The author of God of Liberty amassed an enormous amount of research about the role of religious belief in the founding of the American nation. His book explores the principles of public spirituality and their connection to the success of American civil society. His message is straight forward: the political left’s determination to drive religion out of the public square is not supported by the Constitution, by statements made by the Founders, or by the historical record.
God of Liberty is the first comprehensive account of religion’s role in the American Revolution, although T. H. Breen’s American Insurgents, American Patriots, also discusses it at length. Kidd writes with both passion and historical precision. His research is wide ranging and his incisive prose is the product of an analytical mind.
Kidd explains that the early colonies did not embrace religious freedom, “that principle had to be crafted in the era of the Revolution.“ The colonists believed in state support of a particular religion, either Anglican or Congregationalist, and banned non-Christians or heretics from public office. The Great Awakening challenged those beliefs. The author follows the careers of leading evangelical figures and charts their influence on colonial America. He draws on a wide array of sources, including clergy of various denominations and familiar and unfamiliar individuals representative of the period.
State persecution of religious dissenters, and taxation to support establishment churches regardless of individual belief, convinced evangelical leaders and their followers that the union of state and church led to the corruption of both.
The author writes, “The birth of the American evangelical movement in the 1740s resulted in the first widespread popular uprising against established authority in the history of British colonial America, and it heavily influenced many of those who would fill the rank and file of the Patriot movement in the American Revolution.”
God of Liberty, like T.H. Breen’s book, points out that evangelicals and patriots went over the heads of their leaders and rallied the people to obey God and not their British overseers.
The convergence of new British taxes and repressive religious practices caused the colonists to join political with religious liberty. John Adams, in 1765, writing in opposition to the Stamp Act (the Braintree Instructions), paired British civil and ecclesiastical oppression. Adams warned that the British threat to colonists’ freedom was religious as well as political, asserting that the Anglican Church would be used to bring recalcitrant colonists to heel.
James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were Enlightenment liberals who joined the evangelicals and others in support of disestablishment. The collaboration was given voice months before the Declaration of Independence when the colonies began to reorganize their governments free of British aegis. Madison helped to write The Virginia Declaration of Rights, which included the proclamation of “the free exercise of religion” for all. That phrase would be repeated 15 years later in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Although deists and evangelicals were an unlikely pairing, they were united in the belief that political and religious freedoms were intertwined. Enlightenment writers like John Locke, who greatly influenced the Founders, advocated religious freedom well before the struggle with Great Britain. Kidd concludes that religious liberty succeeded in America because evangelicals, rationalists and desists fought for it together.
He lists the principles that united Americans of diverse beliefs:
They rejected state support of churches; they endorsed the concept of a Creator God as the guarantor of fundamental rights; they believed that government was needed to restrain human sinfulness, and that a separation of powers was needed to restrain government; they believed that only a virtuous citizenry could sustain the republic and that religion was the best source of virtue. Finally, they promulgated the claim that the American uprising reflected
God’s special purpose.
Patrick Henry melded religion with the struggle for liberty in his most famous speech. He called the struggle against Great Britain “a holy cause of liberty,” and asserted that God would fight on the colonists’ side.
Kidd writes, “Secular political ideas and financial matters undoubtedly drove many of America’s revolutionary leaders into supporting not just resistance but revolution, yet the evangelical tradition supplied spiritual propulsion to the Patriot cause that was unsurpassed by any other element of Patriot ideology. …Without evangelicalism’s resources for criticizing political power and rousing popular sentiment, the Patriots would never have commanded the allegiance of so many Americans.”
However, when the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in 1787, they did not by any means represent unanimity of opinion. When the shoals of disagreement were finally negotiated and the document sent to the states for ratification, approval was by no means certain. Kidd writes that even the Enlightenment rationalists perceived the hand of God in its adoption.
In his 1796 Farewell Address, George Washington celebrated the joining of religion and republican virtue. The author writes, “Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, the authors of the Federalist — all helped Washington pen this address, making it an almost uniquely representative expression of the political philosophy of the Founders. In this speech, Washington powerfully articulated his confidence in religious republicanism.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, writing about his observations of the new nation, saw “Americans’ Christian ethos as keeping democracy’s worst features in check. He believed that people’s actions resulted, fundamentally, from ideas—or lack thereof—about God and about divine expectations for moral behavior.”
The First Amendment ensures both the free exercise of religion and government neutrality in religious matters. Kidd exposes the fallacy of interpreting “separation of church and state” to exclude religion from civic life. He writes, that a secular republic was a concept “almost incomprehensible in the mental world of the founders.”
President Jefferson, the author of the benighted “separation” statement, routinely permitted worship in federal buildings, including church services in the Treasury Building, the War Office, and the Supreme Court!
Secularism dismisses religion as a transmitter of morals and a bulwark against the ambitions of the state. What that portends for the future of the republic was best summarized by Will Herberg (1906-1977), a Jewish theologian and social commentator who, some 40 years ago, rejected the direction in which some would lead the nation.
His words provide an appropriate ending for this review.
The attempt made in recent decades by secularist thinkers to disengage the moral principles of western civilization from their scripturally based religious context, in the assurance that they could live a life of their own as “humanistic” ethics, has resulted in our “cut flower culture.” Cut flowers retain their original beauty and fragrance, but only so long as they retain the vitality that they have drawn from their now-severed roots; after that is exhausted, they wither and die. So with freedom, brotherhood, justice, and personal dignity — the values that form the moral foundation of our civilization. Without the life-giving power of the faith out of which they have sprung, they possess neither meaning nor vitality.