- The Origins of American Religious Nationalism by Sam Haselby
The Origins of American Religious Nationalism is a frustrating book. Its central argument is important and provocative, but its development is disorganized, obscured by frequent digressions, and compromised by methodological problems. Haselby maintains that in the decades following the Revolution a distinctively American mode of nationalism developed. The defining features of this new American nationalism were populism, antielitism, racism, and religion, represented in their fullness by the presidency of Andrew Jackson. He argues persuasively that Protestant activism played a central role in creating this national identity. In his analysis, religion in the early Republic was not only shaped by political forces, it actively contributed to the formation of the nation. Given that this argument complicates a common paradigm, which views religion more as an effect than a cause, the book makes an important contribution. It is unfortunate, therefore, that its execution is flawed.
Haselby begins by considering a commonly identified source of American nationalism, the foundational documents that informed the Revolution and determined the structure of the federal government. One of the book’s “revisionist claims” is that neither the Revolution nor the Constitution determined America’s national identity. “[T]he War of Independence,” Haselby writes, “posed rather than answered the question of American nationality” (1). Thomas Jefferson and James Madison offered one answer to this question in the framework of the federal government, which was weak [End Page 206] by design and secular by definition. They envisioned the gradual emergence of a secular American nation, in which religious belief is “private” and “remote from political power” (30). Although disestablishment succeeded, secular nationalism failed. Religion did not decline; it flourished as never before. Haselby locates the solution to the problem of American identity in the spiritual hothouse of the early Republic. Out of it emerged a distinctive religious nationalism that continues to influence party politics and outcomes of elections today.
Haselby’s argument centers on the competition between two rival conceptions of evangelical Protestantism that developed in this period, which he labels “frontier revivalism and national evangelism” (2). The book’s central contribution lies in delineating the competing social and national visions of these two movements. The locus of their conflict was the American frontier, rapidly expanding with a diverse population of settlers and immigrants. This territory, Haselby argues, presented to the new Republic “two formidable nation-building challenges,” establishing sovereignty over the frontier and addressing Native Americans’ land claims (4). Both required a unifying idea of the nation, which the weak and secular federal government was ill equipped to provide. In the absence of a strong federal state, national evangelism and frontier revivalism developed as two competing approaches to the challenge of westward expansion.
Haselby locates the seeds of national evangelism in the Connecticut Wits, the eighteenth-century literary movement founded by a group of Yale-educated writers having deep and aristocratic Puritan pedigrees. Admitting the Wits “were not great writers,” he concentrates on the nationalist message of their verse (64). His analysis focuses primarily on John Trumbull’s M’Fingal (1782) and Timothy Dwight’s Greenfield Hill (1794). Aiming to nationalize the regional culture of New England, these epic poems envisioned a Protestant America populated by hard-working, small property owners, who were educated and engaged in civic affairs (103). This image of America was undermined by Thomas Jefferson’s election, which promoted secularism and a rival national model based on Virginia planter society, and was discredited by the Hartford Convention. Despite these setbacks, its core nationalist vision reemerged in the missions movement organized and led by northern Protestants.
Northern Protestants imagined America as a “sacred political community” unified by shared religious beliefs, social structures, and cultural [End Page 207] values (14). The principal challenge to the formation of this union was the western frontier, which from the perspective of these sober, middle-class Yankees was rapidly filling with people of questionable character, low morality, and heretical faith. To address this challenge northern Protestants became nation builders. Haselby labels this movement “national evangelism” because it viewed “missionary work...