The Religious Conflict At The Heart Of Our Culture Wars


A decade ago, it would have been difficult to conceive of Donald Trump as a key figure in America’s Christian image of itself. Yet the Religious Right’s support of his candidacy, followed by continued loyalty since he took office despite numerous scandals, has shifted the nation’s traditional boundaries. Evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. have not only defended Trump but have cast him as a godsend to the country. While this allegiance has led many critics to decry the apparent hypocrisy and opportunism among white evangelicals, it is just another example of how a certain brand of religiosity and American conservatism have become connected at the hip.

This particular connection between patriotic evangelicalism and the American Right is of recent vintage: The Moral Majority’s ascension to the national stage in the 1980s was dependent on a marriage to Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party. “This party is our home; this party is where we belong,” Pat Robertson declared at the 1992 GOP Convention. But the attachment between explicit religiosity and conservatism goes back far earlier. Though the framers of America’s federal government sought a distinction between denominational influence and state power—so much so that evangelical observers critiqued the Constitution as a “godless document”—partisans quickly capitalized on the power of religious rhetoric in political debates. Indeed, in the 1790s, when the French Revolution seemed to toss the entire world into tumult, many American ministers and politicians came to envision their nation’s future as intertwined with Christian devotion. The resulting religious nationalism has rarely been challenged since.

In the Age of Revolutions, a period that began with the American Revolution and continued for several decades as revolts rocked both the Americas and Europe, individuals on both sides of the Atlantic were forced to reconsider the relationship between religion, society, and government. And despite the secular achievements of these developments, religion continued to hold sway with many. The famed French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance, looked to Moses as the premier example for turning a “national body” into “a political Body” that lived together with stability and peace. Contemporary governments based on secular constitutions were feeble, he argued, while Moses’s was stable. Indeed, Rousseau’s primary critique of “modern nations” is that there are “many lawmakers among them but not a single lawgiver.” In his Social Contact, Rousseau insisted on the necessity of “a purely civil profession of faith” that, though steering clear of particular dogmas, helped instill “sentiments of sociability” shared by the entire nation. Similarly, in Germany, Friedrich Schlegel argued for a symbiotic relationship between religion and politics: “Politics (as the art and science of the community of all human development) is for the periphery what religion is for the centre.” If the two are incongruous, the entire system falls apart. Far from becoming inconsequential, religion only became more crucial to political discourse as nations were recognized as social constructions and expected to evolve in order to match society.

This anxiety became an even more potent during the debates surrounding the French Revolution, especially in the Anglo-American world. Though originally welcomed as a continuation of America’s cause for freedom, the revolution’s quick descent into terror and, to many observers’ eyes, anarchy, led conservative thinkers to believe it to be the example of democracy’s tragic excesses. Religion was a central part of the equation. In Britain, Edmund Burke accused the French of tossing out their federally established religion that had served as a stabilizing feature of government. “The spirit of nobility and religion” cultivated by a state-sponsored ecclesiastical structure, Burke argued, kept nations grounded in social, moral, and religious principles that were crucial for the country to survive. In response, the British radical Mary Wollstonecraft argued that a deluded devotion to state religion, rather than natural religious sentiments, was at the heart of this mistaken political theology. Religion is “the cultivation of the understanding and refinement of the affections,” she believed, and should naturally percolate from the citizen body rather than forced upon them by the state. Indeed, Wollstonecraft reasoned, Burke’s argument would “undermine” both religion and the state. These were merely two expressions, strung across a very dynamic spectrum, within a vigorous debate that had to change the course of religion’s role in society.

Despite taking place across the Atlantic Ocean, the French Revolution had a disproportionate impact on America’s political and religious culture. Its events prompted difficult questions concerning America’s own revolutionary purpose, and its timing coincided with the birth of America’s two-party political system. Previously, there was general enthusiasm for their sister nation’s cause. Now, France’s quick spiral into violence led many Americans, especially those associated with the Federalist Party, to cut cultural ties and denounce the French nation’s recent and radical developments.

This conflict proved a crucial moment in American politics, as it forced significant developments in the nation’s concept of exceptionalism, ideas of violence and revolution, and understanding of democracy. And given that religion was always at the center of their discussions concerning France, it also both shifted and validated competing theologies of national belonging. France’s descent into anarchy, many argued, was due to their lack of religious devotion. For America to succeed, then, they had to redouble their Christian alliance. America’s nationalism could only be built upon ardent Christian patriotism.

Added to this anxiety was a trenchant fear that the French Revolution was part of a global threat toward belief in general. Atheism, deism, and other ideologies that displaced orthodox faith seemed on the rise across the Atlantic. Nobody represented that threat more than Thomas Paine. Though Paine had been at the center of America’s nationalist imagination two decades earlier—his famous tract, Common Sense, paved the way for citizens to imagine a patriotic future apart from Britain—he soon left the continent, returned to Europe, and became enmeshed with France’s revolt. While imprisoned in Paris for supporting the wrong regime, Paine turned his attention once more to America. Whereas the United States had declared its independence from monarchy in 1776, it was now time for them to declare their independence from Christianity. The Age of Enlightenment, he believed, demanded nothing less.

“It is necessary to be bold,” Paine explained to fellow skeptic Elihu Palmer, because while “some people can be reasoned into sense … others must be shocked into it.” In the introduction to Age of Reason, his popular and controversial pamphlet that attacked organized religion, he admitted his excitement over “the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion.” The “circumstance that has now taken place in France,” he believed, would finally inaugurate a global transformation that would overturn priestcraft. Joel Barlow, a diplomat, politician, and businessman from Massachusetts who helped publish Paine’s Age of Reason and penned one of the few American defenses of the controversial tract, posited that Christian belief was incompatible with America’s rational age. Progress depended on a nation’s ability to “banish [revealed religion] as much as possible from society,” he wrote in a biting treatise that was never published. The entirety of Western civilization depended on a move toward universal rationalism. America could only thrive if it embraced a transnational brotherhood with other democratic societies, especially revolutionary France, and break the shackles of organized religion.

The American reaction to Paine’s message was swift and vociferous. At least one hundred rebuttals to Age of Reason were published over the next decade, and most denounced the global skepticism that challenged religious authority. Boston minister Jeremy Belknap dismissed the work as “a species of vulgar infidelity, founded partly in pedantry, partly in debauchery and partly in ill manners, is insinuating itself into the minds of the thoughtless.” The American republic was to be built on something much more stable. As another respondent to Paine wrote, Christianity was “the most perfect standard of duty erected,” designed to “engage man to an endless progression in virtue” within the civic sphere. John Adams’s reaction to Age of Reason was both similar and succinct: “The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the Blackguard Paine say what he will.” The response to Paine exhibited a matrix including Christian orthodoxy, political conservatism, and nascent exceptionalism. As Americans established new foundations for a national character, radicals like Paine and transatlantic counterpoints like France were cast aside.

More broadly, clergy defended the role of Christian belief as a crucial stabilizing force for the nation. A Christian defense transcended the mere squabbles with Paine. The stakes were much higher. Drawing from the theology of human depravity, religion was presented as necessary to control passion and curtail anarchy. “Religion is the only safeguard of a free people,” explained Boston minister Thaddeus Fiske, “and they who disregard its principles, or manifest a disposition or conduct that tends to lessen a veneration for the deity, are essentially unqualified to beat the head of government.” Religion, though technically not afforded an official place within the nation’s government, was still part of the nation’s identity, and thus needed to be taken into consideration when controlling people and policies. “That men destitute of religion, or the fear of God,” he concluded, “are unfit to lead and govern the important affairs of nations, [and] we have a recent and unhappy example in the late rulers of France, in her revolution.” America, due to its religious commitment, was a nation apart.

Likewise, in 1798, Samuel Spring warned his Newburyport, Massachusetts, congregation that America must avoid the influence of “French atheists” who were behind the chaos then spreading across the Atlantic. America’s own revolution had taken place less than two decades before, and while the quasi-war with France was still ongoing, Spring believed that the extent of the foreign nation’s nefarious plots was only now being discovered. They “have undertaken to manage our elections, and to direct our cabinet,” he proclaimed, and had attempted to “trample upon the United States.” All in all, “the French are the most deceitful, perfidious, avaricious, cruel and murderous monsters in the world.”

In response to the French Revolution, American ministers helped cultivate the framework in which their congregants could interpret their world and the events taking place within it. In an Age of Revolutions, in which everything seemed in transition, religion provided the tools through which to construct a consistent allegiance. These debates also developed one of the most dominant frameworks for American nationalism. The United States of America was to be, beyond anything else, a Christian refuge from a fallen world. Those who wished to control its power were expected to follow those guidelines.

Two centuries later, Americans, and especially American conservatives, are still devoted to proving the religious nature of their patriotic devotion. In a world of growing secularism, the United States is presented as a last refuge for explicit Christian devotion. The country’s religious nationalism has even made possible one of the unlikeliest of alliances: the loyalty between evangelical ministers and Donald Trump. On the one hand, Trump merely has to repeat the most basic language of Christian nationalism, even if it is deeply incongruent with his own history and actions, and he’s assured of the Religious Right’s support; on the other, evangelical ministers are expected to heap platitudes upon their heretical leader in exchange for ammunition in their culture wars. This quixotic marriage was only made possible due to a long tradition of patriotic piety and Christian partisanship, an uneven and dynamic trajectory that continues to produce new twists and turns.

Benjamin E. Park is an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University. He is the author of American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833, from which this essay was adapted. Follow him @BenjaminEPark.

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