On July 4, 1827, a leading clergyman of the day, the Presbyterian minister Ezra Stiles Ely, preached a controversial sermon in Philadelphia that was published around the country. Its title could not have been clearer: "The Duty of Christian Freemen to Elect Christian Rulers." Calling for the formation of a Christian party in politics, Ely, a supporter of Andrew Jackson's in the 1828 presidential race, said: "Every ruler should be an avowed and sincere friend of Christianity. He should know and believe the doctrines of our holy religion, and act in conformity to its precepts."
Reading the sermon, Jackson sensed danger in Ely's words. There was a time for politics and a time for religion -- but both at once, inextricably entwined, meant trouble. Like the early years of the 21st century, the 1820s was an age of great evangelical fervor, but Jackson had no interest in fueling the fire Ely wanted to ignite. "All true Christians love each other, and while here below ought to harmonize; for all must unite in the realms above," Jackson later wrote Ely. Having given faith its due, he also reminded Ely of the centrality of individual freedom in religious matters. "Amongst the greatest blessings secured to us under our Constitution," Jackson told Ely, "is the liberty of worshipping God as our conscience dictates."
Now, 178 July Fourths later, the commingling of religion and politics in America would seem a prime exhibit of the Old Testament's adage that "there is no thing new under the sun." Though we have been here before, there is something different and disturbing about the skirmishes of our own time. Always important, the religious factor in politics has become pervasive, converting public life into a battle of uncompromising extremes. Whether the subject is terrorism, Iraq, abortion, gay marriage, the judiciary or stem-cell research, virtually every issue is being viewed through the prism of faith. Our public background music has moved from "Stars and Stripes Forever" to "Onward, Christian Soldiers" -- and we have too many Elys and not enough Jacksons.
Perhaps on this anniversary of our independence, then, we can rediscover that America is at its best when religion is one, but only one, thread in the tapestry of public discourse and life. The premise of the Founding, that all men are created equal, is rooted in the Judeo-Christian idea that we are all made in God's image and that, as Saint Paul wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female, there is neither slave nor free; for all are one . . . . " The Constitution draws on classic theological principles like the supremacy of the individual. Yet the power of our civic religion lies not in any sanctions it imposes but in the moral sensibility it nurtures. The opening line of Thomas Jefferson's Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia in 1786 -- "Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free . . . . " -- is at once rational and theological, and is quintessentially democratic. In the aftermath of the Revolution, the Founders had struggled to construct a government that would check the rise of extreme elements, whether religious or secular. "If men were angels," James Madison remarked, "no government would be necessary" -- and the European experience of devastating wars in the name of God had taught the young Americans that angels were in very short supply on this side of paradise.
Simply put, the American Gospel (literally, the good news about America) is that life is best lived when Athens and Jerusalem are not at war but in alliance -- and, like most allies, they need not agree on everything at all times, only on the big things. The wonderful truth at the heart of the American experience is that faith and reason, religion and ethical secularism, have long joined forces to fight the battles of this world. We would do well to recover this alliance and give it new strength.
High-minded words like these, of course, will not be enough -- far from it. Why does our public life feel so extreme at the moment? For the left, one reason is that it has been 40 years since the high-water mark of liberalism, the Great Society. For the right, the same 40-year period has been a time of both great strides and grave setbacks. Conservative Christians are far more influential today than in the past, but their power has come in reaction to what they view as threats to society, especially the Supreme Court decisions banning school prayer and permitting abortion. Both sides, then, feel that they are fighting for the survival of what is best about America: liberals for openness and expanding rights, conservatives for a God-fearing, morally coherent culture. And when such conflicts are cast in stark, often apocalyptic terms, they become fraught and ferocious.
"We are centuries away from the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and the treatment of heretics in early Massachusetts," Justice David Souter wrote in last week's Supreme Court opinion about public displays of the Ten Commandments, "but the divisiveness of religion in current public life is inescapable."
What separated us from the Old World in the beginning was the idea that books, education and the freedom to think and worship as we wished would create an enlightened citizenry for whom reason and faith, the life of the mind and the life of the spirit, would truly light up John Winthrop's "shining city upon a hill." In our finest hours, we have been neither wholly religious nor wholly secular but have created room for both traditions.
The Supreme Court decisions about exhibiting the Ten Commandments on government property brilliantly struck just this American balance, holding that religious emblems of long-standing and little controversy are constitutional, but that those intended to provoke or proselytize are not. "Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her concurring opinion in one case, "must . . . answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?"
Not everyone admires the boundaries that O'Connor wants to defend. "The long war on Christianity in America continues today on the floor of the House of Representatives," Republican Rep. John N. Hostettler of Indiana said during a June 20 debate on an amendment asking the Air Force Academy to come up with a plan to limit "coercive and abusive" proselytizing. He said the war "continues unabated with aid and comfort to those who would eradicate any vestige of our Christian heritage being supplied by the usual suspects, the Democrats."
But it's hard to see what war Hostettler is talking about. Beginning at the highest levels, politics and religion -- or at least religious symbolism -- have been intimately connected from our earliest hours. George Washington improvised "So help me, God" at the conclusion of the first presidential oath. Abraham Lincoln's noblest language at our darkest times was biblical, summoning the "better angels of our nature" and praying for "charity for all." The only public statement Franklin Roosevelt made on D-Day 1944 was to read a prayer he had written drawing on the 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The climactic line of John Kennedy's inaugural address promises that "on earth, God's work must truly be our own." We do fight evil in the broader world and should not be afraid to say so. Our best moments -- abolition, the battle against Jim Crow, the gradual but inexorable expansion of the mainstream -- can be traced to the pressure of religious traditions and religious figures.
Conviction is very different from coercion, and therein lies, I think, a core American virtue. Christians in America outnumber any other single religious group by the widest of margins, yet one of the many things that make the United States special is the shared belief that the majority respects and protects the rights of the minority to live as it pleases.
Christians should not view this as a foreign concept; a layered understanding of the Christian past suggests that believers should be open to principled compromise, for they have been making accommodations and living with ambiguity from the very first years of the faith. At what is known as the Council of Jerusalem, two camps -- one led by James, the other by Paul -- met to decide to what extent converts to belief in Jesus would be required to follow Mosaic law. They compromised, and Paul captured the dilemma mortals confront when he wrote that on earth we see "through a glass darkly, but then face to face." Only after death will all be revealed -- a realization that argues for more humility and less arrogance.
The battles of the moment are pitched and complicated but not insoluble if undertaken in a spirit of tolerance and forbearance. Many Roman Catholics and Protestant evangelicals believe, for instance, that destroying human embryos solely to harvest their stem cells is morally equivalent to murder. Many others, however, take another view, one also based on faith. Orthodox Jews hold that embryonic research, handled with proper care, fits within the tradition of using God-given intelligence to ameliorate life on earth. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention need not (and will not) fold their tents simply because fellow monotheists see the issue in a different light. If we want to be true to the American gospel, though, we should acknowledge that both sides have a legitimate point of view, and that our course should be democratically determined by the free exchange of ideas, not by turning cultural disagreements into total war.
In fact, neither side has as much to fear from the other as they think. For the religious, the acts of reading, of contemplation and discovery, of writing poems and finding cures, are acts of piety and thanksgiving, for all things are God's. For the secular, such inquiries may turn on the wonders of nature, or rationality, or logic. So be it. The point is that we are all on the same journey, if for different reasons.
Andrew Jackson refused to officially join the Presbyterian Church until he left the White House, saying that he did not want his opponents to claim he was using religion to get ahead in politics. Such a stance feels quaint now, but he was guided by the Founders' example and would have agreed with Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story's public reply to Ezra Ely's "Duty of Christian Freemen to Elect Christian Rulers" sermon. "If there is any right sacred beyond all others . . . it is the right to worship God according to the dictates of our consciences," Story said, adding: "Whoever attempts to narrow it down in any degree, to limit it to the creed of any sect, to bound the exercise of private judgment, or free inquiry . . . be he priest or layman, ruler or subject, dishonors so far the profession of Christianity and wounds it in its vital virtues."
In a voice from the past, a prayer for our own time.
Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek, is at work on a book about Andrew Jackson's presidency.