Home National Stories Leonardo Radomile of Palm Beach on Why Religion Matters in American Politics

Leonardo Radomile of Palm Beach on Why Religion Matters in American Politics

Leonardo Radomile Palm Beach

Religion is often considered a sort of stepchild of American culture in the present, meaning that it serves as something to be restrained by erecting in Thomas Jefferson’s words: a “wall of separation between church and state”.

However, Kennedy v. The Bremerton School District notably was a driving factor for change. Now, instead of creating a barrier between government and religion which often restricts religious freedom, the Court instead will act to judge government involvement with religion with “regard to historical practices and understandings”.

Now what exactly does that mean? The court will now look at what the Founding Fathers would have permitted rather than some strict barrier between church and state. Leonardo Radomile of Palm Beach notes that it is a much more permissive definition that ends up allowing for greater religious freedom.

The Role of Religion in American History

But this new focus on historical analysis, figuring out what the founders would allow, not only forces judges to revisit the founders’ understanding of the relation between church and state but in doing that, it encourages all of us to look back at our history and rediscover the vital role religion has played in the creation of our nation. The role of religion at the time of the revolution was so great that instead of being a stepchild of the republic it was really a progenitor (or parent) in our nation’s founding.

Leonardo Radomile of Palm Beach maintains that it is important to remember that at during the Revolution’s time period, religion shaped large parts of colonial culture. In fact, many of America’s earliest settlements were founded as religious sanctuaries. For example, Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Roger Williams founded Rhode Island as a sanctuary of religious freedom, William Penn founded Pennsylvania’s Quaker settlement, and Maryland was founded as a haven for Catholics. Clearly, the creation of colonial governments and culture has religion and its influence to thank .

An even more monumental influence was born from the Great Awakening” and its leader and spokesman, the Reverend George Whitfield. Whitfield and the Great Awakening were responsible for changing the colonists’ ideas of themselves as a people and their relationship to their government and one another as well.

How Was the Great Awakening the Catalyst of a Perspective Shift?

Leonardo notes that the perspective shift brought about by the Great Awakening was spurred by a variety of factors. In the mid-18th century, colonists enjoyed a degree of prosperity and freedom considered unique at this point in history.

Nowhere else in the world did people enjoy such widespread freedom and prosperity. Nonetheless, like the English colonists, they lived in a society that was naturally hierarchical and built on a class system backed by the church.. This is exhibited in the preaching of a very prominent and influential minister of that time, Jonathan Edwards. In one of his sermons, he preached a dominant idea in the colonies that “…all have their appointed office, place, and station, according to their several capacities and talents, and everyone keeps his place and continues in his proper business”.

Leonardo encourages those becoming educated on the history to think about that for a moment and recognize how it is so unlike the way we think today. According to Edwards and the thinking of the time, life was arranged in a hierarchy with each person knowing his or her place and duties. There was no room there for social mobility or what we would refer to as ‘climbing the ladder’. Whatever class or station in life you found yourself, you were stuck there.

Though this was made more tolerable by a general prosperity, one cannot ignore that fact that the hierarchy upheld by the church served to justify the rule of a monarch appointed by God by working to ensure that member of the class system and ministers did not disrupt the status quo.

But Whitfield’s preaching undermined and eventually destroyed this concept of the social order. The core of the ideologies presented by the Great Awakening a social equality radical in nature, backed by the concept that all of mankind were equal in terms of being considered fallen and in need of being “born again” “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory”. The implications of these ideas were very revolutionary from the point of view of the incredibly hierarchical society. Everyone was equal in the eyes of God and redemption was necessary for all — King, commoners, and high status colonists alike. This radical spiritual equality was a common feature of sermons conducted by Whitfield. Everyone is equal in the eyes of God and in need of salvation.

Similarly, everyone needs to follow the laws dictated by God for redemption, king and commoner alike. If everyone was considered equal in God’s eyes and everyone needed to follow rules set forth by God, these ideas undermined the king’s authority. Adhering to God’s law was more important than obeying the king. This meant that British law was subject to a higher authority. It gave the colonists a new sense of freedom from British authority.

The Impact of Whitfield’s Influence

Leonardo speaks to how, in a secular age, it is difficult to appreciate the impact that the teachings of one man could have on colonial society. Still, a wide variety of accounts in contemporary contexts attest to the scope of Whitfield’s influence. Witnesses record that Whitfield often preached outside to crowds of between 25 and 30 thousand.

Notably, his the sermons that he held were so powerful at the time that his audiences often had changes of heart caused by incredibly emotional experiences. Jonathan Edwards’ wife Sarah mentioned, “He could move men to tears…It is truly wonderful to see what a spell this preacher often casts over an audience by proclaiming the simplest truths of the bible”.

Famous Deist Benjamin Franklin was also gripped by the teachings of Whitfield during his sermons. Franklin wrote about attending one of Whitfield’s sermons in his journal stating “…I happened…to attend one of his sermons…and I silently resolved that he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles of gold. As he proceeded, I began to soften…and he finished so admirably that I emptied my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all”. If a rationalists like Franklin could be so emotionally moved by Whitfield, imagine the effect of his sermons on ordinary people, almost all of whom were believers.

Franklin himself was so taken by Whitfield’s sermon that he chose to promote Whitfield’s work and ideologies in the Pennsylvania Gazette. Throughout the Great Awakening, reportedly over 80% of their residents had attended his sermons. To this point, he quickly became the most influential and well known thought leaders in Colonial America.

Leonardo mentions that foreign observers and our Founders were intimately aware of the role religion was playing in the creation of our institutions and infrastructure. Religion served as a set of standards and code of conduct for the otherwise self-governing colonists.

For example, it is not a coincidence that the Declaration of Independence itself is was based around the “laws of Nature’s God,” with Adams stating t “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” that Washington would remind us that “While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion,” or as de Toqueville would state , “In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country”.

Leonardo Radomile of Palm Beach notes one could say that Whitfield created for so many colonials a new perception and definition of the self, a being who defined himself in his relationship with his Creator, equal to others before God. He also redefined a citizen’s understanding of their relationship to their government, that relationship was one of the primacy and dependance on God’s law first. But he also contributed to a new national identity by working to deconstruct the barriers that existed between different denominations within colonial society.

Before the Great Awakening, religious identity was often defined by the conflicting theologies between sects. Quakers believed something different from Baptists, Catholics from Methodists, and on and on. Now all found common ground and unity in the universal doctrine of being equal before God and the need to be born again. For the first time the colonists had a compelling idea in common, one that would allow them to form a common identity as Americans.

A new national identity, the supremacy of divine law, the equality of all, each of these ideas were experienced as realities by those who were so deeply moved by Whitfield and the Great Awakening. Moreover, they became the pillars of the Declaration and assumptions for the drafting of the Constitution. The Declaration mentions God four times. Governments are formed to protect the rights we have under God’s law. It is God’s law, the biblical principles of our Judeo/Christian tradition that is cited as the foundation of our republic.

The Bottom Line

Given this history it is nearly impossible to overstate the relevance of religion on what the Supreme Court called: “the historical practices and understandings” of the time and it is difficult to predict what results this new criteria will produce in subsequent court cases. But as those with a firm understanding of history evaluate the role played by religion the creation of the infrastructure of our nation a bigger question is posed. In a culture that forms a habit for substituting subjective feelings for critical thinking and defined principles, where can the frameworks for educated decision making originate from if it is not religion? Where else can we find the reliable standards that have made America the greatest, freest, and most prosperous nation in the history of the world.

Religion is one of the critical foundations of our American system. As more than one historian has pointed out, it is difficult if not impossible for any institution to exist once it departs from its founding principles. Perhaps religion in certain contexts is something that we should never lose sight of.