a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday March 15th, 2009
OPENING WORDS: “Question with boldness even the existence of God, because, if there is one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear....” -- Thomas Jefferson
How many of you saw in the news last week, that Northern New England has now officially surpassed the Pacific Northwest as the “least churched” region of the country? Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest myself (as well as serving the majority of my ministerial career there), I was immediately struck by two closely-related thoughts. The first was a memory of something that was said about me during a celebratory farewell “roast” at the conclusion of my first settled ministry in Midland, Texas, where the new search committee had already started to survey the church membership regarding their prevailing theological views, and had discovered that after four years of my preaching there, I had managed to DOUBLE the number of atheists in the congregation!
My second thought was that even though I have now served here in New England for twice the time I was in West Texas (two years on Nantucket, four years in Carlisle Massachusetts, and now two years here in Portland), I can hardly claim to take credit for this current change of affairs. But I do feel a little like that proverbial gentleman who moved from Texas to New England, and lowered the average IQ in both regions. And the real irony, of course, is that for most of American history: certainly through the colonial period, and continuing on through the early national period and into the Irish and Italian immigrations, New England has been one of the most heavily-churched regions of the nation, and the underlying reasons for these changes are at heart of the topic I have chosen for today.
As most of you MUST know by now, this past winter I’ve been preaching a series of sermons on a topic I’ve been calling “UU-DNA” -- those things about our faith tradition that are so basic and fundamental about who we are and how we got to be this way that they might as well be part of our institutional genetic code. So far I’ve spoken about the importance of Congregational Polity and Local Control, the essential role of personal experience in determining what we believe, and the always-troublesome Problem of Evil: why do bad things happen to good people? And finally this month I’m finishing up with a two-parter on “Mr Jefferson’s Prophecy” and “Mr Jefferson’s Legacy” -- our third President’s erroneous 1823 prediction that “there is not a young many alive today who will not die a Unitarian,” and what we actually got instead: a “Wall of Separation” between church and state which delineated a radically new religious landscape for a new, young nation here in the new world, as well as creating the circumstances for the evolution of the dramatically different religious environment in which we live today.
Frankly, I’m not sure that ANYONE living at the end of the 18th century could have accurately predicted the kind of religious environment we now live in at the beginning of the 21st. Those two hundred and more years -- beginning with the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (and covering a lot more history than I suspect anyone wants to hear this morning) -- have resulted in the creation of an explicitly secular civil society that is also, without a doubt among the most fervently-devoted religious cultures in the world. And how this happened is to a large degree the direct result of a bitter political confrontation between two Unitarian Presidents two centuries ago, and the very different roles which they saw religion playing both in their own lives and in society as a whole.
America’s first President, George Washington, was a soldier and a farmer, a Deist and a Freemason -- first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen -- but hardly a great intellectual or philosopher when it came to matters of religion. He was, however, extremely sensitive to the role that precedent and public ritual would play in the formation of this new nation’s identity, and absolutely opposed to linking that identity too closely to any particular faith or sectarian denomination.
So instead it was Washington’s two Unitarian successors -- John Adams and Thomas Jefferson -- who actually framed the terms of the subsequent public debate. The personal relationship between Adams and Jefferson was a complicated one, as well as something that has fascinated me since I was just a child. In 1776 they worked closely together to draft the Declaration of Independence and shepherd it through the Continental Congress, thus setting the 13 colonies out together on the road to revolution. A quarter of a century later they were bitter political rivals, whose conflicting values in both religion and politics provide the background for the story I want to tell today. And then, after nearly another quarter-century of retirement from public life, during which they attempted to explain themselves to one another though a long and in many ways intimate correspondence, their lives and names became locked together for eternity in the annuls of American History by the shared date of their respective deaths: July 4th, 1826 -- the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration.
But it’s the election of 1800 -- an election that in many ways was even MORE pivotal than the election last fall -- that provides the background and the context for the subsequent tale. The issue of the separation of church and state was hardly new in 1800, and even dates back to well before the 1st Amendment and the creation of a national Constitution which enshrined it as a principle of Federal law. And yet even now it is easy to overlook that the question actually has two parts in addition to two sides, which we can see very clearly in the language of the amendment itself: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
It’s the so-called “Establishment Clause” with its intent of keeping the Church out of the business of government, that we generally think of today when we think of the purpose of the amendment nowadays. But in many ways the “Free Exercise” clause has been even more important. This is the part of Federal law, which prohibits the state from getting involved in the business of the church, that has for most church leaders (historically, at least) been a much greater concern than whether or not they may someday get a chance to dictate the policies of government. The Free Exercise clause not only assures that individual churches will be left free to attend to matters of faith as they see fit, it also guarantees that every individual will be free to pick and choose their own church (including NO church) as suits their own conscience and temperament. In other words (as I’m sure you’ve heard it said before), freedom OF religion also includes freedom FROM religion, or at least after you’ve reached the age when your parents can no longer compel you to attend.
None of this debate, by the way, either then or now, has ever assumed a separation of Religion and Politics. If Politics is basically the practice of living together in civil society (and is sometimes defined as the “art of the possible”), while Religion reflects our best and highest values, morals, and principles (as well as an occasional belief in miracles), they NEED one another in order bring out the best of the “body politic,” and help us to understand that we are all one people in the same boat together. James Madison once famously observed that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” and the same could easily be said of churches. And yet, to be reminded from time to time that there are indeed angels out there, and that we need to be attentive to their messages, can often do a great deal to bring people together, even though it sometimes also runs the risk of driving them apart also runs the risk of driving them apart.
It was just this sort of impasse that brought Adams and Jefferson (and their respective supporters) to such bitter loggerheads in 1800. Jefferson was in private a deeply religious man, but he was also a deeply private man, who liked to keep his religious views to himself, and shared them only with his closest and most trusted friends. His Unitarian beliefs that God is One, a Providential Spirit who set all things in motion at the creation of the Universe, and who likewise endowed all human beings with certain “natural” and “inalienable” rights; together with his deeply-held conviction that Jesus was a man and a great moral teacher whose teachings can be summed up by the Golden Rule, were in essence identical to those of his political rival. But unlike Jefferson (who tended to believe that the solution to everything was “more liberty”), Adams also believed that MOST human beings NEEDED some sort of moral instruction (as well as some form of consistent, external social constraint) if they were to be kept on the “straight and narrow.”
Had the stakes seemed smaller, these two once and future friends might have reconciled their differences through honest and open dialogue, which of course is exactly what they attempted to do in retirement. But at the time, it seemed instead that the election of 1800 represented a critical watershed in the brief history of the young American republic. Would its future be found in a return to the “tyrannical” aristocratic practices of Great Britain, and its established Anglican church? Or would it follow the slippery slope of the French Revolution, which had guillotined both priests and princes in its brutal “Reign of Terror?” Jefferson and his followers of course most feared the former, while the supporters of Adams (the New England Standing Order clergy chief among them) attempted to portray Jefferson as a potential “Infidel in Chief,” who wanted nothing more that to confiscate every Bible in the land, and bring an end to religion altogether.
Jefferson won that bitterly-contested election, and of course neither side’s worst fears were realized. Instead, the next quarter-century of small-”d” small “r” “democratic-republican government subsequently became known as “the Era of Good Feelings,” at least when it came to politics. On the religious front, Jefferson’s election was accompanied by something neither he nor Adams could have really predicted: the beginning of the so-called “Second Great Awakening,” a period of frontier revivals and camp meetings, which would sometimes go on for weeks at a time. What was true in American politics also became true for American religion; each and every individual soul now enjoyed the liberty to decide for themselves what their faith would be, although that faith often bore very little resemblance to the more sophisticated beliefs of someone like Jefferson, whose ultimate faith in liberty had helped make freedom of belief a reality.
This same period in our history also saw the beginning of the disestablishment of the tax-supported Standing Order here in New England. Maine put an end to tax-supported religion in 1820, right here on this spot, with the drafting of its original state constitution. Stubborn Massachusetts (still dominated by Unitarians, but not for much longer) was the last to give in, in the mid-1830’s, opting instead for universal, tax-supported public education as a means for inculturating the immigrant classes with American values (while at the same time leaving them to worship in their own churches on Sunday mornings, and to complain about the burden of double taxation, just as the Baptists had, when they set out to create their own system of parochial schools).
And of course the greatest irony of all is that once freed from their obligation to be all things to all people, churches instead became free to seek out their own natural constituencies, and to shape their message in precisely the terms they needed to in order to appeal most strongly to their target audience. For Catholic churches this generally took place in ethnic terms, with an emphasis on holding on to their own. But for Protestant churches, ethnicity (at least among immigrant populations) was simply one element of ever-shrinking significance, when compared to factors like education and social class, theological doctrine, worship style, even geographic proximity and the personality (or reputation) of the minister. Over the course of the past 200 years, the American church has become an enterprise, which has in that time marketed itself more or less aggressively depending upon the tenor of the times and its own level of institutional energy.
Denominations like ours, with a long history of seeing ourselves as a “public” church attempting to live up to Jefferson’s Prophecy, have often been slow to adopt this “entrepreneurial” approach to religion. And in many cases we’ve been able to afford not to; our deep roots and broad social networks have allowed us to preserve our self-image as “America’s Real Religion,” along with the elusive goal of winning everyone over to our way of thinking. But thanks to Mr. Jefferson’s legacy, I can comfortably predict that this is never going to happen. We may someday become slightly more numerous than one in a thousand, but even to achieve that we need to look very carefully at who we are and where we come from, and the essence of our mission to the communities we choose to serve. We need to be honest, forthright, and unashamed about our beliefs, our values, our goals, our principles, and our practices...and we need to lift them up high, so that all may see and that those who agree can easily find us here. We need to invite our friends, and support this church with our time, and our talent, and yes our treasure...even when times are tough, and we are nervous ourselves about whether or not we will even have a job a year from now. And above all, we must all hang together, because if we fail to do so (to paraphrase Mr Franklin at the signing of the Declaration) we will all most certainly be left to hang separately, and alone -- from a metaphorical , if not a literal, noose of our own making.
To Messrs. Nehemiah Dodge and Others A Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association in the State of Connecticut
January 1, 1802
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist Association, give me the highest satisfaction. My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.
Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States