Tag Archives: Public Religion

Hamilton’s Religion, and Ours

A Complicated Man

This past weekend was the 210th anniversary of the death of Alexander Hamilton in a duel with Aaron Burr. Commemorations took place around New York City–at the Weehawken, New Jersey dueling site; at Hamilton’s home in upper Manhattan, recently restored and relocated in St. Nicholas Park; and at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, where Burr, who somehow survived the scandal, later married his wealthy second wife. Commemorations conclude this afternoon with a ceremony at Hamilton’s grave in Trinity Churchyard.

Hamilton was a complicated man–brilliant, handsome, charming, visionary; but also reckless, prideful, and a schemer. He had remarkable achievements. He attended the Constitutional Convention and wrote most of the Federalist Papers, including Number 78, on the judiciary; he established the finances of the United States as first Secretary of the Treasury; he founded a nationalist, commercial conservatism that survives to this day. Although this is somewhat less known, he also wrote one of the most important texts on the place of religion in American public life.

Most people know the story of his duel with Burr, the sitting Vice President, which took place on the morning of July 11, 1804. Burr challenged Hamilton after reading some disparaging remarks Hamilton allegedly had made about him during a gubernatorial election. Hamilton could have avoided the duel, had he wanted. But he chose not to, inflaming the situation with his lawerly, evasive answers to Burr’s questions. He told friends before the duel that he did not intend to shoot Burr, and indeed his bullet that morning drifted harmlessly into the trees. Perhaps he expected Burr to act the same way. Duels often ended with both parties wasting their shots.

Some historians believe, though, that Hamilton no longer cared much about living. He was approaching 50 and his political career was over, largely as a result of his own unsuccessful machinations. “Every day proves to me more and more,” he wrote Gouverneur Morris in 1802, “that this American world was not made for me.” He was heavily in debt. And he was shattered by the death of his son, Philip, in a duel two years before–defending his father’s honor, at that same Weehawken dueling ground, with the very pistols Hamilton selected for his own duel with Burr. Did Hamilton court death that July morning? Who knows? In any event, Burr shot to kill and hit his target. Hamilton lingered for a while in agony and died, back in New York, the next day.

But about Hamilton and American religion. Even after he left the Cabinet in 1795, Hamilton continued to advise President George Washington, who was a father figure to him. As Washington’s retirement neared in 1796, he asked Hamilton for help with his Farewell Address, and Hamilton prepared a draft. The ideas were Washington’s own. But the words were Hamilton’s.

One famous section of the Farewell Address relates to the proper place of religion in public life:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

How very American this is. Note the generic reference to “religion,” as opposed to Christianity. From the beginning, American public religion has had a non-sectarian cast. Most Americans in 1796 were Christians, as most are today. Most would have understood the reference to religion to mean the Christian religion. But our public expression of religion typically avoids expressly Christian imagery. In part this reflects the Deism of many of the Founders. But it also reflects an Evangelical faith that is comfortable with biblical non-sectarianism. In America, religious conservatives demand public display of the Ten Commandments. In Europe, they demand public display of the crucifix.

Note, too, the practicality of Hamilton’s appeal. Why is religion important? Because it’s true? Because people need salvation? No–it’s because of the pragmatic benefits religion provides, benefits even the “mere politician” can understand. To work properly, republicanism requires citizens to be moral; and to be moral, citizens require religion. To be sure, every now and then, one might find an exceptional person who is moral without religion. But that can never be true for most people. And it doesn’t matter what the religion is. This, too, is very American. As a twentieth-century American president famously remarked, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

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Hamilton’s Grave, Trinity Churchyard

Hamilton’s own faith ebbed and flowed. As a young man, he was a pious Christian. His college roommate remembers him praying every morning and evening. But he leaned toward Deism as he matured. Indeed, he appears to have been a bit of a scoffer. When someone asked him why the Constitution failed to mention God, he famously joked, “We forgot.” Later in life, though, he appears to have returned to his boyhood Christianity, dismayed, as many American conservatives were, by the anti-Christianity of the French Revolution. Two years before he died, he proposed a Christian Constitutional Society to counter Jacobinism in the United States. Perhaps he was thinking as a “mere politician.” But on his deathbed, he requested, and received, Communion.

A Christian Country

Not a Hater

It used to be the case that Americans referred unselfconsciously to their country as “a Christian nation.” The phrase had multiple meanings. A few speakers, no doubt, used it as a taunt: non-Christians (which, for many, would have meant non-Protestants) should keep quiet or get out. Others used the phrase to indicate that Christianity, in a general way, informed American law and government. That’s what Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story meant, for example, when he wrote that Christianity was part of the common law. Still others used the phrase in a theological sense: America was the New Zion, Chosen of God.

But most people throughout our history have used “Christian nation” in a milder, less formal way. When they called America a Christian nation, they referred to the obvious fact that the vast majority of Americans were Christian, and to the equally obvious fact that Christianity had shaped American society and culture: its traditions, ethics, educational and charitable institutions, art and commerce. They meant that Christianity was deeply embedded in American life–and that it was a good thing, too.

In this looser sense, to say that America is a Christian nation remains true today, almost trivially so. The large majority of Americans are still Christian, something like 80% in a recent Pew Survey. In fact, as countries go, America is not especially diverse, religiously. Many Asian countries are much more so. Christianity continues to shape American culture–less and less, in our secular age, but still. And Christianity continues to benefit American society in terms of the schools, hospitals, soup kitchens, and many other charitable works it sponsors.

Notwithstanding all this, it’s hard to imagine an American leader using the phrase “Christian nation” today. That’s perhaps wise. Some people would think such a statement deliberately provocative and insensitive to non-Christians, whose contributions to American life are enormous. The grievance industry would get to work exaggerating the offense. Pundits and professors would tweet self-righteously about bigotry and  exclusion. Cable news channels would run special reports. It would be a mess.

Something like this is happening in Britain right now. Last week, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech in which he referred to Britain as “a Christian country.” Mind you, Britain has a state church and no fewer that three crosses on the national flag. Its monarch is a religious figure, the Defender of the Faith. In such a context, you’d think the Prime Minister’s comments would pass without notice. But they have sparked a very loud protest. Prominent atheists have accused Cameron of fostering “alienation and division.” Besides, the protesters say, Cameron is simply wrong. In terms of religious observance, contemporary Britain is not a Christian place–and it’s a good thing, too.

The protest is a huge overreaction. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said it very well:

[T]he Prime Minister and other members of the Government have not said anything very controversial. It is a historical fact (perhaps unwelcome to some, but true) that our main systems of ethics, the way we do law and justice, the values of society, how we decide what is fair, the protection of the poor, and most of the way we look at society . . .  All have been shaped by and founded on Christianity. Add to that the foundation of many hospitals, the system of universal schooling, the presence of chaplains in prisons, and one could go on a long time. Then there is the literature, visual art, music and culture that have formed our understandings of beauty and worth since Anglo Saxon days.

It is clear that, in the general sense of being founded in Christian faith, this is a Christian country. It is certainly not in terms of regular churchgoing, although altogether, across different denominations, some millions attend church services each week. Others of different backgrounds have also positively shaped our common heritage. But the language of what we are, what we care for and how we act is earthed in Christianity, and would remain so for many years even if the number of believers dropped out of sight (which they won’t, in my opinion).

Political leaders, as well as everyone else, should avoid saying hateful things or disparaging minority religions. In a pluralistic society, everyone should be treated with respect. But it is not disparagement to point out obvious truths about a nation’s religious heritage, or to acknowledge the benefits that heritage continues to have. Referring to Britain–or America, for that matter–as a Christian country doesn’t make the speaker a hater.

Photo from the BBC

Barack Obama and the Politics of the Nones

She means it as a compliment. At OnFaith, author Diana Butler Bass writes that President Barack Obama is reinventing American civil religion for the spiritual-but-not-religious age. It is “obvious,” she writes, “that the God of Obama’s public speech is not the God of previous presidents.” He has “moved beyond specifically biblical images and language toward a broader set of spiritual themes to speak to for a diverse American future.”

To illustrate, Bass offers the president’s use of the term “journey” in his second inaugural address. Journey, she explains, “is not only a biblical image”:

It is a central theme to many faiths: the Buddhist seeking enlightenment; a Native American on a vision quest; a Muslim embarked on the Hajj; a Jew hoping for “next year in Jerusalem” at Passover; a Catholic visiting a shrine; a Protestant tracing the footsteps of Martin Luther; a Wiccan making a way to Stonehenge; a humanist celebrating Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. We are a nation of spiritual migrants and immigrants, a restless sort of people, on innumerable sojourns paying homage to our saints and heroes, always searching out new meaning in the universe we inhabit. . . .

President Obama proposed … a journey toward a deep realization of community, prosperity, mutual care, stewardship of the Earth, peacemaking, and human rights. These six ideals form an American creed, the fundamental aspects of the democratic project. Each one of these could be interpreted as Christian or Jewish (as they have traditionally been) or could be much more widely understood through other religious perspectives. The address ended with a call to action: Serve the poor, have hope in the future, renew your hearts. Make new the nation’s ancient covenant of justice and equality in this uncertain world. Create a new American future.

Bass writes that future historians may well see President Obama’s redefinition of our civil religion–what she calls his “innovative form of pluralistic post-religious civil discourse”–as one of his “greatest achievements.” I assume she’s not being ironic.

It’s easy to chuckle at Bass’s earnest enthusiasm, but she may be onto something. America is now, and will for the foreseeable future remain, an overwhelmingly Christian nation. That’s just demography. The percentage of Americans who adhere to non-Christian religions, although growing, remains very small. But, since around 1990, there has been a large increase in people who claim no religious identity at all–the so-called “Nones.” By some accounts, Nones now make up about 20% of the general population and about 30% of young Americans. These are dramatic numbers, indeed.

The sort of all-inclusive, vaguely spiritual language Bass cites seems crafted to appeal to Nones. Surveys show that Nones don’t object to spirituality as such. Rather, they object to organized religions, especially organized religions that make exclusive truth claims. So the president’s language may reflect a recognition of a new force in American politics. If the evangelical imagery of George W. Bush was, as critics complained, a kind of dog whistle to call out his base, perhaps the New Age imagery of Barack Obama is a kind of dog whistle to call out his. It seems to be working. According to Bass, in the 2012 election, Nones overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama.

REMINDER: Register for the 2014 Lumen Christi Conference!

Just a gentle reminder that the 2014 Conference on Christian Legal Thought is only a few weeks away! The conference is sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago and the Law Professors Christian Fellowship and occurs in conjunction with the annual AALS meeting, which is being held in Manhattan this year. This year’s conference celebrates the life and thought of Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain and explores the theme of public engagement with law and religion. It’s a topic that should be of broad interest in this period of great ferment in the field.

The schedule is below. Please register here!

Friday, January 3, 2014, 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm

The University Club

One West 54th Street, New York, NY 10019

Conference Topic: Public Engagement With Law and Religion: A Conference in Honor of Jean Bethke Elshtain

Noon: Registration, Luncheon, and Opening Remarks

1:15 pm – 2:45 pm: Session One. Public Engagement With Law and Religion: The Thought of Jean Bethke Elshtain

Chair: Zachary R. Calo (Valparaiso University School of Law)

* Thomas C. Berg (University of St. Thomas School of Law)

* Eric Gregory (Princeton University, Department of Religion)

* Charles Mathewes (University of Virginia, Department of Religious Studies)

2:45 pm – 3:00 pm: Coffee Break

3:00 pm – 4:30 pm. Session Two. Public Engagement With Law and Religion: Journalistic Perspectives

Chair: Marc O. DeGirolami (St. John’s University School of Law)

* Matthew Boudway (Associate Editor, Commonweal)

* Susannah Meadows (Contributor, New York Times)

* Rusty R. Reno (Editor, First Things)

4:45 PM – 5:15 pm: Vespers

5:15 pm: Reception

Seales, “The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a Southern Town”

Next month, Oxford will publish The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a 9780199860289Southern Town, by Chad E. Seales (University of Texas at Austin). The publisher’s description follows.

Tracing the religious history of Siler City, North Carolina, Chad E. Seales argues that southern whites cultivated their own regional brand of American secularism and employed it, alongside public religious performances, to claim and regulate public spaces. Over the course of the twentieth century, they wielded secularism to segregate racialized bodies, to challenge local changes resulting from civil rights legislation, and to respond to the arrival of Latino migrants.

Combining ethnographic and archival sources, Seales studies the themes of industrialization, nationalism, civility, privatization, and migration through the local history of Siler City; its neighborhood patterns, Fourth of July parades, Confederate soldiers, minstrel shows, mock weddings, banking practices, police shootings, Good Friday processions, public protests, and downtown mural displays. Offering a spatial approach to the study of performative religion, The Secular Spectacle presents a generative narrative of secularism from the perspective of evangelical Protestants in the American South.

Gardella, “American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred”

Next month, Oxford University Press will publish American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred by Peter Gardella (Manhattanville College). The publisher’s description follows.

The United States has never had an officially established national church. Since the time of the first British colonists, it has instead developed a strong civil religion that melds God and nation. In a deft exploration of American civil religious symbols-from the Liberty Bell to the Vietnam Memorial, from Mount Rushmore to Disney World-Peter Gardella explains how the places, objects, and words that Americans hold sacred came into being and how Americans’ feelings about them have changed over time. In addition to examining revered historical sites and structures, he analyzes such sacred texts as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, the Kennedy Inaugural, and the speeches of Martin Luther King, and shows how five patriotic songs-“The Star-Spangled Banner,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America,” and “This Land Is Your Land”-have been elevated into hymns.
Arguing that certain values-personal freedom, political democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance-have held American civil religion together, Gardella chronicles the numerous forms those values have taken, from Jamestown and Plymouth to the September 11, 2001 Memorial in New York.

Gould & Messina (eds.), “Europe’s Contending Identities: Supranationalism, Ethnoregionalism, Religion, and New Nationalism”

Next month, Cambridge University Press will publish Europe’s Contending Identities: Supranationalism, Ethnoregionalism, Religion, and New Nationalism, edited by Andrew Gould (University of Notre Dame) and Anthony Messina (Trinity College). The publisher’s description follows.Europe's Contending Identities

How “European” are Europeans? Is it possible to balance national citizenship with belonging to the European Union overall? Do feelings of citizenship and belonging respond to affiliations to regions, religions, or reactionary politics? Unlike previous volumes about identity in Europe, this book offers a more comprehensive view of the range of identities and new arguments about the political processes that shape identity formation. The founders of European integration promised “an ever closer union.” Nationalists respond that a people should control their own destiny. This book investigates who is winning the debate. The chapters show that attitudes toward broader political communities are changing, that new ideas are gaining ground, and that long-standing trends are possibly reversing course.

Bonney, “Monarchy, Religion and the State: Civil Religion in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the Commonwealth”

This November, Manchester University Press will publish Monarchy, Religion and the State: Civil Religion in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the Commonwealth by Norman Bonney (Edinburgh Napier University). The publisher’s description follows.

This most thorough and contemporary examination of the religious features of the UK state and its monarchy argues that the long reign of Elizabeth has led to a widespread lack of awareness of the centuries old religious features of the state that are revealed at the accession and coronation of a new monarch. It is suggested that the next succession to the throne will require major national debates in each realm of the monarch to judge whether the traditional rituals which require professions of Christianity and Protestantism by the new monarch are appropriate, or whether they might be replaced by alternative secular or interfaith ceremonies.

It will be required reading for those who study the government and politics of the UK, Canada, Australia and the other 13 realms of the monarch. It will also appeal to as well as students and lecturers in history, sociology and religious studies and citizens interested in the monarchy and contemporary religious issues.

Movsesian Essay Appears in New Anthology on Public Religion

This month, Ashgate releases Volume III of Religion in the Public Space, part of its Library of Essays on Law and Religion series. The volume is edited by Silvio Ferrari (Milan) and Rinaldo Cristofori (Milan), and contains essays by, among others, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Mary Ann Glendon, and, I blush to say, yours truly–my essay, Crosses and Culture, on religious displays in the US and Europe. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Religion in the public sphere is one of the most debated issues in the field of law and religion. This volume brings together articles which address some of the more prominent recent cases relating to religion and education, religion and the workplace, family law and religious symbols. The essays discuss the meaning of secularism today and the difficult issue of religion in the public sphere and reflect a wide variety of viewpoints. This volume maps the key elements of this multi-faceted problem, offers essential material and provides an important starting point for an understanding of the issues in this century old debate.

“The Religious in Responses to Mass Atrocity” (Brudholm & Cushman, eds.)

9781107624757This November, Cambridge University Press will publish The Religious in Responses to Mass Atrocity: Interdisciplinary Perspectives edited by Thomas Brudholm (University of Copenhagen) and Thomas Cushman (Wellesley College). The publisher’s description follows.

A peculiar and fascinating aspect of many responses to mass atrocities is the creative and eclectic use of religious language and frameworks. Some crimes are so extreme that they “cry out to heaven,” drawing people to employ religious vocabulary to make meaning of and to judge what happened, to deal with questions of guilt and responsibility, and to re-establish hope and trust in their lives. Moreover, in recent years, religious actors have become increasingly influential in worldwide contexts of conflict-resolution and transitional justice. This collection offers a critical assessment of the possibilities and problems pertaining to attempts to bring religious – or semi-religious – allegiances and perspectives to bear in responses to the mass atrocities of our time: When and how can religious language or religious beliefs and practices be either necessary or helpful? And what are the problems and reasons for caution or critique? In this book, a group of distinguished scholars explore these questions and offer a range of original explanatory and normative perspectives.