Legal Spirits Episode 031: The Biden Inauguration, Civil Religion & the Religious Left

In this podcast, Center Co-Directors Marc DeGirolami and Mark Movsesian reflect on the religious imagery in last month’s inauguration and how it fits within the American tradition of civil religion. They also ask whether the new administration reflects the rise of the Religious Left: a political coalition of progressive believers, including progressive Catholics like President Biden himself. How stable is that coalition? Listen in!

“The Four Freedoms” (ed. Engel)

This month, the Oxford University Press releases “The Four Freedoms: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Evolution of an American Idea,” edited by Jeffrey A. Engel (Southern Methodist University).  The publisher’s description follows:

The specter of global war loomed large in President Franklin Roosevelt’s mind as he prepared to present his 1941 State of the Union9780199376216 address. He believed the United States had a role to play in the battle against Nazi and fascist aggression already underway in Europe, yet his rallying cry to the nation was about more than just national security or why Americans should care about a fight still far overseas. He instead identified how Americans defined themselves as a people, with words that resonated and defined the parameters of American politics and foreign policy for generations. Roosevelt framed America’s role in the conflict, and ultimately its role in forging the post-war world to come, as a fight for freedom. Four freedoms, to be exact: freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom of religion, and freedom from fear.

In this new look at one of the most influential presidential addresses ever delivered, historian Jeffrey A. Engel joins together with five other leading scholars to explore how each of Roosevelt’s freedoms evolved over time, for Americans and for the wider world. They examine the ways in which the word “freedom” has been used by Americans and others, across decades and the political spectrum. However, they are careful to note that acceptance of the freedoms has been far from universal — even within the United States. Freedom from want, especially, has provoked clashes between those in favor of an expanded welfare state and proponents of limited government from the 1940s to the present day.

In this sweeping look at the way American conceptions of freedom have evolved over time,The Four Freedoms brings to light a new portrait of who Americans were in 1941 and who they have become today in their own eyes-and in the eyes of the entire world.

Abraham Lincoln, None?

Today is Presidents Day in the United States, a national holiday. Actually, that’s not quite right. Officially, the federal holiday is still called Washington’s Birthday, and that’s the official name here in New York, too. (Who knew?) But, unofficially, America uses this day to commemorate all its presidents–including, especially, two born in February, George Washington (February 22) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12).

I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when I saw in my twitter feed this afternoon Pew ‘s list of American presidents and their religious identities. About one-quarter have been Episcopalians; several have been Presbyterians; only one, John Kennedy, has been a Catholic. Pew lists three as having no religious identity: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln, in particular, is an interesting case. People have been fighting over his religious identity since just after he died. He never formally joined a church. But some people who knew him said that, although he had been skeptical about organized religion in his youth, and may in fact have written an atheist pamphlet at one point, he became receptive to Christianity during his time in the White House, especially after the death of his son. One report says he was about to join the Presbyterian Church right before he was assassinated. Others who knew him, however, said they noticed no such transformation.

In his definitive 2003 study, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, historian Richard Carwardine surveys the evidence and, in the end, says that Mary Todd Lincoln probably had the best assessment. Her husband, she explained, was never “a technical Christian.” In particular, he seems not to have accepted the divinity of Christ. On the other hand, almost everyone who knew him agreed that he was “naturally religious.” Those lines in the Second Inaugural Address were not just for show. Lincoln believed that the universe was governed by an omnipotent God who worked things out for His own righteous, often inscrutable purposes. And Lincoln thought the better part of wisdom was to submit to God’s plan.

So, was the Great Emancipator a None? I leave it to you, gentle reader.

Thanksgiving Proclamation, 2012

A little while ago, the White House released this year’s Thanksgiving Proclamation. The tradition of Thanksgiving proclamations dates back to George Washington, and in his proclamation this year, President Obama touches on the customary themes. The proclamation begins, in a very American, nonsectarian way, with a reminder of the holiday’s religious content:

On Thanksgiving Day, Americans everywhere gather with family and friends to recount the joys and blessings of the past year. This day is a time to take stock of the fortune we have known and the kindnesses we have shared, grateful for the God-given bounty that enriches our lives. As many pause to lend a hand to those in need, we are also reminded of the indelible spirit of compassion and mutual responsibility that has distinguished our Nation since its earliest days.

After reviewing the history of the holiday and praising the good works of Americans in the armed forces and civilian life, the proclamation continues with  a more specific religious reference to the Christian concept of grace — though, lest anyone get the wrong idea, the reference is quickly diluted by a nod to the “grace” bestowed by other people:

On Thanksgiving Day, individuals from all walks of life come together to celebrate this most American tradition, grateful for the blessings of family, community, and country. Let us spend this day by lifting up those we love, mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God and by all who have made our lives richer with their presence.

And the proclamation concludes with the customary exhortation:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 22, 2012, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage the people of the United States to join together — whether in our homes, places of worship, community centers, or any place of fellowship for friends and neighbors — and give thanks for all we have received in the past year, express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own, and share our bounty with others.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Broadwater, “James Madison”

Students of the religion clauses know that one of the most important figures in their drafting and adoption was James Madison.  Here is a new intellectual biography of Madison by Jeff Broadwater (Barton College), James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation (UNC Press 2012), which focuses in part on his contributions to American constitutional religious liberty.  The publisher’s description follows (though the description of Madison as a “systematic political theorist” doesn’t seem quite right to me).

James Madison is remembered primarily as a systematic political theorist, but this bookish and unassuming man was also a practical politician who strove for balance in an age of revolution. In this biography, Jeff Broadwater focuses on Madison’s role in the battle for religious freedom in Virginia, his contributions to the adoption of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, his place in the evolution of the party system, his relationship with Dolley Madison, his performance as a wartime commander in chief, and his views on slavery. From Broadwater’s perspective, no single figure can tell us more about the origins of the American republic than our fourth president.

In these pages, Madison emerges as a remarkably resilient politician, an unlikely wartime leader who survived repeated setbacks in the War of 1812 with his popularity intact. Yet Broadwater shows that despite his keen intelligence, the more Madison thought about one issue, race, the more muddled his thinking became, and his conviction that white prejudices were intractable prevented him from fully grappling with the dilemma of American slavery

Why Presidents Can’t Belong to a Church

In Time, Amy Sullivan (liberal Evangelical and author of a widely-noted book on the “God gap” in American politics) observes that American Presidents can no longer maintain church membership. It’s not because of any constitutional strictures. Rather, the intense public attention that surrounds anything a President does nowadays makes church membership a practical impossibility. Any church that a President regularly attended would find itself deluged with Secret Service and members of the media, to say nothing of spectators who would crowd the church for a peek at POTUS. Sullivan regrets this situation:

It’s hard to imagine any future President being able to attend church–much less teach Sunday School [as Jimmy Carter did]–without an attendant hullabaloo. And that’s too bad. The men and women we put in that office will confront serious questions on life-and-death issues and find themselves under enormous amounts of stress. For those for whom religion has been important, it could be helpful to have the outlet of a congregation where they could reflect and be renewed. The individuals who serve as President give up many personal freedoms in order to do so. A community of worship shouldn’t have to be one of them.


Religious Conversion and Presidential Candidates

In The New Republic, Mark Oppenheimer remarks on the fact that so many major American politicians have had religious conversions while adults: Barack Obama, Newt Gingrich, Harry Reid, and George W. Bush, to name only a few. He can’t help but wonder whether their motivations were at least partly political. For Gingrich, conversion to Catholicism might be a way to obscure his earlier adulteries; in fact, on the campaign trail, he has pointed to his conversion to show he’s a changed person. For Obama, baptism in “a prominent, black, urban mega-church” would have been a way to ignite his political career in Chicago. And so on.

Oppenheimer notes that religious conversions do not seem to hurt American politicians. It’s easy to see why. Voters switch religions all the time, too. According to a recent study by Putnam and Campbell, at least one-third of Americans have switched their religion as adults; about 25% have searched for a new place of worship, not counting those who have searched for a new place because of a move. These are astonishingly high numbers in comparison with the rest of the world. In their propensity to change religions as adults, American politicians reflect the remarkable “churn” that characterizes American religious culture. Perhaps this is Mitt Romney’s real problem: he’s been in the same church his whole life.

New Edition of The Jefferson Bible

I’ve always enjoyed the image of Thomas Jefferson, sitting up late, going through the New Testament with his razor to excise the parts he found objectionable, the very picture of an Enlightenment eccentric. Jefferson thought that Jesus’ moral teachings were pretty good, but that the Evangelists had ruined them by inserting claims of divinity that Jesus never made. How Jefferson thought he could distinguish the actual words of Jesus from those the Gospel writers invented is not entirely clear, since an independent source for Jesus’ words doesn’t really exist. Just in time for Christmas, Random House has released a new edition of Jefferson’s work, The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition, a color reproduction of the original, now contained in the Smithsonian’s collections. The publisher’s description follows.

The Jefferson Bible, or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth as it is formally titled, was Thomas Jefferson’s effort to extract what he considered the pertinent doctrine of Jesus by removing sections of the New Testament containing supernatural aspects as well as perceived misinterpretations he believed had been added by the Four Evangelists. Using a razor, Jefferson cut and arranged selected verses from the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in chronological order, mingling excerpts from one text to those of another in order to create a single narrative. After completion of The Life and Morals, about 1820, Jefferson shared it with a number of friends, but he never allowed it to be published during his lifetime. The most complete form Jefferson produced was inherited by his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and was published in 1895 by the National Museum in Washington.

Once published in black-and-white facsimile by the Government Printing Office in 1900 as a gift for new members of Congress, the Jefferson Bible has never before been published in color in its complete form.The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition is an exact facsimile reproduction based on the original copy in the Smithsonian collections. The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition is as beautiful an object as was so painstakingly crafted by Thomas Jefferson himself.

Merry Christmas, Mr. President

At the lighting of the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse in Washington last week (that’s last year’s tree on the left), President Obama wished Americans a Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday Season. His remarks, in part, were quite sectarian:

More than 2,000 years ago, a child was born to two faithful travelers who could find rest only in a stable, among the cattle and the sheep.  But this was not just any child.  Christ’s birth made the angels rejoice and attracted shepherds and kings from afar.  He was a manifestation of God’s love for us.  And He grew up to become a leader with a servant’s heart who taught us a message as simple as it is powerful:  that we should love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

That teaching has come to encircle the globe.  It has endured for generations.  And today, it lies at the heart of my Christian faith and that of millions of Americans.  No matter who we are, or where we come from, or how we worship, it’s a message that can unite all of us on this holiday season. . . .  And this holiday season, let us reaffirm our commitment to each other, as family members, as neighbors, as Americans, regardless of our color or creed or faith.  Let us remember that we are one, and we are a family.

Our readers in Europe (and Rhode Island) might find the first paragraph, which could easily have come from an evangelical preacher, a bit shocking, but official statements like this are very much a part of the American tradition. Did the President violate the Establishment Clause? I hardly think so, even under the endorsement test, given the context of his remarks and the fact that he coupled the sectarian reference with a more universal message of good will to everyone, regardless of creed — a message that is part of the Christmas story, too.   (H/T: First Things).

Keeping Thanks in Thanksgiving

This Thursday, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, a national holiday that commemorates a meal the Pilgrims shared with their Native American neighbors in the Plymouth colony almost 400 years ago. It is, at least in origin, a religious holiday; the “thanks” are being “given” to God. Yet Thanksgiving does not cause the dissension that official Christmas commemorations sometimes do in America, probably because it is not clearly tied to a particular faith tradition.

Starting with George Washington, American Presidents customarily have issued Thanksgiving Day proclamations, although the secular-minded Thomas Jefferson famously declined. Traditionally, Presidents call on Americans — to quote one of Bill Clinton’s proclamations — “to express heartfelt thanks to God for our many blessings.” Separationist purists object to this sort of thing, which may violate some versions of the Supreme Court’s endorsement test, but the proclamations really do fall within the American tradition of public religious expression.

Last week, President Barack Obama issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation for 2011. In many respects, including its references to God, it’s quite traditional. In one respect, though, it’s not.  In addition to thanking God, President Obama encourages us to “thank each other” for the blessings we enjoy. A subtle redefinition of the holiday? An example of a new secularism in America? I’m not sure; but I do wonder if this idea of appreciating one another will eventually displace the original, religious meaning of the holiday, much as the celebration of family and friends has displaced, for many, the original meaning of Christmas. Not that I object to expressing appreciation to other people. In fact, in the spirit of the President’s proclamation: Thanks, everyone. You know who you are.