Book Review

The Early Republic and New Definitions of Religion

Eric R. Schlereth, An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) 304 pages.

Review by Charles McCrary

A few conversations have dominated the historiography of religions in the early American republic. Eric Schlereth’s An Age of Infidels utilizes an understudied data set and situates it within mostly familiar frameworks in order to join, contextualize, refocus, and, I hope, reshape these ongoing conversations. To sketch briefly the historiographical terrain, I will focus on two of the most key issues, both of which set the terms of debate for historians of religions in the early republic. Both issues also have much to do with concerns of intellectual historians, such as agency, democracy, political representation, public and private spheres, and the relationships between cultural identities and political projects. First, there are questions about representation and inclusion in historical narratives. In the story (or stories; grand narrative vs. microhistory is, of course, another issue) of early republican religions, who are the major players? Who is left out? The United States were predominantly Protestant, and certainly by the 1830s predominantly evangelical Protestant. But who is left out of this story—and should they be? How might a more religiously diverse story look? And how did the evangelical rise to dominance happen, anyway?

The second major historiographical debate is about how to answer that last question. The terms of this debate were set largely by Nathan Hatch’s 1989 book The Democratization of American Christianity. Hatch’s argument, contra the “social control” thesis, is that evangelical religion flourished in the American republic because the people, who were of a broadly defined “Jeffersonian” persuasion, chose to join the freest sects available, and naturally chose the egalitarian, anticlerical, grassroots upstarts rather than the establishmentarian. Personally, I’m not old enough to remember a time when people cited the book approvingly, but the fact that twenty-five years later presenters at conferences still feel compelled to announce that they are trying to “push off against” it speaks to its historiographical importance. “The Hatch Thesis”—in both its fair and straw-man iterations—has been critiqued from numerous angles, most convincingly by those who recognize that the proliferation of evangelicalism actually caused and was caused by a narrowing, not a flourishing, of publicly acceptable religious positions.

This historiographical tradition is simultaneously thriving and often stale. Schlereth manages to freshen up the conversation, and in so doing provides valuable insights and a compelling narrative. An Age of Infidels is foremost a political history, and this orientation allows it to situate religious controversies in the context. While historiographical debates about egalitarianism and social control often (rightly) takeinfidelsbook place along theoretical and methodological lines, sometimes the political context is either absent or ancillary. By starting with politics and locating religious controversy within that realm, rather than vice versa, Schlereth avoids this pitfall.

One reason for the book’s freshness and value is the actors and ideas that are its main characters: deists, freethinkers, and their political enemies. These characters are somewhat familiar to historians of the period, but Schlereth provides fuller histories of main actors and brings in previously little-known figures as well, while maintaining a focus on their roles in the wrangling with large issues of civic culture and national identity. In the early republic, citizens often publicly debated the necessity of morality, the state’s role (or lack thereof) in enforcing morality, and who was and was not a good citizen. These controversies, Schlereth writes, “raised questions about the political and cultural consequences of religious opinions more generally as well as the meaning of religious difference in a republic” (3–4). While many Americans celebrated religious liberty, the prohibition of a federally established state church, and the quick disestablishment of most state churches, many of those same citizens were troubled by the potentially destabilizing sanction of all public speech about religion.

Infidelity was, of course, originally a theological term. The narrative of An Age of Infidels demonstrates how it became political. Over the course of this development, from the 1770s through the 1840s, “religion” and “politics” were created and defined as ostensibly separate and yet co-constitutive arenas. The infidel controversies were a key element of this transformation, as they became political debates addressing fundamental concerns of morality, publicness, and the roles of government and citizens. Two developments, Schlereth argues, helped to take the controversies’ import beyond the merely theological realm: “the redefinition of religion as a concept in the early modern West whereby faith became a matter of opinion,” and “the relationship between a redefined concept of religion and changes within American political culture” (12). Schlereth’s secularization narrative, like most compelling secularization narratives, is not about the “retreat” or “decline” of religion, but the redefinition of it.

Schlereth’s narrative opens with a description of constitutional debates, state and federal, about religious tests for office. Diverse religious beliefs were allowed, but what might happen if and when those opinions affected the public sphere? Worried Americans imagined a near future in which unbelievers of all kinds maintained authority and influence. It’s one thing to acknowledge the looming possibility of American freethinkers and deists (what Schlereth calls “ambient infidelity.”) It’s another to have actual deists publishing and circulating popular tracts, holding public meetings, and even running for office (what Schlereth calls “lived deism.”) But that is exactly what happened in the 1790s (30). “Controversies over a possible deist future,” Schlereth argues, “ultimately concerned two of the era’s pressing political problems: how to ensure the long-term viability of republican political institutions and how best to create a moral citizenry” (75). With this framework in mind, we might reimagine the “Second Great Awakening” not as a proliferation of new religious choice, but an intentional—and political—stamping out of potential infidel futures. “Religion” itself was linked with a belief-based piety and morality, both of which, by the early nineteenth century, drew most importance from their supposed propensity to bolster civic virtue. In this way, Schlereth demonstrates, “religious claims gained a renewed viability in American politics once they were judged according to their patriotism rather than theological rigor” (109). Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, certain religious groups began to align with certain political parties and platforms.

Despite the nineteenth-century success of evangelicals, infidelity, ambient and lived, never fully disappeared. An Age of Infidels tracks the careers of influential deists like Elihu Palmer and other “infidels” like Robert Owen Dale and the many admirers of Tom Paine who, even after Paine had died and largely fallen out of favor (and not in that order, chronologically) read Age of Reason and celebrated his birthday. These characters are often mentioned in American religious history but seldom explored at much length or depth. As Schlereth shows in the final chapter, free enquirers recognized that religion was a political concern. Rather than change the frame of the debate, they kept religion in the political realm, arguing that the truly democratic mind was liberated from the dogmatism and clericalism of religion. They believed that “full citizenship required what they variously termed ‘mental freedom,’ ‘mental liberty,’ or ‘mental emancipation’” (226). The difference was over how, not whether, private beliefs ought to influence political activity.

In the early republic and certainly long after, religious debate was about citizenship and politics. Thus, religious beliefs, even when ostensibly kept in the private realm, were constructed by their public implications. Other books have noted how political ideology shaped religion. Indeed, this was probably Nathan Hatch’s best contribution. Many historians also have recognized that “religion” became more “political” in the early republic, but An Age of Infidels historicizes that framework’s very creation.

Charles McCrary is a PhD candidate in American religious history at Florida State University. His interests include nineteenth-century cultural history, religion and law, Pacific studies, and the historiography of American religions. He blogs at Religion in American History and Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He is on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary.