The “Christian Nation” and the Quarterly Review

The “Christian Nation” zealots are among the most absurd of the gaudy flock of historical revisionists that have come and gone since the founding of the Republic. For them, the Enlightenment never happened, and Thomas Jefferson was a “good Christian.” In fact, if they’d lived at the time, the chances are vanishingly small that they would have been found among Washington’s ragged levies at Valley Forge. Rather, they would have been what the devout conservatives who actually did live then generally were; Tories.

The spirit of today’s Christian right was alive and well in those days. However, one looks in vain for it in the letters of Jefferson, the essays of Thomas Paine, or the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. The pages of the British Quarterly Review are a much better place to look. It was the Tory organ of the first half of the 19th century, and there the Church of England clerics found a congenial soapbox for what passed as the “Christian nation” doctrines of the day. Still possessed of great power at the beginning of the century, they somehow sensed that the tidal wave of the Enlightenment was heading their way and would eventually swamp them. At first, they reacted with an almost hysterical fury. We will spare our gentler readers the shock of such fulminations and move on a few decades. In the December 1839 issue we find an article by a cleric of the now somewhat milder, more plaintive, and more desperate COE, already chastened by the spirit of the times, but still stubbornly insisting on its right to dictate religious belief to the many. Coincidentally, the same issue included an account of the voyage of HMS Beagle, whose crew, we are informed, included one Charles Darwin, “the grandson of the poet.”

It’s obvious the world view of the Archbishop of Canterbury has come a long way since 1839 as it relates to matters of individual freedom of worship, for we read,

What, then, is the false principle which the State is now required to establish? It is, let us remember, not the original principles of Dissent, the right of religious societies to frame their creed and forms, and to impose them on their members, without reference to the Catholic Church (here, the COE). This was evil enough. But beyond this depth there is a deeper still; and the modern claim is made for individuals. It is the right of private judgment, without reference to any society or human authority whatever; in other words, the absolute supremacy, in religion, of the will and the fancy of the individual.

and,

No elevated truth can be maintained without a combination of men to guard it from each other – to hold it up in the face of the world – to transmit it from one generation to another. With religious truth will perish all truth. The right of private judgment will be carried out to its full extent. There will be no even seeming truth but the opinion of the individual – and when that has changed, as it must do, over and over – what will remain?

In other words, when it came to individual freedom of religion, the clerics of the COE then occupied, more or less, the same ideological ground as the mullahs of Iran today. However, when it came to the matter of separation of church and state, they were eerily close to the Christianists of today. According to the Quarterly’s worthy cleric, if the state failed to establish religion, and not merely the Christian religion but the one, unique, true doctrine of the COE, then, as Louis XV would have said, après moi, le deluge:

If the State – the supreme power – the collective wisdom of the nation, as it is supposed, may not interfere with such matters, may not pronounce on religious truths, no lesser power or wisdom can pretend to do so. All human authority must be abolished in religion. This must be the point to which concession will finally be driven; and they are the best logicians who take this ground at once. This is that principle of Dissent which the State is now called on to establish; and when it is established, what is to become of the State itself?

And what of that bugaboo of moral philosophers, the need for an “objective” basis for morality? The Quarterly supplies the answer:

What police will be sufficient to keep peace and order among nearly a whole people released from the restraints of religion? What moral laws can be substituted which they will recognize and binding when religion is discarded – who will maintain these laws – what shame can be expected when the highest authority before them has abdicated its right to censure – how the tone of public opinion can be kept elevated, when the organ which expresses it is daily sinking?

This from a man writing at a time when there were ten times as many brothels per capita in London as there are now. Why, without an established religion, the State itself must face instant annihilation:

Strip a ruler of these – prohibit him from professing religion – withdraw the name of God from his acts and his laws – compel him in the highest functions of life to declare himself willingly an atheist – or enslave his conscience to conceal on the throne what it is man’s highest duty and glory to proclaim in the cottage – his relation to his Maker; – and beyond a temporary enthusiasm, or the passion of an army for its general, as of France for Napoleon, he has nothing left to attach his subjects to himself; and the bond which holds society together will fall to pieces.

and,

…he who, as the ruler of a state, is not religious – openly and avowedly religious – must believe that the knowledge of God forms no part of man’s wisdom; that the favour of God is no security for his happiness; that the will of God is no rule of his action, and union with God no object for his affections. He must think so for himself, and therefore, for those whom he governs; and he will endeavour to direct his own mind and theirs to some other objects, to money, or manufactures, or comforts, or conquests, or something which he does think good – the highest good of their nature – and cut them off from God. He will make them idolaters and atheists, and be an idolater and atheist himself.

Are you beginning to see yourselves in the mirror, my “Christian nation” friends? Is it beginning to dawn on you what side of the political fence you would have really been on? Cutting to the chase our clerical scribbler finally gives us an inkling of where the shoe is really starting to rub:

The first thought of relief turns naturally to the State. It alone can command funds adequate to the emergency of the moment: and funds which can never be employed so well as in serving God, promoting piety, restoring peace and unanimity to a distracted people, teaching them obedience to man by obedience to God, and placing over their crimes and passions the best of all controls, the control of religion.

After countless religious wars, both civil and external, after the murder of millions of “witches” and “heretics,” after the mass slaughter of the Crusades, after the Jewish Holocaust, and the countless “minor” acts of genocide against the Jews that preceded it, after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, after the slaughter of the Albigensians, after the annihilation of countless nameless “heathens” in the Teutonic Knights’ “Drang nach Osten,” and after oceans of blood have been shed over the details of the sacrament of Communion, and countless other such episodes in our history, this seems a somewhat dubious conclusion.

Alas, now, as Alex said in “A Clockwork Orange,” “comes the weepy part, oh my brothers.” It turns out that we and our dear Australian allies were even then dangling like spiders over the flaming pits of hell:

We have emptied the sewers of our population on two vast continents. Two gigantic empires – the Frankensteins of our own creation, which will soon turn upon the author of their being – are shooting up under our eyes, and developing, even in their infancy, a maturity of crime, and a calculating selfishness, which makes even crime more formidable. They have wealth, commerce, arts, intellect, everything which can enable them to cast their shadows on the old empires of Europe, and even to turn the balance of the world. But we have given them no religion. All sects have been fused together in their formation. The government, to meet the popular will, has abdicated its own religious functions. And we may see in them, as in a glass, the reflection of our own coming fate; with these differences, indeed, that we have thrown away, while they never possessed a Church.

Aha! Does Abu Ghraib seem like such an anomaly now? It’s alive! It’s alive! But, do not sneer, dear reader. It seems that, if we had only paid the ecclesiastical piper his due, we would have spared ourselves a world of grief. The Uplift, which has plagued us lo, now, these many years, would have vanished like a miasmal mist:

Voluntary societies are the chief obstruction to a right view of the Church. We want no new combination of Christians for propagating the Gospel, or diffusing Christian knowledge, or converting the Jews, or building schools; no Bible societies or Temperance societies, or anti-cruelty to animals societies, or peace and war societies. We have already a society formed for these very purposes by God himself. The Church comprehends them all.

Oh! Nowww I get it! Alas, as a citizen of one of the two Great Frankensteins, almost two centuries further along the path of perdition we have all been following, I rather suspect that a donation to the COE would be a trifle late at this point.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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