The Democratization of American Christianity and Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America

NATHAN O. HATCH. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

JAMES DAVISON HUNTER. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Nathan O. Hatch, Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, is a leading scholar of religion in American history. In an earlier book, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England, he explores the mingling of religious and political understandings of freedom in the birth of the American republic. In The Democratization of American Christianity, he further revises significantly our understanding of the role of religion in American democracy in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the period often identified as the Second Great Awakening of the evangelical impulse in American Protestantism.

Hatch believes that a prevailing view of “the Second Great Awakening as a conservative force [has] obscured the egalitarianism powerfully at work in the new nation.” While distinguished scholars like Perry Miller and Richard Hofstadter have seen the revivalism of this period as a force of order and consensus that repaired a defect in the new democratic society by supplying traditional social control and religious establishment, Hatch is determined to emphasize the disorderly, antiauthoritarian, and conflictual aspects of religious upheaval in the early republic. In this context, he argues that a democratic or populist transformation of American Christianity was decisive in shaping the new nation and that such populism continues to mark the distinctive character of religion in America: “Religious populism, reflecting the passions of ordinary people and the charisma of democratic movement builders, remains among the oldest and deepest impulses in American life.”

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