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January 10, 2005

Red and Blue States Circa 1793

I'm currently reading Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacobs, a fascinating history of dissent from religious orthodoxy in America. I'll be blogging a few posts on its themes, but one of the odd facts of that history is that New England at the time of the Revolution was religiously doctrinaire in the extreme, while the South was the land of religious liberty and tolerance-- as shown by Jefferson's and Madison's promotion of separation of church and state in Virginia's state constitution. Dissident preachers questioning Jesus' divinity would be driven out of Philadelphia by mobs only to be welcomed politely by the citizens of Georgia. Clergy-dominated New England was allied with the mercantilist elite of the Federalist Party versus the "infidel" Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans of the southern states.

Still, what's also striking is how contested religion was in the period. Even as the Second Great Awakening was encouraging a wave of expanded Christian belief in the early years of the Republic, a counter-movement of liberalism converted over half of the orthodox Congregational churches into more open Unitarian congregations between 1790 and 1830.

We may be seeing a bit of a parallel in this period of religious revivalism where the very success of conservative religious leaders is matched by the opening of other denominations to new liberty, whether with the episcopalians accepting a gay bishop or the United Church of Christ (a descendent of the dour Congregationalists)actively advertising its tolerance. The religious conservatives are still stronger in the recruitment department, but then what is striking in reading about the post-Revolutionary period is that the religious liberals and flat-out doubters were far more vocal and energetic then in challenging the religiously orthodox.

Seculars may fight the religious right at the ballot box today, but most do remarkably little to fight them in the spiritual realm of peoples day-to-day lives. Partly it is the complacency of insular secular worlds where they often just can't believe people actually believe in creation science, so they don't think it deserves a serious debate.

But what is clear is that we need more than mobilization at the ballot box; we need to take the fight for the free thought to the steets and pews of the country, much as has been done in response to each upsurge of orthodoxy in our history.

Posted by Nathan at January 10, 2005 09:05 PM