Saturday, November 08, 2008

Revival of the Election Sermon?


In a recent post on Founding Era political sermons I wrote:

Those who want to lower the wall of separation between church and state sometimes cite these sermons as ammo; indeed pulpits of the Founding era were quite politicized! One fascinating dynamic they invariably miss (and I invariably stress) is how many of the "Whig" and "republican" ideas peddled in these sermons are foreign to historic biblical Christianity and how often these preachers distorted the biblical record to justify their Whig-republican politics.


Indeed, I just came across a post [hat tip to the Acton Institute] that perfectly illustrates this misunderstanding common among many otherwise informed religious conservatives. From Andover Newton theologian Mark Burrows who writes:

Election Day sermons represent a venerable but long extinct New England tradition. What are they, and might we dare to preach them today? And, if so, how might ministers do this – and still keep their jobs?

In their day – and this stretched from the early colonial period through the later 19th century in Massachusetts – such sermons depended on assumptions that no longer make much sense to us. Ministers could still presume that the Scriptures were the authoritative text governing how the “public” discerned its way. These occasions also displayed the gendered nature of authority among elected officials of both church and state: male minister stood before a gathering of male elected officers together with male citizens having the right to vote. These sermons presumed that the “public” of the colony and later nation, while eventually tolerating a minimal pluralism, was understood to be exclusively Christian. Toleration and inclusion were unheard of virtues at this time, at least in the political arena.


The following reproduces an email I sent Mr. Burrows in response:

Hi Mark,

[...]

I saw your post on election sermon (linked to by the Acton Institute). I must say I disagree with a core premise of your post. You wrote:

"In their day – and this stretched from the early colonial period through the later 19th century in Massachusetts – such sermons depended on assumptions that no longer make much sense to us. Ministers could still presume that the Scriptures were the authoritative text governing how the 'public' discerned its way."

Well yes, that describes *some* of the election sermons in the history of Mass. to which you refer, but by no means all ("most" is debatable). I wonder if you are aware of the history of heterodoxy/unitarianism in your state during this time period and how many of the most notable election sermons, especially those that argued for the American Revolution and republicanism, were given by theological unitarians and were premised on the idea that natural reason was at least on par with if not superior to scripture.

It's true that the population back then was almost all "Christian" in some formal or nominal sense; but as is the case today, it's not at all clear that the majority of folks who identified as "Christians" considered themselves orthodox, trinitarian or "regenerate" as opposed to Christian in some kind of nominal sense. And many of those unitarian preachers (Mayhew, Chauncy, Gay, Howard, West from the early era and Sparks, Channing, and more names that I can list from the 19th Century onward) more or less defined being a "Christian" with mere morality. America's Founders like J. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Madison and others likewise believed in this understanding of Christianity that equated it with mere morality. And this was, I believe, key to making America much more religiously diverse as time progressed. As long as they are good people, they are "Christians" and should have no problem assimilating in America, as it were.

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Ron said...

Still an accepted and important tradition among UU's. Here's a recent example, from Rev. Forrest Church;

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wL8eAYcPs6c