Religion and public order in the 1790s

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


The connection between the founders and relationship between church and state has become increasingly important in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Entire books are regularly published on the private religious thoughts and practices of many of the founding fathers; often times these works exist in order to support a closer relationship between Christian practice and piety and the government. Just as often, published works also draw on the ideas of the same founders in order to support a more concrete separation between religious thought and practice and governance. These "culture wars" are an emotive part of the present day political discourse; however, this thesis argues that attempts to fight the culture wars though the thought of the founders is factually erroneous and misguided because the context of the founders and their debates have been overly simplified or just plain lost. The link between religion and the political culture of the 1790s was a practical matter of governance and support for a larger ideal of consensus, not an expression of cultural preference as is common in present-day political discourse. The connection between the governing structure under the Constitution, a blessing upon that government from God, and the inculcation of Christian ideals into the public that support both religion and the government became increasingly important as the range of political and social opinions expanded in the 1790s. Contemporary political thought that places the intent of the founders at the center of political debate ignore the significant divisions among the founders' political, philosophical, and religious ideals. There is little unity in thought among the founders; they virulently disagreed about religion, politics, and the connection between them. Arguing the present day culture wars through the lens of the founders is emotive and politically effective, but without a full appreciation for the larger historical and intellectual contexts of the early republic and the concerns particular to that time an appeal to the wisdom of the founders on religion and its connection to American politics, this claim to political legitimacy is of dubious intellectual validity.




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