“We disapprove of the measures adopted by a certain party, styling themselves the Christian party in politics,” declared the petition from a citizens’ group. The document went on to indict Christian political activists for advocating policies that were “infusing a spirit of religious intolerance and persecution into the political institute of the country, and which, unless opposed, will result in a union of church and state. …”
Given present controversies, the petition could have been written last week. Instead, it was issued in 1831. Those who believe that religion in politics is somehow a recent phenomenon in America should re-examine their history books. Religion has been an integral part of the nation’s politics from the early years of the republic. This book tries to explain why. It also seeks to illuminate both the opportunities and the dangers religion poses for politics in a representative democracy.
As a political scientist interested in current affairs, I initially considered writing about contemporary conflicts over faith and politics in America. The more I studied the early years of the United States, however, the more I realized that present controversies are simply a continuation of arguments that have been going on since the nation began. The questions debated during the early years of America are hauntingly familiar: Does religion have a political role, and if so, what should it be? What are the advantages of religion in politics? What are the dangers? And how can people of faith bring their religious beliefs to bear on public issues without dividing citizens along religious lines and infringing on the liberty of conscience of those who do not share their religious views?
Exploring how these questions were answered in the past can help clarify what is at stake at present. Indeed, examining the debate over religion and politics more than a century-and-a-half ago may provide more illumination than looking at current conflicts over abortion, school prayer, gay rights, or any number of other issues. Contemporary controversies often cloud our judgment because we have a direct interest in their outcome. When we are able to examine the same fundamental disputes at a distance, however, we are more likely to grapple with the real merits of the respective arguments.
That is what I hope can happen here, for there is much we all can learn from the way religion became involved in politics in the early United States. Those who criticize the role of faith in politics today might gain a better understanding of how and why religion can play a beneficial role in our politics; and those who champion religion’s political role might gain a deeper appreciation of the dangers as well as the possibilities of religious political activism. Finally, evangelical Christians might rediscover part of their heritage, for much of the book is the story of how their forebears first became involved in politics in America. Politically-active evangelicals of today might profit from both the mistakes and the successes of their nineteenth-century predecessors.