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.