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. 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.” 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.
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. 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.” 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. 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.”
The experience of Bishop James Madison, first Episcopal Bishop of Virginia and second cousin to President Madison, is similar to that of Benjamin Rush. The bishop, like the physician, linked his public Christianity to republicanism: “the divine principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Madison hoped that the new state governments and, later, the Constitution would promote virtue and unity by creating a godly “Republic of Virtue.” 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.
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. 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.
 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.
 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).
 In this Noll most closely follows the “democratization thesis” of Hatch and his imitators.
 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.
 Ibid, 26.
 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.
 Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling, 28.
 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.
 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.
 On the “Republic of Virtue” see: Ibid, 64.
 On Madison’s collapse see: Ibid, 69 and Edward L. Bond and Joan R. Gundersen, “The Episcopal Church in Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 115, no. 2 (2007): 218-220.