By JON MEACHAM
On July 4, 1827, a leading clergymen of the day, the Presbyterian minister Ezra Stiles Ely, preached a controversial sermon in Philadelphia that was published around the country. Its title could not have been clearer: "The Duty of Christian Freemen to Elect Christian Rulers." Calling for the formation of a Christian party in politics, Ely, a supporter of Andrew Jackson's in the 1828 presidential race, said: "Every ruler should be an avowed and sincere friend of Christianity. He should know and believe the doctrines of our holy religion, and act in conformity to its precepts."
Reading the sermon, Jackson sensed danger in Ely's words. There was a time for politics and a time for religion -- but both at once, inextricably entwined, meant trouble. Like the early years of the 21st century, the 1820s was an age of great evangelical fervor, but Jackson had no interest in fueling the fire Ely wanted to ignite. "All true Christians love each other, and while here below ought to harmonize; for all must unite in the realms above," Jackson later wrote Ely. Having given faith its due, he also reminded Ely of the centrality of individual freedom in religious matters. "Amongst the greatest blessings secured to us under our Constitution," Jackson told Ely, "is the liberty of worshipping God as our conscience dictates."
Now, 178 July Fourths later, the commingling of religion and politics in America would seem a prime exhibit of the Old Testament's adage that "there is no thing new under the sun." Though we have been here before, there is something different and disturbing about the skirmishes of our own time. Always important, the religious factor in politics has become pervasive, converting public life into a battle of uncompromising extremes. Whether the subject is terrorism, Iraq, abortion, gay marriage, the judiciary or stem-cell research, virtually every issue is being viewed through the prism of faith. Our public background music has moved from "Stars and Stripes Forever" to "Onward, Christian Soldiers" -- and we have too many Elys and not enough Jacksons.
Having just celebrated the anniversary of our independence, perhaps we can rediscover that America is at its best when religion is one, but only one, thread in the tapestry of public discourse and life. The premise of the Founding, that all men are created equal, is rooted in the Judeo-Christian idea that we are all made in God's image and that, as Saint Paul wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female, there is neither slave nor free; for all are one .... " The Constitution draws on classic theological principles like the supremacy of the individual. Yet the power of our civic religion lies not in any sanctions it imposes but in the moral sensibility it nurtures. The opening line of Thomas Jefferson's Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia in 1786 -- "Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free .... " -- is at once rational and theological, and is quintessentially democratic. In the aftermath of the Revolution, the Founders had struggled to construct a government that would check the rise of extreme elements, whether religious or secular. "If men were angels," James Madison remarked, "no government would be necessary" -- and the European experience of devastating wars in the name of God had taught the young Americans that angels were in short supply on this side of paradise.
Battles of the world
Simply put, the American gospel is that life is best lived when Athens and Jerusalem are not at war but in alliance -- and, like most allies, they need not agree on everything at all times, only on the big things. The wonderful truth at the heart of the American experience is that faith and reason, religion and ethical secularism, have long joined forces to fight the battles of this world.
Andrew Jackson refused to officially join the Presbyterian Church until he left the White House, saying that he did not want his opponents to claim he was using religion to get ahead in politics. Such a stance feels quaint now, but he was guided by the Founders' example and would have agreed with Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story's public reply to Ely's "Duty of Christian Freemen to Elect Christian Rulers" sermon. "If there is any right sacred beyond all others ... it is the right to worship God according to the dictates of our consciences," Story said, adding: "Whoever attempts to narrow it down in any degree, to limit it to the creed of any sect, to bound the exercise of private judgment, or free inquiry ... be he priest or layman, ruler or subject, dishonors so far the profession of Christianity and wounds it in its vital virtues."
In a voice from the past, a prayer for our own time.
X Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek, is at work on a book about Andrew Jackson's presidency.