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Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865-1920

By Johnson, Ben | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, 1865-1920


Johnson, Ben, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Moral Reconstruction: Christian Lobbyists and the Federal Legislation of Morality, ]865-1920. By Gaines M. Foster. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. xiii, 318. Acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95, cloth; $19.95, paper.)

Gaines Foster examines the formation of a dedicated cadre of "Christian lobbyists" who emerged in post-Civil War America to enlist national power to uphold religious principles. These largely forgotten figures pioneered nonpartisan pressure-group politics in an era of powerful party organizations. Foster asserts their efforts promoted the expansion of federal authority, a development generally associated with later Progressive economic and social welfare reforms.

Some figures, such as Margaret Dye ElHs of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and Edwin Dinwiddie of the Anti-Saloon Eeague, represented organizations with large followings, while others, such as Wilbur J. Crafts, a proponent of Sabbath observance, and Anthony Cornstock, the anti-obscenity activist, independently pushed their agendas in Washington. These lobbyists envisioned a Christian America and often cooperated in buttonholing members of Congress to enact measures against polygamy, gambling, alcohol, and mailing of obscene materials. These victories for a moral order breached church-state separation but did not destroy the constitutional barrier. Congress proved willing to regulate commercial distributors of vice but balked at extending its powers to control individual behavior.

Foster's dogged research and close analysis of legislative voting patterns are impressive. The focus on Washington battles makes the study reminiscent of traditional accounts of the congressional phase of the other, better-known Reconstruction. This volume contrasts with Foster's Ghosts of the Confederacy, his highly regarded examination of the organizations and ideology associated with the southern Lost Cause. In the earlier book, Foster astutely traced the membership patterns, rituals, and social context of the successive Confederate memorial associations. Moral Reconstruction portrays the religious shock troops as a self-contained movement with few links to antebellum evangelical reformers and little in common with the social justice advocates tied to urban Progressivism. Foster also fails to locate the moral activists within the currents of American religious history or clarify their conception of a Christian polity.

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