Sehat's Myth

Sehat's Myth May 25, 2011

David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom is a really useful book. It manages to explain a great deal of American history and cut through a number of tedious debates in the process.

I think there are two major concepts from Myth… that are the most important for understanding his theory of how American government interacted with Christianity. I’m going to try and draw them out in a few posts. The first concept is civic republicanism. (note the small “r,” this is not related to the political party)

For the Good of All …

Pullquote: “…civic republicanism, the ancient political belief, inherited from the Romans, that republics were sustained by the virtuous public-mindedness of their citizenry.” p.32

Civic republicanism is a modern term for an old political idea. The idea is that society needs to control the individual. Civic republicans believed that individuals should give up their own self interested desires for the good of the community. It was called “civic humanism” when I was in college. If you wanted to be pretentious, you could say that it is part of the “republican synthesis.”

Civic republicans tended to believe that too much individual liberty would lead to anarchy. They proposed laws that would strengthen non-governmental institutions that restrained the individual and educate people in the civic virtues. These institutions included churches, families and marriages. Civic republicans also wanted the government to step in when these institutions failed and enforce common morals.

This republicanism placed emphasis on the interests of the community over the interests over the individual. It is diametrically opposed to classical liberalism (sometimes called “Lockean liberalism”) which stressed the importance of the individual and individual rights.

Religion and Government

Pullquote: “Christian Republicanism … defined virtue more narrowly: the ability or willingness of individual citizens to submit to the moral law of God as revealed in the Old and New Testaments” p.32

During the founding period of American history, most civic republicans were Christian. Christianity – particularly the Reformed Christianity that was prevalent in the US after the First Great Awakening – viewed humans as fallen creatures with a sinful nature. This made it a natural partner for civic republicans, who wanted to restrain this “sinful” nature.

Sehat identifies a sub-species that he calls “Christian republicans.” These people wanted the Government to specifically support Protestant Christianity in order to promote moral behavior. While a less sectarian civic republican would advocate laws against taverns, brothels and other places of vice, a Christian Republican would also advocate laws against blasphemy and sabbath breaking and generally find ways to support the Protestant religion.

Not every Christian was a Christian republican, and not every Christian republican was (technically) Christian. John Adams, a unitarian and thus not a “mere Christian,” produced a constitution for Massachusetts that limited civil rights to Christians and imposed a religious test for political office that barred Catholics. But these policies were criticized by John Leland, a Baptist minister, who snapped that it “would read much better in a catechism than in a state constitution.”

This highlights one of the problems of our current argument. The focus on what religion the founders were is not useful. Adams, who considered himself a Christian but defined Christianity in a way that most of his contemporaries would not accept, was nevertheless an advocate of a close relationship between religion and government. Leland, a more traditional Evangelical Christian, was a liberal who wanted to allow any upstanding citizen to hold office, whether they were “a Jew, a Turk, a Pagan, or a Christian of any denomination.”

Church and State

Pullquote: “Whereas the general diffusion of Christian knowledge hath a natural tendency to correct the morals of men, restrain their vices, and preserve the peace of society; […] Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That for the support of Christian teachers, per centum on the amount, […] is hereby assessed”
Patrick Henry, “A Bill Establishing A Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion”

Liberals like Leland, Thomas Jefferon and James Madison were in the minority. Civic and Christian republicans had more in common with each other than with liberals, and they essentially had their way with the state constitutions.

In the early days, some Christian republicans went so far as to subsidy churches from the funds of the State governments. Patrick Henry’s attempt in Virginia from the pullquote was stopped by Madison, but at the signing of the Federal Constitution, six states had relationships like this with certain old line Protestant churches. This fell apart in the following decades, as the Evangelical churches – too splinted and suspicious of government to join in – overtook the older protestant churches.

But the Evangelicals were dedicated Christian republicans, even more so than the old-line protestants they replaced. Moreover, Evangelicals tended to believe that society should reflect Christian principles, and that law should reflect morality. And so a coalition of evangelical and old-line protestant Christians would put in place what Sehat calls the “moral establishment.” More on that in another post.

I’ve been writing about this in the past tense, but obviously civic republicanism is still very much alive. Although no one has ever used the term to describe themselves, you can hear it in many debates over morality. Whenever someone argues that allowing gay marriage will ultimately cause society to fall apart, you can know that they’re at the extreme end of civic republicanism.

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