Live Q&A With Thomas S. Kidd


Thomas S. Kidd teaches history and is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2010).

This real-time Q&A with Thomas S. Kidd took place between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. Eastern on October 13, 2010 on HNN's Ning Network.

Deepak Tripathi: You rightly argue that religion was inextricably linked to the American Revolutionary Movement. Therefore, was the “separation of church and state” a principle doomed to failure? And how do you explain so much ignorance of the third major Abrahamic Islam, in American society? [2:57 p.m.]

Thomas S. Kidd: Welcome everybody! I don't think that separation of church and state was doomed to failure, but it was differently understood at the time of the founding than secular folks today. [3:05 p.m.]

And Americans tend to be ignorant of their own faith as well as others, as recently illustrated by the Pew Center Research Poll, so I am not surprised that they would be ignorant of Islam. [3:05 p.m.]

Charles Kentworthy: Could you elaborate more on how the understanding of separation is different today than it was during the revolution? [3:06 p.m.]

Kidd: Most of the major Founders saw religion as essential for the life of the republic, so they could not envision eliminating religion from public life. Conversely, they were not trying to establish a sectarian "Christian nation," either, as some conservatives would have it. [3:08 p.m.]

David Walsh: How, then, did the founders (in particular the deists among them) react to the active irreligiosity of the French revolutionaries in the 1790s? [3:09 p.m.]

Kidd: Many were very sympathetic to the early stages of the French Revolution, but as the violence became so extreme many others began to balk. The most interesting case here is Patrick Henry, who against most of his political inclinations became a Federalist in the 1790s, because he was so disturbed by the anti-religious trajectory of the French Revolution. [3:11 p.m.]

Phillip Butehorn: Which religions had the most followers during the Early Republic and why? [3:12 p.m.]

Kidd: America was overwhelmingly Christian at the time, with small numbers of Jews in certain areas, and small numbers of Muslims among the Africans arriving as slaves. But among Christians, the Baptists and Methodists began to dominate the American scene beginning in 1800, with the coming of the Second Great Awakening and the expansion of settlement and churches on the frontier. [3:14 p.m.]

Steven Wiener: Do you agree that the most revolutionary aspects of our Constitution are no mention of God (other than a poetic calendar reference) and no religious test for federal office? [3:16 p.m.]

Kidd: I think that the Constitution's omission of God reflects the difficulty raised by possible sectarian differences at the convention--it is the same reason that they decided not to appoint a chaplain. But I don't think that means that religious assumptions were absent from the Constitution, especially when you include the First Amendment. The emphasis is on religious liberty, and on balancing the powers of government to avoid too much power in any one branch, for as Madison said, "men are not angels"--they are naturally prone to abuse power. I have a whole chapter on this in God of Liberty. [3:19 p.m.]

Phil Butehorn: Were interfaith marriages popular among the colonists? [3:20 p.m.]

Kidd: No, there were so few non-Christians that they were extremely unlikely in any case. But the Founders--especially Jefferson and his evangelical allies--did envision a broad-based religious liberty for all religious groups. Some even specifically saw Muslims as covered by the ideal of religious liberty. [3:21 p.m.]

David Walsh: What about interdenominational marriages? [3:21 p.m.]

Kidd: Those were more common, but denominational lines and ties were much stronger then than today, so that one could cause quite a controversy by a Baptist marrying a Presbyterian, and so on. Theological differences were deep and emotional. [3:22 p.m.]

Deepak Tripathi: Constitutionally and practically, is the U.S. a "Christian nation" as many on the American Right vehemently assert, or a secular country? [3:23 p.m.]

Kidd: I would say neither--we are a nation based on the concept of religious liberty for all, and traditionally that has also meant robust and controversial free expression of religion in the public sphere. [3:24 p.m.]

Charles Kentworthy: How does one best address the current religious ignorance of Americans (as revealed by the last Pew Poll?) [3:24 p.m.]

Steven Wiener: When did federal and state courts finally abolish state-supported official churches (making the states subservient to the federal Constitution)? [3:24 p.m.]

Kidd: To Charles, it would help if we were not so squeamish about addressing religion in schools, but I think this is also a failing of faith communities themselves--we have to ask what our churches are actually teaching, if not the Bible and their religious traditions. [3:25 p.m.]

To Steven, Massachusetts was the last state with an established church, which was abolished in 1833. As you suggest, the First Amendment did not originally apply to the states, so they could (and in New England, did) continue to have state-supported churches into the early nineteenth century. I also have a chapter on disestablishing the state churches in God of Liberty. [3:27 p.m.]

David Walsh: Could you describe that process? There was a column in the American Spectator recently about the "fictional" wall of separation. The evidence the columnist used was the established state churches. [3:28 p.m.]

Phil Butehorn: When and why did the Jefferson Bible become popular? [3:30 p.m.]

Kidd: Evangelical Christians, especially Baptists, resented the state churches because they often persecuted dissenters, and people hated paying taxes to support churches they did not attend (all the state churches were either Congregationalist or Anglican). So the greatest political achievement with regard to religion in the era of the Revolution is that most of the states modified and eventually abandoned their official churches. [3:31 p.m.]

I don't think the wall of separation (Jefferson's phrase) is "fictional," but in the Founding era it did not mean an elimination of religion from the public square. [3:31 p.m.]

The Jefferson Bible was actually not popular--it just reflected Jefferson's own musings about what was reliable, and not reliable in the biblical record. Jefferson was no traditional Christian, but he thought religion was important in the life of the republic. It was a source of unity, the basis of our most basic rights, and a motivation to virtue, which the Founders saw as necessary for a healthy nation. [3:32 p.m.]

The Jefferson Bible was never published until long after Jefferson's death. [3:33 p.m.]

Steve Wiener: I read that Jefferson's favorite church was the Unitarian and that he wrongfully (unfortunately) predicted that within half a century a majority of Americans would become Unitarians. His anticlericalism is reflected in his University of Virginia having no school of theology and not even a chapel. [3:36 p.m.]

Kidd: That's right--Jefferson did not believe in the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus, so his theology could be described as Unitarian/deistic. He was highly suspicious of the political role of "priestcraft," yet during his political career his staunchest allies were evangelical Baptists, who saw him as the great champion of religious freedom. They loved him for it. [3:36 p.m.]

Phil Butehorn: Out of all the founders, who was the most religious one? [3:38 p.m.]

Kidd: Among the major Founders, Patrick Henry was probably the most open about his traditional faith. (I am working on a biography of Henry for my next book.) From there, you probably have to go down to people like Roger Sherman and Elias Boudinot to find what we would call evangelical Christians among the Founders. [3:40 p.m.]

Phil Butehorn: Were you surprised by anything in your research that you didnt expect to find? [3:43 p.m.]

Kidd: I was surprised to learn how religion served, overall, to unify Americans of very different religious beliefs. Religion seems only to divide today, but everyone from deists to evangelicals believed in key religious principles that helped drive the Revolution, especially in religious liberty, and the idea that our rights come from our common creation by God (as articulated by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence). [3:45 p.m.]

Steven Wiener: What about Tom Paine's major contribution? He didn't believe in divine attributes. Washington ordered all his troops to read Paine's pamphlets. [3:48 p.m.]

Kidd: Paine was the most important political pamphleteer of the Revolution, but he did not come out with his key anti-Christian text, The Age of Reason, until the 1790s. What Washington had them read was The American Crisis, the essay that began with the line "These are the times that try men's souls.” Many of the Patriot leaders found Paine's religious writings deplorable. [3:50 p.m.]

Steven Wiener: What do you think of the U.S. treaty with the Barbary States, which clearly states that the U.S. government is not Christian. We are a mostly Christian people with a secular government. [3:53 p.m.]

Kidd: I think that the Treaty of Tripoli is a pragmatic document intended to alleviate North African Muslims' concerns about relations with the United States. It is revealing that the Congress would adopt such a stark statement about Christianity, but I don't think that any of the congressmen or diplomats envisioned that as a general statement about the religious influence on the Founding itself. [3:55 p.m.]

Phillip Butehorn: What are you thoughts on Glenn Beck's version of Early American History [3:58 p.m.]

Kidd:  That could take a long time to answer, but one thing is for sure: Glenn Beck has tapped into a long tradition of pairing religion and freedom that resonates with many Americans. You'll have to decide whether that's for good or bad! [3:59 p.m.]

David Walsh: Well, I think that wraps it up! I'd like to thank Thomas Kidd for taking time out of his schedule to talk with us, and thank you to everyone who asked questions! The transcript of this session will be up on HNN later today! Look for more live chats with historians in the future! [4:04 p.m.]

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