Tag Archives: Religion and Politics

Published in the Wall Street Journal!

I was very pleased to see an article I had written make it into the Wall Street Journal on Friday, April 21.

In the “Houses of Worship” section, my article appeared. I didn’t pick the title, but the editors headed it “In God We Trust, Even at Our Most Divided.”

The article starts reflecting on the addition of “In God We Trust” to American Coinage in 1864, during the Civil War.

It moves on, then, to reflect on what type of religious nationalism was being invoked.

I use that question to point to Lincoln’s religious themes in his Second Inaugural Address. It’s there, I claim that:

The 16th president thus demonstrated that the best religious reflection in public life could lead to humility, self-criticism, care for fellow citizens, and renewal of civic ties. And that seems like a beneficial reminder from the random coins jangling in our pockets.

Thus, when used properly, public religion can serve positive ends.

I’ve been glad to see the response to the article. I’ve heard from readers from Connecticut to Guam. John Fea picked up the article for his Sunday Night Odds and Ends.

Finally, in my bio, I mention the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center. Let me encourage readers to keep them on their radar screen as they plan and build an engaging presence in Philadelphia.

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Jefferson and Christianity

In recent days the space not taken up by discussions of, say, the Cincinnati gorilla, has been taken up online by  a vibrant discussion about Thomas Jefferson and Christianity. Jefferson claimed to be a Christian, even as his beliefs in “Christianity” diverged strongly from orthodox Christianity. How should we evaluate this?

The conversation was kicked off by a presentation by Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed on C-Span. It played out on twitter. Recent posts by John Fea and Ben Park have also addressed this.

Rather than rehash the issues raised, in my brief time I want to raise one other historical point. We could also ask: how did Jefferson’s contemporaries view his faith?

It’s worth noting that some of Jefferson’s contemporaries were quite suspicious. Due to his writings in places like Notes on the State of Virginia and various correspondence, many of Jefferson’s opponents questioned his faith.

I see this most clearly in a political editorial in 1800 that asked its readers if they wanted to vote for “God and a Religious President” [i.e., John Adams] or “Jefferson…and NO GOD.”

A more sustained statement of this idea came from two New York ministers, John Mitchell Mason and William Linn. After parsing Jefferson’s public utterances, they asserted that Jefferson was an infidel (one who maliciously rejected Christian truth) and so not to be trusted.

Or, as they claimed in a second pamphlet:

Christians! Lay these things together: compare them; examine them separately, and collectively: ponder; pause; lay your hands upon your hearts; lift up your hearts to heaven, and pronounce on Mr. Jefferson’s Christianity. You cannot stifle the emotions; nor forebear uttering your indignant sentence–infidel!!

(“The Voice of Warning to Christians,” 1800)

Now, Linn and Mason didn’t speak for everyone, and you could suggest that their claims were at least partially politically motivated. Still, as ministers, they claimed their duties forced them to point out Jefferson’s heterodoxy. To some believers of his day, Jefferson’s beliefs seemed suspicious.

Politics, you say? Would there be a book out there that talked about religious and political conflicts in the early republic? Maybe one involving the Federalists? Oh, that’s right: this one.

 

 

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Interviewing Daniel Williams on the Pro-Life Movement

Today, at the Religion in American History blog, I had the chance to do a web-interview with Daniel K. Williams about his new book, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade.

I very much appreciated Dan’s first book, God’s Own Party, about the rise of the “religious right” in the Republican Party. I have even taught it to good effect.

After that book, Dan turned his attention to the pro-life movement, which has been part of the great moral and cultural debates of our times. Dan found a surprising back-story to opposition to elective abortion, which he chronicles in the book. The final chapter also makes sense of the shifts of abortion-related politics in the later 1970s and 1980s.

I highly commend both of Prof. Williams’s books.

Enjoy the interview, here.

Williams Cover Defenders

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Mad Tom, Political Conflict, and Religious Conflict

We don’t have a lot of political cartoons from the very early republic, but lately I have very much appreciated one called “Mad Tom in a Rage.”mad-tom-in-a-rage

As you can see, it shows the Devil and Tom Paine working to pull down the Federal Government.

To my mind, this says a lot about how Federalists saw the religious and political conflict of the early republic.

Today, I analyze the cartoon over at the Religion in American History Blog.

But, there’s another reason I think the cartoon is worth talking about: it forms the artwork for my book!

 

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A New Semester II

Last month I reflected on teaching my Introductory U.S. History to 1877 class. (The post even got noticed here.)

Continuing my thoughts on the new semester, I thought I would give the same treatment to my “American Revolution and Early Republic” class. I go into this class assuming students have had an introduction to this period. As a result, I can go into greater detail. We are also able to look at the historiography of the period and actively debate both what was going on and how things have been interpreted.

This semester, I’m using a wide range of books to address various aspects of the period.

I’ve adopted a new narrative text for the class–Patrick Griffin’s America’s Revolution. Griffin’s book came out recently, and I was eager to give it a try. At the end of the semester, I’ll try to give a full review of this book. So far, I’ve really appreciated several aspects of Griffin’s presentation: the book’s readability, its transatlantic and international focus, its interpretation of issues of sovereignty and power, and its deep engagement with up-to-date scholarship.

For military matters, the class is reading David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing. The book is long, but we’ve stretched out our treatment of it over two weeks. I think the text gives students some insights into military affairs and connections between military culture and broader cultures.

For religious matters, I’ve assigned Thomas Kidd’s God of Liberty. I appreciate that Kidd’s book looks at religious matters before, during, and after the Revolution. It thus helps me trace a narrative on the theme of religion across the chronology of the course. The book also reads smoothly, which is another benefit for undergraduates.

When we get to the Early Republic, we’ll use Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers as a springboard to get into the conflicts of the period. Ellis, too, reads well while making recognizable claims.

Throughout, we’re using a really interesting document collection, The American Republic, edited by Bruce Frohnen. The book is big (both physically and chronologically), but it contains many of the important documents from the period. I appreciate his selections.

I’ve also supplemented these readings with a variety of other digital and print selections, including Alfred Young’s depiction the shoemaker George Roberts Twelves Hewes, significant letters of the period, accounts from ordinary citizens, period literature and drama, additional sermons and orations, and interpretations from John Murrin, Jack Greene, and others.

It’s a full reading load, and I find myself constantly fighting the urge to assign more. It turns out there is a lot to learn about the period, and I want my students to get as much of it as possible.

So, for readers, what do you think? Any additional suggestions? What has worked well for you?

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Christianity and the Founding

We’re apparently hitting a spate of blog entries about historical books. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since history remains tied to reading and to books.

In America today there remains quite a bit of a debate about the religious character of the American Founding.  This has been an on-going interest of mine and one that has inspired my investigation of the Federalist Party.

It turns out there’s a lot of complexity on this issue. Nuance is required. You can’t give a single, easily digestible answer.

So, is there a way of wading into that complexity? One historian who has done an admirable job is John Fea of Messiah College. John has published a great primer entitled Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. I’ve taught the book in my U.S. history survey course, and I look forward to doing so again. Students have responded well to it. The book is well worth the read, and I highly recommend it.

The Journal of Church and State asked me to write a formal review of the book. They have now given me Advance Access permission to share it. Please follow this link to read the review.

Then, if you want to keep up with John, you can follow his engaging blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

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