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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Between 1865 and 1920, Congress passed laws to regulate obscenity, sexuality, divorce, gambling, and prizefighting. It forced Mormons to abandon polygamy, attacked interstate prostitution, made narcotics contraband, and stopped the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Gaines Foster explores the force behind this unprecedented federal regulation of personal morality--a combined Christian lobby.

Foster analyzes the fears of appetite and avarice that led organizations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the National Reform Association to call for moral legislation and examines the efforts and interconnections of the men and women who lobbied for it. His account underscores the crucial role white southerners played in the rise of moral reform after 1890. With emancipation, white southerners no longer needed to protect slavery from federal intervention, and they seized on moral legislation as a tool for controlling African Americans.

Enriching our understanding of the aftermath of the Civil War and the expansion of national power, Moral Reconstruction also offers valuable insight into the link between historical and contemporary efforts to legislate morality.

Excerpt

In the late 1970s, Christian conservatives became a powerful force in American politics. They believed that the government had become hostile to religion and that Americans had lost their way in a secular society that denigrated religious belief and promoted sinful personal behavior— drug abuse, pornography, unrestrained sexuality, abortion. in response, organizations such as the Moral Majority and, later, the Christian Coalition, mobilized individual Christians and many churches in an attempt to establish a Christian nation and a moral social order, in part through legislating personal morality. Opponents condemned their calls for the government to promote morality as a violation of the separation of church and state and as an abridgment of individual freedom. the resulting debate prompted partisans as well as scholars to search for historical precedents. They found them in the opponents of Sunday mail and Indian removal, the abolitionists, the prohibitionists, the anti-Semitic right of the 1930s, and perhaps most often, the civil rights movement. Except for brief references to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union or the Anti-Saloon League, neither partisans nor scholars explored the most intriguing parallel to the current campaign to legislate morality, a Christian lobby active in Washington between the Civil War and the adoption of Prohibition.

The Christian lobby that formed in the late nineteenth century campaigned to expand the moral powers of the federal government and to establish the religious authority of the state. Some of the lobbyists believed the power of the government rested in God, but most sought only to force government to respect God’s law and thereby prove itself worthy to exercise its powers. During the Civil War, the National Association to Amend the Constitution first lobbied to have an acknowledgment of God, Christ, and the authority of the Bible incorporated into the preamble to the Constitution. That crusade for what came to be called the Christian amendment continued after the war, because its proponents believed the nation owed allegiance to God. But they also thought the . . .

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