Religion & the Founding: MSW's Wrap Up

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last week, I looked at five books all of which, in different ways, had significant bearing on the relationship of religion to the American founding. Too often, secularists have ignored the influence of religion in late colonial and early Republican America. Too often, Christians have sought to claim the founding as a Christian event. Both efforts have a grain of truth but a pound of falsehood. What are the takeaways from the book we surveyed?

From Linda Colley’s Britons we learned that anti-Catholicism was part of the foundation of Britishness in the eighteenth century, creating a common bond among the English, Scots and Welsh who shared an island but little else in the way of common culture. They also shared a common enemy, Catholic France, and as British identity was shaped, it defined itself in large part by what it was not: Britons would not be slaves. They would not be subject to arbitrary government nor to priestcraft. They were free because they were Protestants. Words like “slavery” and “freedom” had precise meanings to eighteenth century Britons on both side of the Atlantic, meanings that we no longer associate with those words. But, any Catholic who tries to ascertain the religious influences on the American Revolution must come to grips with this fact: Anti-Catholicism was in the air the colonists breathed.

From Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, we have seen the decisive role played by “country whig” political ideology in not only shaping the attitudes of the revolutionary generation, but in serving as a kind of glue that allowed other, disparate ideological strains to form a coherent whole. It was through this lens, more than any other, that the Revolutionary generation made sense of the crisis they faced. This “country whig” political ideology was rooted in the most virulently anti-Catholic strains of English history, beginning in the effort to stamp out any residual popery during the English Civil War, leading the opposition to James II at the time of the Glorious Revolution and maintaining a fierce distrust of government throughout the age of Walpole. It was deeply conspiratorial in a way that would make Oliver Stone blush. From Bailyn, we learn that two dominant themes of the “country whigs” would be especially fruitful in energizing Americans to break with the mother country. First the belief that religious and civil tyranny always worked in tandem and, second, the profound influence of Hobbes on eighteenth century thought. There was no ideological oxygen in Revolutionary America for Catholic ideas about the common good and the role of the state. And, we saw that Bailyn labeled this “country whig” political ideology “libertarian.”

From Patricia Bonomi’s Under the Cope of Heaven we saw how religious events in colonial America helped set the ideological table for the American Revolution. The Great Awakening introduced a less deferential, more combative type of public discourse. The Seven Years War brought anti-Catholic and anti-French attitudes to the forefront of colonial suspicions. The controversy over the establishment of an Anglican bishopric in the colonies rekindled latent fears about the union of civil and religious tyranny, and reminded the dissenting and low-Church Anglican colonists that what they feared most about the Church of England was its residual popery.

Robert Emmett Curran’s Papist Devils catalogued the experience of anti-Catholicism by Catholics in British North America, their early hopes dashed in Maryland and New York, their adjustment to the penal laws, and, finally how the ideas of tolerance and equality associated with the Enlightenment opened up new opportunities for Catholics. Those Enlightenment ideas ran into strong headwinds of anti-Catholicism, to be sure, as colonial governments continued to apply the penal laws restricting Catholics with varying degrees of severity. By law, Catholics saw their faith become privatized and, they developed a defensive posture towards the ambient culture that would long outlive the legal restrictions. Catholics of the Revolutionary generation shared, to a degree, in the Enlightenment confidence in rationalism and science to craft a better world than the one they had known, and the political configurations of the early Revolutionary period permitted Catholics to re-enter the political arena. The belief that Catholics could never be good citizens would live on in the culture, but it would never again have legal sanction in what became the United States.

Finally, from David Holmes’ The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, we saw how Deistic influences, drawn from the Enlightenment, intermingled with Christian sensibilities among many of the founding fathers, yielding what they might have called a practical Christianity. This heterodox variant of Christianity was more dangerous, I believe, than simple apostasy precisely because it retained a Christian veneer while undermining the core. The Christianity of the founders was shorn of its doctrinal foundation, reduced to ethics, and considered in a thoroughly utilitarian manner. In our own day, when those ethics were made to stand on their own, they could not withstand the whirlwinds of modernity. To borrow from the parable we heard at Mass yesterday, the Christianity of the founders fell among the weeds. The adjectives that best describe the founders’ understanding of Christianity are privatized and secularized. This did not start with President Obama and it is not going to end with Hobby Lobby.

It is true that Enlightenment ideas about equality and tolerance opened a window of opportunity for Catholics to enter the public square. But, even without the penal laws, they were only allowed into the public square as citizens of a largely Protestant country, not as Catholics. The idea that Catholics could not, per se, be good citizens may have lacked legal sanction but it would persist into the 1950s when Paul Blanshard’s anti-Catholic diatribes routinely sold thousands upon thousands of copies. Hubert Humphrey, one of the finest public servants of his day, was not above tapping into the residual anti-Catholicism of the culture when he chose as his 1960 campaign theme song “Give me that Old Time Religion.” I cannot emphasize this enough: Catholics have been let into the public square to the degree they mimicked Protestant understandings of faith as a personal and private affair, and to the degree they made it subservient to other interests. Few are the times in American history when Christianity has challenged the dominant commercial ethos of the culture.

The Enlightenment, of course, was not a Catholic project. It is true that the English Enlightenment was less hostile to religion than its French counterpart. Nonetheless, it rejected those elements of Catholicism that most obviously bound Catholics together – the sacraments, especially the Mass, the Creed, and a social doctrine, mostly latent at the time, that acknowledged the value of human freedom but did not privilege that value among other values, certainly not above divine truth. Modern liberal democracy is built precisely on the privileging of human autonomy above other values and, in its most extreme iteration, libertarianism, the value of human autonomy stands not only pre-eminent but alone. In America, liberalism wore a different face than its ideological progenitors imagined for it, serving first under Jefferson, later under Jackson, and finally under FDR, as the political force of those groups whose ambitions were unmet by the dominant business interests. Liberalism in U.S. history has always had a communitarian flavor. Today, that flavor is challenged by a type of libertarianism of the left.

It would be going too far to say that the American Revolution was an anti-Catholic event. But, anti-Catholicism was a kind of frame that highlighted the different ideological strains of those who agitated for revolution, and bound them together into a cohesive ideological whole. Colonial Americans worried that the chorus of Rule Britannia might no longer be true, that Britons might become slaves, and they decided to strike out on their own in search of freedom. But, what they meant by freedom was conditioned by what they meant by slavery, and what they meant by slavery was, in part, to be Catholic. To say that the founders built better than they knew is not only to be condescending towards these most erudite, learned men, it is to commit a great historiographical sin, to dismiss the stated reasons for action put forward by the actors at the time. They knew precisely what they were doing, though they would have acknowledged they had little idea how it would turn out. Nonetheless their confidence in human reason fed their confidence that it would turn out well. What they were not doing is building a Christian nation in any meaningful sense of the word Christian. Any attempt to baptize the American founding must grapple with these five books that I surveyed last week and any book that fails to do so is unworthy of its readers.



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