The marriage of Christianity and republican political theory in America

Noll’s fifth chapter analyzes the American combination of Christianity and republican political ideas, which was a rare combination in the 18th and 19th centuries.  You can see my notes on his previous chapter, where he explained more about this, here.

Noll argues that the most powerful influence in combining Christian beliefs and republican political principles was the period of conflict with France in the 1740s-1760s, the two wars known in America as King George’s War (1744-1748) and the French and Indian War (1754-1763).  French political and religious (i.e. Catholic) tyranny were contrasted with English liberty.  After the wars with France, religious Americans calling for religious freedom (as opposed to established churches) and the end of slavery used the republican language of rights and liberty.

Noll argues that during the time of resistance and open rebellion against British taxes and laws republican and Christian language were intermingled, so that Christianity was a “disinfectant” that sanitized the republican ideas that were so often connected with heretical ideas.  He gives the great example of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which presented biblical examples in support of a republican form of government and against monarchy.  Paine had probably personally rejected Christianity at the time, but presented a very persuasive case that Christianity and republican ideas went hand in hand.  Noll calls this “Christian republicanism.”

Noll gives a plausible account of how “Christian republicanism” emerged.  He states early on in the book that he intends to do a history of theology that pays attention to high culture rather than a social history that looks at popular culture, while recognizing the necessity of histories that do the latter.  So the question remaining is how this worked at a popular level.  He contends that Americans in general tended to accept the synthesis hammered out in the theology that he explores, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

Noll closes with a great account from the always quotable de Tocqueville:

The character of the country that de Tocqueville visited in the 1830s seemed compounded of what he called “two perfectly distinct elements that elsewhere have often made war with each other, but which, in America, … they have succeeded in incorporating somehow into another and combining marvelously.  I mean to speak of the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.” (92)

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