Ian Tyrrell reviews 'Secularists, Religion and Government in Nineteenth-Century America' by Timothy Verhoeven

Ian Tyrrell reviews 'Secularists, Religion and Government in Nineteenth-Century America' by Timothy Verhoeven

Secularists, Religion and Government in Nineteenth-Century America

by Timothy Verhoeven

Palgrave Macmillan, $139 hb, 295 pp, 9783030028770

In an address to the National Prayer Breakfast (8 February 2018), President Donald Trump called the United States a ‘nation of believers’. As evidence, he reminded his audience that the American currency includes the phrase ‘In God We Trust’ and that the Pledge of Allegiance is ‘under God’. Trump omitted that, in their present state, these godly references date only from the Cold War era of the 1950s. Secularists had in the nineteenth century repulsed several efforts to have mottos of this ilk permanently imposed upon the nation or the constitution. Trump should – but will not – read Timothy Verhoeven, who addresses Church-State separation after the Revolutionary era, and who provides sober reflection on the complexities of the dividing line between politics and religion in American history.

Readers will probably be unsurprised by the historical US penchant for embracing moral reforms of a quasireligious character, from alcohol and drug prohibition to anti-prostitution and antislavery activism to anti-abortion laws. Perhaps less obvious or understood for the foreign observer than the swirl of evangelical religious influence is the strict separation of church and state, a distinction which does not allow a wide latitude for state support of religious schools, as in contemporary Australia.

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Published in May 2019, no. 411
Ian Tyrrell

Ian Tyrrell

Ian Tyrrell is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of New South Wales. A specialist in American history, he most recently authored River Dreams: The people and landscape of the Cooks River (UNSW Press) and is writing American Exceptionalism: The idea that simply refuses to lie down and die.

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