“You cannot assume your personal opinions are the truth. This is why we study history: to use the slashing blade of reason like a machete to hack through the dark jungle of false opinion until we see the light of truth”…

When Professor Stephen Tonsor had finished his prepared remarks on Christopher Dawson, arguably the greatest Catholic historian of the twentieth century, he looked at us triumphantly and asked if there were any questions, especially from the Marxists in the class. He was spoiling for a fight. Not surprisingly there was a pause. The student next to me began clicking his pen, an irritation he often inflicted on the rest of us at such times.

Across the room a hand reluctantly went up. This student was no Marxist—he was too tentative to be an ideologue. “So, like, Dawson says that religion is, like, the root of culture. But is that true of American culture? I mean, we don’t have a single religion. Besides, isn’t America more secular than other nations. How does Dawson’s thesis apply, like, to our country?”

“I question your statement that America is more secular than other nations,” said Tonsor bluntly, a note of irritation in his voice. “What is your evidence for that statement?”

The poor student had now grasped the tar baby and would not easily extricate himself. “You just always hear how, like, Americans are materialistic, which doesn’t sound very religious to me. Also you hear how, like, when it comes to the Constitution, we have, like, separation of church and state—”

“Let me stop you there. First, purge the word ‘like’ from your vocabulary. Verbal tics do not become you.

“Second, regarding the Constitution, I think you are on dangerous ground to cite one line of a letter by Thomas Jefferson to a congregation of Baptists. You give it too much weight. Besides, Jefferson was not even at the Constitutional Convention. If you were to ask most constitutional scholars, they would tell you that the Framers were not seeking freedom from religion so much as freedom for religion. The question among a free people, then, is what should the role of government be? Americans do not want the government interfering with their right to worship or not to worship. It is a matter of conscience, and freedom of conscience is sacrosanct; at the heart of America’s civic experience.” (When Tonsor made this last point about freedom of conscience, he was doffing his hat to two of his heroes, Lord Acton and John Stuart Mill.)

“To get a better idea of the Jeffersonian position,” Tonsor continued, “read Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) and Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments (1785). Both are powerful statements in defense of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

“Now, what else were you saying? Something about how materialistic we are, the implication being that we are not religious? Let’s examine your claim. Ask yourself what Americans have historically done with their right to worship or not to worship as they please. What does the evidence say?

“Gallup and other organizations survey social attitudes about these things. And the polls consistently show that Americans are among the most religious people in the developed world. The vast majority of us say we believe in God, in Heaven, in Satan, and in Hell.”

I couldn’t help but think the poor kid Tonsor was addressing most definitely believed in Hell at this point. He was shifting uncomfortably in his chair.

“The surveys,” Tonsor intoned, “show about half of us go to church or temple on Sundays. Both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population, Americans are among the most church-going people in the developed world. That’s how we exercise our religious freedom—with our feet.

“When I was about your age, I occasionally went from Champaign-Urbana, where I was studying, up to Chicago. To get to Chicago you had to go through the city of Kankakee. For those of you who are taking a sociology or American studies class, Kankakee would offer a fine case study to test Dawson’s thesis about the importance of religion in American life. In the nineteenth and for much of the twentieth century, community life in Kankakee was organized around its churches—Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist.

“Let us ask the Dawsonian question: What do those churches mean? Why were they built? After all, they exist not by government fiat but because free men and women willed them into existence. All the churches are a fine illustration of Tocqueville’s observation about America, that she is strong because of her robust civil society.

“The presence of these churches means that the majority of people in Kankakee believe in something transcendent. They subscribe to a faith that organizes their experiences, their understanding of things. Those thousands of people who shoehorn themselves into the pews every Sunday believe, to varying degrees, in a transcendent God; in a creation that is not God; in linear time that has a beginning, middle, and end. They believe that human beings are more than an accidental collocation of atoms; that they exist in a moral order; that the individual possesses a soul; that each one has free will to choose good or evil; and that their choices create the storyline of a cosmic drama.

“Considered collectively, those churches tell you much about a place like Kankakee. To the people there, religion provides a source of meaning, enduring values, family structure, social norms, cultural cohesion, and feelings of Gemeinschaft or community.

“Those churches are also a sign that the men and women of Kankakee are prompted by their faith to be in ceaseless activity on behalf of their fellow man.” (When Tonsor said “ceaseless activity,” I could not help but think he was unconsciously referencing Goethe’s Faust.) “Think of all they have accomplished. They raised the money to build beautiful structures whose steeples dominate the city’s skyline. That material evidence alone gives you a clue, does it not, of just how important religion has been to the settlers in the Kankakee Valley. Their faith has also spurred them to establish other crucial institutions in the community—schools, colleges, hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, thrift shops, charity drives, disaster relief for the distressed in distant lands, and even insurance at a rate families can afford. On top of all that, their faith instructs them to pay their taxes, serve on juries, and defend their country. Think of what Kankakee would be without its churches!

“That there are so many denominations within close proximity in a small city like Kankakee is another remarkable thing to ponder. It shows how pluralistic our society is. In the face of all our diversity, Americans nevertheless unify around a creed. Truly little Kankakee is an e pluribus unum. Every church is different, but each has its baptismal book, Bible of record, stained-glass windows, and distinct architectural style, all of which provide valuable evidence about the diverse cultures of the immigrants and where they came from. It so happens that the Kankakee Valley was first settled by French Canadians, but there are also Germans, Irish, Scots, Blacks, and many others. So a typical working-class city like Kankakee, Illinois, offers a powerful demonstration of Dawson’s thesis: Religion is what puts the ‘cult’ in culture.

“Kankakee is not unusual. Across the land there are ten thousand Kankakees. One can build the case, sociologically and inductively, as Dawson the sociologist would have, that the centrality of religion is to be found again and again in our communities. Let me say it once more: It’s religion that puts the ‘cult’ in culture.

“One can also build the case historically. Dawson the historian argued that the centrality of the Christian cultus in all these towns and cities comes from someplace. To see the deep roots of our Western cultus, I’d urge you, the next time you’re in Chicago, to visit the Art Institute. In the medieval collection is an exhibit that perfectly illustrates Dawson’s thesis. It’s in a room that features a scale model of a Gothic church and medieval village, somewhere in feudal France or Germany. What strikes the visitor as he walks around the table is how that church stands at the very center of the village. The scene brilliantly captures the historic reality of early European communities—all life’s activities centered around the church; the people’s aspirations, like that steeple, soaring to the heavens.”

I glanced over at the student. I’m sure the poor fellow didn’t know what to say after that sustained intellectual barrage. But our professor, even in his irritability, was demonstrating how the historian cites credible evidence and mounts a powerful argument.

At the close of the period, Tonsor seemed to want to soften his hammer stroke yet still come down with enough force to set the nail.

“To the entire class let me say: You cannot assume your personal opinions are the truth. This is why we study history: to use the slashing blade of reason like a machete to hack through the dark jungle of false opinion until we see the light of truth.”

A striking image, that—in the same league as the Allegory of the Cave. And yet I remembered Tonsor saying to me, not long before, that he did not care for Plato.

This essay is also published on Dr. Whitney’s personal website and is part of a series of conversations with the late Stephen J. Tonsor, who was Professor of History at the University of Michigan.
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