American saints and relics

No, I don’t just copy everything Peter Leithart writes and then post it on my blog.  But it wouldn’t be a terrible idea.  This post of his is short enough that I’m just going to copy and post it here.  Really interesting stuff.  I’m enjoying catching up on his blog after being away.

William Cavanugh notes (The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict): “although Jefferson was responsible for the complete separation of church and state in Virginia, Jefferson wrote in the language of medieval Christianity about the preservation of physical things associated with the creation of the declaration: ‘Small things may, perhaps, like the relics of saints, help to nourish our devotion to this holy bond of Union.’  Of the desk on which he drafted the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson expressed his hope that we might see it ‘carried in the procession of our nation’s birthday, as the relics of the saints are in those of the Church.’”  Cavanaugh cites a study that shows that “throughout the nineteenth century, virulently anti-Catholic leaders were inclined to borrow Catholic imagery to describe the nation’s founding.  The founders were ’saints,’ they raised ‘altars’ of freedom, their houses were ’shrines’ containing ‘relics,’ and so on.”

Practices, rituals, and language that no Protestant would tolerate at church found their home in American civil religion.



  1. Hehehe. 🙂 I like your filtering Leithart for us.

    I don’t know about “shrines” and “relics”, but “saints” and “altars” are Biblical terms, so some Protestant interpretation is required (they can’t just ignore the terms) and it makes sense that their use of “saints” (e.g.) would be more expansive.

    Jefferson’s comment is more striking, acknowledging the utility of relics. But it makes sense as a rebound from the initial thrust of Protestantism which may be carried too far.

  2. Good point about saints and altars. I didn’t think about the more expansive use of “saint” in Protestantism. At the same time, though, I think that the use of “saints” in this case is more analogous to the usual Catholic sense, because the founders in this rendering are a group of especially “holy” examples to the broader group. In a Protestant application of “saints” to America, all Americans would be saints.

    What did you mean by “a rebound from the initial thrust of Protestantism which may be carried too far”?

  3. (1) Good point — while broader than the usual Catholic sense, their usage of “saint” is more narrowly applied to the founders rather than referring to all Christians in the Protestant sense.

    I’m not familiar with Protestant’s historical use and interpretations of “saint” beyond that, but from my own understanding, saint = holy = hagios (greek) = qadosh (hebrew) = separate for a special purpose. So multiple senses of “saint” relative to those purposes (and actually living according to that purpose) seems reasonable to me.

    (2) I meant that the Protestant thrust of rejecting relics or images can be taken too far. e.g. to discourage religious artwork or deny people a physical reminder.

    People naturally attach emotion to items, which could be positively used to re-enter that emotion, or focus on God rather than idolatrously detract from or substitute for God.

    Strangely, while the above seems right to me, I don’t really keep such symbols myself, or even personal memorabilia or photos, which I sometimes feel is a shame since I’m also forgetful.

    All that said, Jefferson’s idea of carrying his desk in a procession still strikes me as silly. 🙂

  4. Kevin,

    Of course, the founders didn’t apply the word saint to all Christians. That just the point. They abhorred the usage in the religious sense, but then borrowed the term for the secular sense. They set aside the term saint for people who exemplified the values of the new republic and not the common citizen. This setting aside of exemplars of democracy is exactly that makes the founders use of the term saint more similar to the distinctively Catholic religious use than the Catholic and Protestant use of the word saint to refer to all believers destined for heaven.

    Similarly, Protestants vary somewhat on what a relic is, but they would never carry one in a procession as Jefferson suggests. This again is distinctively Catholic imagery applied to the secular political realm.

    It is interesting that you find not keeping memorabilia around regrettable given your forgetfulness. I would apply that forgetfulness and regretableness to Protestantism in general. The Protestant rejection of saints and relics has contributed, I think, to a tremendous forgetfullness of their heritage in general. One could argue that their isn’t much worth remembering in most cases, since most Churches were founded in the wake of some terrible division, but understanding who we are and why we believe what we believe is greatly assisted by understanding our roots. People who think they believe what they believe because that’s “simply what the Bible says” are terribly naive, I think. We interpret the Scriptures and add more weight to some verses than others based on our cultural/historical backgrounds. I found it rather odd when I found out that I knew far more of the founding of Mark Congdon’s church and the deep division that accompanied it’s founding than he did (and perhaps does). In a very real sense, I understand more about the doctrinal and historical background of his church than many, if not most, actual members, which is just crazy when you think about it.


  5. I’d tend to agree about the utility of physical reminders and historical memory of heroes in both politics and faith. They do help us to stay grounded in our principles. Mark Noll (and others, I think) in writing about evangelicalism talks about the inherent bias against inherited institutions that evangelicals have: we tend to just start new ones. This, combined with a belief that the Bible can be read without the influence of any tradition whatsoever, helps to create an evangelicalism with a difficult time remembering its history. Noll thinks that evangelicalism was huge in building American culture in the 19th century, so perhaps this carries over into our political culture as well.

    At the same time, these reminders do need to be used properly too. I’m trying to better understand the Catholic teachings on saints and relics better, and so I’m sure that my concept of them lacks the depth and nuance that I’d like to have. I think that the Catholic understanding goes too far in terms of assigning spiritual power to saints and relics (not just in the popular understanding but in the more nuanced and balanced official teachings too).

  6. Douglas,

    I’m just not sure that “saint” meaning “a good example” is the key factor in the Catholic definition and the Protestant rejection of it.

    My guess is that Protestants objected to (1) the Catholic Church’s authority to confer (and limit) saint-hood, and (2) the practice of praying to saints or using them as intermediaries. Neither of these were carried over to the founders.

    Relatedly, Leithart wrote: “Practices, rituals, and language that no Protestant would tolerate at church found their home in American civil religion.

    While that reads like a charge of hypocrisy, I think it’s misleading in that he’s applying the same terms twice but with different meanings. No Protestant would tolerate them at church with their Catholic meaning. But similar ones could find their home outside of church because they did not have (and probably would not be mistaken to have) the truly objectionable aspects of the Catholic meaning.

    Of course, this is largely conjecture since I’m not familiar with the empirical details, but hopefully y’all will enlighten me with the specifics if I’m wrong. 🙂

    Excellent points about knowing (particularly one’s own) history and the goofiness of an outsider knowing more than an insider. You’re right, and without detracting from those truths, I guess I’d explain it by saying that history is only important as it serves us in what we do now and in the future.

    He who forgets the past is doomed to repeat it, but as you hint, forgetting is also useful, e.g. as a powerful way to break cycles such as inherited patterns, animosity between groups, etc.

    I’m reminded of a quote from the movie “Blind Side”: “Michael’s gift is that the Good Lord gave him the ability to forget. He’s mad at no one and doesn’t really care what happened. His story might be sad, but he’s not sad.”

    There’s also misapplying history, and generally finding and focusing upon the relevant parts without being misled by the irrelevant or harmful parts. As you note, people even shift historical emphasis to reshape interpretation and whole cultures.

    Of course, ignorance is not the solution. Everyone is just looking for relevance to making the best choices going forward.


  7. Kevin, I think you’re right about the Protestant objections to Catholic ideas about sainthood. And while you’re right that the political saints and relics were no longer theologically objectionable, I’m not sure that Leithart is saying that it was hypocrisy but instead that it’s a curious carryover of language. Protestants often criticized Catholics in this time as superstitious and inherently unable to be free due to their unthinking submission to the pope (some of the major religious concerns about Catholic immigrants). Given that, it’s pretty remarkable that this language would carry over into the celebration of American freedom.

  8. I don’t quite see the semantic connection (American relics did not have supernatural power, and leaders were not unthinkingly submitted to), but you make a fair point about word association:

    Rejection frequently includes more than its target. e.g. Hitler pretty much put the kibosh on his style mustache. The name “Adolph” probably reduced in popularity as well.

    So it is interesting that the words re-emerged. Perhaps the reuse signified a latent longing for some aspects of the Catholic usage, as Jefferson related. Also, maybe calling American artifacts “relics” and great statesmen “saints” became popular in part because it pissed off Catholics? 🙂

  9. Kevin,

    I missed this a month ago. “My guess is that Protestants objected to (1) the Catholic Church’s authority to confer (and limit) saint-hood, and (2) the practice of praying to saints or using them as intermediaries. Neither of these were carried over to the founders.”

    From the above, I would say it is probably safe to assume that your understanding of the Catholic teaching on saints is an admixture of fact and fiction. That said, the fictional understanding is almost universal, and from what I’ve read, has existed for many since the reformation, so it hardly diminishes your point as a possible way of explaining the founder’s reasoning.

    I would just say that in my experience, many Protestants object to far more than the above regarding Catholic ideas on saints and relics.

    Regardless of whether one thinks that the objectionable aspects could be left out of the secular practices, it is clearly a borrowing of imagery. That such imagery would be borrowed by people Cavanugh describes as “virulently anti-Catholic leaders” is rather remarkable and odd in my mind. Perhaps that has to do with the connotations I bring to the subject. When I read “virulently anti-Catholic,” I think of the Stowe’s of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame and even modern evangelicals teaching that the pope is the anti-Christ. I think of laws in the colonial past forbidding Catholics from holding property and voting. I think of laws in some municipalities persisting (at least on the books) well into the 50’s forbidding Catholics from owning property. When I read what Cavanugh wrote, it conjures up images for me of KKK members starting a jazz or African drum band. Probably, this is as indicative of my lack of understanding of the 18th century mind, as it is of anything else.


  10. Doug,

    Fascinating and disturbing examples of “virulently anti-Catholic”. As much as I’ve attempted reasonable explanations, I agree that it is odd and I don’t really understand the 18th century mind either.

    If you have some basic points in mind, I’m interested to learn what is fact and what is fiction regarding my understanding of Catholic teaching on saints.

    It occurs to me that teaching can vary from practice, but also intent can vary from external perception. e.g. Catholics are not to pray to the saints, but from external observation, that is what it can look and sound like.

    And since I could only think of those two key points, I’m also curious what other relevant objections you’d cite that Protestants have regarding Catholic ideas on saints.



  11. Kevin,

    I composed a blog post that goes over other relevant objections that Protestants have to Catholic ideas on saints. It was rather long, so I posted it here.

    I could very well be reading my own past fictional understanding into your limited words on sainthood. I tried to cover some of those potential misunderstandings, but I’m afraid it was rather verbose and long and maybe not very clear or accurate. Anyway, it’s late and will have to do for now.

  12. Doug, I’m looking forward to reading your blog post about saints.

    As far as the 18th-century mind and Protestant discrimination against Catholics, we probably have to look at European (especially English history) in the 16th and 17th centuries to understand it.

    There was an association of Catholicism with tyranny and persecution, epitomized by “Bloody Mary’s” execution of 300 Protestants. Also, Protestants seemed to have the sense that they were freeing Christians from the spiritual chains of unbiblical Catholic traditions and the claims of the pope (whose claims of authority marked him and the church hierarchy as Antichrist for many Protestants). Of course, Protestants persecuted Catholics too, but that was probably seen as the good guys winning.

    In the 17th century, Catholicism was associated with absolutism as Charles I and James II (who was openly Catholic) came into conflict over the king’s power. The resulting Glorious Revolution brought in two Protestant monarchs, William and Mary, and barred Catholics from holding the throne (Catholics were already excluded from Parliament). Also, this was the time of Louis XIV’s absolutist monarchy, in which he kicked out all nonconverting French Protestants and became the most famous absolute monarch in European history.

    So I think that attitudes about Catholics were bound up with the political history of the colonies’ mother country, as well as religious or social discrimination. The Protestant denial of Catholic abilities to be free of course denies the groundwork that the Catholic Church helped to lay for Western ideas of freedom.

  13. I read the blog post and enjoyed it. Thanks for the definitions of holiness. One thing that I think should be clarified from the Protestant end is that we believe that God wants to make us holy and that this a or perhaps the major task of the Holy Spirit. For Protestants, though, justification is separate from sanctification. In other words, God does declare the piles of dung righteous but also begins cleaning them up. Sanctification comes after justification. Protestants don’t seem to have a doctrine about post-death sanctification, which Catholics would locate in purgatory. Prots tend to assume, I think, that the rest of a person’s sinfulness is taken away before heaven. But because of the declaration of righteousness in Christ, that’s not a sticking point to seeing God.

  14. Yeah, Bloody Mary for some reason seemed to have a chip on her shoulder against the Church of England and Protestantism in general. It may have had something to do with her dad, Henry VIII, shamefully putting her mom away after Catherine didn’t bear a son and then calling his own daughter illegitimate, removing her from the line of succession and only “reconciling” with her after she publicly accepted her illegitimacy. Elizabeth seemed to have the same sort of hang up about her own actual illegitimacy, though she learned from Mary’s mistakes and didn’t make her numerous executions of Catholics a public spectacle. Also, Elizabeth had parliament to back her up and do the dirty work, so she didn’t need to soil her reputation as badly. Mary was a damn fool being so public about the executions. By keeping things more quiet, Elizabeth didn’t enrage the people as badly and was able to avoid having a Catholic Foxe gain notoriety by producing a popular martyrology.

    Personally, I think the back and forth of persecutions depending on which king or queen was in power contributed greatly to the modern skepticism that Brits have toward religion. Of course, they always reflexively describe the Catholic Church in terms that are 100x worse than the Church of England. Undoubtedly, this had a tremendous influence on the British colonies.

    I hope I didn’t come across as saying only Catholics of that era were persecuted. It just seems to me that it lasted in this country much, much longer than most people realize and was really what made the election of JFK as monumental in its own way as the election of Barack Obama. It would have been unthinkable, even a generation prior. Anyway, I didn’t intend to imply that persections were one sided. Catholics persecuted Protestants and Protestants even persecuted Protestants. The first anabaptist martyr was died at the hand of Protestants associated with Zwingli.

    With the upheaval going on in Europe, the aftermath of the Reformation was a terrible time to be a religious minority, no matter which side one was on.

  15. No worries, I didn’t take you as saying that only Catholics were persecuted. It would have been weird for Mary not to have persecuted Protestants, even if she and her mother hadn’t been treated so badly by Henry VIII (one of the weirder figures of the Reformation: listen, we’re going to break from Rome, but we’re still going to have all of the same beliefs, except I get a new wife and I’m the new head of the church, got it?). It was how things were done in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. In this post I have a brief quote that sums up the idea of a religion as a body of believers (rather than a set of beliefs) and heretics as pollution:

    Elizabeth was a different type of ruler than Mary, I think. Mary, understandably, wanted a pure English church that submitted to Rome. Elizabeth wanted a church that would satisfy the most people and unite the country. She eventually allowed Catholicism once she knew that Catholics could be loyal to her, and I think that she not only executed Catholics more quietly, she executed them far less, especially given her length of her reign.

    And yeah, those poor Anabaptists.

    Interesting point about the skepticism by Brits. The Catholic Church’s reputation didn’t fare well in the Enlightenment period, perhaps because it was an easier target with its insistence on traditional, personal authority and the unfortunate but way overblown Galileo incident.

  16. I have such fun watching you two talk. 🙂

    Doug wrote: “Prayer to saints, prayers for the dead, purgatory, justification. A distincly Catholic usage of the term saint is related to almost every highly contested doctrinal area between Catholics and Protestants, and I haven’t even touched on the most famous saint of all time, the Blessed Virgin, whom the Church Fathers called the New Eve.

    Thanks so much for your great and thoughtful response to my questions, Doug. It has helped to clarify my thinking about Catholics and raised some interesting tangents for me to work through at some point.

  17. “The Catholic Church’s reputation didn’t fare well in the Enlightenment period, perhaps because it was an easier target with its insistence on traditional, personal authority and the unfortunate but way overblown Galileo incident.”

    The Catholic hierarchy at numerous levels was so corrupt, they trashed their own reputation IMHO. If they had been holy men and women, the reformation would likely never have occurred. If it had occurred, it likely would have failed, even with the German princes’ support.

    Elizabeth was far more tolerant of 90% of Catholic beliefs than Mary was of 90% of Protestant beliefs, but she was still a child of her age and the entanglement of her has head of the Church meant she could never truly tolerate Catholics. She was willing to tolerate Catholics, as long as they accepted her as head of the one Church in England and attended services in a her church once in awhile, never attending Catholic mass. That’s kind of like saying you can be as pro-life as you want, but you must abort your second child. From what I’ve read (and it admittedly isn’t much), it was at all points of Elizabeth’s reign 1000% times safer to be a modern Chinese Catholic priest than an Elizabethan Catholic priest, and my guess is that the length of her reign allowed her to kill a greater percentage of Catholic clergy than Mary had killed of Protestant clergy. Mary wanted total purity, and she wanted it NOW. Elizabeth seemed satisfied to pick off the leadership one by one over time. Her father and brother had already made sure that the numbers where small and the monasteries were shells of their former selves. Mary’s public brutality lost the public opinion war and Catholicism never regained its former stature, despite her efforts to rebuild the Catholic Church and prop it up. The Catholicism that Elizabeth faced was weak and relatively small in numbers.

  18. Yes, I think that the morality of the Catholic Church’s leadership in the times of the Reformation was a key factor, perhaps the key factor since most people couldn’t probably get into the finer points of theological debate. I would think that the theological differences had to make some difference, but probably a different amount of difference with different people :).

    As far as the Enlightenment goes, what I meant was that Protestants could bend with the winds of the Enlightenment a bit better with their focus on individual conscience and individual Bible reading. The Catholic reliance on the magisterium of the church, especially the pope, led it to be archconservative for a really long time and was also the easiest target for the Enlightenment movement that championed human reason over all forms of tradition and authority. It’s hard to imagine two big Western cultural movements more opposed than the Enlightenment movement and the Catholic Church, except socialism vs. the Church.

    But that’s not really a criticism. While the confidence of the Enlightenment ethos has been chastened by the horrible events of the 20th century and the rise of postmodernism, there’s still a 2000-year-old Catholic tradition of thought that’s pretty darn impressive (although I don’t agree with all of it), especially compared to the divided world of Protestantism.

  19. Interesting point on the enlightenment. It makes sense, though I must admit my ignorance prohibits me from understanding the point much more than superficially.

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