God in America
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Interview: Stephen Prothero

Stephen Prothero

Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of several books, including 2007's Religious Literacy: What Americans Need to Know. He is also a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. This is the edited transcript of interviews conducted on July 22, 2009 and Dec. 4, 2009. [Read additional interviews with Prothero conducted for night two and night three.

How does the Puritans' leaving [England] relate to the Reformation?

The Puritans who were leaving for religious reasons, they had a sense that the church was still too close to the Roman Catholics'. The Catholics were the problem in the Reformation. The whole point of the Reformation was to make Christianity right, which is to bring it back to the beginning, bring it back to its pure origins, bring it back to the Bible. And the Church of England wasn't doing enough of that.

“Christian conversion offered a really, really powerful promise of fundamental change. ... You could be a certain kind of person on Wednesday ... and by Thursday you were a new creature.”

So that's where they got their name from, the Puritans. They were going to purify the church. So they weren't going to celebrate Christmas, because that was Catholic. And they had to fix the church. One way to do it was to leave and to set up these experiments, some kind of experiment in the New World, that would make the church right. And then people would look across the ocean to this example: "That's how Protestantism is supposed to be." ...

How secure were they in this strange new land?

Imagine yourself coming across in the early 1600s on a boat, and the perils of that. ...

And you really get that sense with [Massachusetts Governor John] Winthrop with his sermon on the Arabella as he's coming over, like, this is dicey; we need to be really careful here in order to make this experiment work.

The New Englanders were aware that there had been other efforts, like at Jamestown, that was just a miserable failure, and they didn't want theirs to be a miserable failure. They knew that the odds were against them. They knew that the climate was difficult. They knew it was going to be hard to get agriculture going, and they knew that there was going to be Indians there, and they didn't know what was going to happen with that.

Was there also anxiety within their religious practice? You never know whether you're in or out.

I think that's where the stakes are higher, too, for Puritans, because not only did they have these physical problems they have to deal with -- the challenges of the environment and of Indians and of getting their own food -- but they have a sense of mission, that they're doing this on behalf of all of the world's Christians.

But then they also have a sense that their own personal salvation is at stake: Am I the elect, or am I the damned? This is a predestination system where God has decided, before we're even born, whether we're going to heaven or hell, and a huge part of our job on the earth is to figure out which camp we're in. And the way that you convince yourself that you're one of the elect is by having success in the world. ...

If we come over to the New World and we totally screw things up, what does that say? It says that God's not on our side, and it may well say that we're going to hell. So they weren't just worried about making money or setting up a good community. They were also worried about being assured that they were going to heaven. ...

And Winthrop, in this patriarchal, paternalistic culture, he's the father to all these people, in some very important way, and he's in charge of them. And if things screw up, it's sort of on his shoulders. So I can't imagine him being very calm, cool and collected as he's on his boat, about to get off, or as he's off and trying to figure out what to do about his new family. ...

How much was that about just the leaving, and how much was it about religion?

I don't know that it's all that much just about the leaving, the American exceptionalism. They're different because they're leaving, obviously. But I think they're carrying with them a story. They're carrying with them this story that: "No, we're not just leaving because we got kicked out of our place. No, we're not just leaving because we can't make any money in England. No, we're not just leaving because everybody thinks our theology is wrong. We're leaving because we're going to remake Christianity. We're leaving because we're going to remake the world." So it gives them a sense of specialness.

They're also drawing here on the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible story. So part of it is that "We are this new Israel; we are the chosen people." So that's also there, too, which is another kind of crazy American hubris: The Jews aren't really the chosen people. This ragtag group of Puritans, like they're somehow the chosen people. ... They start to act like they're the Israelites: They've gone across the ocean; they've escaped the Pharaoh; they've escaped slavery of a sort. ...

They arrive with this idea of a new world, but then they're confounded. Why? ...

I think the idea of the New World and the new Adam and Eve is there from the beginning, and it's confounded by circumstance. The circumstances are the extremes of the winter, the fighting with Indians, the fact that you have to chop your own wood for fire and to make your own homes. And those extremes vault us back to things that are more traditional, including our traditional gods and our traditional way of interacting between society and divinity.

But as circumstances work themselves out, as things become more comfortable, as the settlement makes it and everyone isn't killed off in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, [then] we start to think, OK, well, what is this new thing? ...

But what they don't really know is exactly what that is. That's up for grabs. That's part of the drama of the early part of this American story, is, what is this new thing? America is this new thing. But what is it going to be, and how is it going to distinguish itself from the old thing?

How do you contextualize the row between Anne Hutchinson and Winthrop, politically and religiously?

Part of the story, I think, of the antinomian controversy, the Anne Hutchinson story, is about how revolutions kind of turn on themselves. And the revolution before the revolution, the Puritan experiment of saying, "We're going to go do something totally new, something revolutionary, in a way," starts out with this real Puritan and Protestant impulse of new, making things new, and giving authority back to the individual.

The Catholics are saying: "OK, the pope will tell you how to read the Bible. The Pope will tell you how to be a Christian." And Protestants say: "No, no, no, no, no. Pope? That's not the pope's job. We can read the Bible for ourselves. We can translate it into vernacular languages, into our own German, into our own English. We will see how God tells us how to be." So that's the broadest sketch of the Protestant imagination that's inside these Puritans who are coming over. It's a rebellious notion.

But it's also a dangerous notion. How are you going to set up a society where everybody is reading the key document? Because this was a biblical commonwealth. This was a sort of like shari'a-law place, we would say now, that's being run by religious law, religious principles. If everybody can read the Bible for themselves, how are you going to hold a society together? One person's going to say this is lawful; one person's going to say this is not.

So one of the lessons of Anne Hutchinson is, you need to tamp down on any revolution. It might go too far. And the "too far" with her is saying, "God is speaking to me directly." And that's where the Puritan men who are running the society say, "No, no, no. God speaks through the Bible, and the Bible is mediated through us," which is not a very Protestant idea. She's much more on the Protestant side of things to say, "Anybody can figure out what God wants for them."

Because she's a rebel. She's her own priest.

She's a rebel, but she's also very traditionally Protestant also. This is what makes her so dangerous, is because she is speaking the language of Puritanism itself. ...

She's quoting the Bible in that trial. She's out-Bibling the judges there. She knows the Bible better than they do. And she's speaking the language, the rebellious language of Protestantism that the drama is happening inside each of us: God is speaking to each of us; we need to listen to that voice of God inside us. ...

But then, well, what happens if you start to lose control of your society and you're John Winthrop? You need to be able to say: "No, no, no. That's not what the Bible says. The Bible says such-and-so. This is how we should run our society." So this is where the civil and the religious, they just start to clash.

For me, it's so interesting that church-state, civil-religious need to be wedded.

We tend to have this idea of "Oh, Puritans, New England's religious liberty." This wasn't what the story was. It was freedom for them to decide who to persecute or freedom for them to decide what the bounds were of their society. They still did not have the sense -- this would come later -- of separation of church and state. There was no separation of church and state. You would pay tax money, and it would go to the church, the proper church, to the Congregational Church, because that was the proper church in Massachusetts.

So there was a union of these things. And it was very much legal, but it was also in people's minds. I mean, the fate of the society hung on the religiosity of the society. And if they turned away from God, God would turn away from them.

This is one of the wonderful things about the Arabella sermon, that I love about it actually, is that it had this notion of a conditional covenant, the covenant that's drawn from the Jewish story, and the conditionality of the covenant also drawn from the Jewish story, "if, then." If we are good, if we are good to each other, if we take care of the poor, then God will bless us and we will prosper. And if we don't, if we screw up, if we start to fight with one another, if we start to seek our own ends, God will turn on us, and this will be a total, miserable failure. So from the beginning there's this sense that this is all interconnected, the religious and the civil and the social and the economic and the political. They're just all tied into one another.

So Anne Hutchinson is a threat not just to somebody's theological ideas, like we sort of tend to think, "Oh, why are people banishing each other for religious ideas? That's stupid." But the idea was, she was a threat to the whole society. What's going to happen to the society if women can meet and preach and speak out whatever they want to say in a patriarchal culture where all these men are in charge? That's dangerous. She's a dangerous person. So she's not just a danger to our good Puritan theology; she's a danger to our society, and she may just send this whole society to hell, and we may all be invaded by Indians because of Anne Hutchinson. That's part of the idea.

She's dangerous, but isn't she also the future? That's what Winthrop wanted to create, but was it possible in this scary new land to impose that kind of idea? …

She's the future, yes, in the sense of religious tolerance, in the sense of religious conscience, in the sense that conscience speaks out against the state. And so the America that's going to be founded later on is going to make room for Anne Hutchinson. We're not going to banish her. We're not going to put her in jail. We're not going to kick her out and send her off to Rhode Island. …

But she's also the future in the sense [that] this religion really happens inside us; the drama is inside us, and God can speak to any of us -- [ideas] we're going to get now from [Henry David] Thoreau; we're going to get from [Ralph Waldo] Emerson; we're going to get from Oprah [Winfrey]. And it's Anne Hutchinson that gives us those people. She's the person who makes Oprah plausible, that it happens inside of us. This is the message of so many contemporary Hollywood movies, too. Religion isn't about external authorities dictating to us what to believe, what time to show up, what to do in our religious services. That's not religion. That's the empty husk, the externalities of religion. The real religious impulse is what moved Jesus to speak, what Anne Hutchinson heard when she listened to her heart, what each of us gets when we're out walking in nature. That's the real religious spirit. That's the spirit that's still with us from her. ...

Somebody says, "Why listen to the black-coated minister when you can get the real thing from Hutchinson?"

Yeah. And the "real thing" there is a really important phrase. Why listen to the black-coated minister read a dry, boring sermon that he wrote years ago, for the 10th time he's reading it, when you can go to Anne Hutchinson's house and hear this heartfelt, real thing? That notion of reality, authenticity, is incredibly important. And the idea that when you tap into your own soul, or when you talk to someone who's a charismatic person like Anne Hutchinson was, who claims to have direct access to God, who wouldn't want to hear that more than this recycled sermon that some guy got from some guy got from some guy? ...

What is it about Americans that they need to wander, the move West? How does religion and God fit in with all that?

There's this very interesting dynamic of home and movement, or rest and movement, or settling and moving on, in America. Are the Puritans coming to settle this place, or are they coming to hang out in New England for a while so they can go to Ohio, so they can go to Utah, so they can go to California, so they can go to the moon? …

And I think it plays out in all of us. I think all of us have this sense of we want to be at home. I was talking to a friend the other day, and she was like, "I don't want to be on a quest; I want to be in a place." And I think there's a wonderful sense of that in American culture and with us today. Do we want to be in a home, or do we want to be on the move? And I think that that is also part of the American story, that we start with people who are on the move, we start with migrants, and the country is built through immigration. And what do these migrants want? Do they want to be here? Well, yeah. But then there's a kind of restlessness then to be on the move.

What keeps them sane if they're on the move?

Part of what keeps you sane and together on the move is a story. This is part of what happens with the history of Judaism. Judaism is centered early on around the Temple. It has a place. The Temple's destroyed. Now the Jews are just scattered around. What makes them [stay] together is no longer the Temple; it's a story. They have a story that they tell and they argue about. And that's like America. …

I think America is a story. And Americans, as they move, as they first come here, as they move West, as they move out into the world, they're telling a story. And the story they're telling is a biblical story. I think it's the Exodus story. They're telling a story about the movement of a people out of slavery into freedom, out of the Old World into the New World, out of the place of Pharaoh or George III or whoever the heck it is who's impinging upon us, into this place of freedom that is like the freedom that the Jews, the Israelites enjoyed as they left Egypt. …

And I think that is a story that the Puritans inject into us, and that we continue to wrestle with, and that as we think about gay marriage, or as we think about women's rights, or as we think about civil rights, that's the story that we're thinking about as we move throughout our whole history.

So it's integral to how America develops as a collective consciousness?

Yeah, I think that's right. What is it that we share? Early on, in the colonial period, it's tricky about what's going on across the colonies, of what's shared. People are not thinking of themselves so much as Americans yet. They're thinking about themselves as from Massachusetts, or Virginians, or they're thinking about themselves as Puritans, or they're thinking about themselves in various ways. But they're not yet thinking of themselves as Americans. …

I think the Puritan strain, the Puritan story, becomes the dominant story. I think it dominates into the early part of the 19th century. …

Tell me about the Great Awakening. What was it? What happened?

The Great Awakening is just this moment when a lot of people get religion, and the kind of religion they get is this Puritan conversionary, what we now call revivalism -- not quite revivalism proper yet -- but rebirth, religion of rupture. Religion is not about birth, baptism, marriage, children, death, funeral. That's not what religion is. You need to add a very important moment, and that moment is conversion, rebirth. That's the big moment in a life, and a life without that is a life that really hasn't been lived, and a life that is not going to be happy in the afterlife because it's going to hell.

Why did they get it then, in 18th-century America?

It's hard to know. How do you know exactly what makes that happen? I think part of what makes it happen is personalities. Somebody like [Anglican preacher] George Whitefield is a compelling person, and he's able to spread this story. Someone like [American-born minister and Great Awakening figure] Jonathan Edwards is very smart and [a] very effective communicator.

What was Whitefield like? What's your take on him?

Part of this now is about communications. … Whitefield is this amazing salesman. He grows up; he wants to be an actor. He's a dramatic guy. … And he takes that into his religious life with him.

He decides he's not going to read these boring sermons like these other ministers are doing. They stand up in their churches and read these boring sermons that people are required to come sit and listen to, hour after hour after hour -- and not just on Sundays either. He's going to stand up and he's going to tell stories, and he's going to speak from his heart is his key thing. He's going to speak from his heart. ...

And he's able to tell a story about rebirth. He's able to tell a dramatic story. He is Anglican, but he's not telling the boring Anglican story of: "You should have your children baptized. You should get married and have children. You should die in the church and be buried in the church cemetery. That's what good Christians do." No. He's telling this dramatic story like: "There's this wrestling match between you and God, and are you going to keep fighting God? Are you going to collapse into the arms of God? Are you going to feel the conviction of sin that's upon us? Are you going to pretend it's not there? Are you going to turn to Jesus and have him save you?"

So even if you're not religious, I think you can get a sense of that, like, "This is a dramatic story."

... Why does it require rebirth? Why can't you just read the Bible and just live it rather than have this moment where you're struck down by a beam of light?

The reason it requires a rebirth is because we're horrible, horrible sinners. This is the hard part for contemporary people to get, because even contemporary Christians now, even many evangelicals, they just don't believe in sin anymore.

But in this period in American history, people believed in sin, and what they believed is that we were born sinful. Why? Because Adam and Eve sinned. … We are born with sin. We're not born good. Everything's not OK. We're born with things haywire, and unless something un-haywires us, turns us around, we're going to go to hell. And because the sin is so deep and so powerful and so strong, it requires a powerful, you know, "vroom" to turn it around. And that is the moment of rebirth. ...

Is this the start of evangelicalism?

It's the big debate about whether this is the beginning of evangelicalism. It's the beginning of evangelicalism in a couple senses. The rebirth is key to evangelicalism. And revivalism of a sort that you can actually set up a situation where you can bring about a lot of conversions, that's very evangelical.

The non-evangelical piece of this is that we're still operating in a Puritan world with Whitefield in terms of predestination, so it's kind of counterintuitive. Why would you be trying to convert people when it doesn't even matter if they convert or not, because it's already set in stone? Sort of strange. That was his view, that before we're even born, God decides whether we're elect or the damned, and his preaching is not going to actually have an effect in terms of change on whether we're going to heaven or hell. But it has all sorts of other effects. ...

Was this radical Protestantism or radical religion?

I don't know that it was anything radical so much about Whitefield. I think what it was, was it was sort of a superior delivery mechanism. It was just a better distribution channel than before. The distribution channel for this kind of religion before had been fairly boring ministers standing up on a Sunday, reading from a script. With him, it was this dramatic guy.

This famous line about Whitefield was, "He could say 'Mesopotamia' and make you cry." Or [there was] this actor in England who would say, "If I could just say the word 'Oh' the way George Whitefield said the word 'Oh,' I could be the most famous actor in all of England." He had a sense of drama about this clearly dramatic religion that people hadn't conveyed that well before, and he was able to do it. …

He had an amazing voice that could be heard from all around. There's a famous story about Ben Franklin, when Franklin from Philadelphia is a religious skeptic and religious oddball. He has these very strange religious ideas, and he hears about Whitefield, and people are [telling him], "Whitefield preaches to 10,000 people, 20,000 people at a time." Franklin's like, "That's not even possible." This is before microphones. This is before amplification devices and before Woodstock. The only way you can speak to people is with the power of your own voice.

So Franklin goes, and he's a scientist, so he goes as far away from Whitefield as he can get and still hear what he's saying. And he sort of does a circle, and he calculates the radius and counts the people in certain places, and he figures it out. Ten thousand people, he says. I certified Whitefield can speak to this many people because he has a loud voice.

So now we think of the Internet as being a good platform, a good mechanism for the distribution of ideas. Well, back then it was a loud voice, a loud, dramatic voice. ...

Did it make people think about themselves differently? Did this opening up of religion have a potential for people to go places that even Whitefield didn't imagine?

I think we always carry around with ourselves a bunch of different identity markers. So you can have a sense of yourself as a person from Massachusetts, as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a woman.

But in this case what's happening is, the religious marker -- the reborn-person marker -- becomes incredibly important, and more important than others. So it becomes the most important fact about me, that I'm a person who is probably one of the elect, or hopefully one of the elect, because I've had this rebirth experience. And that's more important about me than my position on the town council or where I sit in my church, or even my relationships, arguably, with my children. So there's a sort of revaluation of values in a society. If you're living in a purely secular society, what's going to matter relationally is the relationships you're in with the people around you.

So is this what was a threat to the establishment? How is it related to the church-state fusion?

The Great Awakening makes clear the split between the "for" and "against" factions, the new sides versus the old sides, or the "New Lights" versus the "Old Lights." And I think that one of the complaints that the old lights, old sides people have is that this is bad religion. … They want to say: God made our brains, too; God didn't just make our hearts. We're not just hearts who happen to have bodies and brains. We're these integrated people, and God speaks to our brains. And when people just get going purely on the basis of emotion, that's not really to be trusted, because that can be manipulated very easily, as we now know; that it isn't just God who makes us feel strong things. It can also be the devil that makes us feel strong things.

So I think for [Charles] Chauncy, [minister of the First Church in Boston], that's his stated reason for opposing the Awakening, is that reason is supposed to be important in religion, and religion is supposed to be reasonable. And I kind of take him at his word. I think actually that was a big part of what he was saying. And maybe that's because I'm a professor and I think our brains are important, but I'm convinced by that.

But there is this other part, which has to do with order. What's going to happen to this society if it's turned so topsy-turvy, where women are going to feel that they can speak out equally, where younger people -- this is another piece of the Awakening. These are young people. And we see this with revolutions around the world, too, that often it's young people that are pushing things, and that's dangerous to old people. And this is one of the other places of deference that's breaking down, the deference of women to men, but also the deference of the young to the old. You have this conversion experience. You have a rebirth, and you're like: "I don't think my grandfather's had this. Should I listen to him in the same way?"

And was it a more collective experience? …

There's a debate about this, too, among scholars about to what extent did people who were experiencing this Great Awakening did they go home and say, "I'm another convert in the Great Awakening"? I'm not sure that was really what was happening. I think it was more inchoate than that. But I think there was a sense of confirmation that this is an important moment in world history that we are making here in the New World; that those of us who hoped that it was God who sent us and not the devil, those of us who hoped that God is really working with us, that God is giving us a thumbs-up, we're being confirmed here, because why would Satan want to be converting thousands of people across the colonies?

So I think there's a sense of something momentous that's happening in a kind of confirmation like: "Yeah, this is really important. What we're doing is righteous. What we're doing is good. This is the new Jerusalem. This is the Zion that we had hoped for. And this is confirmation of it." I think that's what it is, less than "Oh, this is the Great Awakening," and "Oh, people all up and down the Eastern Seaboard are having conversions, and this is this moment in a future American history of the Great Awakening." It was more speaking to that assurance piece of us that wants assurance, to know that we're saved and to know that our society's on the right path. …

So it doesn't have anything to do with citizenship, nationality, defining themselves as Americans?

Again, there's a debate about this, about to what extent do people start to say, "I'm a Whitefield person," or "I'm a regenerated person, and therefore the ties or the connections of me as a Massachusetts person versus a Virginian versus someone from elsewhere in the colonies." I think that's not happening so much. I think that that memory can be drawn on when we get to the Revolution. …

People care deeply, as we know from the early debates about the founding of America, about being members of their colonies. That's one reason why we have the Senate and the House of Representatives, and we make sure that we represent localities, states, because the people did have a sense of their ownership over their own colonies, over their own areas. So that isn't obliterated.

But I think what the Great Awakening does vis-à-vis the Revolution here is that it gives a sense of "We can do something together." Now, whether you call that "We're Americans," whatever, I don't think that obliterates the connection to local or to what we're going to call states. But I still think there's a sense that something can happen. ... There's a story here that's happening that isn't just about my colony. The drama here is not just about Massachusetts Bay Colony. And I do think that's going on with the Great Awakening.

Religious imagination opens up and starts to converge with political imagination.

Well, there's a lot of striking similarities between Puritanism, as it filters in through the Great Awakening, and the American Revolution. I think the story of the Exodus is incredibly important. Once you can say, "We're escaping from slavery in the Old World, and over there is the Pharaoh, and we're the Israelites," it becomes pretty easy to say: "Oh, George III is actually the Pharaoh, and that's the slavery that's happening with us, and we're going to do something new. We're going to separate from them. We're going to seek our freedom." Who could write a better story for the American Revolution than that? …

Another thing is the attack on deference that happens with the rise of conversionary Puritan religion. It just doesn't matter that much whether you're a woman, whether you're old, whether you're a man, whether you're a Virginian or a New Englander. What matters is this interior, subjective kind of thing, and we're all equal in that. We're all equal before God in that.

So Whitefield isn't an abolitionist, but he's preaching to slaves; he's converting slaves. And the same drama is happening inside slaves as is happening with other people. We're not going to get to abolition for a while, but this incipient, inchoate sense that we're all the same that's going to give us the rhetoric of the civil rights movement, for example, is happening there. It's bubbling up there. …

Political and religious imaginations were fused?

Political and religious imagination fuse in the sense that we're not to the point yet where we're going to separate them out. So it isn't so much that they're fused; it's that no one really was imagining them being fully separated. And in this sense, they're maybe being more European than Americans.

We have still in Europe this idea of church-state intermingling. We haven't got to the Enlightenment yet. We haven't got to this sharp separation between church and state. So there's an overflow from one side to the other. There isn't this idea that "OK, this is me. It's a Sunday. I'm now a religious person. Oh, this is me. It's a Monday. I'm now a secular person." They're overflowing into one another. So the kind of metaphors, the kinds of stories that you're using in your religious life are going to go over into your political life. Why should you have freedom to choose Jesus and not have the freedom to choose your governor?

Do you think people really thought like that?

I think they did. And I think it had to do with experience. … It's hard for people to imagine who are not particularly religious or have not had a powerful religious experience to imagine what it's like to have one, and how it transforms you, and how you get a sense of agency. …

So it isn't so much we're thinking egalitarianism or democracy. It's more that we're having more and more experience of our own agency, our own sense of free will, our own sense of ownership over what's going on in the world. And one [way] we have that is by having an experience where we say, "Yes, I'm going to make that decision for Jesus." And then we see the things that happen to us after we make that decision. And we start to say, "I don't accept this person, who's a man, telling me as a woman what to think, because Jesus will tell me what to think." Or, "I don't accept my governor telling me this, because I've read the Bible for myself, and I know that that's not right."

So people start to have a sense of ownership over their own experience. It isn't so much they're reading some book and coming up with "Oh, liberty." It's more that they have the experience of liberty. They have experienced liberty. And this is the language -- Christians talk about Christian freedom. They've had the experience of freedom, of being freed from sin. "I've been freed from sin. Why shouldn't I be freed from the shackles of England?"

Some academics would say people demanded political freedom because they believed the system of taxation without representation wasn't fair.

Whenever you get to politics, and especially war, you have to ask: What is going to motivate people to die for a political idea? … The way we get people in the modern world to die for political ideas is nationalism, which is a kind of a pseudo-religion -- or maybe not pseudo; maybe it's a religion itself. But we die for higher purposes. We don't die because of some law we want enacted by some legislature. Nobody dies for that. We die and put ourselves out because of some higher thing, and the most graspable higher thing for most people throughout world history is religion.

So for me, it's implausible to imagine a revolution going forward almost anywhere without something like religion. Now, that may be nationalism, it may be communism, but it's got to be some kind of -ism, some kind of passion that is going to get you to lay down your life. …

But where that becomes a war is when you can say: "This just isn't right. God has made all human beings the same. How can we possibly live in a society where human beings are not treated the same?" Or, "God has spoken to me and told me to speak the truth of the Gospel. How can I possibly live in a society where I'm not free to speak the truth of the Gospel? That's an affront to God and to me, and therefore I'll fight and die for it."

So yes, the American Revolution is about all these things we're told about in our history books that it's about. And the Boston Tea Party is important. And we didn't like the fact that tea was taxed without our being able to decide whether that was right to do, or what the amount of the taxation should be. But you have to then ask: What turns that into a war? What turns that into passionate people? And I think part of the answer -- not the whole answer; I'm not a religious determinist about this -- but part of the answer is religion.

Is that peculiarly American?

I don't think it's peculiarly American to go to war for religious reasons. ...

I think what's American about it is its Puritan and Protestant nature, that it grew out of this particular historical moment when Protestantism had just emerged out of Catholicism with a complaint against a pope. These are the sort of very basic things to remember. The essence of Protestantism is, we're not going to let the pope tell us what to do. What's the essence of the American Revolution? We're not going to let the king tell us what to do. ...

We want some self-determinacy. In the same way that Protestants are saying, "We can read this Bible for ourselves," the New Worlders, the revolutionaries are saying, "We can write our laws for ourselves." So there's a lot of structural connections there. And I think that in some ways the American Revolution is the political analogue of the religious revolution of the Reformation.

As people put down the plow and picked up the rifle to shoot a British soldier, were they thinking of God?

I would say that the farmer who's putting down his plow and picking up his rifle is not necessarily saying, "Here we go for Jesus." No, I don't think that's right. But I think you have to ask: Under what situation does it become plausible for people to pick up that rifle? And I think it's a situation in which there are certain political complaints and there are certain religious things in the air. ...

We're in a world that was thoroughly infused with religion; that it had this Great Awakening, where this Puritan religious impulse was the dominant religious impulse in the New World, and where people were very much thinking as anti-clerical Protestants, trying to purify their tradition of the vestiges of Catholicism, which was bad because it was authoritarian, because it has priests telling you what to do, because it had a pope who stood over you like some king, telling you how to be religious. And in that spirit of things, the Revolution becomes if not inevitable, it becomes perfectly logical.

And so as the farmer is picking up the rifle and putting down the plow and marching off, yes, he's thinking about: "I want rights. I want to be able to run my own society." But he's also thinking: "This is righteous. This is a righteous cause, and God is with us in this cause." ...

What's wrong with being in a minority, being a Baptist, in the 1760s?

The Baptists had the wrong theology. They had the wrong views of God. They had the wrong ways of even -- well, as the name goes, of baptizing their children.

And that was dangerous, because at a time early on in the colonial period and the early national period, there was a sense that religion was a big factor in what would hold a society together. It wasn't like today, when we sort of think, oh, this is just whatever you want to think. And the Baptists were a threat to that. It was almost as if the religious difference was a threat to the unity of government. And the Baptists, as a growing, gathering force, were seen as a significant threat, at least by some people, to that religious cohesion.

What is this idea about the established church so far away from England?

I think the established church, we tend to think about it wanting a monopoly. It wants to be in charge of the whole area. But I think what was behind that was this idea that a society could not make it without a shared religious faith. The whole idea that we have now of religious pluralism, religious diversity is a good thing, that wasn't something hardly anyone thought of back then. The idea was, was it a threat to the unity of the state if there were multiple religious options? ... What God are you going to call down when you need support for the state for a project, whether it's war or whether it's something else, something lesser? Who are you going to call down? And if you don't know, that's a problem.

And religion always provides this transcendental critique of government, too. That's one of the most interesting things about religion, that it can say no to the state. And if you have all these religions competing in a given area, there's all these potential nos that can come down against given laws or against given rulers. And that was something people were intensely worried about in the colonial and early national periods, when there was a sense that this whole thing might fall apart. It's an experiment that might not come to fruition, that might end up failing. …

People had a sense of the precariousness of the situation. We had come through wars with Indians. We had come across the oceans to this new place, setting up this new thing. People were a little on edge.

And religious freedom was a challenge to that. The Baptists and the Methodists running around, getting people excited and agitated, that was kind of dangerous. Were they going to listen to the ministers in their ordinary church who were going to tell them to go vote, who were going to tell them to be dutiful citizens? What was going to happen if people got all excited and ecstatic in ways that seemed dangerous to the powers that be?

So [Thomas] Jefferson's answer was, "Let them run loose."

Yeah, I think Jefferson said: "Let them run loose. Let's do this experiment. Let's see what happens." But I think he had a real faith, we might say, in the power of freedom of conscience, and he believed that we could be held together through other sorts of things other than a shared religion, and those would be shared values around things like democracy and things like freedom; that these more secular values would be what would hold us together rather than the common worship of the same God.

So where does he place religion in his scheme of freedom of conscience?

Religion was really important to Jefferson. A lot of times we think of Jefferson, because he was criticized in his life as an infidel and an atheist -- which he wasn't -- we tend to think to think of him as an anti-religious person.

But he was intensely religious, or as we might say now, he was spiritual but not religious. He had really strong critiques of the established churches. He had really strong critiques of the prevailing theology of Calvinism. But he was a lover of Jesus. He wrote his own Bible, the Jefferson Bible cutting and pasting out of the New Testament during a few nights in the White House. And he wrote letters to his friends that were deeply theological. He was one of the most theological presidents that we ever had. So he cared about religion, and he contributed to religious organizations, contributed his money to build churches and things like that.

But he thought that it was up to the individual. One thing he says is: "God created us in such a way that we can make our religious choices. Who is the state to tell us something that God chose not to tell us? God could have made us all into Anglicans. God could have made us all into Congregationalists. But God chose not to do that. And so who are we to step in and do what God has not done?"

This idea of stepping in, is that in accord with what the Baptists wanted, that government shouldn't step in?

That's right. I think both Jefferson and the Baptists had this idea of a free market in religion, that it shouldn't be a monopoly. You shouldn't walk into the religion store and see one product that you have to either pick or not. You should walk into the religion store and see a bunch of products, and you could pick which one was going to fit for you. Your conscience, your heart, your mind, whatever it was that would get tugged, it should be able to be tugged in different directions.

And that wasn't a danger for Jefferson. The Baptists weren't so worried about the danger to the state presented by themselves, because they didn't think they were [a] danger to the state. They were worried about the capacity for them to be Baptists and to not be overrun by Anglicans or not be overrun by Congregationalists.

Jefferson was more interested in the individual. And he was a smart guy. He read; he knew a bunch of different languages; he was exposed to a lot of different ideas. And he didn't want the state to tell him what to think.

Was anyone clear about what the American identity actually was? ... Were people trying to work out who they were? Where was religion in that formulation?

I think Jefferson has the idea that the American is this new creature that's thinking for himself and is knowledgeable about the world, a little bit like him, and that that's the kind of person we want to create. ...

We think of Jefferson as a rationalist, but in some way this is also an outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation, where the Protestants are saying every individual is free to read the Bible for himself and figure what it says. Jefferson wanted us to do that, too. He wanted us to be free to look at the evidence in the world of religion, whether it was the Bible or something else, and decide what we thought it all meant, decide what kind of creature God was, decide what kind of creation we were. That was up to us. It wasn't up to some tyrannical king or some tyrannical pope or some tyrannical Calvinist theologian to tell us what we ought to imagine.

So he had his understanding of the American identity. Did everybody else? ...

[In this period] we're sort of halfway between being Europeans and Americans. It's maybe the 1830s or so that we start thinking, we're really Americans. We're not British; we're not French; we're not Spanish. We are our own creation.

I think early on, there was this idea that we are the new Adam and the new Eve. We are these new people, and we're being made by this new environment, not unlike the way Adam and Eve are made in the Garden of Eden. But that's the proposition. It isn't so much what that creature looks like that's important. What's important is that creature is new; that it's this new place, the New World, the new Jerusalem, the new Israel, whatever you might call it, but "new" is the operative word, and that's being made here. And what's being made is precisely up for grabs, and that's what is so interesting about the early American period, that Americans are going to decide what that new person looks like. ...

[What's] the story of the national seal?

There were conversations early on about what the national seal is going to be, and both Jefferson and Ben Franklin come up with basically the Exodus story, with the pillar of fire that's leading the Israelites through the wilderness toward the promised land. That's their vision. …

If you think about the New Testament story, the New Testament story is about an individual; it's about Jesus. And the call is for individuals to move from sin to salvation. It's not really a collective story. But the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is. It's a story about a people, and that's what we grabbed onto. We were a people. We were this new people. How should we imagine ourselves? And conveniently, here in the biblical story, we have the story of a people who go from what? From slavery to freedom. Well, that's what we were doing. We're going from slavery to freedom. So we latched on to it. And politicians were able to say, look, that should be our image of ourselves that we should project out to the world, and we should tell our citizens, we are the people following God, Providence, fate, whatever you want to call it, into the future, behind that pillar of fire, behind the flame, moving forward into our indeterminate future. ...

It wasn't a secular story. It wasn't like, "Oh, we've looked at 10 different models for government, and we have a new model for government, and we will execute it." No. It wasn't propositional. It was narrative. It was a story. And we were going to push this story forward. We were going to relive the story that the Jews, the Israelites, lived in the Hebrew Bible. But we were going to get to the promised land, and we were going to make in the promised land this sort of quasi-religious, quasi-secular, governmental, theological kind of place that we called the new Israel, the promised land. And we were going to make it. ...

When they're working out whether the [American] experiment is worth the risk, it's freedom that makes people disestablish the church, create the bicameral legislature, etc. It's complicated, but if they keep going back to freedom, everything will be fine?

I think what we do is, we make a connection. We make a connection between the tyranny of the king and the tyranny of the pope. The tyranny of the government that comes down and taxes you without asking you, without asking you to vote, we know that that's tyrannical. If that's tyrannical, why is it not also tyrannical to have a religious ruler, whether it's a pope or even possibly whether it's your own minister in your own church, telling you what to think about the Bible?

We made that connection. And we understood the risk of casting off religious establishment, because it, in our understanding, hadn't been done. And we knew it might swamp us and might drown us. But at the same time, that connection was so palpable between the tyranny of a government that didn't allow you to do your own thing and the tyranny of religious groups that wouldn't allow you to do your own thing that we decided that yes, it was worth the risk, and we need to try. ...

Is this sense of new, of arriving, is that scary for people?

In the word "experiment" that you hear a lot in early America, there is fear there. There is this idea that it could go wrong, that it can fail. The experiment can fail. And there's a lot of talk, especially around the issue of religious freedom, that this is maybe too dangerous.

So I think there's fear there. There's certainly fear the society's going to fall apart based on internal fracturing, and there's fear it's going to fall apart from external enemies, whether that's Native Americans or whether that's the French or the British coming over. So all the way through the Civil War, I think there's a fairly palpable sense that this is a precarious situation that we're in, which makes the reach for religious freedom even more intriguing. There must have been some impulse, some passion there that was quite strong to be willing to take this, to take what was widely seen as a risk.

This idea of freedom of religion -- it could go wrong, but try it anyway -- is that the religious impulse? It is a stretch to a religious anchor?

I think what's happening is there is this increasing sense of the individual that is not as strong in Europe. And part of it has to do with, people [who] are coming over here are more like freelancers. They're disconnected in some -- well, literally disconnected from their homes, from their traditions, from their jobs, from their extended families, and they're coming over to this new place. In the midst of that, we get this greater sense of the individual. And as we get this greater sense of the individual, we get a greater sense of the impossibility and the wrongfulness of telling that individual what to do. …

Is individualism a half step away from the Old World why Protestant became the prevailing theology rather than Catholicism?

As the colonists come, they have this idea of the new Adam in the New World. But there's not all that much new at the beginning -- New France, New Spain, New England. They're kind of repeating what's going on in France, in Spain, in England. Especially around the issue of religion, we don't have freedom of religion in the colonies, so there's a lot of continuity, even though we have this idea of the new Adam.

But the idea gradually works its way into us. And so there's this sort of half step of the Puritans toward individual conscience, that it's the individual person who's being converted. Some of us are being converted; some of us aren't. How does that work? So the individual is kind of working its way out.

And this notion that we are each engaged in this drama, huge drama with God, that needs to be played out on its own terms, because some are damned and some are not damned; some are going to heaven and some are going to hell, going in different directions; we're not just all in the same communal thing together -- that that sort of gradually works its way out.

It's almost like there's this whisper in the ear of the colonists, in the early Americans, like you're going somewhere, like something's supposed to happen. Something new is happening here. And we're sort of like, "Well, what is it exactly?," because it doesn't seem really all that new. But gradually it spins out, and it starts to become the new Adam, the new Israel. The New World is a place where freedom actualizes itself politically and religiously. ...

Why was Virginia seen as a template?

What was important about Virginia was they had an establishment and then they got rid of it. They had set up the Old World thing, "We're going to have Anglicanism here; we're going to support Anglicanism with the power and the taxation of the state," and then, through people like Jefferson, they were able to say, "No, we're not going to do that." And they're able to show that you could have a society that way. …

So in Virginia, the idea was, "We can do this," and they start to show it to other parts of what will become the United States; that we can do freedom here. We can do freedom of religion, and things are going to be OK. ...

Did the Virginia bill of religious freedom feed directly into the First Amendment?

Some of the language survives into the debates about the First Amendment. And I think that's very much alive there. I think the connection even between freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, that's part of the idea. ...

The theory behind freedom of religion has a political-secular piece, but it also has a religious and theological piece, and the religious and theological is, God created human beings in God's own image, with freedom of conscience. God did not push on us any particular theology. We are not born Zoroastrians, and we do not turn to Catholics when we're 15. God doesn't do this and enforce upon us a particular theological view, and therefore the state shouldn't do that either. ...

What role did the Founders think religion should play within this new republic?

The role of religion in the new republic is so contested, it's fascinating. For me at least, the place to start is that we decided that we would not go to either of two extremes. We were not going to totally enforce a particular religious perspective. We were going to have religious freedom. This was not going to be a Methodist United States or a Baptist United States or a Congregationalist United States.

But neither were we going to go [for] the radical separation. We were not going to go for a wall of separation. Jefferson was not going to win. And even Jefferson's wall of separation wasn't absolute. So we were going to be in some fuzzy space between total separation of church and state and total union of church and state. So much of the subsequent history of America around the question of religion has been trying to hash out what that means, what that mid-space is, and what we're going to do inside that middle space.

I thought there was a separation of church and state.

We have separation of church and state. Yes, we do. But they're not fully and totally separated. For example, when Washington is inaugurated, he puts his hand on a Bible, and he vows, with his hand on the Bible, to uphold a Constitution that doesn't mention God. There, I think, in a way, you have it in a nutshell. You have the secular state, the godless Constitution, and you have the Bible. That's somehow what, contradicting separation of church and state? Reinforcing it?

We decide from the beginning we're going to have military chaplains. We're going to have prayers before the opening of Congress. We could have not done that. We could have decided, no, we have separation of church and state; therefore we'll have no chaplains; we will have no prayers before Congress opens. But we didn't decide that. ...

One of the misunderstandings about church-state in America is that we started from the beginning and have today total separation of church and state, and we just don't. That's part of what makes it interesting, is that we allow for some mixing of church and state, and we don't allow for other mixing of church and state. And part of what keeps the Supreme Court busy is trying to figure out what kind of mixing is allowed and what kind of mixing is not allowed.

Why didn't clear separation happen?

Part of why the separation isn't total from the beginning is precisely because this is a religious experiment from the start.

If it wasn't really separation, what bits weren't separated?

For one, presidents from the very beginning, in their inaugural addresses, are talking about God. They're evoking God in the public space, ... praying in the Congress.

From the start, we have a public rhetoric that is religious, and that never really fully goes away. It's always kind of vague. It's never Congregationalist rhetoric or Methodist rhetoric, but it's religious rhetoric. And we have that from the start.

Does Jefferson have it? ...

Jefferson is, of all the presidents, the most leery and suspicious of this mixing of the political and the religious, the mixing of church and state. Even he doesn't separate it as much as his metaphor of the wall of separation of church and state would have it.

There is a wall of separation of church and state in American history, but it's not the Great Wall of China. It's more like a little New England picket fence that, when the time comes, you can kind of jump over if you need to. It's more like that.

Did he think it was a picket fence?

I think Jefferson thought it was a picket fence, but he wanted it to be higher and stronger. He didn't want as much mixing, as much cross-hatching as there was in American history.

And I think one of the confusions is, is that his metaphor is so strong -- the metaphor of the wall of separation of church and state -- that people often think that, oh, the First Amendment means that there should be a wall of separation of church and state. It doesn't mean that at all. It says that we are not going to establish laws that are going to favor one religion over another or favor religion over anti-religion, but it doesn't say exactly what kind of barrier there's going to be.

In that sense, what did the First Amendment mean for people?

There's two sides of it on religion. One is the Free Exercise Clause, and the other is the Establishment Clause. On the Free Exercise Clause, it meant that we were going to be free to pick our own religions -- or we might say, relatively free, because we don't have total freedom there. You are not [free] to have a human-sacrifice religion where every day you sacrifice a child to your god. That's illegal in the United States, and the Constitution doesn't allow you to do that. Similarly, if you're a Native American and you want to worship on a particular mountain that gets bought by some corporation, you're not free to do that either. So even that is not absolute.

The other side, the Establishment side, says that Congress is not going to pass laws that are going to basically put the federal government in bed with any particular religious tradition. But it doesn't outlaw government officials from talking about God. It doesn't outlaw presidents from invoking the notions of God and Providence and even the Bible in their inaugural addresses. It doesn't prevent prayers at West Point.

These are more like guidelines than hard and fast rules that we have there in the First Amendment.

So there's an acceptance that religion is going to have a role in public life, whatever Jefferson might say in his letter to some Baptists a few years later.

That's right. From the beginning, there is the idea that religion is going to have a role in public life. And in fact, one purpose of the First Amendment is to allow for the thriving of religion. One theory is that if you mandate a particular religion, people are going to be annoyed that a particular religion is being shoved down their throats, and they're not going to practice religion as vociferously as they might otherwise. So one notion here is that this is going to allow for the United States to remain a country in which religion is vibrant and powerful and vital.

Did it make any difference in people's lives after it was signed?

I'm not sure there's a split-second difference before and after the First Amendment. I think it takes a while to spin out. If you look, for example, at the Supreme Court, Supreme Court sees hardly any cases at all about religion until the 20th century.

So it isn't like this is all being adjudicated. It's more like it's being worked out through custom more than it is through law. But certainly I think that you get ... in, say, the half century and the century after the passage of the First Amendment, you get a profusion, an explosion of new religious movements in the United States. And that isn't really thinkable without the First Amendment.

Is that the point of the First Amendment? What was the point?

There's the issue of the point of the First Amendment and issue of the effects of the First Amendment. The point of the First Amendment was to secure religious freedom for Americans and to make sure that the government wasn't too involved in establishing a religion for all Americans. That was the express point of it.

But there were so many effects of it, and one of the effects was that Americans were free to choose a huge variety of religious options, and Americans used that freedom of choice, we might say, to become arguably the most religious country on earth. If one of the goals of the First Amendment was to secure kind of religious vitality in the United States, then that goal has certainly been met.

I'm confused. Jefferson, with all his ideals about freedom of conscience, is perfectly happy to see a First Amendment that allows any state to do anything they like with religion.

This is one reason why the First Amendment doesn't have a click-of-your-fingers effect, because it allows for the states to have religious establishments, which in fact they do, and they don't really go away until 1833, when Massachusetts decides that Congregationalists aren't going to enjoy the privilege of the established religion that they had enjoyed up till that time.

So we have decades of religious establishments in the United States, because it's not federalized. And this goes back to the whole debate early on about to what extent was this one country, and to what extent was it a federated conglomeration of states? And the states'-rights side was very, very powerful in the drafting of the Constitution and the drafting of the Bill of Rights. There was no way the federal government was going to impose a kind of Jefferson-Madison-style religious freedom on the entire country. It imposed it at the federal level so that the feds couldn't make the kind of laws that would support a given religion, but the states were allowed to do so.

So it was gradual. This is another example of the gradual working out of freedom in the United States. We have this idea on the political side, in terms of voting, that this is a democracy. But women didn't vote early on; blacks didn't vote. It takes time to work out that concept of freedom in a more full manner. And the same in the side of religion. We have freedom of religion -- well, sort of, but you're constrained in Massachusetts to be a Congregationalist. …

Was there a particular reason why [evangelicalism] sparked in America the Second Great Awakening, that made it different from the First Great Awakening?

There's a few things. I think that the Second Great Awakening is the sort of religious expression of American independence. It's a new thing, and it's a new way of being religious in the world that was fitting with the new way of being political in the world that Americans were experiencing. …

This is a period when Walt Whitman is writing about this new American person, and evangelicalism gives an expression to that. It's like, this is a way that we're different; this is a way that we're new. We have this new form of religion, and it's egalitarian, and it's heartfelt, and it's for everyone. And when people sneer at converts who are falling down on the ground and convulsing and barking and whatever they're doing at these crazy revivals, little so much the worse for them, because that's the way God is choosing to move in the world. So I think there is a connection between the new American republic and then this new form of religion that Americans are gravitating toward. ...

Why did people feel the need to turn up at these [revival] meetings?

People show up at revivals for a few reasons, and one of the most obvious that we don't often think of is entertainment. In the 1830s, we didn't have the Internet, didn't have TV, didn't have radio, but we had these men who would cycle through cities but also small towns, who were preachers, who were entertaining. And they'd stand up, and they'd have these great voices, and you could show up, and you could listen to what they had to say.

You could do that, but you could also then look around you and see what all these people were doing and the weird stuff that was happening, and the noises that people were -- it was entertaining. It was sort of you're looking at a train wreck, and you're looking at this wonderful, theatrical production, and you're listening to this great speech. So that was part of it, something to do on a given day.

But the anxiety side was also there, too, because another thing that's happening is, you are starting to have this proliferation of religious options, and people are starting to ask, "What religion should I have?," or, "What's that experience that these other people have had that I haven't had? Or have I had it?"

And the idea is shifting. We're shifting away from the old Calvinist idea that God has made these choices. Before you're even born, God has decided whether you're going to heaven or hell. Now it becomes up to us. Totally different. Now we have the choice. So the question becomes: How am I going to exert my choice? And to go to a revival is a way to do that, like, "Oh, maybe I need to choose this. Maybe I need to go hear this guy, because maybe that's the decision I need to make."

Before, it was sort of like, "What decision has God made for me?" In psychology of religion, that's what it was about: trying to figure out, assure yourself, "Yeah, yeah, I'm one of the people going to heaven." But now the question's really different. It's like, "What choice should I make?" It's more like a consumer choice: What choice should I make? And they go to the revivals in part to see, maybe this is the choice that I should be making.

Why do they want to make that choice? Isn't life hard enough?

A lot of them don't want to make that choice. I mean, this is one of the insights of existentialism, is [that] choice is a hard thing; freedom is a hard thing. There are some people who sort of wish for, and in fact we continue to have Calvinists who say: "No, this isn't up to us. This is up to God. And isn't it great that this is up to God?"

Is there something peculiarly American about making that choice?

We love our choices. We express it now in America through buying stuff. But one of the things we were buying back in the early part of the 19th century was we were choosing, selecting our own religion. …

Now, realize the choice that's operating here. We're not talking about, should I be a Buddhist or Hindu? We're pretty much talking about, should I be a Congregationalist or Methodist? We're not even talking really much, early on, about many Catholics or Jews in the United States. So it really is what seems to us like a fairly narrow range of Protestant choices. But to early Americans, that seemed very broad. If you came from a culture in which really Anglicanism was the only religion on offer, now you had five, six, seven, eight, 10 choices of Protestantism, that can seem like a heavy thing, but it was something that Americans did, in fact, want to exert and choose on their own. ...

Was there something that made America more susceptible to that message: ... "Come be a Methodist, come be a Baptist, come be a Presbyterian"?

I think the pull was not to become a Congregationalist or Presbyterian or Methodist. The pull was to come to Christ, and that that pull could be exerted through various denominational choices. But I don't know that people necessarily perceived in the Second Great Awakening, these firebrands who were traveling around, as representing particular denominations, even though in many cases they were. I think they perceived them more as representing this option for experiencing Jesus. And they created situations where people, in fact, felt that they had experienced Jesus. So people would go, and they would leave, and they would say: "Jesus today came into my heart. The day before today, I was a sinner; I was going to hell. And now my heart has been cleansed. I've accepted Jesus into my life, and I'm going to heaven." That's a powerful, powerful story.

One thing human beings always want in some way is change, right? Who feels that this world experience is heaven? We don't feel that. The prospect of change is really, really seductive to many, many people. And if you think about it, change is not that easy. How does a human being change? Now we might say, OK, psychoanalysis, we could change through psychoanalysis. But Christian conversion offered a really, really powerful promise of fundamental change, that you could be a certain kind of person on Wednesday, and you could go to a revival on Thursday morning, and by Thursday afternoon you were a new creature. That's an amazing story, and that was very powerful. It resonated in the individual life in part because of what had happened in American political life, because we had become a new nation. Why can't I then become a new person in the same way that we have become a new nation? ...

Is the character or identity of America [beginning] to form?

What's happening in the Second Great Awakening and as the 19th century evolves is that we are moving toward this evangelical consensus, and part of what happens with that consensus, that shift, is that we have a new way of experiencing religion in our own lives.

But along with that comes this push to change the society, to Christianize the society and to evangelize the society. And that doesn't just mean converting people. It means making America look more like the kingdom of God, making America look more like the sort of place that Jesus would want it to be.

So as these people are converted, they're not just going back to their churches and to their families and saying, "Gee, I have a new heart, and now I'm going to heaven." But they're saying: "You know, there's something weird about the way we're running our prisons. There's something weird about the way we're doing our educational system. There's something wrong about slavery. There's something wrong about the fact that women can't vote." And they start to move out into the society, away from what we might see as a kind of narcissistic religious preoccupation, toward a much more communitarian and social and political preoccupation that we need to make this country a place that looks like the Christian, Protestant, evangelical country that we want it to be. They start to become active in political life. They start to form voluntary associations devoted to education and peace and abolitionism and anti-slavery and women's rights, etc.

So there is a sense that the United States is starting to look like something. It's not just the new Adam. It's not just this thing out ahead of us that we're straining toward like the Israelites are going through the wilderness to this place. God says to Abraham, "Get up and go to the place that I will show you" -- amazing story -- and Abraham says, "OK."

And Americans are sort of doing that. They're getting up and going to this place that God will show them, or that they will develop. And as the 19th century proceeds, they're moving there. And what that promised land [is], if you call it, or hell, from another perspective, I suppose, is this more evangelical, Protestant country that has the possibility for this individual, heartfelt piety but also has the possibility for creating a kind of heaven on earth that is more fair to slaves, that is getting rid of slavery, that is helping women to have the rights to vote, etc.

That's more important than federal, state or local government doing the schools, hospitals, etc.? That's what we would do back in the old country.

That's right. But that's the tension that continues today in the United States, is to what extent is it the government's job to take care of the poor, and to what extent is it our job as individuals? And to what extent do voluntary associations and churches and synagogues -- is that their job? And there's always a mix in the U.S.

But early on in America, much of that work was not being done by the federal government or by the state governments. It was being done by voluntary associations, and these people were mobilized and motivated by their religious fervor. They wanted this country to look like the kingdom of God. They wanted this country to look like the sort of place that Jesus, if he came back in the middle of the 19th century and he could choose to plop down in any place, well, we want it to be that he would come to the United States, because it would look more like what he would want a society to be. ...

What is the symbolism of Cane Ridge [Meeting House in Bourbon County, Ky.]?

Cane Ridge comes right at the beginning of the 19th century, so it's kind of useful. You can say, oh, the Second Great Awakening starts 1800, but it also symbolizes the kind of emotional excesses of the Second Great Awakening, the sort of shift to ecstatic religion. Not all the revivals were people falling over, barking, going herky-jerky kind of reactions like we had at Cane Ridge. And I think there was a lot of press around Cane Ridge for just that reason of this sort of crazy form of religion that both reinforced the criticisms of rationalists of this kind of hyperemotionalism, and also tantalized and intrigued people who wanted to have a really different kind of experience in religion than they were having in their ordinary life. So it's a sort of epitome, in a way, of the emotionalism and the ecstasy of the Second Great Awakening, and I think that's why people have focused on it. ...

Why this interest in going somewhere really pretty weird at that time?

Part of the answer of why we have so many different religious options is because we have the freedom to choose now. And to have a viable new religion, you only need a few hundred people -- some groups were even smaller, a few families. So it isn't like you have to get in China on the list of the five or 10 official religions in order to make it. All you need is a few people to convince of your position, and you're up and going. So I think that that's part of it.

I think also that the experiences of Americans in the early 19th century were really variable. Living in a log cabin in Kentucky was very different from living on a plantation in Georgia, was very different from living in Boston. So you had different religions that spoke to different types of people.

The other thing is that there was a lot of vibrant religious debate and conversation, and whenever you have a lot of religious debate and conversation, you can have people who say, "Oh, I believe in the Trinity," [and] "Oh, I don't believe in the Trinity." Well, there you go. Now you have Trinitarians and Unitarians, or you have people who are going to say, "Well, I believe in predestination," and "I don't believe in predestination." So there you go. You've got Calvinists and then you have Universalists, who think everybody's going to heaven. ... As long as you have the freedom to go in these different directions, people are going to go. And they do in fact do that in the early part of the 19th century.

Another thing that happens that I find really intriguing is that you have people who are vexed by all these religious choices. Joseph Smith and Mormonism is a great example. He looks around. He's in this small town, and there's all these different churches, and he's like: "Why should I be a Methodist or a Congregationalist or a Baptist? What should I choose?" And he prays to God, and he says: "Dear Lord, there's all these choices. What should I choose?" And what does God say? He says the most American thing. He says, "None of them." Like, "Make your own." …

But there wasn't necessarily acceptance of these new faiths from everybody.

Right. Well, whenever you have a new religious movement, you have the people who are for it and the people who are against it. And there was widespread conversation on both sides about every new religious impulse. And the wilder and more successful each tradition was, the more opposition it stirred up. Even before the Book of Mormon is published in 1830, there's people who are already denouncing the Book of Mormon and denouncing the Mormons. So the speed of things really picks up as you move into the period of the Second Great Awakening.

Why are people frightened of Mormonism? Why can't it sit happily along with everything else?

People are frightened with Mormonism of falsehood. They think that it's false to believe that there's another Bible, because there isn't; there's just our Bible. So I think there's a fear of heresy; there's a fear of difference.

If Buddhists had come over, I think there would have been worry about them, but Buddhism is so different from Protestant Christianity that it wouldn't have been such a huge threat. It would have just been seen as stupid. But Mormonism was close enough. ... It was a religion that accepted the Bible as Scripture, and it seemed dangerous because it was so close, and in that sense sort of semi-plausible, or more plausible than other forms of religion might have been. ...

Does the 19th century suggest a new relationship between the individual and God?

It's a new sort of relationship, and I think it's sort of the Protestant principle on steroids. It's maxing out the individualism. So it's the individual standing alone before God, where the communitarian part is becoming less and less important. If you think about coming to Jesus even in the First Great Awakening, sitting in Jonathan Edwards' Northampton, [Mass.,] church, surrounded by people from your community, your brothers and sisters literally, and cousins and co-workers, and then you think about the Cane Ridge revival, all these people in tents, maybe by themselves, maybe with a friend, maybe with family, but basically standing as solitary individuals versus standing as families and as community before God, it's very, very different. It's a shift from a more communitarian notion to a more individualistic notion, and evangelicalism and revivalism are maximizing this notion of the individual standing alone before God. …

Does this feed into the idea of the democratization of America? ... There's the ideals on paper, and there's the heart thing that actually means something to the average Joe.

I think that's right. And I think there is this impulse toward a form of religion that not only doesn't listen to a pope, but doesn't necessarily listen to your parish minister either, and that even that person is in some way suspect. And you can trust the traveling preacher a little bit more, because he's a little rougher, because he's a little less educated.

This is the period when it starts to become a boast that you don't know anything, and therefore you're closer to Jesus. This is a classic American thing. We see it still today with the evangelists, that you don't want to go to seminary, because if you go to seminary, that's a downgrade, because now you're farther away from the authentic heart and core of what religion is all about. And that becomes really attractive in the early part of the 19th century to a lot of Americans.

Why? In part because they're like that preacher. The preacher is like them. We Americans, we like to elect presidents, too, that we imagine are like us. It's sort of suspect to have the smarty-pants guy or girl in the White House. We like the Andrew Jackson or the common man who's representing us, and similarly with religion. We liked these traveling preachers because he was sort of like me. He was just a farmer who got a horse and Bible and went out and did something. And when he speaks, it sounds like my neighbor. It sounds like my next-door neighbor. And that was much more attractive than the erudite guy who stands up and can deliver this three-hour theological tractate on predestination as read through Paul's letter to the Romans or something. …

Where do Catholics fit in?

Catholics fit into this period as the bogeyman. They're not promoting Protestant America. They're not accepting Jesus into their heart. They're not going to these revivals and becoming born-again Christians. But they are important, because they are the tyrannical form of religion that we Americans want to avoid. We don't want the Catholics to take over this country, because then they'll do to it what they did to France and what they did to Italy and what they did to Spain. We need to be different, and we need to be vigilant in taking care that the Catholics don't get their people elected, and they don't get their pope to be in charge of our country, because that would be just to return to where we were before the Revolution, a different king.

It's ironic that that's what they thought, and yet Catholics were coming in droves because this was a land of liberty. What did Catholics think they were coming to?

Catholics had very different experiences depending on where they came. If they came to places like Rhode Island, where there was more freedom for them, or Maryland, versus if they were out farther West, where it was so much more Protestant-dominated, at least for a while, until enough Catholics drifted into places like Cincinnati that they started to have significant urban conclaves. ... But the experiences of Catholics here were really quite difficult through much of the 19th century and even into the 20th century, and the promise of freedom was much more a broken promise for them than it was anything else.

Isn't it ironic, particularly for the Irish Catholics, who were fleeing a Protestant oppressive rule, that they were confronted by a Protestant oppressive rule?

But Catholics congregate. The Irish Catholics, for example, many of them come to Boston, and they start to get sufficient numbers. Once they get sufficient numbers in the United States, they start to get the sorts of freedoms that we now think of and associate the United States with. So Catholics are not in a besieged minority in Boston, for example, in the middle part of the 19th century. They don't enjoy the sorts of freedoms that Protestants have, but as they get enough sufficient numbers, they start to move into the political centers of many American cities, including Boston.

But before that, they suffered a huge amount of prejudice.

What's happening with Catholics in the early American period is that they are being seen symbolically by Americans as the tyrannical British. So George III is the pope, and the Babylon that is England is the Egypt that is Rome. So if you think about the great American story as the Exodus story, and we are the Israelites, and we are moving to freedom, what's constraining our freedom? These people who want to enslave us. Who are the people who want to enslave us? Well, the British. That's why we need the Revolution. Then Rome comes in there as the Pharaoh; Rome comes in as Egypt.

So Catholicism threatens the whole American project. That's the point. It threatens the whole American project because it threatens to bring us back to pre-Revolutionary America, because it's going to enslave us in the tyranny of a king -- in this case, a king who is called a pope. And that's where the prejudice comes from.

In some ways it's understandable if you read the early American story through this Exodus narrative and you see the connection that's made. It's almost as if you have the story and it's being played out on a stage, and who's going to put on the wig of George III? Well, it's now not the British. We're not afraid of them. But it's the pope. Popes can walk in and play that role. And we're going to boo him and hiss him in the same way that we Americans would have booed and hissed George III as we're moving into the Revolution. …

[Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York John] Hughes says it's unconstitutional to teach a Protestant ethic in schools. Is he right?

One of the problems of the public schools early on is they're committed to teaching religion, they're committed to teaching religion through Christianity, and they're committed to teaching Christianity through the Bible. So immediately you have the problem, as soon as you have enough Catholics in a given area, of which Bible you're going to use. And it doesn't come up right away, because usually there's enough Protestants in the area that you're going to use the King James Bible. But once you get enough Catholics, whether it's in Boston or New York or in Cincinnati, then Catholic leaders like Hughes are going to say, "Why are we reading the wrong Bible in the public schools?" They can bring that up theologically as "We have the true Bible," or they can bring it up constitutionally, in terms of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment.

This is a place where, again, the line of separation of church and state, it's in the fuzzy space. We have to draw the line now through that fuzzy space and decide whether we draw it on the side of the Protestants who want the King James Bible or we draw it on the line of Hughes, who's going to say no.

What's fuzzy about saying you're preaching a doctrine that we don't believe in?

Because well into the middle of the 19th century, we cannot contemplate a public school system that doesn't teach religion. Now we see teaching religion as unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court has said as much, and repeatedly, in the 20th century. But in the middle of the 19th century, one of the main purposes of the public schools was to create moral citizens, and the only way to create a moral citizen was to give them religion, and the only legitimate religion was Christianity, and the only way to inculcate Christianity was the Bible. So nobody really contemplated a secular public school system.

So the question just was, what was that going to look like? What kind of Bible was going to be used? What kind of values were going to be preached? And the public school people, who were mostly Protestants, typically said: "Just give them the Bible. Let them decide for themselves." And they didn't see that that was a Protestant way of doing things.

The Protestant Bible, King James, does not have footnotes, but Catholic Bible does, because Catholics say you can't read the Bible by yourself. There's a whole tradition, right? We have all these people -- Augustine and Aquinas -- who have been reading the Bible for a long time. Who are you, some 12-year-old kid or some 35-year-old public school teacher, to think you know what the Bible says? Listen to what the tradition says.

So there was this battle, these Bible wars, in these American cities about which Bible to use, precisely over this question of whether it was going to be done, we would now say, whether it's going to be done in a Protestant way or a Catholic way. But the Protestants didn't see that. They thought they were just doing it in an objective way, in a fair way. ...

That's OK within the bounds of the First Amendment?

You have to be careful not to read back our own ways of religion into what's happening in the 1840s and 1850s, because then, Catholicism to many seemed like this foreign threat. Didn't seem like your neighbor. It seemed like this church in Italy that was sending missionaries over and trying to change our country, almost like spies or something, or infiltrators. A lot of people had that perception of Catholics.

And no, it wasn't the kind of fulsome freedom of religion that we think of. And we want to "tsk-tsk" them for -- the Protestants -- for doing what they did. But it was a much more fluid situation that it is now.

But in the end, the Protestants lost the argument. Why?

The Protestants lose the situation because this is the direction that religious freedom takes in the United States. It just keeps expanding. It keeps opening up. And it's frustrating for people who want to see more religious freedom here, just like it's frustrating for people who want to see more freedom in the political space here.

But the direction of America is toward more and more religious freedom. And we do it in fits and starts. We do things along the way that 100 years later, even 10 years later, look to be ridiculous and even immoral. But the direction is toward opening things up, which is to say the direction is toward giving Catholics religious freedom rather than denying it to them.

And that opening up stems from those documents [like the Constitution]? Or is it an impulse?

I don't think it stems just from the documents. It doesn't just stem from the text of the First Amendment. I think it's more democratic. It's more in the stories that Americans carry around in their heads, and the desires that they have for their own freedom. It becomes harder and harder over the years to deny those freedoms to other people. It's almost as if there's a kind of an empathy that just gradually gets opened up as we move through American history: that we can't have empathy for blacks and so we accept slavery, but there comes a point when we start to think empathetically about African Americans, and therefore we can't stand slavery. There's a point where we don't think empathetically about Catholics, or for that matter about Baptists, or for that matter about Quakers, and then at a certain point we start to see: "Oh, Quakers, they're my neighbors. Catholics, they're my neighbors," or, "My daughter just married a Catholic"; "My daughter just married a Buddhist"; "My daughter just married a Hindu." So there's this gradual loosening up, a gradual opening up of this promise of religious freedom that is including, as we move through our history, [add] more and more people. …

You sound terribly reasonable.

I think part of America is an idea, and I think that idea is wrapped in a story. And I think the idea is about freedom, and I think the story is the Exodus story. For me, that's the way I understand these things. So if you ask, "Why do we persecute Catholics, and then why do we stop? Why do we finally integrate Catholics into the American story?," it's because we have this idea of freedom in our heads from the beginning, and we have this story about a people who are enslaved, which is wrong, who move through the power of God and their own efforts to freedom, which is right. That story is always working on us.

Even when we're doing things that are persecutory and that are immoral and that are enslaving other people, that story is operating on us as we're doing it. And gradually we hear the story, and we hear the voice that says, "Stop." And then we say: "OK, I don't mind if my daughter marries a Catholic. OK, I don't mind if there's a Catholic church in my neighborhood," or, "OK, it's all right to have neighbors and friends who are Jewish."

Is that understanding a "God in our ear" moment? What is it?

I don't know if that's God in our ear. It could be. It depends if I'm thinking theologically or thinking as a historian. But I think that the most important part for me is that stories have power, and that this Exodus story, this story of freedom to slavery, has power on us. And it doesn't mean that it's a sort of wiggle of the nose or a click of the fingers that makes this magically happen. That's part of why we think about American history as a drama, because it isn't a one-act play where something just happens immediately. It unfolds over a series of fits and starts and conflicts.

So it isn't surprising at all to me that there's all kinds of groups who are denied religious freedom early on in American history. How could it be otherwise? We aren't just going to wake up and all of a sudden think that there's no difference between Muslims and Christians, or Methodists and Baptists, or Jews and Catholics. That's not reasonable to me. What's astonishing about the American story, to me, is how that freedom has been brokered and gradually expanded over time.

And for me, what's happening there is the life of this idea of freedom and the power of this idea of the story, of the story of the Israelites, that we imagine ourselves into, which is a story that moves from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the promised land, or in our telling, from England across the ocean into the wilderness of New England and New Spain and New France, and then into the promised land of contemporary America.


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Published October 11, 2010

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