Alonzo Chappel, “Landing of Roger Williams,” 1857 (Wikimedia Commons)

“I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it again.”― Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, quoted in Goodreads.

It’s wasn’t quite a fire bell in the night. More like a pesky alarm clock that won’t go off when you hit the snooze button. But the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in the past week brought a moment of clarity. Like the Missouri compromise that so worried Thomas Jefferson 200 years ago, it was — at best — a sign of distant trouble.

“I considered it at once as the [death] knell of the Union,” Jefferson said of the 1820 compromise that brought Missouri into the union as a slave state. “it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence.”

Jefferson’s reprieve lasted 30 years, until the election of 1860 triggered the Civil War.

Now the scholars and pundits, at least some of them, are talking about a new civil war. They cite the “culture wars”; a degree of political and cultural polarization unmatched since the 1850s; the institutional damage caused by ex-President Trump’s administration; and, now, an extreme right-wing Supreme Court.

“The question is no longer whether there will be a civil conflict in the United States,” said Canadian novelist Stephen Marche this weekend in The Guardian. “The question is how the sides will divide, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how those strengths and weaknesses will determine the outcome.”

Marche, of Toronto, is the author of The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future, a book I’ve put off reading because I thought he was an alarmist.

I still do, but in the past week alone, the Supreme Court has handed down three decisions that, taken together, rank up there with Dred Scott v. Sandford. That 1857 decision, later described by celebrated American jurist Charles Evans Hughes as the court’s “greatest self-inflicted wound,” denied citizenship to Black people and helped lead to the (first) Civil War in 1861. Since I’ve been studying the 1850s for several years now, it got my attention.

Not to be outdone by their predecessors during the runup to the Civil War, today’s court handed down in quick order the following rulings on church-state relations (among other divisive issues) last week:

  • Tuesday, June 21, in Carson v. Mackin requiring public school officials in Maine to fund school vouchers for rural students attending religious schools that teach and proselytize sectarian religious doctrine.
  • Friday, June 24, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Enough said.
  • And Monday, June 27, in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, required public school officials to allow a football coach to pray on the 50-yard line before public high school football games.

They also struck down a century-old New York state law regulating concealed carry and gutted the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change.

“If culture war is your thing, the U.S. Supreme Court just made your week,” wrote Mark Silk Friday in a Religion News Service column, before the last cases came down. “In three successive decisions, the court’s conservative majority ensured that the country’s faith-based divide will deepen in the years to come.”

That was Friday. Now, especially with the Bremerton School District case blatantly ignoring the wall of separation between church and state (and Matthew 6:5-8 for good measure), that pesky alarm clock is ringing its head off.

But, like Jefferson’s fire bell in the night (or my nagging alarm clock), it brings a moment of clarity.

For at least five years, on and off, I’ve worked on a historical project I’ve been calling “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden.” The Swedes I’ve studied were Lutheran immigrants who began to come to America in large numbers during the 1850s and set up churches that blended Swedish and American cultures while they sought to maintain their religious heritage. primarily pietistic Lutherans who appreciated the lack of an established state church in America ran afoul of some of the Calvinist norms of American religion, managed to create Swedish-American enclaves through a cultural blending process sometimes known as creolization. I’m especially interested in French jurist Mireille Delmas-Marty’s concept of “reciprocal creolization” (and I’ve blogged about it HERE); based on Edouard Glissant’s philosophical work, she posits it as a way of protecting cultural diversity by “mak[ing] it possible to unify differences by integrating them into a common definition.”

“Roger Williams’ Garden” is my term for the religious and cultural pluralism the Swedes encountered when they came to America. It gets it name from Williams’ description of the kind of society he wanted to set up in Rhode Island in the 1640s, one in which the “garden of the church” is separated from “the wilderness of the world” by a “hedge or wall of separation.” Williams, of course, was the first to propose the separation of church and state.

My project has been on hiatus for two years, especially since the Jan. 6 insurrection, because I wasn’t sure how to relate it to the present.

When I presented it at the Illinois History Conference in October 2020, I called it “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden: Acculturation in Immigrant Churches, 1848-1860.” Williams’ garden metaphor seemed a perfect fit. All the more so because Williams was at heart a Calvinist, and a modified form of Calvinism (which I’m tempted to call “post-Calvinism”) was normative in the 1850s. I’ve copied my abstract below, so I won’t repeat it here, but it focuses on the first 10 or 12 years of the Swedish immigrant Lutheran churches in the Midwest, leading up to formation of the old Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Synod on the eve of the Civil War.

By the fall of 2020, I was ready to expand it into scholarly articles and perhaps a book; but after the Jan. 6 insurrection, with its strong overtones of white Christian nationalism and echoes of the 1850s (I blogged about it HERE), I decided I’d better hold off until I better understand what’s happening now. What do Roger Williams and the Swedes have to say to us today?

Plenty, I’ve just decided. The Supreme Court’s intemperate and combative language has brought clarity — and I think the so-called “culture wars” have brought us in significant ways overall to a place that’s disturbingly like the 1850s.

Katherine Stewart, who has followed the self-proclaimed Christian right for at least 10 years, puts it better than I in a Saturday opinion piece in the Guardian. But it’s looking pretty clear what’s happening now and how it’s likely to play out:

At the core of the Dobbs decision lies the conviction that the power of government can and should be used to impose a certain moral and religious vision – a supposedly biblical and regressive understanding of the Christian religion – on the population at large.

Stewart outlines how evangelical Protestants and hucksters took over a largely Catholic pro-life movement and turned it away from most elements of Catholic social teaching in an orchestrated campaign to place “rightwing jurists and their allies” on the courts. The result? A radically conservative court:

This supreme court has already made clear how swiftly our Christian nationalist judiciary will change the law to suit this vision of a society ruled by a reactionary elite, a society with a preferred religion and a prescribed code of sexual behavior, all backed by the coercive power of the state. The idea that they will stop with overturning Roe v Wade is a delusion.

Mark Silk, who writes the “Spiritual Politics” column for Religion News Service, agrees. And he waxed historical Friday in a way that really got my attention:

Of course, it’s not only that the gulf between red and blue states will deepen on religious liberty, guns and abortion. Cultural combat will intensify in many places — at the ballot box, in state legislatures, in the courts. […] As of now, abortion law is in the hands of the states, but there’s no shortage of pro-lifers who would like to ban it nationally.

In that regard, it may be instructive to recall that back in the year 313, Christians were overjoyed when the Roman Emperors Constantine and Licinius proclaimed the Edict of Milan, which granted freedom of religion to one and all. But having established their spiritual dominance by the end of the century, they did not hesitate to get the emperors to bring the hammer down on all faiths but their own.

That got my attention because Roger Williams also mentioned Constantine and the Roman emperors.

They’re the ones who established the early church, which he likened to a lovely garden (and in so doing gave me the title for my historical project). By mixing church and fourth-century imperial politics, he said in an convoluted metaphor, they “opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world.” The upshot: “God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe, […], &c. and made his Garden a Wildernesse.”

Williams’ biographer, John Barry, parses the metaphor like this: “He was saying that mixing church and state corrupted the church, that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics.”

That should be posted in every legislative — and judicial — chamber in the land.

It looks like the immediate aftermath of Dobbs will be, as Mark Silk suggests, will intensify religious conflict. (We should remember Roger Williams proposed his wall of separation to protect the church from the state, to keep the wilderness from overrunning the garden, not the other way around.) “We vow to keep fighting,” Jody Rabhan, chief policy officer for the National Council of Jewish Women,  told Jack Jenkins of RNS outside the Supreme Court building the day Dobbs was handed down. “This is not the end,” she said. “There are things that we can do.”

At the same demonstration Jenkins interviewed Jamie L. Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, who said Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health “is a violation of a Catholic principle of religious freedom.” She spoke of “emboldening Catholics who already are pro-choice to say ‘Not in the name of my faith’.” This much is already clear — by politicizing a moral and ethical issue with deep theological roots, the anti-abortion movement has breached the wall of separation. Jenkins, or someone from RNS, also telephoned a Florida rabbi who is challenging that state’s 15-week abortion ban:

“Jewish law is very clear: Human life begins at birth, and up until the time of birth, a woman has autonomy to make the decision for herself,” Rabbi Barry Silver, who oversees Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor, the Jewish community that filed the suit, told Religion News Service in a phone interview.

“This law criminalizes Judaism and a bunch of other religions,” he said.

Caught in the middle is my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (which was formed in the 1970s after a series of mergers bringing together a range of ethnic church bodies including the old Swedish-American Augustana Lutheran Synod). The same day Dobbs was handed down, ELCA presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton issued a pastoral letter saying, “we are called at this moment to recognize and spiritually support people who are struggling with decisions around pregnancy.” She added:

Second, as presiding bishop, I want to remind this church that, despite this new legal landscape, we continue to depend on our social teaching for guidance. Our social statement provides the moral framework for our church’s communal discernment and ministry, holding in tension both the strong Christian presumption to preserve and protect all life as well as the complex moral situations in which pregnancy sometimes occurs. Our social teaching is complex and does not hew to clear categories or labels such as “pro-abortion” or “anti-abortion.” 

I guess we’ll see how well that middle-of-the-road approach works now.

If history is any guide, the odds aren’t looking good. Last year sociologist James Davidson Hunter (who coined the term culture wars 30 years ago) observed in an interview with Politico magazine that “culture wars always precede shooting wars.” He wasn’t predicting civil war — not this time — but he said the violence on Jan. 6 raised troubling parallels with the 1850s.

Other parallels have occurred to political analyst Ron Brownstein of Atlantic magazine. On the same day that Dobbs came down, an article of his appeared on the Atlantic’s website comparing the Trump movement’s efforts to take over election authorities nationwide to the fugitive slave laws and Kansas-Nebraska Act that preceded the Civil War. “That doesn’t mean that Americans are condemned to fight one another again as they did after the 1850s,” he said. “But it does mean that the 2020s may bring the greatest threats to the country’s basic stability since those dark and tumultuous years.”

Brownstein’s article, headlined “America Is Growing Apart, Possibly for Good,” cited demographics and survey data to explain an “increasing divergence — and antagonism — between the red nation and the blue nation” (suggesting the split is too pronounced to speak of red and blue states). In April, he did a similar analysis for CNN on the politics of abortion bans before November’s midterm elections.

But the most valuable source, at least for my purposes, is a remarkable set of articles on “Why the 2020s Are So Worrisome” that came out on the Atlantic’s website on Oct. 30, 2020, just before the election that turfed ex-President Trump out of office and led to Jan. 6. It’s entirely prescient, consisting of:

  • A brief introduction, “Why the 2020s Are So Worrisome: Will this decade be the new 1850s?” — with links, by staff writer Caroline Mimbs Nyce suggesting “America’s political schisms are so profound that we risk a repeat of the 1850s, when the country was on the precipice of the Civil War.
  • Brownstein’s article, “Why the 2020s Could Be As Dangerous As the 1850s,” takes a long look and concludes, “The 2020 election has been among the most vitriolic and divisive America has ever experienced, with the prospect of further disruption and even violence still lingering in its aftermath. But all of that may just be the opening bell for a decade that tests the nation’s cohesion like few others have.”
  • And an article by Anne Applebaum headlined “The Answer to Extremism Isn’t More Extremism.” Applebaum, whose frame of reference tends to be European, believes a cycle of “cumulative grievance” — in which extremists on both sides of a political divide egg each other on. She suggests a cycle like the sectarian Troubles of the 1960s and 70s in Northern Ireland is more likely than blue- and gray-clad state militias going to war. And that, in an odd way, gives her hope.

“Unfortunately, history offers very few happy endings to that kind of story,” says Applebaum. “In the past, cumulative extremism has usually subsided in one of two ways. It can culminate in a full-scale civil war that one side of the other winds — which is what happened in the U.S. in the 1860s. Alternatively, it can end thanks to the emergence of moderate forces on both sides, often with the aid of outsiders, who take the political momentum away from the extremists. That’s a part of what happened in Northern Ireland […]

“Americans don’t have outsiders who will help us get out of this death spiral. All we have is the power to vote.”

I’n not going to take odds on that one way or the other. In the meantime, the extremists on the US Supreme Court brought me a moment of clarity — I’ll have to clean it up in in decorous scholarly language later, but it seems to me like they’re hellbent to restore a narrow, socially conservative “Judeo-Christian” ethic that has more in common with the 1850s than the religious pluralism of today.

Swedes in the Garden: Abstract

Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden: Acculturation in Immigrant Churches, 1848-1860, Conference on Illinois History, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield, October 7, 2020.

Abstract. When Scandinavian immigrants formed Lutheran congregations in Illinois during the 1850s, they faced an American Protestant expectation that church membership be limited to those who claimed they were converted or “born again.” The American Home Missionary Society, a somewhat ecumenical organization with Congregational and Presbyterian roots, in fact made it a condition of its funding that church members document a conversion experience. This went against Scandinavian cultural norms, as well as the basic Lutheran understanding that church membership is conferred with baptism. “The Swedes have been members of a State Church,” explained the Rev. Lars Paul Esbjörn of Andover, who received funding from the AHMS, “and the greater number of them have lived in places where the true religion, conversion, and new birth and sanctification are unknown or mentioned with contempt and disdain.”

At issue was an evangelical doctrine of American revivalism, derived from the 17th-century Calvinism of Puritan New England, restricting membership in a covenanted church to an elect who could prove they were chosen for salvation. As cultural historian Garry Wills suggests, this covenant theology was intricately bound up with the American ideal of separation of church and state, or, in Roger Williams’ words, a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” To quote the English historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, the Protestant American ethos of the day was one of “covenant, chosenness, of wilderness triumphantly converted to garden … served up with a powerful dose of extrovert revivalist fervour.” The Puritan heritage led to “a Christianity shaped by a very different historical experience from western Europe.”

Northern European immigrants quickly set about adapting their religious heritage to Protestant American expectations. During the 1850s, they would develop an immigrant Lutheran church organization that was neither Scandinavian nor American but a creolized blend of the two. The term, coined by cultural anthropologist Ulf Hannerz, describes a process of acculturation whereby immigrant or diaspora cultures create creole, or hybrid, forms that combine old-country and New World elements and “put things together in new ways.” Esbjörn and other Lutheran pastors worked out a compromise whereby prospective members in effect would affirm their baptismal vows instead of testifying to a conversion experience, and that compromise would become the policy of the old Swedish-American Augustana Lutheran Synod formed in 1860.

Citations and Further Reading

Anne Applebaum, “The Answer to Extremism Isn’t More Extremism,” The Atlantic, Oct. 30, 2020

John M. Barry, “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea,” Smithsonian Magazine, Jan. 2012

Ron Brownstein, “America is Growing Apart, Possibly for Good,” The Atlantic, June 24, 2022

__________, “Why the Republican offensive on abortion is escalating,” CNN, April 19, 2022

__________, “Why the 2020s Could Be As Dangerous As the 1850s,” The Atlantic, Oct. 30, 2020

Mireille Delmas-Marty, “Creolizing the idea of humanity,” UNESCO Courier, 2018-2

Elizabeth Eaton, “Bishop Eaton issues pastoral message on SCOTUS ruling regarding Roe v. Wade,” ELCA News, June 24, 2022, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

“Fire bell in the night (Quotation),” Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, reprinted Montecello, Charlottesville, Va.

Steve Genko, “What Happens When the Supreme Court Tries to Send American Women Back to the 1950s?” Medium: Dialogue & Discourse, Feb. 14, 2022

Harbor Church, “What Roger Williams, the Founders, and Baptists Said about Church and State,” Block Island (R.I.) Times, March 20, 2012,as%20it%20is%20this%20day.

James Davison Hunter, “How the ‘Culture War’ Could Break Democracy,” interview by Zach Stanton, Politico,  May 20, 2021

Jack Jenkins, “As Roe falls, religious abortion-rights advocates prepare for next steps,” Religion News Service, June 25, 2022

Stephen Marche, “With the end of Roe, the US edges closer and closer to civil war,” Guardian, June 26, 2022

Caroline Mimbs Nyce, “Why the 2020s Are So Worrisome,” The Atlantic, Oct. 30, 2020 XXXXX

Mark Silk, “A Good Week for the Culture War,” Religion News Service, June 24, 2022

Wikipedia Carson v. Makin; Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization; Dred Scott v. Sandford; Kennedy v. Bremerton School District;

Katherine Stewart, “How the Christian right took over the judiciary and changed America,” Guardian, June 25, 2022

Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, “The Growing Anti-Democratic Threat of Christian Nationalism in the U.S.,” Time, May 27, 2021

[Published July 1, 2022]

3 thoughts on “What can Roger Williams and Swedish Lutherans of the 1850s tell us about the culture wars? A research proposal

  1. Peter.
    Beautifully written and tastefully written article or blog. I’m not sure of the proper name but it was excellent and I enjoyed it much both intellectually and spicey.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Free wheeling can be more honest. Contemplation can turn us into neat freaks: gotta’ follow some protocol. Just writing is refreshing. Thank you, Pete. B

        Liked by 1 person

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