U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Myth of American Religious Freedom: Bancroft and U.S. Historians

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.

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

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. David:

    Again, a very interesting post. Can you clarify the religion that Bancroft and others used as their touchstone? Was it a version of the golden rule, or a particular denomination of Prostentantism?

    I asked these questions because it is clear that certain types of Christianity, such as Catholicism, were not included in the construction of this religion nor were certain Protestant denominations. So which church did these “religious partisans” attend? And if that is important, did the influence of that particular church end at some point?

  2. David,

    I’d like to know a little bit more about this quote: “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.”

    Can you help with some examples?

    And this one too: “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.”

    Is it not possible that others factors are at work, especially since say 1900? Could it be that specialists in say, political history, are uncomfortable incorporating religious history because of professional humility? Can you show a few examples of historians, especially prominent thoughtful ones, claiming an exemption for religious history considerations due to the separation of church and state as an ideal/by law?

    I realize these examples might be in your footnotes. But this seems like an appropriate forum to draw attention to your citations. This will help, in relation to the first quote above, fill in the line you’re attempting to draw from Bancroft to the present.

    – Tim

  3. Ray: The “religious partisans” that I am talking about are mainly Protestants. Bancroft himself was a Unitarian (I think). But I do not mean to emphasize that Bancroft wanted to use religion to constrain freedom (or what today might seem a constraint of freedom). I mean to emphasize that his narrative allows little understanding of the religious conflict of the past. One way to think about it is that he was not merely wrong. He was instead a political actor who narrated a history of freedom to achieve a nation of freedom. When Abner Kneeland, a prominent antebellum freethinker, was convicted of blasphemy in 1838, Bancroft led a group trying to overturn the conviction by pointing out America’s heritage of religious freedom. It’s the same thing that liberals do today.

    Tim: For a few scholarly accounts that proclaims the genius of the American arrangement: Alan Heimert, Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966); Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); Arlin M. Adams and Charles J. Emmerich, A Nation Dedicated to Religious Liberty: The Constitutional Heritage of the Religion Clauses (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990); William Lee Miller, The First Liberty: America’s Foundation in Religious Liberty (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003). Also check Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution (2005). I could go on. The literature is voluminous. As for historians that justify their lack of familiarity with the subject by claiming its irrelevance, that is usually done informally and I can only say that it has happened many times in conversations with me. Finally, the claim of professional humility: sure, maybe. We can’t all be experts in everything. My point is only that religion is important in public life, and historians cannot appeal to the separation of church and state to not take it into account. Do you want an example of a prominent historian who has taken religion into account and whose work would be a lot less stellar if he had ignored it? David Hollinger. You want another? David Levering Lewis. So the trend is not universal, but it is widespread.

  4. David,

    Thanks for the scholarly examples.

    As for your very last point and examples, I completely agree with their perspective and works. Indeed, I look to them for leadership in relation to my forthcoming work on Mortimer J. Adler and his life-long flirtation with Christianity, particularly Catholicism. In sum, because I don’t fit the bill of those who separate the importance of religion from other scholarly claims, it’s hard for me to understand those who do.

    Perhaps it is appropriate to note that claims about the separation of church and state are limited, or colored, by the perspective of the man most often associated with the separation: Jefferson. His Deism-based differences with traditional Protestant Christianity probably speak to the kind of freedom of religious thought he desired to be enshrined in our nation (and its founding documents). This difference also speaks to the ~limits~ of religious freedom evident in the founding period (whether the evidence is cultural, legal, or otherwise).

    – Tim

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