- An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States by Eric R. Schlereth
Religious freedom, Deisim, Free inquiry, Evangelicalism
In this tightly reasoned and deeply researched book, Eric Schlereth explains how Americans in the early republic transformed religion and [End Page 125] politics together. Focusing on debates over deism in the 1790s and their reappearance in modified form in debates over free inquiry in the 1820s and 1830s, Schlereth shows how Americans used “religion” in political debate as a generic term defined in opposition to infidelity. Conflict over theological doctrine declined in this process, Schlereth argues, but debate over religion’s place in civil society did not. This conflict over the politics of religion divided Americans from the 1790s through Jefferson’s presidency, and shaped the subsequent division between Whigs and Democrats. Though Schlereth does not pursue it further, deep political disagreement about religion’s place in American society never disappeared. Thus, in addition to its fine analysis of debates over deism and free inquiry in the early republic, this book offers anyone curious about the vexed relationship between American religion and politics today a compelling explanation of how that relationship became established.
Until recently, Nathan Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT, 1989) dominated historical accounts of the relationship between religion and politics in the early republic. Hatch argued that democratic trends in politics unleashed evangelical expressions of Christian faith that complemented and supported political democracy. Coinciding with the rise of the religious right, many historians built on Hatch’s story about the liberating power and democratic essence of American evangelicalism. Schlereth offers a different view. His account of the intertwining of religion and politics highlights the importance of opponents of Christianity, both as lively advocates for deism and free inquiry, and as menaces—larger than life—in the minds of Christianity’s defenders. Schlereth argues that infidelity, real and imagined, grew apace with evangelical equations between American government and Protestant Christianity.
Schlereth begins with constitutional debates over the limits of religious tolerance in the 1780s, arguing that the term “infidelity,” which had previously been used to designate Jews and Muslims, became important through these debates as a way to castigate deists. In the context of efforts to map the boundaries of religious tolerance with respect to political office and voting rights, new distinctions between religion and irreligion acquired significance and old distinctions between Christianity and other religions began to blur. Even hostility between Protestants and Catholics softened. Defined against infidelity, “religion” developed as a salient political term, and theological distinctions within and among faith [End Page 126] traditions—distinctions that had previously been of great import—became less relevant.
In one of his most interesting contributions, Schlereth shows how political debates about religion contributed to making public opinion the arbiter of truth regarding religion. As political debate about religion focused on the place religion should have in American society, and on what limits should be placed on religious tolerance, attention shifted from questions about the validity of competing theological doctrines to arguments about religion’s moral utility. In the 1790s, when democratic newspapers used religious invective to sway public opinion against Federalism, and deists like John Fitch and Elihu Palmer organized and spoke out against Christianity, Federalist defenders of Christianity worked hard to persuade Americans of the moral necessity for religion—and the moral dangers of infidelity. As political efforts to promote partisan religious ideas intensified, arguments about religion appealed increasingly to the court of public opinion rather than to standards independent of opinion. In this politicized context, the need for efficient organizations to promote partisan religious ideas increased. In the 1820s and 1830s, when criticism of Christianity and fear of irreligion reemerged, organizations in support of both evangelicalism and free inquiry flourished, and print media on both sides proliferated.
While Schlereth’s explanation of how these opposing forces developed over time is an important achievement that will aid historians interested in later...