This part shows how America developed a culture that combines racism, laissez-faire capitalism, and moralism, the heart of which is equality-of-opportunity racism. The man who codified, but did not create, this culture was none other than Benjamin Franklin, a much-neglected figure in American history despite lavish praise given him for being a Renaissance person.

Considering the existence of three very distinct regions in the thirteen colonies, the amazing feature of the creation of an American culture is that a common culture was created at all. This common culture is often traced back to Puritanism. This is not surprising given that American social scientists frequently promote the idea that values and ideas are the important socially defining factors, rather than economic interests conceived in the widest sense (including racial, ethnic, regional, and many other interests). Nevertheless, this part shows that it was actually racism that created the basis for the triumph of a common culture based on a modified moralistic Puritanism combined with laissez- faire capitalism. Religion itself, far from being a realm of completely idealistic thought, was a direct reflection of the self- interests of competing and/or cooperating groups.

Chapter 9 defines the many different religions that existed in colonial America. It shows that there was a wide spectrum of religions, reflecting positions from the political left through the center to the right.

Chapter 10 discusses the existence of three separate geographical regions in the thirteen colonies with accompanying differences in religions and economies. The question naturally arises, How did the nation bring cultural unity out of this great diversity? The usual explanation is an exposition of the positive qualities of Puritanism.

Chapter 10 shows that the feature common to all three regions of the thirteen colonies was a shared experience of racism. And racism deeply affected all three regions, creating the shared difficulties that led to feelings that the colonials were very different from British citizens.

Early Puritanism was too severe to serve as the basis for an American culture. It had to be modified and softened somewhat. Chapter 11 shows how the period of the Great Awakening made the traditional Puritanism of the New England upper class a more universal and democratic faith, which could later be transformed into a civil religion. The chapter also clearly shows how even those conflicts in which all sides take religious stances are motivated by economic interests.

Chapter 12 describes how Benjamin Franklin brought together the elements of racism, Puritanism, and laissez-faire capitalism into a statement of the developing American culture.


We have mentioned how the United States founded a civil religion as an integral part of its racist-moralist culture. The religious values of the founding groups are one explanations why the values of America ultimately came to be dressed in religious clothing. To understand the United States one has to understand the heritages of the people who settled the country. Many of these founding groups were religious in nature. More important, the religions represented were often on the extreme fringes of the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, the beliefs of these people often made them unwanted in their countries of origin. There they were subject to harassment and even imprisonment. This chapter examines the history of these religious groups to show the great diversity of religions in early America. As we point out in coming chapters, this diversity is even more outstanding given that American culture basically chose just one of these religions as the basis for its civil religion and general culture. It is no accident that the winner of the religious competition proved to be the most right wing of all the available faiths.

The Protestant Reformation

The Catholic church dominated life in the Middle Ages, growing very wealthy in the process. With such great power and wealth, it is little wonder that the church suffered from many corrupt practices. What became known as the Protestant Reformation started in 1517 in the German town of Wittenberg when the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the cathedral door.

The Center: Lutherans and Church of England

Despite Martin Luther's leadership in what became the Protestant Reformation, Luther himself was relatively conservative. He not only did not envision, he did not even approve of, the great torrents of religious ferment that his ideas unleashed. Many of the new religions were not to the liking of the father of Protestantism. In fact, Luther himself agreed to the bloody suppression of some of the more extremist of the groups.

The various Protestant religions can be placed in a religio- political continuum with Lutherans in the political center (see figure 7.1). The continuum varies from the left-wing's great stress on the freedom of the individual and the right to worship independent of a larger church structure to the right wing's subjugation of the individual to a virtual religious theocracy (see the chart at the end of the chapter).

A big boost to the growth of Protestantism was the birth of the nation-state. Many leaders of newly emerging nations latched on to Protestantism as a way of asserting their national independence from Rome. This in turn helped assure the spread of Protestantism. Such a breakaway leader was England's King Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509 to 1547. In 1527 the English king sought to divorce Catherine of Aragon, but Pope Clement VII (a nephew of Catherine's and a virtual prisoner of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor) would not grant Henry's wish. So the king gradually cut his country's ties with Rome until by 1531 the English clergy had been forced to recognize King Henry as head of the church in England. The official recognition of the establishment of the Church of England came with the famous Act of Supremacy in 1534. (The religion of many of the settlers of the American South was the Church of England, a centrist religion. Methodism, which is discussed in greater depth in the chapter on the Jacksonian revolution, was a breakaway religion from the Church of England.)

The Right Wing: Puritans

The spiritual father of many religious groups to the right of the Lutherans was John Calvin, a Frenchman residing in Switzerland. These groups included the Dutch Reformed Church, the French Reformed Church (its followers better known as the Huguenots), and the Presbyterians.

Of the right-wing religious groups, the most influential in shaping American history were the Pilgrims and Puritans of England. Compared to Lutherans, these right-wing religious groups were much sterner in demanding behavioral conformance to religious tenets and were more centralized in their authority structure.

George M. Waller writes in Puritanism in Early America (1950:v) that no historian of American history questions the postulate that Puritanism has been one of the principal influences on the United States. The real debates are only over which aspects of Puritanism the Americans adopted and whether this adoption was good or bad. This book argues that America adopted the bad ideas of Puritans because of racism itself.

Edmund S. Morgan (1966) in The Puritan Family lists a number of the beliefs of the Puritans. They believed that God knows beforehand whether you are saved or damned, since He is all knowing. Hence, salvation is unattainable through individual effort. Furthermore, good social conduct and a successful life are the result of salvation, rather than their cause. Nevertheless, the Puritans did encourage individual effort by saying that an uncivil or an unsuccessful life was a sure sign of damnation. One way to convince oneself and others that one had been chosen for salvation was zealously to enforce morality on others. The reason behind this moral fervor was the idea of the Covenant. When one has a covenant with God, one has the responsibility for making sure all family members exhibit good behavior. Moreover, every Christian state and church is seen as a successor to the tribe of Israel and bound by covenant to God. And, since the whole community promises obedience to God, unless the guilty member is punished, the whole group should suffer for the sins of the delinquent member.

Contrary to popular belief, the Puritans were not ascetics. They liked good food, good drink, and homely comforts. Nor were they social levelers, for they believed that God made some men subordinate to others. Indeed, subordination was the very soul of order because all persons in authority, whether in family, church, or state, represented Christ himself. Nor were men equal among themselves. The old were superior to the young, the educated to the uneducated, and the rich to the poor.

From Puritanism the new American nation took many of its basic values: materialism with little asceticism (mollified by a stress on the importance of religion), moral fervor, and a high regard for law and social order. The more objectionable features of Puritanism, such as certain antidemocratic tendencies, were partly purged over time, particularly during the Great Awakening (see chapter 10).

Left Wing: Quakers and German Anabaptists

Many splinter groups were to the left of Lutheranism. Luther had objected to the Catholic belief that only the Pope could interpret the Bible. He said that all members of the Protestant clergy could interpret the Holy Book for themselves. However, other religious groups went beyond Luther, declaring that every man and woman could interpret the Bible for themselves. Such groups included the Quakers and the German Anabaptists. Luther, other mainstream Protestant religions, and the Puritans condemned these religions. They saw left-wing religious doctrines as anarchic and a danger to the social order. Even the civil authorities tried to discourage these radical religions from spreading.

One of the religions of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Moravians (started by John Huss), helped inspire the birth of Methodism through its influence on the great preacher John Wesley. The Methodists broke away from the Church of England and became a religion much more sympathetic to the common person.

Influence of Religion on American Life

For the social scientist, religion in and of itself, independent of social class and political disputes, is not important. Americans had a great many different religions from which to choose. The right-wing Puritans established New England, while left-wing Quakers and German Anabaptists were strong in the middle colonies. Initially, the South took its faith from the centrist Church of England. This did not last long, however, as southerners switched to Baptism and Methodism when the Episcopalian ministry (the new name for the Church of England in America) did not support slavery to a degree satisfactory to southerners.

Theoretically, Americans could have chosen a centrist religion or a left-wing religion, but they did not. Regardless of the different religious traditions of the three regions, all America accepted a right-wing religion as the basis for a common culture, namely Puritanism. The reason for this remarkable unity was the shared experience, even if to different degrees, with slavery Puritanism had that moralistic edge needed both to maintain and justify a racist system.


Back to Main Page Table of Contents

Return to Home Page