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Volume 44, Number 1 (Fall 2005)

America’s Protestant Roots in History and Theory

Protestantism and the American Founding
edited by Michael Zuckert and Thomas Engeman.
Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, Indiana) 296 pp., paper, 2004.

Jason Ross

book cover imageSINCE OUR FOUNDING, Americans have understood ourselves in powerfully and pervasively religious terms. Intellectuals have often been embarrassed by this religiosity; and in recent generations many scholars have attempted to explain the faith of the American Founding as a historical accident, coincident with but irrelevant (even contradictory) to the central themes of the American tradition. For some scholars the central theme is the birth of a new nation constructed on the rationalist and liberal principles of the Enlightenment; for others the central theme is the decay of the politics of Renaissance republicanism grounded in the virtues of citizens willing to sacrifice individual interests to a common good. But the historical sources of American political thought are stubborn; they are laden with appeals to Protestant experience, to scripture, to theological concepts, and to the providential acts of God on America’s behalf, all of which resist the secular categories of liberal and republican constructions of America’s intellectual roots.

Michael Zuckert has made perhaps the most ambitious attempt to re-cast a normatively authoritative narrative of American history that accommodates Lockean, republican, and other overlooked sources of American political thought, including Protestant Christianity. In a series of three works—Natural Rights and the New Republicanism, The Natural Rights Republic, and Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy—Zuckert advances the argument that American political thought was most powerfully and distinctly shaped by the Lockean philosophy of natural rights. The political thought of the American Founding, he argues, combines “four elements—Old Whig constitutionalism, political religion, republicanism, and the natural rights philosophy . . . . In that amalgam, however, the four elements did not all enjoy an equal status; the natural rights philosophy remains America’s deepest and so far most abiding commitment, and the others could enter the amalgam only so far as they were compatible, or could be made so, with natural rights.”

Zuckert advances the most definitive explanation of this hypothesized amalgam between Protestantism and the Lockean natural rights philosophy in this collection. Here he defends his thesis against challenges from four leading scholars of American political thought—the late Wilson Carey McWilliams, Thomas G. West, Mark Noll, and Peter Augustine Lawler. These exchanges constitute the core, though not the entirety, of the book; also worth noting are previously published selections that serve to draw out certain implications of Zuckert’s thesis, including a chapter from Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore’s The Godless Constitution and Seymour Martin Lipset’s essay “Religion and American Values.” The former insists on the secular character of the American Founding, the latter on the private character of religion as a shaper of individual ethics.


Zuckert’s argument about the centrality of the natural rights philosophy to the American experiment begins with a painstaking exegesis of the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence. McWilliams agrees that the Declaration, as a statement of the American creed, deserves our attention, even reverence; but he challenges Zuckert’s philosophic exegesis and insists we remember the “multivocality” of the document. “The Declaration’s artful ambiguities,” McWilliams rightly notes, “were designed to allow [differing] interpretations, even if the Declaration’s authors were thinking, inwardly, in very different terms.” In other words, to read the Declaration philosophically, as if it were simply the product of one singular intellect, is to ignore the whole range of meanings ascribed to the document by the generation of Americans who authorized it. Few, if any, of this generation thought themselves to be authorizing a wholly modern and rationalist theory of politics; indeed, as McWilliams indicates, a vast number of these Americans would have understood the Declaration as asserting the core precepts of Puritan political thought.

Zuckert bridges this intellectual gap in his account by arguing that Calvinist clergy—“Lockean Puritans”—incorporated their sermons into the rationalist framework of Lockean political thought. McWilliams is eager to demonstrate, by contrast, that the language of civil or political liberty for substantial numbers of revolutionary-era Americans was grounded in a non-rationalist—indeed, non-liberal—Protestant theology of liberty; he does so through a study of the Congregationalist minister Nathaniel Niles’ 1774 sermon Two Discourses on Liberty. “Certainly,” McWilliams explains, “Niles ranks among the sharpest critics of liberal theorizing, in politics or religion. He upheld the traditional view that community is magisterial, concerned with the education of the soul—if only because civil liberty depends on liberty in spirit—so that religion and politics are inextricably linked.” Like Niles, most American Protestants of the revolutionary era saw the religious and political concepts of liberty as inseparable.

Still, Zuckert’s central claim is not about doctrines of liberty but about a philosophy of natural rights. About this natural rights philosophy, McWilliams counters that it is the commitment to “equality, not natural rights, [which] is the foundation of the American tradition . . . .” And in the American commitment to equality, McWilliams finds further evidence of the inextricable link between religion and politics in the American experience. Egalitarianism is the water from which the prophetic voice periodically rises up in a tidal wave that sweeps away injustices. As McWilliams explains, “religion has won its victories, sometimes great ones, in those early battles and in the republic’s succeeding moments of decision—slavery and the ‘crisis of the house divided,’ for example, or the grand combats of the Age of Reform, or in the Civil Rights Movement—providing a critical voice, a vocabulary of protest, and, especially, an egalitarianism warmed into a conviction of fraternity.”

Zuckert does not deny the importance of religion’s prophetic voice in American politics. Instead, he hints that this voice is confused and untutored, and that the conflicting passions of religion have required guidance from the Reason embodied in the natural rights philosophy.

Take the pre-Civil War agitation over slavery. . . . [T]he abolitionists and free-soilers and others who spoke out against slavery spoke in the language of liberal rights, liberal freedom, liberal equality, and of biblical justice and religious duty. The ‘spirit of religion’ by itself was disappointingly slow and ambiguous in its stance toward the ‘peculiar institution’—some of the most powerful defenses of slavery came fully armed with biblical authority . . . . If one looks at the substance of abolitionist writing, or to Lincoln’s speeches, or to Martin Luther King, one finds that the goals sought come from the language of liberal discourse; the biblical side of the amalgam lends energy, urgency, and authority to substantive appeals largely deriving from elsewhere.

Contra Zuckert, it seems highly implausible that Martin Luther King’s prophetic appeal for racial justice was derivative of the ostensibly liberal philosophy of John Locke, who wrote, in his Fundamental Constitution of Carolina, “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves . . . .” If scripture can be abused, so too can the talents of the Philosopher.

The burden of Tom West’s challenge is to demonstrate that the transformation Zuckert finds in Protestant thought was not an accommodation to the liberal rationalism of Locke’s natural rights philosophy, but a change that occurred within Protestantism. West complains that “Zuckert does not acknowledge sufficiently that supposedly secular Enlightenment writers like Locke . . . were also theological writers in their own right. Locke’s political theology was not merely natural but also Christian.” Indeed, West claims that Zuckert’s amalgam thesis is grounded on the wrong premise; “no Zuckertian ‘convergence between Locke and Protestantism’ was necessary, because Locke already was a Protestant theologian.”

While West allows for the interpenetration of the religious and rational dimensions of Lockean and American political thought, Zuckert insists on a sharp distinction between Reason and Revelation. This sharp distinction is not helpful in understanding the complicated and nuanced intellectual history of the Founding, or of the development of Whig political thought more broadly, though it does have value as an argumentative tactic; the more radical the differences between Reason and Revelation appear, the more plausible Zuckert’s amalgam thesis appears by comparison.

Not only the Straussians’ (including Zuckert’s) sharp distinction between Reason and Revelation, but also their focus on the mind of a singular intellectual Founder are ill-suited for explaining the Protestant character of early American political thought. Protestants—Luther, Calvin, Winthrop, and Edwards among them—were not philosophers consciously participating in the Tradition; their political speculations were rather born out of a series of concrete problems, including how to resist the oppressions of (mostly Catholic) monarchs and how to address questions of ecclesiastical polity. And while all had reference to scriptural and theological resources, the dominant theoretical characteristic of Protestant political thought is not the unity of the Philosopher’s word but division; Protestants split into new sects over what, to modern eyes, often appear to be the smallest theological or ecclesiological differences.

It is precisely this dissension, however, that in the Straussian approach calls for the Philosopher’s creative and unifying response. Thus Zuckert frames Locke’s project as an attempt to resist or transcend 17th century religio-political struggles over the “one true Protestant politics”; given Zuckert’s repeated use of that phrase in his work, we can infer that he justifies his own project as a response to this problem as well. Still, the impulse to find this “one true politics” is not limited to Protestants, nor is it limited to people of religious belief; let us not forget the whole range of rationalist but dogmatic ideologies that plagued the 20th century, and that continue to poison our political discourse. If Protestant political theology must be amalgamated with—or subjected to—Reason to temper dogmatic, even deadly, demands for the “one true politics,” with what do we alloy modern rationalism?

Zuckert’s fellow Straussian, Peter Augustine Lawler, is the contributor to this volume most acutely aware of the philosophical problem to which Zuckert has directed his attention. In fact, he concedes that as a historical question, Zuckert’s position “has been criticized most ably by Barry Shain, who (in The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought) has shown that most of the Americans of the founding generation were Calvinist Christians.” But for Lawler, this historical criticism is not “decisive”; history must be reconstituted to conform to a salutary philosophy.

In situating his critique of Zuckert’s philosophically guided history, Lawler accepts Zuckert’s major premise that “Americans should take their bearings from the most rational or philosophic of the founders”; he accepts Zuckert’s minor premise that the most rational and philosophic of those men was Thomas Jefferson; and he accepts Zuckert’s stipulation that Jefferson was a follower of the philosophic teachings of John Locke. The burden of Lawler’s critique, therefore, is to demonstrate that acceptance of the Lockean philosophy poses a danger to the American regime. This essay is no place to trace out Lawler’s complicated argument. The bottom line is that Lawler (a Catholic) understands Locke’s natural rights philosophy as a covert attempt to undermine Christian theology and anthropology.

What should be noted is how clever Zuckert is in eliding Lawler’s charge. Recall that Lawler stipulated he was not concerned with (or even convinced by) the historical veracity of Zuckert’s argument but by its latent philosophical implications. One can understand why Zuckert would be uninterested in re-opening the tedious and apparently endless philosophical debate about the character of Locke’s esoteric teaching, and why he would therefore simply bracket the debate by stating that “Lawler understands my position as he does because he believes Locke is hostile to Christianity and thus incompatible with it.” But Zuckert does not stop with this recognition of fundamental philosophical differences. Instead, he returns to the point, implying that Lawler has advanced an erroneous historical claim about “Locke as French Enlightenment atheist, making open war on religion [that] just does not hold water.” Zuckert concludes, “In a word, the facts of American history do not support [a] strong discontinuity” between Protestant political theology and Lockean natural right philosophy. If there can be no resolution to the Straussian debate about the character of Locke’s thought, Zuckert aims to end his dispute with Lawler by standing Lawler’s argument on its head.

Mark Noll, the only one of Zuckert’s four primary interlocutors trained as a historian, has spent three remarkably productive decades exploring the particular circumstances in which the various strands of Protestant political speculation emerged; he finds a sharp contrast between his own work and Zuckert’s. He begins his essay by noting, “Most historians do not do as well with essential states of affairs as do experts in political theory. Historians are usually . . . ‘splitters’ who attend to contingency, rather than ‘lumpers’ who limn the Big Picture.” And he concludes by asking “lumpers” like Zuckert “for caution in treating the past and care in attempting to exploit the past for present purposes. The founding era of the United States,” Noll insists, “was intellectually messy. No essentialist reading of its history—whether Lockean, republican, Enlightenment rationalist, or Protestant evangelical—can ever be faithful to the reality that actually took place.”

The issue of historical contingency as opposed to theoretical clarity is one of several central issues on which Noll differs from Zuckert; these disagreements are succinctly stated in the title to Noll’s essay, “The Contingencies of Christian Republicanism”. Noll’s argument for Christian republicanism stands in stark contrast to Zuckert’s attempt to argue for the domestication of Protestantism to Locke’s secular liberalism. Noll explains the historians’ consensus that the “Lockean principle and practices of democratic individualism” did not appear in America until the 1760s and that the shift to liberalism along the lines of a Lockean philosophy of natural rights was not complete until the 1820s. Still, Noll stipulates that “this shift was one of emphasis. Lockean accounts of natural rights were present all along; the classical republican account of disinterested public virtue never passed away.” And while Noll observes a “long history of antagonism between republicanism and traditional Christianity” he finds that this antagonism had been smoothed over by Puritans and republicans during the English Civil Wars, and that American Puritans “display[ed] an awareness of commonwealth ideology” in their disputes with Britain as early as the late 1680s. However it was not until the outbreak of war with France and the emergence of widespread religious revivals in the 1740s that the link between Christianity and republicanism was fully forged. Noll tells this complicated story crisply and effortlessly, displaying a remarkable command of the primary and secondary sources on Protestantism in the American Founding. Indeed, the reader uninitiated in this vast secondary literature would do well to begin with Noll’s essay if only because he begins with a concise review of the literature to which Zuckert’s project contributes.

Zuckert’s argument is provocative. Though it was advanced as an effort to reconcile divergent historical interpretations of the sources of American political thought, it is ultimately a normative argument about the appropriate relationship between religion and reason in America. The prospective reader who seeks immersion in the intellectual history of Protestantism during the American Founding would be well served to consult the works of Mark Noll, Barry Shain’s book The Myth of American Individualism, or J.C.D. Clark’s book The Language of Liberty. But for the reader struggling with the question of what place religion should occupy in public life, the essays in Protestantism and the American Founding are a valuable start.

Jason Ross is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government at Georgetown.

Posted: January 31, 2006

All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendency over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.

Russell Kirk

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