There was a religious element to the American Revolution, which was so pronounced that you could just as well view the event in religious as in political terms. Many of the founders, especially the Southerners, were rebelling simultaneously against state-church oppression and English rule. The Connecticut Baptists saw Jefferson — an anti-Federalist who was bitterly opposed to the idea of establishment churches — as a friend. “Our constitution of government,” they wrote, “is not specific” with regard to a guarantee of religious freedoms that would protect them. Might the president offer some thoughts that, “like the radiant beams of the sun,” would shed light on the intent of the framers? In his reply, Jefferson said it was not the place of the president to involve himself in religion, and he expressed his belief that the First Amendment’s clauses — that the government must not establish a state religion (the so-called establishment clause) but also that it must ensure the free exercise of religion (what became known as the free-exercise clause) — meant, as far as he was concerned, that there was “a wall of separation between Church & State.”
This little episode, culminating in the famous “wall of separation” metaphor, highlights a number of points about teaching religion in American history. For one, it suggests — as the Christian activists maintain — how thoroughly the colonies were shot through with religion and how basic religion was to the cause of the revolutionaries. The period in the early- to mid-1700s, called the Great Awakening, in which populist evangelical preachers challenged the major denominations, is considered a spark for the Revolution. And if religion influenced democracy then, in the Second Great Awakening, decades later, the democratic fervor of the Revolution spread through the two mainline denominations and resulted in a massive growth of the sort of populist churches that typify American Christianity to this day.
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Saturday, February 13, 2010
Religion, Textbooks, and Texas
The New York Times Magazine analyzes disputes over textbooks in Texas. The treatment of religion in American history is a point of contention. The piece offers some useful background, which is consistent with our chapter on civic culture: