“Mixing the Sacred Character, With That of the Statesman”: Review of Pulpit and Nation

Spencer W. McBride, Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2016).

pulpit-and-nationThe relationship between Christianity and the American founding is a topic of obvious contemporary political relevance in the United States. It is also a field in which historians during the last few years have labored with great energy.[1] In Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America, Spencer McBride adds to that labor with a book that is—at first glance—less politically charged than some other contributions have been. Yet Pulpit and Nation advances what may be a subversive claim.

Spencer McBride argues that the Protestant clergy were closely involved in discussions about the future of the United States during the revolutionary era. (This is not controversial.) He argues, in fact, that they deserve much of the responsibility for creating Americans’ sense of nationhood. “It is not an exaggeration,” he writes, “to state that Americans began to think of themselves as members of a new imagined community in large part because their trusted spiritual leaders told them that they were” (2-3). He also suggests that this involvement happened because political leaders deliberately enlisted the clergy’s help.

What did clerical involvement in the process of nation-building mean? McBride suggests the answer must take into consideration the fact that Protestant clergy were active on multiple sides of any given issue. Rather than produce any single coherent “Christian” perspective on early American politics, religious ministers shaped the language and symbolism of American politics in general.

The book’s six tightly constructed (but somewhat loosely connected) chapters highlight specific arenas in which the Protestant clergy acted—and specific constraints on their influence. The first chapter argues that official fast days mobilized some of the clergy to ratify the Continental Congress’s authority, articulating the patriot cause in providential terms. It also presents evidence that actual participation in these fast days varied greatly by location. The second chapter portrays military and congressional chaplains as a key part of the patriot war effort, presenting the Revolution as a kind of crusade. Here, McBride argues that clergymen showed both pragmatism and profound ambivalence. The patriots needed them, but they had complex loyalties, a phenomenon McBride also explores with case studies in the next chapter. The fourth and fifth chapters examine the reasons that impelled ministers to take opposing sides in the ratification debates and the partisan struggles of the 1790s. Finally, the sixth chapter shows how the election of 1800 allowed Federalists to press for partisan advantage by inventing a new public expectation that a president must be a Christian.

In these chapters, McBride describes clergymen playing vital roles in public debates, yet he shows them more often being driven by their political circumstances than vice versa. During the ratification debates, for example, pro- and anti-Federalist ministers took positions that promised to guard their local social status more than any religious principle, while laypeople accused each other of either promoting a sinfully disorderly society or inappropriately subordinating religious business to the distractions of state. Their rhetoric was spiritual, but some of their key motives seem decidedly otherwise.

Indeed, theological enemies often became political allies, as when orthodox and liberal New England Congregationalists joined (temporarily) to hold back the tide of “Jacobin” deism during the 1790s. McBride suggests their common interest was less about metaphysics than about what infidelity meant for church attendance. (He quotes a lovely source from South Carolina: In vestry minutes from 1801, two Episcopal ministers ingenuously declared it “hurtful to their feelings” to see slack religiosity make Charlestonians “undervalue” their ministry, depriving them of “Dignity, as well as comfort,” during a time of growing economic prosperity in the city.[2])

Much of this calls into question whether these ministers had any distinctive theological influence on revolutionary-era politics at all. Writing about the Constitution, especially, McBride goes out of his way to avoid any suggestion that this was a particularly Christian text. It “hardly represented a moment of consensus among Americans about the role of religion in politics,” he writes; the role of religious discourse in the founding process “reveals more about the origins and development of American political culture than it does about the character of the country’s governmental institutions” (117).

Ultimately, McBride argues that politics shaped American religious culture more than the other way around. Indeed, I think it is appropriate to observe in Pulpit and Nation a pervasive unease about the partisan entanglements of American Christianity today—not as a threat to the separation of church and state, but as a focus of naiveté among believers. In his conclusion, McBride discusses this as a problem of identity: simplistic discussions of the past have presented both the U.S. founding and Christianity as sources of stable, settled identities for contemporary Americans, denying how complicated people’s motives and behavior (then and now) can be. “Whether looking at the political figures of America’s past or those operating in the present,” he writes, “we should be wary of accepting at face value the religious utterances of political power brokers” (174). In other words, Christian America can be as messy and sordid as any other America.

It is this note of warning, as much as the propositional content of the thesis and the nature of the evidence, that gives Pulpit and Nation significance. Many of the ideas in the book will seem intuitive and perhaps familiar to early American historians—although McBride’s chapters on providentialism and chaplains are sophisticated new contributions to our knowledge about revolutionary discourse. But the book as a whole forms a bridge between academic studies of early American political culture and a much wider contemporary conversation about the nature of the American founding. Besides including it alongside the work of Amanda Porterfield, James Byrd, and other scholars in their own reading, historians may find it a valuable way to guide theoretical discussions in graduate and undergraduate courses. General readers, meanwhile, will also find it an accessible scholarly countermeasure to certain unscholarly polemics.

_______________

[1] Consider, among others, Thomas S. Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2010); John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011); Amanda Porterfield, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); James P. Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), reviewed by Roy Rogers here; Jonathan J. Den Hartog, Patriotism & Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), reviewed by Keith Grant here; and Steven K. Green, Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[2] Vestry Minutes, 1799-1816, St. Michael’s Church Records, South Carolina Historical Society; quoted on p. 136.

Advertisements

One comment on ““Mixing the Sacred Character, With That of the Statesman”: Review of Pulpit and Nation

  1. […] up on Jonathan Wilson’s review of Spencer McBride’s Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America, […]

Engage

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s