Tristan Fitzpatrick, journalism
Written for REL-R160: Introduction to Religion in America
Instructor: Prof. M. Cooper Harriss
The intersection of religion and politics in American civic life has long been the cause of debate and concern among religious scholars and the general public, arguably since the United States became a nation in 1776. Many claim that the United States is a Christian nation, while others insist the country is explicitly secular. Two instances in United States history when religion and politics were combined — the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s and the rise of the Moral Majority in the late 1970s — are important to study because each instance saw religious belief become a part of the political and civic life of the United States. Their effects on government were ultimately different, however in that the Puritans resembled a vision of total theocracy, and despite the attempt of the Moral Majority to insert religious doctrine into government policy, the United States didn’t resemble more of a theocracy than it did when the Moral Majority first gained prominence.
Some of the earliest Europeans to come to America were the Puritans. A group of radical intellectuals from England, the Puritans immigrated to North America to break away from the Church of England. Upon arriving in Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s, the Puritans established a theocracy as their government. John Winthrop, the first governor of the colony, gave a speech titled “A Model of Christian Charity” to the townspeople in which he claimed that the colony was ‘a city upon a hill’ that the whole world was looking towards to see if Puritanism would be a great success or a failure. In the speech Winthrop explicitly stated that religion must form the foundations of the town’s civic life:
“It is by a mutual consent, through a special overvaluing providence and a more than an ordinary approbation of the churches of Christ, to seek out a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical.” (The Winthrop Society: Descendants of the Great Migration)
This explicit calling of God into civic life made for an appealing moral vision for the Puritans, but did not produce social harmony in the colony. Different people had their own vision of what God looked like in civic life. Some did not believe it was morally acceptable, for example, for women like Ann Hutchinson to interpret the Bible themselves and share their experiences with others. Others despised the influence of outsiders on the colony, and sought to prevent other denominations of Christianity from affecting the town.
The debate about God’s influence on civic life came to a head with the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s, which has been cited by scholar George Lincoln Burr as “the rock on which theocracy shattered” (Burr 197). The role of church and state was questioned when several young women were put to death because they were accused of witchcraft. The accusations of witchcraft and the subsequent execution of the women who were accused of it was the ultimate example of religious authority gone amok. The Salem Witch Trials revealed that the Puritan’s obsession with creating a ‘perfect’ town of God interfered with the concept of due process, thus revealing the limitations of theocratic government.
Fast-forward to the second half of the 20th century. For several decades the Fundamentalists, a group of conservative Christians inspired by a series of publications titled “The Fundamentals” in the 1910s, had retreated from civic life following the Scopes Trial in 1925. Preceding the trial, a high-school biology teacher in Tennessee, John Scopes, taught the concept of evolution to his class despite the fact that the state legislature forbid it at the time. Even though Scopes was found guilty after the trial, the impassioned defense of Scopes by his attorney Clarence Darrow embarrassed the Fundamentalists and convinced them to seclude themselves from American public life.
According to Susan Harding’s work, “The Book of Jerry Falwell,” Fundamentalists gradually returned to the public eye following the election of Jimmy Carter, the first Baptist elected to America’s highest office, in 1976. The revelation that one of former president Richard Nixon’s top aides, Charles Colson, had converted to evangelical Christianity also convinced the Fundamentalists that they could become a powerful force in American life. These events led to the formation of the Moral Majority in the 1980s. A major coalition of conservative Christians, they were an influential voting block that sought to elect conservative officials into political office and were responsible for two consecutive terms of Republican Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
What was responsible for the rise of the Moral Majority? Part of the reason was motivated by guilt. Harding writes:
“[The Fundamentalists] had been aware since the 1960s that much of the country had sunk into a state of moral anarchy. The new revelation was that they were responsible for it, and thus for stanching the decline. As Bible-believing Christians, they, and only they, held the keys to America’s order.” (Harding 10)
It wasn’t enough that the Fundamentalists believed in God. It was also their sacred duty to spread God’s word through as many avenues as possible, including placing as many Christians into political office as possible. In the eyes of the Fundamentalists, it’s only though making God’s word as visible as possible in sociopolitical culture that society, and the Fundamentalists themselves, can be redeemed from their mistakes and order can be restored once and for all.
The Moral Majority believed restoring order required the engagement of three key aspects of society: sex, schools, and secularism. Events like the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade convinced Fundamentalists that sex outside of marriage must be stopped completely or it would lead to dangerous consequences. The issue of schools, specifically prayer in schools, was also important for the Fundamentalists because the education of the nation’s youth as God-fearing Christians was at stake. Finally, the effects of secularism, the Fundamentalists argued, must be limited as much as possible because God’s influence must be spread as much as possible, including into our government.
Both examples are defined by a sense of urgency. Just as Winthrop and the Puritans believed it was their obligation as Christians to disseminate Christ’s values throughout the world, so did the Moral Majority believe it was their mission to ensure as many Americans as possible knew the teachings of the Bible. For both the Puritans and the Fundamentalists, believing in God only marked the beginning of their work as Christians. They and themselves alone were the ones who could lead the godless into a lasting relationship with Christ.
The key change to track here is the effects of theocracy. While the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a complete theocracy with the Bible serving as the ultimate authority, America during the Reagan years did not resemble more of a theocracy than it did at the beginning of Reagan’s terms. While Reagan did compare the capital to Winthrop’s ‘shining city upon a hill’ example during his campaigns, his vision of the city upon a hill eventually came to resemble a diverse, multicultural society in which different people can make a successful living. In his farewell address in 1989, Reagan said:
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.” (Ronald Reagan: Farewell Address to the Nation)
Compared with Winthrop’s claim that the city upon a hill had to be a theocracy, Reagan’s vision of the city is one in which differences can be good, beneficial and ultimately necessary to American life. While the two examples are similar in that both Winthrop and Reagan wanted their respective places of authority to be viewed as an example in the world, they are radically different in that Reagan’s welcomed differing views and viewed them as a necessary part of American public life.