Reading Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism I am struck again by the peculiarity of the American nation, and its fundamental radicalism. I have already stated that this is implicitly an Anglo-Protestant nation. As a point of fact Protestant churches were established and supported in most American states at the Founding, with Massachusetts not disestablishing until the 1830s. The emergence of the Roman Catholic educational system was in large part a reaction to the Protestant content which was taken for granted in the public school system. The arrival of waves of Catholic German and Irish immigrants in the 1840s prompted the rise of the “Know Nothing” movement and a deep suspicion of “Romanism.” In 1830 the United States was a deeply Protestant nation within the dissenting tradition.
And yet until the election of Andrew Jackson it is likely that the United States had not had a head of state who could be termed an orthodox Christian, that is, accepting the axioms of Trinitarian Christianity. True, even Thomas Jefferson, whose deism ran deep, would likely have identified as a Protestant Christian, but that was more due to the cultural valence than affinity with the belief content of the majority of the Protestant Christians of the American nation (Jefferson personally assumed that the future of American Protestantism lay with a rationalist Unitarianism, his own personal orientation). And yet Jackson, like his political predecessor Jefferson, refused to proclaim a “day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer” because of qualms with the mixing of church and state.
This sort of behavior was bizarre at the least, for almost all of human history polities drew upon the favor of the supernatural, the gods and fates. The lack of mention of religion in the Constitution except in a negation, the clause banning religious tests, was blasphemous to many, and even perplexing to more. A modicum of religious toleration might have existed in the Netherlands or England from the national confession, but before the United States minority sects had only existed at the sufferance and indulgence of the majority in every society. Polities such as that of ancient pagan Rome which were pluralist patronized a multiplicity of gods, the rise of Christianity was simply a consolidation of the status quo. Even the republic of old which the American Founders looked upon as an exemplar, that of Rome, was laden with traditions of augurs and priests.
In many ways the American nation was an extension of a particular cultural tradition, that of dissenting British Protestants. The formation of the republic could perhaps be conceived of as an echo of the failed republic of Oliver Cromwell. But in other ways it was radical, its massive size was seen to mitigate the likelihood of its long term success, as republics were assumed not to scale. And its lack of formal relationship to religion was a strange and novel innovation born out of the abstractions and fashions of the Enlightenment, perhaps more a matter of historical contingency than inevitability. If the rebellion against the British monarchy had occurred during the First or Second Great Awakenings it may be that the Christian religion would have found a place within the structure of the American government.*
* This was the position of Patrick Henry, that is, state support and sanction for a range of Christian sects as opposed to patronage of one above all.
** Also, the relative lack of religious orthodoxy on the part of the elite is likely not the total story. Frederick the Great was a religious skeptic, but that seemed to have little effect on the relationship between Protestantism ad the Russian state. Similarly, the Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, was personally an agnostic. This did not effect the role of the Roman Catholic religion within the Brazilian Empire.
*** Many customary aspects of public piety associated with the American government are innovations. “Under God” in the pledge of allegiance, “In God We Trust” on the coinage, and the lack of Sunday mail delivery for example.