A Critic at Large
Did the Founders want us to be faithful to their faith?by Jill Lepore
April 14, 2008
Each of the Founders had his own approach to religion.
A wise man adheres not to his religion, because it was that of his ancestors,” a smooth-tongued mullah says to a tongue-tied American in Royall Tyler’s 1797 novel “The Algerine Captive.” The American, a luckless New Englander named Updike Underhill, had been sold into slavery among Muslims after Barbary pirates captured the ship on which he served as a surgeon. At the hands of his captors, he had been whipped, beaten, and bastinadoed—the soles of his feet caned to pulp—and he had borne it all. The terms of his terrible bondage: he will be freed only if he converts to Islam. Stoic, and secure in his Calvinism, Underhill agrees to a debate.
Tyler, a Vermont lawyer, found inspiration for “The Algerine Captive” in an American foreign-policy quagmire. In 1783, when the Peace of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, American seamen lost the protection of Britain’s treaties with the so-called Barbary States: Algiers, Tripoli, Morocco, and Tunisia. Over the next decade, more than seven hundred American sailors were captured and held as slaves in North Africa. When Congress was slow to respond, the public rallied, raising money to pay for the captives’ ransom, and giving con men the idea for a new ruse known, in the trade, as the Algerian Prisoner Fraud. In 1794, the American novelist, playwright, and actress Susanna Rowson starred in a benefit performance in Philadelphia of her play “Slaves in Algiers.” American emissaries finally secured the release of the prisoners in 1796. “The Algerine Captive,” published the following year, wasn’t a fund-raiser; it was a polemic about religious freedom. Royall Tyler had something to say about the liberty of conscience: Faith answers to reason.
Underhill’s debate with the mullah lasts five days. “Our religion was disseminated in peace; yours was promulgated by the sword,” Underhill insists. This the mullah contradicts: “The history of the Christian church is a detail of bloody massacre.” But Christianity must be the one true religion, Underhill counters, else how had so much of the world been so persuaded by the teachings of a few fishermen, so quickly? “If you argue from the astonishing spread of your faith,” the mullah answers, remember that “Mahomet was an illiterate camel driver,” born nearly six centuries after Christ, and yet his faith had spread through Arabia, Asia, and Africa and a great part of Europe: “In a word, view the world.”
Above all, the mullah, himself a convert, asserts that Underhill, who had inherited his faith, had never examined it. “Born in New England, my friend, you are a christian purified by Calvin,” he observes. “Born in the Campania of Rome, you had been a papist. Nursed by the Hindoos, you would have entered the pagoda with reverence, and worshipped the soul of your ancestor in a duck. Educated on the bank of the Wolga, the Delai Lama had been your god. In China, you would have worshipped Tien, and perfumed Confucius, as you bowed in adoration . . . of your ancestors.”
You won’t read about this debate in a crop of new books on religious liberty and the founding of America, an omission that can’t be charged to Royall Tyler’s obscurity. He wasn’t always obscure. He was a prolific and talented satirist, and “The Algerine Captive” was popular enough that it was reprinted in England, becoming only the second American novel to achieve that distinction. It’s overlooked for lots of reasons, not least among them that Royall Tyler, however distinguished, wasn’t a Founding Father, but also because novels don’t make law.
On the subject of religious liberty in America, there are four indispensable, foundational texts: Jefferson’s 1786 statute (“Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry”); Madison’s 1785 “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (“The Religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man”); Article VI of the Constitution (“No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”); and the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). These are at once statements of political philosophy and legal documents; philosophers argue about them within a specific intellectual tradition, and legal scholars read them to trace precedent. Martha Nussbaum takes both of these approaches in “Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality” (Basic; $28.95). But because these documents long ago rose to the status of American scripture, another way to read them is to conduct an exegesis, which is more or less what Garry Wills does in “Head and Heart: American Christianities” (Penguin; $29.95). Politicians tend to use them genealogically, naming their authors as forebears or, as the case may be, glaringly omitting them. (“My faith is the faith of my fathers,” Mitt Romney declared in a speech last December, skipping over Jefferson and Madison in favor of Brigham Young, John and Samuel Adams, and the seventeenth-century Puritan dissenter Roger Williams.) The legal, the exegetical, the genealogical—each centers on the Founding Fathers: What did they intend? What did they mean? What would they make of us?
“History is after all only a pack of tricks we play on the dead,” Voltaire once quipped. The Founding Fathers had their own pack of tricks: they turned their backs on the past. If they had meekly inherited the faith of their fathers, they would have written a constitution establishing Christianity as the national religion. They did not. Nearly every American colony was settled with an established religion; Connecticut’s 1639 founding document explained that the whole purpose of government was “to mayntayne and presearve the liberty and purity of the gospell of our Lord Jesus.” In the century and a half between that charter and the 1787 meeting of the Constitutional Convention lies an entire revolution, not just a political revolution but also a religious revolution, as Frank Lambert, a historian at Purdue, argued in his 2003 study, “The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America.” Far from establishing a religion, the Constitution doesn’t even mention God. At a time when all but two states required religious tests for office, the Constitution prohibited them. At a time when most states still had an official religion, the Bill of Rights forbade the federal government from establishing one.
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were controversial when they were written and they’ve been controversial ever since, but Article VI and what is known as the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment have been controversial in the last half century because of the Supreme Court’s 1947 decision in Everson v. Board of Education, which reaffirmed the Fourteenth Amendment’s extension (or “incorporation”) of the Establishment Clause to the states and, citing both Jefferson’s Virginia Statute and Madison’s Remonstrance, interpreted the Establishment Clause to mean that the Framers intended there to be a “wall of separation” between church and state: “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion to another.”
The debate that ensued has not been confined to the courts, as Lambert illustrates in his new book, “Religion in American Politics: A Short History” (Princeton; $24.95). Any serious challenge to Everson requires an alternative explanation of those four foundational texts, an explanation usually supported by other writings of Jefferson and Madison, the records of the Constitutional Convention and the papers of its delegates, and the records of the state ratifying conventions and of the first Congress. Opponents of Everson have argued that the Founders were Christians. “Any diligent student of American history finds that our great nation was founded by godly men upon godly principles to be a Christian nation,” Jerry Falwell insisted in 1980. The Founders never meant to drive religion from “the public square,” some insist. Mitt Romney used his reading of history to accuse modern-day secularists, “at odds with the nation’s founders,” of having taken the doctrine of separation of church and state “well beyond its original meaning” by seeking “to remove from the public domain any acknowledgement of God.” Against this argument stand scholars like Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, whose 1996 “The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State” was republished in 2005, with an added chapter on George W. Bush’s first Presidential term. Whether the mail should be sorted on Sundays, whether “In God We Trust” belongs on our coins, whether the Pledge of Allegiance should include “under God,” whether our children should pray at school, whether we can have crèches on town commons at Christmas, everyone wants to know: What would the Founders do?
It’s a question Thomas Jefferson found ridiculous. In 1816, when he was seventy-three and many of his revolutionary generation had already died, he offered this answer: “This they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. . . . Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.” The Founders believed that to defer without examination to what your forefathers believed was to become a slave to the tyranny of the past. Jefferson put it this way: “Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human.”
Treating the Founders like saints has made for some pretty wacky books, none more so than the 1987 “Faith of Our Founding Fathers,” by Tim LaHaye, an Evangelical minister who went on to co-write a series of bestselling apocalyptic novels. LaHaye attempted to chronicle the “Rape of History” by “history revisionists” who had erased from American school text-books the “evangelical Protestants who founded this nation.” Documenting this claim is no mean feat, not least because even those members of the Constitutional Convention who called themselves Christian lived in a decidedly irreligious and anti-clerical age, the most secular age in American history, both before and since, as Garry Wills observes in “Head and Heart” (a book that is both a close reading of founding texts and a sprawling history of Christianity in the United States). Most of the Founding Fathers were deists, although not all of them were as skeptical as Jefferson, who crafted a custom copy of the Bible by cutting out everything but the words of Jesus. LaHaye, to support his argument, took out his own pair of scissors, deciding, for instance, that Jefferson doesn’t count as a Founding Father, because he “had nothing to do with the founding of our nation,” and basing his claims about Franklin not on evidence (because, as he writes, “there is no evidence that Franklin ever became a Christian”) but on the bald, raising-the-Founders-from-the-dead assertion “Many modern secularizers try to claim Franklin as one of their own. I am confident, however, that Franklin would not identify with them were he alive today.”
Wills and Nussbaum counter these claims. Wills argues that the history of religion in America is the history of a productive tension between the head and the heart, between enlightenment (which he counts as a religion) and Evangelicalism, a balance kept in check by the separation of church and state. Nussbaum, in a careful, nuanced, and compelling analysis, identifies religious equality as the crucial American tradition. Two more new books by members of the “religious left” adopt a more strictly biographical approach. “So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State” (Harcourt; $28), by Forrest Church, the minister of All Souls Church in Manhattan, considers the first five Presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. “Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America” (Random House; $26), by Steven Waldman, the editor of the Web site Beliefnet, chronicles the “spiritual journeys” of the first four Presidents and one more Founder, lopping off Monroe in favor of Franklin.
It’s probably impossible to discover precisely what the Founders believed about God, Jesus, sin, the Bible, churches, and Hell. They changed their minds and gave different accounts to different people: Franklin said one thing to his sister Jane, and another thing to David Hume; Washington was a vestryman at his church, but, as he lay slowly dying, he never called for a clergyman. This can make them look like hypocrites, but that’s unfair. They approached religion in more or less the same way they approached everything else that interested them: Franklin invented his own; Washington proved diplomatic; Adams grumbled about it; Jefferson could not stop tinkering with it; and Madison defended, as a natural right, the free exercise of it.
Waldman, Church, Nussbaum, and Wills have written very different books—Wills and Nussbaum range both farther and deeper—but each, striving for evenhandedness, wants to save us from the errors of partisans and zealots. “The culture wars have so warped our sense of history that we typically have a very limited understanding of how we came to have religious liberty,” Waldman writes. They also generally agree about the source of the myths that plague us: “the cherry-picking of Founding Father quotes to prove almost anything,” as Waldman puts it. “Champions on both sides,” Church writes, “will claim the words and actions of the founders as proof texts for the righteousness of their moral, political, and religious agendas.”
The four books achieve a kind of consensus in four related lines of argument. First, the United States was founded neither as a Christian nation nor as a secular one. Second, by the standards of Evangelicals of both their day and ours, Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison were not Christians; they wrestled, often profoundly, with religious questions, but, as Church points out, “they all doubted the divinity of Christ.” Third, the disestablishment of religion is itself responsible for Americans’ unusual religiosity, which (these writers all believe) is something to celebrate. Fourth, notwithstanding the Founders’ own remarkable secularism, the liberation of religion from government as much as the reverse was their aim. “The separation of church and state has greatly benefited religion, as Madison and Jefferson predicted that it would,” Wills writes. Nussbaum argues that because “the separation of church and state is, fundamentally, about equality, about the idea that no religion will be set up as the religion of our nation,” in the end “separation is also about protecting religion.” Waldman writes, “Madison, I suspect, would . . . be delighted by surveys showing that, compared with most developed nations, Americans believe in God more, pray more, and attend worship services more frequently.”
Because this debate is an argument about how the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, people who enter it begin their investigation with the Founders; quite often, they end it there, too. Somewhere along the way, they almost always fall to wondering what James Madison would make of the latest Gallup polls or whether Benjamin Franklin would get along with Christopher Hitchens. That’s how this debate works; that’s the pack of tricks this history plays on the past. The problem is that constitutional jurisprudence, however essential it is to the rule of law, will always tend to produce a history in which the entire eighteenth century is reduced to the intellectual lives of a handful of men. And, because our tradition of constitutional jurisprudence is so important, that history can be all the history most Americans get. Needless to say, it’s a history that leaves out a lot—not least, every other American who ever spread, advanced, or challenged the idea of religious liberty: people like printers turning out newspapers, mothers rearing children, pastors preaching to small towns, and, even, now obscure novelists. Maybe it’s time for another pack of tricks.
Royall Tyler was not a Founding Father. He was a prodigal son. But he spoke and wrote about religious liberty all his life—from the pulpit, from the bench, and from his desk. Some scholars argue that the idea of a “wall of separation” between church and state wasn’t built until the eighteen-thirties and forties; Tyler was dead by then, but he seems to have thought that wall had been built at the Constitutional Convention. Nor was Tyler’s life a battle between reason and faith, head and heart. Early and easily, he reconciled his Enlightenment rationalism with his Episcopal faith, although his convictions about both may have been tried during a dissipated youth plagued with disappointments. (His reputation as a rake was not without foundation.) In 1782, when Tyler was twenty-five, he courted John Adams’s daughter. Abigail was charmed. “I am not acquainted with any young Gentleman whose attainments in literature are equal to his,” she wrote to her husband. “I am not looking out for a Poet,” Adams wrote back. The courtship was quietly ended.
Tyler made more of himself than Adams predicted. In 1787, his comedy “The Contrast” was performed in New York while delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia. Overnight, Tyler became a literary celebrity. But in an age when no one wanted a poet for a son-in-law he had to earn his keep as a lawyer. He set up practice in Vermont: “If writing for the public is attended with no more profit, I had rather file legal process in my attorney’s office, and endeavor to explain unintelligible law to Green Mountain jurors.”
Tyler often wished he had chosen the ministry instead of the law, but he was sure that his sinfulness would have been a blot upon the church. (What he meant by his sinfulness is suggested by his 1793 “The Origin of Evil,” a shockingly blasphemous poem about the Garden of Eden.) In Vermont, where ministers were few and far between, he often served as a lay preacher. (After recovering from the Adams fiasco, Tyler married, happily; he and his wife had eleven children, and four of their seven surviving sons became clergymen.) In a sermon that he delivered on Christmas Day, 1793, he offered this prayer: “It is our Blessed Saviour who has caused His day spring of religious liberty from on high to visit us and that we may now worship every man according to the dictates of his own conscience.”
Apparently, Tyler agreed with Madison that to establish a Christian religion would be “to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.” In “The Algerine Captive,” Updike Underhill’s faith, far from being weakened, is strengthened by his trials. He refuses to convert, even at the cost of his freedom. Nevertheless, one reviewer complained that “in the dialogue with the Mollah, the author too feebly defends that religion which he professes to revere.” Tyler was blindsided by this charge. Invoking Islam to argue for religious liberty was an eighteenth-century commonplace, practiced by writers as different as Johnson, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. “The Author was prepared to meet severe criticism on his style,” Tyler later wrote, “but certainly he never imagined it was objectionable on the score of infidelity, or even skepticism. The part objected to, as far as the Author recollects, was written with a view to do away with the vulgar prejudices against Islamism.” Tyler used Islam as an object lesson in the importance of religious tolerance and the dangers of theocracy. Underhill is both fascinated by and sympathetic to Islam. Even before travelling to Mecca and Medina, he concludes, “I cannot help noticing it as extraordinary, that the Mahometan should abominate the christian on account of his faith, and the christian detest the Mussulman for his creed; when the koran of the former acknowledges the divinity of the christian Messias, and the bible of the latter commands us to love our enemies.” Above all, Tyler used Islam to argue that faith, all faith, must answer to reason. In his view, this was Islam’s great failing: that every Muslim is “tenaciously attached to his own creed, makes his faith a principle in life, and never suffers doubt to disturb, or reason to overthrow it.”
Yet Tyler made his mullah both generous and broad-minded. After weeping for Underhill, a man he can see only as an infidel, the mullah becomes his fast friend and, eventually, helps him escape. The actual end of Algerine captivity was more complicated, but it, too, depended on eighteenth-century ideas about religious tolerance. In June of 1797, just three months before Tyler’s novel was published, the American captives in North Africa were freed by the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by President John Adams. The treaty’s Article 11, an assurance that the United States would not engage in a vengeful holy war, read, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
In 1801, Tyler was elected to Vermont’s supreme court. (He subsequently served as chief justice.) In a case brought before his bench the following year, he rejected as legally invalid an out-of-state bill of sale for a slave. (In 1791, Vermont had been the first state to adopt a constitution prohibiting slavery.) “Would your honor be pleased to tell us what would be sufficient evidence of my client’s ownership of this man?” the lawyer asked the judge. “Oh certainly,” Tyler answered wryly. A bill of sale “from the Almighty.”
In 1817, galled by the debate in Connecticut, a state still clinging to an established religion, Tyler prepared for publication a treatise titled “The Touchstone; or a Humble Modest Inquiry Into the Nature of Religious Intolerance.” Here, again, he argued, “A State Religion always has, and ever will be intolerant.”
Toward the end of his life, Tyler began an autobiography. He addressed it to a reader two centuries in the future, in the year 2025: “I cannot but fancy that some profound antiquary of your superexcellent age, while groping among the rubbish of time, may from some kennel of oblivion fish up my poor book.” We would make of it, he was certain, at once too much and too little. It would be as if only his left shoe had made it down to the twenty-first century, “to be gathered as an invaluable treasure into the museum of the Antiquarian.” Some historians, “after vainly essaying to fit it to the right foot, would gravely declare that the anatomy of their ancestors’ pedestals differed from those of their day.” But just because we’ve only found the one shoe doesn’t mean eighteenth-century Americans had two left feet. Having fished up his book, what should we, in our superexcellent age, make of it? Tyler conjured a future reader who smiles at
The sprawling letters, yellow text,
The formal phrase, the bald stiff style . . .
And in the margin gravely notes
A thousand meanings never meant. ♦
ILLUSTRATION: BARRY BLITT