In The Atlantic Allen Guelzo argues that “the Civil War made it impossible for religious absolutism to address problems in American life—especially economic and racial ones—where religious absolutism would in fact have done a very large measure of good.” This is an intriguing but deeply flawed argument. Leaving aside the dubious assumption that moral absolutes are good, I want to challenge only one aspect of his argument: his claim that
“From the Civil War onward, American Protestantism would be locked deeper and deeper into a state of cultural imprisonment, and in many cases, retreating to a world of private experience in which Christianity remained of little more significance to public life than stamp-collecting or bridge parties. Appeals to divine authority at the beginning of the Civil War fragmented in deadlock and contradiction, and ever since then, it has been difficult for deeply rooted religious conviction to assert a genuinely shaping influence over American public life.”
Guelzo provides very little evidence for this claim, as well as failing to connect the moral angst created by the Civil War to the retreat of religion in public life.
Contrary to Guelzo’s claim, Protestant groups kicked into gear after the Civil War in order to turn America into a Christian nation. For example, the National Reform Association (NRA) was formed in the aftermath of the Civil War. The NRA is best known for its attempt to amend the Constitution to include the phrase “recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior and Lord of all” after “We, the People of the United States.” The amendment failed, but the NRA expanded its mission to include “stricter Sabbath enforcement, the recision of permissive divorce laws, and continuing Protestant religious exercises in the public schools.” (1)
The Christian amendment may have failed but other attempts to bring God into the public square were successful. The phrase “In God We Trust” was added to coins in 1864, and several states (Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) changed the preambles in their constitutions to included statements recognizing God. For example, Georgia’s 1798 Constitution read: “The constitution of the State of Georgia, as revised, amended and compiled by the convention of the State, at Louisville on the 30th day of May of 1798.” This was amended in 1865 to read: “We the people of the State of Georgia, in order to form a permanent government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, acknowledging and invoking the guidance of Almighty God, the author of all good government, do ordain and establish this constitution for the State of Georgia:” (2)
For more efforts by Protestants (mostly Evangelicals) to assert themselves into public sphere after the Civil War see David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom.
Efforts by religious organizations to insert their religion into the public sphere has not abated. The 1950s saw an upsurge in Protestant efforts to fulfill their vision, bolstered by the Cold War rhetoric against godless communism:
- 1954 the phrase “one nation under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
- 1956 Congress passed a law declaring that “In God We Trust” was the national motto.
- In 1957 the motto “In God We Trust” appeared on paper money.
In 1979, Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority with the intent to lobby for laws in line with their Christian worldview. Since then the number of religious organizations dedicated to inserting their religious worldview into the public square has dramatically increased: Focus on the Family, Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Research Council, Liberty Council, Center for Arizona Policy….(there are too many to list ).
It is hard to come to the conclusion that Protestantism “retreat[ed] to a world of private experience in which Christianity remained of little more significance to public life than stamp-collecting or bridge parties” when these groups have relentlessly pushed their agenda at the federal, local, and state levels.
- Attempts (some successful) to put “In God We Trust” in city halls.
- Attempts to bring religion back into public schools.
- Faith-based initiatives
- “Religious Freedom” laws that would allow people to discriminate in the name of religion.
- Lawsuits against contraceptive coverage in the Affordable Care Act.
- Bans on gay marriage and opposition to anti-bullying laws.
I could go on, but I think that’s enough. It’s hard to take Guelzo’s claim seriously given the overwhelming evidence against it.
(1) Steven K. Green, The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2010) 337.
(2) The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and other Organic Laws of the United States, Part I. compiled by Ben: Perley Poore (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1877) 388 and 402.