Chris Beneke on Religion, Markets, and the Founding Era
Date: January 2nd, 2012

In the past few decades, scholars have increasingly described the American religious landscape as a “free market” of religion.  This often occurs in discussions of the Founding era (late 18th century) with some historians claiming that the architects of the US Constitution meant to create a “free market” of faith.  Prof. Chris Beneke, associate professor of history at Bentley University and director of the Valente Center for Arts and Sciences, joins us to discuss the appropriateness of this metaphor and the rational choice approach to religion.  Tony gets things started by looking at the defintion of “metaphor” and questioning whether or not scholars are using the term “market” metaphoricallly or whether it is a useful analytic framework.  Chris does note several uses of “free market” as metaphor by historians and we then launch into a discussion of the use of microeconomics and rational choice theory to understand religion.  Our exploration of this topic moves to the colonial era of the United States and the drafting of the US Constitution, most notably the First Amendment as pertains to religious freedom.  Prof. Beneke provides an interesting discussion of what “religious liberty” meant during this historical epoch, noting that “liberty” is a subtly different concept than “choice.”  He also makes a strong case for using a political metaphor — democratization — for understanding the religious times of the late 18th century.  Recorded: December 22, 2011.


Chris Beneke’s website at Bentley University

Valente Center for Arts and Sciences at Bentley.

Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism, by Chris Beneke.

The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America, edited by Chris Beneke and Christopher Grenada.


Larry Witham on the Economics of Religion

Mark David Hall on Roger Sherman, Puritan Patriot

John Fea on Religion and the American Founding

Thomas Kidd on the Great Awakening

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