Republican freedom — and ideological flexibility
by Ken Myers
In the introductory chapter to his 2002 America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press), historian Mark Noll describes his book as “a contextual history of Christian theology. Its pages describe evolutionary changes in Christian doctrine that occurred from the 1730s to the 1860s.” While Noll was concerned to explore how theologically rooted assumptions helped shape the new nation, his book pays greater attention to the ways in which “Protestant evangelical theology [was] decisively shaped by its engagement with Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America. It is not an exaggeration to claim that this nineteenth-century Protestant evangelicalism differed from the religion of the Protestant Reformation as much as the sixteenth-century Reformation Protestantism differed from the Roman Catholic theology from which it emerged.”
One of the early chapters describes a form of American exceptionalism not often examined: the ease with which American theologians, clergy, and laity meshed the concerns of the Gospel with the formation of republican governments. The epigraphs to this chapter — “Republicanism and Religion” — include an excerpt from a letter from Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence: “Republican forms of government are the best repositories of the Gospel. . . . The language of these free and equal governments seems to be like that of John the Baptist of old, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord — make his paths strait.” By contrast, John Wesley insisted that “No governments under heaven are so despotic as the republican: no subjects are governed in so arbitrary a manner, as those of a commonwealth.”
The opening paragraphs of this chapter describe the setting in which American Christians took exception to the beliefs of their non-American and pre-modern brothers and sisters.
“During the last decade of the eighteenth century, public life in Great Britain and North America was filled with conflict and foreboding. The progress of the Revolution in France from lofty humanitarianism to armed bloodshed first inspired, then perplexed, and finally terrified large numbers of English-speakers on both sides of the Atlantic. Once again Britain mobilized to wage yet another war in the seemingly endless series of engagements with France that now stretched back far beyond the memory of any living Briton. In Scotland, hints of radicalism were enough to precipitate a full-scale reaction in favor of King George III, Prime Minister Pitt, and the king’s Scottish lieutenants. In Ireland, a decade of mounting unrest culminated in 1798 with rebellion and the invasion of a French army. Regular British troops, assisted by loyal Irish yeomanry, savagely put down the rebels and easily overcame the invaders. Yet aftershocks of this failed revolution — including the end of a separate Irish parliament and the eclipse of incipient cooperation between Catholics and Protestants — have long afflicted the island. In the United States, the tempered optimism inspired by the Constitution and the reassuring presence of George Washington as head of the new government did not survive Washington's tenure in office. From the mid-1790s, civil unrest, class warfare, and political strife, all accompanied by rabid attack journalism, disturbed American public life. The United States’ international fortunes were also precarious, with the major European powers, including France, its crucial ally in the War for Independence, preying on American ships and menacing the new nation’s fragile borders. An even greater fragility marked British settlements in Canada, where a thin population, spread from Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island to the northern shores of Lake Ontario, looked to a distracted mother country for protection. Canadian leaders faced the immense task of governing a disparate collection of communities: the Quebecois were Catholic and French, while in Nova Scotia and Ontario a motley collection of Loyalists forced out of the United States, other Americans eager for cheap land, and a sprinkling of settlers from Europe competed for existence.
“As they had done during periods of public crisis for more than a century, Christian believers in the North Atlantic region were driven by invasion, rebellion, ideological strife, and attendant social disorder to a restatement of social and religious first principles. Much was shared in the pronouncements of ministers, lay believers, and ecclesiastical bodies throughout the English-speaking world during these crises. The region’s hereditary Protestantism offered a wide repertoire of standard biblical passages, familiar sermonic conventions, and well-worn jeremiads from earlier times of social unrest. In England, Scotland, Ireland, and the Canadas, as well as in the United States, the faithful gathered at special days of fast and thanksgiving to pray for peace, ministers rang the changes on connections between social well-being and godliness, and congregations were called to repentance. But on one account the statements of American Protestants differed substantially from those made elsewhere in the North Atlantic world. American Christians, despite substantial conflicts among themselves, took for granted a fundamental compatibility between orthodox Protestant religion and republican principles of government. Most English-speaking Protestants outside the United States did not.
“Americans have long been accustomed to think of the values of religion and the values of republicanism as supporting each other. The bitterness of the Civil War, for example, was due at least in part to the intensity with which both North and South defended conflicting visions of ‘Christian liberty.’ To this day, the Pledge of Allegiance — by conjoining ‘one nation under God with liberty and justice for all’ — testifies to a resilient intermixture of religious and republican vocabularies. The long American habit of uniting these value systems has dulled awareness of how strikingly original the new nation’s ‘Christian republicanism’ actually was. In fact, among a panoply of exceptional things about the American founding, one of the most unusual was the commitment by almost all religious people in the new United States to a distinctly republican vision of public life. This American position was unusual, not only by comparison with English-speaking contemporaries in the late eighteenth century, but also because almost all observers outside the United States assumed that republican thinking contradicted the principles of traditional religion.
“For the writing of theology in the American environment, this confluence of republican and Christian allegiances was critical. What the Puritan canopy had once supplied as a boundary for theology, America’s republican Christian convictions would provide for later generations. To illustrate the singularity of this context for theological formation, it is useful to cite comments by Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he visited the United States in the 1930s. Bonhoeffer saw everywhere the presence of popular republican assumptions: ‘America calls herself the land of the free. Under this term today she understands the right of the individual to independent thought, speech and action. In this context, religious freedom is, for the American, an obvious possession.’ To Bonhoeffer, it was especially noteworthy that ‘praise of this freedom may be heard from pulpits everywhere.’ It was even more noteworthy what he took this freedom to signify: it ‘means possibility, the possibility of unhindered activity given by the world to the church.’ For a history of American theology it is important to see why Bonhoeffer thought the Americans he observed at church in New York, New England, and the South were making a mistake. To Bonhoeffer it was not axiomatic that a republican exaltation of freedom merged smoothly with Christianity. Rather, he held that ‘the freedom of the church is not where it has possibilities, but only where the Gospel really and in its own power makes room for itself on earth, even and precisely when no such possibilities are offered to it. The essential freedom of the church is not a gift of the world to the church, but the freedom of the Word of God itself to gain a hearing.’ In fact, he even thought that the American fascination with freedom might presage a decline — ‘a church which is free in this way becomes secularised more quickly than a church which does not possess freedom or possibility.’ His conclusion was that ‘freedom as an institutional possession is not an essential mark of the church,’ since ‘whether the churches of God are really free can only be decided by the actual preaching of the Word of God.’ Bonhoeffer’s assessment of America arose out of his own involvement in the German church struggle, but it nonetheless remains an important modern reminder of the singularity of America’s Christian republicanism. To grasp something of that republicanism will also be to grasp something essential about the Christian theologians who took it up.”
Noll concludes the next chapter in the book — “Christian Republicanism” — with some reflections on a serious ambiguity in how the language of republicanism was understood in the earliest phases of the American experience, and later.
“Finally, the Christian republicanism of the early United States was possible only because of considerable ideological flexibility. Two critical ambiguities were of supreme importance: one concerning the ‘virtue’ without which republican polity could not succeed, and the other concerning the role of ‘the people’ in the proper functioning of republican institutions. The willingness of Americans to include several not altogether compatible ideals under the notion of virtue was essential for the flourishing of religious republicanism. Almost all Americans came to agree that the health of a republic required the exercise of virtue by its citizens. Most of the founding fathers thought of that virtue in classical, Machiavellian terms as disinterested service to the common good. Most American practitioners of traditional religion, however, defined virtue in biblical terms as life guided by God’s will and cultivated in personal and domestic devotion. By the end of the eighteenth century, a gendered meaning of virtue — as the ethics of female, domestic, private morality — was added to the Roman and theological usages. The result was common use of a single term that masked varied understandings. The political conflict created by this situation lasted until at least the Civil War, when Northern armies enforced the meaning of virtue as defined by latter-day Whigs and the Republican Party on a South, where classical, Roman. honor-driven ideals remained much stronger.
“For religious history, the amalgamation of meanings into a single term folded public life into the drama of redemption. Three examples, from multitudes, illustrate this Christian appropriation of republican habits of thought. In 1755, after the defeat of General Braddock, Samuel Davies exhorted Virginians to keep their courage. The slipperiness of the notion of virtue was the key to his logic: ‘I would rather fly to the utmost end of the earth, than submit to French tyranny and Popish superstition. Shall slavery here clank her chain, or tyranny rage with lawless fury? Therefore, if you would save your country, repent and be converted.’ In 1780 the New Jersey Presbyterian Jacob Green used the same amalgam of classical and Christian concepts to explain the dynamics of the Revolutionary situation: ‘Vice,’ he averred, ‘is the general, radical cause of this loss [of liberty].’ Vice had a double tendency to undermine liberty: 'It provokes God to withhold his protection, and punish a sinning people by permitting usurpers and tyrants to seize on their natural rights, and reduce them to a state of bondage. Vice has a natural tendency to the loss of freedom. Vice enfeebles the mind, unmans human creatures, and many ways puts them into the power of those who watch for an opportunity to subjugate them.’ Eighteen years later in a fast-day sermon, Green’s son, Ashbel, carried out the same intellectual maneuver. First came the republican calculus: ‘The established connexion between virtue and prosperity, vice and ruin, . . . is much closer, and more powerful, in relation to communities than to individuals. It is, indeed, the grand tendency of virtue to produce happiness, and of vice to beget misery. . . . When a nation as such becomes abandoned to vice, there is no longer any suitable tie by which it can be holden together.’ With that basis established, Green then reverted to the form of the jeremiad by enumerating a number of religious duties — repentance, prayer, the pursuit of holiness — that had to be practiced if God was to spare the land. In these cases, and many more like them, ambiguity about the meaning of virtue provided just the flexibility necessary for religious believers to become full participants in the American national drama and for the American national drama to be incorporated into the history of redemption.
“A similar ambiguity attended conceptions of ‘the people.’ The ability of flexible republican categories to accommodate varying attitudes toward democratic politics was matched by a similar ability of flexible Protestant loyalties to empower contrasting religious attitudes. As historians like Nathan Hatch, Curtis Johnson, and Richard Carwardine have shown, the intrareligious debates of antebellum America were severe in large part because both the more populist, democratic churches and the more traditional, hierarchical churches sought the republican high ground for advocating their particular visions.
“For clarity of thought, it was not necessarily beneficial that American religious republicanism rested on such ambiguities. But rest on them it did, and with a power that remained a marvel to foreign visitors like Alexis de Tocqueville. The character of the country that de Tocqueville visited in the 1830s seemed compounded of what he called ‘two perfectly distinct elements that elsewhere have often made war with each other, but which, in America, . . they have succeeded in incorporating somehow into another and combining marvelously. I mean to speak of the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.’ De Tocqueville’s observation succinctly summarized the product of a complex history. For theology in the new United States, the shaping power of that complex history was enormous.”