Thursday, December 2, 2010

"With a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence"

One of the characteristics of the debate about the appropriate relationship between church and state has been the selective use of history in support of one or another interpretation of the beliefs of the Founders. On the one hand there are those who argue that the United States has been a "Christian nation" from the start, and on the other that Deism and skepticism were more typical. Good history can help to sort this out. Thomas Kidd is one of the academic historians who have done that work, particularly in his God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. In "The Tea Party, Fundamentalism, and the Founding" Kidd responds to a recent book that seems to have brought more heat than light to the discussion:
.... First, I think that Lepore is right that conservatives, especially Christian conservatives, get into dangerous territory when they treat the Founders as saints and its key documents as holy writ. This exaggerated reverence has, at times, shaded into presenting the story of the Founding as one of unvarnished holiness and perfection. For Christians, admiration for the American Founding and devotion to Christ must remain strictly separate, lest we slide into a corrupted kind of civil religion. We might easily note that religious principles undergirded the Revolution (as I do in my book God of Liberty), or that many of the rank-and-file Patriots were serious Christians. But to baptize the Founding as a unique work of God is risky business.

When we simply admire the best qualities of the Founding and do not try to conflate it with the sacred, we can comfortably affirm that the Founders achieved a very high level of political wisdom. They led Americans through a war that would have probably ruined people of lesser courage, and they set up a government that, with all its imperfections, has endured as the longest-standing republic on earth. Surely we can admire these things without bending the knee to worship.

.... Surely we all agree that the leaders of our Revolution were products of a culture that was morally faulty, just as our own society is. But entirely dismissing the wisdom of that age throws out the very principles — especially the notion that "all men are created equal" — that helped us move past the limitations of the Founding. .... [more]
An essay by Patrick Allitt in The Claremont Review of Books — surveying several histories touching on the role of religion during the Revolutionary era — includes this about Kidd's God of Liberty:
.... Agreeing with a wide consensus that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and other central figures were Deists who doubted the inerrancy of scripture and denied the divinity of Jesus, he shows how they nevertheless collaborated with zealous evangelical Christians to defeat Britain and create a republic. What's more, they understood their work as having divine as well as secular significance, and they worked against a backdrop of millennial enthusiasm as end-of-the-world sects sprang up around them.

Despite their many differences, Kidd notes, nearly all the revolutionaries shared five religious principles. First, they believed in a creator God who made all men equal and therefore free, possessing the same basic rights. Second, they agreed that God moved through history and sometimes made nations His providential instruments. Third, they agreed that there is a deep human propensity to sin that must be checked by the right institutions. Fourth, they believed that even with these institutions the republic would only succeed if men conquered the temptation to sin and acted virtuously. Finally, they favored religious liberty. Agreement on these fundamentals enabled them to cooperate despite striking differences on theological questions. "During and after the Revolution," Kidd writes, "many people conflated America's political affairs with divine purposes, which lent an aura of redemptiveness to the war and to the agenda of a fledgling nation." ....
Those five areas of agreement seem to me still a pretty good way to think about religion, the state, and human nature.

Thomas Kidd: The Tea Party, Fundamentalism, and the Founding, The Claremont Institute - Patrick Allitt: God and Country