Beyond Toleration, and Beyond Those Yellowed Class Notes

Paul Harvey

It’s always annoying when one’s standard classroom shtick on some topic gets upset by new scholarship, compelling the sacrifice of a long-repeated chestnut; I hate it when reading something on a topic disables the ability so blithely to oversimplify long periods of history as easily anymore. It also forces you to move a lecture to the recycle bin and start over, just when you were ready to rely on the proverbial yellowed notes (now I guess the equivalent would be the Word 97 formatted word processed file) for the next thirty years.

One of these nuggets of compression that I had long relied on was this: religious freedom in American history has moved on a long arc from “toleration,” to “diversity,” to “pluralism,” and this generally can be followed or divided up into 18th, 19th, and 20th century components. In the eighteenth, [white] Americans learned that Presbyterians could (grudgingly) tolerate Baptists, and vice versa; in the nineteenth, that diversity of religious expression was a reality of the religious marketplace, and in the twentieth that pluralism ensured freedom of religious expression for those outside the Christian consensus.

Way too simple a narrative, to be sure, but at least in terms of looking at Protestant thought and establishments, it sort of worked, at least as a hanger on which to put stories for classroom consumption and discussion. It also worked to set up for examination those cases where the story did not work, or where it seemed to work in reverse (as in the rise of particular religious bigotries in the nineteenth century, after the more hopeful rhetoric of the eighteenth; Jefferson could blithely dismiss religious difference with his famous reference that contrasting beliefs neither picked his pocket nor broke his legs; many nineteenth-century white Protestants felt quite otherwise about, for example, Catholicism and Mormonism).

One of my longstanding, will-I-ever-finish-it projects has been to complicate that narrative by looking at the history of religious freedom from the standpoint of those who largely did not experience it in American history, especially Native peoples, African Americans, and others. Looking at their stories broadens our understanding of how Americans came to define religious freedom, and thus freedom itself, over the centuries. Others, notably Tracy Fessenden and more recently John Modern’s new long piece in Church History (“Evangelical Secularism and the Measure of Leviathan”), have attacked this narrative arc from other perspectives. Modern suggests, for example, how antebellum religious benevolent organizations unwittingly created secularity by (among other things) quantifying religion. I’m still digesting his long and very difficult piece, so will save more comment on that later. It’s in the latest issue of Church History, and presages a larger project that’s going to present a picture of nineteenth-century American religious history fundamentally at odds with the story arising from books that focus on the evangelical consensus. It appears to be a smart bomb aimed at Noll et al.

From another, and perhaps more fundamentally optimistic side, Chris Beneke’s recent Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism finds a much earlier origin for more capacious ideas of freedom of religious expression. He argues that “toleration” is much too limited a way to understand eighteenth-century discussions of religion, for many already had moved “beyond toleration.”

The ironically named chapter “The End of Toleration,” for example, traces the demise of the limited concept of “toleration” into the sturdier practice of “religious liberty,” part of the overall story of how “Americans learned to live with differences in matters of the highest importance to them.”

In the eighteenth century, as now, Beneke suggests, “inclusion, equality, and cooperation among different groups mattered deeply. But then, unlike now, it was religious inclusion, religious equality, and religious cooperation that concerned people. Though still practiced inconsistently in the late eighteenth century, these ideals had become incontestable. The history of their controversial emergence is the history of America’s first great attempt to accommodate diversity, its first experiment with pluralism.” To put it another way, Beneke’s book totally cracks open the classroom nugget of compression that has served me, if not my students, so well. I hate it when people mess with my classroom M.O.

The bulk of this book traces this story of proto-pluralism through richly detailed case studies of controversies during the Great Awakening, Protestant unification during the threats posed by the French and Indian War, James Madison’s interventions in the religious liberty debate in Virginia, and various other controversies and episodes in particular colonies. All these particular stories are not new; the way Beneke puts them together to craft a large narrative is the true contribution of the book. The prose is lively and sprightly, the stories interesting and well-chosen, the argument engaging.

A couple of objections immediately come to mind -- certainly to my mind -- and to his credit Beneke deals with them forthrightly. One is that this is a story of whites, and white Protestants more particularly. Beneke argues that, by the nineteenth century, arguments for white supremacy no longer could really be based on religion (at least as applied to African Americans), precisely because the language of religious liberty and diversity was so well ensconced in the national discourse by that time. Consequently, defenses of white supremacy hinged more on pseudo-biological notions of race.

The point here is somewhat reminiscent of Colin Kidd’s The Forging of Races, which argues that the biblical narratives consistently undercut theories of polygeny, hence the secularization of racist constructions over time. To that, Beneke adds the following:

Since the 1950s, we have seen a shift in public language regarding race that was matched only once in American history -- by the shift in public language regarding religion that occurred during the eighteenth century. WE can be as thankful that terms such as ‘colored’ and ‘negro’ have most disappeared from our vocabularies as late eighteenth-century liberals and evangelicals were that terms such as ‘sectaries’ and ‘heretics’ had mostly disappeared from theirs. We decry the racial bigot, just as they decried the religious bigot. In both cases, the principle that weighs against exclusivist and implicitly hierarchical language is equal recognition. In both cases, integration helps to ensure that uncharitable language is confined to private life.

The second major objection is the harsh reality of anti-Catholicism in the nineteenth century, the rise of which appears to contradict the major thrust of this book. This simply stands as a glaring exception to the story, and Beneke acknowledges the point: “Emboldened by their numbers and chastened by a surge of Protestant bigotry, the Catholic leadership rejected the established formula of religious pluralism in the United States. Full integration would simply have required too many unforgivable concessions. Decades passed before either they or the Protestant majority were fully ready to once again treat Catholicism as just one of many denominations.”

Later he addresses the story of the persecution of Mormons, and again finds that “When it came to antebellum Catholics and Mormons, the Protestant formula of equal rights for private judgment and social integration largely failed. . . . Mainstream Protestants had extended the canopy of ecumenism so broadly that they may have had a hard time understanding why anyone would refuse to take refuge beneath it. What reason could be given for such recalcitrance? When the answer was excessively complex or sufficiently unappealing, Protestants blamed Catholic missionaries and secret Mormon rituals; they blamed the pope and they blamed Joseph Smith. Whenever possible, they refrained from blaming anyone’ s particular beliefs, just as they refrained from blaming their own.”

Beneke’s lively and smartly optimistic book leaves me with a few thoughts. First, the story of Protestant pluralism traced here is more important than I have given it credit for. It was not easy to achieve; it was far in advance of most of the rest of Europe in practice (even if Locke provided many of the theories); and it provided some essential preconditions for pluralisms to come later. Second, the whiteness embedded in the particular concept of pluralism traced in this book remains central; Beneke repeatedly acknowledges this, but I would stress the point further. Finally, it makes me wonder if this is sort of Whig history in reverse. The more somber assessment provided in the epilogue chapter, in which groups outside the Protestant canopy found little or no protection from the rain (pun intended) of intolerance , suggests how Americans who had moved beyond toleration pretty soon thereafter moved back well on the other side of that ideological divide. Perhaps my classroom chestnut had it exactly backwards. History could repeat itself, as it were, twice: the first time as triumph, the second time as farce.


Kevin M Schultz at: January 19, 2009 at 11:49 AM said...

I have nothing really substantive to say other than that this is a really great post. I learned about all sorts of stuff--now if I could only around to reading that copy of Beyond Tolerance that is on my desk...

Historyball at: January 19, 2009 at 12:00 PM said...

Kevin, you might wish to adopt my wife's strategy, which is to wait for the audio book version to appear.


Kevin M Schultz at: January 19, 2009 at 12:07 PM said...

Yeah, Chris, I can't get my wife to read my stuff either. Wonder if I should still dedicate my book to her...


Historyball at: January 19, 2009 at 12:29 PM said...

Alternatively, we could try writing better.

newer post older post