The Constitution has only one direct reference to God—"In the year of our Lord"—but Baylor University history professor Thomas S. Kidd argues that religion played a much larger role in influencing the ideas and principles that became bedrocks of the nation. In his new book, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, Kidd explains religion's place in early American public life. "Religion does not necessarily have to divide us," Kidd says, pointing to the founding politicians and citizens who overcame differences in personal belief to draft the nation's charter. Kidd recently talked with U.S. News about how they bridged the gap. Excerpts:
What role did religion play during the Revolutionary era?
It's there in ideas that help to motivate and unite the Revolution, most importantly the idea that all men are created equal that [Thomas] Jefferson articulates in the Declaration of Independence. That is not to say that all the Founding Fathers were exactly the same on their personal faith.
How did people with different religious beliefs unify?
A good example of this is the relationship between Jefferson and his evangelical supporters, of which he had many. Evangelical Baptists loved Jefferson, and they were one of his key constituencies in the 1800 presidential election when he was elected president over John Adams. That seems strange to us today because Jefferson was a skeptic personally about Christianity; he doubted some key Christian doctrines like the resurrection and the divinity of Christ, but he was the champion of religious liberty. When Jefferson writes the letter in which he uses the phrase "the wall of separation between church and state," which is in 1802, he's writing to a group of his evangelical supporters in Connecticut.
How did religion inform the Constitution?
The most important of those [religious principles] is the idea that you need to check and balance power within government because giving too much power to any one person or one branch of government is dangerous because of human nature. There was a widespread assumption among the Founding Fathers that people were naturally sinful, and if they had a chance that any one person would become a tyrant.
How did religion and politics intersect?
The early presidents set a pattern of routinely having proclamations of days of prayer and fasting. Early Congresses hired chaplains and put them on the payroll to lead sessions in prayer and so forth. Even Jefferson, who is known as this kind of far-reaching, strict separationist—we view him that way today—would attend church services in government buildings.
What did religion contribute to this era?
One is the principle of religious liberty for all people and the free exercise of religion that's guaranteed in the First Amendment. And then also the notion that all men are created equal. It's such a simple proposition, and yet it's deep and powerful that whatever men may say, that we're all equal before God, and that God is our source of rights. Later on, Martin Luther King [Jr.] called this America's creed.
How has church-state separation changed?
We're certainly a much more diverse society in terms of religion than the time of the founding, but I think that constitutional jurisprudence now has moved in the direction of having a one-size-fits-all model of church-state relations that leans toward the more secular interpretation. That is certainly not what the founders would have envisioned. It also can easily send a signal that the government is not just neutral on issues of religion, but that in some cases it's hostile to interests of religion in general, and I think that is an impression the government should seek not to make.
How can people overcome religious differences to work together now?
Jefferson strikes me as an excellent example for more skeptical or secular folks in America today. He has his own doubts about faith, but he doesn't necessarily need to impose those on people of faith. Conservative believers could also learn from some of the evangelical Baptists at the time of the founding, who were more than willing to support politically someone like Jefferson, even though they didn't share his own beliefs.
What will surprise readers?
There's probably a lot of readers who, if they're coming from a more secular or skeptical perspective, may be surprised to find out how pervasive religion really was in the time of the founding. Some people on the conservative, more traditional Christian side might be surprised to see how much diversity there was in terms of personal belief among the founders. I think sometimes conservative Christians in particular try to act like all the Founding Fathers were these great traditional Christians, just like us today. And, you know, that's not really the case.
- See a slide show of new faces in the Senate.
- Check out our editorial cartoons on the “ground zero mosque” controversy.
- See an Opinion slide show of 12 ways Republicans want to change the Constitution.