On July 4, 1827, a leading clergymen of the day, Presbyterian minister Ezra Stiles Ely, preached a controversial sermon in Philadelphia that was published around the country. Its title could not have been clearer: “The Duty of Christian Freemen to Elect Christian Rulers.”
Calling for the formation of a Christian party in politics, Ely, a supporter of Andrew Jackson in the 1828 presidential race, said: “Every ruler should be an avowed and sincere friend of Christianity. He should know and believe the doctrines of our holy religion, and act in conformity to its precepts.”
Reading the sermon, Jackson sensed danger in Ely’s words. There was a time for politics and a time for religion – but both at once, inextricably entwined, meant trouble. Like the early years of the 21st century, the 1820s was an age of great evangelical fervor, but Jackson had no interest in fueling the fire Ely wanted to ignite.
“All true Christians love each other, and while here below ought to harmonize; for all must unite in the realms above,” Jackson later wrote Ely. Having given faith its due, he also reminded Ely of the centrality of individual freedom in religious matters. “Amongst the greatest blessings secured to us under our Constitution,” Jackson told Ely, “is the liberty of worshipping God as our conscience dictates.”
Now, 178 July Fourths later, the commingling of religion and politics in America would seem a prime exhibit of the Old Testament’s adage that “there is no thing new under the sun.” Though we have been here before, there is something different and disturbing about the skirmishes of our own time.
Always important, the religious factor in politics has become pervasive, converting public life into a battle of uncompromising extremes. Whether the subject is terrorism, Iraq, abortion, gay marriage, the judiciary or stem-cell research, virtually every issue is being viewed through the prism of faith.
Our public background music has moved from “Stars and Stripes Forever” to “Onward, Christian Soldiers” – and we have too many Elys and too few Jacksons.
Perhaps we can rediscover that the United States is at its best when religion is one – but only one – thread in the tapestry of public discourse and life. The premise of the founding fathers, that all men are created equal, is rooted in the Judeo-Christian idea that we are all made in God’s image and that, as Saint Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female, there is neither slave nor free; for all are one.”
The Constitution draws on classic theological principles such as the supremacy of the individual. Yet the power of our civic religion lies not in any sanctions it imposes but in the moral sensibility it nurtures. The opening line of Thomas Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia in 1786 – “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free …” – is at once rational and theological, and is quintessentially democratic.
In the aftermath of the Revolution the founders had struggled to construct a government that would check the rise of extreme elements, whether religious or secular. “If men were angels,” James Madison remarked, “no government would be necessary;” and the European experience of devastating wars in the name of God had taught the young Americans that angels were in short supply on this side of paradise.
Simply put, the American gospel is that life is best lived when Athens and Jerusalem are not at war but in alliance – and, like most allies, they need not agree on everything at all times, only on the big things. The wonderful truth at the heart of the American experience is that faith and reason, religion and ethical secularism, have long joined forces to fight the battles of this world. We would do well to recover this alliance and give it new strength.
“We are centuries away from the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre and the treatment of heretics in early Massachusetts,” Justice David Souter wrote in the recent Supreme Court opinion about public displays of the Ten Commandments, “but the divisiveness of religion in current public life is inescapable.”
What separated us from the Old World in the beginning was the idea that books, education and the freedom to think and worship as we wished would create an enlightened citizenry for whom reason and faith, the life of the mind and the life of the spirit, would truly light up John Winthrop’s “shining city upon a hill.” In our finest hours, we have been neither wholly religious nor wholly secular but have created room for both traditions.
The Supreme Court decision about exhibiting the Ten Commandments on government property brilliantly struck just this American balance, holding that religious emblems of long-standing and little controversy are constitutional, but that those intended to provoke or proselytize are not.
“Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state,” wrote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “must … answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”
Not everyone admires the boundaries that O’Connor wants to defend. “The long war on Christianity in America continues today on the floor of the House of Representatives,” Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., said during a June 20 debate on an amendment asking the Air Force Academy to come up with a plan to limit “coercive and abusive” proselytizing. He said the war “continues unabated with aid and comfort to those who would eradicate any vestige of our Christian heritage being supplied by the usual suspects, the Democrats.”
But it’s hard to see what war Hostettler is talking about. Beginning at the highest levels, politics and religion – or at least religious symbolism – have been intimately connected from our earliest hours:
* George Washington improvised “So help me, God” at the conclusion of the first presidential oath.
* Abraham Lincoln’s noblest language at our darkest times was biblical, summoning the “better angels of our nature” and praying for “charity for all.”
* The only public statement Franklin Roosevelt made on D-Day 1944 was to read a prayer he had written drawing on the 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
* The climactic line of John Kennedy’s inaugural address promises that “on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”
We do fight evil in the broader world and should not be afraid to say so. Our best moments – abolition, the battle against Jim Crow, the gradual but inexorable expansion of the mainstream – can be traced to the pressure of religious traditions and religious figures.
Conviction is very different from coercion, and therein lies a core American virtue. Christians in America outnumber any other single religious group by the widest of margins, yet one of the many things that make the United States special is the shared belief that the majority respects and protects the rights of the minority to live as it pleases.
Christians should not view this as a foreign concept; a layered understanding of the Christian past suggests that believers should be open to principled compromise, for they have been making accommodations and living with ambiguity from the very first years of the faith. At what is known as the Council of Jerusalem, two camps – one led by James, the other by Paul – met to decide to what extent converts to belief in Jesus would be required to follow Mosaic law.
They compromised, and Paul captured the dilemma mortals confront when he wrote that on earth we see “through a glass darkly, but then face to face.” Only after death will all be revealed – a realization that argues for more humility and less arrogance.
The battles of the moment are pitched and complicated but not insoluble if undertaken in a spirit of tolerance and forbearance. If we want to be true to the American gospel, we should acknowledge that both sides have a legitimate point of view, and that our course should be democratically determined by the free exchange of ideas, not by turning cultural disagreements into total war.
Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek, is writing a book about Andrew Jackson’s presidency.