This is my second post to review American Nations by Colin Woodard. In this post, I want to look at some implications for the book’s ideas in understanding American Christianity. Woodard brought together a number of things that I already thought about American Christianity, but his book laid such extensive foundations for further deliberation that I did not want to leave just a one post wonder. Christians mix their cultural and national biases and priorities in with their belief in God. We Americans have to understand our own cultural and national history so that we can both recognize our own errors as well as discern the flavors that Christianity develops when it takes root in every nation, tribe, and tongue.
Woodard recognizes eleven different “nations” in North America combined within the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The United States has never officially been a Christian nation, but Christianity and Christian civilization played and continues to play a foundational role in the country’s evolution. There are four themes that I noticed as I read through the book: 1. two differing notions of freedom: freedom vs. liberty, 2. the simultaneous passing on and rejection of Christian civilization and values, 3. the evolution of the relationship between Christian and American identity, and 4. the relationship between local varieties of Christianity and the larger national religious environment. Underscoring the themes I noticed, Woodard emphasizes a long-running rivalry between the Yankeedom and the Deep South “nations” and their allies, and religion naturally plays into that rivalry. Tension over the growth or death of Christianity in America has a national element that we cannot afford to ignore.
In dividing the North and the South, Woodard contrasts freedom and liberty as two culturally different notions of permission to act in certain domains. In discussing the aristocratic Tidewater region, Woodard says:
One might ask how such a tyrannical society could have produced some of the greatest champions of republicanism, such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison. The answer is that Tidewater’s gentry embraced classical republicanism, meaning a republic modeled after those of ancient Greece and Rome. They emulated the learned, slaveholding elite of ancient Athens, basing their enlightened political philosophies around the ancient Latin concept of libertas, or liberty. This was a fundamentally different notion from the Germanic concept of Freiheit, or freedom, which informed the political thought of Yankeedom and the Midlands. Understanding the distinction is essential to comprehending the fundamental disagreements that still plague relations between Tidewater, the Deep South, and New Spain on one hand and Yankeedom and the Midlands on the other.
For the Norse, Anglo-Saxons, Dutch, and other Germanic tribes of northern Europe, “freedom” was a birthright of free peoples, which they considered themselves to be. Individuals might have differences in status and wealth, but all were literally “born free.” All were equal before the law, and all had come into the world possessing “rights” that had to be mutually respected on threat of banishment. Tribes had the right to rule themselves through assemblies like Iceland’s Althingi, recognized as the world’s oldest parliament. Until the Norman invasion of 1066, the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England had ruled themselves in this manner. After the invasion, the lords of Normandy imposed manorial feudalism on England, but they never fully did away with the “free” institutions of the Anglo-Saxons and (Gaelo-Norse) Scots, which survived in village councils, English common law, and the House of Commons. It was this tradition that the Puritans carried to Yankeedom.
The regions under discussion in this passage have clearly changed since the Civil War and the advance of industrialism, but the contrast that Woodard presents is still valid today: a universal, individually held “freedom” versus a class-based, territorially held “liberty”. On the one hand, every individual has certain rights and privileges that no other individual, no matter that person’s social class or possessions, can override. On the other hand, one group of people cannot override the rights and privileges of another group of people, with these groupings based on social status and possession of wealth. When “liberals” and “conservatives” get put up against each other, you can clearly see these values conflicting.
Over time, Woodard’s cultural blocs have alternately adopted and rejected Christian values and civilization. The Civil War is a crucial turning point in Woodard’s telling of history. Before the Civil War, you can see the Yankeedom cultural bloc (“the North”) pushing for nationwide and even worldwide expansion of the form of Christianity that the Puritans left England to protect. The individual is socially free but also tightly restrained so as not to ruin another person’s freedom. In the Deep South and Tidewater (“the South”), you can see them pushing for the federal government to protect their aristocratic society and preserve the institution of slavery. Members of certain classes are free to do what members of their class can do, and no other class of people may interfere. After the Civil War, according to Woodard, you see the North retain the Puritan desire to make the world better for individual freedom while dropping Calvinism, as the South turns to religion as consolation for losing their struggle in the Civil War.
One trend that Woodard notices in Puritan New England is the increased emphasis on growth and progress for individuals, whereas in the South, reeling from the loss of the Civil War, tried to gather what it could of what it lost. Woodard notes the heavy usage of Christian language in Southern discourse on the legitimacy of slavery and the South’s hierarchical social system. The losing side in any war, especially a war such as the Civil War in which heavy social and political concerns were contested, never just throws up its hands and sighs, “Oh well.” Christianity, nominal or otherwise, becomes a bedrock element of Southern identity, and interference with Christianity becomes interference with the South. While New England (with the Left Coast) loses the Puritan religious foundation as it changes its values in favor of individual progress and enlightenment, the South entrenches its own religious standpoint to hold on to what it has left.
One thing that I hear a lot in Christian conversations is that America was founded to be a Christian country, that the founding fathers were devoted Christians, so forth and so on. We sweep aside things like slave ownership as private sins while holding onto our reverence for Washington and Jefferson. We read the Thanksgiving story of the Pilgrims settling Massachusetts and take that to be the story of Christianity in the founding of all of America. Woodard demolishes the notion that the United States was founded with one single intention by a homogenous group of people with one religious intention. The Puritans wanted Christianity to be at the basis of their colonies, the Quakers just wanted to be free to continue their own belief system, and although the people who settled the South brought Christianity with them, they did not explicitly set up colonies to propagate a Christian way of life. The thirteen original colonies were founded separately. Different varieties of Christianity came with the various groups of settlers, and each cultural group did something different with its variety of Christianity.
In America, as in many other nations, religious adherence takes on cultural and national significance. I think it is important to note that no American President so far has not at least been a nominal Christian of some sort. As “Christian” as America is, the culture wars that we hear about in church involving abortion, gay marriage, gun control, religious liberty, and other social and political issues may well be part of a true culture war, but which culture? Consider the controversy surrounding Judge Roy Moore and the Ten Commandments monument that he put outside a courthouse in Alabama: according to the multiple nation idea put forth in American Nations, the controversy could be as much about the North (in the ACLU) saying, “You can’t just put up whatever you want outside of a courthouse!” and the South saying, “Stop messing with the South! Enough!” Some causes upheld in the name of Christianity might be nationalistic rather than Christian.
As openly Christian as the South claims to be, it has to check its own history before it can claim to be a true bastion of the faith of the Apostles. At the same time, how do we know that Mainline Protestant denominations in the North have not become a fifth column for the devil with theological liberalism? Some Americans want to emphasize freedom of the individual, while others want to emphasize the earned liberties of classes of citizens. While Woodard’s ideas in American Nations might occasionally play too much with generalities, he highlights the fault lines across which the Body of Christ as the Church in America is built. As we consider various crises that face the Church in America today, consider every possible source of for the tremors that shake it. Gay bars and hippy communes may not be the most fundamental shakers of the foundation.