Church–State Relations in the Early American Republic, 1787–1846 by James S. Kabala (review)
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Religion, Religious history, Christianity, Religious freedom

Church–State Relations in the Early American Republic, 1787–1846. By James S. Kabala. (London: Pickering & Chatto Press, 2013. Pp. 264. Hardcover, $99.00.)

Scholars tend to tell the story of religion and American politics either as an intellectual history of politicians or as an ecclesiastically centered religious history. This book by James Kabala looks instead at the creation of a Protestant consensus in the public sphere and thus escapes the somewhat artificial divide between political and religious thought. By looking at the decades between the Constitution and massive influx of Catholic immigrants in the late 1840s, Kabala isolates the immediate consequences of the Constitution’s inconclusive statements on the relationship between Church and State. Rather than analyzing Jefferson’s “wall of separation” or Washington’s “religious awe,” although this book talks about both, Kabala looks at the realities of proliferating denominations and religious outsiders such as Indians, deists, Jews, and atheists. Such realities caused tensions between the secular federal government and the less secular states that, Kabala implies, eventually pushed Americans toward a new understanding of religious tolerance.

Kabala’s driving narrative is to uncover the existence of a Protestant non-sectarian consensus among religious and political leaders, which served to dampen both secular and religious radicalism within American politics. At times, the author’s attempt to organize religious and political minds according to denomination or party leaves the reader with more exceptions than rules concerning the composition of this consensus; yet it seems quite probable that many Americans did ascribe to a set of common religious beliefs that marked polite society including acceptance of the trinity, anti-Catholicism, and a future system of rewards and punishments. Even for Unitarian John Quincy Adams, “ ‘Christianity’ and ‘civilization’ were regarded as inseparable” (24). Even as Massachusetts, the last state to retain an established church, removed ministerial taxes [End Page 282] and other elements of an intertwined church–state relationship, American leaders continued to stress that good civil Americans were Christians of a particular mold.

The book begins by examining the confusing and often contradictory relationship between religious culture and the federal government. Despite the lack of an established church and religious restrictions on office holders, the United States government had extensive dealings with religious men and culture in the form of Indian missionaries, congressional chaplains, and Sunday mail, among others. Kabala stresses that political opinion was not decided on any of these governmental positions; often, it depended on the character and political acumen of the men championing these religiously minded institutions. Objections to these offices were often made not because of their religious nature, but because of the morality of the officeholder or, as in the case of the Sunday mail, the needs of a modern nation.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the federal government and increasingly the state governments provided general toleration and tacit support to those who belonged to the “Non-Sectarian Consensus.” At this point, Kabala moves from a broad discussion of religio-political thought to a more concrete discussion of the legal implications of the limits of toleration in the form of religious test oaths and witness competency. These chapters are the most compelling of the book because their clear argument carefully illustrates the tension between political inclusivity and the fear of moral declension. Judges who subscribed to a narrow view of the non-sectarian consensus routinely excluded atheists and others from giving witness testimony because they feared that there was no way to compel the witness to tell the truth. Similarly, fears over the political machinations of Jews and other religious outliers fueled legislative bills restricting access to government participation such as the “Jew Bill” in Maryland. Although rarely successful, these pushes to restrict the political sphere pointed toward Americans’ continued insistence on the relationship that encompassed religion, civilization, and citizenship.

Kabala closes the book with a case study of New York legislative prayer controversies in the 1830s. This chapter is particularly interesting because it mixes the realignment of political parties with the rising evangelical impulse that would soon set the state aflame. Whig politicians often supported legislative prayer as a...