While we're on the subject of the Enlightenment and religion in eighteenth-century America (see the post just below, on John Fea's new book), here's some more good reading. The most recent Journal of American History features this article by J. M. Opal: "The Labors of Liberality: Christian Benevolence and National Prejudice in the American Founding" (History Cooperative access required). Here's a little appetizer:
Historians have also employed "liberalism" to make sense of early national Americans and their collective pursuit of happiness. "Liberal" in this vein connotes the rejection of aristocratic privilege and the embrace of progress, natural rights, and the good sense of the unsupervised people. Since the 1980s, there has been a tendency to fit liberal and republican values within broader traditions of early American thought and culture. James T. Kloppenberg, in particular, has called attention to another liberal tradition—familiar to Locke himself—that saddled the autonomous self with a range of duties derived from Christian morality. Perhaps, several scholars have suggested, the foundations of American politics have as much to do with Martin Luther and John Calvin as with Niccolò Machiavelli and James Harrington. Most recently, Philip Hamburger has demonstrated that while liberalism may qualify as the unwanted child of republicanism, throughout the eighteenth century, liberality signified "an elevated moral position." Far from an excuse for interest bartering or greed, liberality meant generosity and tolerance, the ability to approach problems with an open and candid mind.
This essay seeks to build on such insights by showing how the liberal "sensibility," as contemporaries knew it, contributed to both the political and ethical process of nation making during the 1780s. Liberality drew the religious, social, and economic aspirations of the Enlightenment into a devastating critique of "local prejudice," and for a brief period it dominated the public discourses and moral prescriptions of the newly United States. Despite their practical motivations and supposed disillusionment, the Federalists were the chief beneficiaries of this liberal ascendancy. Ministers and moralists such as Rev. Enos Hitchcock read liberality and "universal benevolence" into the origins and spirit of the Constitution, investing the federal design with the spotless values of unity and tolerance. But the victory they helped achieve during 1788–1789, combined with events in Europe and the Caribbean region during the next few years, gave rise to the most enduring prejudice of all: the belief that America was uniquely favored by God and that patriotism and other "religions of the heart" defined and delimited virtue. In short, a close study of liberality deepens our understanding of how and what the Federalists won and of the interplay between religion, politics, and nationalism in the founding period.
And here's the conclusion, one that allows us to comprehend both the "liberality" of the founding and the American triumphalism (and parochialism) which soon followed, one far away from the notions of liberality traced in this article:
The liberal values that Hitchcock faithfully upheld had played a vital role in the interval between the end of the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Constitution, often called the "critical period" of American politics, both in unifying Federalist interests and deflecting Antifederalist attacks. Traces of liberality lived on in a general ethos of democratic give-and-take in the new republic, as well as in a host of "benevolent" organizations. But the ascendant dynamic of nineteenth-century democracy was the free play of illiberality within the rigid and mutually reinforcing boundaries of family, faith, and nation. Ironically, "liberals" across the Atlantic world became nationalists, champions of self-determination for discrete peoples who claimed a special, if not a sacred, identity. Even more ironically, the celebrated centerpiece of American political society became the Constitution itself, along with a civil religion that presumed God's exclusive blessing. That faith continues to authorize an aggressive parochialism in the United States, an illiberal belief in the superiority—and universality—of American liberalism.