Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Religious Fear-Mongering in Presidential Politics

In the U.S. Presidential election of 1800, President John Adams, the Federalist candidate, ran the first campaign in our history that sought to stir up religious fears as a way to win votes.  He painted his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican candidate, as an “infidel Deist,” whose godlessness would destroy the country. (This was hypocritical since Adams was a Unitarian who shared most, if not all, of Jefferson’s religious views and who held the conservative evangelicals whose votes he was trying to win in contempt as ignorant fools. But few voters knew this.) He also used the recent French Revolution, which had an anti-religious dimension since the French Catholic Church had supported the monarchy, as a fear tactic since it was well-known that Jefferson was a friend of France.

At the time, fears that Adams would give special privileges to some churches (especially the Presbyterians) over others caused this fearmongering to fail.  The Baptists, Methodists and other evangelicals united around the infidel Jefferson out of fear of Presbyterian hegemony. And, of course, Adams’ warnings about the consequences of a Jefferson presidency did not come true.

There’s a message here about contemporary versions of such religious fear-mongering, but it is probably too obvious to spell out.  Hat tip to Bob Cornwall for the video.


August 23, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Michael,

    It just goes to show you that fear mongering has long been a part of the political landscape!!

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | August 23, 2008

  2. In no way would have I supported Adams over Jefferson, but historically Unitarians at that time did not necessarily share any theological views with the Deist, even if many in both camps were enthralled with the Enlightenment (but so were many evangelicals too). Deism was truly a modernist creature; (“biblical”) Unitarianism has ancient roots.

    Very interesting precedent Adams set there; thanks for pointing this out.

    Comment by Chris Donato | September 5, 2008

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