Tolerance in the Age of Ann Coulter

By Jon Meacham
Sunday, July 2, 2006

Benjamin Rush, the patriot-physician, could barely contain himself. It was the Fourth of July 1788 -- a beautiful Friday in Philadelphia -- and he thrilled to the spectacle of the celebrations commemorating the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and news of the just-ratified Constitution. "I am as perfectly satisfied that the union of the states . . . is as much the work of divine providence as any of the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testament were the effects of a divine power," Rush remarked. "'Tis done! We have become a nation."

We had indeed, and as we mark Independence Day this week, many of us will find ourselves evoking -- perhaps unthinkingly -- Rush's "divine power." We may pledge allegiance to one nation, "under God"; we may sing Irving Berlin's "God Bless America"; in "America the Beautiful," we may pray that the nation will be blessed by a God who will "mend [our] every flaw." It is a day, in short, on which the religious and the patriotic tend to mingle in a peculiarly American way. People speak and sing of God, but the occasion is chiefly the celebration not of the divine but of a country in which religious belief is a matter of choice, not coercion.

In memory, the Fourth of July seems to belong exclusively to the men of 1776, the courageous delegates to the Continental Congress who voted to break from George III when they had every reason to fear that they might pay for their boldness with their lives. (Thomas Jefferson loved the story of how a very fat Benjamin Harrison told the wispy Elbridge Gerry, "Gerry, when the hanging comes, I shall have the advantage; you'll kick in the air half an hour after it is all over with me!") It takes nothing away from the signers of the Declaration to note that the 1788 festivities in Philadelphia are also instructive for our own time -- an era in which political strife is often fueled by strong religious sentiment. The bottle rockets and barbecues of 2006 are being prepared, after all, at a time when Ann Coulter's "Godless" -- a polemical attack on "liberals" in America -- is, by some measures, one of the best-selling books in the nation.

What Rush saw in Philadelphia on that long-ago day, though, was a source more of light than of heat. "The clergy formed a very agreeable part of the procession -- they manifested, by their attendance, their sense of the connection between religion and good government," he said. There were 17 clerics in all, and they marched arm in arm; "the Rabbi of the Jews, locked in the arms of two ministers of the gospel, was a most delightful sight." Perhaps the most brilliant American success was the ultimate achievement of religious liberty -- the freedom to believe, or not, according to one's own conscience. And given the challenges we now face abroad, it is worth searching our own past for ways in which religion, and religious freedom, can be a force for unity, not division.

Casting an eye back to the first years of the Republic is neither an exercise in nostalgia nor a deification of the dead. The Founders of the federal government struggled with religion's role in politics in recognizable ways, and their experiences shed light on our own predicaments. Jefferson grounded our fundamental human rights in the divine when he wrote of the "laws of nature and of Nature's God," and cited the "Creator" in the Declaration. There is perennial debate about whether the Founders were Christians, deists, agnostics or atheists; debate, too, about which Founders should be included in such descriptions; and still more debate about what they really intended on the subject of church and state. Such debates will be with us always.

My own view is that the major Founders -- Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and George Washington -- were men of complex faiths. Raised in a largely Christian universe, they were shaped by Enlightenment ideas about the nature of God. Some were devout Christians; some were probably more deist than not; some were both, depending on the moment.

Whatever they were, they were united against an established national church. They wanted religion to be one factor in our public life, but not the dominant one. "Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and observe the religion which we believe to be of divine origin," Madison wrote, "we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us."

The battle to make such sentiments reality was not easy. Early on, there was talk of rewriting the preamble of the Constitution to include an evocation of Jesus. When Thomas Paine published a deist tract entitled "The Age of Reason," Elias Boudinot, a onetime president of the Continental Congress, replied with "The Age of Revelation." Jefferson was attacked as a "French atheist" -- imagine how that appellation would play in today's red states -- and, in the 1800 presidential campaign, voters were told that they could have Adams and God or "Jefferson -- and no God." For those who believe wedge issues and divisive rhetoric began with Richard Nixon, see Ecclesiastes: There is no thing new under the sun.

Given the passionate 18th-century debates over God and public life, it is to the Founders' credit that they insisted on pressing the cause of religious liberty. Though the states that formed the union had established churches, the refusal of the federal Framers to do so at the national level set an example others would soon follow. As Washington put it in a 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., the American government "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

The key Founders were committed to the idea of religious liberty in part because they knew history. The conflicts of the Old World had often been ignited or exacerbated by theological considerations, particularly during the 16th and 17th centuries in England. The colonial experience in their own land also had little to recommend it. Jefferson and Madison hated that their Anglican church in Virginia persecuted those of other faiths: young Madison reportedly once heard the cries of tortured Baptists, and Jefferson enumerated the establishment's transgressions in his "Notes on the State of Virginia."

There was a religious case for religious freedom, too. If God himself did not compel obedience from his creatures, then who were men to try? Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island after falling out with John Winthrop over the Puritans' attempt to build a "Christian commonwealth" in Massachusetts Bay, argued that "the wilderness of the world" was bad for the "garden of the church." In a sermon to the Supreme Court of Massachusetts in 1779, the Rev. Samuel Stillman said: "The magistrate is to govern the state, and Christ is to govern the church. The former will find business enough in the complex affairs of government to employ all his time and abilities. The latter is infinitely sufficient to manage his own kingdom without foreign aid."

As Winthrop said in an echo of Jesus's words in the Sermon on the Mount, America likes to think of herself as a "city upon a hill." (In a lovely and typical embellishment, Ronald Reagan would add the visually compelling adjective "shining" to the phrase.) From Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush, we have tried to secure our future by projecting power to promote the humane and democratic values of our city around the world in hot and cold wars against aggression and totalitarianism.

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