GOD OF LIBERTY: A RELIGIOUS HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
By Thomas S. Kidd
Basic Books, $26.95 304 pages
Baylor University history professor Thomas S. Kidd attempts too much with this thought-provoking, meticulously researched book. All at the same time it is a history of evangelical Protestantism in America, a study that links the religious beliefs of our Founders into a political alliance and, finally, a meditation on religion’s role in today’s increasingly secular American political scene. It can get a bit confusing.
Nevertheless, this book is a salutary reminder of the role religious belief played in the founding of our country. It is all the more valuable because that story clearly is in danger of being expunged from the historical record or even twisted into an example of the political hypocrisy of a time when God was often invoked but allegedly ignored. It is high time somebody put the lie to that particular fable, and Mr. Kidd does it in readable fashion.
In the beginning, the 13 British colonial ventures in North America were a hodgepodge of conflicting and often contentious religious beliefs. The irony, of course, is that many of the early settlers were refugees fleeing the dangerous intolerance of England’s fratricidal wars between Catholics and Protestants; between the Church of England and the various dissenter sects; and political conflicts tinted with religious differences involving the Scottish and Irish dependencies. Although they should have known better, our early Founders did not hesitate to be as intolerant of those whose theologies differed from theirs as the established church powers had been back home in Mother England.
Mr. Kidd’s evidence for the key role of evangelicals in our national narrative begins somewhat after the founding, with the inauguration of President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. One of the anecdotes of my childhood memory is that Jefferson’s reception at the White House after his swearing-in was turned into a brawl as the crowd rushed a huge block of cheese sent by an admirer. It turns out that the cheese, all 1,235 pounds of it, with the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” stenciled on the red crust, came from a Baptist evangelist from Connecticut named John Leland.
Two days before, Leland had delivered a sermon to a joint session of Congress in which he had startled his audience by speaking on the text “Behold a greater [one] than Solomon is here,” in a clear reference to Jefferson, who was, after all, a well-known deist who disdained the religious doctrines of most Christian denominations even as he acknowledged a higher power over the affairs of men.
The two men were bound together by a long-standing friendship that had begun with Leland’s forays into Virginia before the Revolution. They found a common cause in the struggle to prevent an official established church - such as the Church of England - from being set over the Colonies. This was a struggle that predated the cause of independence. The Congregationalist establishment in New England barred Baptists like Leland from holding government posts; it restricted their building of churches and made it an offense to conduct their services without licenses.
Elsewhere, believers of other denominations, such as the Presbyterians, were discriminated against by the Church of England establishment in the Southern Colonies. Even in Quaker Pennsylvania, which offered toleration of all religions, tensions were a constant.
Mr. Kidd cites four other points of common cause that bound the early evangelicals and the early drafters of our founding documents on civil rights into a loose but nonetheless effective alliance.
Most obvious was a general agreement with the notion that God was the guarantor of fundamental human rights. This ran head-on into the traditional European notion that God anointed kings to rule over and protect their subjects. But Founders such as Jefferson and John Adams were early advocates of the view that there were “certain unalienable rights” given directly by God to all men equally.
Another point of agreement was distrust in government in general. This distrust came out of awareness that men were not angels and that to give one set of men too much power over the rest was risky business. This consensus would inform the rebellion against Parliament but also the outcome of our own constitutional debate later. on
A fourth point Mr. Kidd raises seems to have gone by the wayside. In reaction to the rampant corruption of the parliamentary system of the day and the greed of the Crown, both Founders and evangelicals agreed that government and society as a whole should strive to be virtuous. If people acted selfishly and demanded more than their entitlement, anarchy would lead inevitably to dictatorship.
Finally, both groups agreed that God - or Providence, as Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin would have said - does move through nations. As the countdown to rebellion and separation began in earnest, it followed that patriots and proselytizers alike saw the divine mantle fall about American shoulders. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny that followed was an easy reach at that point.
One of the times when Mr. Kidd reaches just a bit too far is when he tries toward the end of the book to conflate the radical evangelists of the 1700s and their liberation theology with today’s genre of conservative churchmen whose preoccupation seems centered on limiting full membership in our society to groups judged to be morally unfit. Still, it’s a story that is worth considering and one that the author tells in a highly readable fashion.
James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.” His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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