Religion & Republic Foreword

May 28, 2024

Recently I came across this astute observation, made in 1963, from the right-wing populist Willmoore Kendall, writing about the relationship between American Conservatism and religion:

The problem, put briefly, is this: the United States is—has been down to now anyhow—a Christian society governed, or rather self-governed, under a secular Constitution; nothing short of the sea-change I mentioned a moment ago, is likely to deprive Judaeo-Christian religious beliefs of the special status, approximating that of a public truth, that they enjoy within it. But, also, nothing short of such a sea-change is likely, in the foreseeable future, to gain for them a more privileged status than they now enjoy. Attempts to resolve the religious-society- secular-Constitution tension in the United States, in either the one direction or the other, are not only divisive, but contrary to the American tradition itself.1

As much as any observation I’ve come across in the past several years, these three (run-on) sentences explain the confused and combustible situation American Christians find themselves in as we enter the second quarter of the twenty-first century. While the tension began to unravel after World War II, Kendall could still plausibly argue in 1963 that the enduring “problem” of a religious society with a secular Constitution had not been resolved in one direction or the other. Six decades later, Kendall would not, I trust, make the same claims. In most parts of the country, in most elite institutions, and in most public debates, Christianity is no longer “a public truth.” If anything, opposition to Christian beliefs—especially related to ethics and morality—is, in the most powerful quarters of the country anyway, the new public truth.

Part of what makes Kendall’s observation relevant is that he was speaking explicitly about American conservatism. Progressives are happy to cut the religious-society-secular-Constitution tension by reshaping America into a thoroughly secular, if not positively anti-Western and anti-Christian, nation. Conservatives, on the other hand, know that such a reshaping is not only wrong about the American past but is poison for the American future. And yet, because so much of our culture, our laws, and our society’s general assumptions about meaning and morality have become anti-Christian, there is an understandable impulse among many conservatives that they only solution is to break the tension hard in the other direction. For many Christians, the answer to Ross Douthat’s question “How should contemporary Christians react to the decline of their churches, the secularization of the culture, the final loss of Christendom?” is a loud call to establish a Medieval-style Christendom or to reframe a continent-sized country of 330 million people along the lines of sixteenth-century Geneva.1 Whether these bold visions prove courageous or merely Quixotic remains to be seen. After all, we cannot know the future.

But we can know the past, and throughout our history as a country, America was neither a repristination of Calvinist Geneva, nor a secular novus ordo seclorum. Kendall’s warning explains why we live in such divisive times. From 1789 onward, there existed a sometime contentious but often complementary set of convictions that (1) America would never have a federally established Christian Church and that (2) America was and always had been an obviously Christian country. That is to say, from the end of the eighteenth century until the second half of the twentieth century, and especially in the nineteenth century, America could be fairly described as a nation held together—in law, in culture, and in shared assumptions—by a broadly Christian order that privileged Protestant Christianity while also tolerating religious minorities.

If this reading of history becomes more well-known and more widely accepted in the years ahead, I’m confident that we will have this book to thank. Religion and Republic is a deeply researched work, written with verve and lucidity by Hillsdale professor Miles Smith—an excellent historian, a man of many opinions (!), and, I should also say, a friend. Miles’ argument is straightforward: “What this volume proposes is that the United States Constitution’s disestablishment did not secularize society, nor did it remove institutional Christianity from the civic, state educational, or political spheres.” Elegantly simple. And, I’m convinced, true.

As I write this Foreword, public theology (at least on the internet) is dominated by arguments for and against Christian Nationalism. I agree wholeheartedly with Miles that historians and ministers would do well to set aside the term, whether one wants to wave Christian Nationalism as a banner or employ it as a bogeyman. The fact is that the term is of recent vintage and that no one agrees what it means. Is Christian Nationalism shorthand for theocracy, Catholic integralism, Trumpist Republicans, church establishments, the necessity of a strong-armed Christian prince, the views of the magisterial Reformers, Christian discipleship, Christians laws, Christian influence, or something else? As Miles points out in the book, it is all too easy for one side to label everything they don’t like as Christian Nationalism, and the other side to label everything they do like at Christian Nationalism. Religion and Republic makes a convincing case that Christian Nationalism does not represent the best of the disestablished liberal Protestant tradition as it came to flourish in the American republic.

The importance of Miles’ work is that he demonstrates so fully and so convincingly what disestablishment did and did not mean in the nineteenth century. On the one hand, American republicanism, enamored as it was with liberty, was always allergic to any hint of Erastianism, suspicious of any notion that the government had a right to interfere in church business. America’s version of liberalism was the liberalism of tolerance, of limited government, of civil and religious liberty. The Constitution enshrined the principle (on the federal level) that there could be no establishment of religion—a principle that worked its way through the states over the next forty years. Unlike almost all of Europe, there would be no state church in America.

But disestablished did not mean disentangled. American Christians went along with disestablishment, and often were champions of it, not out of a position of weakness, but of strength. Protestant Christianity did not need a state church to maintain its privileged position in the American civil, political, and social order. Even as the individual states continued down the road of disestablishment, Christian institutions proliferated, Christian beliefs were resolutely defended, and the American people were often warned against ignoring the Christian foundations of their republican experiment in self-government. Disestablishment was not the same as secularism, or even religious pluralism. True, everyone agreed that government should not be sectarian, but this did not mean government ought to be anti-religious, irreligious, or even had to be strictly neutral on religious questions. Virtually no one in America in the nineteenth century conceived of a political and social order devoid of religion. What’s more, the religion they assumed was necessary and ought to be protected and promoted was Protestant Christianity.

Religion and Republic is a history book first and foremost. Unlike some contemporary historians, Miles refrains from using history as a (rather obvious) Trojan horse for political and theological agendas. Miles wants to show us what was, not lay out a plan for what ought to be. And yet, if there is an implicit exhortation in the book, it is to consider again the wisdom of “Christian institutionalism.” In good conservative fashion, Miles reminds us that too often evangelicals have prioritized the individual or the nation-state, without giving much thought to the intermediate institutions that sustain human civilization. Christians can start by taking civil and social institutions seriously, not confusing them with the church or confusing the church’s mission with their mission, but taking them seriously nonetheless.

American Protestants should not be fooled into thinking they can turn back the clock to the consensus that existed in the Early Republic. For better or worse, their world is not our world. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the way we were, for any political project seeking to renew the future of America must be grounded in the realities of the American tradition. And that means initiating people into a tradition that was something other than Christian Nationalism or anti-Christian secularism or mere libertarian proceduralism. It means teaching our own history as people who once conceived of themselves as both a religious people and as a republic.

You can purchase a copy of Religion & Republic from the Davenant Institute.

This content was originally published on Davenant Institute

You might also like