Rosemary R. Corbett
Religious moderation is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when considering the history of the United States. Would one have spoken of the Puritans as moderates? Could one characterize the many great revivals and awakenings that coursed through colonial and early republican American in such terms? And what about the impertinence of Anne Hutchison, the audacity of Jarena Lee, the bold experiment of Prohibition, or the modern political fervor that accompanied the rise of the religious right? When compared to England and many other nominally Christian European nations, the United States generally figures as an example of religious zeal. Yet moderation holds a special place in American religious thought, and not just recently. Since the Protestant Reformation, at least, the concept of religious moderation has been inescapably entangled with concerns about the form and shape of government. Just how much religious “enthusiasm” is safe for a monarchy, a democracy, or a republic? wondered English political theorists in the 1600s and 1700s. Their concerns unavoidably carried to the “New World,” contributing to the persecution or marginalization of Quakers, Shakers, and other religious practitioners deemed too immoderate in their passions and, not infrequently, their gendered practices and sexualities. With the birth of the new republic, Americans also raised questions about the political valences of religious moderation when debating which residents of the nation could fully enjoy the rights of citizenship. Appeals to moderation were used for centuries to exclude not only religious minorities but also racial and ethnic minorities and women. And yet the contours of moderation were continually contested by both those who wielded power and those subject to it.
Since the late 1800s, questions of religious moderation have also been intertwined with questions of modernity and the reconfiguration of public and private spaces. This was especially true with the rise of the fundamentalist movement in the early 1900s, a movement that opposed some of the modernist interpretive measures gaining currency among many American Christians, as well as the idea (increasingly popular over the course of the 20th century—particularly after the failure of Prohibition) that most forms of religion properly belong to the private realm. While fundamentalists were no less technologically savvy or educated than their theological opponents, their positions were nevertheless cast as anti-modern and immoderate, in that fundamentalists ostensibly held more closely to revelation than to modern science. This notion of fundamentalism as the incursion of immoderate anti-modernism, traditionalism, or enthusiasm into politics and public life has continued into the 21st century. While 21st-century arguments for religious moderation are most often directed at Muslims (who, in addition to conservative Christians, are frequently depicted as prone to trampling on the rights of those with whom they disagree), American history has no shortage of incidents involving pressures, often violent, on racial and religious minorities to moderate or privatize their ostensibly uncivilized behavior for the sake of the nation or even for humanity.