An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States

An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States

An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States

An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States

Synopsis

Historian Eric R. Schlereth places religious conflict at the center of early American political culture. He shows ordinary Americans--both faithful believers and Christianity's staunchest critics--struggling with questions about the meaning of tolerance and the limits of religious freedom. In doing so, he casts new light on the ways Americans reconciled their varied religious beliefs with political change at a formative moment in the nation's cultural life.

After the American Revolution, citizens of the new nation felt no guarantee that they would avoid the mire of religious and political conflict that had gripped much of Europe for three centuries. Debates thus erupted in the new United States about how or even if long-standing religious beliefs, institutions, and traditions could be accommodated within a new republican political order that encouraged suspicion of inherited traditions. Public life in the period included contentious arguments over the best way to ensure a compatible relationship between diverse religious beliefs and the nation's recent political developments.

In the process, religion and politics in the early United States were remade to fit each other. From the 1770s onward, Americans created a political rather than legal boundary between acceptable and unacceptable religious expression, one defined in reference to infidelity. Conflicts occurred most commonly between deists and their opponents who perceived deists' anti-Christian opinions as increasingly influential in American culture and politics. Exploring these controversies, Schlereth explains how Americans navigated questions of religious truth and difference in an age of emerging religious liberty.

Excerpt

James Ross thought Christianity was for the dogs. After all, he had mockingly administered the Lord’s Supper to several furry, four-legged communicants. At least these were the rumors about the Federalist candidate for governor of Pennsylvania in 1808. the state’s Republicans spread this story throughout Pennsylvania and beyond. Ross’s supposed irreligion had been a political issue for nearly a decade. This latest irreverent act, his opponents warned, was another example of why Ross’s unchristian sentiments left him morally bereft, thus unfit for political office. Ross’s supporters agreed, for if the accusations were true they indicted Ross of “a crime that must excite horror and detestation in every virtuous heart, and must exclude the perpetrators of it, not only from public confidence, but from private friendship and society.” Both sides in 1808 found it difficult to ignore rumors about Ross because they raised vexing questions about how best to reconcile religious belief and political life. Indeed, concerns about the relationship between religion and politics proved urgent to many Americans in the generations following the Revolution.

History allowed no sure guarantees that the new United States would avoid the mire of religious and political conflict that gripped much of the European world for three centuries. Religious disputes had fractured Christian Europe along sectarian lines. More recently, the French Revolution amplified perceptions that atheism and violence were often grim companions to political change. From the mid-1770s onward, broad-ranging debates erupted in the United States about how or even if long-standing religious beliefs, institutions, and traditions could be accommodated within a new republican political order that encouraged suspicion of inherited traditions, institutions, and ideas. Things sacred did not seem automatically or . . .

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