Friday, August 12, 2005

A Darker Shade of Red?

If there is anything more foolish than confusing religion and politics it is believing that the two can be rigidly separated. If as Lutherans we have to recognize that even the first table of the law is Israel’s constitutional law, then we also have to recognize that much of the Bible is as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said a "Statesman’s Manual." And if God saw fit to put politics and religion in one book how can we rigidly separate them?

All of which is to introduce a brilliant lecture by Wilfred McClay on the President Bush’s "evangelical conservatism" (not the same as "conservative evangelicalism"). (Hat-tip to "Mere Comments" which has more links, including one to a taped version of his lecture). The point of his lecture: President Bush’s conservatism is only ambivalently conservative precisely because it is so evangelical. Yet for all that, Wilfred McClay argues, it is deeply rooted in 19th century American thinking.

Read the whole thing. And when you are done, you can read some following notes written by the equally brilliant Allen C. Guelzo, from his biography of Lincoln, Redeemer President.

Here is Guelzo on the situation of American Christianity around Lincoln's birth:

If anything looked like being close to its end in 1800, it was orthodox Christianity in America. Although many of the British North American colonies were settled by religious communities — such as the Quakers of Pennsylvania or the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay — the potential of these groups for developing any kind of stable religious culture in America turned out to be severely limited. Most of the[se] émigré religious communities . . . belonged to the radical fringes of English Christianity, with deep grudges against the English state church, the Church of England, and an almost suicidal hostility to formal assertions of authority by their own leaders. The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay imported a fairly straightlaced predestinarian Calvinism as their official theology, but they also imported a highly decentralized and well-nigh uncontrollable Congregational church order which licensed any individual congregation to revise Calvinist theology as it saw fit. And revise it they did, as the intellectual allure of Enlightenment rationalism persuaded New England’s established leadership to shuck off Calvinism for the more prestigious and "rational" religion of the deists and unitarians.

The home government in England, which was supposed to support and foster the establishment of Christianity through the Church of England, might have done more to straighten out these irregularities, but regulation was an expensive proposition. . . . Not until the 1690s did British imperial planners decide to end this era of benign neglect and begin the strategic organization of Church of England parishes in the colonies. But it turned out to be too little, too late. In 1739, a major revival of religion known as the Great Awakening swept through large parts of New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies, preaching a hard-hitting but radically personalized "new birth" of spiritual transformation and redemption through Christ. It lasted only a comparatively short time — it was effectively over by 1742 — but it successfully managed to reawaken all of the most radical, individualistic, and anti-authoritarian urges of the radical religion that the colonies had started with.

Then, in 1775, came the Revolution which completed the religious disruptions the Awakening had begun thirty years before. The Anglican churches, torn by their loyalty to the mother country, fell to pieces . . . "New Lights" of the Awakening . . . might support the Revolution but their support was received without enthusiasm and without much reward . . . As late as 1822, Jefferson did not hesitate to predict that in his agrarian republic, every young man then alive would die a unitarian (pp. 11-12).

And then, Allan Guelzo continues, came the second "Great Awakening" from 1812 to 1830, which popularized new brands of piety from Charles Grandison Finney’s "new methods" of inducing revival to the extreme demands of New England evangelical theology:

The great moral demand of the revivalists, based upon the strenuous Calvinist scheme of Jonathan Edwards, was a religion of absolute submission to a sovereign God, in which everyone was understood to be helpless and in need of redemption, but which everyone was obliged to seize for themselves as an expression of their own moral responsibility. The tension between these two ideas was artfully framed by Edwards’ heirs to promote an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension, leading to the shattering emotional conversion of purpose and intention, even to the point of embracing absolute ‘disinterested benevolence’ ‘Pure, disinterested, universal benevolence is a plain and infallible criterion, by which men may determine whether they truly love God, or not," preached Nathanael Emmons. To do anything less was a hypocrisy, and the slightest tinge of hypocrisy leavened the whole lump.

This was all well and good for the morally heroic, and it gave the republic Charles Finney, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown. But for those who, after self-searching, found themselves in any way shy of the mark, it produced devastation and alienation. Emily Dickinson, who tried to put herself in the way of conversion and failed, could only mourn the distance that separated her and God. "God’s Hand is amputated now/And God cannot be found," she would write, and her mingled sense of loss and inability to put the loss right would chart an eerie parallel to Abraham Lincoln’s half-antagonistic, half-wistful loss of his own youthful Calvinism (pp. 17-18).

Guelzo then charts how the confidence of the non-revivalist, "Old Schoolers," in a republican virtue based on "self-evident intuitions" foundered on the fact that self-evident intuitions about slavery differed north and south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Abraham Lincoln would become, personally and publicly, one of the most determined and eloquent apostles of liberal capitalism, and a stalwart of the Whig party, the enemies of the [agrarian, anti-capitalist] Jeffersonian legacy. At the same time Lincoln would also become the president best known through the nineteenth century for puring public policy into the molds of religious though, the one most often claimed after his death as "the Christian president" . . . .

His life was a pursuit of transformations in his rise from the son of a Baptist dirt-farmer to a cultured corporate lawyer, but he sought transformation while all the while denying that he had sought anything, that he was "an accidental instrument, temporary’ and ‘a piece of floating driftwood.’ While liberal capitalism was supposed to expand the horizons of one’s choice and opportunities, Lincoln insisted all through his life that he did not believe in free choice, but rather in a ‘doctrine of necessity.’ Intellectually he was stamped from his earliest days by the Calvinism of his parents. But he rebelled vigorously against that influence in adolescence, declined to join his parents’ church, and turned instead toward the Enlightenement as his intellectual guide, toward ‘infidelity,’ ‘atheism,’ and Tom Paine in religion, to Benthamite utilitarianism in legal philosophy, and to ‘Reason, all-conquering Reason’ in everything else (pp. 18-19).

Guelzo shows how as president, however, the Lincoln came to consciously feel himself as a mere instrument governed by the God in the whirlwind, whose mysterious purposes were at work in the carnage of the Civil War and whose justice was clear, but whose mercy toward men, Lincoln himself in particular, was hidden in darkest clouds.

Many repeat Faulkner's dictum that in the South, "the past isn't dead, it isn't even past." The myth that even Faulkner fell for is that it's any different north of the Ohio River. We are still living out the dilemmas and legacies of Puritanism -- for better and for worse.

P.S. To understand this post's title, you've got to read or listen to the McClay speech.

Originally posted at Here We Stand