Recognize effect of religion on American society and politics
For many Americans, especially millennials, government and politics are replacing religion. Instead of attending to the dusty Bible on their bookshelves, frustrated voters are increasingly idolizing our political leaders as agents for great revolution and, perhaps, revelation. The problem is that politicians are not almighty, and yielding to them with such deference can result in great disillusion.
Let’s take a step back. The United States was intended to be an areligious nation since the beginning. Article 6, Clause 3 of the Constitution which states, “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” was the first constitutional demonstration of this reality. While this clause necessarily forbade the formal intermingling of religion and politics on the national level, it was the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment, effective since 1789, that “buil[t] a wall of separation between Church & State,” according to a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists in 1802.
Upon initial examination, it may seem as simple as that. The two salient clauses are compelling, and despite engendering much debate since their inscription, it is not unreasonable to assume their abiding authority. But insofar as they imply the areligious nature of their authors, the clauses are misleading.
In fact, a close examination of the lives and written works of the four men typically regarded to be America’s main Founding Fathers — John Adams, Ben Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — reveals their devotion, in varying sects and degrees, to religion. What’s additionally fascinating is the extent to which some of them “recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature,” according to Louis D. Brandeis, and viewed religion as the chief medium by which individuals could cultivate virtuousness.
Today, a very different view prevails — but first let’s understand the religious views of our second and third presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, respectively.
Born and raised a Congregationalist, Adams was “both a devout Christian and an independent thinker, and he saw no conflict in that,” according to biographer David McCullough. Notwithstanding the occasional skepticism of formal religious institutions, Adams had full faith in a sovereign God and the utilitarian value of religious belief, writing once in an 1813 letter to Thomas Jefferson, “Those general Principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the Existence and Attributes of God.”
Adams envisioned the new democracy as a nation to champion not only religious tolerance but also religious liberty. He expected the new nation’s secular nature to encourage religious belief rather than deter it. In a speech to the military in 1798, Adams declared, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion … Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Adams suggested that to live under a government which protects each individual’s liberty requires each person’s temperament to be characterized, to a certain degree, by self-restraint, which he believed could be best acquired by religion.
For that reason and others, Adams encouraged religious belief among early Americans and almost became a minister himself.
Ostensibly an Anglican, Thomas Jefferson’s beliefs were somewhat more complex than Adams’. Jefferson was suspicious of organized faith and the Christian clergy, whom he believed had corrupted the original meaning of the Bible. In his book “The Faiths of Our Fathers,” historian Alf J. Mapp writes about the complexity of the statesman’s faith: “If Jefferson had ever been a youthful atheist, he had soon moved on to agnosticism, then to a faith grounded in classical and Biblical sources, and finally to an unorthodox Christianity.”
Jefferson’s critical view of Christianity was influenced heavily by the Enlightenment, but as historian Eugene R. Sheridan writes, Jefferson was unique in that his “rationalism led him ultimately to an affirmation of faith rather than a rejection of religious belief.”
It is therefore unsurprising that by the middle of his life, Jefferson valued religion principally for its moral instruction because, to Jefferson, its “purpose in life was the improvement of man and society in this world rather than the next,” according to the same historian.
Regardless of whichever faith tradition Jefferson genuinely followed, it is clear that his writings reveal some conviction in a transcendent God. Take one of the most revolutionary clauses of the Declaration of Independence as an example: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
Jefferson’s notion of divinely inspired natural rights was also influenced by Locke, who wrote that people are “by nature, free, equal and independent.” While philosophers further to the left generally view rights as social constructs, those such as Jefferson and Locke believed that rights and morality must be grounded in the sovereign to be universal.
Since then, the religious landscape of the United States has shifted dramatically. According to a Nov. 23, 2015 Pew Research Center report, fewer Millennials consider religion “very important,” and accordingly, fewer believe in God than do those of older generations. What does this suggest? Is rationality replacing religious observance in the one country that has long defied the close link between a nation’s wealth and religious belief? Is the true Enlightenment finally upon us?
The answer is not in this election cycle, at least. If Americans once deferred to the Divine for inspiration and moral guidance, they now largely yield to government and politics. Today’s politicians propagate grandiose ideas that instill a false sense of hope in the American populace. Just consider President Obama’s 2008 campaign slogans: “Hope,” “Change” and “Progress.” As a politician, Obama pioneered the use of divinity-invoking rhetoric as a strategic campaign asset, declaring many times his will to “change the world,” a line that resonated with many of his party’s followers.
In a March 4, 2012 New Yorker piece, Ryan Lizza sheds some light on the omnipotent character of Obama’s campaign slogans: “If there was a single unifying argument that defined Obamaism from his earliest days in politics to his Presidential campaign, it was the idea of post-partisanship.” The parallel is clear: Just as the divine transcends the constraints of the material world, Obama believed that he, too, could transcend the limits of operating within a divergent two-party political establishment.
Sociologist Max Weber’s conception of a “charismatic authority” can afford us some clarity on this dangerous type of veneration. Weber was known to enunciate three types of authority: traditional, legal and charismatic. According to sociologist Lisa Wade, “Traditional authority derives its power from custom, legal from bureaucracy, and charismatic from cult of personality.”
A “charismatic leader” is characterized by the degree to which his or her constituents afford a “specific and exceptional sanctity, heroism” and trust to their beloved. Hitler and Mussolini have fit this category of authority historically, and I would contend that Trump, in the present political context, does as well. This parallel is specific to the notion of charismatic authority only. “Believe me,” the futile phrase he seems to employ constantly, is all he needs to galvanize the applause and electrify this spirit of his enormous crowds.
The long-term effects of a total submission to politicians like Trump can unquestionably be devastating. We need not look beyond the last century to realize that.
The Founders would be deeply disappointed with the sort of glorification and reverence granted to politicians today. They were deeply skeptical of government and encouraged Americans to cultivate virtue through belief in something transcendental, not fellow mortals.
As author and poet David Foster Wallace once said, “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” Exalting the divine has long been grounding, providing moral direction and the opportunity to cultivate virtue. Such reverence for politicians does no such thing. It just confuses, disillusions and disappoints.