Religion has often been viewed by courts and the media as the errant stepchild of American culture, something to be restrained by erecting a “wall of separation” between church and state.
But the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District changed all that. Rather than seeking to erect a barrier between the state and religion, the court will now judge state involvement in religion with “regard to historical practices and understandings,” i.e., whether the activity would agree with the Founders’ understanding of permissible state involvement in religion at the time of the Constitution’s drafting.
This new emphasis on historical analysis not only compels judges to revisit the Founders’ understanding of the relation between church and state but in doing so allows for the rediscovery of the role played by religion in the formation of the republic. So great was its influence that one might characterize religion not as the stepchild but as a progenitor of the Constitution.
At the time of the Revolution, much of colonial culture had been shaped by religion. Many early settlements were founded as religious sanctuaries. The Puritan establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Roger Williams’ founding of Rhode Island, William Penn’s establishment of the Quaker settlement in Pennsylvania, and Maryland’s founding as a haven for Roman Catholics attest to the significant role religion played in the formation of colonial culture and governments.
But an even more significant influence came from the religious movement known as the Great Awakening and its chief spokesman, George Whitfield. It was Whitfield and the Great Awakening that literally changed the colonists’ perception of themselves, their relationship to each other, and their obligations to the monarchy.
This change in perspective arose in a unique set of circumstances. The mid-18th century saw colonists enjoying a freedom and prosperity that was truly unique at the time. Yet, like their English counterparts, they lived in a hierarchical society, one reinforced by church teaching as seen in the preaching of Jonathan Edwards: “All have their appointed office, place, and station, according to their several capacities and talents, and everyone keeps his place and continues in his proper business.”
Though buffered by prosperity, this hierarchy clearly justified rule by a divinely appointed monarch through his ministers and members of various classes staying in their place. But Whitfield’s preaching undermined and eventually destroyed this concept of the social order.
At the heart of the Great Awakening was a radical social equality, the idea that all of mankind was fallen and equally needed to be “born again.” The implications of these ideas were truly revolutionary. All stood equal before God in need of redemption, king and commoner alike. This concept of radical spiritual equality was echoed over and over again in Whitfield’s sermons. Similarly, emphasizing the need for all to follow God’s laws undermined monarchical authority, placing adherence to God’s law above temporal authority and making British law subject to a higher authority.
In a secular age, it is difficult to appreciate the impact that one man’s preaching could have. But contemporary accounts bear witness to the power of Whitfield’s influence, attesting to the fact that he often preached outside to crowds of between 25,000 and 30,000. His sermons were so powerful that listeners often had deep emotional experiences and changes of heart. According to Edwards’ wife Sarah, “He could move men to tears. … It is truly wonderful to see what a spell this preacher often casts over an audience by proclaiming the simplest truths of the Bible.”
Even the deist Benjamin Franklin could be moved. Recounting attending one of his sermons, Franklin recorded, “I silently resolved that he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles of gold. As he proceeded I began to soften … and he finished so admirably that I emptied my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.” Franklin was so impressed by Whitfield that he later used his influential newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, to promote Whitfield’s work.
During the 30-odd years that Whitfield preached in the colonies, it is estimated that over 80 percent of their residents heard him preach. He was the most well-known and influential figure in colonial America.
Though Whitfield’s greatest influence was on the common working people of the colonies, our Founders and foreign observers were equally aware of the critical role of religion in shaping our new institutions. Where else could a self-governing people find the standards to govern their conduct if not in religion?
It is no accident that the Declaration of Independence is based on the “laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” that John Adams would state that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” or that Alexis de Toqueville would observe, “In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country.”
Whitfield provided for so many colonials a new definition of the self and a redefinition of one’s relationship to government. But he also contributed to a new national identity by breaking down the barriers between denominations. Before the Great Awakening, religious identity was often defined by the conflicting theologies between sects. Now, all found common ground and unity in the universal doctrine of equality before God and the need to be born again.
Given this history, it is difficult to deny the enormous importance of religion in the “historical practices and understandings” of the time.
It is difficult to predict what results this new criteria will produce. But as one ponders the impact of religion in the formation of our nation, an even larger question appears. In a therapeutic culture that substitutes subjective feelings for defined principles and critical thinking, where else can standards for decision-making come from if not from religion?
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