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From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln
by Mark A. Noll
OXFORD UNIV. PRESS, 2002
656 pp.; $35
A generation ago, Sydney Ahlstrom and Sidney Mead led two schools of American religious historians in contention. In the landmark A Religious History of the American People, Ahlstrom told a story that dealt with American diversities more expansively than had any other. At the same time, he brought a distinctive focus to his lifework. He saw the American religious story as being in many ways the plot of New England Puritanism writ large. The Yale master devoted only a few pages to the religion of the Enlightenment, of "the Founders." When he finished his story, as Puritan influence waned in the tumults of pluralism, he thought America was, in a way, losing its way, or its plot.
Sidney Mead, meanwhile, who devoted himself early oh to the New England theologies--he wrote a major work on Nathaniel William Taylor, for instance--when he turned synoptic and synthetic, saw the Puritan and then evangelical story as being one of relative irrelevance. America's real religion, which he called "the religion of the republic," informed American institutions and even set the boundaries for the free expression of religion that the "sects" enjoyed. His lifework hinged on precisely the elements Ahlstrom slighted. As he finished his story after the turmoil of the 1960s, many were questioning whether much integrity survived in that Republican religion or what Robert N. Bellah was then defining as "civil religion."
Let Mead frame the contention from his point of view with words first published in 1964:
Recognition that the theology undergirding the practice of religious freedom has always been in conflict with the distinctive theology of rightwing Protestantism enables one to diagnose Protestantism's present sickness as a psychosomatic indigestion, resulting from an inability either to digest the theology on which the practice of religious freedom rests or to regurgitate the practice. I am told that an animal that cannot regurgitate can be killed by getting it to accept as food something it cannot digest. I do not think Protestantism can give up the practice of religious freedom which it has accepted. Therefore, I conclude, if it cannot leam to digest the theory on which such freedom rests, the prognosis cannot be a happy one. (1)
Mead did not confine the meanings of his Republican religion to the account of how it helped assure religious …