American Civil Religion: The ‘Covenant’ of Religious Liberty

May 1, 2013
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In recent years, some members of the American Jewish community have decried their religious freedom, suggesting that Judaism is healthiest when its adherents are oppressed — a “nothing succeeds like duress” view of the world. While the external marginalization of Jews (or any other group) may create group cohesion, another unacknowledged element is worth considering: the foundation of religious freedom grounded in the First Amendment.

By this I don’t mean — as some may argue — that in a climate of religious freedom, those who would otherwise be drawn together in periods of oppression have no continued reason to do so. Rather, I am suggesting that the covenant of American religious liberty (some might call this “American civil religion”) is founded on a myth of religious neutrality. The persecution-avoiding, predestination-fearing Puritans best embodied this covenant, and no one articulated it more clearly than Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop, whose sermon in 1630 aboard the ship “Arabella” contained the notion of the colonists creating a godly “city on a hill.” That sermon has been quoted by Ronald Reagan and other politicians since. It laid out the notion that all were in this endeavor together, and all were in it for the glory of the God of Protestantism. While no longer founded on Protestantism, American civil religion — that covenant of a godly, shared community endeavor — is now founded on a transcending notion of governmental authority: The state now serves as the transcending referent. Jews (and others) have — in the realm of patriotic piety — traded their resistance to a publicly dominant Protestant culture for submission to a transcending governmental authority (at least in terms of religion).

Let me illustrate. Peter Stuyvesant’s refusal to let a small group of Jews alight in New Amsterdam established a pattern. Most of the colonies maintained Sunday Sabbath restrictions — a practice that withstood constitutional challenge as late as the 1960s. And even after the American Revolution a number of colonies-turned-states retained sectarian religious test-oaths for elected office (the last was removed in the 1890s). Protestantism was the dominant culture; to be a good citizen was to be a good Christian, and to be a good Christian was to be a Protestant. Jews and other non-Protestants lived virtually as strangers in a strange land, tolerated but not entirely free. Lawmakers and jurists made sure it was so.

Not until the end of the 19th century did the possibility for a more familiar form of religious liberty develop. Due in part to demographic changes (larger numbers of Catholic and Jewish immigrants) as well as to internal Protestant theological divisions (biblical literalism versus modernism), the façade of a conservative Protestant cultural monopoly began to erode. At the same time, the federal government was expanding its empire and its authority (through expanded interpretations of the 14th Amendment, for example), maintaining, where useful, connections to Protestant cultural foundations, but pressing its own agenda.

In Rabbis and Lawyers: The Journey from Torah to Constitution (1993), historian Jerold Auerbach dates the transition of Jewish community leadership and authority — from rabbis to lawyers — specifically to this period. It is no surprise. In the first few decades of the 20th century, Protestantism began to be replaced by an ever more powerful ideology: the authority of the Constitution. By the 1940s, the U. S. Supreme Court had extended the First Amendment’s protections to safeguard citizens from state limitations, and, by the 1960s, the court was recognizing a connection between belief and action (a particularly non-Protestant view). At the seeming expense of public Protestantism, a new covenant was being forged between the citizenry and a seemingly neutral (but no less transcending) governmental authority.

Since the adjudication of religious liberty became a constitutional issue, members of any religious community willing to fight for their religious freedom have had to face the possibility of losing, and the related dilemma of what to do if they did. Most have been willing to take the risk, which suggests that they were prepared to acknowledge that the Constitution was a greater authority than their own particular deity.                   The results have been relatively predictable, and not entirely bad. Removing the appearance of a public Protestant cultural monopoly from the law has enabled an array of religions to participate in the public sphere. And, because race in America has historically been tied to religion, this shift has also permitted greater freedom of participation for African Americans and others.

But there is a negative side as well. The historic belief that religious freedom was a core element of our country’s character is tenuous; it would be more accurate to acknowledge the evolving nature of the change — including an understanding of the originally marginal status of all non-Protestants in the foundational documents and institutions to which we all are now attached. The tension between admiration and critique is central to the American religious character, and it may be a healthier route for all of us who wish to participate in the American covenant without losing our own identity or being marginalized for it.

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Eric Michael Mazur is the Gloria & David Furman Professor of Judaic Studies and director of American studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Va. He is the author of The Americanization of Religious Minorities: Confronting the Constitutional Order (1999).

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