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The Paradox of Religious Tolerance

I recently finished reading Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for those who consider themselves, well... freethinkers. That would include atheists, secular humanists, religious liberals (these days), and a few others tossed in for good measure. You know who you are.

American secularists have trouble deciding what to call themselves today, in part because the term has been so denigrated by the right and in part because identifying oneself as a secular humanist -- unlike, say, calling oneself a Jew, a Catholic, or a Baptist -- has a vaguely bureaucratic ring. It is time to revive the evocative and honorable freethinker, with its insistence that Americans think for themselves instead of relying on received opinion. The combination of free and thought embodies every ideal that secularists still hold out to a nation founded not on dreams of justice in heaven but on the best human hopes for a more just earth. (pp.364-365)

So in case anybody ever asks, from now on what I am is: a freethinker.

There is a great deal I could write about this book -- and I probably will write a great deal about it in the future -- but here I want to concentrate on something that I'm calling the paradox of religious tolerance. It describes a painful irony.

In 1784, Patrick Henry (of give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death fame) introduced a bill into the Virginia General Assembly called "A Bill Establishing A Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion":

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; which cannot be effected without a competent provision for learned teachers, who may be thereby enabled to devote their time and attention to the duty of instructing such citizens, as from their circumstances and want of education, cannot otherwise attain such knowledge; and it is judged that such provision may be made by the Legislature, without counteracting the liberal principle heretofore adopted and intended to be preserved by abolishing all distinctions of pre-eminence amongst the different societies or communities of Christians;

Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, that for the support of Christian teachers, per centum on the amount, or in the pound on the sum payable for tax on the property within this Commonwealth, is hereby assessed, and shall be paid by every person chargeable with the said tax at the time the same shall become due; and the Sheriffs of the several Counties shall have power to levy and collect the same in the same manner and under the like restrictions and limitations, as are or may be prescribed by the laws for raising the Revenues of this State.

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

When introduced, Henry's bill had widespread support and seemed assured of passage. James Madison, among others, thought it was a stinker though, and his distaste for the bill prompted him to write, in 1785, his famous "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments". Any American who is not familiar with it needs to seriously go back to school.

... [E]xperience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy [and] ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution. Enquire of the teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy....


[I]t will destroy that moderation and harmony which the forbearance of our laws to intermeddle with religion has produced amongst its several sects. Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world by vain attempts of the secular arm to extinguish religious discord by proscribing all difference in religious opinions. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease. The American theatre has exhibited proofs that equal and complete liberty, if it does not wholly eradicate it, sufficiently destroys its malignant influence on the health and prosperity of the State. If, with the salutary effects of this system under our own eyes, we begin to contract the bonds of religious freedom, we know no name that will too severely reproach our folly. At least let warning be taken at the first fruits of the threatened innovation. The very appearance of the Bill has transformed that "Christian forbearance, love and ," which of late mutually prevailed, into animosities and jealousies which may not soon be appeased. What mischiefs may not be dreaded should this enemy to the public quiet be armed with the force of a law?

The debate lasted two years. In that time, a strange thing happened: Enlightenment freethinkers like Jefferson and Madison gained invaluable allies in their fight against Henry's bill: minority Christian sects and America's earliest evangelicals.

According to Jacoby:

And although Madison was speaking from the perspective of an Enlightenment rationalist, his presentation of the pernicious possibilities for state interference with religion appealed powerfully to nonconformist Protestants, including small Quaker and Lutheran sects as well as the more numerous Baptists and Presbyterians, who had long resented the domination of the Episcopalians. Although evangelicals did not share Madison's and Jefferson's suspicions of religious influence on civil government -- indeed, they wished to expand the scope of their own influence -- they eventually became convinced that dissenting denominations could best flourish under a government that explicitly prohibited state interference with church affairs. And they were willing to renounce government money to ensure government noninterference.


While secularists like Jefferson and Madison were concerned mainly with limiting the influence of religious intolerance on civil government, the evangelicals cared mainly about unfettered opportunity not only to worship in their own way but to proselytize within society -- a difference in motivation that would place the two groups on opposite sides in many future political battles. At the time, though, the interests of the evangelicals and the Enlightenment rationalists coincided and coalesced in a common support for separation of church and state. During the Virginia debate, each side borrowed the other's arguments and even appropriated the other's rhetorical devices.


In the end, the secularists and dissident evangelicals easily carried the day.... By the time Virginia lawmakers arrived in Richmond for the beginning of the 1785-86 General Assembly, the assessment bill, which once seemed certain of passage, had been relegated to the dust-bin of history. (pp.21-23.)

In short, one of the allied driving forces behind what would eventually become the First Amendment to our Constitution was the mistrust and dissension among and between early American religious sects.

Fast forward almost two hundred years. For the sake of brevity, I'm skipping over a lot of intervening history here -- read Jacoby's book or resort to your own presumably thorough knowledge of American history.

Jacoby again:

In the fourth decade of the twentieth century, America was still an overwhelmingly Protestant nation, but Protestants were so divided that it would have been ludicrous to refer to a "Protestant" political or social position. New York Episcopalians or Congregationalists had little in common, theologically or socially, with southern Baptists -- and southern Baptists were equally removed from northern Baptists. (p.269.)

As it happens, just last night I was discussing all this with some friends of mine -- he is a nominal Catholic and she is a nominal Lutheran. When they were getting married about a decade ago, family legend has it that his grandmother, a woman of a certain age and of very certain Catholic loyalties, muttered the immortal words, "I'd rather he married a Negro girl." Clearly a woman of her time, when suspicion and mistrust was still strong not just among and between America's Protestants, but between Catholics and Protestants as well.

But the times they were a-changin'.

...[I]n the postwar years, religious spokesmen, using every medium of mass communication, were successfully promoting a civil religion that worshipped both prosperity and Christianity. The sermons of Norman Vincent Peale, Billy Graham, and Fulton Sheen, delivered from television studios as well as traditional pulpits, proclaimed the doctrine of American exceptionalism, imbued with the conviction that God had selected America as the beneficiary of His special blessings. (pp.302-03.)

I love (and hate) Jacoby's notion of an American "civil religion", the beginnings of which she traces back to the Roaring Twenties, around the time of a fellow named Bruce Barton who was one of the founders of the modern notion of advertising. Barton wrote a book called The Man Nobody Knows -- the theretofore unknown title character being Jesus of course, and the primary thing we hadn't know about him (until Barton's book, of course) was that he was one hell of a good businessman.

The boosterish melding of religion with business, backed up by new communications and advertising media, was a cultural shift that encouraged the public display of spiritual allegiances that had once belonged to the realm of private life. To pursue God and Mammon with equal vigor, and to trumpet one's commitment and devotion, had become an American virtue.... The Jazz Age spirit of religious display did not express itself directly in politics in the fashion that has become so familiar to Americans during the past twenty-five years, but it marked the beginning of the long and slow encroachment on the zone of privacy that had enabled previous American presidents to seek election and govern without being obliged to share their religious beliefs with the public. (p.254-55.)

Later we get the aforementioned Peale, Graham, Sheen, and their ilk nurturing this new "civil religion". Peale writes in the introduction to the paperback edition of his book, Power of Positive Thinking: "I was born and reared in humble Midwestern circumstances in a dedicated Christian home.... The everyday people of this land are my own kind whom I know and love and believe in with great faith. When anyone of them lets God have charge of his life the power and glory are amazingly demonstrated." And as Jacoby says:

"Everyday people" were not Jews, humanists, or atheists but Christians. A generation earlier, before the first stirrings of American ecumenicism, Peale would probably have specified Protestants rather than Christians as God's American anointed; a few years later, as Christians became more sensitized to the feelings of Jews, he would likely have used the more general "religious" or "God-fearing". At any rate, all that was required for Peale's countrymen to claim the happiness and success that was their birthright as Americans was to acknowledge the power of God. (p.303.)

And thus we arrive, temporally at least, at the doorstep -- probably more like the front porch -- of the House of God this country now lives in. And we draw near to what I above called the paradox of religious tolerance.

...[T]he sectarian animosities once exchanged by Catholic and Protestant clergy were slowly but surely being replaced by the fog of murky tolerance that has since become the defining characteristic of America's ecumenical public consensus. The fifties may have begun with a flare-up of old denominational hatreds, but they ended with the skin-deep civility that proclaims, "There's so much good in the worst of us/And so much bad in the best of us/That it ill behooves any of us/To talk about the rest of us." This spirit of bland tolerance was accompanied by a "tolerant" dismissiveness toward those who adhered to no faith. The new American civil religion did not exactly embrace secularists, agnostics, and atheists, but did not persecute them either -- unless they behaved like Mad Madalyn [O'Hair] and aggressively challenged religious beliefs and believers. If right-wing believers still hated secularism and all its works, the majority tended to view self-proclaimed secularists as harmless cranks. At the end of the self-satisfied fifties, few were prescient enough to foresee that the social ferment of the sixties would reinvigorate American secularism -- and its opponents -- in a fashion harking back not only to the golden age of freethought but the much earlier nineteenth-century conjunction of abolition and feminism. (p.316.)

And I don't have to tell you about where we are today. Just yesterday morning, as James Taylor would say, Crooks and Liars urged us to "pore over" an article on Dominionism. I've been seeing a lot about Dominionism lately, all over the internets.

And here's the funny thing, when you think about it. Back in the mid-1780s when Madison and Jefferson were squaring off against Patrick Henry and his bill to establish Christianity as the state religion of Virginia, it was the animosities between the various religious sects that helped -- we might even say allowed -- the ultimate rejection of Henry's bill and the ultimate adoption of Jefferson's "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia". And those animosities continued for the longest time. For decades, it was the American Catholic Church that was pressing for the state to grant government funds to support religious schools -- and it was the mistrust of the Protestants toward the Catholics that buoyed the state's willingness to resist making such grants.

But now those animosities are gone. America's religions have grown tolerant of their differences, and this has allowed them to unite under the banner of this new American "civil religion" -- a coalition so powerful that it threatens to excise from our society the idea of tolerance itself.

It kind of makes you long for the bad old days when my friend's Catholic grandmother would rather he married a black girl than a Lutheran. I'm sure that in those old days it was a nightmare for the individual couples involved, but the rest of us -- and the country itself -- were a hell of a lot safer from the fervent beliefs of the likes of Bush, Rove, Santorum, Dobson, Robertson, and the rest of the Patrick Henry-ites.

Maybe the best thing religious liberals can do for the progressive cause is to insist that their particular sects strictly adhere to their particular differences with all others. Go ahead. Cast a wary eye on those Baptists. Cross the street at the approach of free-range Catholics. The Lutherans are suspiciously "foreign", don't you think?

Seems to me a good, old-fashioned, red-blooded American serious dust-up over, say, the doctrine of transubstantiation could get us that much welcomed and long overdue break-up of the Great American Civil Religion. Get cracking, O ye of insufficiently dogmatic differences.


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