Theology and Revolution in Hamilton

1776: a year Americans learn about in their social stud­ies class­es from a young age and one that few desire to study in depth. Sure, the Founders signed the Declaration of Independence and the United States offi­cial­ly became its own nation in the midst of an ongo­ing resis­tance against Great Britain, but the tri­als, tri­umphs, and ugli­ness of America’s begin­nings still seem dull and dis­tant, noth­ing more than text on a page and por­traits of white men who wrote elab­o­rate yet con­fus­ing trea­tis­es on free­dom.

Enter Hamilton, the smash hit Broadway musi­cal that breathes life into the ambi­tious, flawed peo­ple who aimed to form a nation with thereto­fore unprece­dent­ed free­dom for the mass­es. The story fol­lows one of America’s over­shad­owed Founders, Alexander Hamilton. From his days in the Revolutionary War through his fatal duel with Aaron Burr, his life is told through an impres­sive col­lec­tion of rap and hip-hop tracks that trans­late dry his­to­ry into a strug­gle that feels close and rel­e­vant. The musi­cal’s cre­ator, Lin Manuel Miranda, has described Hamilton as “America back then told by America today.”

Delicately weaved with­in each verse and refrain are reli­gious ref­er­ences tied to rev­o­lu­tion, vio­lence, and the birth of a new empire. At times, these ties cre­ate fas­ci­nat­ing par­al­lels and carry a lib­er­at­ing cadence that still speaks to us today, but other instances cre­ate an uncom­fort­able ten­sion for those wary of con­flat­ing God with America.

Hamilton as a Christ Figure

Alexander Hamilton on his soap box

Throughout the musi­cal, Hamilton is sub­tly cast as a Christ fig­ure. No, he’s not a great min­is­ter with divine heal­ing pow­ers who saves peo­ple from sin, but he works to estab­lish a new “king­dom” which lib­er­ates peo­ple from the rule of a monarch. He even has an ori­gin story told in the open­ing num­ber, “Alexander Hamilton.” The nar­ra­tor, Aaron Burr, con­nects Hamilton’s exis­tence with God.

How does a bas­tard, orphan, son of a whore and a/Scotsman, dropped in the mid­dle of a forgotten/Spot in the Caribbean by prov­i­dence, impov­er­ished, in squalor/Grow up to be a hero and a schol­ar?”

Providence” was a com­mon name for God in the 1700s, so this line sub­tly sug­gests that God had a part in Hamilton’s birth. The word “dropped” implies that God/Providence was care­less or indif­fer­ent, which aligns with the fact that many of the Founders were deists. They per­haps believed that God cre­at­ed the world and acted in human affairs ini­tial­ly, but has since stepped away to leave things spin­ning on their own.

Hamilton was­n’t born into money nor was he born in a major city like New York. Jesus had sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances. He, too, was arguably “dropped in the mid­dle of a for­got­ten spot in Judea.” He, too, was born poor and lowly, yet grew up to be a rev­o­lu­tion­ary him­self. Many instances in Jesus’ life and min­istry show him as an agi­ta­tor, chal­leng­ing the pow­ers and author­i­ties of his day. Similarly, Hamilton is an agi­ta­tor. He is brash, con­fronta­tion­al, and ready to fight for a bet­ter sys­tem.

At times, Hamilton seems prophet­ic, fore­telling his own rise and fall. The musi­cal’s third num­ber, “My Shot,” is Hamilton’s “I want” song. He estab­lish­es who he is and lays out his views, among which is a pre­dic­tion of his future.

Don’t be shocked when your hist’ry book men­tions me/I will lay down my life if it sets us free/Eventually, you’ll see my ascen­dan­cy.”

On one hand, these lines are a bit iron­ic. Hamilton speaks of his own death per­haps as a fig­ure of speech to empha­size how com­mit­ted he is to the rev­o­lu­tion, yet by the end of the musi­cal he does, in fact, die. In this moment, he sens­es his lega­cy and he’s going to build it, to reach for it no mat­ter what.

On the other hand, from a Christian the­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, these lines are rem­i­nis­cent of Jesus’ proph­e­sies of his death and res­ur­rec­tion. There’s the notion of “lay­ing down [his] life” for the for­give­ness of sins, which equates to free­dom in most Christian tra­di­tions. Whether that free­dom is from per­son­al sins, sys­temic sins, or some com­bi­na­tion of both depends on one’s the­ol­o­gy, but Hamilton’s lan­guage here does call to mind some of the rhetoric about Jesus that we find in the gospels. In the Gospel of John, for exam­ple, Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NRSV).

Another the­o­log­i­cal con­nec­tion is Hamilton’s use of the word “ascen­dan­cy.” The gospels describe Jesus ris­ing up into heav­en after vis­it­ing the dis­ci­ples after his res­ur­rec­tion. This episode is often called “The Ascension of Christ.” It is among the mirac­u­lous events that made the dis­ci­ples believe in Jesus’ divin­i­ty and there­fore go out to spread his mes­sage, ulti­mate­ly estab­lish­ing Christianity. Although Hamilton does­n’t res­ur­rect from his death at the end of the musi­cal, he does, in a sense, rise up and out of his­to­ry to still be rel­e­vant today. Lin Manuel Miranda has said he felt as if Hamilton reached out of his­to­ry and grabbed him until he told his story. The musi­cal’s final num­ber, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” shows the other char­ac­ters in some way liv­ing on in Hamilton’s lega­cy. Eliza, his wife, par­tic­u­lar­ly makes every effort to share his story. So in this term “ascen­dan­cy,” Hamilton seems to sug­gest not only the rise of his own self in his life, but also the broad­er rise of his lega­cy.

Like Jesus, Hamilton engaged in rhetor­i­cal bat­tles with reli­gious author­i­ties. In the song, “Farmer Refuted,” Hamilton argues with Samuel Seabury, a bish­op and a British loy­al­ist. Seabury’s state­ment, “I pray the king show you his mercy” car­ries an extra the­o­log­i­cal mean­ing given his occu­pa­tion. It’s more than just a com­mon turn of phrase – Seabury might lit­er­al­ly be pray­ing for the British king to show mercy just as God shows mercy. Here, spir­i­tu­al lan­guage coa­lesces with an earth­ly monarch, not sur­pris­ing his­tor­i­cal­ly given the notion of the divine right of kings, but prob­lem­at­ic from a the­o­log­i­cal stand­point which sep­a­rates God’s king­dom from human king­doms.

The last sig­nif­i­cant par­al­lel between Hamilton and Christ occurs in the con­stant posi­tion­ing of Hamilton as George Washington’s “son.” The most overt tie occurs at the begin­ning of “A Winter’s Ball” with Aaron Burr nar­rat­ing again.

Watch this obnox­ious, arro­gant, loud­mouth bother/Be seat­ed at the right hand of the father.”

George Washington with the com­pa­ny

He’s refer­ring to Hamilton’s appoint­ment as Washington’s sec­re­tary, in other words, his “right hand man.” Burr once again uses reli­gious lan­guage to express Hamilton’s posi­tion, fit­ting given that his grand­fa­ther is Jonathan Edwards of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” fame. Burr’s own mind­set of oppor­tunis­tic wait­ing con­flicts with his tense inter­ac­tions with Hamilton and is one of the most inter­est­ing nuances of his char­ac­ter. It makes the reli­gious lan­guage he uses to nar­rate Hamilton’s story through­out the musi­cal that much more fas­ci­nat­ing.

Seated at the right hand of the father” is a direct ref­er­ence to sev­er­al New Testament texts that describe Jesus at the right hand of God. So Burr, even in his con­tempt for Hamilton, com­pares him with Jesus and Washington with God. From our van­tage point over 200 years later, such a tie is a bit unset­tling. Some do ven­er­ate the Founders as if they were sacred, reli­gious fig­ures, and some strands of American Christianity today are thor­ough­ly thread­ed with nation­al­ism. We see a rather extreme fic­tion­al ver­sion of Founder-worship in Columbia, the fly­ing city from BioShock Infinite.

Despite these par­al­lels, Hamilton him­self is not very reli­gious at all. In fact, he seems indif­fer­ent or crit­i­cal of reli­gion for most of the musi­cal. Generally, he views him­self as the sole actor of his sal­va­tion. He plain­ly express­es this in “Hurricane,” just as he’s prepar­ing to pub­lish a pam­phlet reveal­ing his extra­mar­i­tal affair to prove that he did not com­mit fraud against the U.S. gov­ern­ment.

And when my prayers to God were met with indifference/I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliv­er­ance.”

Hamilton has not seen tan­gi­ble proof of God’s involve­ment in his life, so early on he learned to rely on him­self, to take his life and his lega­cy into his own hands. Even though he some­times dis­miss­es God, there are other moments in which he seems to embrace God, espe­cial­ly after his son Phillip’s death.

I take the chil­dren to church on Sunday/A sign of the cross at the door/And I pray/That never used to hap­pen before.”

For the most part, how­ev­er, Hamilton is not a par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious per­son. His most spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence is cross­ing over to “the other side” upon his death.

Claiming the “Promised Land” and the Ten Duel Commandments

Hamilton mak­ing a dec­la­ra­tion

As men­tioned pre­vi­ous­ly, “My Shot,” is Hamilton’s big dec­la­ra­tion. Although Hamilton talks about com­ing up from a rough life in the Caribbean and going to col­lege, he also lays out a broad­er sen­ti­ment felt among the colonists:

Meanwhile, Britain keeps shit­tin’ on us endlessly/Essentially, they tax us relentlessly/Then King George turns around, runs a spend­ing spree/He ain’t ever gonna set his descen­dants free/So there will be a rev­o­lu­tion in this cen­tu­ry.”

These lines explain the oppres­sion that is cre­at­ing the need for lib­er­a­tion. From sti­fling poli­cies to unfair crim­i­nal pun­ish­ments, many colonists felt squeezed under Great Britain’s thumb. These griev­ances were the impe­tus for Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. In express­ing this wider dis­sat­is­fac­tion, Hamilton aligns him­self with a col­lec­tive “we” of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who over­turn tyran­ny. For all his pas­sion, though, he still has his doubts.

Foes oppose us, we take an hon­est stand/We roll like Moses, claimin’ our promised land/And? If we win our independence?/Is that a guar­an­tee of free­dom for our descendants?/Or will the blood we shed begin an endless/Cycle of vengeance and death with no defen­dants?”

This allu­sion to Moses aptly express­es how the Founders took charge in lead­ing the rev­o­lu­tion and guid­ing a young nation through the wilder­ness of democ­ra­cy with­out fully see­ing the results. Moses fol­lowed God in lead­ing his peo­ple out of Egypt’s cap­tiv­i­ty and after wan­der­ing in the desert for 40 years, they reached the promised land that the new nation of Israel was to inhab­it. However, Moses him­self never entered that land. Though he was a founder and guide for Israel, he never saw the ful­fill­ment of the nation he led. All of that is con­jured here in Hamilton’s allu­sion, and we’re pre­sent­ed with an uncom­fort­able, prophet­ic ten­sion. Over 200 years later, these ques­tions bring into sharp con­trast America’s vio­lent his­to­ry with the hopes that every gen­er­a­tion has had for the nation.

One of Hamilton’s most overt ties between vio­lence and Christian reli­gious tra­di­tion is in the track “Ten Duel Commandments.” On one level, this song is an explic­it ref­er­ence to Biggie Smalls’ “Ten Crack Commandments,” yet this clever play on words offers a few reli­gious con­nec­tions as well. “Ten Duel Commandments” ties the rules of a gun duel to the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments aim to pro­vide guid­ance for how to reap life as opposed to death (they seem strict in some sens­es, but the heart of these laws in Christian tra­di­tion is to love God and love neigh­bor). On the other hand, the Ten Duel Commandments pro­vide guid­ance for how to “cor­rect­ly” set­tle a dis­pute and every time the song is ref­er­enced in the musi­cal after this point, some­one dies. It’s as if the Ten Duel Commandments are as author­i­ta­tive and inevitable as the Ten Commandments.

Another way to look at it is that both sets of com­mand­ments aim to con­strain the wild ugli­ness of human behav­ior. If there must be a gun bat­tle, fol­low all these pro­to­cols to pre­vent it or at least make it fair. “Ten Duel Commandments” rush­es through all sorts of rules that peo­ple would fol­low upon declar­ing a duel. You both have to name the time and place, get a “sec­ond” to try to set­tle things for you and if that does­n’t work, get a doc­tor on sight, and so on.

For the musi­cal’s first gun duel, Hamilton and Burr serve as sec­onds to John Laurens and Charles Lee, who are about to go at it after Lee insult­ed Washington’s mil­i­tary lead­er­ship. Burr, always the oppor­tunist and will­ing to wait for it, wants to avoid the duel, but Hamilton won’t com­pro­mise. He is con­stant­ly march­ing toward his own destruc­tion and some­times reli­gious lan­guage pep­pers his nar­ra­tive or jus­ti­fies his actions.

At the end of the musi­cal, Hamilton dies in a dra­mat­ic gun duel against Aaron Burr, throw­ing away his shot by lift­ing his gun to the sky at the last sec­ond. He has ful­filled his own prophet­ic state­ments about his life, never see­ing the “promised land” or any of the effects of his work in the early American gov­ern­ment.

Living With the Tension

Hamilton looks dis­tant while Aaron Burr gazes ten­ta­tive­ly at him

So, the reli­gious sub­tle­ty in this story leaves us, a 21st cen­tu­ry audi­ence, with some uncom­fort­able yet fas­ci­nat­ing ten­sions. What are we to make of the Hamilton as Jesus con­nec­tion when we live in a time when some con­flate church and state? Can we sit with the ten­sion between the lib­er­at­ing story about the colonists break­ing away from the tyran­ny of monar­chy and our knowl­edge that the birth of America per­pet­u­at­ed other sys­temic injus­tices? Are God and all bib­li­cal sto­ries mere­ly a power invoked to jus­ti­fy vio­lence?

Because reli­gion takes a back­seat in Hamilton, it may seem to only func­tion as a device used to sup­port what­ev­er motives the char­ac­ters desire, whether it’s replac­ing a dis­tant God with an army gen­er­al who led a new nation or liken­ing one­self to a lib­er­a­tor lead­ing peo­ple to a new land.

Yet I think all of this reflects to Americans today our ten­den­cy to use reli­gion as exact­ly this sort of tool. For some, God and America are insep­a­ra­ble, sanc­ti­fied in the same breath. For oth­ers, God and reli­gious lan­guage are only overt­ly named to sup­port a polit­i­cal agen­da. Ultimately, I believe Hamilton presents this treat­ment of reli­gion, among many other issues, in the way that it does to make the audi­ence think crit­i­cal­ly about our rela­tion­ship to the­ol­o­gy and our rela­tion­ship to the state. The musi­cal is not at all shy about show­ing the con­trast between a fight for inde­pen­dence from Great Britain and the con­tin­u­a­tion of slav­ery as well as the bar­ri­ers women faced in polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion and social mobil­i­ty. While the story makes these con­trasts are more obvi­ous, it does the same thing with reli­gion and reli­gious belief. Some form of reli­gion is always present, always a vehi­cle through which to express ideas. Is its influ­ence is strong enough to guide America to lib­er­ty and jus­tice for all? This is an endur­ing ques­tion for the Founders whose lives we see on stage or hear in the sound­track, and those of us enjoy­ing the per­for­mance.

About Taylor Ramage

Taylor Ramage is a fiction writer and blogger whose interests include anime, theology, intersectionality, and pop culture. She also enjoys memes and bad (read great) puns.