Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

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

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

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

Article excerpt

An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States. By Eric R. Schlereth. [Early American Studies.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2013. Pp. vi, 295. $55.00. ISBN 978-0-8122-4493-9.)

This nicely written and extensively researched book explores the political consequences of the "growing acceptance" during the early national period of the idea that "notions of truth"- that is, religious truth-"were ultimately matters of opinion" (pp. 2-3). Americans' collective move "beyond toleration" when it came to religion has been well charted by scholars such as Chris Beneke (Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism [New York, 2006]), Stephen Prothero (Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-and Doesn't [New York, 2007]), and John Lardas Modern (Secularism in Antebellum America [Chicago, 2011]). The privatization of religious belief, these historians have argued, made the American religious landscape more polite and peaceful-and, in the process, facilitated the development of a degree of ignorance about the traditional boundaries of belief that, for well or ill, underpins our contemporary understandings of religious pluralism in America.

But Eric R. Schlereth wants us to understand that, paradoxically, the privatization of religious belief is also what made it possible for our sometimes fiery polit- ical rhetoric-and, often, the laws that that rhetoric has produced-to reflect the religiously-based understandings of justice and virtue that many Americans have held over the years. The sense that religious truth was a matter of opinion "allowed people of various beliefs to argue politically with each other about religious influence in American public life" (p. 3). In this sense, Schlereth argues, "the history of religious knowledge in the early national United States is ... a political history" (p. 2), and the formation of political parties was as much about what it meant to know and love God as it was about the Constitution or the merits of slavery. Nowhere was this overlap between politics and religious epistemology more apparent than in the debates between evangelicals and free-thinkers over the foundations of good citizenship in the new republic. …

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