Some of the most interesting material in David Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought concerns religious developments in the new U.S. republic. The period the volume covers -- 1815-1848 -- saw the outburst of millennial religious fervor known as the Second Great Awakening. This evangelical movement probably did more than conscious political agitation to make the new democracy ever more inclusive for more of its residents.
This was not an era of big government -- in fact, on the expanding frontiers, it was scarcely an era of government at all. The various evangelical sects cooperated to provide a thin tissue of social structure in shapeless circumstances.
The United Front had religious competitors and the history of its tensions with other sects had a lot to do with how "separation of church and state" developed in this country. Roman Catholicism gained adherents broadly during this period and also sometimes found its international hierarchical structure in tension with U.S. democracy. The growth of Catholic numbers depended very much on proselytizing in these years, something I had not understood before reading Howe's account. The Roman faith was not brought whole cloth by immigrants from Catholic countries.
The U.S. Catholic church experimented with structural innovations suited well to the new country, though revolutionary in the eyes of Rome and of some U.S. Catholics.
The great issue of the day, the issue around which religious and moral authorities sorted themselves, was whether slavery should continue to be allowed and spread across the land. Protestant denominations split geographically -- north and south -- over this moral issue. Roman Catholicism was not a progressive force on this divisive issue.
The strength of religious allegiance in the United States remains a wonder to much of the developed world to this day. Howe's complex and nuanced survey of religious currents before the Civil War elucidates much about where that element of our exceptionalism came from. And the tensions over the intersections of churches and state that he describes seem very contemporary indeed.
Other posts about What Hath God Wrought: Speed, communications and hope, Elections: Rousing the sluggish, Doubling down on whiteness, and Mitt and the historic Mormon paradox.