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

By Porterfield, Amanda | Journal of the Early Republic, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

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


Porterfield, Amanda, Journal of the Early Republic


An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States. By Eric R. Schlereth. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. Pp. 295. Cloth and E-book, $55.00.)

Reviewed by Amanda Porterfield

In this tightly reasoned and deeply researched book, Eric Schlereth explains how Americans in the early republic transformed religion and politics together. Focusing on debates over deism in the 1790s and their reappearance in modified form in debates over free inquiry in the 1820s and 1830s, Schlereth shows how Americans used "religion" in political debate as a generic term defined in opposition to infidelity. Conflict over theological doctrine declined in this process, Schlereth argues, but debate over religion's place in civil society did not. This conflict over the politics of religion divided Americans from the 1790s through Jefferson's presidency, and shaped the subsequent division between Whigs and Democrats. Though Schlereth does not pursue it further, deep political disagreement about religion's place in American society never disappeared. Thus, in addition to its fine analysis of debates over deism and free inquiry in the early republic, this book offers anyone curious about the vexed relationship between American religion and politics today a compelling explanation of how that relationship became established.

Until recently, Nathan Hatch's Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT, 1989) dominated historical accounts of the relationship between religion and politics in the early republic. Hatch argued that democratic trends in politics unleashed evangelical expressions of Christian faith that complemented and supported political democracy. Coinciding with the rise of the religious right, many historians built on Hatch's story about the liberating power and democratic essence of American evangelicalism. Schlereth offers a different view. His account of the intertwining of religion and politics highlights the importance of opponents of Christianity, both as lively advocates for deism and free inquiry, and as menaces-larger than life-in the minds of Christianity's defenders. Schlereth argues that infidelity, real and imagined, grew apace with evangelical equations between American government and Protestant Christianity.

Schlereth begins with constitutional debates over the limits of religious tolerance in the 1780s, arguing that the term "infidelity," which had previously been used to designate Jews and Muslims, became important through these debates as a way to castigate deists. In the context of efforts to map the boundaries of religious tolerance with respect to political office and voting rights, new distinctions between religion and irreligión acquired significance and old distinctions between Christianity and other religions began to blur. Even hostility between Protestants and Catholics softened. Defined against infidelity, "religion" developed as a salient political term, and theological distinctions within and among faith traditions-distinctions that had previously been of great import- became less relevant.

In one of his most interesting contributions, Schlereth shows how political debates about religion contributed to making public opinion the arbiter of truth regarding religion. As political debate about religion focused on the place religion should have in American society, and on what limits should be placed on religious tolerance, attention shifted from questions about the validity of competing theological doctrines to arguments about religion's moral utility. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.