The Agonies of “Christian Republicans”

This is not, sadly, a post about the troubled relationship between the modern Republican Party and politicized Christianity. I’d like to discuss, rather, a powerful and provocative synthesis of American political, theological, and religious history published a decade ago – Mark Noll’s America’s God. Noll’s magisterial tome brings together over a generation of scholarship on the relationship between American politics and religion (the “democratization thesis”), civic humanism (the “republican thesis”), and Scottish commonsense philosophy in the early national and antebellum United States.[1] America’s God is in many ways a capstone to Noll’s truly outstanding career as a great historian and public intellectual.

Noll argues that political and intellectual life of the new United States was dominated by a “value system” which was “a compound of evangelical Protestant religion, republican political ideology and commonsense moral reasoning.” This synthesis, of previously opposed intellectual strains, is uniquely American –   “not only the most powerful value system in the nation, but also the most powerful value system defining the nation.” Such an intellectual combination happened nowhere else in the Christian world. For both Noll and early national Americans this “Christian Republicanism” made it “a matter of routine for American believers of many types to speak of Christian and republican values with a single voice.” This “single voice” provided the limits and possibilities of early national and antebellum American intellectual life by “providing an ethical framework, a moral compass, and a vocabulary of suasion.”[2] America’s god between the Revolution and the Civil War, then, is a deity who naturalized the relationship between the new nation’s expanding democracy and its surging evangelical denominations.[3]

In recent weeks, as I weave a slow route towards finalizing a dissertation topic, I have been reflecting a lot on America’s God. There are a lot of different ways come at a huge synthesis like Noll’s – with its mastery of so many historiographies and sources. One question I have been pondering how was it to live one’s political and intellectual life as a “Christian Republican?” How powerful, really, in early national public life was the “vocabulary of suasion” provided by this discourse? If we listen for that “single voice” to crack, we might hear a different story – where “Christian Republicans” are less striding in their dominance and more agonized by their failures. The experience of “Christian Republicans” such as Benjamin Rush and Bishop James Madison complicate the breezy naturalization of democracy and Christianity presented by Noll in America’s God.

Benjamin Rush is justly remembered as a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, Continental Army doctor, and early national reformer. He was also a deeply committed Christian.[4] In his championing of various reform efforts – from education to health, anti-slavery, and prison reform – Rush combined his Christian zeal to save souls with his republican drive to secure his new nation’s virtue. Combining these two strands was easy for the Founder-physician, for as Rush explained in 1791: “Republicanism is a part of the truth of Christianity.”[5] The problem in tying Rush to Noll’s vision of “Christian Republicanism” is that the good doctor went to his death-bed, in 1813, disillusioned with his political-religious project.[6] His particular brand of Christian and republican reform was a failure; many of his causes failed to gain political traction and his (in Robert Abzug’s view, “implausible”) dream of a virtuous united American republic floundered. The experience left Rush bitter. As he sorrowfully explained to an old friend: “All systems of political order and happiness seem of later years to have disappointed their founders and advocates.”[7]

 The experience of Bishop James Madison, first Episcopal Bishop of Virginia and second cousin to President Madison, is similar to that of Benjamin Rush.[8] The bishop, like the physician, linked his public Christianity to republicanism: “the divine principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.”[9] Madison hoped that the new state governments and, later, the Constitution would promote virtue and unity by creating a godly “Republic of Virtue.”[10] By 1800 these dreams came to naught; the French Revolution was a failure, Virginia (much less the larger nation) was far from a unified virtuous commonwealth, and the denomination Madison headed was beset by endless political and legal conflicts with its competitors. The “Christian Republican” bishop ended his life in state of ennui and despair.[11]

What does the experience of these two men, such obvious “Christian Republicans,” tell us about the broader interpretative scheme presented by Noll’s America’s God? The agonies and disappointments faced by only two figures cannot displace the power and sweep of a synthesis of such grand scale and scope. The stories of Rush and Madison suggest, however, that the “vocabulary of suasion” provided by the discourse of “Christian Republicanism” might not have had the force and appeal in the early national United States that America’s God suggests. The intellectual, theological, and political troubles experienced by activists like Benjamin Rush and Bishop Madison argues that relationship between politics and Christianity in the new American nation may be more conflicted than natural.[12] Future scholars (myself included) of the locus of politics, theology, and religiosity perhaps should less examine – following Noll – the coherence of that relationship but, rather, its troubles and agonies.

[1] The scholarship on these topics is vast. The most aggressive and influential exposition of the “democratization thesis” is Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989). The classic expression of the “republican synthesis” in the American context is Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press, 1967). For the Atlantic context see: J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975). For the Scottish Enlightenment & commonsense philosophy see:  Richard B. Sher, Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Moderate Literati of Edinburgh (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991). Noll’s most original contribution in America’s God is his repeated stress on commonsense theology’s role in the “Christian republican” synthesis.

[2] Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002) esp. 73-92. Quotations: 9 (first & last), 14 (second; italics in original), 73 (third).

[3] In this Noll most closely follows the “democratization thesis” of Hatch and his imitators.

[4] There is a large literature (popular and scholarly) about or touching upon Rush and his life. The interpretation presented here drawn from the powerful and classic: Robert A. Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994) 11-29.

[5] Ibid, 26.

[6] Noll touches only briefly on Rush in his synthesis. He does not discuss the disillusionment highlighted by Abzug and discussed above. See: Noll, America’s God, 64-65. A direct quotation from one of Rush’s letters appears on 51.

[7] Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling, 28.

[8] The scholarship on Bishop Madison is thin and largely unpublished. The best scholarly treatment of Madison is the brief examination in Charles Crowe, “Bishop James Madison and the Republic of Virtue.” The Journal of Southern History 30, no. 1 (Feb 1964): 58-70. In my prospective dissertation I hope to revisit the figure of Bishop Madison who as a scientist, bishop, college president, and political activist makes of a compelling and interesting figure. Noll treats Madison extremely briefly and highlights how different the Virginia bishop was from his coreligionists across the Atlantic: Noll, America’s God, 67-68.

[9] Crowe, “Bishop James Madison and the Republic of Virtue,” 59. Crowe stresses the close affinity Madison felt towards the French Revolutionaries, going as far as to describe him as a “American Jacobin . Madison kept his faith in the French experiment until at least 1800 before becoming deeply disillusioned.

[10] On the “Republic of Virtue” see: Ibid, 64.

6 responses

  1. Great questions, Roy. I’m uncomfortable with several aspects of Noll’s story, including his treatment of partisan differences and his treatment of the Civil War generally. His is definitely an important synthesis that also requires complicating and challenging. Focusing on stories of failure and regret may be a very useful way to accomplish that.

    I guess my tentative counteroffer to your questions about disillusionment is this: Couldn’t signs of despair actually show just how deep Christian republicanism’s “force and appeal” was — and how hard it was to separate its political from its religious elements? Despair is a pretty strong term; doesn’t it imply (among other things) a lack of emotionally viable intellectual alternatives, and a systematic way of thinking that doesn’t permit much slippage between religion and secular realities?

    It seems to me that you’re envisioning a religious wing to “Failure Studies,” as Scott Sandage has called the work he shares with Seth Rockman. That kind of literature, I think, doesn’t really challenge the idea of a hegemonic ideology of success in America. It just suggests that fear of failure was a more important element in that ideology than most people were willing to admit. Perhaps the same could be said of Christian republicanism in the United States.

    • Thanks for the great comment, Jonathan.

      I am actually very much am envisioning a religious wing of “Failure Studies.” While studying failure may not challenge the hegemonic nature of success in America, it does challenge the sense of inevitability that often exists within the study of successful groups, classes, ideologies etc. Studying failure can highlight contingencies and contestation- what could could have or might have been.

      I believe that much of the scholarship on religion in the United States between the Revolution and the Civil War suffers from a success problem. Many scholars (not all, by any means) have focused on much on the “successes” of the period to the point in which the relationship between American democracy and American evangelicalism is naturalized.

  2. Fantastic stuff, Roy; I share many of your critiques, though you formulate them in a much more coherent manner. Two thoughts:

    First, I would expand your disillusioned lot to include not just prominent individuals, but whole and complete sects. For instance, in a forthcoming article I argue that Mormonism represented a segment of American religious groups who experienced acute angst with the route of American democratic culture. Indeed, the fact that Mormonism, and other upstart sects during the period, only receive a half-dozen passing references hints to the limits of Noll’s framework.

    Second, I think it is important to point out that Rush felt constrained in his religious/republican synthesis even earlier in his life. He kept his universalism quiet, for example, because he felt the traditional Christian notion of “sin,” though wrong, worked well in a republican society. So the boundaries of “Christian” and “Republican” become even more murky.

    • Thanks for the great comment, Ben. You are certainly correct about Rush and Mormons (and similar groups, more broadly). In fact I asked Noll in person, when he came to the Graduate Center a few years ago, I asked him about how Mormonism fit into his framework and he didn’t really have an answer for me. I found that pretty telling.

  3. Thank you, I enjoyed reading this post, and like where you are heading with this. I just had a couple of questions. Please do not feel obliged to answer them — just some thoughts I had:

    1. What do the experiences of Rush and Bishop Madison tell us about the broader interpretative scheme presented by Noll’s America’s God? As you at first seem to suggest, possibly very little, if anything — and I appreciate your caution. At most, they tell us that some tensions marked the early development of Noll’s synthesis. On the other hand, Noll suggests that his synthesis actually comes into fruition a bit later, in the hands of a new generation, no?

    2. What does Noll himself have to say about Rush and/or Bishop Madison? Does Noll claim that either man was a protestant evangelical? That Madison embraced Scottish common sense?

    3. Is the “agony” you refer to peculiar to “Christian Republicans”? Or might it be a generational thing, applicable to the revolutionary generation or perhaps one segment thereof? The first president also went to his deathbed believing in the possibility of a “virtuous unified republic.” Does Noll call Washington a “Christian Republican” or otherwise suggest the first president embraced Noll’s synthesis?

    4. Whose republicanism are we talking about — “little Jemmy” Madison’s or James Harrington’s? Or some other? Recall the famous Lincoln quote: “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” Does the same observation apply to the word “republicanism”? How did Noll’s protagonists understand the Constitution, which arguably proceeded on the assumption that virtue no longer existed in America or, at least, that the republic could no longer depend on its existence?

    Back to grading exams . . .

    • Aaron, I want to thank you for this extremely thoughtful comment. I don’t have the time to give it the real, through response it deserves – I’m grading/packing/traveling to relocate the Rogers-Rees household down South for a week. I hope I will be able to get back to this when I have a little more free time after the holiday.


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