Religion and Politics at the Rotary Club

Paul Harvey

Recently I was asked to speak before the Rotary Club of Colorado Springs -- yes, that's right, the Rotarians --on the ever-popular topic at family dinner tables, "religion and politics." More specifically, I was given this title: "Religion and Politics in Presidential Elections: A Historical Perspective." I agreed to do so on the condition I would be exempt from commenting on the present election and with the understanding that this is by no means my area of historical expertise -- and for that reason, too, dissenting commentary is welcome.

Anyway, the talk seemed to go acceptably well, they even laughed at the obscure historical jokes, and my comparisons to their attentiveness vis-a-vis my own students' lack of same, and some folks suggested I put this in our local newspaper. I doubt it would work there, so for better or more likely for worse, I'll post it here. These are very informal and sketchy remarks, jotted down in about a hour the night before last, intended for a rubber-chicken-and-mashed potatoes lunch audience, so don't expect an in-depth historical analysis. Nonetheless, perhaps it may interest some readers of the blog, particularly those of you who are casual browsers and/or aren't historians.

As an historian, whenever I ask students about why we are supposed to study history, they always repeat some variant of the standard cliche, "we have to learn the mistakes of the past or else we are doomed to repeat them." I like to respond with my own counter-cliche, "Yes, maybe, but after learning from past mistakes we'll just go on to invent new ones." More seriously, I find the response annoying because so many of the "lessons of history" are in fact contradictory. As the writer Adam Gopnik has expressed it, "History does not offer lessons; its unique constellations of contingencies never repeat." And that’s certainly the case with the issue of religion in presidential politics from a historical perspective. And yet, maybe there's something we can learn even from contradictory lessons of history.

So I’ll start with a couple of different statements here, both of which are perfectly true, and both of which perfectly contradict the other. The first: in America, religion and politics are, and should be, separate. The second: religion and politics have never been, and should not be, separate. Over the last generation or so, we’ve had our own culture wars raging, and it’s often pointed out that the red state/blue state divide mimick maps of religious geography that you could draw up; this has been the case in fact for much of American political history.

Frequently in my classroom I'll start with this question: "would you vote for an atheist or a Unitarian or someone who denied the divinity of Jesus for President.” Most of the time, no one raises a hand, except perhaps for a long-haired young man in the back row. Then I’ll read out quotes about religion from the founding fathers, without telling my students where those quotes come from --some from Washington, some from Jefferson, some from James Madison, etc, and ask my students if they would vote for someone with those sentiments. Usually, no one, or only one or two students, will profess to do so. I then reveal that they’ve just voted against almost the entire generation of founding fathers, more or less. This leads to a discussion of why we seem to have a de facto religious test for candidates now despite the fact that such a test is expressly prohibited by the Constitution. Student replies suggest that they just wouldn't trust someone who fundamentally violated the common sense of the culture concerning religious matters. Thomas Jefferson famously said, "We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists." These classes make me think that, perhaps, now we are all pietists.

The reason for this contradiction I started with above has to do with a lot of things, but I’ll point here to the coincidence of two of them: the ratification of the secular Constitution in 1789, followed closely by the socalled 2nd Great Awakening and the rapid rise of evangelicalism as a dominant form of American religious expression. The first foresaw a tight regulation of religion in politics, and a distinct separation; the second made such a separation impossible. Thus, we have a de jure separation of church and state, and a de jure notion of the separation of the religious from the political; but historically we’ve had a profound de facto intermingling of the two.

When the founders framed the Constitution in 1789, many of them assumed that, while there would certainly be no established form of religion nationally, there might be some safely regulated state establishments, such as the Congregationalist church in Connecticut. The Congregationalist Church in New England was famously described as the Federalist Party at Prayer, much like the Anglican establishment in England was the Tory Party at prayer. Others, like Thomas Jefferson and radical democrats, assumed that freedom of religion would naturally and inevitably lead to the rise of rational religion in America, and the decline of what Jefferson called priestcraft and superstition. The age of the Enlightenment, Jefferson foresaw, and the new democratic Republic of America, would ensure the final elimination of religious superstition from politics.

These two forces famously clashed in 1800, when Jefferson ran for president and won in what he later referred to as the Revolution of 1800. Jefferson’s political base lay in the countryside, in the South, and amongst all who opposed northeastern federalist power; The Federalists, strongest in the Northeast, unleashed a fusillade of attacks against Jefferson that make our political campaigns seem very tame by comparison. The President of Yale University, Timothy Dwight, led the culture war against Jefferson, IN a famous sermon on the 4th of July 1800, Dwight said that the election of Jefferson would led to churches becoming “temples of reason,” just as had happened in Paris during the French Revolution of a few years back, and Jefferson would force everyone to cast their Bibles into a bonfire. A flagship Federalist paper asked the question, “to be asked by every American, Shall I continue in allegiance to God and a religious President (Adams), or impiously declare for Jefferson, and NO GOD!” Another paper said, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced.” One Federalist woman, so it was reported, took her Bible to the home of a Jefferson supporter and said “It will be perfectly safe with you. They’ll never think of looking in the house of a Democrat.” Jefferson won the election--just barely -- and ironically he had Baptists (in part) to thank for it And he did thank them two years later, when he wrote them a letter extolling them for agreeing with his sentiments concerning the necessity of a wall of separation between church and state. Baptists such as John Leland had allied with Jefferson and Madison to pass the Virginia Religious Statute of Freedom.

Ultimately, in terms of the evolution of religion and politics in presidential politics, both the Federalists and the Jeffersonians were wrong. In fact, no one, really, foresaw what was coming. The Federalist establishment was wrong. Its leaders didn’t foresee that their state religious establishments would quickly crumble, and that in fact the Congregationalist churches would become centers of Unitarianism and religious liberalism. That’s why we now have that great saying: that Unitarians believed in the "fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of Man, and the neighborhood of Boston.” But the ideas of the Federalists for what would constitute a proper political and religious order were pretty much dead by the 1820s or 1830s.

Jefferson was wrong too. He thought the First Amendment would unchain a nation of freethinkers who would reject religious superstitions {here I quoted Jefferson about how the myths of the Bible would be classed with the myths of Minerva]. Jefferson was famously anticlerical, and particularly directed his ire at Presbyterian ministers; he considered them equally as guilty of priestcraft as were Roman Catholic prelates.

Here was the problem for the Jeffersonians and the Federalists alike: the religious freedom of the early years of the American Republic led to the explosion of the very forms of religious beliefs and practices that they most detested. The 2nd Great Awakening of the early and mid 19th century implanted evangelicalism, especially in its Baptist/Methodist/Presbyterian revivalist variety, as the dominant form of American Protestantism. And one thing about the evangelicals of that era, and later: they were not about to leave political issues and religious issues separate. They organized temperance and women’s suffrage societies, enacted prison reform, created hundreds of new religious groups and utopian societies, and eventually empowered the abolitionist movement. In the South, evangelicals transformed the southern view of slavery, which once had been that slavery was a necessary evil handed down to us by our fathers, but one which would have to fade away eventually, into a positive good interpretation of slavery, which held that slavery brought the word of Christ to those who otherwise would have languished as heathen.

Recently American political historians have created an entire world of interpretation based on looking at the connection between religion and presidential politics in the years roughly 1800-1860. Here is what they have found. Voting patterns nationally fell along these lines: the pietists voted one way, the liturgicals another. The Pietists were largely Federalists and Whigs; the Liturgicals were largely Democrats. The Pietists, many of whom had a Calvinist sensibility, believed in the religious improvement of society, and using a sort of alliance of government and religious institutions to bring the Kingdom of God on Earth; the Liturgicals typically believed that the spheres of government and religion should be much more separate, and that attempts to bring about the millennium presupposed a religious activism that went outside the sphere of religion.

That’s a rough distinction and of course there were sectional variables, and just before the Civil War the issue of slavery threw everything into disarray. But even after the Civil War, patterns of religious geography were hugely influential in national politics. Here’s one thing that tended to happen: Catholics voted one way (typically Democratic), Protestants another (typically Republican, except for in the South where there were no Republicans after Reconstruction). That’s why, for example, it proved so important in the presidential election of 1884 that the Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland was villified as being an agent of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”

"Reverend Samuel D. Burchard delivered a warm welcoming address for Blaine in New York City, which ended with the words: "We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion." Blaine somehow missed the bigoted phrase, and did nothing to deny or repudiate it when he got up to speak. A reporter assigned by the Democrats to cover the meeting eagerly reported the mistake to the Democratic headquarters. When asked if Blaine "met this remark?" the reporter replied that Blaine had made no reference to it. The Democrats then spread the quote all over New York City and elsewhere. By the time Blaine finally got around to disavowing the remarks, it was too late. He lost thousands of votes among the Irish-American voters in the city."

Such a campaign proved more effective in 1928, as well, as the Democratic candidate from New York, Al Smith, was tainted with the charges that he would follow the Pope. In that case, the propaganda proved so effective that many Southern Democrats switched their votes to the Republicans, giving Herbert Hoover an overwhelming victory.

Let’s take a look at a couple of other instances. John F. Kennedy in 1960, famously delivered a speech to Southern Baptist ministers in Houston. He assured them that religion and politics are separate, and that no one need fear that his Catholicism would influence his policies. In effect, he said I am a Jeffersonian.

Let’s contrast that with the speech that, in the last primary season, many compared to Kennedy: Mitt Romney’s speech discussing his Mormon faith. As it turned out, of course, Romney lost the primary to John McCain, but at the time he appeared to be the leading candidate, and so everyone recognized that this was a critical speech in making Americans comfortable with a faith that they didn’t know that much about, and which made "the base" deeply uncomfortable.

What was fascinating about the speech by Romney is that, although it was compared with Kennedy’s, in fact his message was very different. The two speeches embody the historical paradoxes of religion and politics in presidential elections that I've been tracing here. Kennedy’s address was about the separation of religion and politics, the historic Jeffersonian position; Romney’s was about how faith must influence politics, more or less the historic position arising from the Great Awakenings.

Here’s what Kennedy said:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

Here’s what Romney said:

The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation "under God" and in God we do, indeed, trust.

We should acknowledge the creator, as did the founders, in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history. And, during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from the God who gave us liberty.

And so, the lessons of history remain contradictory, and paradoxical. De jure secularism and de facto pietism remain in what is, arguably, a healthy tension.

And finally, a couple of words about religion and the culture wars and religion in recent presidential elections. What we’re seeing now is a fight for so-called values voters. The Democrats hope to make inroads into those voters, and the Democrats have been busy retooling their religious rhetoric to appeal to heartland Christian voters. What is interesting to me is that we no longer have presidential candidates who have the opportunity to “sit out” religion, to declare it private, or simply not to comment on it much at all. Candidates with public stances towards religion such as Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt seem no longer possible. Everybody has to declare publically his, and now her, faith. Everyone has to bow before the overwhelming influence of revivalist and evangelical styles. Jefferson famously said in 1800: we are all federalists, and we are all Republicans. Now it could be said that, no matter what our personal beliefs, in some sense we are all evangelicals.


Tim Lacy at: September 8, 2008 at 1:08 PM said...

Dear Paul,

Great post. I disagree with Adam Gopnik, and I expect most of your audience did too.

I love your Founding Father litmus test of quotes. I suspect few would approve of Benjamin Franklin's Deism and general agnosticism. I may have to assign his Autobiography in future pre-Civil War surveys to make the point more emphatically.

If heart-based piety is generally anti-intellectual, as Richard Hofstadter stated 45 years ago, contradictions in voting and reason shouldn't surprise any of us. Our history warns us that it is often so.

What I think is interesting, insofar as we can talk about religion and the current election cycle, is how "character narratives," or general ethics and "values," are supposedly more important than applied ethics with candidates. Why have American voters conflated one's general character with supposed good judgment in particular situations? I guess this is a bit off topic.

- TL

John G. Turner at: September 8, 2008 at 1:41 PM said...


Fantastic and helpful post. I'm going to try the "Founding Fathers" exercise next semester. It's a great idea.

I think this conflation of piety and politics is an ironic part of the democratization of American politics that began from the earliest years of the republic. No more could politicians afford to appear elitists who looked down on their uneducated and unsophisticated constituents. Instead, they had to be "men of the people." If the people -- or a goodly portion of them -- are pietistic Christians, well, then the politicians have to be as well.

Randall at: September 10, 2008 at 12:22 PM said...

This sounds like a great class exercise.

There's a nice chapter on the "Myth of Christian America" in Richard T. Hughes's book, Myths America Lives By.

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