Andrew Jackson is an odd figure in American life. A warrior and a populist, he is little understood, and his views on church and state—and religion and politics—are no exception. But Jackson is worth studying on these questions, for he largely got them exactly right by insisting on liberty of conscience and resisting calls for the formation of what was to be called the “Christian party in politics.” He refused to formally join the Presbyterian church while in public life for fear of being seen as craven, and he refused to endorse legislation setting aside a national day of prayer amid a terrible cholera outbreak in 1832.
Still, he respected the religious, and grew more faithful as he aged. In politics he was essentially Jeffersonian on church and state, endorsing a “wall of separation.” He did so partly because he believed the church could be corrupted by the state. Few presidents rival Jackson in his immersion in the Bible; he called Henry Clay, his great foe, “the Judas of the West,” and he believed in the workings of providence. But he hewed to the best tradition of the Founders, recognizing that religion should shape us without strangling us. His example is worth following even now.
Jon Meacham, Newsweek editor and On Faith co-moderator, is author of the new book “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.”