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Misinterpreting U.S. history

The Greatest Spin Ever Sold

Another reason for this sense of threat is historical illiteracy among many journalists. Even the brighter-than-average Andrew Sullivan in The New York Times on Oct. 7 claimed that "American evangelicalism has always kept its distance from governmental power" until recently, when "the temptation to fuse political and religious authority beckoned more insistently." That's nonsense. Evangelicals were always politically involved. They changed America through the agitation that led up to the American Revolution, through their sustained pressure to abolish slavery, and through many other attempts as well to merge religious and governmental concerns.

Let's look at a very brief highlights film, beginning with the way the Great Awakening changed many individuals and led to a decreased distinction between religious and political activities. Even a minister as theologically centered as Jonathan Edwards told New Englanders that they should compare good officials with those "contemptible" ones who are "of a mean spirit, a disposition that will admit of their doing those things that are sordid and vile." Such appointees "will shamefully ... screw their neighbours; and will take advantage of their authority or commission to line their own pockets with what is fraudulently taken or withheld from others."

Evangelists such as Gilbert Tennett were careful to insist that Christians are "born for Society" and must work for "the Good of the Publick, which we were born to promote." Minister Benjamin Lord noted in 1751 that the colonists were "Prone to act in Civil, as they stand Affected in religious Matters." The signing of a certain political petition could become "a Sabbath-Day's Exercise," and churches sometimes voted as blocs. Leading ministers urged their listeners to leave corrupt churches and work against a corrupt government.

Patrick Henry's famous pre-Revolutionary speech used biblical language to decry gentlemen who cried "'peace, peace'-but there is no peace." With Virginia facing a British Nebuchadnezzar to the north, Henry suggested that the colony would go the way of Judah unless its people were bold and courageous. "Why stand we here idle?" he asked. "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?" Henry answered, "Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!" Henry then brought his biblical sensibility directly into politics as he became governor of Virginia.

Henry's Massachusetts counterpart, Samuel Adams, did the same 500 miles to the north, even to the extent of using biblical language and references to explain to his countrymen the significance of their battle with Britain. Adams began his First Book of the American Chronicles of the Times with a description of how "the Bostonites arose a great multitude, and destroyed the TEA, the abominable merchandise of the east, and cast it into the midst of the sea." In Adams's parody of biblical lists (Hittites, Jebusites, etc.), the New Yorkites, Virginites, Carolinites, and others, uniting in a refusal to worship the "Tea Chest Idol," became Americanites, "and the ears of all the people hearkened unto the book of the law."

The early state constitutions emphasized reverence for God along with a separation of denomination and state. Maryland's constitution proclaimed that "it is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to him." Crucially, there would be no established denomination: No one would "be compelled to frequent or maintain, or contribute, unless on contract, to maintain any particular place of worship, or any particular ministry." The South Carolina constitution had no proscription on taxes supporting churches as long as no one was "obliged to pay towards the maintenance and support of a religious worship" not his own.

The Massachusetts constitution of 1780 specified that "It is the right as well as the Duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and preserver of the Universe." These New Englanders of the revolution were much changed from their Puritan forebears, but they still saw religious belief as essential. The Constitution declared that "The happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality ... these cannot be generally diffused through a Community, but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion, and morality."

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution came into being to provide freedom for religion, not freedom from religion-but that is an oft-told tale. Less known is how 19th-century leaders of all kinds, including Supreme Court justices and evangelist Charles Finney, united in stressing the need for a religious base in politics. Finney, active from the 1820s through the 1870s and often portrayed as concerned only about heaven, stressed that "the time has come for Christians to vote for honest men, and take consistent ground in politics or the Lord will curse them."

Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830s that "Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other." Tocqueville and others were not saying that the United States had a church-state union similar to that of Muslim states now, but a Christianity-liberty union. Biblical Christianity promoted a sense of "the priesthood of all believers," so that all could read the Bible and freely develop their own consciousness of right and wrong, along with the willingness to stand up for their beliefs.

Many presidents also were heavily influenced by their evangelical beliefs, and did not try to hide that. Andrew Jackson is not generally known as one of our most religious presidents, but in 1832 he vetoed a bill to recharter the influence-peddling, economy-centralizing Second Bank of the United States. Jackson wrote that "In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruit of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law." Even when the U.S. Senate censured him, Jackson held firm in his Bible-based understanding-"I will not bow down to the golden calf"-and eventually won.

In the late 19th century Grover Cleveland fought both political and theological liberalism, maintaining that "the Bible is good enough for me" and that "criticism, or explanations about authorship or origin," were irrelevant. He argued that abandonment of the gold standard would lead to inflation and injure "the laborer or workingman, as he sees the money he has received for his toil shrink and shrivel in his hand." Pro-inflation leader William Jennings Bryan called Cleveland a Pontius Pilate and melded his own theology with politics as he accepted the 1896 Democratic presidential nomination: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Early in the 20th century Theodore Roosevelt gave speeches and published articles with explicit titles such as "The Eighth and Ninth Commandments in Politics." He described how any kind of economic preferment because of political ties "comes dangerously near the border-line of the commandment which, in forbidding theft, certainly by implication forbids the connivance at theft, or the failure to punish it."

He insisted that government-mandated economic redistribution might be politically popular, but the leader who appealed to covetousness "is not, and never can be, aught but an enemy of the very people he professes to befriend.... To break the Tenth Commandment is no more moral now than it has been for the past thirty centuries."

Cynical observers like British writer John Morley found distasteful Roosevelt's combination of whirligig speaking style and Scriptural quotations; he called Roosevelt a combination of "St. Paul and St. Vitus." Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed sarcastically congratulated Roosevelt on his "original discovery of the Ten Commandments." But Roosevelt persisted in his linking of Bible and politics, and he insisted on clear and concrete applications of biblical commandments. He often noted that "The Eighth Commandment reads: 'Thou shall not steal.' It does not read: 'Thou shall not steal from the rich man.' It does not read: 'Thou shall not steal from the poor man.' It reads simply and plainly: 'Thou shall not steal.'"

Roosevelt, in short, sounded like what today would be called a fundamentalist, and so did many other presidents and many leaders of popular movements. For example, the Civil War and civil-rights drives for racial fairness, both in the 1850s-1860s and the 1950s-1960s, were animated by religious belief. Those leaders weren't out to subvert American democracy, nor are devout activists today. They claimed and claim an inalienable right to defend rights, rights not granted by people who may choose to take them away, but rights granted by God who does not change. Journalists who miss this don't know enough about the American past to weigh in realistically about the American future.

Today, Christians who believe in inalienable rights risk their lives to help those preyed upon in Sudan or in U.S. abortion businesses. We march and adopt, demonstrate and protect, protest and pray; to battle with both hands means taking both political and social action. When Christian good deeds receive press coverage at all, they are generally portrayed as an outpouring of generic humanitarianism, but Christians are active because we know that following the Bible means working in both realms to help all those created in God's image.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books: His latest is Abortion at the Crossroads. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.