless lumber…”
The hostility to existing systems did not only find focus in an antagonism to the institutional church, but also to culture itself. The individualism and egalitarianism implicated by the Republican impulse was most evident was in the permutation evangelical discourse took from being communal and social in its outlook to an individualism that was hostile to society’s institutions. Scott has studied this shift and noted that
In the eighteenth century, whatever the particular concern or occasion…the frame of reference had been the communal order as a whole. Whether Sabbath breaking, unruly children, social conflict, or even murder, the particular evil was invariably portrayed as a violation of one or more of the relationships of authority and subordination that kept the overall structure of order intact. By 1820 this kind of social sensibility – the sense of a community as a discernible order in which each person was bound in a series of relations or authority and obedience – was all but absent from evangelical public rhetoric. To be sure, churchmen retained a clear sense of the secular world and of their communicants’ immersion in it. But the sense of the secular world as an order had largely evaporated: they saw all situations and structures – social class, the condition of youth, the world of economic activity – as dangers, snares to trap the unwary and lead them to sin and eternal damnation.