Q&A/Sarah Barringer Gordon: An 'amazing tapestry'

Americans aren’t getting any less religious, says Sarah Barringer Gordon. And so, just as it has for all of U.S. history, religion will continue to shape American politics, law and culture.

“An open skeptic like Thomas Jefferson ... might have had a hard time in 2000.”

Sarah Barringer Gordon

Sarah Barringer Gordon remembers watching in disbelief as Jerry Falwell led the Republican National Convention in a group prayer back in 1980.

The sight was so unnerving, in fact, that Gordon sought out counsel from her priest.
I had a very long talk with my priest about that—whether that should be considered a problem or not,” says Gordon, a Penn professor of law and history. “And he advised me to learn something about American religious history.”

Gordon took his advice. After earning law and divinity degrees from Yale, then clerking for Third Circuit Judge Arlen Adams, Gordon eventually went back to school and earned another advanced degree: A Ph.D. in history, with a focus on law and religion, at Princeton. Today, her expertise across disciplines makes her one of the nation’s foremost experts on such subjects as the separation of church and state, Mormon culture and blasphemy.

“I became convinced that we needed to visit American history to figure out how this amazing tapestry we live with today came to be,” Gordon says. “I was absolutely galvanized by how unique the American arrangement between church and state is, and how little we have understood what that means over time.”

Gordon, who is currently working on a book about polygamy in Utah as well as a history of religion and U.S. politics since World War II, recently sat down with the Current to discuss America’s long and complicated relationship with religion.

Q. There’s so much religious discussion in American politics today. What stands out to you?

A. I would say that one of the most fascinating things to me has been watching the debates over President Bush’s religious rhetoric. If you look at much of both Bill Clinton’s, but especially Hillary Clinton’s, openness to religion and to, for example, faith-based initiatives, you might be surprised at how similar they are in terms of policy. But in terms of rhetoric, it’s been especially interesting to see President Bush speak. One of the things I joke about—but maybe it’s not so much of a joke—is that an open skeptic like Thomas Jefferson, who was elected in 1800, might have had a hard time in 2000.

Q. Why do you say that?

A. I think we generally have not become a less religious nation, and it’s more and more important to us to use the presidency as a character test. It’s not to say that Jefferson’s religious life, or lack of religious life, wasn’t controversial ... but it’s more to say that, in the contemporary United States, we pour so much into the President, that we demand our leaders have experience and exemplary positions on all kinds of questions, including a general assumption that a qualified President will have thought through the deepest spiritual questions.

Q. Do you think an openly non-religious candidate could be elected today?

A. It would be a tough road. One thing I should say. When my priest—I’m not a Catholic, I’m Episcopalian—told me to learn about American history, I think he meant to provide comfort to me. I’m not sure the history is all that comforting, but the idea that Americans demand spiritual depth and commitment from our leaders is nothing new. It waxes and wanes, but, for example, some of our greatest political moments have come from leaders who have grappled with the moral and religious dimensions of what they were doing.

Q. Do you have any sense of what forces drive the rise and fall of religious fervor in the U.S.?

A. There’s so many different explanations. Within the scholarly community, this is the stuff of which epic battles are made. From my own perspective, it seems that the profound concerns about secularism and its effect on society—especially the fear that government has become godless—has been a powerful motivator for many people. I think equally powerful is the sense … that people are adrift in the world, a world in which government and business and society are so fragmented that they have no community, and so they find community among the faithful.

Q. There is a push right now in Missouri to make Christianity the state religion. Is that unique?

A. No, it’s déja-vu all over again. I don’t know as much about Missouri maybe as I should, but generally, such efforts to codify a given relationship with Christianity in general or similar changes have been a product of profound anxiety about dislocation and about the amorality, or immorality, of government. They have had had origins in both predictable and unlikely places, they have traveled across American history, and they are matched by other movements that seek to separate church and state and to downplay any form of sectarianism.

Q. We often hear the argument that the U.S. was founded on Christian principles. How true, or untrue, is that?

A. There’s no agreement on what caused the American Revolution. If you ask 100 historians you’ll get 100 different answers—and the same was true at the time. If you went to Lexington and Concord and asked the witnesses who fired the first shot, or what happened, nobody agrees. Anything as big and complex as a revolution or the founding of a nation happens over time and for all kinds of different reasons. That being said, in the early republic, after the founding of the country, did some major figures seek to explain it in terms that were friendly to a particular religious vision? Yes.

Q. How well understood is the U.S. take on separation of church and state?

A. I don’t think it’s wrong to say that the founders cared about religion, but it’s probably wrong to say they thought the federal government would have anything to do with it. The federal government in 1791 disables itself from establishing a religion, but that didn’t have any effect on the states.

There were either six or eight of the original 13 states that maintained an established religion after the revolution. But even by 1800, all of the establishments were weak—you could even say anemic. They were relatively quickly done away with in the first 50 years of national life … and very quickly, it became very popular for Americans to claim that disestablishment—the separation of church and state—was a uniquely American concept, and that disestablishment was uniquely friendly to religious life. But the idea that the federal government would have anything to say about any of this is a mid-20th-century concept. It was the states who enacted their own disestablishments.

Q. Do you think U.S. politicians would have handled the Muhammad cartoon controversy differently than the Danes did? Did that furor surprise you?

A. In the U.S., I think it would have been much more likely that politicians would have met with the imams. There has long been an understanding among American politicians that we take religion and religious leaders seriously. I’m also always surprised at how long it takes for stories to get legs—that was months, really—but then you look at Watergate, and that was a year. As a student of blasphemy, the idea that an image can be so extraordinarily painful that it would cause such profound reaction, no, that doesn’t surprise me, nor does the incredible frustration that is caused by the contrast of cultures at such a raw, immediate level. We went through an amazing number of corporate mergers here in the U.S. in the ’80s and ’90s, and you began to see companies coming apart at the seams. If you think how difficult it is for business corporations in the U.S. to get the job done, well, then think worldwide.

Originally published on March 16, 2006