Religion and Politics in American History

This course transitioned to online only in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic. The original syllabus is available here.

The shift to online classes, and the extension of Spring Break, not only necessitated changes to the course schedule, but also changes to other organizational aspects of the course. I have tried to make it easy to scan this document for such changes by striking out obsolete portions of the syllabus and marking new text in red font.

Religion and Politics 225

Spring 2020

John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics

Washington University in St. Louis

Course Description

The United States has often been imagined as both a deeply Christian nation and a thoroughly secular republic. These competing visions of the nation have created conflict throughout American history and have made the relationship between religion and politics quite contentious. This course surveys the complex entanglements of religion and public life from the colonial era through the contemporary landscape. Topics covered include: religious liberty and toleration, secularization, the rise of African-American churches, the Civil War, national identity and the Protestant establishment, the religious politics of women’s rights, religion and the market, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the religious left and right, debates over church-state separation, constructions of religious pluralism, and religion after 9/11.

Assignments and Grading

Your grade will be calculated as follows:

Note: All assignments must be completed to receive a passing grade in the course.


The most important assignments for this course are to attend class regularly, do the reading, and participate in discussion. Given the importance of in-class discussions, all students are expected to go beyond the role of the “active observer” and merely attending lecture/discussions. Rather, students must work towards critical engagement with their peers and the instructor. Therefore, it is imperative that students complete assigned readings on time and come to class ready to critically engaged the subject matter and share their reflections and insights.


Whether it’s impeachment, Supreme Court cases, or the ongoing election, the themes of this course are often relevant to current events in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. Each student in the course will create an account on Twitter and tweet about current events relating to the course using the hashtag #RelPolt. We will often begin class by discussing the news and our tweets about it. Each student should share at least 5 articles before the end of the semester. To receive credit, be sure to post links to your tweets on Canvas in the “Twitter Quiz” section.

Since we are no longer meeting in person, I ask that you interact with each other and the news on Twitter. Please be sure to comment on at least 3 of your classmates’ Twitter posts. I have added Quiz fields on Canvas for you to post links to your replies to your classmates. Forgive me, this was a bad idea. Instead, we’ll be talking about the news in our small group chats. Please ignore these earlier instructions.

Blog Posts

Throughout the semester, you will write four blog posts, each due before 9 the day of class. These 250-400 word posts should be written informally. The blog posts are designed to help you prepare for discussion and to provide a forum for you to write . They should include your response to the readings: What do you have questions about? What confused or interested you? How do themes in recent readings relate to topics we studied earlier in the course. Feel free to engage with your classmates, but make sure to root your responses in the reading.

a picture of MLK The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks about his opposition to the war in Vietnam at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, in New York. RNS file photo by John C. Goodwin.


Most weeks will entail short quizzes (5-6 minutes) at the beginning of class. These quizzes are graded generously and serve two functions: 1) they help ensure that all participants read the materials before class and 2) they help guide your studying and learning by highlighting the most important questions and themes of the course. The goal setting assignment due through Canvas before the second day of class is assessed as a quiz for grading purposes.

Short Essays

Two short essays, One short essay, between 800-1100 words, will follow units on the Slavery, Abolition, & Confederate Nationalism and on Civil Rights, Struggle, and Retrenchment. Prompts and instructions for these essays this essay will be distributed in class.


Take-home midterm and final exams will consist of short answer identification questions that will help you organize and retain the key thematic ideas, three to five slightly longer form questions to be answered in a paragraph, and one (for the midterm) or two (for the final) short essays asking you to synthesize your knowledge. The exams will be based closely on the assigned texts and discussions from class. In addition to review, the best way to prepare for them is to keep up with the reading, actively participate in class discussions, and review the material covered in the quizzes.

A Note on the Structure of these Assignments

This course uses frequent, low-stakes assessments (such as quizzes, blog posts, and short essays) for several purposes. One function is that they provide me an opportunity to gauge your learning and comprehension; by the same token, they will also provide you with a sense how you are doing in the class. Another important function is that they provide an opportunity to practice the types of skills you will be asked to demonstrate on exams. Questions on quizzes will resemble the short answers and the blog posts and essays will resemble the essays that are part of the midterm and final exams. It is best to think of the low-stakes assignments as skill-building activities. The assignments in this course are “scaffolded,” meaning that they become more difficult over the course of the semester as you develop your skills and deepen your knowledge.

A Community of Practice

Our conversations and discussions will, at times, be difficult. We are tackling problems in liberal democracy that the best minds have failed to solve – and that equally good minds have worked to exploit. Every one of us has come of age in a world shaped by the topics we are studying in this course. The diversity of our prior experiences will be a great asset, and we will be fortunate to learn from one another. By the same token, difficult and impolitic situations will arise. When they do so, I ask that you approach one another as though we are all participants in a “community of practice.” We are learning from one another, and your goal in interacting with your peers are to learn from and teach one another. Focusing on teaching – on bringing someone along – is especially important because it helps maintain our community and the atmosphere for social learning. My goal – and I ask that you share it – is to leave people better than you found them.


All articles, book chapters, and documents listed in the syllabus will be available electronically, either as pdf files on Canvas or as online links in the syllabus.

Technology in the Classroom

Laptops or tablets will serve useful purposes in this course, including bringing up digital copies of readings and documents during discussion. For some in-class exercises, it will be essential for at least some members of the class to have access to online databases archives and to the Canvas site. Laptops/tablets should be closed during the class segments when they are not necessary. Using technology for non-class related purposes is not allowed and is both disrespectful and distracting to your classmates. The research on the negative effects of online multi-tasking during class is unambiguous. Cell phones should be turned off or muted during class and should not be in sight at any time. Please follow these guidelines so that we can utilize technology productively in the classroom, rather than adopt the zero-tolerance policy of many university courses.

Style and Citation Guide

You should write papers in a double-spaced, reader-friendly, size 12 font and use normal (1 or 1.5 inch) margins. Proper citation of all sources is expected. Please consult the Chicago Manual of Style.

A Guide on How To Read (for this Course and Others)

Paul Edwards has written a very helpful guide to reading. Though it is intended for how to read a book, it’s also relevant to articles and other written media.

Course Schedule

This syllabus will change. Changes will be announced on Canvas, in class, and reflected here on the online syllabus.


Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A Framework for Thinking about Religion and Nation

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Goal Setting Assignement due before 9am.

Origins and Historical Memory

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Thursday, January 23, 2020

First Blog Post due before 9am.

Slavery, Abolition, and Confederate Nationalism

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

First Paper Assignment Distributed in Class

Wednesday January 29 to Tuesday February 4: Individual Meetings to Discuss 1st Paper.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Second Blog Post due before 9am.

  • Inauguration of the Jackson Statue (1875)

Three articles on the recent debate in Richmond:

Statue of Stonewall Jackson

A statute of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson is prominent in Richmond, Virginia.


Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Friday February 7: First Paper Due via Canvas by 6pm.

Picture of 1911 Carlisle Indians Football Team

The football team of the Carlisle Indian School transformed America’s now-most-popular sport, pioneering the forward pass, the spiral throw, and the hand-off fake. This image shows the 1911 team, which beat collegiate football powerhouses Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, and Brown. This image is from wikicommons.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Thursday, February 13, 2020

_life Magazine_ cartoon William William

This 1900 Cartoon from Life Magazine criticized U.S. Imperialism in the Philippines. A man in a clerical collar is seen standing on the face of a Filipino who had been carrying a sign reading “Give Us Liberty” and wearing a hat inscribed with passages from the Declaration of Independance. “William! William! The Presdient’s Speech,” Life (May 24, 1900), from Harris, God’s Arbiters.

Religion and the Economy

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Religion and the New Deal Coalition

Four Freedoms Normal Rockwell memorialized FDR’s “Four Freedoms” in a series of paintings in 1943. From left to right, they are “Freedom of Speech,” Freedom of Worship,” “Freedom from Want,” and “Freedom from Fear.” Norman Rockwell, 1943.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Take-home midterm exam due on Canvas by 6pm on Friday, March 6.

Spring Break: No Class

Tuesday, March 10, 2020 and Thursday, March 12, 2020

Extended Spring Break: No Class

Tuesday and Thursday, March 19, 2020

At this point in the semester, the course is shifting to online only.

The format of the online course will primarily be asynchronous. Most weeks, you will write a short, informal blog posts on Canvas of about 200 words about a subset of the week’s readings. (This is slightly shorter than the blog posts you wrote earlier in the course.) Emily and I will comment on your posts.

Each week will also feature “chats” in your small groups. The model for this are’s Chats, which you can review here if you’re interested.

This will entail synchronous activities with the members of your small group. If someone from your group is unable to participate, please just note that at the beginning of the conversation. Also, do your best to preserve a record of who said what. Take a look at the fivethirtyeight model to get a sense of what we’re shooting for.

I suggest that you chat during what used to be our class time, namely from 1-2pm CDT. However, if you want to collectively schedule another time that works for all the members of your small group, that is fine, too. These groups will have the same composition of the small discussion groups we frequently used when we met IRL.

I have a few goals in preserving the small groups. First, I hope it offers some continuity as we shift to online learning. Second, I hope that the groups retain their efficacy; I was impressed with how well you tackled the course content in your small group discussions, and I hope you can can continue in that productive vein. Finally, I hope that chatting in the small groups will provide some sense of community during these very unusual times. Many of us are likely to feel isolated and trapped, and I invite you to use the small group chat forums to connect with one another.

I know that this goes without saying, but please make sure to be considerate of your peers. Many of us (myself included) are worried about family who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and, according to a recent poll, one in five American households now has someone out of work due to the pandemic. In such stressful times, it’s especially important to be compassionate towards one another.

I have set up forums for your small groups on Canvas, in the “Collaborations” tab. When you click on it, you’ll find a GoogleDoc that you share with the other members of your group. I expect Google Docs to be a bit of a clunky platform, and I invite you to use whatever platform is best, so long as you can paste your transcipt into Google Docs so Emily and I can review your chats. Personally, I think chatting inside Google Hangouts may best, though Slack and old fashioned text messaging also promise to be effective. You’re also welcome to conduct a conference call or video call with your small group, so long as you rotate taking notes and making those notes available to me and Emily by the end of the day on Friday.

I ask that you conclude each chat session by attempting to articulate a “So What?!” statement or two, and by creating a short list of key terms that could be used for the final exam. Using online chat functions is slower than talking face-to-face, so I expect your small group chats to take an hour or so.

I will circulate discussion questions to guide your chats on Thursdays by 10am CDT.

Cold War Religion and Anti-Communism

Week of March 23, 2020

Submit your Chat transcript by Friday at 5pm.

Civil Rights and Struggle

Week of March 30, 2020

Submit your Chat transcript by Friday at 5pm.

Week of April 6, 2020

Submit your Chat transcript by Friday at 5pm.

Culture Wars

Week of April 13, 2020

Submit your Chat transcript by Friday at 5pm.

Fault Lines

Week of April 20, 2020

Submit your Chat transcript by Friday at 5pm.

The study guide for the final exam is available here.

May 6, 2020: Open book, take-home Final Exam due on Canvas.