Onuf, “Jefferson and the Virginians”

4365Thomas Jefferson and his home state of Virginia have had a disproportionate influence on church-state law in America. Ever since Chief Justice Morrison Waite quoted Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists in Reynolds v. United States (1878)–a quotation that was more or less an accident, as our friend Don Drakeman has written–American judges have invoked Jefferson’s “wall of separation” whenever they have wished to endorse a strict segregation of church and state. Jefferson’s neighbor, James Madison, also appears regularly in judicial discussions. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Court’s first major Establishment Clause case, Justice Hugo Black cited “Madison’s Great Memorial and Remonstrance” in the Virginia Assessment controversy of 1784-86 as a true statement of First Amendment values. No matter that other Founders, and states, had rather different views on the subject. The Virginian experience has become the the Court’s most important historical point of reference.

This month, LSU Press releases Jefferson and the Virginians: Democracy, Constitutions, and Empire, by historian Peter Onuf of the University of Virginia (emeritus). Looks like interesting background reading for people interested in church-state issues. Here’s the description from the LSU website:

In Jefferson and the Virginians, renowned scholar Peter S. Onuf examines the ways in which Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Virginians—George Washington, James Madison, and Patrick Henry—both conceptualized their home state from a political and cultural perspective, and understood its position in the new American union. The conversations Onuf reconstructs offer glimpses into the struggle to define Virginia—and America—within the context of the upheaval of the Revolutionary War. Onuf also demonstrates why Jefferson’s identity as a Virginian obscures more than it illuminates about his ideology and career.

Onuf contends that Jefferson and his interlocutors sought to define Virginia’s character as a self-constituted commonwealth and to determine the state’s place in the American union during an era of constitutional change and political polarization. Thus, the outcome of the American Revolution led to ongoing controversies over the identity of Virginians and Americans as a “people” or “peoples”; over Virginia’s boundaries and jurisdiction within the union; and over the system of government in Virginia and for the states collectively. Each debate required a balanced consideration of corporate identity and collective interests, which inevitably raised broader questions about the character of the Articles of Confederation and the newly formed federal union. Onuf’s well-researched study reveals how this indeterminacy demanded definition and, likewise, how the need for definition prompted further controversy.

O’Donnell, “Elizabeth Seton”

80140103062730LI don’t know too much about the life of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American citizen to be named a saint by the Catholic Church and the founder of the first free Catholic school in this country. I do know that the order of religious sisters she founded is linked to the Vincentian order that founded St. John’s. She seems to have been a spiritually formidable person. She would have to have been, to convert to Catholicism in a society as thoroughgoingly Protestant as early nineteenth-century America, in which conversion entailed a distinct loss of social status. A new biography from Cornell University Press, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint, by historian Catherine O’Donnell (Arizona State) tells her story. Here’s the description from the Cornell website:

In 1975, two centuries after her birth, Pope Paul VI canonized Elizabeth Ann Seton, making her the first saint to be a native-born citizen of the United States in the Roman Catholic Church. Seton came of age in Manhattan as the city and her family struggled to rebuild themselves after the Revolution, explored both contemporary philosophy and Christianity, converted to Catholicism from her native Episcopalian faith, and built the St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Hers was an exemplary early American life of struggle, ambition, questioning, and faith, and in this flowing biography, Catherine O’Donnell has given Seton her due.

O’Donnell places Seton squarely in the context of the dynamic and risky years of the American and French Revolutions and their aftermath. Just as Seton’s dramatic life was studded with hardship, achievement, and grief so were the social, economic, political, and religious scenes of the Early American Republic in which she lived. O’Donnell provides the reader with a strong sense of this remarkable woman’s intelligence and compassion as she withstood her husband’s financial failures and untimely death, undertook a slow conversion to Catholicism, and struggled to reconcile her single-minded faith with her respect for others’ different choices. The fruit of her labors were the creation of a spirituality that embraced human connections as well as divine love and the American Sisters of Charity, part of an enduring global community with a specific apostolate for teaching.

The trove of correspondence, journals, reflections, and community records that O’Donnell weaves together throughout Elizabeth Seton provides deep insight into her life and her world. Each source enriches our understanding of women’s friendships and choices, illuminates the relationships within the often-opaque world of early religious communities, and upends conventional wisdom about the ways Americans of different faiths competed and collaborated during the nation’s earliest years. Through her close and sympathetic reading of Seton’s letters and journals, O’Donnell reveals Seton the person and shows us how, with both pride and humility, she came to understand her own importance as Mother Seton in the years before her death in 1821.

Lake, “Progressive New World”

9780674975958-lgLast week, Columbia Law professor Philip Hamburger presented his new book, Liberal Suppression, to the students in our law and religion colloquium. Philip argues, in that book and others, that much of 19th and 20th Century Progressivism was animated by an anti-Catholic ideology–or, more precisely, by an ideological reaction against traditional, authoritative communities, of which the Catholic Church was seen as a prime example. It’s a provocative argument nowadays, but it really shouldn’t be. The Progressives themselves would not have found it so. Of course Progressivism opposed tradition, especially tradition that seemed to stand in the way of science and human fulfillment–that is, to say, in the way of Progress. The name of the movement itself makes this clear.

A forthcoming book from Harvard, Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform, argues that the Progressive Movement had racist roots as well. Again, this is a provocative claim today–but it would not have been so to the Progressives themselves. Many of them, like Woodrow Wilson, were quite open about their racial attitudes. The author is historian Marilyn Lake (University of Melbourne). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

The paradox of progressivism continues to fascinate more than one hundred years on. Democratic but elitist, emancipatory but coercive, advanced and assimilationist, Progressivism was defined by its contradictions. In a bold new argument, Marilyn Lake points to the significance of turn-of-the-twentieth-century exchanges between American and Australasian reformers who shared racial sensibilities, along with a commitment to forging an ideal social order. Progressive New World demonstrates that race and reform were mutually supportive as Progressivism became the political logic of settler colonialism.

White settlers in the United States, who saw themselves as path-breakers and pioneers, were inspired by the state experiments of Australia and New Zealand that helped shape their commitment to an active state, women’s and workers’ rights, mothers’ pensions, and child welfare. Both settler societies defined themselves as New World, against Old World feudal and aristocratic societies and Indigenous peoples deemed backward and primitive.

In conversations, conferences, correspondence, and collaboration, transpacific networks were animated by a sense of racial kinship and investment in social justice. While “Asiatics” and “Blacks” would be excluded, segregated, or deported, Indians and Aborigines would be assimilated or absorbed. The political mobilizations of Indigenous progressives—in the Society of American Indians and the Australian Aborigines’ Progressive Association—testified to the power of Progressive thought but also to its repressive underpinnings. Burdened by the legacies of dispossession and displacement, Indigenous reformers sought recognition and redress in differently imagined new worlds and thus redefined the meaning of Progressivism itself.

Winterer, “American Enlightenments”

f91c0ad896d2f4ffe39f2cfa7861d6ddIn yesterday’s book post, I noted that the American Revolution was more complicated and contingent an event than commonly understood. If one or two battles had gone differently, the Crown might well have prevailed, with all that implies for, among other things, church and state in America. And conventional wisdom errs in assuming that the Revolution was a straightforward project of the Enlightenment, and that the Enlightenment itself was a unified movement. A book released by Yale University Press last month, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason, by Caroline Winterer (Stanford), argues that the Enlightenment had many different, competing, not always consistent streams. The author apparently thinks the Cold War is responsible for our exaggerated sense of the unity of our Revolution and its Enlightened character, which seems doubtful. But the main theme of the book looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

A provocative reassessment of the concept of an American golden age of European-born reason and intellectual curiosity in the years following the Revolutionary War

The accepted myth of the “American Enlightenment” suggests that the rejection of monarchy and establishment of a new republic in the United States in the eighteenth century was the realization of utopian philosophies born in the intellectual salons of Europe and radiating outward to the New World. In this revelatory work, Stanford historian Caroline Winterer argues that a national mythology of a unitary, patriotic era of enlightenment in America was created during the Cold War to act as a shield against the threat of totalitarianism, and that Americans followed many paths toward political, religious, scientific, and artistic enlightenment in the 1700s that were influenced by European models in more complex ways than commonly thought. Winterer’s book strips away our modern inventions of the American national past, exploring which of our ideas and ideals are truly rooted in the eighteenth century and which are inventions and mystifications of more recent times.

Frazer, “God against the Revolution”

9780700626960“Let tyrants shake their iron rod / And Slav’ry clank her galling chains / We fear them not, we trust in God / New England’s God Forever Reigns.” These words from a famous Revolutionary song reflect the Patriots’ belief that the Almighty was on their side in the struggle against the Crown and for independence from Great Britain. This belief carried forward after the war, so that, when Tocqueville visited in the 19th century, he observed that Americans so completely conflated Christianity and “freedom” that they could not conceive of one without the other. But there was another side in the Revolution. Like many colonial rebellions, the Revolution was in truth a civil war, and one with religious undertones. The Loyalists also thought God was on their side. But as Anglicans and conservatives, they thought He favored, not Republicanism, but Monarchy and the Established Church.

A new book from the University Press of Kansas, God against the Revolution, by historian Gregg L. Frazer (The Master’s University) evaluates the arguments of Loyalist clergy. It looks like a fascinating book. Perhaps, like Bernard Bailyn’s famous biography of Loyalist Governor Thomas Hutchinson, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, it will encourage some sympathy with the losers in our Revolution. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Because, it’s said, history is written by the victors, we know plenty about the Patriots’ cause in the American Revolution. But what about the perhaps one-third of the population who opposed independence? They too were Americans who loved the land they lived in, but their position is largely missing from our understanding of Revolution-era American political thought. With God against the Revolution, the first comprehensive account of the political thought of the American Loyalists, Gregg L. Frazer seeks to close this gap.

Because the Loyalists’ position was most clearly expressed by clergymen, God against the Revolution investigates the biblical, philosophical, and legal arguments articulated in Loyalist ministers’ writings, pamphlets, and sermons. The Loyalist ministers Frazer consults were not blind apologists for Great Britain; they criticized British excesses. But they challenged the Patriots claiming rights as Englishmen to be subject to English law. This is one of the many instances identified by Frazer in which the Loyalist arguments mirrored or inverted those of the Patriots, who demanded natural and English rights while denying freedom of religion, expression, and assembly, and due process of law to those with opposing views. Similarly the Loyalist ministers’ biblical arguments against revolution and in favor of subjection to authority resonate oddly with still familiar notions of Bible-invoking patriotism.

For a revolution built on demands for liberty, equality, and fairness of representation, God against Revolution raises sobering questions—about whether the Patriots were rational, legitimate representatives of the people, working in the best interests of Americans. A critical amendment to the history of American political thought, the book also serves as a cautionary tale in the heated political atmosphere of our time.

Sheehan-Dean, “The Calculus of Violence”

9780674984226-lgIt’s a puzzlement. The American Civil War took place in a deeply Christian, even Evangelical society, only a short time after the Second Great Awakening. And yet the conflict was intensely bloody–more than 600,000 people died. How could people who took Christianity so seriously engage in such carnage? A forthcoming history from Harvard University Press, The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War, by scholar Aaron Sheehan-Dean (Louisiana State) maintains that the belligerents in fact tried to limit the bloodshed, that it could have been much, much worse. So perhaps the puzzle is not so great as it appears. Here is the description from the Harvard website:

Shiloh, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg—tens of thousands of soldiers died on these iconic Civil War battlefields, and throughout the South civilians suffered terrible cruelty. At least three-quarters of a million lives were lost during the American Civil War. Given its seemingly indiscriminate mass destruction, this conflict is often thought of as the first “total war.” But Aaron Sheehan-Dean argues for another interpretation.

The Calculus of Violence demonstrates that this notoriously bloody war could have been much worse. Military forces on both sides sought to contain casualties inflicted on soldiers and civilians. In Congress, in church pews, and in letters home, Americans debated the conditions under which lethal violence was legitimate, and their arguments differentiated carefully among victims—women and men, black and white, enslaved and free. Sometimes, as Sheehan-Dean shows, these well-meaning restraints led to more carnage by implicitly justifying the killing of people who were not protected by the laws of war. As the Civil War raged on, the Union’s confrontations with guerrillas and the Confederacy’s confrontations with black soldiers forced a new reckoning with traditional categories of lawful combatants and raised legal disputes that still hang over military operations around the world today.

In examining the agonizing debates about the meaning of a just war in the Civil War era, Sheehan-Dean discards conventional abstractions—total, soft, limited—as too tidy to contain what actually happened on the ground.

Perry, “Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States”

9780691179131For most of our history, America has been a Biblical nation. I don’t mean that statement to be polemical. It’s simply a fact that, for hundreds of years, Americans had a deep familiarity with the Christian Bible and would routinely and unselfconsciously refer to it in their communal life, including their political life. Certainly this was the case at the start of our history. A new, interesting-looking book from Princeton University Press, Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States, by Princeton religion professor Seth Perry, explores the early history. Perry’s basic point seems to be that the Bible’s meaning–I assume he means the meaning the speaker was trying to convey, rather than the true meaning of the text–shifted depending on who was citing it, and for what purpose. Well, the Devil can cite Scripture. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Early Americans claimed that they looked to “the Bible alone” for authority, but the Bible was never, ever alone. Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States is a wide-ranging exploration of the place of the Christian Bible in America in the decades after the Revolution. Attending to both theoretical concerns about the nature of scriptures and to the precise historical circumstances of a formative period in American history, Seth Perry argues that the Bible was not a “source” of authority in early America, as is often said, but rather a site of authority: a cultural space for editors, commentators, publishers, preachers, and readers to cultivate authoritative relationships.

While paying careful attention to early national bibles as material objects, Perry shows that “the Bible” is both a text and a set of relationships sustained by a universe of cultural practices and assumptions. Moreover, he demonstrates that Bible culture underwent rapid and fundamental changes in the early nineteenth century as a result of developments in technology, politics, and religious life. At the heart of the book are typical Bible readers, otherwise unknown today, and better-known figures such as Zilpha Elaw, Joseph Smith, Denmark Vesey, and Ellen White, a group that includes men and women, enslaved and free, Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Mormons, Presbyterians, and Quakers. What they shared were practices of biblical citation in writing, speech, and the performance of their daily lives. While such citation contributed to the Bible’s authority, it also meant that the meaning of the Bible constantly evolved as Americans applied it to new circumstances and identities.

Rosen, “William Howard Taft”

9781250293695We round out this week’s book posts with a new biography of William Howard Taft, who managed to serve both as President and Chief Justice of the United States and who was, incidentally, the last American President to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. (It’s true. He was a Unitarian. You could look it up). The publisher is Macmillan and the author is law professor Jeffrey Rosen. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

The only man to serve as president and chief justice, who approached every decision in constitutional terms, defending the Founders’ vision against new populist threats to American democracy

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president and yearned instead to serve as chief justice of the United States. But despite his ambivalence about politics, the former federal judge found success in the executive branch as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war, and he won a resounding victory in the presidential election of 1908 as Theodore Roosevelt’s handpicked successor.

In this provocative assessment, Jeffrey Rosen reveals Taft’s crucial role in shaping how America balances populism against the rule of law. Taft approached each decision as president by asking whether it comported with the Constitution, seeking to put Roosevelt’s activist executive orders on firm legal grounds. But unlike Roosevelt, who thought the president could do anything the Constitution didn’t forbid, Taft insisted he could do only what the Constitution explicitly allowed. This led to a dramatic breach with Roosevelt in the historic election of 1912, which Taft viewed as a crusade to defend the Constitution against the demagogic populism of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Nine years later, Taft achieved his lifelong dream when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice, and during his years on the Court he promoted consensus among the justices and transformed the judiciary into a modern, fully equal branch. Though he had chafed in the White House as a judicial president, he thrived as a presidential chief justice.

Schlereth, “An Age of Infidels”

spring2018catalogcoverHere is an interesting-looking new book from the University of Pennsylvania Press on conflicts concerning religious liberty in the early Republic, An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States. The author, University of Texas at Dallas historian Eric R. Schlereth, maintains that Americans in the Framers’ generation decided to handle religious accommodation as a political rather than a legal matter. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:

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.

Strobel and Crisp, “Jonathan Edwards”

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American religious culture is a somewhat odd combination of Evangelical Christianity and the Enlightenment. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that a transcendent order and personal liberty are wholly compatible. This was one of the things that most perplexed Tocqueville, when he visited America in the 1820s. “Americans so completely confuse Christianity and freedom in their minds that it is almost impossible to have them conceive of the one without the other.”

Here, from Eerdman’s, is a new book on someone who definitely combined Evangelicalism and the Enlightenment, the 18th Century theologian and preacher, Jonathan Edwards: Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought, by scholars Kyle C. Strobel (Biola University) and Oliver D. Crisp (Fuller Theological Seminary). Most Americans probably think of Edwards as a fire-and-brimstone, Puritan revivalist of the First Great Awakening. His sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is a staple of American literature classes, or was, anyway. But he was also a polymath who became, at the end of his life, the president of the College of New Jersey, now called Princeton University. The book looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) has long been recognized as one of the preeminent thinkers in the early Enlightenment and a major figure in the history of American Christianity.

In this accessible one-volume text, leading Edwards experts Oliver Crisp and Kyle Strobel introduce readers to the formi­dable mind of Jonathan Edwards as they survey key theological and philosophical themes in his thought, including his doctrine of the Trinity, his philosophical theology of God and creation, and his understanding of the atonement and salvation.

More than two centuries after his death, theologians and historians alike are finding the larger-than-life Edwards more interesting than ever. Crisp and Strobel’s concise yet comprehensive guide will help students of this influential eighteenth-century revivalist preacher to understand why.

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