Philip Larkin famously said that sexual intercourse began in “nineteen sixty-three,” and many Americans doubtless imagine that religious controversy migrated here soon after the post-coital cigarette. Jonathan Den Hartog’s new book, Patriotism & Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation, shows that intense religious argument, particularly about infidelity, has been part of the history of the United States nearly from the start. And it only had a little to do with sex.
From the 1790s, Federalist writers worried about a migration of unbelief from Revolutionary France — that the opera singer enthroned in the Cathedral of Notre Dame as the goddess of Reason might find sisters within New England’s more provincial, less ornate Congregational spires. This contagion already seemed present in menacing Jeffersonian guise. (Of course, the Illuminati had to be involved as well.) Eventually, these anxious Federalists, their political options fast diminishing after 1800, started reform societies. Faith in America then became, as Den Hartog puts it, “more individualistic, voluntaristic, and issues-oriented” — more “evangelical” and recognizably Victorian. American Christianity would retain its “combative” origins, though, in being continually defined against the threat of atheism.
The Federalist trajectory is exemplified in the career of Timothy Dwight, the Congregationalist minister who’d compared the American Revolution to the cause of Israel and envisioned the new nation as a happy New England village with “republican happiness sustained by Christianity.” Then came an awareness of both the French Revolution and the menacing Democratic-Republican coalition. By 1798, Dwight, while President of Yale College, tied them all together: from Voltaire to d’Alembert to Diderot to the Illuminati to Masonic lodges. This had caused “infidelity, irreligion, faction, rebellion, the ruin of peace, and the loss of property.” Den Hartog gently suggests that Dwight “overplayed [his] hand.”
In any case, Jefferson, the Democrat-Republican, would become president. “I think N. England will be saved from ruin,” Dwight cautiously ventured. And Jefferson was reelected. Dwight’s efforts would turn towards revivals and voluntary societies that, in being local organizations connected to national bodies, looked like the Federalist Party, but were no longer political. Dwight became an officer in the American Bible Society. These voluntary societies also tended to be “evangelical,” not strictly denominational. A pan-Protestant work of awakening and reform would be the new solution for the problem of unbelief.
Not every trajectory from “republican happiness sustained by Christianity” to a “combative” stance to the support of voluntarist groups was quite as intellectually tumultuous as Dwight’s. Southern Federalists, not having religious establishments to defend like their New England counterparts, “limited religion in their politics.” Unitarian Federalists, being Unitarian, emphasized a moralistic order with rather less religious intensity. But, it would seem, the Federalist trajectory that Den Hartog identifies, whatever its contours, presents interesting theological problems. This is because it posits religion against atheism.
But, first, it is still unclear to me what the Federalist leaders were opposing. What did they see as “atheism?” Was it a stable category, or did atheism inevitably lead to the “enthusiasm” of a radical sect? For instance, the South Carolina lawyer Henry William de Saussure criticized Jefferson as a “speculative philosopher,” and Dwight spoke of the “pride” of “speculation,” both seeming to softly echo Edmund Burke’s claim about the French Revolution: “These Atheistical fathers have a bigotry of their own; and they have learnt to talk against monks with the spirit of a monk.” The mind can apparently genuflect before its own speculations. We might need a map of eighteenth-century political theology here.
But, in any case, America, as Amandine Barb has shown, had begun to define itself against atheism. Atheism was not merely an individual sin, but a source of pollution threatening the community itself. In 1798, John Jay, a believer in the Illuminati conspiracy (not the last believer), diagnosed a “moral epidemic” threatening the world. Later, he claimed that the purpose of the American Bible Societies was to “clean” the “impurities of our moral atmosphere.” If that is the case, though, there is a dilemma. One can believe in God to protect the community in all sincerity or to advance a partisan vision of a restored community in all deviousness.
In 1795, Jay, governor of New York, issued an official Thanksgiving Day proclamation stating that God would “reward or punish” the community based on the actions of New Yorkers. An opposing newspaper, the Aurora, called it a “party production” that “has disgusted multitudes of people.” Much later, de Tocqueville would note that “among Anglo-Americans, there are some who profess Christian dogmas because they believe them, and others who do because they are afraid to look as though they did not believe them.” If America is defined against infidelity, “party productions” and dissimulation — and the undue suspicions of “party productions” and dissimulation by opposing newspapers — are perhaps inevitable.
Worse than the danger, imagined and real, of hypocrisy is that an “othering” of atheism can cause Americans to overlook idolatry. The theologian Jon Sobrino, among others, has suggested that idolatry is worse than atheism. After all, atheism can be a protest for life and justice. And idolatry, meaning “the creation of divinity by humans,” can perpetuate a lethal yet deified status quo. Southern Federalists did defend slavery; de Saussure even connected emancipation to the feared French radicalism, saying of Jefferson, “He is a philosophe …. He entertains opinions unfriendly to the property which forms the efficient labor of a great part of a southern states.”
Meanwhile, the Jays opposed slavery — even admirably so, as Den Hartog writes here about John Jay’s son, William. Nevertheless, Den Hartog rightly criticizes John Jay’s lifelong invocations of Providence: “Jay sacrificed his ability to maintain a critical distance from the nation …. The danger of hubris and blind patriotism were extremely high.”
It should be noted that the renowned Evangelical historian, Mark Noll, has written about the American Revolution, which Jay habitually described as Providential:
Only one population in the colonies clearly was justified by classical Christian reasoning in taking up arms to defend itself — the half-million or so enslaved African Americans who were held in bondage as the result of armed attacks upon peaceful noncombatants.
One antidote to potentially idolatrous forms of nationalism might seem to be a denominational identity that transgresses national boundaries. Yet here, the Federalist trajectory, which ended with pan-Protestant voluntary societies, worked to cut across denominational identities. John Jay’s son, William, a drafter of the constitution of the American Bible Society, entered into an eight-year debate with the Episcopalian Bishop John Henry Hobart. Hobart thought that the Bible should only be distributed in the safe company of the Book of Common Prayer; William Jay, an Episcopalian, believed that Christian reform was a site of Protestant cooperation “for agreed-upon goals that transcended denominational identity” — the inculcation of “an evangelical Christian identity,” for one thing.
Den Hartog writes that here Jay “made the clergyman character look ridiculous.” But he later acknowledges that Hobart’s complaints did have “merits.” For Jay, like his father, the nation still seemed to be the subject of blessing or condemnation. “Our sin will find us out,” the anti-slavery Jay worried as Texas was annexed. While this certainly could be the impetus for reform, one still worries about the elusive “ability to maintain a critical distance from the nation.” After all, as John Fea has written, “The Federalists were a party of big government, war, and religious establishments.” Should the three go comfortably together?
Ironically, Den Hartog elsewhere shows that the American concern with French infidelity was hardly unique. Anti-Jacobinism’s “fountainhead” was the aforementioned Edmund Burke. Timothy Dwight was “alerted” to the Illuminati controversy by the French Jesuit Abbé Barruel and the Scotsman John Robison. It is possible, however, that a concern with infidelity has persisted in America much longer than elsewhere. Amandine Barb notes that President Obama’s inclusion of “non-believers” in his first inaugural address “marked a noticeable evolution” and was controversial.
And sex? Timothy Dwight did connect the French Revolution to the collapse of the family. He satirized the free love ideas of the “philosophers” Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin in imagined dream sequences, no less. But Americans have always been arguing about religion. As Jonathan Den Hartog said in an interview: “Contemporary debates and arguments then should not be surprising but should be welcomed as part of an open discussion that’s built into our republic — and has been since the beginning.” And, as Jonathan Den Hartog effectively shows, it has had to do with more than sex, although sex was always part of it. Eden has always been burning.