Believers and Citizens

Believers and Citizens

Understanding religion's role in America's present depends on examining its role in the past.

Read Time:
2m 12sec

“Church Meets State” by Mark Lilla, in The New York Times Book Review (May 15, 2005), 229 W. 43rd St., New York, N.Y. 10036.

The reelection of George W. Bush has provoked a spate of lengthy articles in the press on the role of religious values in American life and set Democrats to devising new strategies to appeal to the religious Center. However, the crucial battle may well involve the debate over religion’s role in the American past, contends Lilla, a professor of social thought at the University of Chicago.  

Religion was airbrushed out of many modern accounts of the making of America, and scholars such as Mark Noll of Wheaton College have done useful work in pointing out its prominent role. But the new thinking has its own shortcomings. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Roads to Modernity (2004) correctly highlights the point that British and American thinkers of the Enlightenment opposed the radical anticlericalism of their French counterparts. Yes, says Lilla, the Founding Fathers and other Anglo-American thinkers saw religion as an important support that would help form new citizens by teaching self-reliance and good moral conduct. But they “shared the same hope as the French lumières: that the centuries-old struggle between church and state could be brought to an end, and along with it the fanaticism, superstition, and obscurantism into which Christian culture had sunk.” The Founding Fathers gambled that the guarantee of liberty would encourage the religious sects’ attachment to liberal democracy and “liberalize them doctrinally,” fostering a “more sober and rational” outlook. The idea, says Lilla, was to “shift the focus of Christianity from a faith-based reality to a reality-based faith.”

For most of the 19th century, the approach worked. By the 1950s, theological liberalism represented the mainline religious consensus. But in the past 30 years, the mainline groups have retreated before resurgent evangelical, Pentecostal, charismatic, and “neo-orthodox” movements that have attracted not just Protestants but Catholics and Jews as well.

A similar collapse of theological liberalism occurred in Weimar Germany after the devastation of World War I. Defeated Germans abandoned the liberal-democratic religious Center for a wild assortment of religious and political groups as they searched for a more authentic spiritual experience and a more judgmental God. So far, says Lilla, the most disturbing manifestations of the American turn—the belief in miracles, the rejection of basic science, the demonization of popular culture—have occurred in culture, not politics. But Americans are right to be vigilant about the intrusion of such impulses into the public square, because “if there is anything . . . John Adams understood, it is that you cannot sustain liberal democracy without cultivating liberal habits of mind among religious believers.”

More From This Issue