Review: Spencer McBride, PULPIT & NATION

If the mark of a good book is it provides lots of intriguing material, fascinating characters, and much to debate, then Spencer McBride’s Pulpit & Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (University of Virginia Press, 2017) is a good book. In an age where the traditional trajectories of religion and politics seem in transition, McBride tells us that the unholy alliance between ministers and elections is nothing new. Indeed, this tension has existed from the very founding. Yet it is not a simple story you might assume. “Christian America” was not so much the result of religious ideals driving state formation as it was a partisan tool invoked in particular circumstances. It was left for later generations to misread these prescriptive proclamations as descriptive records. Reconstructing this ambivalence and complexity–especially the role played by ministers themselves–is the focus of this book.

A constant theme throughout the book is clergymen’s ability to capitalize on political opportunities. At the commencement of the American Revolution, ministers recognized their chance to buttress their own cultural authority and societal standing by serving as “essential intermediaries” between national politicians and local congregations (2). This was a reciprocal relationship: clergymen were able to give meaning to a national struggle within their parochial settings, and in return they received political capital. So while religious ideas did not play a role in these developments–he emphasizes that the Revolution “was not a religious event” (4)–the battle’s success depended on how clerical leaders aided the cause. Fast Days, in which patriotic and liturgical events merged, were an especially poignant example of this dynamic. Mobilizing chaplains served as a symbolic validation of the revolutionary movement. Ministers rallied the troops, strengthened allegiances, and prepared soldiers for death. But most importantly, they kept the soldiers in the war. Clergymen simultaneously validated the war while also being validated by their participation.

Pulpit & Nation zooms both in and out throughout its chapters. Portions of the text focus on broad narratives and larger themes, but others zero in on individuals. I was especially taken by the chapter that focused on three clergymen in order to demonstrate how political allegiance was complex and layered. The Connecticut loyalist Samuel Seabury, recently made famous by his dandy portrayal in Hamilton, was able to weather the attacks on his non-patriotic leanings and actually become a powerful religious figure after the Revolution. Virginia Revolutionary James Madison–cousin to the President of the same name, was the only radical on William and Mary’s faculty, and therefore was quickly catapulted to high leadership. And John Joachim Zubly, a Swiss minister in Savanah, tried to remain neutral but died destitute and despised. Each of these cases exemplified the incongruous routes that clerical and political affiliations emerged.

Later chapters cover the role of ministers in debates over the Constitution, the rise of the two-party system, and Thomas Jefferson’s presidential run. In each case, local circumstances dictated ministerial participation much more than religious belief. “To understand how and why American clergymen preached party from their pulpits,” McBride explains, “it is essential that we understand the challenges they were facing in different localities” (128). In Massachusetts, liberal and conservative ministers could team up to confront the threat of Jacobins; in Massachusetts, Evangelicals and “liberal rationalists” could work together to overcome establishmentarianism. Even when addressing Jefferson’s deism, threats of heresy “had as much to do with the ballot box as it did with the nation’s ‘soul'” (149). Religion has always been a potent tool.

In McBride’s work, religion is everywhere and nowhere during the revolutionary era. Everywhere, because it provided the symbols and language that gave the action meaning; but nowhere, because it lacked instigative force. This is a clever historiographical play, because it allows him to critique both those who downplay religion’s precede as well as those who overstate its centrality. It also establishes a much more ecumenical framework for America’s religious past: people of different faiths can work together for religious and political causes despite theological differences. That’s why Fast Day rituals work so well, because even the deist Jefferson could support them. And Madison, for another example, believed independence was God’s will, “but it was his rational and philosophical observations of the crisis in the early 1770s, and not his religious beliefs, that convinced him to support the patriot cause” (89). This is a broad umbrella for inclusive participation.

But I’m not sure this neutered form of political theology is much of an improvement upon traditionally secular narratives. Can religion only serve as a powerful force when deprived of its mental contribution? Can belief shape political action and ideas, rather than merely be shaped by them? I can certainly get behind McBride’s pragmatic religionists, but I still wonder whether we are casting them in the image of our contemporary and secular world.

To play the role of provocateur, I’m not willing to concede that religious ideas weren’t as crucial as political realities. It’s all well and good to say that the myth of an American nation “arose from the calculated efforts of parties and politicians and their clerical allies during the fractious struggle for power in the decades immediately following independence,” but is that the full extent of the relationship? Couldn’t religious ideas have shaped the very understanding of nation to begin with?

These are questions outside the scope of McBride’s work, so it is unfair to critique him too hard with them. But if useful monographs are meant to raise as many issues as they do answer them, Pulpit & Nation does the job. As Americans re-imagine the role of religion in electoral politics over the next decade, this is a text that could serve as an important primer.

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