George Will and American Religious History

Jonathan Den Hartog
The Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis is already humming along. With their wide array of outreach activities--including their web presence--they are definitely contributing to the public conversation.

Last December they hosted George Will for a public address. The video and text are here

The speech has gotten a lot of attention. Peggy Noonan described it as "the most important speech of the twenty-first century so far." Noonan's hyperbole aside, I decided I should check out the speech.

Will considers whether a republic needs religion (he believes it does) and whether religion is necessary for good citizenship (he believes it's not). To make this argument, Will takes a largely Straussian political philosophy view of the American founding, which he describes as a secular, Lockean endeavor. In the process, he describes contemporary debates over the American regime as the contrast between two graduates of Princeton--James Madison and Woodrow Wilson. Will, not surprisingly, champions Madison.

I'll allow the political theorists to evaluate the larger structure of Will's argument. As an historian, I'm always skeptical of boiling down the American Revolution to a handful of the leaders--and it does always seem to be the same five or so in the pantheon: Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton.

As a religious historian, though, I specifically wanted to counter Will's treatment of the attitude of the "Big 5 Founders" he cites toward religion. Will is at pains to describe each of them as publicly respectful of religion while not being very religious themselves. 

Not only is this territory a minefield, but it's also been an area of much academic study. With better reading, Will might have gotten a more nuanced view.

For instance, he could have started with John Fea's Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Then, he might have added David Holmes's The Faiths of the Founding Fathers.

For a different take, he could have delved into Gregg Frazer's The Religious Beliefs of America's Founders.

Finally, for analysis from a political scientist, he could have looked at Vincent Philip Munoz's God and the Founders.

And those are just four titles off the top of my head. What this scholarship has argued is that there was a lot of religious diversity in the Revolutionary era. Some of those involved were very orthodox, others much less so. 

This is decidedly not to argue that the most of the founders were devout Christians. However, even those who weren't orthodox still held strong religious beliefs. They did, and they practiced them.

So, Will dismisses Franklin as a Deist--he did claim to be one as a young man--even though his actions during the Revolutionary Era belied that claim. Or, Will claims Adams's religious beliefs disappeared during his life, whereas Adams thought and wrote quite a lot about religion. Will misses that Unitarianism was a robust religious system in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that retained many Protestant forms.

In short, these figures were far from the comparison with contemporary "Nones" that Will attempts to draw--and with whom Will identifies.

Will's public address wasn't meant to be religious history, but in mishandling an important theme, he weakened the over-all effectiveness of his argument.


Edward J. Blum said…
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Edward J. Blum said…
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Tom Van Dyke said…
I agree that Will mishandled the "key" Founders question, but it's the prevailing consensus method of dealing with the Founding.

The least overtly religious were indeed seen as safe choices and honest brokers in an environment where each sect was competing for primacy. "None of the Above" was the prudent choice---not so much to lead by example in non-religiosity, but to prevent the pushy Presbyterians to get one up Anglicans or Baptists.

John Adams blamed his electoral loss to Jefferson not on being seen as too religious, but being seen as allied with the Presbyterians. This often gets misunderstood.

[The call for a national fast] was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has allarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, &c, &c, &c, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicion prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment as a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whispers ran through them [all the sects] “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.” This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgiving. Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion. This wild Letter, I very much fear, contains seeds of an Ecclesiastical History of the U.S. for a Century to come.

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