Ethics and Politics: An American Perspective
Lecture by Richard J. Anderson, PhD
Immanuel Adult Forum
23 September 2012
When I began to tell people that the Adult Forum was planning a series of discussions on ‘Christian ethics and American politics’, I was met with a variety of responses. These responses ranged from an arched eyebrow to a conspiratorial smirk to an exclamation of ‘you’re crazy; the two don’t have anything to do with each other.’ The response was near-unanimous: ‘don’t go there; it’s a hopeless jungle.’
I suspect that this response was in large part a commentary on the sad state of current American politics. Or perhaps too narrow a view of what constitutes political ethics. Even, in some cases, a naïve view that politics and ethics inhabit different spheres of reality, nevertouching one another.
The truth of the matter is that politics and ethics have been intertwined throughout all of civilization. An ethical foundation provides the base of political action. Politics is the manifestation of some ethical system, convergence of systems, or compromise between competing systems of thought. Without ethics, politics is merely random. This is not to say that randomness doesn’t have its moments in political history, too, but they are often shortlived and end in fiery chaos.
There is a school of thought which holds that American political ethics is a single continuum, a‘red thread’ if you will, that runs from 1776 to the present. What is wrong with American politics is that has deviated from those universal truths and succumbed to socialism, egalitarianism, moral weakness, a lack of respect for proper order. All of these are sometimes
summed up in a single dirty word, ‘liberalism.’ What is needed is a return to the old true American ethic of our Founding Fathers.
I will attempt to argue in this lecture that there is not a single ethical system which has guided
American politics, but indeed five systems which have competed for dominance and sometimes
worked in uneasy alliance with each other. In chronological order, these five clusters of ideas
are Enlightenment Ethics, Utilitarian Ethics, Evangelical Ethics, Social Evangelical Ethics, and
Private Evangelical Ethics.
This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, even for American politics. One could also mention
varying forms of utopian ethics, a near-endless array of Marxist ethics, Islamic ethics, Thomistic
ethics, and Nietzschean ethics (the inspiration for both Ayn Rand and the Nazi ideologues).
Some of these have had an impact on American politics, but it has usually been in a minor way.
The classical ethical systems (epicureanism, stoicism, cynicism) must also be mentioned, but
they seem to have had limited application in America when applied to more than a small group
Back to the Beginnings
Contrary to what many pundits and political candidates would tell us, the religious and ethical
principles of those who founded the United States and led it through its first forty years had
little in common with any form of Protestant Christianity found today. They were children of
the Enlightenment, commonly called Deists. There were some exceptions, of course: John
Adams appears to have been a fairly orthodox Congregationalist, while Ethan Allan and Thomas
Paine were outright atheists. Even with different theologies (or lack thereof), they all shared in
the Enlightenment Ethic.
That ethic was painted in broad strokes. While the American Enlightenment thinkers were also
concerned with personal morality, the family, personal integrity, general honesty, and safety
from violence, their major focus was on the construction of a perfect society, free of
superstition, hereditary privilege, oppressive government, and unlawful restraint. Freedoms of
choice, speech, and peaceable assembly and the traditional rights of Englishmen were all
incorporated into this vision. Again, this was conceived on a grand scale; the object of moral
improvement was the body politic. The Enlightenment Ethic could not totally ignore personal
morality, but it wasted little time on questions of who was sleeping in whose bed, or who was
drinking on Sunday.
Two things should be noted about the achievements of the Founding Fathers, however. First,
while advocates of school prayer tell us that the Fathers wanted ‘freedom of religion, not
freedom from religion.’ In truth, this is not exactly clear. While Isaac Backus and his Baptist
followers certainly held this view, others, most notably Madison and Jefferson, were very
fearful of the influence of organized religion on the stability of the American state.
Finally, in keeping with the culture of their times, the Enlightenment Fathers asserted that ‘all
men are created equal’, but what they really meant was that ‘all white male persons who own
property are created equal.’ It would take over 200 years to fully expand this definition, and
many would argue that the process is ongoing today.
The Rise of Utilitarian Ethics
The Enlightenment-Deist leadership and its ethical system fairly much controlled American
politics for the first 40 years of American history. During the 1820’s, it gradually lost control to
a different way of grounding political activity. For want of a better term, I am calling it Utilitarian Ethics.
It is at the same time more egalitarian than the old politics, more concerned with expansion of the country,
more open to social mobility and entrepreneurship, and begins in a hesitating way to deal with the problems
of urbanization. Historians, who seem inordinately fond of Andrew Jackson, call this the Jacksonian Period of
American history. The true leaders are the era were probably Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.
In the political realm, Utilitarian Ethics was quite simple: if it works, it’s good. If it doesn’t
work, it’s bad. The goal of politics was to amass voters around a candidate or a project to carry
the day. Shifting alliances often created new coalitions. There is little reference to natural law
in this period, except for the ‘Manifest Destiny’ of America to conquer and subdue the entire
continent. In Utilitarian Ethics, the Mexican War and the subjugation of Native Americans were
not ethical issues, except that if one won in the end, it must be God’s way.
It is worthy of note that during the ascendancy of Utilitarian Ethics, the American voters
selected the first President who was a professional politician. This is not to say that Martin Van
Buren, elected in 1836, was a bad man; in many ways, he was as qualified as most of his
predecessors. As a member of Jackson’s cabinet, as Vice-President, and as President, one of his
priorities was building up the Democratic Party.
Van Buren’s successors, according to most historians, were a bad lot. There were seven
Presidents in 20 years, most of them totally forgotten today. Four were Democrats, three were
Whigs. There was little cohesiveness in either party, and certainly none in the country as a
whole. There have been recent attempts by historians to reclaim some glory for Polk and
Pierce, largely for their views on western expansion.
Enter Charles Finney
While the Democrats and the Whigs were taking turns ruling the country, a great deal of
political activity was taking place outside the nation’s capital city. A series of religious revivals
had awakened spiritual fervor in America, beginning with the one at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in
1801. These revivals had spread from Kentucky and Tennessee to engulf much of the South,
the Middle West, New York, and New England. In 1825, a lawyer named Charles Grandison
Finney began a revival in Rochester, New York. His success there led to revivals across New
York state and then into neighboring states.
The roots of Protestant religious revivals go back deep into the history of the American
colonies. Those roots included the Great Awakening of the 1730’s, led by Jonathan Edwards and
British preacher George Whitefield. While the teachings of Edwards and of Barton Stone and
Alexander Campbell (leaders of the Cane Ridge revival) had significant ethical content, none of
them were overtly political in their messages. Edwards, certainly, had little reason to be:
church and state were virtually identical in his society.
Finney, however, was different. He believed that personal salvation was critically important,
but salvation did not result in sitting back and enjoying the fruits of blessedness. It was
imperative that the saved person go out and change society. If need be, that meant changing
the government as well. His view was a direct assault on the Utilitarian Ethics and even more
on the separation of religion and state cherished by the Enlightenment Founders.
Finney’s followers found much that was wrong with American society and politics. The Sabbath
was openly profaned, so Sunday closing laws were needed. Ordinary people could not read the
Bible, so Bibles had to be printed and distributed, and more importantly, public schools had to
be made available to all. Liquor flowed freely throughout the country and was ruining people’s
lives; it needed to be stopped. Women’s rights were virtually non-existent; women needed
legal recourse to divorce and adjudication of property; they needed the vote to make certain
that they were heard. There was a great need for ministers and informed laity; schools and
seminaries needed to be built. Orphanages and prisons were dreadful places; they were badly
in need of reform.
But there was one issue much bigger than all that. Slavery. Finney denounced slavery in his
revival sermons, and he attracted his most fervent disciples on this issue. One of those
disciples was Theodore Dwight Weld, who with his wife and sister-in-law (Angelina and Sarah
Grimke) conducted his own revivals throughout the Northern states. A typical Weld-Grimke
revival, often in tents with a thousand or more people, often ended something like this:
Do you hate sin? (Crowd roars ‘yes’)
Do you want to fight sin in America? (Crowd roars ‘yes’)
Did you know that the greatest sin in America is slavery? (Crowd replies ‘yes’)
Are you ready to go out and save America by destroying slavery?
(Deafening roar ‘yes’)
Weld and the Grimke sisters did not limit their activities to mass meetings. Together, the three
of them wrote Slavery As It Is, an indictment of all aspects of the institution. That book
inspired another abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, possibly the
most influential American book of the 19th Century.
Finney’s disciples, operating out of Oberlin College in Ohio, scorched the earth with revivals
attacking sin and slavery in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa.
They set up anti-slavery societies, assisted the Underground Railroad, and helped to found
many of the Midwest’s private colleges, such as Ripon, Beloit, Carroll, Knox, Albion, and
The Finneyite agenda was a two-branched pitchfork to goad American society into making
changes. The primary means to change was through voluntary benevolent societies. Hundreds
of such organizations came into being in the 1820’s and the three decades following. But
voluntary societies could do little about the problem of slavery. That required a frontal attack
on the political system of the United States.
The second branch of the pitchfork was the Republican Party. With the Whig Party in deep
decline, some members of that group joined with the Finneyites, remnants of the Liberty and
Free Soil Parties, other abolitionists, and assorted radicals to form the Republican Party in 1854.
The Evangelical Ethics, which had energized Finney’s revivals and the broad range of social
reform movements, now found its political form.
This was something new. This was the first time that a group with an overtly religious agenda
had formed a political organization on a national scale (there had been local religious parties
before, all unsuccessful). While not exactly pleased with the candidacy of Lincoln (much too
moderate), the Finneyite network in at least 6 states was sufficient to help elect a Republican
Success and Decline
The political and military consequences of Lincoln’s election are well known; there is no need to
recap them. What is less well known is the story of the disintegration of the religious base for
Evangelical Ethics. Almost immediately after the end of the Civil War, that religious consensus
began to unravel.
The causes for this breakup were many, and historians are still trying to sort them out.
Urbanization was certainly a major factor; immigration also played a part; the importation of
ideas from Britain and Europe (secularism, evolution, and millennialism) was a catalyst; the
scars of a nation torn into North and South certainly contributed to bad feeling.
Regardless of the sources, Evangelical Protestantism in America split into two warring camps.
On the one side was Social Evangelicalism, embracing the city, immigrants (though grudgingly in
many cases), evolutionary thought, modern Biblical scholarship, and a commitment to turn
society into ‘God’s Kingdom on Earth.’ Its leaders included Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington
Gladden, and Josiah Strong, urban pastors and social reformers.
On the other side was Private Evangelicalism. It cherished rural America (especially the South),
native-born Americans, and private morality, while rejecting evolution and the Higher Criticism
of the Bible. It produced few intellectual figures of note, but often followed the leading
revivalist preachers of the day. Spurned by the major denominations and seminaries, this
branch of Evangelicalism eventually went ‘underground’, forming its own Bible schools and
seminaries, sometimes even its own denominations.
The split between the two camps was gradual. Dwight Moody, perhaps the greatest revival
preacher after Finney, attempted to bridge the gap for many years, but eventually became the
hero of the Private Evangelicals. The paths taken by Moody’s three major successors is
instructive: Benjamin Fay Mills abandoned revivalism and became a Unitarian reformer,
Reuben Torrey became a major leader of the Fundamentalist movement, and J. Wilbur
Chapman tried to hold the two factions together as late as 1912.
By then, there had been two significant shifts in the ethics of American politics. In the absence
of an Evangelical consensus (and for other reasons), Utilitarian Ethics had taken control of both
major parties. The business of America was business. From 1872 onward, the interests of big
business, whether banking, railroads, coal, oil, or steel, controlled Congress and set national
A brief break in this Utilitarian dominance came in the 1890’s until 1912, when the Progressive
Movement, largely fueled by Social Evangelicalism (which had incorporated some Jewish and
Roman Catholic support) gained power, first regionally and then nationally under President Theodore
Roosevelt. 1912 was both the high point and the last gasp of this movement, when the Progressive
Party proclaimed, ‘We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.’
The following Century would see, with brief interruptions, the domination of American politics
by Utilitarian Ethics. Even with Wilson, whose immersion in Presbyterian piety could not be
challenged, there appeared little connection between his religious ethics and the performance
of his administration, both on the domestic and international fronts.
The symbols of religiosity, even overt borrowings from Evangelical Ethics, continue to flourish in
a political system which has very little religion at its ethical center. God made his way into the
Pledge of Allegiance and on coins and currency, while it has been clear that the real ethical
motives of politics have been money, power, global domination (economic and when necessary
military), and the ability to stay in office once elected.
There has been a major change in recent years, however. The Reagan campaign, thinking it
could control them, invited elements of the Private Evangelical movement, including radical
right-wing elements, into its inner circle. This group has increased its influence with the
Republican Party over the years and has become a major factor in raising the stridency of
In a sense, the Radical Right are the true inheritors of Finneyism, for they also hold that there is
no compromise with sin or sinners. They are possessed of the truth, the whole truth, and
nothing but the truth. On issues like abortion, gay rights, undocumented people, gun control,
and religious diversity, there are no gray areas. You are with us or against us.
Noted historian Fritz Stern speaks of the ‘politics of cultural despair’ in reference to the rise of
Nazism. While in a totally different context, the phrase is probably appropriate for the Private
Evangelicals in this and recent elections. There is a sense in their rhetoric that this is America’s
last chance to save itself. The country has changed too much in the last few decades. Change
must stop. A past (which never existed) must overcome the future.
It is despair, driven by fear, often by paranoia. But it is an ethical system, and one that many
appear to find appealing. That, in itself, is a fearful thought.