Contrasting judgments often arise from studying the Niagara of words that justified the American War for Independence—together with all the words that circulated anxiously during the parlous years under the Confederation Congress—which rose to a great flood in the period 1787 to 1790 in debate over the new Constitution, and which continued to flow during the administrations of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson in controversies over executive power, national economic duties, national security with respect to aliens and the seditious, the shape of federal judicial authority, and much more.
Contemporary separationists find, not surprisingly, that the strongest tendencies from the founding were separationist: However much the founders relied on religion for private purposes, they intended American politics to take place in a sphere insulated from direct religious influence. Contemporary accommodationists, of course, find just the reverse: However deeply committed the founders were to the separation of churches from the institutions of government, they thought it was imperative that religion inform all public matters up to the line prohibiting formal institutional connections between church and state.
For both sides in modern political debates, much seems to depend on the exegesis of such documents as the fast and thanksgiving proclamations of the Continental Congress; Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” against the Virginia plan for multiple church establishments; Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom in Virginia; Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist Papers, and state debates over ratification of the Constitution; Washington’s extensive consideration of religion in his farewell address; the obscure treaty with Tripoli that denied any special religious character for the new United States; and other landmark statements from this early history.
Such serious study of the period from 1774 to 1800 is hardly pointless, wrongheaded, or misguided. And yet, for the purpose of clarifying contemporary debates over religion and public life, we must recognize that both religion and politics experienced two foundings in the United States.
The first took place in those intensely studied years after Lexington and Concord. But the second founding came later—in the first half of the nineteenth century, for religion, and in the tumultuous events of 1861 to 1876, for politics. Certainly the first foundings did influence what came later, especially by providing a republican vocabulary for talking about American public life and by establishing Christianized republicanism as one widely accepted way of uniting religious and political concerns. Yet the second foundings were different. They established the specific conditions, circumstances, and points of tension out of which contemporary realities for religion and politics have emerged. We cannot grasp religious and political interactions today without recognizing both of America’s foundings.
The case for treating the Civil War and Reconstruction as the second political founding of the modern United States has been made frequently. In this perspective, the decisive event—and every bit as pivotal as the break with Britain in the 1770s—was the unequivocal triumph of national authority over local authorities through the Union victory in the Civil War. While the Confederacy defended its cause by calling it “the Second American Revolution,” the South was in fact contending for the political equipoise that had been achieved in the first American Revolution.
That equipoise entailed a genuine national government, but a government whose power was tightly limited both by the wide scope guaranteed to the states in the Constitution and by the persistent uncertainty over the question whether states that had joined the Union by their free action could withdraw from the Union by their free action. The real Second American Revolution was carried out by the Union armies in decisively exerting national power over local authority and by decisively answering the presenting question about the states’ freedom of action.
With the Union victory, legislative compromises on the question of national versus state power, which had been painfully hammered out in 1820, 1850, and 1854, were all superseded. In addition, a trajectory of judicial interpretation was overturned that had climaxed in the Dred Scott case of 1857, which nullified congressional efforts to restrain the states in exercising the local authority spelled out for them in the Constitution.
The constitutional counterpart of Union military victory was the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Explicit national power was asserted to end slavery, which had been implicitly guaranteed by the Constitution of 1789; explicit national power was asserted to guarantee the rights of all citizens, which also dramatically expanded the writ of federal authority over against state prerogatives long sanctioned by usage and judicial interpretation; and explicit national power was asserted to guarantee the right to vote, which right had heretofore been under the control of the states.
What came next was not, of course, the Great Society, the Voting Rights Act, or even the New Deal. Antebellum habits of local authority and the deeply ingrained republican jealousy of national government long survived the great expansion of federal power demonstrated by military victory and inscribed by amendment into the Constitution.
In particular, pervasive racism made a mockery of the postbellum constitutional amendments. A general retreat from the activist reform-mindedness of the antebellum period also meant that, when the nation’s great surge of industrialization took place in the 1870s, the scope for national action that had been won in the war and enacted in the amendments was not immediately exploited. Small-government principles and republican fears of overarching national authority, which reflected the legacy of the first founding period, were enough to ensure that local racism, both North and South, would continue largely unchecked and that the expansion of business would develop almost as if the Civil War had not occurred and the postbellum Constitutional amendments had not been passed.
Yet, even as the histories of race and business unfolded under the Jeffersonian, laissez-faire legacies of the first founding, a growing number of developments showed that a new public world had indeed been created at the second political founding. These developments included the unprecedented expansion of the United States as an imperial power at the end of the nineteenth century and the national mobilization for World War I that followed soon thereafter—and against which there was no effective opposition. In the constitutional realm, even if the courts refused to act to restrain race discrimination or curb business giantism, much else was moving the other way. Constitutional amendments to allow for a federal income tax, to mandate female suffrage, to standardize the election of senators, and to prohibit the sale of alcohol—all followed the path of expanded federal authority that the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments had opened.
In other words, the Civil War and Reconstruction did not blot out the effects of the first founding, nor did the second founding instantly create the United States as we have known it for the past seventy-five years. Still, the great national events since the 1930s unfolded from national actions, constitutional principles, and contested moral-legal problems that date from the Civil War and Reconstruction.
The New Deal, for example, can be seen as Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to do by the expansion of federal power over the economy what Abraham Lincoln had done by the expansion of federal power over historic states’ rights. The Second World War—as also the Korean, Vietnamese, and Gulf Wars—illustrated the nation’s instinctive turn to military action as the way to defend political principles while pursuing international policy. As such, they can be seen as modern reenactments of the Civil War (but not as reenactments of the defensive War of 1812 or the expansionist Mexican War). The Civil Rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, which at the time and since has been called the Second Reconstruction, may have been inspired by the words of the Declaration of Independence, but it was carried out as a delayed implementation of the Fourteen and Fifteenth Amendments. And the modern clash of principles concerning the use of governmental power—as seen, for example, in Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, on the one side, and Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson, on the other—represents an ongoing argument over how and in what ways, rather than whether, to put to use the great reality of federal power.
Such modern events and debates do not reprise the Federalist-Antifederalist arguments of 1790, when the very existence of a federal government was at issue. But they do reprise the debates of 1865 to 1876, when the pressing issue was how to use the national authority that had so recently demonstrated its power with such irrefutable authority. The events of the mid-nineteenth century so fundamentally altered the shape of American politics, and so redirected its trajectory, that they have become the lens through which all subsequent interpreters look back to the first founding.
The difference in religion, between America’s first and second foundings, is just as significant as the difference in politics. During the 1780s and 1790s, religion in the new United States existed in a state of confusing transition. The colonies’ one total religious system, New England Puritanism, survived only in fragments, its integrative force destroyed by the pietism of revival and the secularization of the revolution. The main colonial alternative to Puritanism—established Anglicanism in the South—was even more thoroughly discredited through its association with the repudiated rule of the British king and parliament. In general, the War for Independence and the confusing years immediately after the war seriously disoriented or discredited the churches that had been the main bearers of religion in the colonial era.
To be sure, local religious revivals promoted by evangelical Protestants were taking place at many locations throughout the 1770s and 1780s, but these revivals were at work on frontiers, among African Americans, as a result of Methodist itineration, and in response to Baptist lay preaching—in every case, that is, far from the new country’s geographical or social centers of power.
From this shaky situation there followed an explosion of religion, especially of evangelical Protestant religion. No other period of American history has ever witnessed such a dramatic rise in religious adherence as took place from 1800 to 1860. In no other period did main religious habits break so directly with what had gone before. In no other period has there been such a radical upsetting of the main assumptions about how to organize and practice religious faith.
Expectations in the early years of national history, and from some of the wisest Americans of the founding period, highlight how different the new American religion was. During the early days of the Continental Congress, the Baptist leader Isaac Backus came to Philadelphia to complain about the hypocrisy of Massachusetts in protesting against “enslavement” by Parliament when Massachusetts itself was persecuting Baptists and other Protestant dissenters. In response, John Adams told him that the Massachusetts establishment of religion was, in fact, very light; moreover, in Adams’ view, it was more likely that the sun would not rise than it was for Massachusetts ever to give up the establishment of religion. Only a little later, such notable Founding Fathers as John Jay, Patrick Henry, and John Witherspoon all campaigned for a dispersed establishment whereby tax money would be collected by state governments and then distributed to all the churches that petitioned for a share.
Other expectations of what religion would look like in the new republic included the prediction welcomed by Thomas Jefferson, but decried as a catastrophe by Jefferson’s religious opponents, that the United States would come to favor the rational, enlightened, and ameliorative faith of Unitarianism. As late as 1820, Jefferson wrote a young friend that he expected some form of Unitarianism to be the dominant religion in the United States. That prospect, which so encouraged Jefferson, was anathema to his foes, but many of them thought it just might happen, as testified by the religious militancy of their fierce opposition to Jefferson in the presidential campaign of 1800.
For their part, many leaders of the Congregational and Presbyterian denominations expressed the confidence that some form of established or quasi-established Calvinist faith would exert preeminent religious influence over the new republic. They were not entirely wrong, especially since American higher education continued to be conducted as primarily a Presbyterian or Congregational enterprise until well past the mid-nineteenth century. But the idea that the nation as a whole would be docilely led by the Presbyterian Princeton of John Witherspoon and Samuel Stanhope Smith, the Congregationalist Yale of Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight, or the pastor-leaders of Union College and the many other colleges founded more or less as Reformed Protestant academies—that idea was a fantasy.
The American believers during the first founding who formulated the fewest explicit plans for the religious future of the United States were those who were consumed by the religious present. Methodists under the leadership of Francis Asbury, Baptists under the leadership (then as now) of no one person in particular, and Disciples (or “Christians” of “the Christian Church”) responding to the appeals of Thomas Campbell and Barton Stone were busy from the 1780s, and became even busier after the turn of the new century. But they were busy in pursuit of specifically religious tasks. Their concern was to preach the gospel, seek the salvation of souls, organize small groups and congregations, impress the need for discipline on families, recruit young men (and a few young women) willing to exhaust their lives as itinerants, and publish as much effective devotional literature as they could to inspire their loosely bound networks.
For some Baptists and the Methodists, especially so long as Asbury was alive, politics nearly did not exist. For other Baptists and the followers of Campbell and Stone, the Christian message was thoroughly mixed with a republican ideology jealous for liberty and hyper-alert to the corruptions of power. In the latter case, these plebeian believers did express a political hope for the nation, but it was a negative hope that the United States could remain free of the toils of plutocracy that had so bedeviled Europe.
In general, for Methodists, Baptists, and the many smaller varieties of Protestant sectarianism, there were few specific predictions about the religious future of the United States. The sectarians were simply too busy. Their eyes were fixed too steadily on the battle for souls now and on the glorious prospects of millennial dawn. Yet the path of the American future was being created much more by these sectarians who were not involved in the project of defining an American future than by the representatives of the colonies’ main churches who went on record predicting how their inherited forms of established Protestantism, or some variation of those forms, would guide the way through the nineteenth century.
In other words, what actually developed in the religious history of the United States was something much different from what almost anyone could have predicted as late as 1795 or even 1800. Yes, there would be a formal separation of the institutions of church and state so far as the nation was concerned, as specified by the First Amendment. And, yes, the states would eventually follow this national pattern, though in several cases not for several decades.
Moreover, the early United States could not entirely divest itself of the habits of Christendom, even as patriots of all kinds denounced the institutions, mental habits, and traditions of Christendom as among the most corrupt and most corrupting legacies of the benighted European past. So it was that an American national government, which was a product of revulsion against entanglements of religious power and political power, for decades made the House of Representatives in Washington available for public services of Christian worship; so it was that Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to see a wall of separation between church and state, did not oppose government-sponsored chaplains in Congress and the military; so it was that fear of Catholicism as an inherently corrupting exercise of religious power remained a primary factor in republican ideology; and so it was that when tax-supported education began almost no Protestants scrupled at mandated readings from the King James Bible, which seemed to be more a foundation of civilization itself than the prop of any one specific Christian denomination.
Still, it was clear that the shape of religion in the new United States was going to be different from the shape of religion as it had existed in any other major center of Western civilization. Amazingly, public religious life in the United States came to follow the non-course laid out by the Methodists, Baptists, and “Christians” rather than the well-defined course foreseen by religious leaders who anticipated for the United States a modified form of traditional church-state establishment or an American form of the eighteenth century’s religion of reason or a continuation through informal means of the dominance exerted formally by the traditional churches.
The American religion that flourished so luxuriantly in the first sixty years of the nineteenth century was republican: It had internalized the fear of unchecked authority and the commitment to private virtue that drove the ideology of the first political founding. But it was also Christian republican: The virtue that the United States’ energetic itinerants promoted was not classical manliness but humility in Christ. The religion that came to prevail was more antiformal than formal. It did not trust in ascribed authority or inherited bureaucracies but rather in achieved authority and ad hoc networking. It was populist or democratic, championing the ability of any white man to assume leadership in any religious assembly. And it was biblicist, speaking of the Scriptures as a supreme authority that trumped or even revoked all other religious authorities.
Above all, the religion that came to prevail so vigorously in the nineteenth-century United States was voluntaristic. Voluntarism was a mind-set keyed to innovative leadership, proactive public advocacy, and entrepreneurial goal setting. Voluntarism also became an extraordinarily influential practice that began with church organization and then mushroomed to inspire local and national mobilization on behalf of myriad social and political causes. Voluntarism also became a foundation for the strength, and weakness, of American society as a whole. Local civilization would be built as local groups and individuals enlisted to address local needs. Not government, not an inherited church, not the dictates of big business, but enterprising connections—forged voluntarily—built American civilization in the decades before the Civil War.
But mention of the Civil War highlights also the great weakness of American voluntaristic civilization, since in the clash of principle and interests that led to the war there was no authority able to deflect the antagonistic energy generated by the Northern and Southern civil societies that emerged in the early history of the United States.
A few small-scale voluntary societies had been formed in the United States before the turn of the nineteenth century, but as self-created vehicles for preaching the Christian message, distributing Christian literature, encouraging Christian civilization, and networking philanthropic activity; the voluntary society didn’t come into its own until after about 1810. Many of the new societies were formed within denominations, and a few were organized outside evangelical boundaries, like the American Unitarian Association of 1825. But the most important were founded by interdenominational networks of evangelicals for evangelical purposes. The best-funded and most dynamic societies—the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810), the American Bible Society (1816), and the American Education Society (1816)—were rivaled only by the Methodist Church in their shaping effects on national culture.
To the intimidating challenges posed by disestablishment and the vigorous competition of a rapidly expanding market economy, the combination of antiformalist denominational mobilization, revival, and the voluntary society offered a compelling response. Observers at the time took note of the innovation. Rufus Anderson, an early organizer of the American missions movement, wrote in 1837: “The Protestant form of association—free, open, responsible, embracing all classes, both sexes, all ages, the masses of the people—is peculiar to modern times, and almost to our age.” Later historians, especially Andrew Walls, have described in more detail “the immense impact on Western Christianity and the transformation of world Christianity which (through its special focus in the missionary society) it [the voluntary association] helped to effect.”
Voluntary agencies transformed the shape of American religion in the first half of the nineteenth century. A period of tumultuous, energetic, contentious innovation first reversed the downward slide of Protestantism and then began, as an almost inevitable process, to shape all of American society by the standards of evangelical religion. Most remarkably, evangelicals even conquered the South, where an honor-driven culture of manly self-assertion had presented a far less propitious field for labor than regions to the North where the Puritan leaven survived.
Between 1790 and 1860, the United States population increased eight-fold; the number of Baptist churches increased fourteen-fold; the number of Methodist churches twenty-eight-fold, and the number of Disciples or Restorationist churches cannot be figured as a percentage, since there were none of these churches in 1790 and more than two thousand in 1860. Significantly, the growth in the number of Catholic churches—only a handful in 1790—was even faster: nearly forty-fold over this same seventy-year period. But even Catholicism developed, in the United States, under the energetic force of evangelical expansion.
This expansion of voluntaristic, modestly sectarian, democratic, and republican forms of Christianity constituted the second founding of American religion. While not as free from the effects of historic European Christendom as many Americans thought, the dominant religious faith in the United States at mid-century was neither an expression of European Christendom nor a fulfillment of what the United States’ leading public figures of the 1770s had predicted.
In turn, the antebellum period’s dynamic voluntary evangelicalism established an enduring template for the nation. Later religious movements would move well beyond the boundaries of evangelical Protestant belief and practice. But religions that have flourished in the United States have done so by adopting, to at least some degree, many of the free-form, populist, and voluntaristic traits that evangelical Protestants pioneered.
Politics after the Civil War moved in an orbit different from the orbit of politics in the late eighteenth century. And the most influential religious pattern in the United States was solidified in the first half of the nineteenth century rather than in the founding era of the late eighteenth century. Once both these facts are recognized, it is possible to understand what often goes wrong when we attempt to adjudicate contemporary situations with resources drawn from the revolutionary and constitutional eras. A great deal of contingent history succeeded that first founding, and this history has led to political and religious realities far different from what existed in the last decades of the eighteenth century.
The historical situation can be restated this way: For the religious-political principles hammered out in the era of the revolutionary and constitutional periods, the main business was to protect the new nation from the excesses, abuses, corruptions, and intrinsic failures of European Christendom. But for the realities in place after the second foundings of religion and politics, the main business has been to establish religious-political guidelines that recognize the political authority of federal power in a nation where religion has flourished and exerted broad social influences as a voluntary force. The principles of the first foundings looked backward to a European past, but the realities of the second foundings define issues, problems, and situations created by the ongoing American present.
All this leads to several suggestions about the contemporary assessment of the tangled issues of religion and politics. First: Many of the most important issues of contemporary religion and politics simply cannot be resolved by referring to principles and precedents of the first founding. Since the principle of the separation of church and state as defined in that era was focused on correcting problems of European Christendom, problems that have arisen in the wake of the United States’ second foundings often cannot be solved by reference to the first founding.
Second, contenders on all sides of current religious-political issues need to restrain their appeals to history. Instead, appeals to precedents and principles of the first founding should always be put in the context of an awareness of how the history of the United States actually developed. Treatments of the constitutional era as establishing either a Christian republic or a thoroughly secular modern state are especially damaging, since they make it harder, rather than easier, to resolve contemporary problems in accordance with main historical developments since the constitutional era.
Third, no one gains anything by complaining about the federal government as such or the exercise of national authority as such. Since the era of Lincoln, Sherman, and Grant—and the era of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments—a large, powerful, and potentially active federal government has simply become a fact of American life.
Fourth, a strong argument can be made from American history that, without a large and active federal government, the United States’ greatest moral problems could never have been resolved. I regard the first of these problems as slavery and the second as the pervasive racial discrimination that long survived the formal end of slavery. For these two intractable political problems, which were also pressing moral problems, there was no solution without the exercise of active federal power, first in the Civil War and then in the civil-rights laws and judicial decisions of the 1950s and 1960s. Whatever evil consequences came from the expansion of federal authority because of the Civil War and its expansion to enforce civil rights, great good was also the result.
Fifth, for reasons articulated strongly in the first foundings of religion and politics, and continuing as important principles in the second foundings, worries about unchecked national government are not whimsical. Reasons for wanting to check governmental power are, in American history, intimately intertwined with the commitment to religious and social voluntarism that has always done so much to define the most positive features of American civil society.
Sixth, since the strength of religion in American history has been its voluntary organization, religious organizations would be well advised to guard carefully their voluntary character while they carry out their religious and social missions. With the prospect of government assistance to faith-based organizations in view, churches and other religious bodies would be wise to adopt the advice of A.B. Simpson, which he offered to his Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination when it faced the question of speaking in tongues. Simpson’s advice was to “seek not, forbid not.” The strength of America’s voluntary religious heritage is not imperiled by a small measure of government funding, but it will be imperiled if religious groups insist on that funding and come to rely on that funding for their existence. Religion in America flourished when it was most acutely aware of corruption from state entanglement; it has always exerted its most beneficial public effects in the shape of the NGO.
Seventh, as the modern civil-rights movement suggests, religious interventions in American public life are most effective when they are directed at principles developed in the nation’s second foundings. The call of energetic voluntary organizations to implement what already existed in the post-Civil War constitutional amendments was a call that, eventually, had to be heard. Similar appeals have the prospect of similar compelling power.
Eighth, for causes that cannot be securely grounded in the first or second foundings, the course must be to realize that religious interventions should be advocated through public arguments that rely more on moral persuasion, on appeals to long-term self-interest, and on the other well-tried means of democratic polity than on well-intentioned but historically uninformed appeals to the past.
This list of suggestions derived from acknowledging that the nation’s two foundings may not include the most important consequences. Yet efforts to resolve the nation’s current problem of the intersection of religion and politics will not advance far without thorough understanding of the nation’s second foundings in religion and politics as well as that of the first.
Mark Noll, professor of history at Notre Dame, is the author most recently of The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina). This essay is adapted from a lecture first given at the Center for the Study of the Principles of the American Founding at the University of Chicago.