Americanism: Heresy or Fiction? – A Response to Miles Smith

I’m generally a fan of Leo XIII’s encyclicals – Rerum Novarum and Immortale Dei in particular. They have much to offer Protestants as we try to catch up on the theory of social order in discussion of our “post-liberal” age. But Leo can be misapplied (or overapplied), and this is the case in Miles Smith’s recent blog post at Ad Fontes employing Leo’s Testem benevolentiae nostrae letter in 1899 to the Archbishop of Baltimore, which most famously condemned the heresy of “Americanism” that was then allegedly seducing Catholics. “Americanism,” as Leo defined it, consisted of the values of liberalism and pluralism, and the cult of individualism. The letter rejected American “particularlism,” the idea that the Catholic Church should be any less authoritative in the lives of American Catholics than it had historically been elsewhere. The temptation Leo confronted was American Catholic assimilation to a decidedly Protestant country, but the letter could have just as well been a commentary on goings-on in France. At the heart of it was, as in the Reformation, the question of authority.

Miles perceives in older American Protestant sermons—he quotes one from a Presbyterian in 1793 praising the French Revolution and accusing Edmund Burke of despotism—the elements of Pope Leo’s enemy. “Whig theory” and “Enlightenment republicanism,” he says, has been “nearly inseparable” from North American Protestantism, which was marked by a “triumphalist and revolutionary” tenor distinct from continental Protestantism (though he provides none of the continental exemplars he has in mind).

This, Miles says, is the heresy of Protestant Americanism, a heresy that has always (?) plagued, and defined, both America and Protestantism in America. In other words, Miles assumes that Leo accurately discerned the American ethos, that the majority of Protestants were aligned therewith, and that said ethos was old enough to identify it not with liberal, modernist contingents but with America itself (past and present). Hence Miles says, “our particular American weakness… is to assume that that which is American is by nature compatible with Protestantism.” But this is question-begging insofar as it is informed by the assumption just stated, namely, that “that which is American” is synonymous with Leo’s definition of Americanism.

To be fair, Leo was writing at the turn of the century. “Americanism” was denounced by the Holy See in the early 20th century only after modernist and liberal exports were detected in Europe by conservative Catholics there—the Syllabus of Errors was published in 1864 by Pius IX. It’s possible, even likely, that by the time Leo wrote in 1899, his characterization was accurate. (On the ultramontanist reaction and all the rest, see Ian Shaw’s relevant chapters; on the preceding revolutions beginning in 1848, see Lewis Namier’s classic essay.)

But by stretching back to a sermon from the early republic, Miles is suggesting that the Whiggish, liberal, perpetually revolutionary spirit was there at the conception and birth of the nation. In other words, that modernist, liberal, secularism—the Jeffersonian sensibility—is and was synonymous with America (but if this is overstating Miles’ case then I welcome correction.) Doubtless, a restless, even rebellious, libertarian spirit predominates in conservative evangelical Christian circles at present. Even this, however, is arguably of recent vintage, a byproduct of the last half-century of so-called fusionism over which Libertarian, Inc. came to dominate (see Patrick Deneen’s recent speech at University of Dallas on this topic.)

If Miles is right, then, of course, this heresy deserves our utmost disdain and denunciation. But we should query whether this was always the case, both before and after 1790s, and, therefore, whether it deserves the moniker “Americanism.” Doubtless there were cadres of liberal modernists, but were they dominant to the extent that they deserve to define the Americanism label?

My preliminary question to Miles is not whether Americanism is compatible with Protestantism. As Miles defines it the answer is, in my view, in the negative. Rather, the first question is whether Americanism has been rightly defined, and/or whether it was later accosted. Is the answer to the relationship between Protestantism and Americanism one of return or repudiation? Miles does not advocate wholesale repudiation, to be sure.

To begin to address this inquiry we should survey other streams of thought pouring into America before 1793, as well as the more proximate interpreters of what was wrought by 1776-1789.

Defining “Americanism” in the Pulpit

Let’s begin with early American sermon rhetoric. This is a good starting point, as Miles knows, given the dominance of sermons in early America. Indeed, America’s first self-consciously political settlers, as Perry Miller describes Massachusetts Bay, inaugurated their errand with a sermon and continued to orient life around the same practice for the subsequent 100 years.

My reading of sermon data, throughout the 17th and 18th century, conflicts with the sermon cited by Miles. This is not to say said sermon was a complete outlier, but rather to suggest that a different mood than that of 1793 conditioned the American populace leading up to the war for independence, at least in New England where the sermon medium was most powerful. Up through the 18th century, the themes of the common good, deference to governing authorities, and reciprocal obligations amongst the citizenry filled sermons. Compilations of sermons from this such as that made by Ellis Sanoz can be used to paint a different picture, but this is a skewed sample. They are instances of partisan, sometimes revolutionary grandstanding that would have been foreign to the region and do not represent what most people heard on a regular basis (i.e., between the 1630s and 1780s in the northeast).

More representative is something like what Jonathan Todd, or Charles Chauncy, or John Bulkely, or Azariah Mather, or James Allin preached. Therein, law, order, and godly government were prioritized; appeals to individualism, tolerance etc.wholly absent. For example, Todd (preaching in 1748) said that “[E]ven a tyrannous government is better than none,” for without government everyone would be his own tyrant. Government was an ordinance of God, “the public good” being the “great End and original Design” of it, but its chief duty was the promotion of true religion. This was because “Religion is the chief and principal thing, wherein the welfare of the people stands,” said Jonathan Michel.

In this way, per Noah Hobart (preaching in 1750), godly civil government was the foundation of social happiness. Mitchel and the rest also expected a reciprocal “publick Spirit” from the citizenry, characterized by care for the common good and deference to magistrates. These sermons feature no semblance of individualism or revolutionary fervor. Even the political sermons (distinguished from other regular and occasional sermons) of the late 18th century more often dwelled on the nature of tyranny (of self and others) as well as classical republican principles than they did outright resistance.

Admittedly, the Great Awakening introduced many changes, ones that, if Alan Heimert is to be believed, were indispensable to the subsequent revolution. But, as Alice Baldwin pointed out, even during the revolutionary late-18th century, New England sermons featured basic doctrinal congruency with their predecessors and maintained a conservative political bent.

Of course, sermons were preached throughout the country, not just in New England. And, true enough, some became increasingly radical. The point is that one sermon does not Americanism make. The sermon Miles cites is more Frenchism (not that French-ism) than Americanism. I am sure Miles can offer a larger sample size for his persuasion too so I will not linger here. But I would argue that he must essentially argue that Jeffersonianism won and that that side had always been congruent with American expressions of Protestantism.

Defining “Americanism” Outside the Pulpit

Sermons aside, what of evidence of Americanism outside of the pulpit?

We might first look to the Preamble of our Constitution which, as Josh Hammer has rightly recognized, is nota beacon of individual liberty as such. Classical obligations of government are in view: justice, tranquility, general welfare, and a very Burkean concern for posterity. Early American case law bears out the values of the common good and public welfare over and against individualist appeals far more often than is usually appreciated. Additionally, we might recognize the influence of the classical tradition on early America contra the typically Lockean narrative. Even Clinton Rossiter realized that whatever liberal ideals might circulate in America they do so within a conservative reality of cooperation, communitarianism, and hierarchy.

For example, if today’s libertarians want to raise their blood pressure for a moment, they should take a gander at Commonwealth v. Alger, a Massachusetts case from 1851 which held that all property is granted to individuals by the government and, therefore, is subject to certain restrictions in use for the public good. Such restrictions were not takings, but just exercise of the state police power, which reserved for the states the right to legislate for the common good (i.e., health, safety, and morals).

Resistance to public health orders based on bodily integrity—eerily similar to the bodily autonomy arguments now in vogue with evangelicals, which are eerily similar to my body, my choice logic—were quickly and repeatedly discarded by courts in the first hundred years of American jurisprudence. The interests of the individual were to be submitted to the interests of the common good. What else would the purpose and nature of government be? As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court explained in Mott v. Pennsylvania Railroad Company (1857),

“As individuals must, in the nature of things, have certain inherent and inalienable rights, in order to be individuals; so society must have its inherent and inalienable rights, in order to be a society. This is a natural and scientific necessity. The social right and power of government is essentially inherent and inalienable, because man is naturally social, and there can be no society without government… Now the right and power of society to demand that each of its members shall contribute his just proportion to the common necessities is a natural and inalienable right, for without it there can be no organized society. This is one of the most essential of all the rights of a state, for on it all its other powers depend.”

The same rationale for enforcing public health orders was also employed to combat public nuisances (like nudity), gambling, intoxicating substances, and the like. Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, conscientious objections and assertions of religious liberty generally failed to overcome this prerogative.

Speaking of religious liberty, what of the original understanding of the Establishment Clause? If anything characterizes “Americanism,” as Leo defined it, it is the overthrow of church authority, the disestablishment of religion as just another oppressive impediment to self-actuality via unmitigated choice. As J.S. Mill believed, moral and social stigma were the most stifling modes of bondage.

Unexpectedly, Justice John Paul Stevens is a great exponent of the early conception of that clause. In Van Orden v. Perry (2005), the plurality attributed to the Establishment Clause an ecumenical monotheistic character inclusive of Muslims and Jews. In his lengthy dissent, Stevens rightly chastised the purportedly Originalist analysis of Scalia et al. as anachronistic eisegesis. The founders would have recognized no such inclusion: “Simply put… the Framers understood the word ‘religion’ in the Establishment Clause to encompass only the various sects of Christianity.” Indeed. Of course, Stevens was elated that “progress” had come to America since the early days of bigotry. It was the plurality’s ahistorical reading of the clause that irked Stevens. Of note is that Justice Thomas recently and rightly suggested in the Espinoza case, said incorporation was improper.

Even (honest) radical liberals today begrudgingly admit that the Establishment Clause was originally nothing more than a non-aggression pact, so to speak, between states that maintained diverse religious establishments—it must be said, Protestant establishments by and large. Consider New Jersey’s first constitution wherein religious liberty is granted to those of any Protestant sect, but no further.

A brief survey of colonial constitutions, from New Hampshire to South Carolina, presents a picture of a sort of ecumenical Protestant (excepting Maryland) federalism (many state constitutions contained explicit religious tests for office). Among other things, these early constitutions provided the basis for Justice David Brewer’s contention in a 1905 lecture series that America was, indeed, a Christian nation. Through the mid-19th century, courts and legal commentaries consistently affirmed this. Justice John Marshall’s correspondence with Jasper Adams regarding his famous 1833 sermon stated in no uncertain terms that “The American population is entirely Christian, & with us, Christianity & Religion are identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, & did not often refer to it, & exhibit relations with it.”

Pennsylvania, where no establishment had existed, was zealous in this regard, most famously in the Updegraph v. Commonwealth case of 1824 punishing blasphemy (see also People v. Ruggles (N.Y. 1811)). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote in Harvey v. Boies (1829) that Christianity was “part of the law of the land,” the “predominant religion of the county,” and, therefore, “guarded against insult from reviling or scoffing at its doctrines.” Accordingly, Sabbath laws were defended vigorously in South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, New York, Delaware, and others throughout the century of Leo’s “Americanism.”

As Justice Joseph Story made clear that the Establishment Clause was not meant to equally privilege all religions. It was absurd to him that a decidedly Christian country would promote Islam at all; simply not actively persecuting Muslims was surely sufficient. Christianity, on the other hand, was to be openly favored as intricate to the common law, the majority religion, and the basis of public morals and institutions, which even Benjamin Franklin had affirmed as a favorable pedigree.

On this reading, the true American experiment, real Americanism, was this attempt to establish a Christian (staunchly anti-Catholic) nation accounting for the reality of various preexisting denominations whilst avoiding the intra-denominational conflict that had ravaged Europe the century prior. Ambitious to be sure. In that respect, what could be more American? And is a sort of Protestant ecumenism undergirded by limited toleration—the predominant policy amongst Anglo-Protestants in the seventeenth century, even on this side of the pond—rightly cast as liberal, modernist, and secular? This was hardly live-and-let-live pluralism.

And if Tocqueville is to be believed, the greatest influence on the American spirit remained the Puritans. Not the Weberian caricature of them, but something closer to what both Perry Miller and Gillis Harp have described. That is, a generally illiberal, communitarian, covenanted society ordered to the common good and governed by the coordinate powers—the “two twinnes,” as the Cambridge Platform (1648) put it—of church and state, both ordered to the same final end: the glory of God (i.e., man’s chief end).


Contra Miles, Americanism, at least as first framed, looks more illiberal than liberal to me. Admittedly, there have always been competing narratives of America. Jockeying for the essence of the revolution and founding began almost immediately between the Washingtonian-Hamiltonian Federalists and the Jeffersonian Democrats. The former argued that independence had brought a modest restoration of the historical rights of Englishmen and established ways of life native to the colonies since their inception. The latter insisted that it had introduced a clean break and a new beginning akin to the societal overhaul in France. I simply maintain that the Federalists were right and that the record of Americanism up through the first half of the 19th century bore this out.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive rebuttal of Miles’ central point that the spirit of radical individualism, a triumphalist theory of history, and licentious Enlightenment values run afoul of classical Protestant convictions. I have no faith in “Progress,” nor an allergy to rightly constituted authority. Instead, my rebuttal is meant to question whether the descriptive element of the premise is correct. Are these ideas really native to America and American Protestantism? I’m not so sure. Competing strands of thought existed in the early republic as to what our own founding entailed. But surely, we should not cede the ground to the liberal modernist strand. Another illiberal Protestant strand was, at one point, maybe even more dominant than liberalism is today.

Allowing today’s liberals to cast American history as a triumphalist celebration of what Adrian Vermeule calls the “Festival of Reason“—exactly what we have done for the past 100 years—has induced, in part, the confusion amongst Protestants Miles alludes to vis a vis socio-political thought. With a nod to Matt Peterson, I merely suggest that before we declare Americanism a heresy, incompatible with historic Protestantism, we should figure out what Americanism actually is. As much as I venerate Leo XIII—is a Protestant allowed to say that? —and appreciate Miles’ critical engagement, I’m not so willing to give up the ghost quite yet.

Timon Cline is a graduate of Rutgers Law School (J.D.) and Westminster Theological Seminary (M.A.R.). His writing has appeared in National Review, the American Spectator, Areo Magazine, Mere Orthodoxy, and others. He writes regularly on law, theology, and politics at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post and blogs at Patheos as The Cantankerous Calvinist. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Rachel. 


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