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Public Virtue

By March 12, 2016 One Comment

The course had come around to the question of religion and the American founding, again. This topic I have taken up a hundred times in various classes, and at three-score more church and community education sessions, but the lesson always bears repeating. My bottom line is that the Founders—if so we designate those elite gentlemen who gathered in a closed hall across a hot Philadelphia summer in 1787, not to fulfill the task assigned them by their bosses, the Congress, and revise the Articles of Confederation, but to tear up that document and draft something entirely new—those Founders, I say, had a clear and open path to ground their new nation upon an explicitly Christian basis. Indeed, they had only to follow the prevailing default mode to do so. Yet they rejected that path and compiled an entirely and intentionally secular document instead. By this most obvious measure, the United States was not founded on a Christian basis. And so I laid out the case again, knowing full well that the opposite allegation will not down—has not downed in the thirty years I have been teaching this lesson, and has revived again in this election year, only with more asperity and scarier associations that has previously been the case.

But then I also pointed out the evidence you can present for the opposite case, evidence of a clearly Christian presence in the revolutionary generation. If we look at the first state constitutions, we’ll find conventional God-talk, sure enough. Check out the middle layers of revolutionary leadership at some state and local levels and you can identify definite Christian commitments. (Go, in other words, to Sam Adams instead of cousin John. Remember, however, that you’ll never get past Boston to the national capital.) For that matter, you can improve your odds considerably by bringing in the Founding Mothers. Poor Thomas Jefferson, having to hear all that Jesus-chatter from the ladies at the Monticello breakfast table. Move a generation or two into the future, and you’ll have warrant to say  that, if the United States was not founded as a Christian nation, it sure soon became one. But then it’s only fair to advance one more generation still and observe how this achievement did not prevent but probably deepened the worst political failure the country has ever experienced, the Civil War. And magnifies the worst theological and ethical failure the American church has ever experienced, the inability to come to any agreement about slavery, much less to find a way to condemn and expunge it.

The question of political and ethical failure inevitably comes around to us, in the present. How and why have the most visible American churches, the evangelicals Christianists, so egregiously added to the rancor and embarrassment of this political-primary season rather than alleviating it? The problem is so acute that the analyses have become too many and even stale. So how about we turn the question around? How might the churches have worked differently? How might Christianists actually have acted effectively as Christians on the public stage?

One possibility lies in that old strained connection of Christianity and the Founding Fathers. Advocates of  this connection repeatedly turn up statements by Washington, Madison, and others that the young republic, if it were to be preserved, needed to be a virtuous nation, and that nothing was so likely to work that magic than “religion.” We could go on here about what they meant by “religion” but that question has been argued long enough, to a stalemate. Let’s look at that other word instead. What did the Founders mean by “virtue”? And why was the concept so important to them?

To answer that question we need to return a moment to some classical political theory, which these gentlemen knew well enough. A particular type of political regime, it was agreed, had to be supported by a suitable type of political culture, a certain public spirit or ethos. Monarchies, or rule by the one, required subjects to be imbued with awe and reverence. Aristocracies, or rule by the few, needed a cult of honor for deeds of courage. Republics, with their rule by the many, required a virtuous citizenry. So, what, no sex? Or that only occasionally, for procreative purposes only? Nope, our Founding Fathers were by and large not a Victorian crew, and they were not especially concerned that their fellow citizens hit that mark either.

No, virtue to these men as political leaders spelled something different. It meant economic self-restraint and the taming of raw ambition. It meant keeping a cap on greed and pride, not on lust. It meant sacrificing one’s personal self-interest concerning acquisition, property, and power for the public interest, the res publica. They knew their Renaissance civic humanist writers well enough to know that faction was the fatal disease of republics, and greed its breeding ground. Once a faction formed to pursue its own interest without restraint, and to commandeer the state to that end, it was game over. The end would come with a demagogue arising from the ranks to pander to the multitude’s fear and envy and rage and resentments, real or imagined. Demagogue stages coup; republic falls into dictatorship. A different ethos then comes into play, a culture of spectacle and excess, elevating violence, brute power, and the ridicule of moderation as weakness. Or did the culture of spectacle and excess come first, with the demagogue as its political fruit?

Genuine evangelicals, as opposed to Christianists, are appalled at the spectacle of Donald Trump, even if some of them promote the arguably more dangerous Ted Cruz as an alternative. Here’s the real alternative. What if American Christians were distinguished by their economic modesty, their willingness to cap the excess acquisition of the rich for the benefit of the struggling? What if American Christians had been early and often on the barricades of protest against the rise of inequality and the pursuit of endless war? What if their worship services partook less of the spectacular and the cult of personality and the thrill of celebrity and the passion for mighty leaders sent from God? What if American Christianity didn’t ape reality TV but embodied a narrative of true virtue? That was the title of Jonathan Edwards’s last book. What if he were our founding father?

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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