April 13, 2009

Gray lands between the secular & sacred

Kevin Gutzman’s Faith of Our Fathers is a fascinating window into the controversies which emerge at the intersection between religion & the early republic, and what relevance that may have for us today.  One of the interesting aspects of reading books on early American history, such as What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, are the qualitative differences in the political culture in regards to public and private religion. As Gutzman points out early America was a more self-consciously Christian nation than the contemporary republic.  Not only was it a Christian nation, it was a firmly Protestant one, as recounted in books such as Catholicism and American Freedom. Not only was Protestantism the basis of civil religion, several states continued to have established churches throughout much the antebellum period.  But as documented in works such as The Churching Of America, 1776-2005 the early republic was also one where a majority of the population was not actively involved in any denomination.  It is a paradox of American history that just as this nation’s Protestant self-image was waning its Protestant sects were waxing.  And at the commanding heights of the executive the antebellum period was characterized by presidents whose Christianity was more often of cultural affinity than theological conviction, from Unitarians such as Millard Filmore to the famously heterodox Thomas Jefferson. In fact Andrew Jackson, a Presbyterian of orthodox Christian sentiments, refused to sanction a national day of prayer because of his beliefs in regards to disestablishmentarianism and federal power.

In the end it seems that the past is in many ways an alien land to contemporary sensibilities.  In the 21st century America has been dominated by the presence of a president of evangelical sensibilities, who made no mystery of where his religious loyalties lay.  And yet at the same time we have been going through the second phase of mass disaffiliation from Christianity since the 1960s.  Public figures must make a great show of their personal piety and sincere faith, and yet we are no longer one nation under God, but a nation under many gods.  We are no longer a nation where Protestantism is the faith we are not, rather, it is sufficient that we are a nation where we believe in something rather than nothing, never mind what that something is. The secular Left and the religious Right present us a narrative where the nation’s faith waxes and wanes, as if it is a scalar value, but it seems that the outline of the story is much more richly textured than that, and that there has been a qualitative sense in which the religiosity of the past does not resemble that of the present.

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