Sunday, May 08, 2005

Jonathan Edwards: how firm a founding father

Jeff Sharlet reviews a new biography of Johathan Edwards by UNC's own Philip Gura, professor of English and American studies.

Edwards, one of the best-read men in the New World, defined religion not according to the values preached in Boston and New York, cities he considered corrupt and overrun by rich liberals, but by those he found in the heartland of the day, the small towns along the Connecticut River. He celebrated a religious devotion of "affections" rather than works. And he decried "envy" and the "party spirit," by which he meant not "frolics" (also of great concern, especially when they involved, as they often did in a period much less chaste than we tend to imagine, "both sexes" and "nightwalking"), but rather the politics of the unquiet poor, that which true believers of the present moment revile as "class warfare."

. . .

The man revealed by Gura -- and in his own writing, much of it only now available to our republic of "envy" through a massive publishing project undertaken by Yale University Press -- helped craft a religion that is on the personal level intense and revolutionary, but deeply conservative -- disinterested, even -- when it comes to larger problems of inequity. Sound familiar?

Scholars of religion suggest that the United States may now be undergoing a third (or a fourth, depending on your definition) Great Awakening. The public sphere is more openly engaged by religion than it has been for a century. It’s worth asking hard questions about the roots of this religion, and whether it is well-suited to a democracy based on elections rather than a belief in a God-chosen elect, predestined to higher office, if not salvation.

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