Saturday, March 18, 2023

An 18th Century Preview of America's Political and Religious Schisms

By Rudy Barnes, Jr., March 18, 2023

America’s 18th century Counter-Enlightenment and its Second Great Awakening provided a preview of how a toxic mix of politics and religion created schisms in America's culture. Seth David Radwell has described the historic roots of America’s political and religious turbulence in his book, American Schism.

Thomas Jefferson was a libertarian Democratic-Republican who believed that France shared America’s democratic ideals in the Counter-Enlightenment, while Alexander Hamilton was a Federalist foil to Jefferson’s libertarian views.  Jefferson and Hamilton represented the political divisions of that era that evolved into our current polarized partisan politics.

Jefferson was a universalist child of the Enlightenment who considered the teachings of Jesus “the most sublime moral code ever devised by man.”  Most Americans in the 18th century were Christians, but Jefferson condemned exclusivist church doctrines never taught by Jesus and emphasized the freedom of religion and the universal moral teachings of Jesus.

The  Second Great Awakening extended from the late 18th century into the early 19th century, and it emphasized Christian beliefs as the only means of salvation in churches and camp meetings across the nation.  Its emotionalism and messianic emphasis countered the universal libertarian principles of the Enlightenment and the altruistic teachings of Jesus.

Alexis DeTocqueville was a French aristocrat who visited America in the 1830s.  He saw American democracy as a fascinating experiment in libertarian government, and credited Christianity with providing the moral glue that held America’s political diversity together; but he underestimated the divisive issue of slavery that had already divided Christianity and politics.

The emphasis on exclusivist Christian beliefs as the only means of salvation in the Second Great Awakening fostered Christian nationalism and American exceptionalism--and later, the America First policies of Donald Trump.  Ironically, Putin has promoted a similar Russian version of Christian nationalism to justify his invasion of Ukraine.

In the Second Great Awakening the church ignored the moral teachings of Jefferson’s Jesus summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves. That shouldn’t be a surprise in a democracy where popularity is the measure of success in both the church and politics.

Cheap grace is the norm in American Christianity.  It’s salvation based on exclusivist Christian beliefs without having to follow the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus, which have never been popular.  Radwell cited “the balance between faith and reason as essential in Counter-Enlightenment politics;” but it will be a cold day in hell before the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus on discipleship become popular in America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture.



Seth David Radwell’s American Schism (Greenleaf Group Press, 2021, in chapter 7) describes the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton that gave birth to America’s populism and polarized partisan politics.  “It escalated when Hamilton convinced Washington to dissolve the French alliance in 1793 and to adopt a pro-British posture in the 1794 Jay Treaty against Jefferson’s fierce objections. (p 133) The juxtaposition between democratic movements and popular religious revivals that both arose bottom-up and the weaponization of these trends by political leaders seeking public support were political dynamics in the fierce battle of the two parties led by Jefferson and Hamilton.  The Federalist strategy was to portray bottom-up democratic movements of the era “as both subversive and perilous to the young nation”, comparing them to the violence in France. (p 135).  “At the end of the 18th century the highly polarizing environment of the young nation and interminable change was indisputably anxiety provoking.”  The Second Great Awakening was a broad Protestant revival beginning in Kentucky and Tennessee that spread rapidly and brought a comforting blanket of spiritual faith to huge swaths of people and counteracted a high level of socio-political uncertainty experienced in the previous decades.  It attracted many converts,  especially Methodists and Baptists, that grew relative to denominations that were dominant in the colonial period such as Anglicans, Presbyterians and Congregationalists.  The Federalists sensed a large and growing part of the population were adopting more pious views and employed Noah Webster, with his grounding in Calvinism [an 18th century Billy Graham], to advocate that Chrisitianity become more central to American life, blaming the violence of the French Revolution on a move from religion.  Webster helped shift public opinion from Jefferson’s “blasphemous” Republicans toward Hamilton’s Federalists. (p 137).  Radwell has noted that “shrewd political actors succeeded in co-opting populist movements that reflect the yearnings, fears and sentiments of common people.”  Because religious and secular populist movements can be good or bad, Radwell judges them based on egalitarian motives in their agency or intent (pp 145-148).  Radwell criticizes “the concept of imposing the strict dogma of one centralized religious institution.” (p 151)  That would include exclusivist religious doctrines on salvation and any religious discrimination that violates the freedom of religion.  Radwell cited the balance between faith and reason as essential to assess the political ramifications of the Counter-Enlightenment.” (p 152)  Unfortunately, America has allowed Christianity to outweigh reason.           

On Thomas Jefferson and Alexis deTocqueville and their views on the moral values of religion in American politics, see Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy (July 1, 2017) at

On competing U.S. and Russian versions of Christian nationalism, see Musings on Civil Religion, Christian Nationalism, and Cancel Culture (March 26, 2022) at

Other commentary on Christian nationalism:

(4/12/19): Musings on Religion, Nationalism and Libertarian Democracy

(8/10/19): Musings on Christian Nationalism: A Plague on the Church and Democracy

(11/5/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Jesus, the Church and Christian Nationalism

(11/12/22): Musings on the Need for a Civil Religion in America’s Dysfunctional Democracy

(12/10/22): Musings on the Evolution of  Christianity into the American Civil Religion

On the future of a church that has lost its moral compass:

(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter

(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous

(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War

(7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs

(9/29/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of Christian Universalism

(3/9/19): Musings on the Degradation of Democracy in a Post-Christian America

(5/4/19): Musings on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

(5/11/19): Musings on the Relevance of Jefferson’s Jesus in the 21st Century

(6/22/19): The Universal Family of God: Where Inclusivity Trumps Exclusivity

(9/14/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Chaos as a Prelude to a New Creation

(10/5/19): Musings on the Moral Relevance of Jesus to Democracy

(2/1/20): Musings on the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Altar of Partisan Politics

(12/5/20): Musings on the Preference of White Christians for Demagoguery over Democracy

(4/17/21): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Future of the Church

(5/15/21): Musings on the Moral Failure of American Christianity and Democracy

(8/14/21): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of God’s Truth in Christianity

(1/15/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Morally Muddled Mainstream

(1/22/22): Musings on Popularity as a Corrupting Influence in Democracy and Christianity

(1/29/22): Musings on the Inadequacy of Religious Moral Standards in American Democracy

(4/30/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Obsolescence of Christianity in Politics

(8/6/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Moderating Hatred in Partisan Politics

(8/13/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religion and the Wisdom of God

(11/12/22): Musings on the Need for a Civil Religion in America’s Dysfunctional Democracy

(12/10/22): Musings on the Evolution of  Christianity into the American Civil Religion

(12/24/22): Christmas Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Myopic Methodist Schism

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