Christopher Grasso’s Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution to the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2018) has won the 2019 SHEAR Book Prize. The prize committee, including April Haynes (Chair), Manisha Sinha, and Jeffrey L. Pasley, found that it is a deeply researched, well-written, complex. and timely history that engages a number of important questions: What was the role of religion in a republic? Was religious doubt “a psychological declaration of independence,” a threat to established social hierarchies, the basis for a unifying civil religion? Or did public declarations of skepticism signify the first step toward an atomistic and amoral society? Did they supply new arguments to justify old forms of oppression? How should such questions be decided? Who defined the principle of free inquiry in a majoritarian polity, when the majority of Americans embraced some form of Protestant Christianity?
In Skepticism and American Faith from the Revolution to the Civil War, Christopher Grassoargues that Christian leaders battled deists, freethinkers, and very often their own souls over how to answer these questions. Grasso powerfully challenges received narratives about the rise of the benevolent empire and the triumph of the secular state. By showing that the tensionbetween skepticism and faith was both persistent and productive, he has made a profound and original contribution to the historiography of the early republic.
That tension was always productive but seldom happy: It fueled continuous and pervasive culture wars. Grasso reminds us that Christians could not be certain that their faith would prevail in a republic that rejected traditionalism for its own sake, codified free religious expression, quickly disestablished churches, and saw skeptics rise to the leadership of both radical social movements and ultra-conservative political factions. It was this besieged mentality that prompted Ezra Stiles Ely to insist in 1828 that non-religious governance unconstitutionally discriminated against Christians (a claim that drives major policy changes in our own time).
Grasso shows just how many subjects of critical interest to historians of the early republic were driven, even constituted, by contests between skepticism and faith. We should keep Christians’ sense of embattlement in mind as we write our accounts of politics, ideas, popular culture, reform movements, capitalism, class formation, slavery, and disunion.
Grasso paints lively portraits of under-studied people without categorizing Christians or skeptics as heroes or villains. For every Ernestine Rose battling misogynistic and racist rioters, there is a Thomas Cooper demanding that religion must be checked because revivals emboldened abolitionists, women, and people of color. Grasso’s findings about proslavery Christianity are especially striking: Its proponents championed the politics of nullification, slavery as a mode of labor extraction (notpaternalism), and race as a “fact” of Providence (not science). These doctrines led them to portray abolitionists as infidels—and to assure themselves that God was on the side of the Confederacy.
Grasso forcefully concludes that the dialectical relationship of skepticism and faith produced both the American nation and its ultimate dissolution in Civil War. Even then, the victory was not that of a secular nation–state but of a “Christianized American imperialism.” The convergence of this imperial mission with the postbellum “golden age of freethought” proves that neither skepticism nor faith triumphed in the nineteenth century. Indeed, their ongoing dialogue continues to shape political conflicts and culture wars today.
Many thanks to the prize committee members for their hard work in selecting Grasso’s book and in drafting this citation.