History through the Lens of Religious Neutrality

(by guest blogger David Norton)

We tend to look at history from the perspective of what we think of as religious neutrality, but it’s not real neutrality, and it causes us to misunderstand history.

Imputing modern secularist sensibility

It’s not merely that we personally accept a pseudo-neutral worldview and then examine the history and make judgments that are influenced by what we personally believe or don’t believe.  It’s actually much worse.  We impute our beliefs onto what we imagine to be the perspective of people in history. As a result, we don’t properly understand the events of history.

Religious and non-religious events

This is true about both the historical events we think of as being religious, and the events that we think of as being non-religious, because that divide either didn’t exist or certainly wasn’t the same.  Obviously if one studied the schisms in the church, one would need to understand the doctrinal and cultural controversies.  If one didn’t understand this background, it would be impossible to understand the motivation behind the events studied.


When we read about the American Civil War, for example, we typically read extensively about the role of cotton in the South, the industrialization of the North, and the slave-state versus free-state politics of westward expansion, in order to understand the context of the secession.  When we read about Prohibition we usually read about the amount of alcohol people drank before.  All of this because the context is important.

Example from American Revolution

Eliminating the religious context of the Revolutionary War is particularly inappropriate because although we as a society today are not particularly interested in the religious context, that religious context motivated what we today consider to be non-religious (and incredibly important) events.  We do not merely look on the religious differences in a dismissive manner, incorrectly viewing religious feeling as unimportant.  We draw a line between religious and non-religious events, when we look back on 18th-century America. That line did not exist at the time, however. As a result, we misunderstand huge pieces of history.

People say the war was about taxation without representation.  Apparently that was just a piece of the puzzle, and even that was probably interwoven with religious elements.  Perhaps they weren’t granted representation because England didn’t want certain denominations represented in parliament.  It could not have been as simple as denying representation as a matter of asserting colonial prerogative.  “Americans” were British, at the time.  There was substantial cultural separation between many of the protestant denominations in the colonies and the then imperial Anglican Church in England.  Perhaps the absence of representation was felt more keenly by Americans because they were worried about being Anglicanized.  This would make sense considering that many Americans left Europe because of religious persecution.

Pervasive religion

It makes you wonder just how much of history has been disregarded because the historians just can’t grasp the religious sensibilities of the times they look back on, or else they do but are hostile to those sensibilities.

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