As the United States entered the 2012 campaign season, the question of religion, and the role of religion in politics and in public life, was as prevalent as it was in the ' 04 campaign (that's 1804), when Thomas Jefferson won a second term in the White House despite the rancorous opposition of the religionists who feared Jefferson was an atheist infidel who believed that (to quote him) "there is not a young man now living in the U.S. who will not die an Unitarian."
Case in point: at Fox News commentator Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington, D.C., in August 2010, Beck declared before tens of thousands of people gathered on the Mall that "the Black-Robed Regiment is back again today!"
He then proceeded to introduce a group of 240, he said, pastors, rabbis, and imams, those who were the new representatives of the "Blacked-Robed Regiment"—kind of the vanguard of a new religious movement in America that was going to save the republic from its impending doom (i.e., "the present administration").
What is Glenn Beck talking about with this Black-Robed Regiment? More so, what does it say to us that this kind of religious rhetoric still finds a voice in American politics today, other than that, even into the twenty-first century, the debate over the role of religion in American life is far from over? The question, the struggle, remains: How do we find the right balance between these two powerful forces in the United States today?
The First Great Awakening
This story really begins more than 270 years ago, with what was called the First Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept through the American colonies in the 1740s and lasted, in places, into the 1770s.The phenomenon could best be described as a revival of spiritual piety and personal godliness among the colonists.This awakening was part of a transnational religious upsurge among their cousins in the Old Continent, particularly England, Scotland, and Germany.
Much has been written on the reasons for the Great Awakening; many argue that it was visceral reaction to the cold reason of the Enlightenment project, which—in the hands of the French in particular—was taking a decidedly antireligious tone. Whatever the reason, the Great Awakening had a powerful impact on the American consciousness and, interestingly enough, religious freedom—a concept not particularly known or popular in the American colonies (very ironic, too, because many of these people were the direct offspring of the Puritans, who fled England because of religious persecution).
Indeed, as much as it was a religious phenomenon, the Great Awakening was a social one as well, in which ideas of equality—as revealed by the death of Jesus for all humanity regardless of status, wealth, or political position—were becoming more and more prevalent. The magistrate and the impoverished farmer, the plantation owner and the slaves—all were sinners in need of God's grace. Period! It's an idea that carried with it powerful implications.
Benjamin Franklin, for instance, hardly a conservative Christian in any sense of the word, fervently supported the movement's radical notion of egalitarianism and its (arguably) natural corollary, democracy. Some of the luminaries of this great revival, among them George Whitefield, were the greatest advocates of religious freedom, claiming liberty of conscience to be an "inalienable right of every rational creature." They not only preached it—they lived it as well. Some of Whitefield's supporters in Philadelphia, for instance, erected a large hall that could be used as a pulpit by anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs.
This is a crucial point. Concepts of religious freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of choice in matters of faith, were a powerful undercurrent in the Great Awakening. After all, any true revival arises from a personal, heartfelt experience; it's not promulgated by the state, not something voted in a legislature or by executive decree. How much the Great Awakening itself influenced the concepts of religious freedom that arose in the country after the American Revolution is still greatly debated, but no question it formed part of it. The whole idea was expressed in the famous words of Thomas Jefferson that "God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his almighty power to do."
However far the concepts of religious freedom and church-state separation have evolved in the centuries since then, the basic ideas, promulgated in the Great Awakening, have helped make America the bastion of religious freedom for the world.
Which is why, for instance, the Seventh-day Adventist Church (the publisher of this magazine) finds its position on religious freedom and church-state separation based on the spiritual ideals of religious freedom rooted in the Great Awakening. Having themselves been victims of religious persecution in America—i.e., jailed and/or fined for Sunday blue law violations—Seventh-day Adventists have known firsthand what happens when government intrudes too far in religious matters. Unlike some groups today, which base their fervent advocacy of church-state separation on what can be deemed hostility to religion and religious values (for them, church-state separation is the establishment clause only, as if the free-exercise one didn't exist), Adventists come from the opposite side. They've been church-state separationists because, like their First Great Awakening spiritual forefathers, they understand that only faith freely offered to God, from personal conviction, is of any value. A religion that needs the government to promote it is, no doubt, severely corrupted.
Perhaps no one said it better than did John Locke in England, who in his famous Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) wrote: "I may grow rich by an art that I take not delight in; I may be cured of some disease by remedies that I have not faith in; but I cannot be saved by a religion that I distrust and by a worship that I abhor. It is in vain for an unbeliever to take up the outward show of another man's profession."
Adventists believe that religious freedom, the freedom revealed in the Gospels, in which people come to know the Lord through personal conviction, not through the power of the state, is foundational to all freedom. In this sense, they trace their roots to the First Great Awakening in America.
The Line of Separation
Of course, Seventh-day Adventists understand that, given the nature of society itself, an "absolute wall" of separation between church and state is not possible. James Madison, perhaps the one man most influential in writing the Bill of Rights, said: "I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points."
Indeed, many of the church-state battles in American courts over church-state issues have been, and remain, directly related to the question of just where Madison's "line of separation" is crossed. Or drawn!
Some argue that the line must be drawn so that the government never legislates morality, a phrase that sounds great in the realm of ideas but in practical matters is useless. Morality is always legislated. In fact, morality is almost all that is legislated. What gets sticky, however, is that in most countries morality, which is reflected in its laws, often finds its roots in its religion. For a nation that doesn't care about church-state separation, such as the Iran of mullahs and theocratic law, that's not a problem; for one that does, such as ours, it has presented and still does present challenges. Many of the major church-state separation battles over the years have come down to, again, knowing where to draw the line.
Pastor Muhlenberg shocked his audience when he revealed a military uniform under his clerical robe.
Drawing the Line
What, then, is the safest position to take, that of ensuring the values of religious freedom while at the same time not allowing for moral anarchy? Adventists have, generally, followed the High Court's basic ideals on this (at least when the Court has lived up to those ideals), which is to make sure that the government keeps out, as much as possible, of anything that has to do with religious expression, worship, or practice. That is, it leaves matters of faith and practice alone, unless there is what has been deemed "a compelling state interest" to intervene.
Thus, at times Adventists have found themselves defending some rather obscure and at times offensive religious practices, such as in Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, in which the Supreme Court of the United States held unconstitutional an ordinance passed in Hialeah, Florida, that forbade the unnecessary killing of "an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption." The church agreed that it was the right decision, one that defended religious freedom.
Issues, though, can get more difficult when it comes to such things as legislated prayer in public school or tax money to religious institutions. Or when questions about laws that reflect a society's moral values, especially if those moral values are, perhaps, overtly tied to a religious belief. Are laws to be deemed unconstitutional merely because they happen to reflect some religious tradition?
Adventists understand all this, and struggle, as do all Americans who care about church-state separation, with striking the right balance, with knowing the right place to draw the line, as if there even might be "the right place."
Beck's Scary Regiment
Wherever exactly that line might be, Beck at his rally this past year clearly crossed it when he talked about the Black-Robed Regiment, as if this is just what America needed.
Not quite! The Black-Robed Regiment in the time of the Great Awakening, in the time of drift toward war with England, was a radical wing of preachers who fervently advocated war with England, openly and unabashedly linking their case with God's.
One of these Black-Robed preachers, Pastor Muhlenberg, in 1776, used his pulpit to expound on the need to wage holy war in the cause of God (where have we heard that before?).
"Coming to the end of his sermon, Peter Muhlenberg is said to have turned to his congregation and said, 'In the language of the holy writ, there was a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray, but those times have passed away.' As those assembled looked on, Pastor Muhlenberg declared, 'There is a time to fight, and that time is now coming!' Muhlenberg then proceeded to remove his robes revealing, to the shock of his congregation, a military uniform.'"
The issue isn't the validity of the Revolutionary War. The issue is what happens when religion is co-opted as the vehicle for public policy, such as the Black-Robers did. To the credit of our nation's forefathers, after the war ended, the Black-Robed Regiment died away, their views on religious and politics way too medieval for the new nation, which in the area of church-state relations was moving in the opposite direction than that of these fanatical preachers.
Thank God we have not adopted the mindset of "the black regiment.".