The Public Humanist

John Adams: Journey to Religious Tolerance

As stated in the previous blog, John Adams’s political ideals were firmly grounded in religion. This essay explores his journey from Puritan intolerance to universal tolerance and then argues that Adams’s religion has lessons for us today.

Early in his life he made intolerant comments about Islam, Judaism, and Catholicism. He believed that every great leader was an imposter, and specifically listed Mohammed as one example. He characterized Jewish people as quite selfish and blind.

However, he found Catholicism especially repugnant. In 1775 he wrote about “the Romish superstition” as the worst tyranny ever invented. On a particularly difficult winter trip through northern Spain, en route to a diplomatic assignment in Paris, he observed the priests and nuns of various religious orders and commented that they were drones, devouring the resources of the nation. He thought that church, state and nobility exhausted the people of Spain, making them truly wretched.

But while serving his country in Europe, he changed. Viewing an anti-Semitic tapestry in a Brussels cathedral, he cursed the priesthood and the ignorant people for this “Piece of pious Villany.” But then he reflected on the masses of adoring worshipers and wrote: “perhaps, I was rash and unreasonable, and that it is as much Virtue and Wisdom in them to adore, as in me to detest and despise” (Diary and Autobiography, 2: p. 443). The Puritan was moving toward tolerance.

James Warren wrote Adams (still in Europe) that some Americans feared the alliance with Catholic France would endanger religion in the new United States. In a letter of August 4, 1778, Adams logically refuted that fear but also wrote that, in this tolerant age, the fear was fit for ridicule rather than serious argument. It was clear to him that France was not dangerous to American religion.

In a January, 1810 letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, he wrote: “Ask me not, then, whether I am a Catholic or Protestant, Calvinist or Arminian. As far as they are Christians, I wish to be a fellow-disciple with them all” (Spur of Fame, p. 160).

Stimulated by his reading to think about the creation of the universe, Adams stated that God was too incomprehensible for any human being. Also, he continued, “Admire and adore the Author of the telescopic universe, love and esteem the work, do all in your power to lessen ill, and increase good: but never assume to comprehend” (John Adams and the Prophets of Progress, p. 288).

At the 1820 Massachusetts Constitutional convention Adams, a delegate at the age of 85, proposed a religious freedom amendment for all religions, Jews included. He did not succeed. Late in his life he suggested that the nations of the world share their ideas of religion. The religious books of each nation should be translated and shared so that all could compare notes and accept all that is good. In short, he advocated universal tolerance.

Adams emphasized tolerance as an antidote to the dangers of enthusiasm, the excesses committed in many times and places in the name of religion. Enthusiasm has positive connotations today, but for the founding generation, it was dangerous.

In addition to tolerance, another Adams antidote to enthusiasm was an individualistic, anti-hierarchical approach to religion. In a letter to Benjamin Waterhouse in December, 1815, Adams wrote: “The Christian is the Religion of the heart: but the heart is deceiptfull above all things and, unless controuled by the Dominion of the Head, will lead us into salt ponds.” Here Adams is part of a religious shift from the community-hier­archical religion of Winthrop and the early Puritans to a more community-indi­vidual religion. Religion was necessary (his Puritan heritage) but the danger of emotional, en­thusiastic religion should be controlled by the rationality of individuals. Political and religious freedom then went hand in hand.

The connections between tolerance and religious freedom are obvious. Adams saw religious freedom as politically valuable in relations with European nations and as a policy that would attract many valuable immigrants.

These were not just words; he acted on his views. As a diplomat in Europe he assisted Anglican candidates for the priesthood in obtaining ordination (one candidate who benefited from Adams’s assistance was no other than Parson Weems, biographer of George Washington). Adams also tried to mediate between American Anglicans and the Archbishop of Canterbury to secure consecration of American bishops. He argued that Americans were a tolerant people and freedom of conscience was an inalienable right. He was not successful in this case, but it is an example of how much he had changed. One can hardly imagine a Puritan rebel against George III attempting to aid Anglicans.

Does John Adams offer any lessons for the twenty-first century on the relationship of religion and politics? Many Americans, some religious, some not, are very skeptical of any claims that religion has a crucial societal function. Why do so many reject Adams’s vision (virtue is necessary for the republic; religion is necessary for virtue; religion must be controlled by rationality so that enthusiasm does not destroy the republic)? Perhaps most important is the ascendance of the scientific spirit and the common collateral misperception that one cannot be both scientific and reli­gious. (That this is too dialectical is another matter.) Adams wanted both religion and reason. He believed that science had significantly improved conditions for mankind.

A second factor is the fear of the excesses of enthusiasm. The term, “puritanical,” evokes American experiences with such excesses. Rationalists look at religion and see danger. Adams also saw danger in any reli­gious excess; he was not blind to the dangers of theocratic power and dogmatism on the part of the clergy and enthusiasm on the part of the masses. But perhaps Americans today have forgotten something he understood: the importance of internalized standards—character, virtue, whatever label one uses.

Obviously, psychological repression or religious brainwashing simply will not do. But any society requires a degree of individual self-control to avoid sliding toward anarchy. Free market enthusiasts who argue that the market provides such discipline do not understand significant parts of Adams’s arguments. He feared the corrupting influence of commerce; to counterbalance this he argued that individual self-control, shaped by family, education and religion, and further constrained by balanced government would be best for our republic.

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