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Europe and America Criss-Crossing Perspectives, 1788-1848

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Jacques Portes

Première partie. America Viewing Europe

I.1. The Rejection of Europe in the American Disestablishment of Religion

John G. Blair

Texte intégral

  • 1 "Religion As a Cultural System, " The Interpretation of Cultures, (New York, Basic Books, 1973), 87 (...)
  • 2 These issues are neatly summarized by Richard John Neuhaus in "What the Fundamentalists Want, " Com (...)

1The importance of religion as a formative element in American life has been clear from the earliest colonization. As shown by Perry Miller and numerous others since, substantial numbers of Americans from the very outset have seen divine destiny and national destiny as intimately intertwined. Nonetheless defining the role of religion in the life of the United States is particularly difficult because for reasons to be elucidated here American relgion cannot be identified with any particular beliefs, not even the Christianity espoused by a large majority of its citizens. Instead, explicitly seeking to avoid religious establishment modeled on European precedents, the newly independent United States found it preferable to define the place of religion by indirection and negation, thereby implicitly legitimating any religious inclination whatsoever. Thus religion in the United States constitutes a cultural system in the sense outlined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, a system whose rules come into focus most clearly in cross-cultural perspective.1 The basic rule is that all religious convictions and the proliferating sects based on them become systemically equivalent, thereby embodying a modular organization. This organization is self-consciously not European but is an American cultural innovation. It deserves more recognition than it often receives under the common-sense unwisdom of our time which presumes that the more "modern" a society, the more secular it automatically becomes. Such easy generalizations are flagrantly inapplicable to the United States, partly because of the impact of proliferation on the religious convictions of Americans at large.2

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2The separation of church and state written in the United States Constitution was decidedly un-European. Nearly everywhere in the Old World there was an established church, whether Protestant or Catholic. These establishments might be downright minuscule as in some Swiss cantons a single "national church" might serve fewer than 10,000 citizens even well after the Reformation. But however small, it was nonetheless an establishment with powers of taxation and of control over dissidents. In the Western world the establishment had been Christian since Constantine, though the tradition of an established religion, of course, long predates Christianity. The dominance of Christianity carried over easily to the New World since it was quickly declared a misionary zone.

  • 3 Thomas Sieger Derr, "The First Amendment as a Guide to Church-State Relations: Theological Illusion (...)

3Nonetheless, in the United States, the fundamental legal status of religion was irreversibly limited by the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. As Thomas Derr points out, the new nation was abandoning the inherited forms of the centuries and its move toward promoting freedom of conscience was not without risks.3 The hope was that religious teaching would anchor public morality without the internecine sectarian warfare that had so plagued the Old World for centuries. To a substantial extent, that proved possible, given peculiarly American notions of what disestablishment of denomination and equality of religious conviction would mean.

4The primary colonial fact was the establishment of the Church of England back home where most of the colonists came from. This home establishment could only come into conflict with the exigencies of colonial policy, above all the need to attract settlers of whatever religious persuasion. In fact Anglicans could hardly object during the religious agitations of the 17th century when dissenters left home for the colonies to escape confrontations, though Anglican establishment in the New World was compromised as a result. Pennsylvania was the model of how religious toleration could further prosperity by attracting settlers with all kinds of convictions. William Penn, of course, had learned from the ample Quaker experience of persecution in the Old World, but there was also the precedent of British colonial policy as expressed in the 1665 Act of Surinam, which expressly encouraged Jews to settle in that colony and by implication others:

  • 4 Anson Phelps Stokes, Church and State in the United States. (New York: Harper & Bros., 1950), I, 25 (...)

Whereas it is a good and sound policy to encourage as much as possible whatever may tend to the increase of a new colony, and to invite persons of whatsoever country and religion, to come and reside here and traffic with us.4

  • 5 See Henry L. Feingold, Zion in America; The Jewish Experience from Colonial Times to the Present, r (...)
  • 6 Thomas J. Curry, The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendm (...)

Such open policy, naturally, did not guarantee its universal implementation, nor was it universal policy by any means: the British Navigation Act of 1663 authorized action "to prevent encroachment in trade by the Jews, French and other Foreigners-"5 It is not accident that the Jewish Cemetery made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem was in Newport since Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were the two most consistent loci of religious toleration in colonial times. It is well to recall that this liberty was only relative since Jews in 18th-century Rhode Island had no right to vote and were refused naturalization.6 Similarly a libertarian heritage did not stop Pennsylvania as organized in 1776 from for a time requiring office-takerss to affirm their faith in both Old and New Testaments. The State Constitution of 1790 abandoned that restriction following the federal example but also responding to protests by local Jews in the name of religious liberty. There was to be nothing automatic about disestablishment and nothing fleeting about religious prejudice.

5By the middle of the 18th century spokesmen even for well established non-Anglican groups could oppose diversity on the grounds that religion itself might be compromised by too great latitude of choice among denominations. Thus Gilbert Tennnent, a prominent Presbyterian in the relatively tolerant middle colonies, could say at mid-century:

  • 7 Gilbert Tennent, Irenicum Ecclesiasticum. (Philadelphia; W. Braford, 1748), 113. For this reference (...)

For what encouragement have they to be religious, while the Church is torn by divisions, into so great a number of parts and parties that they do not know what religion or profession to be of? It is doubtless the master plot of the Devil, to confound men with such a multitude of religions that they may be brought to think that there is nothing in them all, and so reject the Gospel either as a fancy or imposture.7

While this statement was partly prompted by an ecumenical impulse to heal splits among Presbyterians, the most urgent message expresses the fears of a rather traditional and centralized denomination. Tennent presumes that the Americans-to-be around him feel that they have a choice; otherwise diversity could hardly distract them or disturb him.

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  • 8 As New England showed, English origins did not indicate Anglican sentiments, despite their relative (...)

6The overwhelming fact of colonial religion, with the exception of New England, was indeed diversity.8 Since all colonies sought to encourage immigration to meet the perpetual labor shortage, imposing restrictions risked being self-defeating. New York, for example, which was relatively at ease with diversity, nonetheless had to resolve sporadic colonial tensions over such issues. Peter Stuyvesant, in his later years as governor, felt moved to violate the hard-won Dutch policy of toleration by restricting radical Quakers until he was overruled by the Dutch West India Company in 1663. By 1687 New York was described by its governor as offering the following religious options:

  • 9 As quoted by William Warren Sweet, Religion in Colonial America. (New York; Scribner’s, 1942), 323. (...)

First a chaplain belonging to the Fort, of the Church of England; secondly, a Dutch Calvinist; thirdly a French Calvinist; fourthly, a Dutch Lutheran. Here be not many of the Church in England; few Roman Catholics; abundance of Quaker preachers, men, and women especially; Singing Quakers; Ranting Quakers; Sabbatarians; Anti-Sabbatarians; some Ana-Baptists; some Jews; in short of all sorts of opinions there are some, and the most part none at all.9

In colonial New York the diversity itself helped limit the extent to which the Church of England could garner special privileges. Their clergy did try, notably in attempting to pass various laws requiring public taxation in support of Anglican clergy, but their success was only partial. The sheer religious complexity of New York, furthered by Huguenot leadership from John Jay, led to virtually complete disestablishment by 1785.

  • 10 Recent reestimation of the ethnic origins of the Americans of 1790 gives NY, PA, MD, VA, NC, SC and (...)
  • 11 English experience is too diverse to discuss all cases here. See Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious Hi (...)

7The South is a key locus of disestablishment because the Church of England was officially in place from an early time, and yet its situation was precarious. The ethnically English proportion of the population gradually became a minority and even among them revivalist dissent grew rapidly after the middle of the 18th century, especially among the uneducated frontier people.10 Thus the establishment in the Southern colonies met regular opposition to ecclesiastical taxes and a discouraging multiplication of dissent.11 The point is that establishment itself was a fragile overlay in most cases, trying to maintain the Anglican Church and its accompanying class system in the face of religious proliferation and populist opposition.

  • 12 Writings. (New York: The Library of America, 1984) 283.
  • 13 Though the latter principle made it into the final document approved June 12, 1776, the text of Art (...)

8Virginia is the crucial case since it produced the influential spokesmen who would spark the legal separation of church and state, first at home and then nationally; Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Though nominally Anglicans, both were conscious of the claims of dissenters. Madison had attended the College of New Jersey, not yet called Princeton, then dominated by the evangelical "New Side" Presbyterians. Jefferson, besides his native rationalism, was so conscious of the presence of non-Anglicans in Virginia that in Notes on the State of Virginia he even estimated their number as two-thirds of the population as of 1776.12 It was Madison who engaged the first major confrontations politically in the debates concerning the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The draft article proposed by George Mason was phrased in terms of "tolerance, " the habitual Anglican formulation of the religious issue since the Act of Toleration of 1689 had ended English attempts to insist on religious uniformity in the home country. Madison wanted to incorporate more uptodate political vocabulary involving "liberty" or "equality."13

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9Despite the broadening of thinking implicit in the text of the Declaration of Rights, religious controversy in Virginia was far from over- Anglican leaders hoped to maintain the core of their privileges in the form of a general tax assessment for the support of religion- A sample formulation of the several bills debated in the 1770s and 1780s ran as follows:

  • 14 This was Patrick Henry’s resolution of 1784. Stokes, Church and State, 389.

That the people of this Commonwealth, according to their respective abilities, ought to pay a moderate tax or contribution annually, for the support of the Christian religion, or of some Christian church, denomination or communion of Christians, or of some form of Christian worship.14

10By this stroke, of course, though Catholics would be acknowledged, Jews and other “non-Christians" (at this point an uncertain number of closet atheists and a larger number of non-practitioners) would be taxed for the benefit of organizations to whose beliefs they had not assented. It was not difficult for James Madison to assimilate this proposal to the very issues of taxation without representation which had been at stake in the Revolution itself. The core of his argument took a broader form, however:

  • 15 Stokes, Church and State. 391.

Who does not see . that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever.15

This was the argument that ultimately carried the day and prepared for the pattern of negative formulation which would appear in the Constitution; since any statement of establishment was open to challenge, none would be permitted. Madison also explicitly condemned the Episcopal clergy for wanting to re-establish their financial independence of the laity. The principle of voluntary association, on the contrary, kept the clergy accountable to parishioners since the latter could choose the extent to which they would contribute. This principle had a major shaping influence on American religious life to an extent which its original sponsors could hardly have foreseen, particularly in its tacit encouragement for the proliferation of religious groups.

11Jefferson, the tutelary genius behind the continuing debates on this issue, was convinced that negative formulation was appropriate because the goal was not restriction of religion but the avoidance of any abuse of religion by the state or any group that might associate itself with governmental power. Whence the prohibition of any religious test for office holders, not only on the federal but also on the level of the states:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. (Article VI)

  • 16 Negative conceptualization profoundly affected thinking about the Constitution, as in Madison’s ins (...)

Elsewhere one might analyze the difference between an oath and an affirmation, but here the key point is the non-exclusionary formulation of the religious issue; no one could be ruled out of holding an office on religious grounds.16

12Jefferson supported this position because he viewed religion as more important than churches and their theological niceties- Anyone believing that humans were naturally religious, he thought, should see rationally the utility of anchoring public morality in some form of belief in higher powers- Noxious consequences might easily follow from sectarian ecclesiastical insistence on particular religious doctrines; therefore general affirmations would suffice- When opposition to the Constitution itself showed the political utility of further reassuring citizens that the new federal government would never interfere with their religious convictions, the result was the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Once again the negative formulation presumed that individual denominations, functioning as voluntary associations, would offer the polity the advantages of religion without the destructive sectarian strife that had proved so costly to Europe. Disestablishment did not surface in the Constitution because it reflected colonial experience or universal conviction, but because avoiding conflict constituted the only religious strategy which would allow the ex-colonies to cooperate in a move toward nationhood.

13George Washington reiterated the central point in his "Farewell Address" of 1796, thereby giving it the highest political endorsement available at the time:

  • 17 "Farewell Address to the People of the United States, September 17th, 1796," The Writings of George (...)

Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports . Let it simply be asked, Where is the security of property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in the 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.17

From this most prestigious of all his platforms Washington was willing to indulge a certain amount of rhetoric on this issue, thereby suggesting that hopeful fictions have been part of American political discourse for at least as long as there has been a Republic. In his eagerness to rally unity and national sentiment, Washington is quite ready to blur over the diversity of religious persuasion among his compatriots:

  • 18 "Farewell Address, " 218-19. This address may also serve to make the beginnings of linguistic imper (...)

The name of AMERICAN, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles.18

Despite the actual religious diversity, Washington felt free to emphasize commonalities since in principle no religious persuasion was excluded. The result was one of the early overstatements of American consensus.

14The Constitution, then, encouraged Protestants to accept the legitimacy of Catholicism, and Christians, whatever their temptation to discriminate against Jews, could not legislate against Judaism. As always, religious acceptance of minorities might follow some distance behind the egalitarian implications of disestablishment, but unlike Europe the government would stay out of the way. The principle of disestablishment became the law of the land-But as a result the powerfully dispersive forces of evangelical revivalism were free to do their work without restraint .

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  • 19 Only the federal government was so restrained until in this century the Fourteenth Amendment was ap (...)

15The major New England states have been left out of this account so far because the new Constitutional provisions were most at odds with colonial practice in that region. The establishment of Congregational churches dated from the earliest settlements and still more important it was an establishment of dissenters from the Church of England. Nonetheless local dissenters had never been welcome, being invited to emigrate to Rhode Island or still further afield. As in the case of Roger Williams and the founding of Rhode Island in 1636, exile from the Calvinist community of the faithful was itself considered a powerful punishment. Of course there was nothing in the Constitution which prohibited Massachusetts or any other state from establishing any sect it wished.19 Even so, the weight of federal example encountered the resistance of the attenuated Calvinism still dominant in New England. The notion of a church as a merely voluntary association went against tenets dear to Calvinists since part of the justification for the Puritan church was precisely that fallen humanity should not be left to itself in such matters. And no more than the Virginia Anglicans did the Congregationalists want to depend on purely voluntary contributions rather than establishment rights to tax monies.

  • 20 For a compact survey see Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America. (New York: Scribner’s, 1965), 134 (...)
  • 21 Martin E. Marty, "Living with Establishment and Disestablishment in Nineteenth-Century Anglo-Americ (...)
  • 22 William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in (...)

16Since New England was not eager to follow the federal example, there was talk about seceding from the Union at several points, especially between 1805 and 1815, when economic issues added fuel to feelings of religious "discrimination." But the theological strains associated with the Second Great Awakening showed up in the New England establishment itself. Wherever freedom of the will was acknowledged, there disappeared an important theological justification for keeping the Calvinist church established. Schisms followed as the churches lost to the Unitarians on the rationalist side and to dissenters on the revivalist side.20 Connecticut completed disestablishment in 1818. Massachusetts yielded its last vestiges in 1833.21 Soon thereafter began to arrive the flood of Roman Catholic immigrants who would modify its religious balances irreversibly.22

17With New England falling into line, American disestablishment was to all intents and purposes universal, with consequences reaching far beyond religion in their shaping influence on American culture. Political issues such as who should vote were in the early years only partially open for debate, and political democratization would follow only fitfully over the years. In the field of religion, however, formal equality of treatment had been established via the principle of non-exclusion. It was a model readily available when new domains became open for (re) structuring. Religion had defined the fundament of American pluralisms. There, unlike politics, the Constitution listed no reserve clauses comparable to "Indians not taxed" or the black slaves masked as "other Persons" (Article 1.2) In The Federalist No. 51 James Madison drew directly on the implications of religious disestablishment and dispersal to counter fears of a tyrannical political majority.

  • 23 The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York; Mentor, 1961), 324.

Whilst all authority in it ["the federal republic of the United States"] will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority. In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.23

18Under the provisions of disestablishment, of course, religious prejudice continued wherever unpopular minorities were to be found, but the state could not be engaged in such conflicts except as mediator. In the long run, at least until recent battles over atheism to be treated below, tolerance increased over time.

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  • 24 Sacvan Bercovitch, "Fusion and Fragmentation; The American Identity, " in Rob Kroes, ed. The Americ (...)

19It should now be possible to clarify more precisely the modularity of the American religious system. The key concept is proliferation, which reveals itself most clearly in cross-cultural perspective. In Europe, after the most intense period of religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, the established churches, whatever their persuasion, found it useful to tolerate dissenting practices to at least some extent. Nonetheless the establishment, with few exceptions, yielded grudgingly its exclusivity and legitimacy; alternative practices generally had an up-hill battle to survive. The operative presumption was that people really ought to remain loyal to the one established faith. In the United States, however, the situation was if anything the opposite. The colonies had already attracted religious malcontents of all sorts and mixing them together under disestablishment produced what Sacvan Bercovitch has called "a deafening concordia discors – revivalists against Unitarians, pre-millenialists against post-millenialists, Methodists against Baptists against Calvinists – a thousand aggressively independent sects, all saying the same thing." Their operative conviction that "every truly American church is ipso facto a true church" sponsored "unrelenting sectarian acrimony."24 The missionary impulse to convert anyone who would listen started at home. Disestablishment was simply the legalization of open competition as far as the sects were concerned. The upshot was to allow openended subdivision of the world of belief. There was no inherent limit to the proliferation of groups and practices-Infinitesimally fine differences of doctrine or ritual could and did result in schisms which left two groups where there had been one before. Charismatic leaders were always free to draw their followers into a new organization. The world of religious practice, which Europeans had conceived as essentially a unitary whole, reflecting national or seignorial preferences, had been fragmented into unendingly diverse competing options fueled by enthusiastic evangelism.

  • 25 While there has been a palpable proliferation during the years in question, these figures may exagg (...)

20The plurality of sects in the United States was and continues to be startling: an unprecedented proliferation of formal denominations and informal associations. The numbers of groups are staggering to anyone whose expectations are European in scale. J. Gordon Melton’s two-volume Encyclopedia of American Religions. (Wilmington, NC: McGrath Publ.) lists some 1200 organized churches as of 1978. The second edition of The Directory of Religious organizations in the United States. (Falls Church, VA: McGrath, 1982) lists 1628 "general organizations, " up 31 per cent from its first edition.25

21The modularity implicit in the rules governing the religious system should be clear. Every sect and every revivalist is free to attract followers as they may. Given the voluntary association as the basis of the system, all groups are implicitly in competition with each other, thereby opening the religious sphere to rivalries more commonly associated with the economic and commercial world. From the early 19th century on revivalists found means outside the long-standing denominations to engage the emotional involvement which would encourage the enthusiasm and the contributions of masses of individuals. From Charles Finney to Dwight L. Moody to Billy Sunday to Billy Graham to Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson is a continuous line of American popular evangelism. As far back as the surge of the Methodists and Baptists in the 19th century, older and more staid denominations have been obliged to adapt their styles, sometimes even to adjust their theologies. All of these developments could not have taken place without individuals, sometimes in large numbers, feeling free to follow their religious impulse in new directions. The system itself could not discourage them because by American definition every religious organization is equivalent to any and all of the others.

  • 26 Frank Newport, "The Religious Switcher in the United States, " American Sociological Review. 44 (19 (...)
  • 27 Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew; An Essay in American Religious Sociology. rev. ed., (Garden (...)
  • 28 As quoted from the New York Times of December 23, 1952 by Herberg, 84. I am grateful to Allen Guttm (...)

22Let me emphasize that I do not see a majority of Americans treating their religion as interchangeable in the sense of changing readily from one group to another. Interchangeability remains largely implicit, a matter of system definition rather than everyday implementation. Depending on definitions, a non-negligible number of Americans does apparently change religious affiliations, between one-quarter and one-third as of one study of the mid-1970s.26 For the majority of people, however, loyalties to family, childhood training, ethnic origins, tradition and the like lead to lifelong commitments to a single persuasion. In his classic, if perhaps optimistic, statement of the 1950s, Will Herberg asserted that "to be a Protestant, a Catholic, or Jew are today the alternative ways of being an American."27 What he meant, clearly, was not that these three groups were interchangeable from the point of view of an individual, but that, in his term, they were "equi-legitimate" in the context of American culture. Perhaps the most memorable reiteration of the basic principle since George Washington also dates from the 1950s when President Dwight D. Eisenhower affirmed that "our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt relilgious faith – and I don’t care what it is-"28

  • 29 The historic high point of around 64 per cent of the population was reached around the mid-1960s af (...)

23These happy affirmations of the 1950s were soon to be challenged by two developments which forced to the surface lurking potentialities which tested the outer limits of habitual American tolerances, of religion as a cultural system in the United States. Ironically they surfaced most challengingly during the 1960s, precisely those years when the proportion of church members in the population approached its highest point ever, nearly two-thirds.29

  • 30 Charles Y. Glock and Robert N. Bellah, eds., The New Religous Consciousness, (Berkeley: University (...)

24The first disruption has proved less disturbing and hence deserves less attention here. It concerns the broadening of religious practice in the United States to include non-Western groups and conceptions. Unlike some earlier groups, these new persuasions of the 1960s did not reflect immigration of native practitioners who brought their religions with them. Zen Buddhism and Hari-Krishna Hinduism, to single out two prominent examples, were something new and outlandish to the American majority.30 A certain number of the rebellious youths of the time expressed their disaffection by joining groups which could only embarrass the American mainstream since formally speaking no "religion" could be excludable under terms fundamental to the system itself.

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  • 31 See Ahlstom, A Religious History of the American People, II, 549-70.
  • 32 See J. Gordon Melton & Robert L. Moore, eds., The Cult Experience: Responding to the New Religious (...)
  • 33 The latter had been known as Richard Alpert when he and Timothy Leary were the original LSD twins a (...)

25The importation of previously exotic sects had occurred before in American religious life, notably around the turn of this century. Various persuasions, such as spiritualism, theosophy, anthoposophy, Sufism et al attracted a certain following, largely among the wel1-to-do.31 In the 1960s disaffected youths might join such long-standing if marginal movements without creating much stir, but stress began to surface publicly when noticeable numbers of young middle-class Christians and Jews were attracted to new and bizarre beliefs. It was still worse with new cult groups with reputedly dubious methods for mind control like the Scientology founded by ex-science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard or the Rev. Sun Moon’s Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity. Such sects started to appear in the courts as they challenged the system’s limits of toleration in such areas as tax-free commercial activities and unimpeded exit for discontented adepts.32 Oriental holy men who toured the United States seemed assured of enthusiastic followers while the more adventurous followed the Beatles and Baba Ram Dass to India.33 The word "guru" flourished in American idiom, and "Muslim" became a new way of being black in America.

  • 34 Martin Marty, Righteous Empire; The Protestant Experience in America. (New York; Dial, 1970), esp. (...)

26Despite the public agonizing and outcry, however, this extension of the boundaries of "religion" proved tolerable for most. The fundamental rules implied, as Martin Marty put it, that "any number can play, " and an enlargement of the playing field was preferable to any major redefinition of the game.34 Ecumenism, however, could not easily absorb atheism, which seemed to deny all religion while claiming equal time under the non-exclusion provisions of the American system. Here was a profound challenge which seemed to make a religion out of irreligion.

  • 35 Perhaps sheer lack of numbers was a factor. The most recent study avers that "America does not seem (...)

27Atheism has never had an easy time in the United States.35 Alexis de Tocqueville reports from the 1830s:

  • 36 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Henry Reeves text, ed. Phillips Bradley, (New York: Vi (...)

While I was in America, a witness, who happened to be called at the Sessions of the county of Chester (state of New York), declared that he did not believe in the existence of God, or in the immortality of the soul. The judge refused to admit his evidence, on the ground that the witness had destroyed beforehand all the confidence of the court in what he was about to say.36

Nonetheless atheism posed a challenge that would not go away when pressed, precisely because the negative formulations of the Constitution provided no grounds for denying it.

28Two Supreme-Court decisions of the early 1960s crystallized these new issues concerning the separation of church and state. In Engel v. Vitale (1962) the Court held, by 6-1, that it was unconstitutional for schoolchildren to recite a prayer composed by a group of clergymen for the New York Board of Regents even though it was offered to school boards in New York for discretionary use. The prayer in question was short and general:

  • 37 Kenneth M. Dolbeare & Phillip E. Hammond, The School Prayer Decisions; From Court Policy to Local P (...)

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.37

  • 38 Large excerpts from the decision, written by Justice Black, appear in Stanley I. Kutler, ed, The Su (...)
  • 39 Citations from the Court decision, written by Justice Clark, from Thayer S. Warshaw, Religion. Educ (...)
  • 40 A recent meditative overview of the Supreme Court’s decisions in this domain over the last several (...)

Nonetheless, the Court ruled, this prayer constituted indirect coercive pressure that might induce minorities to conform to majority religious practice of theism.38 Thus the First Amendment was construed to apply to religion itself and not just re ligions; atheism, implicitly, deserved equal treatment, a judgment made explicit the following year in two related decisions: Abingdon School District v. Schempp, combined by the Court with Hurray v. Curlett. In both cases the Court ruled, by 8-1, that devotional reading of the Bible and recitations of the Lord’s Prayer in schools violated the First Amendment, a judgment which, by virtue of 20th-century interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment, also applies to the States and localities. The core of the decision is the Court’s insistence that to be acceptable, any public-school devotions must have a "secular legislative purpose" and a "primary effect which neither advances nor inhibits religion."39 The rub is between two First-Amendment principles of equal validity yet opposing implications: the separation clause and the free-exercise clause. For the moment, the weight of the Court’s decisions seems to favor the religious rights of the non-religious over the preferences of the majority.40 Thus atheism, though affirmed by few Americans, emerged out of the closet under the Court’s aegis. In the future attempts to frame a Constitutional amendment that would circumvent the Court’s broadening of the religious groundrules will no doubt continue. Whatever the outcome, the modularity of the religious system is not seriously in question, even though a majority of God-fearing Americans may feel that the nation’s commitment to religion is being undermined. What is at issue in terms of this study is the degree to which modular equivalence will pertain among all religious positions, now including the irreligious.

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29Since only the outer boundaries of acceptability are open to debate, modularity in the religious realm is free and formally unlimited; individuals and groups can move about as they may choose, though presumably individuals inclined toward changing their allegiances only adhere to one group at a time. Religious orgnizations are so independent of each other that one cannot speak of system at all without reemphasizing the proliferation of groups. There are no constraints within the free field of competition and any nuance of doctrine or practice may find adherents once it is put forward. As under all modular rules or organization, the future is open to still unconceived adjunctions to what we have seen so far.

Notes de fin

1 "Religion As a Cultural System, " The Interpretation of Cultures, (New York, Basic Books, 1973), 87-125.

2 These issues are neatly summarized by Richard John Neuhaus in "What the Fundamentalists Want, " Commentary (May 1985), 41-46-

3 Thomas Sieger Derr, "The First Amendment as a Guide to Church-State Relations: Theological Illusions, Cultural Fantasies, and Legal Practicalities, " in Jaye B. Hensel, ed., Church. State, and Politics, (Washington: Roscoe Pound/American Trial Lawyers Foundation, 1982), 77.

4 Anson Phelps Stokes, Church and State in the United States. (New York: Harper & Bros., 1950), I, 254.

5 See Henry L. Feingold, Zion in America; The Jewish Experience from Colonial Times to the Present, rev. ed. (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1974), 18.

6 Thomas J. Curry, The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment (New York; Oxford University Press, 1986), 91.

7 Gilbert Tennent, Irenicum Ecclesiasticum. (Philadelphia; W. Braford, 1748), 113. For this reference I am grateful to Annette Becker of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales of Paris and the Lycée Francais of New York .

8 As New England showed, English origins did not indicate Anglican sentiments, despite their relative numerical dominance as shown in the ethnic origins of the Americans of 1790: half were English (or Welsh), 7-7 % Irish, 6.6 % Scottish, 7 % German, 2.5 % Dutch, 1.4 % French. A startling 19.3 % were black. See Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. ed. Stephan Thernstrom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 503.

9 As quoted by William Warren Sweet, Religion in Colonial America. (New York; Scribner’s, 1942), 323. The final remark about the majority manifesting no particular religious sentiments is a useful reminder that for all the concern over religious matters, even in colonial New England probably no more than a quarter of the population belonged to the churches, though many more may have attended.

10 Recent reestimation of the ethnic origins of the Americans of 1790 gives NY, PA, MD, VA, NC, SC and probably NJ as having a minority of residents of English extraction. Forrest McDonald & Ellen Shapiro McDonald, "The Ethnic Origins of the American People, 1790," William and Mary Quarterly 85 (1980), 179-99. I thank Jean Heffer for this reference.

11 English experience is too diverse to discuss all cases here. See Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), I, esp. 242-55.

12 Writings. (New York: The Library of America, 1984) 283.

13 Though the latter principle made it into the final document approved June 12, 1776, the text of Article 16 also included the enjoinder: "it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other;" Henry Steele Commager, ed. Documents of American History, (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1958), 6th ed., 104. That essay assumption of unanimity showed just how far it still was to the First Amendment.

14 This was Patrick Henry’s resolution of 1784. Stokes, Church and State, 389.

15 Stokes, Church and State. 391.

16 Negative conceptualization profoundly affected thinking about the Constitution, as in Madison’s insistence that the best the framers could hope was to "avoid the errors of the past and... to provide a convenient mode of rectifying their own errors." See Robert A. Ferguson, Law and Letters in American Culture, (Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press, 1984), 21-22.

17 "Farewell Address to the People of the United States, September 17th, 1796," The Writings of George Washington. ed. Jared Sparks, v. 12, (Boston: American Stationers Company, 1837), 227. Emphasis in original.

18 "Farewell Address, " 218-19. This address may also serve to make the beginnings of linguistic imperialism whereby the United States coopts the adjective "American" for self-reference to the exclusion of the other Americas.

19 Only the federal government was so restrained until in this century the Fourteenth Amendment was applied to states by the Supreme Court. Differences among the states meant that disestablishment had variable definition and application in several. See Cushing Strout, The New Heavens and New Earth (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), esp. 91-101.

20 For a compact survey see Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America. (New York: Scribner’s, 1965), 134-66.

21 Martin E. Marty, "Living with Establishment and Disestablishment in Nineteenth-Century Anglo-America, " Journal of Church and State. 18 (1976), 61-78, esp. 64.

22 William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 98- 140.

23 The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York; Mentor, 1961), 324.

24 Sacvan Bercovitch, "Fusion and Fragmentation; The American Identity, " in Rob Kroes, ed. The American Identity; Fusion and Fragmentation (Amsterdam: Amerika Instituut, 1980), 35.

25 While there has been a palpable proliferation during the years in question, these figures may exaggerate its extent since some of the increased numbers undoubtedly register organizations which were simply missed in the first edition.

26 Frank Newport, "The Religious Switcher in the United States, " American Sociological Review. 44 (1979), 528-52.

27 Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew; An Essay in American Religious Sociology. rev. ed., (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960), 258.

28 As quoted from the New York Times of December 23, 1952 by Herberg, 84. I am grateful to Allen Guttmann for this reference.

29 The historic high point of around 64 per cent of the population was reached around the mid-1960s after a slow and sporadic rise since colonial times; so much for easy generalizations about the secularization of the modern United States. See Edwin Scott Gaustad, Historical Atlas of Religion in America. rev. ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 168.

30 Charles Y. Glock and Robert N. Bellah, eds., The New Religous Consciousness, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.)

31 See Ahlstom, A Religious History of the American People, II, 549-70.

32 See J. Gordon Melton & Robert L. Moore, eds., The Cult Experience: Responding to the New Religious Pluralism, (New York; Pilgrim Press, 1982).

33 The latter had been known as Richard Alpert when he and Timothy Leary were the original LSD twins at Harvard in the early 1960s.

34 Martin Marty, Righteous Empire; The Protestant Experience in America. (New York; Dial, 1970), esp. chap. 23, 233-43.

35 Perhaps sheer lack of numbers was a factor. The most recent study avers that "America does not seem to have harbored a single individual before the nineteenth century who disbelieved in God . " James Turner, Without God. Without Creed; The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1985), 44.

36 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Henry Reeves text, ed. Phillips Bradley, (New York: Vintage, 1954), I, 317. Tocqueville goes on to quote a local newspaper report of the presiding judge’s remark that "he had not before been aware that there was a man living who did not believe in God."

37 Kenneth M. Dolbeare & Phillip E. Hammond, The School Prayer Decisions; From Court Policy to Local Practice, (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 26.

38 Large excerpts from the decision, written by Justice Black, appear in Stanley I. Kutler, ed, The Supreme Court and the Constitution; Readings in American Constitutional History, (New York & London; Norton, 1984), 3rd ed., 528-32. In conclusion Black quotes the same anti-establishment remarks by Madison cited above p. 11-12.

39 Citations from the Court decision, written by Justice Clark, from Thayer S. Warshaw, Religion. Education and the Supreme Court. (Nashville; Abingdon, 1979), 38-39.

40 A recent meditative overview of the Supreme Court’s decisions in this domain over the last several decades appears in William Lee Miller, The First Liberty; Religion and the American Republic (New York: Knopf, 1986), esp. 311- 32.

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