Debating Liberal Values: The Heritage of Church and State from Early America

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Grenda, Christopher S.
Henretta, James A
Dreisbach, Daniel L
Elkin, Stephen L
Grimsted, David
This dissertation has two purposes. The first, and most important, is to analyze a continuous debate across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the English speaking North Atlantic concerning the role of religion in public life, concluding in the American founding era. The second purpose is to suggest the relevance of these historical debates to current discussions of religion and civil society. In particular, the historical analysis explores debates on the role of religion in early modern North Atlantic societies increasingly diverse and modern in their intellectual and political endeavors. Freedom of religious opinion was a central feature of these debates endorsed by all progressive writers who helped precipitate the transition from godly to secular government. However, the dissertation contends that the very political discourses that early modern writers developed to articulate and protect such freedoms included significant moral and religious dimensions that possessed important implications for public policy. For example, the analysis reveals that most early modern progressive writers endorsed toleration less from the individual perspective of expanding personal liberty than from the collective perspective of promoting the common good of the political community. This common-good perspective was important because it meant that early modern writers understood the tolerant state to possess a compelling interest to promote such good by playing an affirmative or partisan role in the cultural affairs of the polity. This role included a constructive view of religion in promoting character development in the citizenry and in encouraging a common cultural foundation for the stability of political society. Moreover, the historical analysis maintains that politicized evangelicals using the gospel to foster community autonomy led the movement toward disestablishment that culminated in the American founding era. The analysis thus reveals a much more complex heritage concerning religion, society, and the state than suggested by many current forms of discourse on the subject. In highlighting how the early modern heritage of toleration and disestablishment included a range of views on religion's contributions to increasingly diverse and modern political communities, the dissertation suggests the need to remain open to such a range of views in today's pluralist society.