Introduction

This volume draws together twenty-five primary documents through which readers may trace central themes in the long, complex story of religion and politics in American history. As the first publication of the Ashbrook Center’s program in Religion in American History and Politics (RAHP), the collection aims to broaden a discussion too often limited to church-state relations. We hope to illuminate a larger dynamic: not only the influence of religion on American politics and culture, but also the influence of America on the religious convictions and practices of her citizens.

As this reciprocal relationship between religion and politics has unfolded, Americans have wrestled with certain recurrent questions. Is America a nation with a God-given mission to establish free government at home and abroad? Are religious belief and practice among its citizens necessary for the republic to survive and flourish? In what ways and to what degree should religion attempt to reform the morals and manners of Americans? Do such reform movements pose any dangers to republican government? Are there circumstances under which republicanism—or, at least, majoritarianism—might present a threat to religion or require religious believers to practice civil disobedience? Can all religious traditions accommodate American principles? Can the adherents of every faith successfully engage in republican self-government?

From the beginning, religion played an important role in shaping Americans’ identity and purpose: colonization efforts were undertaken in the name of God, with the evangelization of the native peoples or the chance to establish a society in accordance with Biblical ideals included among the many ends of settlement (Documents 1 & 2). Many colonists were attracted to North America because of the potential for greater religious freedom than they had experienced in Europe. Yet prior to the American Revolution, all but a handful of the colonies had some form of religious establishment, some level of integration between church and state (Document 2). In the decades following the Revolution, the diversity of religious settlements in the individual states moved slowly in the direction of disestablishment, and religious liberty became increasingly a fact. What exactly the separation of church and state meant remained in question, however, as it does now. Yet, even as Americans came to the broad agreement that the institutions of church and state were to be separate, they did not agree that religion and politics could or should be. The documents illustrate this as they trace two major themes: the development and decline of the American Protestant synthesis, and the ongoing link between religion and social or civil reform and even dissent.

The American Protestant synthesis united reason, republican government, science and Reformed Christianity in a powerful combination that undergirded the Protestant establishment in the United States (see documents 3, 7, 10 and 11). This establishment exerted broad influence in America, not least through its dominance of American education (through most of the nineteenth century virtually all colleges were religious institutions presided over by ordained ministers). In brief, the synthesis held that the Reformation had restored the authority of human reason, and this eventually led to the restoration of reason’s authority in politics and science. The Declaration (“the laws of nature and of nature’s God”) expressed the synthesis. The fundamental premise of the synthesis was that science and revelation could not contradict each other, because God was the author of both nature and the Bible. Moral, political and scientific progress went hand in hand.

The fundamental premise of the synthesis and thus the synthesis itself came increasingly into question after the Civil War, as developments in science seemed harder and harder to reconcile with the Bible. At the same time that developments in geology, for example, challenged the account in Genesis, technical criticism of the Biblical text raised questions about the Bible itself. This new thinking very often came to the United States with students returning from graduate study abroad, principally in Germany. Evolution as an explanation of the origins and changes among living things, in the years following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), increasingly formed part of this new thinking, but only part of it. (Documents 14 and 16 deal with these developments.)

As the Protestant synthesis fell apart, Protestantism split into fundamentalist and modernist camps. The fundamentalists adhered to the moral and political aspects of the synthesis, particularly because they saw the changes in American society in the first decades of the twentieth century as evidence not of moral progress but of moral decline. The modernists adhered to the scientific aspects of the synthesis, continuing to promote progress, arguing in some cases that revelation was itself progressive and still, in fact, ongoing. For these progressives, the supreme virtue was tolerance, which they accused the fundamentalists of lacking. A tolerant attitude allowed new kinds of thought and behavior to emerge. And if new thought and behavior did not emerge, how could there be progress, how could God continue to reveal himself? We may understand the fundamentalists to be asking the progressives in turn, if revelation itself is progressive, by what standard are we to distinguish progress, which is presumably good, from mere change, which may be bad? (Documents 18-20 deal with these issues.) The fundamentalist-modernist split still largely defines religion in the United States and continues to shape our political life.

The other major theme illuminated in this volume is the role of religion in both motivating and shaping social and political change in the colonies and, later, states (Documents 1, 4, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17, 22, 23). From John Winthrop’s almost utopian vision of a community grounded in Christian love (Document 1) to the more pragmatic observation, embodied in colonial legal codes, that religion tempers the vicious elements of human behavior (Document 2), early Americans were convinced that a religiously inspired sense of divine justice provided the best of all possible encouragements to personal and from there, social, order. A sense of divine justice properly understood would also lead some Americans to resist state power when it appeared to overstep its natural limit or threaten the public good (Document 4).

As American society advanced into the western territories in the 19th century, the issue of morality in public life became increasingly important. Lincoln’s “Temperance Address” (Document 10) and Beecher’s “Plea for the West” (Document 8) present two variations on this theme: Lincoln critiqued religiously inspired approaches to reform in the name of preserving a spirit of moderation and amity in civil reform, whereas Beecher linked the preservation of American liberty directly to the spread of religious institutions and teaching. Although for many, religious arguments gave powerful incentives to moral reform and prevented moral disorder, such arguments always carried the potential for reckless zealotry that others viewed as more politically dangerous than the vices against which it was aimed.

On the other hand, as the influence of modern scientism and relativism on American religious institutions grew, many of those institutions became much less active in their pursuit of social change. Latter-day reformers like Addams (Document 17), King (Document 22) and Schaeffer (Document 23) each attempted to counteract this tendency, calling on Americans to “revive” the idealistic elements of their religious roots and apply them to the problems of modernization, urbanization, and industrialization. Schaeffer’s “Christian Manifesto,” in particular, is a call to arms and a reminder of the counter-cultural thrust of much religious teaching. All three documents show the important role of dissent in correcting and directing the public opinion of the nation on policy questions with moral dimensions.

The stories just briefly recounted are told in greater detail and with more nuance in the documents themselves. The introductions to the documents provide some context for understanding them. Whenever possible, we have used footnotes to document quotations and allusions, and to identify little-known persons and concepts mentioned but not explained in the documents. We have modernized spelling, punctuation, and capitalization except for that of Document 2. Matter inserted in the documents for clarity is within brackets. We have also provided in Appendix A some study questions to promote analysis and discussion. In addition, in Appendix B, we have provided suggestions for further reading.

These 25 documents do not, of course, tell the whole story of religion in American history and politics. For that reason, we plan additional document collections on the following topics:

RAHP: The Prophetic Voice

RAHP: Religious Liberty

RAHP: Key Court Decisions

RAHP: Religion and Science

RAHP: Women’s Voices

RAHP: Private Reflections

Over time, our goal is to develop a library of documents that reflects the depth and rich variety of American religious experiences and the ways in which such experiences relate to other ongoing social and political developments. Some of these documents will come from the pens of clerics or other formal spiritual leaders; some will be written by statesmen and legislators in the heat of public crises; some will be the private reflections of individual citizens speaking in neither a ministerial nor a political capacity about their own religious experience. All, we hope, will open new pathways for investigating the course of American history in the conviction that as we learn to better understand the past, we are better equipped to face and shape our civic future.

The editors would like to thank Roger Beckett and the staff of the Ashbrook Center for their support.  We particularly appreciate the editorial assistance of Lisa Ormiston and the transcription work of Brooke Branson, Madeleine Emholtz, and Brennan Kunkel.

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