Lecture by Amanda Porterfield (Florida State University). Co-sponsored by the Program in History and Philosophy of Science, the Department of Religious Studies, the Political Theory Workshop, and the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society.
Americans have long acknowledged a deep connection between evangelical religion and democracy in the early days of the republic. This is a widely accepted narrative that is maintained as a matter of fact and tradition—and in spite of evangelicalism’s more authoritarian and reactionary aspects. The lecture challenges this standard interpretation of evangelicalism’s relation to democracy and describes the interdependent relationship between religion and partisan politics that emerged in the formative era of the early republic. In the 1790s, religious doubt became common in the young republic as the culture shifted from mere skepticism toward darker expressions of suspicion and fear. But by the end of that decade, economic instability, disruption of traditional forms of community, rampant ambition, and greed for land worked to undermine heady optimism about American political and religious independence. Evangelicals managed and manipulated doubt, reaching out to disenfranchised citizens as well as to those seeking political influence, blaming religious skeptics for immorality and social distress, and demanding affirmation of biblical authority as the foundation of the new American national identity.
Amanda Porterfield is a historian of American religion with interests in the historical interplay of religion, politics and law, the history of American religious thought, and the historical study of Native American religions. She also works in the history of Christianity, is the author of Healing in the History of Christianity, and co-editor with John Corrigan of the quarterly journal Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture. Her most recent book is Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (Chicago, 2012); her current research focuses on religion in American law.