Influences on American theology: republicanism, commonsense morality, and the market

Noll now explores the changes in American theology that came after independence.  Noll believes that the new, republican order that overturned the religious and social establishments of the colonial period needed new institutions, and the expanding evangelical churches provided just that.  See this post for my summary of his explanation.

Chapter 11 of America’s God shows the ways that different trends impacted American theology.  Here are my brief explanations of his points:

  • Republicanism, oftentimes rooted in ancient Roman, Renaissance, and English Whig ideas and associated with the upper-class, began to be influenced by liberalism, which focused more on individual political and economic freedoms and saw a place for greater individualism, competition, and the clash of competing interests.  Though some have placed them in opposition, Noll believes that they existed together.  Churches even helped this synthesis by preaching both individual responsibility and membership in a religious community.
  • Virtue, so important to republican thinkers, was thought of as primarily a responsibility of the family.  This actually increased women’s significance because of their occupation of the domestic sphere.
  • The North and South (he probably should say elites in the North and South, in my opinion) held different attitudes about republicanism.  Northern thinkers, from a more commercial and liberal society, embraced the liberal ideas described above.  Southern thinkers argued that an agricultural, slave-holding society was a better basis for a republic, and they tended to be skeptical of commercialism.
  • The commonsense moral philosophy provided a new basis for morality in a nation without a hereditary monarchy or official church.  Morality was plain to the average person, not the province of elites.  My thought: this is pretty much the basis of most political appeals from our two major parties in America today.
  • Christians often expressed their theology in the terms of republican ideas and commonsense morality.
  • Noll argues that the growing commercial market of the early 19th century did not have as much influence as one might think on theology.  Rather, American religious thinkers accepted the market while also holding on to Protestant ideas about how to manage money.  Noll writes that American evangelicals believed that nearly complete religious freedom was an environment in which their faith could flourish, and he believes that they may have applied this same attitude (more freedom is better) to economics.

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