By RALF GRÜNKE
The role of religious thought and practice during the 17th and 18th centuries is often underestimated and sometimes misunderstood by today's Americans, speakers concluded during a special Library symposium on June 18-19, complementing the LC exhibition "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic."
Eight presenters delivered lectures to several hundred staffers, clergy and members of the general public during a total of four sessions in the Coolidge Auditorium. Jaroslav Pelikan, Sterling Professor of History at Yale University was chair of the symposium.
David D. Hall, professor of American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, delivered the Thursdaymorning session's only paper, speaking about "Religion in 18th Century America." He proposed that the differences in how Americans practiced religion during the 18th century become most apparent by comparing New England with the Southern states.
"In the South, church-going was more of a social activity than a spiritual concern," Mr. Hall explained. Religious practices were little regulated and religious literature was rare, whereas the religious life of New England was organized around duties and expectations, particularly regarding the sacraments of the church, according to Mr. Hall. "Almost as soon as a child was born, parents wanted their child baptized," he noted, adding that parents deeply wanted their children to have a covenant relationship with God, as explained in Genesis 17:7.
Immigrants from Britain and central Europe continued to introduce new religious elements, increasing the diversity in the new world, Mr. Hall concluded.
Mr. Hall began by quoting from Revelations 3:15-16: "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot. I would that thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold not hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth."
Mr. Hall said the diverse approaches to religiosity during the 18th century in America make research of this time period fascinating. "Religion cold, hot or lukewarm -- all of these are the dream of the historian."
During the afternoon session, John Witte Jr., from the Emory University School of Law, reflected on two models of religious liberty during his presentation on "How to Govern a City on a Hill: Religion and Liberty in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution."
"Jefferson thought that true religious liberty required both the disestablishment and the free exercise of all religions. The state, he insisted, should give no special aid, support, privilege or protection to any religion," Mr. Witte explained. Jefferson insisted that all forms of Christianity must stand on their own feet and on equal footing with non-Christian religions.
According to Mr. Witte, John Adams promoted a model of religious liberty distinctively different from Jefferson's. "Adams thought that true religious liberty required the state to balance the establishment of one public religion with the freedom of many private religions. The notion that a state and society could remain neutral and purged of any religion was for Adams a 'philosophical fiction.'" Mr. Witte explained that the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, which Adams largely drafted, achieved this balance between the establishment of one public religion and the freedom of all private religions.
Thomas E. Buckley, S.J., from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif. (pictured below, photo by N. Alicia Byers), told the audience he would talk about the two things his mother always said nice people never talk about: politics and religion. His topic was "The Use and Abuse of Jefferson's Statute for Establishing religious Freedom: Separating Church and State in 19th Century Virginia."
Mr. Buckley said that Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom is "central to the story of religious freedom and the development of church-state separation in our republic." By way of example, he noted that both proponents and opponents of the 1947 Everson decision, in which the Supreme Court extended the First Amendment's Establishment Clause to the states, "linked Jefferson, Madison and the struggle to pass the Virginia Statute to the formulation and adoption of the First Amendment a few years later."
At the beginning of the 19th century, Virginians were convinced that Jefferson's statute "mandated strict separation and provided them with bricks and mortar to build Jefferson's wall," and they acted accordingly, Mr. Buckley said. For example, they disqualified Methodist deacon Humphrey Billups from the Virginia legislature, opposed the incorporation of seminaries and other churchsponsored agencies and freed their education system from sectarian notions, Mr. Buckley explained. He concluded that like the Founders, most Americans would agree that religious freedom is one of the nation's most prized legacies and recognize the "important benefits the religious faith of our people confers on our republic."
Arguing against the popular notion that Thomas Jefferson's metaphor of a "wall of separation between church and state" represented a general, universal theory of church-state relationships, Daniel Dreisbach from American University in Washington presented his views about "Thomas Jefferson, a Mammoth Cheese, and the 'Wall of Separation Between Church and State.'"
On New Year's Day, 1802, Jefferson received a "mammoth" Cheshire cheese, measuring more than 4 feet in diameter and 17 inches in height, as an expression of admiration from Baptist preacher John Leland. On the same date, Jefferson penned a response to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association, in which he explained why he refused to declare national days of fasting and thanksgiving.
"The mammoth cheese was for a brief season at once the most celebrated object in America," Mr. Dreisbach said. However, while the cheese is mostly forgotten, the phrase "wall of separation between church and state," which Jefferson used in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, has entered the American vocabulary as a standard expression, he said.
"Jefferson's 'wall' is accepted by many Americans as a pithy description of the constitutionally prescribed church-state arrangement," Mr. Dreisbach said. He explained that contrary to public opinion, there is little evidence that the Danbury letter was a general pronouncement on the prudential relationship between church and state. "Jefferson thought their letter provided an opportunity to explain why he declined to follow the tradition of Presidents George Washington and John Adams in designating days for public fasting and thanksgiving."
Addressing the topic "Republicanism and Religion: The American Exception," Mark A. Noll from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., spoke first at the June 19 morning session. Mr. Noll illustrated how strikingly unusual it was for Americans to link republicanism and traditional religion.
"The two ideals remained more or less alien to each other in the other English-speaking North Atlantic societies," he said. "Republicanism in the sense of a system at odds with monarchy and the ancient church-state establishment was a new coinage at the end of the 17th century."
Mr. Noll explained that Americans have become so accustomed to think of the values of religion and republicanism as supporting each other that it is difficult for them to understand why defenders of traditional religion once looked with such suspicion on republican convictions. He noted that the religious republicanism of the United States was possible because of the ideological flexibility and the absence of a vigorous church establishment.
Following Mr. Noll, Catherine A. Brekus from the University of Chicago Divinity School discussed "Women and Religion in the Early Republic," explaining that by separating church and state, the Founders established the basis for a new acceptance of women's religious and political equality to men.
"Before there was a political revolution for American women in the early republic, there was the beginning of a religious revolution," Ms. Brekus suggested. "The separation of church and state represented a fundamental restructuring of American religion around the principles of freedom and competition. Without the power to enforce religious conformity, ministers increasingly depended on women, the majority of their congregations, for financial and psychological support."
Ms. Brekus said that as churches began to give women greater opportunities for involvement and leadership, they worked side by side with men to build a more religious society.
"By 1825 it was common wisdom that women's Christian morality was the glue that held the republic together."
Opening the afternoon session, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute discussed "The Influence of Christianity and Judaism on the Founders." Mr. Novak argued that during the past 50 years, political philosophers and judges have overemphasized the Enlightenment and dismissed the religious sources of American habits and institutions.
"Judaism and Christianity provided a great deal more than meets the eye to the American founding," Mr. Novak asserted. "Important elites in American life seem to have more in common with the French understanding of the antagonism between the Enlightenment and religion than with the understanding of the Founders. For the Founders, reason and revelation are not in fundamental opposition. Rather, on the central importance of human liberty, they converge."
Mr. Novak explained that the religiousness of the American Revolution was unlike the atheism of the French Revolution. "In America, the first fires of revolution were lit by the Puritan preachers of New England and their counterparts throughout the 13 Colonies," he said. "For the Americans, religion -- the Christian Bible, the Protestant churches -- were the sources of the revolution, and the cause of liberty was also the cause of the churches."
Americans' belief in God allowed them to have a different perspective of liberty, Mr. Novak argued. "This deity would one day ask of each human an accounting for his thoughts and deeds. In other words, how humans use this liberty matters infinitely. Liberty is no trifling matter. Liberty, so to speak, is the purpose for which the sun and the stars are made."
The symposium's concluding speaker, Jon Butler from Yale University, suggested that the pre-Revolutionary 'Colonial nation' may have been nominally or even formally Christian only on the surface, as he spoke about the topic "The Question of the Christian Nation Considered."
"It is surprising -- or perhaps it is not surprising at all -- how seldom, if ever, contemporaries between about 1760 and 1790 referred to America as a 'Christian nation,'" Mr. Butler said. "However politically useful in either the 19th century or in our own times, the concept of the 'Christian nation' does not resonate well with facts of 18th century Colonial and American history."
Mr. Butler concluded that even though Colonial law usually upheld Protestant Christianity, it did not measure the Christian commitment of the people. "These laws made sense precisely because actual Christian adherence in the population was relatively weak, not because it was strong or overwhelming," he stated. "In short, the law existed to compel Christian attachment."
According to Mr. Butler, "church membership was far lower on the eve of independence -- about 80 percent of adults did not belong -- than it is at the end of the 20th century, when it runs about 60 percent of adults. In this light, we might rethink the 18th century Colonial congregational expansion. Rather than seal the identity of the Colonies as 'Christian,' it mainly helped to keep Christianity's head above the waters of the public indifference to Christian practice and belief."
Providing comments on the paper presentations were Michael Crawford, head of the Early History Branch of the Naval Historical Center in Washington; Rosemarie Zaggari, professor of history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.; and James Smylie, professor of church history at the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va.
Mr. Grünke is an intern in the Public Affairs Office.