A nation on a hill?

MANY EARLY AMERICAN SETTLERS sought, as Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop put it in his 1630 sermon, to create “a city upon a hill.” “The eyes of all people are upon us,” he added; if the Puritans followed “the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God,” He will “delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways.” Moreover, Winthrop predicted, coming generations would ask the Lord to make their societies “like that of New England.”

America, the model?

After Constantine made Christianity the favored religion of the Roman Empire in the early 300s, all Western societies established churches and used tax revenues to support them. Because Massachusetts and other colonies saw America as God’s “new Israel,” which could serve as a model of a godly, pious society and help spread Christianity to the world, they too established churches, mandating church attendance and Sabbath observance and banishing dissenters.

Most colonies used taxes to pay ministers, required citizens to affirm religious oaths to hold public office, and restricted religious competition. Roger Williams felt the teeth of this restriction when, in 1636, his impassioned argument that “forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God” prompted Massachusetts to expel him.

When the colonies came together as the United States, the new nation broke with this 1,450-year practice of religious establishment. Not having a king was radical enough, but even more radical was the new nation’s decision not to establish a national church. The First Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1789 and ratified in 1791, prohibited Congress from establishing a church and from preventing citizens from worshiping as they pleased.

The decision frightened many. Western societies had long assumed that most residents would act morally only if they were compelled to participate regularly in the church; Thomas Jefferson disagreed, calling America’s arrangement “the fair experiment.” Prominent nineteenth-century jurist Dudley Field called America’s separation of church and state the world’s “greatest achievement . . . in the cause of human progress.”

The founding fathers adopted this arrangement for several reasons. For one thing, they knew that the experiment had already been tried for over a century, and it had not led to the moral collapse many feared. The exiled Roger Williams had permitted freedom of worship in the colony of Rhode Island, which he founded in 1636. So did Quaker William Penn in Pennsylvania, which he established in 1681. And these colonies were thriving.

Moreover, the founders’ Enlightenment convictions led them to make several arguments on behalf of religious liberty. First, they argued that history demonstrated that it was dangerous to give civil rulers authority over theological doctrines and ecclesiastical matters. Second, they insisted that people should be free to espouse the religious convictions that reason, conscience, and experience taught them were correct. And third, they sought to guarantee the same liberties and rights for all citizens, regardless of their ideological commitments—an ideal threatened by any form of religious establishment.

Their argument was religious as well as philosophical: Jefferson, James Madison, and other founders, as well as numerous Baptist and Presbyterian leaders, argued that the New Testament did not sanction religious establishments and that they in fact hindered evangelism and Christian nurture. Jefferson asserted in “A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia” that the all ­powerful God had chosen not to coerce people into believing in Christianity. Therefore, it was presumptuous, “sinful,” and “tyrannical” for “fallible and uninspired” civil rulers to impose “their own . . . modes of thinking” as the “only true and infallible” religion. Moreover, attempts by the state to force citizens to espouse particular doctrines by “temporal punishments” or “civil incapacitations” tended to produce “hypocrisy and meanness.”

what did it look like?

Madison argued similarly in his “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments” (1785) that “the legal establishment of Christianity” had historically produced “pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, [and] in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” Like Jefferson, he insisted that the “duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”

Many agreed with Madison that Christianity was much more likely to flourish if people voluntarily embraced it. Besides, because of the religious diversity in the new United States, no one denomination had enough adherents to be established as a national church. By the 1780s Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Baptists, Presbyterians, German Reformed, Dutch Reformed, Lutherans, Moravians, Mennonites, Quakers, Catholics, and Jews had all created thriving congregations.

The alliance that fashioned this “fair experiment” may seem an unlikely one. Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Wilson, among others, espoused theistic rationalism or deism. On the other hand, John Jay, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot, Roger Sherman, John Hancock, and others were devout Christians. However, both groups stressed God’s providential direction of history and the value of prayer.

The arrangement they devised is often misunderstood. Far from creating a state that removed religion from the public square, the founders provided public support of Christianity through various means. Individual states could continue to establish churches, restrict public office holding to Christians, punish blasphemy, and issue proclamations of thanks­ giving to God and calls for fasting. Federal funds could be used to finance missions to Indians, and government facilities could be used by Christian congregations for their worship services. In a 1797 proclamation as governor of Massachusetts (the colony that kept its established church the longest—until 1833), Samuel Adams beseeched God to “speedily” establish “the Kingdom of God and of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ . . . everywhere.”

Meanwhile, another powerful force promoting religious pluralism came into play. Decades before the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts, a bastion of established religion, became both an unwitting seedbed of Christian diversity and the arena for a new force in American religion: voluntary participation in religion. The First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s demonstrated that churches could best grow and expand their influence by the free participation of people who lived out their faith.

Led by Anglican evangelist George Whitefield and Congregationalist theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards, the Awakening poured new life into hundreds of churches and created many congregations, schools, colleges, and missions—all through the efforts of those saved or renewed by the fiery preaching of itinerant ministers and local pastors.

One did not have to be a “born­again believer” to appreciate the social impact of these revivals. Benjamin Franklin did not share Whitefield’s beliefs, but he did attend some of Whitefield’s sermons in Philadelphia, and they became good friends.

Franklin was so impressed by the results these sermons produced that he published them. “It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants,” Franklin declared. “It seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town . . . without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”

marketing faith

Many revivalists helped lead the campaign for religious liberty. In 1748 a group presented a petition to the Connecticut General Assembly arguing that their fore­ fathers had come to this “howling Wilderness, full of savage Men and Beasts, that they might have Liberty of Conscience.” During the 1810s, revivalist Lyman Beecher at first strongly opposed disestablishing the Congregational Church in Connecticut; but the positive fruit this change produced led Beecher to reverse course. He soon pronounced disestablishment “the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut. It cut the churches loose from dependence on state support. It threw them wholly on their own resources and on God.”

Similarly, in 1819 Madison rejoiced that ministers of every denomination were zealously providing religious instruction in Virginia and winning people to Christian faith by “the purity of their lives.” Like Madison and Beecher, most Christians concluded that disestablishment created a religious “free market” that produced tremendous competition, variety, experimentation, and new methods of presenting the gospel, thereby furthering both evangelism and spiritual renewal.

Far from fading away after disestablishment, Protestant Christianity functioned as a de facto national religion until the 1920s. Frequent religious revivals, thousands of vital congregations, hundreds of religiously motivated reform movements, domination of education (all but a handful of the 500 colleges established before the Civil War were Protestant), influence in public schools and the media, and government sup­ port for Protestant Christianity all aided its prominence.

This influence was felt most in fervent social reform. In the first four decades of the nineteenth century, proponents of the Second Great Awaken­ ing sought to remedy countless ills, most notably intemperance, slavery, biblical illiteracy, and poverty. Denominations and national and local voluntary organizations locked arms in a “benevolent empire,” distributing Bibles and tracts, evangelizing, reform­ ing prisons, helping the poor, and seeking to raise the level of public morality.

These reforms reached into some of the darkest places of the young nation. Shocked by the mental breakdowns and suicides of scores of inmates locked in solitary confinement at the Auburn Prison in New York in 1821, reformers worked to improve prison life by teaching religion and literacy, furnishing libraries, and convincing authorities to reduce whipping, commute sentences, and separate inmates by age and condition (see image and caption on p. 38).

Temperance societies used a variety of means, including plays, to spread their “dry” message. William H. Smith’s The Drunkard (1844) was regularly performed at major theaters in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. The play so moved P. T. Barnum that he featured it at his famous American Museum in New York and refused to serve alcoholic beverages there.

Protestants even tried to sanctify the Civil War. During the bloody, tragic conflict both the Union and the Confederacy claimed to have God’s approval, but leaders on each side insisted that God would bless their cause only if they faithfully obeyed him. The South emphasized its Christian heritage and convictions, while Northern ministers compared the death of Union troops with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Julia Ward Howe asserted in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (1864) that Union soldiers were engaged in a supernatural struggle against evil. Large numbers of Southern and Northern soldiers were converted in “camp revivals,” and their belief in heaven motivated many combatants to fight courageously.

onward, christian soldiers

After the war, the social gospel movement resumed the Protestant crusade. From 1880 to 1925, ministers, social workers, college and seminary professors, business­ men, lawyers, and countless others—men and women; blacks and whites; conservative, moderate, and liberal Protestants—analyzed social problems and used a wide variety of tactics to remedy them. Led by pastors Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden, the movement motivated millions to improve American society.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, social gospel initiatives were not limited to modernist or “liberal” Christians (those who espoused higher biblical criticism and Darwinian evolution and emphasized Jesus’ example and teaching rather than his substitutionary sacrifice on the cross). Conservative, pietistic Christians (many of whom would become known by the 1940s as “evangelicals”) also operated soup kitchens, rescue missions, settlement houses, "institutional" churches that provided social services, and dozens of other ministries. Nor was reform an exclusively Protestant preserve: Catholics and Jews also forged a legacy of schools, hospitals, and charitable institutions still evident today. But the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s led most conservative Protestants to abandon social reform because that was “what the modernists did.”

Get on the “right side”

A half-century later, in the 1970s, many evangelicals, goaded by Carl Henry, Ronald Sider, Jim Wallis, and others, finally began to reassess their role in American public life. Henry challenged “Bible-believing Christian[s]” to get on the “right side” of “social problems such as war, race, class, labor, liquor, [and] imperialism” and to adopt “a progressive . . . social message.”

Some on the “religious right,” led by the Moral Majority, translated this call into more conservative terms and organized to protect the sanctity of marriage; strengthen families; combat the evils of communism, pornography, and big government; and oppose abortion and the right of homosexuals to marry and serve openly in the military (see “Taking back America,” p. 32). Others (Evangelicals for Social Action, Sojourners, World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse) focused instead on social justice: ending discrimination based on race and gender, uplifting the poor at home and abroad, reducing disease, and improving the environment.

the second disestablishment

The informal Protestant dominance of American society declined significantly after the 1920s. Numerous forces contributed to this “second disestablishment.” From the 1880s on, large numbers of Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians, and unchurched individuals migrated to the United States—coincident with the fundamentalist-modernist feud that was dividing American Protestant denominations and reducing their public engagement. The rise of neo-orthodoxy in the 1930s, the emergence of Pentecostalism in the early twentieth century and the charismatic movement in the 1960s, the decline of mainstream Protestant denominations in the years after 1970, the growth of evangelicalism, and the “emerging church” movement further fractured Protestantism and reduced its cultural influence.

At the same time, many colleges and universities entirely abandoned their Protestant or Catholic heritage and adopted a secular, naturalistic approach in their governing philosophy, curriculum, and approach to student life. As George Marsden explains, by the 1930s the Christian worldview no longer directed the “heart of the university enterprise.” Moreover, the explosion of media outlets—radio, television, movies, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet—spawned a cacophony of alternative voices.

But despite the significant increase of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs and the concerted efforts of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, and proponents of the New Atheism to ensure that church and state are strictly separated, Christianity continues to function as the nation’s founders envisioned it would: as a moral leaven in American political life. Fueled in part by contentious social issues, most notably abortion, school prayer, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem cell research, religion has played a prominent role in many presidential campaigns. High percentages of Americans (72 percent in a 2008 Pew Poll) agree that “it is important that a president have strong religious beliefs.”

no atheists in the white house

While the Constitution prohibits religious tests for political office holders, in recent polls about half of all Americans claim that they would not vote for an atheist for president. As a result, most presidential candidates testify to their Christian faith and moral convictions, frequently quote Scripture, and compete for the votes of the large number of Americans for whom religion is important. Since 1974 every president has claimed to have a strong Christian faith, and in the 2012 battle for the Republican presidential nomination, two Mormons, two Catholics, and four evangelicals touted their religious convictions.

Because this nation has many denominations and three levels of government—federal, state, and local—the relationship between institutional religion and the state has always been a complicated one. The Constitution does not specify how organized religion and the government should interact with one another. Americans generally agree that the separation of church and state mandates that all religious groups have the same rights and opportunities under the law to worship, evangelize, and create organizations. People’s free exercise of their religious convictions can be curtailed only if it infringes on the rights of others, violates civil laws, or threatens the public order.

Americans have long debated whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation and to what extent our laws and public affirmations should express Christian convictions. Unlike many state constitutions, the federal Constitution does not explicitly recognize God’s authority over the nation or a divine basis for laws. Disagreements have erupted over Sunday blue laws, the use of Bible-quoting McGuffey Readers in public schools, and recently over whether the phrase “under God” should remain in the Pledge of Allegiance. Public schools have long been a source of contention. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Catholic protests about Protestant control of instruction and curriculum, coupled with Protestant fears that Catholics might gain control of tax monies in Catholic areas, led to removing or limiting religious courses and texts.“our laws are based on Jesus”

Throughout the nineteenth century, the vast majority of Americans, whether Protestant or Catholic, saw their nation as essentially Christian. Many religious communions sought the aid of the federal government to advance spiritual and social goals, worked to base the government’s operations on Christian principles, and strove to shape its policies. In a unanimous 1892 decision, Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, the Supreme Court justices declared, “Our laws and institutions necessarily are based upon and embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind. . . . [I]n this sense and to this extent our civilization and our institutions are empathically Christian. . . . [T]his is a Christian nation.”

Before 1925 few challenged this contention. But while elite culture became increasingly secular after 1925, the Protestant establishment and its Catholic and Jewish allies continued to defend traditional religious standards. Since 1947 a series of Supreme Court decisions has significantly affected the place of organized religion in the public arena and contributed to heated debate about the relationship between church and state. Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) ruled prayer and Bible reading in the public schools unconstitutional, and more recent verdicts prohibit the display of religious symbols in public places.

Nevertheless, the concept of church-state separation has not prevented presidents from proclaiming days of prayer and thanksgiving, Congress from opening its sessions with prayer, the military from appointing chaplains, or the government from minting coins that state “In God We Trust.” In addition, some chief executives have held prayer breakfasts, worship services, or hymn sings at the White House. Almost all presidents have echoed George Washington’s contention that religious faith is crucial to the well-being of the republic: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

“Charitable Choice” and faith-based initiatives have recently created considerable controversy. Adopted by Congress in 1996, Charitable Choice increased the opportunity for congregations and parachurch organizations to receive government funds to help finance social services they provide. Five years later, President George W. Bush created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to provide greater opportunities for religiously motivated organizations to aid the needy; President Barack Obama continued this initiative. Supporters argue that it does not violate the First Amendment and that it eliminates unjust discrimination against religious groups. Others protest, however, that this policy sanctions discrimination in hiring on religious grounds and undermines religious liberty.

Some theological conservatives warn that religious agencies may be forced to compromise their mis- sion and become dependent on governmental funds. “The brutal reality,” declared Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, “is that when government money flows, government regulation inevitably follows.” Secularists and civil libertarians complain that President Obama has yet to act on his promise to prohibit hiring based on religion and proselytizing in all organizations that receive federal funds to provide social assistance. Mohler counters by defending the right of religious organizations to hire workers who share their commitments and to evangelize while dispensing social aid.

wall of separation

Massive confusion exists today about church-state separation. Does it require religion to be completely divorced from government, or does the First Amendment simply prohibit the establishment of a national church and guarantee religious liberty? The phrase “a wall of separation” between church and state, repeatedly used by the Supreme Court since Everson v. Board of Education (1947), is not in the Constitution. It comes from an 1802 letter in which Thomas Jefferson explained why he did not proclaim days for public prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving (unlike the first two presidents and almost all state governors).

Some argue that the First Amendment, in the words of Justice Hugo Black, erected a “high and impregnable” wall between church and state. But scholars contend that Black and later justices misunderstood Jefferson’s use of the “wall” concept and that Jefferson supported “government hospitality to religious activity” as long as it was voluntary and offered equally to all citizens. Jefferson attended religious services held on government property, allowed Washington congregations to hold services in the Treasury and War Office buildings, and signed a federal law that provided tax exemption for churches in the District of Columbia. He also approved the use of federal funds to support missionaries who worked to evangelize Indians in the West.

Christians in politics?

How, then, should Christians operate in the public arena? Should individual Christians, denominations, and specialized ministries pressure members of Congress to pass specific laws and dispense federal money in particular ways? Should Christians favor candidates who profess to be guided by biblical convictions? Some scholars lament that Jefferson’s metaphor, as interpreted by the courts, has been improperly used to thwart citizens from participating in politics guided by their faith, and to prevent religious communities from speaking prophetically in public life.

The two polar positions on this issue are “exclusivism” and “inclusivism.” Exclusivists claim that religious beliefs are divisive and inhibit political discussion. Inclusivists counter that all people, not only the religiously devout, bring presuppositions to political debates; therefore, it is unfair to ask individuals to suspend religious convictions when discussing public policy. However, many inclusivists also urge Christians to devise arguments from natural theology and practical considerations to buttress biblically based support for legislation.

The founding fathers spoke eloquently, passionately, and frequently about the importance of religiously grounded morality to the success of their new republic. They provided governmental aid for religion in a variety of ways. The current effort to exclude religious perspectives and ideals and ensure a naked, ideologically “neutral” public square is at odds with their views, the history of our country, and the well-being of our society—a society that still, in many ways, sees itself as a “nation on a hill.” CH

By Gary Scott Smith

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #102 in 2012]

Gary Scott Smith is the chair of the History Department at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Ordained in the PCUSA, he is the author of several books on faith in the public arena.
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