Confusion and Ambiguity: Constitution and Religion in The Early Republic

Early Republic Protestants conceived of the United States as a true res publica along classical lines that necessarily needed a virtuous citizenry to maintain the liberties and social framework that distinguished the United States from European monarchies of the era. Edward Kirk Norris, a Congregationalist and Presbyterian minister trained at Princeton Seminary under Archibald Alexander, envisioned religion and particularly Protestant churches as the moral catechizer for republican society. Norris was a proponent of disestablishment, but he did not see a disestablished church as a closed institution. The church’s moral influence necessarily tied it to the state and to society.

Norris argued that the institutions that sustained “modern society and civilization,” were family, state, school (or education), and the church. All, he declared, were gifts “of our beneficent Creator; and are all sanctioned by his authority.” It was “to men, however, who represented in their persons, not the Family, nor the Academy , nor the Commonwealth, but the Church , that our Lord announced, ‘Ye are the salt of the earth.’” Christ designed the church’s influence to show society “that as salt is endowed with the property of preserving animal and vegetable esculents from decay, so THE CHURCH IS THE CHIEF CONSERVATIVE POWER IN THE MORAL WORLD.” That moral influence, according to Norris, preserved “man and society from that degeneracy to which they are ever tending.”

Differences of opinion regarding the nature of the constitutional settlement on religion and the federal state were ostensibly settled through the First Amendment’s de-facto establishment of a non-sectarian and religiously neutral federal government, but that did not obviously preclude state establishments or a religious federal politics. Ambivalence about the constitutional settlement indicated that it was neither universally celebrated nor, more importantly, even understood as late as 1850. “The relations of the civil to the religious institutions of our country are by no means fully and clearly determined. Twice, this question has been practically solved.” New England’s Pilgrim fathers, he said, “made the civil and ecclesiastical states identical. The New England theocracy “produced some very evil consequences” which Norris believed led to the “Revolutionary fathers” choosing “an opposite course” which made religion and the state “two distinct and independent empires; to occupy the same territory, and control in part the same persons; but to know almost nothing of each other’s existence.”

 The contemporary constitutional arrangement, for all its benefit, according to Norris still had “its share of human imperfection” especially regarding the relationship between education, religion, and republican society at large. “It has not settled, for example, on clearly defined principles, what position the school shall occupy, relatively to the Church and the State.” Norris worried that “every discussion about introducing the Bible, and even history in schools, has betrayed the imperfectness of our theories.” Unlike more jingoistic Protestants of the era, Norris did not dismiss concerns of Roman Catholics as they navigated the Protestant civil and educational order’s usage of Protestants hermeneutics and Whiggish history in public schools. “The Romanist naturally fears both these sources of knowledge.” Norris argued that Catholic concerns were not “logically irrefutable, as the matter now stands,” when they objected “to introducing the Bible and history into a school which he assists in sustaining, and to which he sends his children.” Religious Americans, he noted, were nonetheless “not prepared to make common education entirely secular.” Therein lay the conundrum of the constitutional settlement. “To make instruction religious, it must assume some shape, be founded upon some doctrine; it must use a Bible, King James, or the Douay version; a worship , liturgical or spontaneous.”[1]

The Constitution’s ambiguities were recognized by Norris, and the legal ramifications of those ambiguities remain controversial and important. Debate is likely to continue for as long as secular and religious Americans occupy the public square. The religious settlement of the United States has never been as settled as proponents of various ideologies—religious or secular—claim.

[1] Edward Norris Kirk, The Church Essential to the Republic. A Sermon (New York: American Home Missionary Society, 1848).


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