Jonathan den Hartog on Patriotism & Piety
Date: January 25th, 2015

While many pundits will claim that our contemporary era of politics is one of the most bipartisan and vitriolic on record, and that the blending of religion and politics is making this so, historians are quick to point out such turmoil is common throughout time.  To this end, we invite Prof. Jonathan den Hartog, associate professor and chair of history at The University of Northwestern (St. Paul, MN), to discuss his new book Patriotism & Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation.  Prof. den Hartog dissects the first several decades following the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and argues that this was a time of intense national debate that drew heavily on religious themes and has affected the way we govern ourselves unto this day.

Prof. den Hartog has appeared a few times before on our podcast so we begin with a bit of reminiscing of days gone by and his interest in the topic of post-revolutionary era America.  Tony then describes the cover of Jonathan’s book, which is a cartoon depicting Thomas Paine attempting to tear down the foundational columns of the American republic with the help of none other than the devil!  Jonathan notes that although a discussion of this cartoon is not included in the book, it epitomizes the struggle that was going on during the day and how infused the rhetoric was with religious themes.  He fills us in on some background of the era by explaining who the Federalists were and what they were struggling against, revealing some interesting trajectories about the likes of revolutionary heroes Paine and Ethan Allen, both who became enamored with the unfolding events of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution forms an important backdrop for the events in the U.S. in the 1790s and early 1800s.  While the American nation is still trying to find its own identify, radical attacks by Jacobins against religion inform how arguments are being made about the role of religion in the new North American republic.  This reveals the “patriotism” aspect of his book, wherein many Federalists were fearing a movement towards a “de-Christianized” nation with all the trappings of the “Cult of Reason” that infused France at the time.  This brings us to a discussion of the religious struggle at the time that was characterized by a great deal of change and competition among older and emerging denominations.  This struggle also dealt with how churches would relate to the government.  Whereas a national establishment was off the table with the passage of the First Amendment, several states such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire continued to support state-sponsored churches into the 19th century.

Jonathan talks about how the position of the Federalists, a political party/movement that favored a stronger central government, evolved over time on this matter.  While starting with a republican (small “r”) view of religion left free in the 1770s, the events of the French Revolution prompted many Federalists to argue for a more robust presence of faith in American life.  As the Federalists begin to lose more elections in the 1800s, there is a further shift towards the promotion of strong associational life and civic culture that relies on voluntary organizations such as the American Bible Society, presided over by the likes of Elias Boudinot and John Jay.  We chat about the role that these two individuals played in influencing the national landscape and how their influence reverberated through the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville.  Prof. den Hartog explains how this relates to his phrase “the federalization of American Christianity,” which is a play on Nathan Hatch’s famous work on the democratization of American Christianity.

Our discussion also covers other political issues of the time including slavery, with Jonathan detailing how are the first major political movement to stand against the practice.  Federalists such as John Jay even went so far as to outlaw it early in some states (e.g., New York).  Nonetheless, the slavery issue was universally accepted by all Federalists and it does help to fracture the party over time.  We also discuss the concern over secret societies, most notably the Illuminati (a particular fascination with contemporary singer Katy Perry).  Jonathan details how two preachers in particular — Jonathan Dwight and Jedidiah Morse — wrote passionately about the possible corrupting influence of the Bavarian Illuminati and we are even regaled with an impassioned reading of one of Dwight’s sermons (wherein Tony learns that a dragoon is not a synthesis between a dragon and a doubloon).    Jonathan also tells the tale of Elias Boudinot who writes to his daughter from the floor of Congress worrying about the state of her soul, which is also representative of his concern over the soul of the nation.

We conclude with a number of take-aways that Jonathan had in the process of researching and writing this book.  He notes that debates on religion and politics are nothing new and that, indeed, this topic is really baked into the nature of the American republic.  Prof. den Hartog also strengthened his beliefs about the important role of mediating institutions (civil society) that act as a buffer between the individual and the powerful institutions of the state.  Finally, he explains how culture generally tends to be upstream from politics and how our culture is defined has an important role to play in how we are governed.  Recorded: January 19, 2015 (the day after the NFC Championship game, explaining Tony’s somewhat hoarse sound).


Prof. Jonathan den Hartog’s bio at The University of Northwestern (St. Paul).

Patriotism & Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation by Jonathan den Hartog.

Prof. den Hartog’s blog Historical Conversations.

Prof. den Hartog’s twitter feed.  Also check out Research on Religion on Twitter.

The Democratization of American Christianity, by Nathan Hatch (mentioned in the podcast).


Jonathan den Hartog on the Spiritual & Political Life of John Jay.

Should Christians Have Fought in the US War of Independence?

Mark David Hall on Religion and the Founding Fathers.

Mark David Hall on Roger Sherman, Puritan Patriot.

Mark David Hall on Religious Minorities during the Time of the Founding.


2 Responses to “Jonathan den Hartog on Patriotism & Piety”

  1. […] My Snelling Avenue neighbor Jonathan Den Hartog appeared on the Research On Religion podcast to discuss his new book, Patriotism & Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the […]

  2. […] week launched with my Research on Religion Podcast with Tony Gill. I’m still really pleased with how that interview […]

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