Misinterpreting U.S. history

Special Issue | The Greatest Spin Ever Sold

Issue: "Osama bin Ashcroft?," April 27, 2002

Another reason for this sense of threat is historical illiteracy among many journalists. Even the brighter-than-average Andrew Sullivan in The New York Times on Oct. 7 claimed that "American evangelicalism has always kept its distance from governmental power" until recently, when "the temptation to fuse political and religious authority beckoned more insistently." That's nonsense. Evangelicals were always politically involved. They changed America through the agitation that led up to the American Revolution, through their sustained pressure to abolish slavery, and through many other attempts as well to merge religious and governmental concerns.

Let's look at a very brief highlights film, beginning with the way the Great Awakening changed many individuals and led to a decreased distinction between religious and political activities. Even a minister as theologically centered as Jonathan Edwards told New Englanders that they should compare good officials with those "contemptible" ones who are "of a mean spirit, a disposition that will admit of their doing those things that are sordid and vile." Such appointees "will shamefully ... screw their neighbours; and will take advantage of their authority or commission to line their own pockets with what is fraudulently taken or withheld from others."

Evangelists such as Gilbert Tennett were careful to insist that Christians are "born for Society" and must work for "the Good of the Publick, which we were born to promote." Minister Benjamin Lord noted in 1751 that the colonists were "Prone to act in Civil, as they stand Affected in religious Matters." The signing of a certain political petition could become "a Sabbath-Day's Exercise," and churches sometimes voted as blocs. Leading ministers urged their listeners to leave corrupt churches and work against a corrupt government.

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Patrick Henry's famous pre-Revolutionary speech used biblical language to decry gentlemen who cried "'peace, peace'-but there is no peace." With Virginia facing a British Nebuchadnezzar to the north, Henry suggested that the colony would go the way of Judah unless its people were bold and courageous. "Why stand we here idle?" he asked. "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?" Henry answered, "Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!" Henry then brought his biblical sensibility directly into politics as he became governor of Virginia.

Henry's Massachusetts counterpart, Samuel Adams, did the same 500 miles to the north, even to the extent of using biblical language and references to explain to his countrymen the significance of their battle with Britain. Adams began his First Book of the American Chronicles of the Times with a description of how "the Bostonites arose a great multitude, and destroyed the TEA, the abominable merchandise of the east, and cast it into the midst of the sea." In Adams's parody of biblical lists (Hittites, Jebusites, etc.), the New Yorkites, Virginites, Carolinites, and others, uniting in a refusal to worship the "Tea Chest Idol," became Americanites, "and the ears of all the people hearkened unto the book of the law."

The early state constitutions emphasized reverence for God along with a separation of denomination and state. Maryland's constitution proclaimed that "it is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to him." Crucially, there would be no established denomination: No one would "be compelled to frequent or maintain, or contribute, unless on contract, to maintain any particular place of worship, or any particular ministry." The South Carolina constitution had no proscription on taxes supporting churches as long as no one was "obliged to pay towards the maintenance and support of a religious worship" not his own.

The Massachusetts constitution of 1780 specified that "It is the right as well as the Duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and preserver of the Universe." These New Englanders of the revolution were much changed from their Puritan forebears, but they still saw religious belief as essential. The Constitution declared that "The happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality ... these cannot be generally diffused through a Community, but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion, and morality."

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution came into being to provide freedom for religion, not freedom from religion-but that is an oft-told tale. Less known is how 19th-century leaders of all kinds, including Supreme Court justices and evangelist Charles Finney, united in stressing the need for a religious base in politics. Finney, active from the 1820s through the 1870s and often portrayed as concerned only about heaven, stressed that "the time has come for Christians to vote for honest men, and take consistent ground in politics or the Lord will curse them."


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