Sandoz – Republicanism and Religion
Republicanism and Religion
Society, Williamsburg, Virginia, October 4, 2003
2003 Ellis Sandoz. All Rights
not to be quoted or attributed without
Despite the Enlightenment’s
concerted project of doing away with the Bible as the basis of political and
social order in favor of Reason,
1 religion continues to
condition politics as an undergirding belief foundation: Men always have God or
idols, as Luther said. Our present
war on terrorism with its religious dimensions apparent to even the most
blinkered secularist is evidence on the point.
This phenomenon can be seen in the context of a global revival of
traditional religiosity, including Christianity, as a major event of the present
sometimes called “the revenge of God” by such scholars as Gilles Kepel,
Philip Jenkins, and Samuel Huntington.
Leaving aside the radical Islamists
and the contemporary revivals of Christianity and Hinduism for the present
occasion, the principal intellectual fruit of Enlightenment rationalism’s
systematic deformation of reality through rejection of transcendent divine
reality was the ascendancy of the
These are largely comprehensible as forms of intramundane political
religions immanentizing various aspects of the Christian faith so as to form
such familiar constructs as Progressivism, Utopianism, Positivism, and Marxian
revolutionary activism. These
artifacts of the modern egophanic revolt culminate in the radical humanism that
proclaims Autonomous Man as the god-men of this or that description and in the
totalitarian killers of recent memory. They
can be properly understood partly as manifestations of the recrudescence of
apocalypticism and the ancient religiosity called Gnosticism which seeks to
replace faith with fanatical certainty. Eric
Voegelin’s more intricate analysis2
was long preceded by that of acute observers of the French Revolution and rise
of the Religion of Reason including Edmund Burke3
and Alexis de Tocqueville, who is especially clear on the point: this
civilizational upheaval was a religious movement clothing murderous zealotry and
enthusiasm in the serene mantle of instrumental reason and republicanism.
Tocqueville saw that its ideal “was not merely a change in the French
social system but nothing short of a regeneration of the whole human race.
It created an atmosphere of missionary fervor and…assumed all the
aspects of a religious revival…. It would perhaps be truer to say that it
developed into a species of religion, if a singularly imperfect one, since it
was without God, without a ritual or promise of a future life.
Nevertheless, this strange religion has, like Islam, overrun
the whole world with its apostles, militants, and martyrs.”4
Since our primary interest today is
in the American experience, let me also remember Tocqueville’s stress of the
fact that the men and women who
colonized America “brought…a Christianity which I can only describe as
democratic and republican…. There is not a single religious doctrine hostile
to democratic and republican institutions…. It was religion that gave birth
to…America. One must never forget
can the religious dimension of modern republicanism best be understood against
the backdrop of larger political developments just mentioned?
The answer is not simple, and I can attempt only a few suggestions and
hints. In giving them I am reminded
that, if war is too important to be left to the generals, then history is surely
too important to be left to the historiansñnot
to mention political scientistsñ, many of whom blithely write as though
the Enlightenment dogma of their own complacent persuasion has rightly ruled for
the past 300 years and never mention except disparagingly religion as having
much to do with the rise of modern democratic republicanism!
As Perry Miller remarked a generation ago when confronting an attitude he
labeled “obtuse secularism” in
accounts of the American experience, “A cool rationalism such as Jefferson’s
might have declared the independence of [Americans in 1776], but it could never
have persuaded them to fight for it.” There
is more to reality and politics, dear Horatio, than your philosophy has dreamt
The tangle is dense and the terminology ambiguous at best.
Advocates of republicanism in the Anglo-American Whig tradition (to be
firmly distinguished from French Jacobinism)
assert liberty and justice in resistance against
tyranny and arbitrary government and do so in the name of highest truth.
In varying degrees they apply Gospel
principles to politics: the state was made
for man, not men for the state (cf. Mark 2:27).
The imperfect, flawed, sinful being Man, for all his inability,
yet remains capable with the aid of divine grace of self-governmentñi.e.,
of living decent lives as individuals; through understanding and free
will able to respond to grace and to accept the terms of eternal salvation; and
capable with Providential guidance of self-government in both temporal and
ecclesiastical affairs in regimes based on consent and churches organized
This characteristic attitude has a
religious and specifically Protestant Christian root in the conviction that evil
in the world must be combated by free men out of the resources of pure
conscience, true religion, and reformed institutions of power and authority.
The fundamental virtue basic to all others is godliness; and the
fundamental source of revealed truth is the Bibleñto remember John
Milton and the 17th century English experience.6
Favored institutional arrangements
drew from classical sources, to be sureñ perhaps from Aristotle’s
description of the mixed regime in Politics even more than from Polybiusñbut
they drew also from the republic of the Israelites and the rule of seventy
Elders recounted in the Old Testament (Numbers 11:17, Deut. 16:18).
The mixed constitution delineated by Aristotle is extolled by Thomas
Aquinas, in whom Lord Acton finds “the earliest exposition of Whig theory”
7 and, finding it like
the ancient “Gothick polity”, also was favored by Algernon Sidney.8
brief career followed the Puritan Revolution, civil war, deposition and
execution of Charles I for tyranny when England was declared to be “a
Commonwealth or Free-State.” Oliver
Cromwell sought to fill the void left by the regicide with new governing
institutions. He saw the situation
under Charles I as analogous to the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt and himself
as a latter-day Moses leading a confused and recalcitrant people through the Red
Sea into a promised liberty Christ would show them. The failed experiment ended
after little more than a decade with the Stuart Restoration; and English
republicanism itself is said to have died on
the scaffold with Algernon Sidney and been buried in an unmarked grave by the
Settlement of 16899
ñonly to be resurrected and transformed in America a century
afterward. All the old
arguments and imagery then were reasserted and
fervid sentiments echoed John Milton’s
convictions that the “whole freedom of man consists in spiritual or
civil libertie.” “Who can be at
rest, who can enjoy any thing in this world with contentment, who hath not
libertie to serve God and to save his own soul, according to the best light
which God hath planted in him to that purpose, by the reading of his revealed
will [in scripture] and the guidance of his holy spirit?”
Political and religious liberty were all of a piece, as Edmund Burke and
John Witherspoon stressed a century later, again evoking the Good Old Cause. As
the latter said: “There is not a single instance in history in which civil
liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire.
If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time
deliver the conscience into bondage.”
No impiety prompted Bishop James Madison occasionally to pray the
Lord’s Prayer using the words “Thy republic come”!
Nor did he or the other American Patriots ignore the prayer’s next
clause, lying as it did at the heart of their republicanism: “Thy will be
done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
That multiple pre-modern sources of
political culture were complexly woven into foundation of the American
representative republics as the most eligible form of government (even if we
call it democracy today) is, of course, beyond doubtñmost especially
common-law constitutionalism and the Greek and Latin classics, among other
neglected sources. But the
importance of Bible-reading and the spiritual grounding nurtured by it can
scarcely be over-rated. From this
perspective it is not the institutional forms that are decisive (if they
ever are), and like many before him James
Madison regarded them as “auxiliary precautions” of
consequence. Decisive from
antiquity onward is dedication to salus
populi as supreme law and as the requisite animating spirit of the
political community and the persons invested with authority.
These fundamental matters of community and homonoia can be
glimpsed in Federalist No. 2.
The imagined hostility between liberal individualism and
republican communitarianism can be overdrawn and distorted.
At the bottom of republicanism lies a philosophical anthropology of the
kind I have incompletely limned, one that exists
solely in the hearts and minds of individuals. That anthropology is largely
grounded in biblical faith as disclosing hegemonic reality, with its appeal to
transcendent truth and eternal Beatitude as humankind’s summum bonum
and ultimate destiny.
In sum, the principal religious
springs of republican politics are: a paradoxical sense of the dignity yet
frailty of every human being as potentially imago Dei; individual and
political liberty fostered through a rule of law grounded in “the nature and
being of man” as “the gift of God and nature”;
government and laws based on consent of the community; and above all
resistance to tyranny whether ecclesiastical or political
in the name of truth, justice, and righteousness.
These key elements were directly and essentially fostered by the
prevalent (“dissenting” Burke called it) Christianity of the late 18th
century and by a citizenry schooled in them by devoted
Bible reading and by the pulpit.
It is worth lingering a moment over
the last point as George Trevelyan memorably makes it: “The effect of the
continual domestic study of the book upon the national character, imagination
and intelligence for nearly three centuries to come [after 1611] was greater
than that of any literary movement in our annals, or any religious movement
since the coming of St. Augustine….The Bible in English history may be
regarded as a ëRenaissance’ of Hebrew literature far more widespread and
more potent than even the Classical Renaissance which…provided the mental
background of the better educated.”
The path to that stage of liberty was never smooth.
Indeed, the rise of Whig liberty, the freedom we cherish, was in no small
degree bound up with the efforts of early religious reformers, notably John
Wyclif and William Tyndale, to make the text of the Bible available in
Englishñan eminently democratizing effort expanding the much earlier principle
announced in the York Tractates of the Anglo-Norman Anonymous
c. l100 of the priesthood of all baptized believers with the
individual person standing in immediacy to God (1 Peter 2:9).
Such translation into English was derided as heretics spreading pearls
before swine (Matt. 7:6). Possession of such a Bible was a capital crime after
1401, one harshly punished (as were the translators themselves) by condemnation,
excommunication, and burning. Nor
should I fail to mention the inordinate importance of Christian
egalitarianism in the church-society symbolized by each member’s equal and
charismatically indelible participation in the one Body of Christ, whatever
their gifts or station, especially as that is affirmed in Paul’s First
Letter to the Corinthians, 12:12. The
symbolism already was powerfully deployed in theorizing civil liberty and
political order by such major figures as John of Salisbury (d. 1180) and Sir
John Fortescue (d. ca. 1479) in their respective contexts.
It found new political importance as devotion to hierarchy waned and
egalitarianism flourished. Moses
was a foundling, David a shepherd boy, the Savior incarnate as a simple
carpenter, His apostles fishermen, the meek, poor in spirit, heavy-laden, and
peacemakers were blessed of God, and Christ was present in the least of these.
Madison’s and Jefferson’s fiery Baptist constituent the
Elder John Leland dismissed the notion that the ordinary man of common sense is
incapable of judging for himself and asked:
“Did many of the rulers believe in Christ when he was upon the earth?
Were not the learned clergy (the scribes) his most inveterate enemies?
Do not great men differ as much as little men in judgment?… Is the
Bible written (like Caligula’s laws) so intricate and high, that none but the
… learned …can read it? Is not
the vision written so plain that he that runs may read it?”
The riddle of spiritual equality’s uneasy relationship to politics
thereby tended to dissolve into political populismñfor better or worse.
Did the alliance of pulpit and
republican politics persist throughout the revolutionary and early national
periods or did devotion wane? This
is a factual question hotly debated among students of these periods.
While the matter cannot be settled here, I think a diversified
religiousness remained a cardinal experiential force, one undiminished
throughout the historical periods mentioned.
The momentum of revival and spiritual vitality that reshaped America
itself beginning with the Great Awakening of 1739 onward, identified especially
with John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, continued in a dynamic of
ebb and flow into the later period of the Founding.
The Revolution itself had been preached as a revival and had the
astonishing result of succeeding, Perry Miller long ago remarked.
I think he was right. Congress
declared at least sixteen national days of prayer, humiliation and thanksgiving
between 1776 and 1783; and Presidents Washington and Adams continued the
practice under the Constitution. The onset of the so-called Second Awakening is
dated from 1790, but in fact seems to have begun earlier.
New Side and New Light evangelism stirring personal spiritual experience
continued throughout the period, and the political sermons often were
extraordinary in power and substance. Religious services were regularly held in
the newly completed Capitol [building] itself in Washington, in the House and
Senate chambers when these became available,
and President Jefferson and his cabinet attended, along with the members
of Congress and their families, a practice that continued until after the Civil
War. The United States Marine Corps band supplied the music for holy service at
Jefferson’s instigation, we are told. One authority has concluded that
actually there was a Revolutionary revival:
“Far from suffering decline, religion experienced vigorous growth and
luxuriant development during the Revolutionary period.
In a host of ways, both practical and intellectual, the church served as
a school for politics.”
Swarms of witnesses might be called
in support of the present line of analysis, but I mention only three.
Thomas Paine in Common Sense (1776) argued the biblical
foundations of republican liberty. Thus
he wrote: “Near three thousand years passed away from the Mosaic account of
the creation, till the Jews under a national delusion requested a king.
Till then their form of government…was a kind of republic administered
by a judge and the elders of the tribes. Kings
they had none, and it was held sinful to acknowledge any being under that title
but the Lord of Hosts.”
Benjamin Rush, signatory of the Declaration of Independence, fervently
urged in 1786 the schools of Pennsylvania to adopt the Bible as the basic
textbook, writing: “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic
is to be laid in RELIGION. Without
this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and
liberty is the object and life of all republican governments…. The religion I
mean to recommend in this place is the religion of JESUS CHRIST…. A Christian
cannot fail of being a republican.”
Lastly we hear the aged John Adams, in his marvelous correspondence with
Thomas Jefferson, identifying the two principal springs of their original
revolutionary republicanism as Whig Liberty and Christianity.
Adams movingly wrote (1813): “Now I will avow, that I then believed,
and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal
and immutable, as the existence and attributes of God; and those Principles of
Liberty are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane
Girolamo Savonarola and his community re-established the Florentine republic as
a “civil and political government,” one observed by Machiavelli, who gained
his immortality partly as theorist
of classical republicanism.
For his trouble Fra Girolamo and two principal associates were at length
excommunicated and burnt together as heretics in 1498 in the central marketplace
of the city where a plaque in the pavement still marks the spot. He was
graciously spared the worst
torments of this horrendous death by first being strangled, since he was an old
friend of Pope Alexander VI, and friends in high places should count for
something. In the history of
republicanism the Machiavellian Moment might with almost equal warrant be known
as the Savonarolan Moment: modern free popular republican government was off to
its rocky start after a scant four years of existence.
preached as a republic of virtue and godliness, one thirsting for revival and
aimed at purifying and reforming not only corruption in the church but the evil
world itselfñthe beginning of an eschatological and holy sacrum imperium
with Florence the New Jerusalem of a chosen people, an Elect protected by the
Holy Ghost, apocalyptically
envisaged as perhaps leading mankind’s transition into the Millennium
and the final Eighth Day of eternal Sabbath ending history.
American republicanism, in
contrast, redefined the meaning of
the concept itself. As it came from the hands of the Founders in 1787 and 1791,
it took on sobriety and a substantially different aspect: It retained covenantal
form as a compound mixed republic, one federally organized, but it became
emphatically a republic for sinnersñat best hopeful of salvation through faith
and divine graceñrather than only for the virtuous or perfect.
Our statesmen were realists who relied on experience, who
understood something about the history of the sophisticated political order
to which they were heirs. While they relied on Aristotle and
cited Montesquieu, they understood with St. Paul that “all have sinned and
come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) and with the Judicious Richard
Hooker that laws can rightly be made only by assuming men to be hardly better
than beastsñeven though they are created little lower than the angels and
beloved of God their Creator. Thus,
among other things, the Framers banked the fires of zealotry and political
millenarianism in favor of a quasi-Augustinian understanding of the two cities.
They humbly bowed before the inscrutable mystery of the human condition
with all its suffering and imperfection and accepted
watchful waiting for fulfilment of a Providential destiny known only to
Godñwhose kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). They embraced freedom of
conscience as quintessential liberty for the citizenry.
Like all of politics, their solution was a compromise offensive to
utopians and flaming idealists. But
this may be no detraction from their work, since despite all our national
vicissitudes, we still today strive to keep our republicñunder the world’s
oldest existing Constitution. Nor
ought we forget that a sound map of human nature lies at the heart of the
Constitution. Men are not angels and
government, admittedly, is the greatest of reflections on human nature; the demos
constantly inclines toward becoming the ochlosñeven if there were a
population of philosophers and saintsñand inevitably tends toward popular
tyranny. Merely mortal magistrates, no less than factions, ever riven by superbia
and avarice, must be artfully restrained by a vast net of adversarial
devices if just government is to have any chance of
prevailing over human passion while still nurturing the liberty of free
men. To attain these
noble ends, it was daringly thought,
perhaps ambition could effectively counteract ambition and, as one more felix
culpa, therewith supply the defect of better motivesñmost dramatically
through the operations of the central mechanisms of divided and separated powers
and of checks and balances that display the genius of our Constitution and serve
as the hallmark of America’s
republican experiment itself. All
of this would have been quite inconceivable without a Christian anthropology,
enriched by classical political theory and the common law
tradition, as uniquely embedded in the habits of the American people.
On this ground our extended commercial republic flourished and became a
light to the nations.
Nagging questions remain:
Can a political order ultimately grounded in man’s transcendent
relationship to divine Being, memorably proclaimed
in the Declaration of Independence and solidly undergirded by biblical
revelation and philosophy, indefinitely endureñresilient though it may beñin
the face of nihilistic assault of this vital spiritual tension by every means,
including by the institutions of liberty themselves?
Perhaps these are only growing pains that afflict us.
But as we observe the evident intellectual, moral, religious, and social
disarray of the republic, we test our faith that the truth shall prevail and
look for hopeful signs on the horizon. We also remember that both faith and
philosophy have ever been nurtured by resolute individual resistance to
corruption, in what may perchance yet again become a saving remnant.
C. Bartlett, Journal of Politics 63 (Feb. 2001):1-28.
Voegelin, New Science of Politics, Chap. 4, Chicago, 1952.
3. yes; font-size:
Edmund Burke, Letters on a Regicide
de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution [4th
ed., 1858], trans. Stuart Gilbert, Anchor Books, 1955, 13f.)
de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols., ed, Mayer, 1:46f,
Cf. Martin Dzelzainis, “Milton’s
Classical Republicanism” in Milton and Republicanism, David
Armitage et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995),
History of Liberty, 2 vols., ed. R. Fears, Liberty Fund edn.,
Concerning Government, ed. T. G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund,
Tony Davies, “Borrowed Language: Milton, Jefferson, Mirabeau” in Milton
and Republicanism, 254.
Malcolm, ed., Struggle for Sovereignty, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty
Fund, 1999), 1:520.
Witherspoon, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men,
, in E. Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era
1730-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991), 529-58 at 549.
Sidney, Discourses, 510.
George M. Trevelyan, History
of England (New York: Longmans, 1928), 367.
George Huntston Williams, The Norman Anonymous of 1100 A.D., Harvard
Theological Studies 18 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951), 143-45
Leland, Rights of Conscience Inalienable , in
Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons, 1079-99 at 1090.
Cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-25.
Cf. J. H. Hutson, ed., Religion
and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America (Lanham: Rowman
& Littlefield, 2000).
Stephen Marini, “Religion, Politics
and Ratification”  quoted in E. Sandoz, The Politics of Truth
(Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 52.
Sense…and other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine,
ed. Sidney Hook (New York: New American Library, 1969), 30.
Quoted from E. Sandoz, A Government of Laws, 2d ed. (Columbia:
University of Missouri Press,
from Sandoz, Politics of
Weinstein, Savonarola and Florence: Prophecy and Patriotism in the
Renaissance, (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1970), 308. Also
Lorenzo Polizzotto, The Elect Nation: The Savonarolan Movement
in Florence 1494-1545 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994) passim.
esp. The Federalist Papers Nos. 9-10, 39, 47-51, 55.