- Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation
Religion, Politics, Evagelicism
In the post-Revolutionary decades, as Americans became a nation, they also became a churchgoing people. Historians have long noted the spread of religious fervor and church institutions during this period, and especially the growth of the Baptists, Methodists, and other evangelical denominations. In a landmark study, The Democratization of American Religion (1989), Nathan O. Hatch argued that the rise of evangelicalism as a mass movement was a direct consequence of the American Revolution. Focusing primarily on the democratizing effect of the theory and practice of popular sovereignty on American Christianity, Hatch viewed the intersection of the popular culture of religion and politics in an overwhelmingly positive light.
Conversely, Amanda Porterfield’s new book assesses the impact of American religion on the politics of the early republic. Although she, too, believes that religion and political culture became intertwined in the post-Revolutionary era, she sees the influence of evangelicalism on politics as far from salutary. While Hatch lauded the antiauthoritarian impulse of post-Revolutionary evangelicals, Porterfield contends that religion, however voluntary and individualistic its origins, stepped into a cultural vacuum to shape, and suppress, public discourse in the early American republic. “Promoting the supreme authority of God’s law,” [End Page 156] she writes, “churches not only exerted moral authority as interpreters of divine governance, but also fostered distrust of secular reason and government” (3) and in so doing “secured a privileged place for religion in American society” (5).
Porterfield reassesses a crucial transitional period in American religious history in light of three decades of path-breaking scholarship on the politics of the early republic. Her book is long on original thought, but less so on primary research, and—like Hatch, interestingly—she focuses mainly on elites. Porterfield begins with a fascinating assessment of the reception of Paine’s Age of Reason, which, she argues, “popularized and politicized” (16) religious skepticism among non-elite Americans, many of whom also embraced Paine’s iconoclastic distrust of government. Paine’s wide appeal distressed leaders across the political spectrum, regardless of their own religious beliefs (or lack thereof). Seeing religion mainly as a system of social control, Porterfield argues that the churches restored order by convincing Americans to disavow religious skepticism and trust in God, leaving political parties to compete for the support of pious voters. Downplaying region, class, and other bases of party affiliation, Porterfield notes that Presbyterians and Congregationalists, with their civic humanist commitment to education and social improvement, tended to be Federalists. Baptists, Methodists, and others who disliked government generally and who emphatically rejected its involvement in religion (though not vice-versa) became core constituencies of the Jeffersonian Republicans.
Intellectual historians may question Porterfield’s tendency to conflate doubt, skepticism, and rationalism, while religious scholars may want a more precise definition of “evangelicalism” and wonder about the complete absence in her book of Episcopalians, Lutherans, and some other major and lesser denominations. A more general question about Porter-field’s thesis, however, concerns timing. Porterfield asserts that evangelicalism became a dominant force after 1800, but the rise of the Baptists and Methodists antedated the Revolution in some locales, most notably in Virginia. Moreover, antigovernment ideas, which she correctly identifies as an important part of the evangelicals’ cultural baggage, also were embedded in the mainstream political culture of the pre-Revolutionary era. Although Porterfield argues persuasively that evangelical influence contributed mightily to the expansion of slavery and the ruthless dispossession of Native Americans, Europeans and European Americans had used religion to justify both slavery and conquest throughout the colonial [End Page 157] era. From that longer perspective, the alliance between religion and politics (with religion as the senior partner in a setup that mostly benefited white men) seems less like a dramatic break from the past than an emphatic victory for certain trends that had their roots in the pre-Revolutionary era.
Porterfield sees the spread of religion as a reaction to the instability and nastiness...