SPSA 2012

So I’ve been gone a long time again.  What can I say?  I’ve been busy and having fun.  However, I do have news that might be of interest to some of you.

Next Thursday, Jan. 12th, I will be presenting a paper for the Southern Political Science Association in New Orleans, LA.  My panel is called “People of God? The Role of Political Hebraism in America,” and it meets from 3:00 to 4:30pm.  I’m presenting on the 19th cent. Presbyterian-Catholic debates of John Breckinridge and John Hughes.  Here’s an abstract:

The notion of religious tolerance in early 19th century America was hotly contested, and perhaps nowhere do we see how hot that contest could get as in the debates between John Breckinridge and John Hughes over religious principles and American liberty. Their political dialogue reveals a mixture of Enlightenment ideals and specifically theological convictions, and as it was in early 19th century America that the new religious tolerance was most clearly put to the test, an examination of the intellectual assumptions involved is helpful in locating the distinctive contours of the new Liberal settlement. There was not an easy or obvious settlement, as the history of anti-Catholicism in America has shown. Although anti-Catholic bigotry was involved in some of the controversies of the time, it is also the case that some of the specific arguments of the anti-Catholics reflected the matrix of political, philosophical, and religious ideals upon which the American settlement was founded, claiming a specifically Protestant foundation for Liberal religious toleration. The Catholics, on their part, pointed to aspects of the Protestants’ own history which contradicted their new sentiment. My investigation will seek to highlight the conflicting demands of religious communities and American civic liberty, identifying the basic principles and the rhetoric of ecclesiastical self-representation. It will also illustrate that certain theories of natural rights were themselves dependent upon religious or transcendental commitments, a fact which Revolutionary secularity did not always aim to highlight, but which became obvious in debates such as the one between Breckinridge and Hughes.

I would also like to compare the intellectual features of Breckinridge and Hughes’ arguments with the claims about developing secularity made by the contemporary writers Philip Hamburger and Eric Nelson. While the relevance to Hamburger’s work on the American notion of separation of church and state is obvious, Nelson’s treatment of the 16th and 17th century Hebraicists might seem much more remotely pertinent. In many ways, however, John Breckinridge’s Protestant version of religious tolerance directly mirrors the early modern moves highlighted by Nelson, and his own religious tradition was an heir of that earlier British thought. In this respect, it may be possible to show that the American development of secularity was a continuation of and not a departure from earlier modern Liberal views.

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