The Tea Party movement seems conflicted about religion. Prominent Tea Partiers, including Glenn Beck, have steered away from the usual priorities of Christian conservatives: restrictions on abortion, gay marriage, and the like. But in other ways, we see evidence of religion’s importance to the Tea Party: Beck’s summer rally in Washington, D.C., focused almost exclusively on a return to America’s heritage of faith, and a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute suggested that Christian conservatives represent the core of the Tea Party.
This identity crisis reflects a deeper question about religion’s role in public life: Does faith restrict or enhance our freedom? Some might believe that the Tea Party’s emphasis on liberty over moral restrictions represents a repudiation of the traditional agenda of the Religious Right. But instead, the Tea Party may actually represent a return of religious conservatism to its origins in Revolutionary America, when the Founding Fathers universally paired religion and freedom.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the brilliant French writer who toured America in the 1830s in preparation for his magnum opus, Democracy in America, was struck by the difference between American and French notions of freedom. The American Patriots viewed religion as essential to freedom, while French radicals saw religion as freedom’s enemy. Yet the French Revolution descended into massive bloodletting, and concluded with military rule under Napoleon, while the Americans successfully created and sustained a republic without horrific violence (until the Civil War, of course). Tocqueville believed that Americans’ friendliness to religion made all the difference, for faith kept the worst excesses of liberty in check. In America, Tocqueville wrote, “freedom sees religion as its companion.”
An adhesive force
The Founding Fathers considered faith and freedom as companions in several senses. First, they believed that religion seasoned freedom with compassion for one’s fellow man. Absolute freedom would lead people into moral chaos. Founders such as James Madison and George Washington knew that people were naturally inclined to oppress their neighbor, because of what Washington called the “love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart.” To Washington, the health — and liberty — of the republic depended on religion, which had a unique power to inculcate moral responsibility.
The Founders believed, secondly, that a respect for religious freedom and religious strength was one of the primary bases for American unity. Even Thomas Jefferson, personally skeptical about Christianity, saw faith as an adhesive force among the broad diversity of Americans. The Patriots had severed their historic connection to England, and the American government was far too small to create a sense of national commonality on its own. Where was a basis for their new civil society? Faith offered a solution.
Jefferson’s first inaugural address in 1801 extolled Americans’ “benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter — with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?” Despite his own doubts about Christianity, Jefferson showed charity toward people of different faiths in his staunch defense of religious freedom, a cause in which he found his primary allies among evangelical Christians, especially Baptists, who bitterly remembered their pre-war persecution by several of the colonial governments.
Where God comes in
Finally, the Founders saw God as the basis for Americans’ right to freedom, as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights. Again, Jefferson the skeptic was not making some specifically Christian claim about freedom, but merely stating the widely assumed theological truth that our fundamental right to freedom and equality was based on our common creation by God.
The original Tea Partier, Samuel Adams, the organizer of the crowd that infamously dumped hundreds of chests of British tea into Boston harbor in 1773, took as strong a view of the connection between religion and liberty as any of the Patriots. Religion fueled virtue, Adams wrote, and “the public liberty will not long survive the total extinction of morals.”
The religious conservatives of the Tea Party surely have not abandoned their traditional emphasis on the way that morality should limit freedom. The culture wars are hardly dead. But if, in this election cycle, they highlight liberty’s roots in religion, the Tea Partiers may help us recall Tocqueville’s older notion that freedom and faith are companions.
Thomas S. Kidd is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution.