In 1834 the great American historian George Bancroft published the first volume of his magisterial series, History of the United States. Bancroft’s work would establish the major themes of American history that have come down to the present, emphasizing the genius of the American political system, the austere intellectual rigor of the nation’s Founders, and the virtue and promise of the American people. The United States, Bancroft explained, occupied a unique position in the history of the world because of its peerless political system. The American form of government was “necessarily identified with the interests of the people,” because the principle of freedom was its guiding light. So strong was that principle that even enemies of the state had “liberty to express their opinions undisturbed.” Instead of silencing opponents, Bancroft claimed, American political thought enshrined reason and mutual discourse so that political enemies could be “safely tolerated.”
Most importantly, in a world in which religion and the state were so tightly connected that political and religious enemies were often one and the same, Bancroft touted the principle of religious freedom that existed in the United States where religion was “neither persecuted nor paid by the state.” Yet he was quick to suggest that the lack of public funding did not mean that religion was unimportant. “The regard for public morals and the convictions of an enlightened faith” maintained a land of vigorous belief and order, he claimed. So great was the profusion of faith and liberty that the United States became a beacon of liberty to the world, offering “an asylum to the virtuous, the unfortunate, and the oppressed of every nation.”
Bancroft’s account is striking not least because it established the common trope of U.S. history as a narrative of religious liberty. In American political life, no politician can become elected without in some way performing the appropriate genuflections at the exemplary function of American ideals of freedom to the world. But Bancroft’s account is striking for another reason. Unlike politicians and pundits, most U.S. historians would bristle if their historical works were compared to Bancroft’s. His Whig idealism and his nationalistic boosterism seem out of touch with the critical vocation of the academic historian. And yet many scholarly accounts of religion in United States are essentially in line with Bancroft, proclaiming the genius of the American arrangement and its status as a beacon of liberty to the world.
How do we explain this?
Here’s my attempt. By virtue of their pursuit of knowledge and professionalization into a community of inquiry, many historians are dedicated to the ideals of the Enlightenment. That commitment sometimes contains the Enlightenment’s critique of religion. To many knowledge workers, the desire that faith-based, anti-intellectual religion should decline with the expansion of education and knowledge has set up blinders when studying religion, because to acknowledge the very public role of religion in the American past would mean admitting the failure of a central component of the Enlightenment dream. I have had many conversations with scholars who frankly confess their lack of interest in investigating religion even when it impinges upon the subject of their own study. They find religion distasteful, tedious, and off-putting. For that reason, though the study of American religion has flourished in the last thirty years as its own subdiscipline, it has yet to penetrate broad subdisciplines of American history, even in those areas where its influence was particularly profound. As a result, though many religious historians acknowledge the prominent role of religion in American public life, many historians that do not specialize in religion justify their lack of familiarity with the subject by arguing that, given the church-state separation of the United States, religion is irrelevant to their own work. In this way, many historians tacitly assume the myth of religious liberty put forward by Bancroft in their avoidance of the subject of religion.
This is a mistake on two levels. First, it is simply wrong. Bancroft’s myth of exceptional liberty glossed over the multiple means of coercion that resulted from the connection of religious ideals and state, which he delicately characterized as “the regard for public morals.” But what Bancroft called “the regard for public morals,” the late-nineteenth century woman’s rights reformer, Victoria Woodhull, called “society despotism.” Woodhull was an anarchist, a proponent of free love, and the first female candidate for President of the United States. Her position as a reformer and radical enabled an angle of vision that is a useful corrective to Bancroft’s. Woodhull and other dissenters in the American past clearly saw what the claim of religious freedom and exceptional liberty was: a partial truth that disguised religious power through which the proponents of an ascendant religious ideology could constrain social, religious, and political freedom. Contrary to Bancroft, Woodhull constantly lamented the religious control of U.S. laws, which created what she saw as an organized hypocrisy that imposed religious values behind a veil of moral norms. Woodhull would have been mystified by the claim of some historians that it was possible to understand woman’s rights, American politics, or just about anything in the nineteenth century, without understanding the dominance of religious partisans that she loathed. And this is the bigger problem and the second reason that historians, particularly those on the political left, should avoid Bancroft’s myth. Many historians resist acknowledging that Christians had power in the past, because they fear that it would strengthen religious conservatives in the present. But not acknowledging the power of Protestant Christians in the past distorts the entire context of liberal reform and gives the historian no purchase to understand many of the larger conflicts of American history. In other words, peddling Bancroft’s myth effaces the necessity of liberal reform, which Woodhull and others sought to effect.