U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Myth of American Religious Freedom: Religion, Morality, and Law

David Sehat

Social conservatives have been in the news in recent days, calling upon the Republican Party not to forget social issues as they put together their new election platform for November. The reemergence of social conservatism strikes a discordant note in the widespread media claim that the 2008 election signaled the end of the Religious Right. After that election, pundits and journalists rolled out numerous stories with the assertion that George W. Bush, a man brought into power through the activities of social conservatives, had so discredited the connection of faith and politics that social conservatism was, for all intensive purposes, at a political end.

Yet the continued presence of the Religious Right in the news suggests that the predicted demise of the Christian Right as a political force was premature. I, for one, am not surprised that they have not gone away, and don’t believe that they will do so any time soon. The Religious Right taps into an old tension within the United States political community over the degree to which the laws of the U.S. government and the various states rely upon a religious foundation.

Consider the example of George Washington, a deist, if there ever was one, who cannot be made into an orthodox Christian or a particularly fervent believer. Washington was a moderate civic republican who first supported paying Christian teachers through the state in 1785 in Virginia before turning away from the plan. He continued, though, to believe that the public presence of religious institutions and believers formed the basis of national moral norms. As he explained in his farewell address, “Religion and morality are indispensable supports” to a system of “popular government.” Popular government rested upon public opinion, which needed to be enlightened if it was to be an effective guide to rule. Religion, in other words, provided the mechanism for inculcating moral norms in the populace, shaping public opinion to uphold a just rule. He was particularly skeptical of the idea that morality could exist without religion, noting, “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Fortunately, Washington explained, the citizens of the United States shared “Religion, Manners, Habits and political Principles,” which allowed religious institutions to be present in public life without threat of tension or conflict.

Religious partisans in the present often invoke Washington as a justification for their own activities in the present. But Washington downplayed the real diversity of religious sentiment that existed even at the time and that has grown exponentially in the years sense. The problem that religious partisans ignore is that, given the diversity of American religious sentiment, how can we claim that religion provides some kind of foundation for national life?

I’m afraid that the answer of conservative Christians would too often be the same as that of the nineteenth-century Christian activist, Josiah Strong. Strong was the pastor of the Vine Street Congregational Church of Cincinnati and the secretary of the evangelical political organization, the Evangelical Alliance, which was founded first in 1846 in England and then replicated a year later in the United States. Strong elaborated on Washington’s belief that religion supports democracy, but admitted that he did not think that religion in general supported democracy. Protestant Christianity alone supported proper moral character necessary for a democracy, but other forms of religion did not. “Democracy,” he explained, “is the best form for those who have sufficient intelligence and moral character to be capable of self-government,” because “[w]ithout such qualifications . . . liberty lapses into license and ends in anarchy.” To keep society from breaking apart, the individual needed to possess internalized moral sensibilities that were sanctioned by the community. Without those sensibilities individual liberty would threaten the whole with its creep toward anarchic licentiousness.

To Strong, the moral sensibilities necessary for political self-preservation were essentially Christian. If a person did not possess them, that person could not be trusted to self-government. Strong particularly worried about Catholics and Mormons, who he thought possessed a degraded religious sensibility that could not sustain a proper moral orientation necessary for the perpetuation of American democracy. In our contemporary political environment, it appears that Muslims and secularists have taken the place of Catholics and Mormons in the conservative religious imagination, and the long genealogy of these claims suggests that they will not be going away any time soon.

This the is the first in an ongoing series of essays that uses material from my forthcoming book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom. The book can be found here and here.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. David,

    I’m very much looking forward to this series.

    I’m curious about your opening assertion, however. I’m not so sure that social-religious conservatism is as much a force this year as is conservative/libertarian economic ideas. I think this is evident by way of the internal tensions of the Tea Party (if we can speak of it in any unified fashion). The Tea Party, when it speaks in organized ways, seems to be concerned with national debt (and its corollary, gov’t spending), patriotism, immigration, and gun rights. The hottest religious/political issue of the past few decades, abortion, doesn’t seem to have a place in the debates.

    Even the debate about the “Ground Zero Mosque” seems, to me at least, to be more about patriotism, or civil religion (e.g. “hallowed ground”), than Christianity versus Islam—or religious freedom. But I’m open to arguments on this particular present-day relationship to your overall topic.

    Aside from this, I find your connections to Washington and Josiah Strong to be right on. Few mixed Protestant Christianity and Western Anglo-Saxon cultural and moral superiority “better” than Strong.

    – Tim

  2. Nice post, David. I’m curious on your thoughts about why the punditry perpetually declares the religious right dead, making this mistake time and again. 2008 must have been the fourth or fifth iteration of such a dumb prediction since Pat Robertson’s failed 1988 presidential campaign.

  3. Andrew, the punditry declares the losing side “dead” after every election. And sometimes before an election, too. The Democrats were pronounced dead after the ’02 election, after the ’04 election, the Republicans were dead after ’08, the Dems are dead now, etc. The media will gladly bury or praise Caesar in turn, or even at the same time, doing the one or the other depending on which way the wind has blown their Janus-faced, Marc Antony-inspired weather vane. There’s a reason pols decry the “horserace” coverage, and a reason why it’s called “horserace” in the first place.

    Perhaps Prof. Sehat could expatiate upon what he means by GW’s “moderate civic republican[ism]” and how that influenced his religious views. Rousseau and one or two others notwithstanding, I have not perceived an especially strong connection between civic republican thought and religious practice (let alone belief). But that is in Europe. Maybe in America the situation is otherwise?

  4. Thanks for your comments.

    Tim: We’ll see whether they are a force or not. Almost all of the tea party candidates are social conservatives (Rand Paul is the main true libertarian that comes to mind). And I don’t think that libertarianism is organizationally strong enough to carry the Republican Party. The Religious Right has been the backbone of the Republican Party since 1980 and I see no reason why it will not continue.

    Andrew: I agree with Varad that there is a tendency to declare the losing side dead, but there seems to be something more. I think people, conditioned to believe in secularization long after the thesis died, have a hard time wrapping their minds around the fact that so many people still seem to believe in a conservative form of Christianity and want to impose that on the rest of us. I also think that pundits and others do not know the long history of the Religious Right, and so can continue to regard it as an aberration rather than as something that, in one form or another, has been with us for a long time.

    Varad: About moderate republicanism. What I meant was that he was a civic republican who believed that virtue sustained the people and that he seemed to see religion as a means to virtue. This was a fairly widespread belief among some of the Founding Fathers, who thought that religion was good for the people to keep them virtuous.

  5. Varad: When it comes to wrongly predicting the demise of the religious right, as with conservatism more broadly, the reasons run deeper than the fact that each election cycle’s losers are pronounced dead. For example, several pluralist thinkers, including Hofstatder, wrote many a famous essay pronouncing conservatism dead in the 1950s and 1960s. I think it had more to do, as David says, with their liberal, secular slant blinding them to how their fellow citizens thought about the world and God.

  6. David, I too look forward to the series, but most of all your book. To illustrate my interest, I hope to pepper you with questions that have nagged me as I have been reading in mostly post-1945 religious history.

    I am interested in Richard John Neuhaus’s approach to the idea of Christian America. I suppose he tried to update Josiah Strong’s version of Christian American exceptionalism by building a bridge between conservative Protestants and Catholics. But Neuhaus also repeatedly made the argument that it was not bald American exceptionalism to imagine that America’s history with Christianity forced it to consider obligations it might not have otherwise.

    He wrote in American Babylon: “To think about the American experiment theologically, or to suggest that God is not indifferent to the American experiment, in no way implies that people who are Americans are ‘special’ in the sense of occupying a superior place in God’s concerns and purposes.” By this logic he argued that because Christians in the United States often held power, the rise US influence around the world since the early 20th century obligated Americans to consider their actions in light of their religion.

    What gets me is that with both Neuhaus and Strong, when the United States acts badly or fails miserably to meet its aspirations, the remedy is not to check its religious ideas but to infuse society with more of them. We can dismiss such responses as Christian chauvinism but I wonder why resorting to religion so often carries the day in almost every generation.

  7. Ray: I’d say that there is something like a tautology that motivates the resort to religion. It goes something like this. Religion is good. When the United States acts badly, it is not the fault of religion, because religion is good. So we must need more of religion. This is also true (though, changing) of a lot of the historiography on religion. For a nice critique, see David Hollinger’s contributions to the book, Debating the Divine, published by the Center for American Progress: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2008/06/debating_the_divine.html

Comments are closed.