EDITOR’S NOTE: Faith, Freedom, and the Future is the title of a recently released book by Dr. Charles W. Dunn. We commend this book to you by giving you an introduction to the issues which Dr. Dunn and his noteworthy contributors address. In this concise essay, Dr. Dunn surveys the issues which have seriously eroded the close relationship that once existed between Christian faith and the public life.
How important are values or moral understandings in society? According to sociologist Robert N. Bellah, “any coherent and viable society rests on a common set of moral understandings about good and bad, right and wrong.”1
But America’s moral understandings have shifted from uniformity to diversity and from simplicity to complexity. In legislative halls and courtroom chambers, the issues of faith and freedom divide Americans, producing an array of competing values and moral understandings.
• Should parents receive vouchers to send their children to private and religious schools?
• Should the public schools teach both creation and evolution?
• What financial aid, if any, should organizations such as the Salvation Army receive from the government?
• To what extent, if at all, should the public schools allow religious meetings and practices, such as Bible Clubs and prayers before athletic events and at commencements?
• Should religious organizations have the freedom to determine their own standards for employees, including the right to prohibit the employment of homosexuals?
• What roles, if any, should religious leaders play in politics?
• Should public schools allow a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day?
• What limits, if any, should the government place on abortion?
• Should nativity scenes, the Ten Commandments and other religious statements and traditions appear on public property?
• Should the government prohibit human cloning?
While Americans face deep divisions today about their moral understandings of right and wrong, good and bad, in earlier eras these divisions were either nonexistent or masked or only partially revealed.
Faith and Freedom in American History
Framers of the American Constitution could hardly understand today’s call by civil libertarians to divorce religion from public life. Over a century ago in 1892 in Church of the Holy Trinity v. U.S. (143 U.S. 471), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared that “we find everywhere a clear recognition of the same truth . . . that this is a Christian nation.” Then in 1905 Justice David J. Brewer said at Harvard College: “This Republic is classified among the Christian nations of the world. It was so formally declared by the Supreme Court of the United States . . . in the case of Holy Trinity Church v. United States.”2
The mainstream of today’s secular society, however, regards Church of the Holy Trinity v. U.S. and Justice Brewer’s thinking as relics. And some even offer counter-claims to the proposition that America began as a Christian nation, contending that The Federalist Papers, the fundamental explanation of the government established, contain no references either to God or to the Bible; that such leading architects of America’s founding as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison generally avoided biblical references in their writings; that no references to deity appear in the U.S. Constitution and only a few in the Declaration of Independence; and that the Founders emphasized “natural law” rather than “divine law,” believing that the rights of man inhere in his being, not because he is God’s creation.3
While the principles of “no establishment” and “free exercise” in the First Amendment may guide debates on the issues of faith and freedom, they do not govern their resolution. When the Founders stated, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” they left to succeeding generations the responsibility of interpreting and applying these two principles. Like putty that never hardens, succeeding generations have reinterpreted and reapplied these principles in many and often conflicting ways. For example, where prayer and Bible reading were once commonplace in public settings throughout America, they are now increasingly absent as the “no establishment” clause has trumped the “free exercise” clause on many issues pertaining to faith and freedom.
So where are we now? Confusion reigns. Most Americans profess religious faith, but they live in a society that has abandoned many public manifestations of faith. Religious and political leaders disagree on what to do about the situation, and competing constitutional principles often exacerbate rather than resolve the issues. Why have we come to this place?
Protestant Dominance: The Colonial Era
Always at least somewhat heterogeneous, America has accommodated and adjusted to the competing interests of many faiths. But does pluralism, which allows these competing interests to coexist, leave society devoid of moral understandings and a sense of direction? The answer to this important question rests in an examination of pluralism from the founding until now.
Protestant Christianity dominated American society in colonial times, according to French Roman Catholic writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who concluded: “The greatest part of British America was peopled by men who, after having shaken off the authority of the Pope, acknowledged no other religious supremacy: They brought with them into the New World a form of Christianity which I cannot better describe than by styling it a democratic and republican religion.”4 Harvard University historian Samuel Eliot Morison confirmed Tocqueville’s conclusion:
Puritanism was a cutting edge which hewed liberty, democracy, humanitarianism, and universal education out of the black forest of feudal Europe and the American wilderness. . . Puritanism is an American heritage to be grateful for and not to be sneered at because it required everyone to attend divine worship and maintained a strict code of moral ethics.5
Colonial and college charters in this era exhibited the marks of Protestant, particularly Puritan, Christianity. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1638 39) boldly declared its goal: “to maintain and pursue the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also the discipline of the Churches, which according to the truth of the said gospel is now practiced amongst us.” Similarly the Yale Charter stated this objective: “to propagate . . . the blessed reformed Protestant religion in the purity of its order and worship.”6
Common to many colonies were established churches, Puritan or Congregational churches in the North and Anglican in the South. Among the 13 colonies, seven had established churches.
Also widespread among the colonial charters and early state constitutions were religious tests for holding office. Pennsylvania, the most pluralistically tolerant state, required in 1776 that legislators take this oath: “I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.” The Delaware Constitution mandated that officeholders take this pledge in 1776: “I do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.”7
Protestant Christianity dominated colonial society, but not monolithically. Pluralism rather than unity typified Protestant Christianity. Found among the colonies were Baptists and Moravians, Quakers and Presbyterians, Mennonites and Congregationalists, Anglicans and Methodists and others. Other significant groups, although small in numbers, included Jews, Roman Catholics, and Deists, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Interestingly, Deists and Protestants disagreed on many religious doctrines, such as the divine inspiration of the Bible, but they agreed on two exceedingly important issues of faith and freedom: opposition to the establishment of a national church and support for individual freedom.
Foreshadowing Change: The Pre-Civil War Era
Although the big picture changed little between the founding and the Civil War, increases in religious diversity and immigration foreshadowed major changes and challenges. Protestant Christianity remained dominant, but Unitarianism, Transcendentalism and various utopian faiths presented doctrinal challenges. Unitarianism denied the deity of Christ and other cardinal Protestant doctrines; Transcendentalism taught that everyone has the spark of divinity and that no one is born into sin; and utopian religions desired to establish perfect communities. Waves of new immigrants, particularly Jews from Germany and Roman Catholics from Ireland, created the potential for even more significant challenges to the supremacy of Protestant Christianity.
Alexis de Tocqueville aptly described Protestant Christianity’s dominant role in society: “In the United States religion exercises little influence upon the laws and upon the details of public opinion; but it directs the customs of the community, and by regulating domestic life, it regulates the state.”8 Facing only minimal challenges to its dominance, Protestant Christianity had little need to assert itself in politics. Tensions between Protestant Christianity and other faiths that emerged during the 20th century owe their origins to this period, as do the origins of a less sacred and a more secular society.
Prelude to Change: The Civil War to WW II
The forces that ultimately challenged and toppled Protestant Christianity’s cultural dominance gained momentum from the Civil War to World War II. Thirteen million Roman Catholics and Jews immigrated to the United States between 1900 and 1914, sharp theological cleavages created cracks in mainstream Protestant Christianity, and pluralism made significant strides in American society. Since Catholics and Jews remained a distinct minority during this era, Protestant Christianity remained dominant, but not without feeling their presence. Responding to the waves of new immigrants with distinctly different faiths, Protestants attempted to reduce immigration, increased their emphasis on Bible reading in the public schools and promoted citywide revival meetings, stressing personal salvation and social reform, including Prohibition.
Internal divisions eroded the power of Protestant Christianity even further. Besides the advent of new holiness and Pentecostal movements, which created more Protestant denominations, Protestant Christianity ruptured theologically between the historically dominant conservative Protestants and the emerging liberal Protestants. Two of the most widely publicized battles occurred among Presbyterians at Princeton University and Seminary and in the northern Presbyterian denomination. Liberal Protestants won both. Inspired by such novel theological ideas as the social gospel and neo orthodoxy, liberal Protestants increased their political activism, aspiring to usher in the kingdom of God on earth through the lever of governmental social action. The Methodist Social Creed of 1908 represented one of the earliest statements of liberal social gospel theology. Neo-orthodox theology also influenced liberal Protestantism by redefining and modernizing such traditional conservative Protestant theological terms as sin, heaven, hell, righteousness, and salvation, making the terms more palatable to an increasingly secular America. Although conservative Protestants fought back, they lost most of the battles for control of mainstream religious denominations and colleges, including Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist and others.
Conflict and Transformation: WW II to the Present
On the eve of this era, the death of Prohibition foreshadowed a dramatic decline in the dominance of conservative Protestant Christianity. The demise of several decades-old traditions illustrates this decline, including Sunday closing laws, Bible reading and prayer in the schools, nativity scenes on public property, sermons by clergy at baccalaureate services and prayers before athletic events at public schools. Combined with the legalization of abortion and the legal recognition of homosexuality, conservative Protestant Christianity found itself on the defensive on many fronts.
Using their enlarged and better educated numbers, Roman Catholics helped to elect the first Roman Catholic president in 1960 and to secure financial aid for parochial schools in the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Averse to the dictates of Protestant culture on such issues as opposition to alcohol consumption and gambling and observance of Sunday as the Lord’s Day, Roman Catholics and Jews accelerated the decline of the historically dominant, conservative Protestant culture. The American Civil Liberties Union, together with many liberal Protestant and Jewish members, successfully challenged the cherished traditions of America’s conservative Protestant culture in the courts on such issues as prayer and Bible reading in the schools.
Opposed to the passing of America’s historic Protestant culture, conservatives counter-attacked. During the late 1970s, conservative leaders and interest groups began massive organizational efforts to challenge liberal Protestantism and the demise of America’s historic Protestant culture. In addition to their organizational and media efforts on television and radio, they started Christian schools in large numbers to oppose the secularizing influences of the public school system.
But conservative Protestants were not alone in their feeling of alienation from American culture. Conservative Roman Catholics sensed challenges to their own doctrinal beliefs on such issues as abortion and homosexuality. By the late 1970s and early 1980s conservative Protestants and Catholics had begun to fight for common interests, joining in 1980 to help elect Ronald Reagan as President. White Protestants in the South and conservative Catholics in the North migrated from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. On the interest group scene many conservative religious groups were formed, including the Catholic-inspired Eagle Forum and the Protestant-inspired Moral Majority and Christian Coalition, to challenge the National Council of Churches and other liberal religious interest groups.
Conservative Protestant resurgence, largely the product of Fundamental, Charismatic, Pentecostal and Evangelical denominations and organizations, paved the way for rapid church growth, including the megachurch movement, which spawned scores of churches into thousands of members. The fastest growing churches include independent, fundamental Baptists, Southern Baptists, conservative Presbyterians, such as the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) and the OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church), Charismatics and Pentecostals, such as the Assemblies of God and Church of God, and Mormons, although historically they are not considered a Christian denomination.
The Roman Catholic Church, divided between conservatives and liberals by the changes of Vatican II during the 1960s, experienced its own conservative growth under the leadership of a conservative Pontiff, John Paul II. Conservative religious orders, such as the Legionnaires of Christ, realized dramatic growth, while liberal religious orders, such as the Jesuits, suffered large losses. The charismatic movement also penetrated the Roman Catholic community. As Catholics dramatically increased their influence economically, politically and socially in American society, they set the stage for the “Catholic Moment” in America, an opportunity to eclipse Protestant cultural dominance.
Since the 1960s, conservative and orthodox branches of Judaism have enjoyed significant growth as more Jews began to take historic Judaism seriously. Additionally, Jews discovered new allies among fundamental and evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, whose biblical views inspired their support for Israel. Despite Republican Party entreaties, however, Jews have generally remained loyal to the Democratic Party. Republicans might have had more success in these appeals had they not offended Jews by their highly visible cultivation of conservative Protestants and Catholics.
The Black community, overwhelmingly Protestant, shifted its allegiance from the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln to the Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1930s where they remain, usually giving 90 percent or so of their votes to Democratic Party presidential candidates. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 and Jesse Jackson’s presidential candidacies in 1984 and 1988 solidified Black allegiance to the Democratic Party. Jackson’s close ties to the American Muslim community, however, alienated many Jews who had vigorously supported the civil rights movement. Ironically, the civil rights movement had depended greatly on Jewish financial, intellectual and political assistance.
Today, with the rapid rise of Islam in America, American pluralism has become more pronounced. Once known as the church of American presidents, the Episcopal Church now has fewer adherents than Islam. Although Muslims have not yet established a significant political presence, they have a sufficient population to begin influencing American values and moral understandings. Yet another rapidly growing movement contributing to America’s kaleidoscopic values and moral understandings, the “New Age” movement poses even more challenges to the cultural influences of both Protestants and Catholics, who emphasize the importance of God in creation and human existence. The “New Age” movement stresses that life exists separately from the external reference point of God and revealed Scripture. Manifested in spiritual, pagan, occult and metaphysical writings, “New Age” books possess a large presence on the bookshelves of major trade bookstores.
As America became more pluralistic, the American kaleidoscope became more complex, producing an ever-greater variety of values and moral understandings. First, immigration contributed to pluralism as Catholics, Jews and other immigrant groups challenged Protestantism’s dominance. Second, division within Protestantism, especially the advent of liberal Protestantism and the increasing number of Protestant denominations, added impetus to pluralism. Third, the power of traditional Protestantism gradually receded under the challenges brought about by immigration and division. Fourth, whether the current resurgence of conservative Protestantism is anything other than a brief reassertion of a lost past remains an open question. Fifth, likewise whether Catholicism can eclipse Protestantism’s influence, making this the “Catholic Moment” in America, remains problematic. Sixth, the rise of Islam and the “New Age” movement illustrates other pluralist forces contributing to diversity and division among American values and moral understandings. The modern era not only climaxes a long history of changes in American values and moral understandings, but it also points to the importance of discerning the significance of faith and freedom.
To what extent, if at all, should faith and freedom influence public life and democratic decision-making in America? Two conflicting answers with many variations in between illustrate the complexity this question poses.
First, some believe that human beings do not need either a supreme being or a book of sacred scripture to achieve self fulfillment and a cohesive society. The opponents of this position hold that without a firm moral foundation emanating from deity and sacred scripture, society’s foundations will crumble.
Many maintain that American democracy should use ethical and moral measurements of divine origin as the ultimate guide in making these decisions and judgments. But what are those measurements? In the largely conservative Protestant culture of America’s past, society and government could more easily reach consensus on this question. Ironically, in contemporary America such divergent voices as Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson on one hand and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on the other have claimed to know what those measurements are.
Deep divisions regarding the propriety of our divergent values and moral understandings tear us apart. Religion, once like glue bonding society together, now severs that bond. Competing on the same political terrain with nonreligious interests while trying to influence public policy, religious interests no longer function as they once did. In today’s pluralistic democracy, religious interests occupy a role no more exalted than any other interest. Secularization in American politics and society has generally lowered religious interests to merely another competing political force.
The issues are genuine. The emotions are passionate. The solutions are doubtful. In the courtroom and on the campaign trail, combatants on the issues of faith and freedom play for high stakes. Although religion influences politics, politics moves religion as a pawn on the political chessboard.
1 Robert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial (New York: Seabury Press, 1975): ix.
2 Norman De Jong, “The First Amendment: A Comparison of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Supreme Court Interpretations,” Journal of Political Science 16 (Spring 1988): 69.
3 Charles W. Dunn, American Political Theology: Historical Perspective and Theoretical Analysis (New York: Praeger, 1984): 10-28.
4 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1954): 311.
5 Charles L. Wallis, ed., Our American Heritage (New York: Harper & Row, 1970): 26.
6 For this and a selection of other founding documents, see: Charles W. Dunn, The Conservative Tradition in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996): 132-35. See also: Benjamin Perley Poore, ed., The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters and Other Organic Laws of the United States (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1877).
7 Dunn, The Conservative Tradition in America: 132-35.
8 Alexis de Tocqueville as cited in Robert S. Alley, So Help Me God (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1972): 21
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