The Clergy in American Political Culture

Spencer W. McBride

“First Prayer in Congress, September 1774, in Carpenters Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.” Copy of print by H. B. Hall after T. H. Matteson, 1931‒1932. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What role, if any, should the clergy have in American politics? To be clear, I am not writing about formal religious establishment, about church and state. The question is about the extent to which members of the clergy should preach politics from the pulpit and otherwise engage in political discourse in the public square. It is a question that has polarized the American public for centuries. I certainly do not have the definitive answer to the question, but I can tell you this: One of the enduring—if largely unrecognized—traditions of the Founding Era is members of the clergy preaching on politics while the public debates whether they should.

A particularly telling example comes from the debates over the ratification of the Constitution in 1787‒88. Though many Virginia Federalists made public appeals for clergymen to prepare sermons that praised “Almighty God, for inspiring the members of the late [Constitutional] Convention with wisdom, amity and unanimity,” they in turn rebuked Anti-Federalists for “polluting . . . the Temples of the Lord” by using Sunday church services as a forum in which to deal out “their vile Declamations against the Constitution.”[1] Other Federalists readily urged Americans to trust the judgment of the clergy and “a majority of good men” in favor of “giving [the Constitution] a chance,” but decried clergymen who publicly opposed the Constitution as operating “beyond the limits of their office.”[2]

Henry Alexander Ogden, “James Caldwell at the Battle of Springfield,” undated. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Many clergymen viewed political participation as a means of shoring up their social and cultural authority in the early American republic. Ministers in established churches (or those recently disestablished) often were drawn to the policies of the Federalist Party, while those ministers benefiting from recent acts of disestablishment (or fighting for disestablishment) often were drawn to the policies of the Republicans. Of course, there are significant exceptions to those characterizations; local situations and idiosyncrasies often trumped national or ecclesiastical concerns.[3] No matter their positions, the clergy participating in the creation of the first American party system often experienced public backlash that was stated in terms of the propriety of mixing religion and politics but that was actually dictated by opposition to the clergy’s political opinions. Notably, some Americans even connected religious and political affiliations, insisting that doctrinal beliefs were tied exclusively to one party over another. For instance, Benjamin Nones of Philadelphia wrote in one of the city’s newspapers, “I am a Jew, and if for no other reason, for that reason I am a Republican . . . How can a Jew but be a Republican.”[4]

Of course, the issue of religious leaders participating in American politics grew more complicated as the American political system aged. This was especially the case with the 1954 Johnson Amendment to the United States tax code, which created significant financial consequences for non-profit organizations such as churches that endorse political candidates. The Johnson Amendment made the question more than an issue of public preferences for republican participation. It became a legal and ethical question.

Nevertheless, the trend among Americans weighing in on the question has been fairly easy to detect and far less complex than the tax code. If an American agrees with the political positions a member of the clergy publicly advocates, then he or she is grateful to have the minister as a political ally. But if a member of the clergy publicly espouses a political position contrary to his or her opinion, then heaven help that preacher, for he or she has abandoned the Kingdom of God for the kingdom of man. It’s an ideological inconsistency that has been remarkably consistent in American political culture.


Endnotes

[1] “Berkeley County Meeting,” Sept. 28, 1787, in The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, ed., Merrill Jensen, John P. Kaminski, Gaspare J. Saladino, et al. (27 vols. to date; MadisonWI, 1976 –),8: 22, hereafter DHRC). “Extract of a Letter from a Gentleman…in Fairfax County,” Providence United States Chronicle, Apr.24, 1788, in DHRC 9: 756‒57.

[2] “Timon,” New York Daily Advertiser, Mar. 22, 1788, in DHRC 20: 877‒78. Richard Terrill to Garret Minor, Dec. 6, 1787, in DHRC 8:208.

[3] Spencer W. McBride, Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (Charlottesville, VA, 2016), 127‒28.

[4] Benjamin Nones, Aurora and General Advertiser (Philadelphia), Aug. 13, 1800.

13 January 2020

About the Author

Spencer W. McBride is documentary editor of the Joseph Smith Papers.

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