God of Liberty

Looking to spice up a boring Christmas party this year? Ask your friends, family, and neighbors if America was founded as a Christian nation. Then step back and watch the fireworks. At least two camps will emerge. One will stress the founders’ words extolling the virtues of Christianity. The other will cite the founders’ debt to Enlightenment notions of liberty. Both have plenty of ammunition to keep the debate raging long after the eggnog is gone.

If you want to re-engage the argument as the voice of reason, hand out copies of Thomas Kidd’s new book, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. Kidd, associate professor of history at Baylor University, examines the tensions that make this dispute about America’s founding so difficult to resolve. The founders did not endorse a secular vision for the nascent nation. They believed Christianity (or at least religion in general) encourages the public virtue necessary for effective governance. At the same time, Kidd points out that founders such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison harbored little sympathy for orthodox Christian belief. But they teamed up with evangelicals to disestablish the state churches, unleashing the spiritual dynamism that has characterized America ever since.

Opposition to state establishment for churches was one of five ideas about public religion shared by Americans in the revolutionary era, Kidd argues. These ideas shape Kidd’s entire historical presentation. The others are:

  • a creator God guarantees fundamental human rights;
  • human sinfulness threatens the polity;
  • virtue sustains the republic; and
  • God/Providence moves in and through nations.

Kidd, author of The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, revisits the revivals of the 1730s and 1740s, “the most profound social upheaval in the history of colonial America.” According to Kidd, these revivals threatened church hierarchies and prepared the way for rebellion against political leaders. As revolution approached, religious and political ideas mixed in occasionally strange ways. Many Patriot pastors were profoundly influenced by non-Christian philosophers, chiefly John Locke, in their views on liberty and government. Meanwhile, General George Washington did not strike contemporaries as particularly observant in his Episcopal faith. But chaplains found no stronger advocate.

Such cross-pollination between politics and religion had crossed the ocean from England with the Puritans, and it continued into the Constitutional era. Kidd wisely allows the tension to linger where it cannot be simply explained. He observes that political and religious leaders commonly talked about virtue, especially during the national crisis that followed the Revolution and preceded the Constitution. But the virtue preached by the evangelical heirs of Jonathan Edwards could be sustained only by Christian faith. On the other hand, the virtue Benjamin Rush and several other founding fathers extolled was not evidently indebted to Christianity. All, however, agreed America could not survive without it.

Kidd does not shy away from making moral judgments even as he functions primarily to guide readers through primary documents from the period. Then as now, some Christian leaders readily interpreted national events according to their understanding of God’s providential working. Religion and politics intertwined. Church and state marched together into each battle. During the Revolution, high-profile evangelical preachers such as William Tennent and Richard Furman rallied support for the Patriot cause. Kidd writes:

The civil spirituality served as a transcendent framework in which to define, justify, and fight a war and establish the new American nation. It unified the cointinuum of American believers around the proposition that ‘the cause of America’ had become “the cause of Christ”-or at least of Providence (9).

In one of the most powerful sections of the book, Kidd tells the story of a Baptist chaplain who exhorted soldiers to do their duty for the sake of Christ Jesus as they torched 40 Iroquois towns sympathetic to the British and cut them off from their means of sustenance. Kidd concludes, “Providentialism was the most morally problematic religious principle of the Revolution” (130). Here he sounds an alarm much like Harry Stout did with his groundbreaking book Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War. Both historians observe orthodox theologians exploiting God to justify terrible violence. Kidd’s moral sense also emerges in a chapter about slavery. Even before the Revolution, the seeds of civil war germinated.

Many readers will applaud Kidd for pointing out the deeply significant Christian influence on America’s founding. Indeed, I hope other historical interpreters will follow Kidd’s lead and account for Christianity, especially the evangelical variety he knows so well. He makes much of Jefferson’s decision to ground the Patriot case for human rights in creation. Even if Jefferson cynically calculated this Christian formulation was necessary to gain public support, we should still recognize the powerful religious contribution to early America.

At the same time, Kidd offers no support for Christians who want to claim all the founders as their own. Kidd is not so much concerned with arguing whether Jefferson, Washington, John Adams, and others could sign orthodox creeds. He is more intent on tracing the Christian origins of their key arguments and observing their strategy for rallying Americans for revolution. He also seeks to account for a paradox we take for granted today, that America boasts both freedom of religion and vibrant religious life. He finds answers in the enthusiastic support some evangelicals granted Jefferson, a deist, in the 1800 president race, when so many other Christians warned he would unleash a torrent of ungodliness on America. We forget the terrible persecution Baptists and other dissenters suffered at the hands of established churches. During the 19th century, when the last state churches disestablished, these evangelical dissenters would propel the most vibrant religious movements in America.

Kidd’s research sheds much-needed light on debates that linger today, such as the nature of the Constitution. He argues that the Constitution sets up neither a Christian government nor government that excludes God. Rather, its authors sought to bring Americans together for the common good. Kidd writes:

The Constitution did not endorse secularism. It erected a shelter for free religious practice and at the same time responded to the need for public virtue. It did not seek to promote any particular denomination. By refusing to do so, it made Christianity in America stronger than ever. Evangelicals pounced on the opportunities created by disestablishment to spread the gospel of the new birth throughout the country, with no fear of persecution from the national government or from most of the states (227).

Kidd’s religious history of the Revolutionary era does not bolster conservative arguments for an explicitly Christian founding of America. The historical record doesn’t allow it. But Kidd’s gift for analyzing complex historical events and explaining them with concise, compelling theses gives us much more to discuss and debate about this fascinating, formative time.

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