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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.