The Covenant Origins Of The American Polity

Entire article is an excerpt from The Covenant Origins Of The American Polity, Steven Alan Sampson, Liberty University, Professor of Government; Copyright 1994;

It is not uncommon for historians to view America as an experimental laboratory in political theory and practice in which the American character is represented as a triumph of common sense over ideology. The title of one influential book, Inventing America, and the subtitle of another, How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment, together reflect a long fascination with the “Yankee ingenuity” and “can do” spirit of a nation of tinkerers. [1]

This may help explain why history books often neglect to acknowledge the religious dimension of this experiment. Yet far from being inconsequential, religion — and particularly the Christian concept of vocation — is the wellspring of this spirit of practicality that gave substance to the desire for a greater degree of self-government and led to the development of greater religious and political liberty.[2] The so-called Protestant work-ethic to which Max Weber attributed the material progress of northern Europeans is simply one expression of the Pauline injunction to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).

It may be true, as well, that “pure Religious Liberty… may be confidently reckoned as of distinctly American origin”, as Sanford Cobb claimed.[3] But like the Yankee ingenuity thesis, it is an oversimplification which fails to acknowledge the long train of historical circumstances and preconditions that made such liberty possible. After all, religious liberty did not spring, like Athena, in full armor from the head of Zeus. Unlike Eli Whitney, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Alva Edison, not to mention a host of less famous figures, the inventors of our familiar liberties — if any existed — are practically unknown. Yet who would claim that these liberties are less important than the invention of interchangeable parts, the telephone, or the light bulb? Are they simply the result of historical accident? Or is there perhaps some rhyme or reason to their appearance at certain times and places?

Earlier Americans, including our most influential historians, generally regarded the settlement and development of our country less as a testimony to frontier inventiveness than as an indication of God’s providential blessings. Indeed, they believed that America, both the land and the people, had been designed for a specific purpose and destiny. [4] Franklin Littell offered the following synopsis of this motif:

For many of our forefathers, at least, the planting of America represented a major break from past history and a radical advance into a new age. God had hidden America until such a time as the Reformation could guarantee that the religion planted on these shores would be pure and evangelical.Certain writers linked three great events by which God’s Providence prepared the coming of the New Age: (1) the invention of printing, whereby the Bible was made available to all; (2) the Reformation, whereby cult and confession were purified; (3) the discovery of America. Even such relatively sober men as Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards linked the discovery of America with the coming triumph of the eternal gospel. [5]

The once commonly held conviction, that God providentially directs the historical paths of men and nations, is a missing note in contemporary scholarship. So thoroughly secularized have our academic and popular histories become that any mention of Providence sounds quaint, insincere, or irrelevant. [6] Evocations of a distinctly Christian viewpoint on public occasions are rare today even compared with just forty years ago when Judge Learned Hand said the following in his famous “Spirit of Liberty” speech:

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which waives their interest alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near 2000 years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest. [7]

[1] Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978); Henry Steele Commager, The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977)
[2] A recent exception is the first volume of a massive cultural history that identifies and compares the contributions of “four British folkways” to the development of the American culture. See David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). The author contends that regional and cultural differences in America are the legacy of several distinct groups from the British Isles — particularly the Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Borderers — who hailed from different regions, migrated during different historical periods, and took up residence indifferent regions: Massachusetts, Virginia, the Delaware Valley, and the Backcountry respectively.
[3] Sanford H. Cobb, The Rise of Religious Liberty in America: A History (New York: Macmillan, 1902; Burt Franklin, 1970), p. 36. David Hackett Fischer, op. cit., by the way, distinguishes different conceptions of liberty that prevailed among the four British folk groupings: the ordered liberty of the Massachusetts Puritan (and later Yankee), the hegemonic liberty of the Virginia Cavalier, the reciprocal liberty of the Delaware Valley Quaker, and the natural liberty of the Backcountry Borderer.
[4] The idea that America has a divine mission to perform was not limited to the majority Protestants. For example, shortly after the Civil War ended, Orestes A. Brownson wrote: “The United States, or the American republic, has a mission and is chosen of God for the realization of a great idea… Its idea is liberty, indeed, but liberty with law, and law with liberty. But its mission is not so much the realization of liberty as the realization of the true idea of the state, which secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual –the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy.” Orestes A. Brownson, “The American Republic [1866]”, in The Brownson Reader, ed. Alvan S. Ryan (New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1955), pp. 70-71.
[5] Franklin H. Littell, “The Churches and the Body Politic“, in Religion in America, ed. William G. McLoughlin and Robert N. Bellah (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), pp. 25-26. The Rev. S. W. Foljambe strictly adhered to this formula as late as 1876 in the annual election sermon he delivered in Boston. The sermon has been excerpted and reprinted as “The Hand of God in American History” in Verna M. Hall, comp., The Christian History of the American Revolution: Consider and Ponder (San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1976), pp. 46-50.
[6] This is not to say that the idea of Providence has disappeared from the secular mind. It simply assumes new guises. Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction: Christian Faith and Its Confrontation with American Society (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), p. 6, makes a similar point: “Western society, in turnings away from Christian faith, has turned to other things. This process is commonly called secularization, but that conveys only the negative aspect. The word connotes the turning away from the worship of God while ignoring the fact that something is being turned to in its place.” Walter Lippmann, for instance, suggested that when a totalitarian regime like the Soviet Union describes its vision of a “socialist commonwealth embracing the whole world…”, it ascribes to it the attributes of God: perfect authority and justice, miracles, omnipotence, and omniscience. “It is to believe not in human government but in a Providential state.” Walter Lippmann, The Good Society (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1936: 1943), pp. 70-71.
[7] Learned Hand, The Spirit of Liberty: Papers and Addresses, ed. Irving Dilliard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), p. 190.

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