- An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States by Eric R. Schlereth
This nicely written and extensively researched book explores the political consequences of the “growing acceptance” during the early national period of the idea that “notions of truth”—that is, religious truth—“were ultimately matters of opinion” (pp. 2–3). Americans’ collective move “beyond toleration” when it came to religion has been well charted by scholars such as Chris Beneke (Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism [New York, 2006]), Stephen Prothero (Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t [New York, 2007]), and John Lardas Modern (Secularism in Antebellum America [Chicago, 2011]). The privatization of religious belief, these historians have argued, made the American religious landscape more polite and peaceful—and, in the process, facilitated the development of a degree of ignorance about the traditional boundaries of belief that, for well or ill, underpins our contemporary understandings of religious pluralism in America.
But Eric R. Schlereth wants us to understand that, paradoxically, the privatization of religious belief is also what made it possible for our sometimes fiery political [End Page 675] rhetoric—and, often, the laws that that rhetoric has produced—to reflect the religiously-based understandings of justice and virtue that many Americans have held over the years. The sense that religious truth was a matter of opinion “allowed people of various beliefs to argue politically with each other about religious influence in American public life” (p. 3). In this sense, Schlereth argues, “the history of religious knowledge in the early national United States is … a political history” (p. 2), and the formation of political parties was as much about what it meant to know and love God as it was about the Constitution or the merits of slavery. Nowhere was this overlap between politics and religious epistemology more apparent than in the debates between evangelicals and free-thinkers over the foundations of good citizenship in the new republic.
Evangelicals believed in a god who was personally, directly, and continually involved in the world. They therefore could not see any difference between Deists—who, Schlereth shows, were a small but loud and intellectually well-equipped minority in antebellum America—and people who had no god at all. Deists were “infidels” (p. 8) whose unbelief had rendered them ill prepared to accept the responsibilities that came with republicanism. Citizens, according to Lyman Beecher, needed “the guidance of their own consciences, enlightened by the word of God” in order for the experiment launched by the Founders—spoken of in increasingly reverential terms—to work (p. 226).
Free-thinkers, however, looked not to the Bible, but to Tom Paine for their understanding of what the Founders had had in mind. “Free enquirers argued that one could possess the full rights and meet the full obligations of citizenship only if one was mentally emancipated,” Schlereth informs us (p. 226). This is what their journals and societies attempted to accomplish—not necessarily the eradication, but the interrogation of religious belief.
An Age of Infidels is as fun to read as its cover—which features George Cruikshank’s rendering of the “topsy-turvy” world made possible by Paine—suggests that it will be. Schlereth’s arguments about the role that free-thought played in the shaping of the second-party system do seem a bit strained at times, and he probably should have acknowledged that as important as evangelicals’ tussles with infidels may have been in defining the parameters of republican freedom in early America, those tussles were not nearly as important as the ones evangelicals had with the growing Catholic population in the United States.
These criticisms, however, should not distract readers from the excellent nature of this book, which provides scholars with a sense of the intellectual vibrancy of “free-thought” in the early years of the republic and the role of strategic and impassioned freethinkers such as...