U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Myth of American Religious Freedom: the Problem with the Founders

David Sehat

The Founders are haunting ghosts of our contemporary political conversation, particularly when that conversation touches on religion in public life. But they manifest themselves, or more accurately, are conjured to support contemporary political positions in puzzling and often intellectually dubious ways.

Consider the following. It is widely known that earlier in their lives Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were political rivals. Jefferson supported an absolute theoretical and practical separation of church and state. He disagreed with Adams not least on the latter’s view that religion, particularly the rational Christianity of liberal Congregationalism and Unitarianism, should be supported by the state to maintain social and political stability. All of this is in line with the way that both of the Founders come up in contemporary political argument, with each occupying twin poles on the issue of religion in public life.

Yet later in their lives they found a curious agreement that demonstrates many of the problems in appealing to the Founders. In 1816, Adams wrote to Jefferson to comment upon the evangelical expansion growing out of the Second Great Awakening. As evangelicals emerged as a powerful social force during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, they quickly formed organizations such as the American Bible Society and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to advance the evangelical cause at home and abroad. Adams observed the actions of evangelicals with a distaste that barely concealed his rising level of alarm. “We have now, it seems, a National Bible Society to propagate King James’s Bible through all Nations,” Adams wrote to Jefferson. Observing the actions of the evangelicals with dismay, Adams complained that they were propagating what he considered the “Corruptions of Christianity. . . in Europe Asia, Africa, and America!”

Jefferson was no more approving of the actions of evangelicals than Adams. But, unlike Adams, he was more sanguine about the limits of Protestant evangelical influence in the United States. Responding a month later, Jefferson concluded that evangelical “Incendiaries” had discovered that the reign of religious coercion—“the days of fire and faggot”—were over in the Western hemisphere and so they were moving on “to put the torch to the Asiatic region.” Then he posed an odd rhetorical question: “What would they [evangelicals] say were the Pope to send annually to this country colonies of Jesuit priests with cargoes of their Missal and translations of their Vulgate, to be put gratis into the hands of every one who would accept them? And to act thus nationally on us as a nation?” Jefferson’s question seemed to assume that, far from religiously neutral state, the United States was a Protestant nation whose government and traditions would be offending by an evangelistic outreach by the Roman Catholic church.

In this exchange, Jefferson and Adams revealed themselves to be something other than they appear in contemporary debate, something more complicated and not necessarily political useful to the partisans that invoke them. Adams was in favor of religion in public life, but he thought it must be the right kind of religion and explicitly rejected the religion of many of the people who appeal to him today. In other words, far from thinking that religion in general supported morals and political stability, which many people claim as his position, Adams distinguished between good religion and bad religion and would have, undoubtedly, viewed many of his contemporary promoters with disdain. Jefferson, by contrast, rejected the influence of religion in public life and especially in government. He seemed to believe that the unique arrangements of the United States had neutralized the power of religious fervor and ecclesiastical despotism that had now shifted to Asia and African with the emergence of missionary organizations. And yet he still could not detach himself from the belief that the United States was a Protestant nation whose sensibility would be offended and whose political principles would be disturbed were the Pope to send Jesuit missionaries to the United States (as he soon did).

These problems suggest a point that many are reluctant to acknowledge: the Founders don’t help us much in addressing the problems of the present. They too often disagreed among themselves. Their conceptions were too different than the people that today invoke them. And they too often changed their own minds as they saw the nation that they created unfold before their wary gaze. Perhaps we should let the Founders sleep in peace. We are going to have to solve our political problems ourselves.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that use material from my forthcoming book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom. The book can be found here and here. The previous posts can be found by clicking on the keyword below.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. David: Have you had a chance to take a look at Jill Lepore’s new little book “The White’s of Their Eyes,” about how the Tea Party frames the founders? I haven’t read the book, but saw her interviewed about it and she seems to be making a similar point. That the founders were far more complicated than current partisans recognize. That they disagreed. That they changed their minds. She calls the Tea Party sense of history “historical fundamentalism.” It’s a pretty charged term, but perhaps accurate and useful.

  2. I just wanted to point out that Lepore’s book is “The Whites of Their Eyes,” rather than “The White’s of Their Eyes.” I know very little about the book, but the extra apostrophe suggests a very different argument!

  3. David: Not being a close student of correspondence of Adams and Jefferson, I’d like to know something of the tone of these letters. Were they in the context of hypothetical and speculative thinking? In other words, was Jefferson simply playing the role of a devil’s advocate? Was Adams venting, or is his hesitation the product of some negative recent event (to him)? If Jefferson indeed asserted the U.S. to be Protestant, what level of assertion was it? Was it a lament at hints of movement? I mean, if the U.S. was so Protestant, then why was there so much evangelizing and education going on (or why was it needed)? The Protestants might not have felt it was so Protestant. Please don’t misunderstand my questions as saying that the Founders’ complexity in relation to religion is less so, or untrue. I agree that it is complex–lacking in a strictly unified message to succeeding generations. – TL

  4. Tim: The wider context was an ongoing conversation about the relationship of religion to society and especially its role as a foundation for morals. Here is a larger excerpt from Adams: “We have now, it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James’s Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better to apply these pious Subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the Corruptions of Christianity; than to propagate those Corruptions in Europe Asia, Africa, and America! . . . Conclude not from all this, that I have renounced the Christian Religion, or that I agree with Dupuis [a writer on religion] in all his Sentiments. Far from it. I see in every Page, Something to recommend Christianity in its Purity, and Something to discredit its Corrruptions. . . . The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion.”

    As for Jefferson, he understood Protestantism to mean the rejection of ecclesiastical authority and the embrace of the authority of the individual believer. Of course, many Protestants would have disagreed with him in this definition, but in that way he saw the United States as a Protestant nation, meaning that it embodied the Protestant principle as he understood it. At the same time, he thought that all true religion converged in morals. He explained in an earlier letter to Adams: “Yet, however we may differ as to the foundation of morals, (and as many foundations have been assumed as there are writers on the subject nearly) correct a thinker as Tracy will give us a sound system of morals. And indeed it is remarkable that so many writers, setting out from so many different premises, yet meet, all, in the same conclusions. This looks as if they were guided, unconsciously, by the unerring hand of instinct.” As a result, he disliked evangelicalism, which seemed highly particular in its moral views and ran against his expectation of religion and reason producing morality. He saw Catholics and Catholic evangelism, with its ecclesiastical despotism, as a threat. And he probably would be equally concerned about Islam today.

    All of which reaffirms my point above. The Founders are not helpful in solving the problems of the present.

  5. David,

    Thanks for the extra context on the Adams quote, as well as your extended thoughts.

    In citing Adams and Jefferson on these matters, I wonder how much class bias we’re getting. By this I do not mean their particular class position (intellectuals or their actual economic/cultural class), but rather the classes to which they are reacting: the American bourgeois and upper classes. In sum, something like what Matthew Arnold might have called (decades later) the Philistine-merchant middle upper class. In sum, were they reacting to generalized “Protestant culture” or what they identified as Protestant theology/religion? The former could be mixed with other factors such as anti-intellectualism, a capitalist-practicalist ethic, English cultural traditions, etc.

    I apologize if this is getting off-topic in relation to your wider goal with this series (a danger, I dare say, for all of us readers in terms of getting caught up in a specific post).

    On your very last point about the Founders being “not helpful in solving the problems of the present.” Well, if only every Christian today would ponder the moderation/perspective evident in these two sentences from your expanded Adams quote: “Conclude not from all this, that I have renounced the Christian Religion, or that I agree with Dupuis [a writer on religion] in all his Sentiments. Far from it. I see in every Page, Something to recommend Christianity in its Purity, and Something to discredit its Corruptions.” That seems to me an Enlightened, non-dogmatic, natural-law view of the authority of Christianity in relation to its dogmas.

    Indeed, in this way I can see some common ground between Adams and Jefferson: the rejection of (too much) Christian dogma. That dogma usually results in moralism—with its attendant feeling that authority is on your side. Both admired the moral tradition of Protestant Christianity, but varied in their views of its superstructure.

    Anyway, once again, a great thought-provoking post.

    – Tim

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