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Religion and the American Revolution by Jerald C. Brauer (ed.)


Jerald C. Brauer, is Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor of the History of Christianity at the Divinity School, The University of Chicago. Originally published by Fortress Press, Philadelphia, in 1976. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 2: Christendom, Enlightenment, and the Revolution, by Sidney E. Mead


(Sidney E. Mead is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History and the School of Religion at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. This chapter was originally presented , in slightly different form, as one of the Jefferson memorial Lectures at the University of California, Berkeley, California.)

As I conceive the study of religion in American history, the basic interpretative motif is experience. This means that one tries to account for those peculiarities of a particular institution that give it its distinctive character by noting the experiences of that institution that are unique to it as compared with the commonly shared experiences of the community of which it is a part.

That Christianity has assumed a distinctive shape in the United States seems obvious.1 The peculiarities that make it distinctive are the result of the necessity in a relatively brief time to accommodate2 the old Christianity to a strange new environment in which social and geographical space, and social and political revolution were most prominent.

But it was the experience of the religion of Christendom with religious feudalism defended by civil authority that required revolutionary intellectual and institutional adjustments. By pluralism I mean here a multiplicity of organized religious groups in the commonwealth. Each species of the genus Christian achieves distinctive identity and reason for independent being by its peculiar emphasis on one or more of the doctrines shared by all. In the strange chorus of the Christian denominations in the United States they all sing the same song but with different tunes.

The internalization of religion in the eighteenth century, with consequent separation of "salvation" from responsibility for the instituted structures of society, enabled Christians to accept pluralism and religious freedom without feeling a necessity to come to terms with it theologically. They were not inclined to look this gift horse in the mouth. Had they done so they might have discovered that it was a Trojan horse in the Christian citadel. Christians should have learned to be wary of gifts bearing Greeks.

In our pluralistic society, if one presumes to talk about "religion" a decent respect for his listeners requires that he try to make clear what he has in mind. Religion is a subject formally dealt with in almost every university discipline and, naturally, in each spoken of in the particular dialect of the tribe. Because we recognize concepts by the words they usually come clothed in, specialists often find it difficult to recognize even one of their own favorite concepts when it is disguised in the terminology of another academic ghetto.3 Therefore the primary purpose of attempting to define "religion" is to ask whether perhaps a consensus in the understanding of what we are talking about is concealed under the many different guises in which the concept appears. It seems to me that such a consensus exists, or is emerging.

In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville, that aboriginal Delphic oracle of things American, noted that no societies have ever managed without general acceptance by the people of some "dogmatic beliefs, that is to say, opinions which men take on trust without discussion." Without such beliefs "no common action would be possible, and . . . there could be no body social." If society is to exist "it is essential that all the minds of the citizens" be "held together by some leading ideas; and that could never happen unless each of them sometimes came to draw his opinions from the same source and was ready to accept some beliefs ready made." 4

Tocqueville’s view has become a commonplace, enabling Robert Bellah in presenting his view of "American Civil Religion" to note:

It is one of the oldest of sociological generalizations that any coherent and viable society rests on a common set of moral understandings about good and bad, right and wrong, in the realm of individual and social action. It is almost as widely held that these common moral understandings must also in turn rest upon a common set of religious understandings that provide a picture of the universe in terms of which the moral understandings make sense.5

James Baldwin, in a 1959 essay entitled "The Discovery of What It Means to be an American," says he went to Paris to live because he thought he "hated America." But in the experience of living in Paris and trying to relate his experience to "that of others, Negroes and whites, writers and non-writers, I proved, to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas GI. And I found my experience was shared by every American writer I knew in Paris." Generalizing from this experience, Mr. Baldwin concluded: "Every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people." With this insight, he says, "I was released from the illusion that I hated America" and "I was able to accept my role -- as distinguished, I must say, from my ‘place’ -- in the extraordinary drama which is America."6

Historian Ralph Henry Gabriel rested his delineation of The Course ol American Democratic Thought on a concept of shared "social beliefs" that emerged by around 1815, serving Americans "as guides to action, as standards by which to judge the quality of social life, and as goals to inspire humane living." This "cluster of ideas and ideals.

taken together, made up a national faith which, although unrecognized as such, had the power of a state religion.7 Gabriel concluded that only by understanding this "faith" or "religion" was it possible to understand the middle period of American history.

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict in her now classic Patterns of Culture argued: "What really binds men together" in communities "is their culture -- the ideas and the standards they have in common."8 It is these shared beliefs that give them a sense of belonging together and of being different from the peoples of other cultures. To understand a people we must know what those "ideas and standards" are.

Edward Shils, writing on "intellectuals," indicated that he assumed that "actual communities [are] bound together by the acceptance of a common body of standards."9 To him we shall return in another connection.

Sociologists, as the quotation from Bellah suggests, have been quick to call the shared ideas and standards religious." To Robin M. Williams, Jr., religion is that " ‘system of beliefs’ that defines the norms for behavior in the society" and "represents a complex of ultimate value-orientations." It follows that "every functioning society has a common religion . . . a common set of ideas, rituals, and symbols" which supply and/or celebrate "an overarching sense of unity." It follows that "no society can be understood without also understanding its religion."10 Seen in this context, to concentrate exclusively on describing a people’s "way of life" as exhibited in their behavior is to miss the primarily important thing -- what holds them together in a community.

Paul Tillich expressed the same view in more abstract jargon, as befits a theologian:

Religion as ultimate concern is the meaning-giving substance of culture, and culture is the totality of forms in which the basic concern of religion expresses itself. In abbreviations: religion is the substance of culture, culture is the form of religion. Such a consideration definitely prevents the establishment of a dualism of religion and culture.11

And, finally, Philip Selznick’s one-sentence summary: "A democracy is a normative system in which behavior and belonging are judged on the basis of conformity, or lack of it, with the master ideal" shared by the people.12

These examples, I trust, are enough to suggest a consensus that the word "religion" is to point to a constellation of shared beliefs respecting the nature of the universe and man’s place in it, from which the standards for conduct are supposedly deduced. In this view, when we speak of the religion of an individual or of a community we mean to point to whatever constellation of ideas and standards does in fact give cosmic significance and hence purpose to his or its way of life.13

While some of the ideas and beliefs here referred to may be clearly articulated, more commonly they are of the nature of Tocqueville’s "opinions which men take on trust without discussion," that is, assume or presuppose. In philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s words, "Religion has been and is now the major source of those ideals which add to life a sense of purpose that is worthwhile." It follows, he added, that "apart from religion, expressed in ways generally intelligible, populations sink into the apathetic task of daily survival, with minor alleviations."14 In that case, for example, "national security" becomes the ultimate goal that guides national policies.

I wish to emphasize three implications of this consensus definition of "religion": (1) that the religion of a society is whatever system of beliefs actually provides cosmic legitimation for its institutions, and for the activities of its people; (2) that every individual, every community, has his or its religion; and (3) that the central content of the religion is what is assumed or presupposed by most believers, that is, has to do with what to them is obvious. Hence Baldwin’s reference to the "hidden laws" that govern society. For nothing is more hidden from most persons than the presuppositions’ on which their whole structure of thinking rests.16

However, at least a few reflective individuals in every society are conscious of the fact that they hold some "truths to be self-evident" -- persons who realize with Franklin that there are some things they have "never doubted." These are the "intellectuals," and, as Shils says, "There would be intellectuals in society even if there were no intellectuals by disposition." 17 Baldwin concluded that their calling was to make others aware of these hidden laws that determine their thinking and acting.

If we presume to talk about "religion" in our pluralistic society we must realize that the word points to a numerous family in which there are hundreds of genera (the world’s religions) and thousands of species and sub-species (e.g., denominations), each with its own protective institutional shell.18 In such a society one cannot be overtly and socially religious without choosing to associate with one of the thousand or more vigorously competitive species. Such competition tends to induce the members of each species to claim, implicitly at least, to be the only true representatives of the family. I call this the "Parson Thwackum syndrome," for that cleric in Henry Fielding’s History of Tom Jones stated that position most lucidly: "When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England."19 Thus to Thwackum, Anglican, Protestant, Christian, and religious were synonymous. The Thwackums among us erase all distinctions between family, genus, species, and sub-species of religion. And the Thwackum perspective is not uncommon even among the very learned and sophisticated professors in the prestige theological schools who confuse their beliefs with the "authentic faith." Ruth Benedict, recognizing the syndrome, warned "white culture" against its tendency "always to identify our own local ways of behaving with behaviour, or our own socialized habits with Human Nature," and, she might have added, our species of religion with religion.20

Further, a genus or species of religion may be defined and defended from two quite different points of view -- from that of the insider and from that of an outsider. To the insider, talk and writing about his species of religion is analogous to autobiography. To the outsider, talk about a species of religion is analogous to biography, the voice of knowledge about.21 In sophisticated dress this distinction was invoked by H. Richard Niebuhr in his The Meaning of Revelation.22 His use of the terms "inner" and "outer" history has been widely adopted by those who gain a reputation for profound thought by repeating the terminology of a master.

Down through the centuries of Christendom able theologians nourished the belief that there was an absolute and eternal difference in kind between "natural" unregenerate persons (the outsiders) and regenerate "saints" (the insiders). Jonathan Edwards, certainly one of the best and the brightest, etched the line between them with great clarity, arguing that "natural men" could no more understand the "gracious influences which the saints are subjects of" than the person with no sense of taste whatever could apprehend "the sweet taste of honey . . . by only looking on it, and feeling of it"23 In this obscurantist citadel of euphoric and absolute assurance generations of Christians have smugly found an impregnable defense of their peculiar species of Christianity.

More surprising to me, in 1962 Professor Arthur S. Link applied this distinction to the writing of "secular" history in the twentieth century. Assuming that the historian "is called to be a mere chronicler of the past," he argued that the non-Christian historian’s chronicle is subject to "the tyranny of the ego’s insatiable demands for its own understanding and control of history." But God gives Christians "the ability to be good and faithful historians" through the gift of the Spirit. Therefore the Christian’s history, being "purged of the ego’s distortions and perversions," is the only truly "objective" chronicle. Mr. Link concluded that "if the writers of the Biblical record were ‘inspired,’ that is, given grace to be true historians, then we, too, can be ‘inspired’ even as we are justified." 24 The reader of Mr. Link’s writings will hereafter note that the author modestly intimates that they belong in the canon of inspired pronouncements.

From the standpoint of those of us who live outside the temples in which such grace-endowed fellows dwell, what religion is can be only an opinion based on inferences drawn from observation and analysis of what self-styled religious people do and say, individually and collectively, and of their explanation and defense of their saying and doing. For as John Dewey noted, we cannot observe religion-in-general, but only genera and species of the family.25

This is to say that outsiders, for whom religion is as religion does, can produce only biographies of the species or genera of religion. And if Jonathan Edwards was, and if Arthur S. Link is, right, the communication gulf between insiders and outsiders is impassable. To the outsider the insider’s autobiographical argument is unconvincing or meaningless because he lives in a different world of reality in which the insider’s claim is an obscurantist refuge for all the species of privatized religiosity. Ruth Benedict delineated the contrast between the two perspectives, as only an Outsider could do, in her contrast between open and closed groups:

The distinction between any closed group and outside peoples becomes in terms of religion that between the true believers and the heathen. Between these two categories for thousands of years there were no common meeting-points. No ideas or institutions that held in the one were valid in the other. Rather all institutions were seen in opposing terms according as they belonged to one or the other of the very often slightly differentiated religions: on the one side it was a question of Divine Truth and the true believer, of revelation and of God; on the other it was a matter of moral error, of fables, of the damned and of devils. There could be no question of equating the attitudes of the opposed groups and hence no question of understanding from objectively studied data the nature of this important human trait, religion.26

I have argued that the experience of the old Christianity in the New World resulted in the internalizing of Christianity with the consequent separation in principle of one's "salvation" from a sense of responsibility for the social, economic, and political life of his society. The nature of this separation can also be delineated in contemporary sociological language, and my interest in consensus induces me to try to do so.

Talcott Parsons is, I take it, a respectable representative of the discipline that has sometimes aspired to be crowned the modern queen of the sciences. Parsons distinguishes between "cultural systems" and "social systems," and describes the relation between them. "Social systems," he says, "are organized about the exigencies of interaction among acting units, both individual persons and collective units." In analyzing them we merely describe "what in fact is done" or predict "what will be."27

On the other hand, "Cultural systems . . . are organized about the patterning of meaning in symbolic systems [‘meaning systems’] ."28 As for the relation between them, "meaning systems are always in some respects and to some degree normative in their significance" for action and interaction in the social system. Or, as I would say, the meaning system provides cosmic legitimation for the social system.

Parsons continues: the function of a meaning system is that it specifies "what in some sense should be done and evaluate[s] the actual performance accordingly," that is, because it defines what is normal behavior, and is internalized, it stands in judgment over deviant action. This all seems in keeping with the complex definition of "religion" I spelled out above. To me, functionally Parsons’s meaning system is the religion of the society.

In applying this definition to an understanding of our America, it is natural to suppose that the religion (meaning-system) that legitimates America’s social, political, and economic system is Christianity as given institutionalized form in the many denominations. This I have come to believe is a mistake. My thesis -- that the internalization of religion beginning with the eighteenth-century revivals effectively separated assurance of "salvation" from a sense of responsibility for the institutions of the convert’s society -- means just that.29 This is to say that the species of religion incarnated in the denominations, with their massive institutional inertia, is not the religion that actually sets and legitimates the norms for our society -- that the theology of the denominations does not legitimate the political and legal structure of the commonwealth.30

It follows that it is not very profitable to go looking for the real theology of our Republic in the dusty historical attics of the institutionalized piosity of our contemporary society. Certainly it is not profitable to look only there. Recognition of this separation was always implicit, for example, in those educators who, while holding that the public schools inculcated the moral and spiritual values of the democracy, were very careful to divorce those values from all species of the religion institutionalized in the nation’s sects.

I assume that the general health and well-being of a commonwealth-society hinges upon a harmony between its meaning and social systems -- between its religion and its society -- and that the theology inculcated by the society’s dominant churches suggests the cosmic significance of the norms that are invoked to control behavior in the social, economic, political, and judicial spheres. This is to say that religion is the mainspring of an integrated society. When the mainspring is broken the society runs down. Or, as Alfred North Whitehead expressed it, "Religion has been and is now the major source of those ideals which add to life a sense of purpose that is worthwhile. Apart from religion, expressed in ways generally intelligible, populations sink into the apathetic task of daily survival, with minor alleviations."31

That the mainspring of the old-line denominations in America is broken seems widely assumed today and even persuasively documented.32 A few years ago it was exuberantly self-confessed by professors in jet-set theological schools who joined Friedrich Nietzsche’s madman in the secular city’s marketplace (for example, in Time magazine) proclaiming the death of God. More recently representatives of these self-liquidating theologians have intimated, with more than usual insight, that it is their theology that is dead, or at least like the sheep of Little Bo-Peep, is lost and they do not know where to find it.33

I am willing to take their word for it. But the loss of their ideology does not perturb me insofar as the welfare of the Republic is concerned. For I hold that their lost theology is not and never has been the mainspring of that Republic -- that the theology of the Republic is that of "Enlightenment" in Crane Brinton’s sense. And it is not clear that this mainspring is broken. Indeed Michael Novak was easily able to develop a persuasive argument that it is very much intact; that, indeed, "the tradition in which intellectuals ordinarily define themselves [today] is that of the Enlightenment"; that Enlightenment is "the dominant religion" in contemporary society.34 And Martin E. Marty, defender of an implicit but vaguely defined Protestant orthodoxy against "religion in general," has argued that in American history, "while Protestants pointed with pride to their achievements they hardly realized that the typically rationalist view of the irrelevancy of theological distinctions in a pluralist society was pulling the rug Out from under them." And this means, Marty concludes, borrowing a punch line from Oscar Handlin, "that the Enlightenment prevailed over ‘the forms American religion took in its development from Calvinism.’ "35 That most of us are closer to the tradition of Enlightenment than to eighteenth-century Christian orthodoxy we realize when we stop to think that we would no doubt find Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, even Thomas Paine more congenial dinner company than Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, George Whitefield, or Timothy Dwight.

Mr. Marty’s thesis, noted above, suggests that one might say of most academic theology in America what George Herbert Mead said of Josiah Royce’s philosophy, that it was part of the escape from the crudity of American life, not an interpretation of it," for "it . . . did not root in the active life of the community" and therefore "was not an interpretation of American life." So, Mead continues, although from around 1800 "culture was sought vividly in institutions of learning, in lyceums and clubs, it did not reflect the political and economic activities which were fundamental in American life."36

And one might say of Marty’s Protestant Christians, unaware that the rug was being pulled out from under them by Enlightenment, what Mead said of William James: "He was not aware of the break between the profound processes of American life [Parsons’s social system] and its culture [Parsons’s culture system]."37

In a most perceptive essay published in 1964, the late historian-theologian Joseph Haroutunian gave more definite theological content to the development to which Marty and Mead pointed. The predominant Christian orthodoxy in the United States, he argues,

has been a tour de force, which has persisted and flourished largely either as a denial of or as an escape from American experience. . . . Its supernaturalism and appeal to authority; its pitching of Christian doctrine against the ideas of the scientific community and its advocacy of faith as against intelligence; its severing prayer from work and the sacred from the secular have made orthodoxy an alien spirit in American life and its theology an alien mind in a land which has rewarded industry and method with good things and common prosperity.

After giving due regard to the liberal and other theological movements in the United States he summarizes his view in an understatement: "It appears that American Christianity has done less than justice to American Experience, and so have American theologians."

I assume that the theologians are the intellectuals of a community of faith or belief. I am using the word "intellectual(s)" in the sense developed by Shils and Parsons in the articles noted above. In Parsons’s terminology, the intellectual is "expected . . . to put cultural considerations above social," his function being to define and, presumably, to articulate and disseminate the meaning system (or "value orientation") of his society. Shils spelled this out in clearer fashion. He assumed, as noted above, that communities are "bound together by the acceptance of a common body of standards" which are internalized and "continually . . . applied by each member in his own work and in the institutions which assess and select works and persons for appreciation or condemnation." These standards are seldom rationalized and made overt but are carried and maintained primarily in "songs, histories, poems, biographies, and constitutions, etc., which diffuse a sense of affinity among the members of the society."

Intellectuals are driven by a "need to penetrate beyond the screen of immediate concrete experience" -- that is, beyond the concerns relative to Parsons’s social system -- to the "ultimate principles" implicit therein, which is to say "the existing body of cultural values." Then by "preaching, teaching, and writing" in "schools, churches, newspapers, and similar structures" they "infuse into sections of the population which are intellectual neither by inner vocation nor by social role, a perceptiveness and an imagery which they would otherwise lack."39 Here in Shils’s terminology we may recognize James Baldwin’s conception of the responsibility of the artist-writer to clarify and articulate the hidden laws that govern his society and himself.

I hear Parsons and Shils saying that the task of the intellectuals is to infuse in the population the beliefs and standards that define what is normal behavior in their society, and that these beliefs are legitimated by the ultimate principles implicit in them. This means in my way of speaking that, ideally, intellectuals would assume responsibility for inculcating the religion of their community.

This seems to me essentially the thesis David W. Noble developed in his book, Historians Against History. The Frontier Thesis and the National Covenant in American Historical Writing Since 1890. The historian, Noble argues, "is our most important secular theologian," responsible for describing and defending the covenant that makes us a people, being always ready both to "explain how his country has achieved its uniqueness" and to "warn against the intrusion of alien influences."40

What I have described as the separation of "salvation" from social responsibility, in the terminology of Parsons and Shils could be described as a separation of the cultural system and value orientation professed in a community from the actual social system, or the divorce of religion from what George Herbert Mead called "the political and economic activities which were fundamental in American life."

Traditionally in Christendom the church, a very tangible institution in, but conceived as not entirely of, the society,41 was the home of the intellectuals. The church in this respect was roughly analogous to the university in our society. For those who lived during the centuries of Catholic Christendom, as for the Puritans of early Massachusetts Bay, theologians played the role in society that Parsons and Shils designate as the role of intellectuals in any society.42 Further, they were expected to give guidance to rulers and people, in minute detail if necessary, for they were the recognized interpreters of the proper application of the general standards to specific issues. In this social-cultural structure "salvation" was inextricably bound to right conduct in every area of life from birth to last rites.

With the fragmentation of the transnational church by the Reformation, and the establishment of religious pluralism, this unified authoritarian structure was destroyed and Christianity was thereafter incarnated in many different and highly competitive institutions, each legitimated by its absolutized parochial interpretation of the common gospel. Each Established church that resulted made for its place in its nation the same sort of claims that the universal Catholic church had made for its ubiquitous transnational authority. In other words, the new nations reverted to tribalism, and an Established church was the institutionalization of the nation’s tribal cult.

In this situation no substantive difference was made between church and commonwealth. Both were merely ways of looking at the same body of people. This was evidenced in the legal structure by the merging of monarch into God, legitimated by some forms of the doctrine of the divine right of kings’ In this context the role of the theologian of an Established church was that of a true intellectual of and for his nation-society.

When the American Revolution was completed, let us say with John Adams by around 1815,44 not only had the Established Church of England been rejected, but, more important, the very idea of Establishment had been discarded in principle by the new Constitution. For the first time in Christendom there was legal religious freedom as distinct from toleration in a commonwealth.45 Church and state could no longer be seen as coextensive functional institutionalized authorities -- as merely two ways of looking at the same society. A church became a voluntary association within the commonwealth, in competition with perhaps hundreds of others. Loyalty to God, symbol of the highest ideals and standards (cultural system), could now be distinguished from loyalty to monarch or state, symbols of nation (social system), and it was possible to conceive that the two might be in conflict. This development is what John Adams meant by "the Revolution" -- the change that took place "in the minds and hearts of the people" which he described as "a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations."46

With this Revolution the theologian, who had lost his transnational perspective with the Reformation, lost also his national perspective, and became the intellectual for but one of the multitude of competing sects. Now his primary role was to construct a solid defense of his sect’s peculiar species of Christianity against all the other sects making the same absolutistic claim. Because the one thing all Christians held in common was the authority of Scripture, all such defenses were erected on this foundation. This meant that even while ostensibly defending the authority of the Bible against skeptics, infidels, and atheists, each sect was actually contending against all other Christian groups for sole possession of the revelation by right of having the only, or most nearly, correct interpretation of it. Meantime the Revolution meant that all their sectarian claims had been made completely irrelevant to the individual’s status and rights as a citizen, and to the being and well-being of the commonwealth in which they lived. Thus the competition between the sects undermined belief in the distinctive beliefs of all of them. For in the minds of Mr. and Ms. John Q. Public the strident claims of the sects simply cancelled each other out, as their Republic was teaching them that no sect’s distinctives had a bearing on their rights as citizens.47

Meantime the new kind of commonwealth that had emerged in Christendom found cosmic legitimation in Enlightenment theology -- the cosmopolitan perspective that induced Benjamin Franklin to pray that God would "grant, that not only the Love of Liberty, but a thorough Knowledge of the Rights of Man, may pervade all the Nations of the Earth, so that a Philosopher may set his Foot anywhere on its Surface, and say, ‘This is my Country.’ "48

The same sentiment prompted Alexander Hamilton to suggest in the first Federalist Paper that in the new kind of nation being born philanthropy (love for mankind) must always temper patriotism (love for country), which is to say that "national security" is not necessarily always the ultimate consideration.

It was this cosmopolitan theology that the Christian denominations almost universally rejected during the course of the revivals that swept across the nation following the 1790s. In doing so they turned back to pre-eighteenth-century theologians, or to the theologians of Europe’s Established churches, for the framework of their intellectual structures, while the meaning system that informed and legitimated the social, economic, political, and judicial systems of the nation followed in the tradition of Enlightenment thinking.49 It was this development that institutionalized the separation of "salvation" from the convert’s responsibility for the structures of his society. 50

One of the most extensively documented historical generalizations is that Enlightenment was driven underground by social opprobrium and character assassination of the infidel, but that its meaning system (to use Parsons’ terms) was never examined for its intellectual merits and refuted by Christian theologians.51 The Enlightenment meaning system continued, of course, to have its more or less able defenders. But most of them might rightly complain with Thomas Paine that his Christian opponents confounded "a dispute about authenticity with a dispute about doctrines," that is, in answer to his questioning of the authority of the Bible as sole revelation of God for teaching man his duty, they quoted Scripture to refute him.52 This suggests what I suspect was the case, that the great majority of clerical leaders and theologians did not recognize the real issue or realize the nature of the revolution in thinking that was taking place. Each in his denominational stockade tended to absolutize and universalize his parochial species of Christianity, while sharing with those in his Christian opponents ghettoes the common abhorrence of "infidelity." The "infidel" was on everyone’s enemies list.53

This meant, to repeat my thesis, that every ardent defense of sectarian Christianity, however unintentional, was by implication an attack on the mainspring of the Republic.54 Consequently the intellectuals -- the unofficial "theologians" of the Republic -- explaining, defending, acting upon, and in-fusing the values of the commonwealth were commonly anathema to the leaders of institutionalized Christianity. Either that or -- and this was done by Robert Baird, who published his Religion in America in 1844-45 -- they were posthumously metamorphosed into his species of good sectarian Christians.55

This development meant the emergence in the common-wealth of two disparate, even competing culture systems, inculcating different conceptions of a proper social system, each with its own kind of intellectuals. Many theologians of the sects continued to talk as if they were the exponents of the normative culture system of the commonwealth, while actually they represented only that of, at best Christianity in general, at worst their exclusive sect. Meantime the intellectuals of the commonwealth, e.g., Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, and even Eisenhower, naturally found no real religious home in any existing sect. And many sensitive persons squirmed to have the best of both worlds, usually in the end by giving each a separate but equal compartment in their minds.

The question of the place of sectarian theologians in the commonwealth was solved by default. For with the general erosion of belief noted above, they lost even their vocation as defenders of what the Parson Thwackums among them have called denominational distinctives against both those of the other Christian sects and unbelievers. They became, at their best, defenders of the theologically amorphous but highly moralistic species of Christianity-in-general represented in recent decades by The Christian Century, at their worst pugnacious and powerful sectarian isolationists like the Rev. Carl McIntire. In either case, having usually been programmed in their theological schools to confuse the cosmopolitan Enlightenment theology with worship of the state, they have found it hard to find a plausibly significant role to play in the society.56

George Santayana described the fanatic as one who redoubles his efforts when he has lost his aim. This is an apt characterization of the faddishness that has characterized professional theology during the past several decades.57 It is not surprising, when seen in this context, that as long ago as 1933, theological school professor John C. Bennett lamented a widespread "feeling of theological homelessness" among his kind. 58

 

End Notes:

1. It seems generally accepted that "the Christianity which developed in the United States was unique. It displayed features which marked it as distinct from previous Christianity in any other land." Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity (New York: Harper & Bros., 1937-45), 4:424.

2. For a definition of "accommodate" as distinct from "adjust" and "adapt" see John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934), pp. 15-17.

3. H. Richard Niebuhr was always acutely aware of the problems pluralism posed for dialogue. For example: Every effort to deal with the history of ideas is beset by hazards. Semantic traps are strewn along the way of the inquirer; such words as democracy, liberty, justice, etc., point to different concepts or varying complexes of concepts as they are used in different periods of history and by different men. The unuttered and frequently unacknowledged presuppositions of those who employ them also vary; and since meaning largely depends on context the difficulties of understanding what is meant are increased by the difficulty of ascertaining what is at the back of the minds. Our hazards are multiplied when the ideas in question are of a moral and religious sort." "The Idea of Covenant and American Democracy," Church History 23 (June 1954): 126.

4. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, eds. J. P. Mayer and Max Lerner; trans. George Lawrence (New York; Harper & Row, 1966), Part II, chap. 2, p. 398. Samuel Butler stated Tocqueville’s point succinctly; "So it is with most of us: that which we observe to be taken as a matter of course by those round us, we take as a matter of course ourselves." Samuel Butler, Erewhon, or Over the Range (New York: The New American Library of World Literature, 1960), p. 138. The complete Erewhon was first published in 1872.

5. Robert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial (New York: Seabury Press, 1975),p. xi.

6. James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1961), pp. 15-19.

7. Randolph Henry Gabriel, The Course of American Democratic Thought. 2d ed. (New York: Ronald Press Co., 1956) p.26.

8. Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (Boston: Houghton Muffin Co.. 1959), p. 16.

9. Edward Shils, "The Intellectuals and the Powers: Some Perspectives for Comparative Analysis," in Philip Rieff, ed., On Intellectuals (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., l970), p. 41

10. Robin M. Williams, Jr., American Society. A Sociological Interpretation (New York: Knopf, 1952), pp. 304-306.

11. Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, ed. Robert C. Kimball (New York: Oxford University Press Galaxy Book, 1964), p. 42.

12. Philip Selznick, "Natural Law and Sociology" in John Cogley et al., Natural Law and Modern Society (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1966), pp. 158, 170. See also the "Sociological Definition of Religion" developed by Charles Y. Glock and Rodney Stark, Religion and Society in Tension (Chicago: Rand McNally & Co., 1965), chap. 1, pp. 3-17.

13. There is considerable evidence from psychiatry that whether or not individuals will hold and cherish such beliefs is nor a matter of choice, for without them they die. See, for example, Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. An Introduction to Logotherapy, originally published as From Death-Camp to Existentialism (New York: Washington Square Press, n.d.), Part I, "Experiences in a Concentration Camp," pp. 3-148; Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1960), passim, but esp. chap. 4, 5; Robert Jay Lifton, Revolutionary Immortality, Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1968).

14. Alfred North Whitehead, "An Appeal to Sanity," in Essays in Science and Philosophy (New York: Philosophical Library, 1948), p. 55.

15. I am using the words "presupposed," and "presupposition(s)" -- for substance thereof at least -- with the meaning and connotations developed by R. G. Collingwood in An Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), pp. 21-48.

16. For this reason one cannot understand believers simply by listening to what they profess. We are all Erewhonians in this respect: "It is a distinguishing peculiarity of the Erewhonians that when they profess themselves to be quite certain about any matter, and avow it as a base on which they are to build a system of practice, they seldom quite believe in it. If they smell a rat about the precincts of a cherished institution, they will always stop their noses to it if they can." So, the inadvertent visitor concluded, "they did not know themselves what they believed; all they did know was that it was a disease nor to believe as they did." That is a good description of the sectarian mind. Samuel Butler, Erewhon, p. 142.

17. Shils, "The Intellectuals and the Powers," p. 29.

18. Cf. Dewey A Common Faith, pp. 9-10: "There is no such thing as religion in the singular. There is only a multitude of religions. ‘Religion’ is a strictly collective term. . . . The adjective ‘religious’ denotes nothing in the way of a specifiable entity, either institutional or as a system of beliefs. It does not denote anything to which one can specifically point to this and that historic religion or existing church."

19. The Modern Library edition, p. 84.

20. Benedict, Patterns of Culture, p.7.

21. For the imagery of "autobiography" and "biography" I am indebted to William A. Clebsch’s book, From Sacred to Profane America; the Role of Religion in American History (New York: Harper and Row, l968), p. 4.

22. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan Co. 1946), pp. 81-90. Implied in Niebuhr’s view is a defense of his species of Christian faith by removing it from the critical scrutiny of the "external" community. To that degree he stood in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards.

23. Jonathan Edwards, "Religious Affections," in The Works of President Edwards in Eight Volumes (Worcester, Mass.: Isaiah Thomas, 1808), Vol. IV: 134

24. Arthur S. Link, "The Historian’s Vocation," in Theology Today 19 (April 1962): 75-89.

25. Dewey, A Common Faith, p. 10.

26. Benedict, Patterns of Culture, p. 8.

27. Talcott Parsons, "The Intellectual: A Social Role Category," in Philip Rieff, ed., On Intellectuals, p. 3.

28. Ibid. John Higham seems to combine features of Parsons’ "culture systems" and "social systems" in his concept of "ideologies" which, he says, are "those explicit systems of general beliefs that give large bodies of people a common identity and purpose, a common program of action, and a standard for self-criticism. Being relatively formalized and explicit, ideology contrasts with a wider, older, more ambiguous fund of myth and tradition. It includes doctrines or theories on the one hand and policies or prescriptions on the other. Accordingly, it links social action with fundamental beliefs, collective identity with the course of history. . . . Arising in the course of modernization when an unreflective culture fractures, ideology provides a new basis for solidarity." John Hingham, "Hanging Together: Divergent Unities in American History," Journal of American History 61, 1 (June 1974):10.

29. For another form of this thesis, extensively developed, see John Herman Randall, Sr. and Jr., Religion and the Modern World (New York: Stokes Co., 1929), chap. II, "The Religious Heritage of the Nineteenth Century," pp. 23-44.

30. Actually this seems to me to be commonly recognized as, for example, in the assertion made by Robert M. Brown that Christianity is nor where the "greatest decisions" are made. The Ecumenical Revolution: An Interpretation 0f the Catholic-Protestant Dialogue (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1967), p. 307.

31. Whitehead, "An Appeal to Sanity," pp. 55-56. For a powerful use of the mainspring figure, see Adlai Stevenson, "Our Broken Mainspring," in Gerry G. Brown, ed., Adlai F. Stevenson, a Short Biography (New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 1965), pp. 201 -- 15.

32. For example, in Dean M. Kelley’s study, Why Conservative Churches are Growing; A Study in Sociology of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), passim.

33. "Whatever Happened to Theology," Christianity and Crisis 35, 8 (May 12, 1975). In this issue twelve eminent theologians address this question. Although they differ considerably in explanations of why it happened and when, all seem to agree that theology has disappeared. Among the most enlightening reasons given is that by Rosemary Ruether: "I believe that the demise of such systematic theology is nor recent but has been in preparation since the Enlightenment. The attempt to rebuild systematic dogmatics since the 19th century has finally fallen through" (p. 109). Gordon K. Kaufman laments, "The once proud queen of the sciences, having lost a sense of her own meaning and integrity, had become a common prostitute" (p. 111), catering to a series of fads.

34. Michael Novak, "The Enlightenment is Dead," in The Center Magazine, IV (March/April, 1971): 19-20. The title of the article seemed to me to be contradicted by its content, as the quotations suggest.

35. Martin E. Marry, The New Shape of American Religion (New York: Harper & Bros., 1959), pp. 71-72.

36. George Herbert Mead, "The Philosophies of Royce, James, and Dewey in Their American Setting," in Andrew J. Reck, ed., Selected Writings of George Herbert Mead (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company’s Library of Liberal Arts), 1964. The quotations are, in order, from pages 383, 376, 377, and 381. The essay was first published in the International Journal of Ethics 40 (1929-1930) 211-31; it seems to me that George Santayana argued essentially the same thesis in his famous essay on "The Genteel Tradition." Herbert Wallace Schneider spelled out "how philosophy [in America] lost its living connections with the general culture of the American people and became a technical discipline in academic curricula. At the same time . . . religion and morals gradually severed their philosophical bonds, and, as the philosophers would say, became unenlightened." A History of American Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1946), p. 225.

37. Mead, "The Philosophies of Royce, James, and Dewey," p. 381.

38. Joseph Haroutunian, "Theology and American Experience," Criterion (Winter, 1964): 7-9. Criterion is, or was, the house organ of the Divinity School of The University of Chicago.

39. Shils, "The Intellectuals and the Powers," pp. 27-30. Adolf A. Berle, Jr., in his book Power Without Property; A New Development in American Political Economy (New York: Harcourt, Harvest Book, 1929; e.g., pp. 90-91, 110-16, and 154-55) makes a helpful distinction between the "public consensus" and the "public opinion" that carries the same connotations as Shils’s designation of the role of the intellectual vis-à-vis the general population; Berle’s "public consensus" points to Shils’s "common standards," and Berle’s "public opinion" points to temporary winds of opinion which often run counter to the "public consensus" or the "common standards." In my terminology, developed in articles and unpublished lectures during the past years, the intellectuals define, describe, and teach the elements of the historical "character" of a people who constitute a community, as distinct from the temporary "shapes" their movements may take; A people’s conception of their true character is invoked in judgment on their immediate shape.

40. David W. Noble, Historians Against History; The Frontier Thesis and the National Covenant in American Historical Writing Since 1890. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965), pp. 4, 17. Robert N. Bellah, a self-confessed "former establishment fundamentalist," definitely assumes this role in his book, The Broken Covenant. His "Confessions of a Former Establishment Fundamentalist" was published in Bulletin of the Council on the Study of Religion 1,3 (December, 1970): 3-6.

41. For this distinction, see Tocqueville’s "The Principle of the Sovereignty of the People in America," which is chap. 4 in vol. I, Pt. 1 of his Democracy in America; in the translation by George Lawrence, edited by J. P. Mayer and Max Lerner (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 51-53.

42. This seems to be commonly assumed by historians. For example, Edmund S. Morgan says that the founders of New England "knew, from the works of theologians, what principles they must embody in their new institutions." Roger Williams: the Church and the State (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967), p. 68.

43. See John Neville Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings (New York: Harper and Row, Torchbooks, 1965), passim.

44. Adams wrote in 1815, "The last twenty-five years of the last century, and the first fifteen years of this, may be called the age of revolutions and constitutions." Adams commonly made a distinction between the Revolution and the War for Independence. In 1818 he wrote, "But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations." And this Revolution, he thought, might be said to have begun "as early as the first plantation of the country." Adrienne Koch, ed., The American Enlightenment; The Shaping of the American Experiment and a Free Society (New York: George Braziller, 1965), pp. 223, 228, 229.

45. Jefferson was very conscious of the distinction, and in this respect quite aware of how he and his fellow Americans differed from Locke. In his "Notes on Religion" written around 1782 Jefferson notes that "Locke denies toleration to those who entertain opinions contrary to those moral rules necessary for the preservation of society, as for instance, that faith is not to be kept with those of another persuasion, that Kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns, that dominion is founded in grace, or that obedience is due to some foreign prince; or who will not own and teach the duty of tolerating all men in matters of religion; or who deny the existence of a god (it was a great thing to go so far -- as he himself says of the parliament which framed the act of toleration -- but where he stopped short we may go on) ." Saul K. Padover, ed., The Complete Jefferson (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Inc., l943), p. 945.

Adrienne Koch, after quoting this in part, adds: "That he went on, and America went on, from toleration to religious freedom is very much to the point in our general understanding of the American Enlightenment." "Pragmatic Wisdom and the American Enlightenment," The William and Mary Quarterly 18,3 (July 1961): 323.

It seems generally agreed that the American leaders’ ideas were not original. Herbert W. Schneider in his A History of American Philosophy (p. 36), asserts that they "had no systems of thought, and they consciously borrowed most of the scattered ideas which they put into action." One cannot, he argued, "make the American Enlightenment appear as a ‘glorious revolution’ in thought as well as in fact."

It seems equally agreed that the Americans differed from European thinkers because of their practical political experience and their unique opportunity to put the revolutionary ideas into practice. This is stressed by Hannah Arendt (On Revolution [New York: Viking Press, 1965], pp. 115-16), who argues that "compared to this American experience, the preparation of the French hommes de lettres who were to make the Revolution was theoretical in the extreme. . . . They had no experience to fall back upon, only ideas and principles untested by reality."

Adrienne Koch stresses the same point in the Introduction to her The American Enlightenment, pp. 19-45.

46. Letter to H. Niles, February 13, 1818, in Koch, The American Enlightenment, p. 228.

47. The case of Lucy Mack Smith, mother of the prophet, Joseph Smith, illustrates this.

48. Franklin’s letter to David Hartley, December 4, 1789, in Koch, The American Enlightenment, p. 107.

49. In making this point in class lectures Professor Wilhelm Pauck used to tell us that modern man stands either with one foot in the Reformation and the other on a banana peel, or with one foot in the Enlightenment and the other on the banana peel. I suppose that the two most prestigious representatives of the Reformation and the Enlightenment in my day were Karl Barth and Albert Schweitzer respectively.

50. See n. 29.

51. This was extensively spelled out in my Nathaniel William Taylor; A Connecticut Liberal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942), Chapters IV and VI. More recent literature is noted in the article by Mary Kelley and myself, "Protestantism in the Shadow of Enlightenment," in Soundings, 58,3 (Fall 1975): 345, n. 42.

52. Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, preface to Part II.

53. See Martin B. Marty, The Infidel; Free Thought and American Religion (Cleveland: World Pub. Co.’s Meridian Books, 1961), passim, for delineation of how the image of "the infidel" was often created and universally used by Christian leaders in America to rally support for their enterprises by pointing to a common enemy.

54. A striking example of this effect was noted in Liberty 58 (November-December, 1963) 8-9. In the state of Hawaii Christmas and Good Friday were paid holidays for state employees; they cost the state about $500,000 a year. In February of 1963 a state senator introduced two bills into the Hawaiian Legislature. The first would have removed Christmas and Good Friday from the list of paid holidays. The second, an alternate bill, would have added a "Buddha Day" (April 8) to the paid holidays at an additional cost of about $250,000. It would seem, granted the large Buddhist population, that either bill would have been fair, and in principle compatible with the Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment. But in reaction to the proposed legislation Protestant Billy Graham declared, "If we take away these days (Christmas and Good Friday) we are taking away the basis of our way of life, our religion"; and a Roman Catholic Monsignor asserted, "The state of Hawaii and the other forty-nine states ought to be amazed at the arrogance of those who insult God-fearing people, by stamping out the traditional observance of the greatest Christian feast of the year." Obviously neither bill, if passed, would have taken away or stamped out either Christmas or Good Friday. What both of these highly visible Christian leaders were actually contending for was continued recognition and support by the civil authority of their particular species of Christianity against all other religious faiths -- a direct attack on the principle of religious freedom inherent in the First Amendment.

55. H. Richard Niebuhr is an example of a very honest, tender, and sensitive person and most able thinker impaled on the horns of the dilemma posed by the Christian absolutism he inherited and defended in his denomination and the relativism of the pluralistic cosmopolitan society in which he came to live as a Yale professor. In him the problem was personified of how to be an absolutist in a relativistic and cosmopolitan world; or, vocationally, how to be a theologian for a particular species of Christianity while serving as a professorial intellectual at pluralistic Yale. My impression is that a majority of professors in the "liberal" theological schools circumvent this problem by quietly renouncing responsibility for and to the denomination with which they may be at least nominally affiliated. H. Richard Niebuhr was made of sterner mental and spiritual stuff, so in his writings the tension is made manifest.

56. Herbert W. Schneider noted the metamorphosis of the eighteenth-century type of philosopher who was an investigator, either natural or moral, into "the nineteenth-century . . . species of educator known as professors of philosophy" who "were primarily teachers" whose "ambition was to be orthodox, to teach the truth, i.e., to instruct their students in correct doctrine. . . . "Similarly," Schneider adds, "the theologians lost most of their speculative or philosophical interest and were content to refine their systems for the edification of the faithful and the confounding of rival theologians. In short, our history of American philosophy now takes us into the schoolrooms of colleges and seminaries. What President Francis Wayland said of his own famous textbook in moral science stares the idea of orthodoxy in general: ‘Being designed for the purposes of instruction, its aim is to be simple, clear, and purely didactic.’ " A History of American Philosophy, p. 226.

Alfred North Whitehead concluded that "theology has largely failed" in its function "to provide a rational understanding of the rise of civilization, and of the tenderness of mere life itself, in a world which superficially is founded upon the clashings of senseless compulsion," and stated his belief that "the defect of the liberal theology of the last two hundred years is that it has confined itself to the suggestion of minor, vapid reasons why people should continue to go to church in the traditional fashion." Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 170.

More devastating was the curt comment of top-flight theologian John B. Cobb, Jr., in 1967 that, while "there is no lack of highly trained and intelligent men keenly interested in constructive theological work, their "essays for the most part are trivial" and leave "a vacuum in which even the splash of a small pebble attracts widespread attention -- and, he should have added, only in the very restricted circle of the jet-set professorial theologians outside of which the attention attracted seems to be practically nil. "From Crisis Theology to the Post-Modern World," in Bernard Murchland, ed., The Meaning of the Death of God; Protestant, Jewish and Catholic Scholars Explore Atheistic Theology (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), p. 138.

57. See Mary Kelley and Sidney E. Mead, "Protestantism in the Shadow of Enlightenment," pp. 338-42.

58. John C. Bennett, "After Liberalism -- What?" The Christian Century 50 (November 8, 1933): 1403.

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