Religion and Politics in American History

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.

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, 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 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

The Possibilities and Limits of Religious Citizenship

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Civil Rights, Struggle, and Retrenchment

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Second Paper Assignment Distributed in Class

Monday March 30 to Friday April 3: Individual Meetings to Discuss 2nd Paper.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Protest at Attica

Prisoners at Attica State Prison in 1971 participate in a negotiation session. Associated Press.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

In Class Viewings:

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Third and Final Blog Post due before 9am.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Monday April 13: Second Paper Due via Canvas by 6pm.

Culture Wars

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

In Class Viewing:

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Religion and State in Post 9/11 America

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

In Class Viewing: Billy Graham, “9/11 Message from the Washington National Cathedral,” September 14, 2001

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Final Exam due on Canvas, date TBD.