Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Author's Corner with John W. Compton

John W. Compton is Assistant Professor of Political Science in the Wilkinson College of Humanities and Social Studies at Chapman University. This interview is based on his new book, The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution (Harvard University Press, March 2014).

JF: What led you to write The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution?

JC: I was intrigued by the fact that many nineteenth-century evangelicals were openly critical of certain aspects of the constitutional system. The example of the antislavery movement is well known, but one finds the same sorts of criticisms within the temperance and anti-lottery movements, among others. After further investigation, I discovered the underlying source of this discontent: evangelical activists wanted to eradicate various forms of "sinful" property, and this goal put them at odds with a constitutional order that was designed, in large part, to protect vested property rights and to insulate national markets from state and local regulation.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution?

JC: By the late nineteenth century, the prohibition and anti-lottery movements had grown so powerful that judges and lawmakers were forced to accommodate their demands, even if this meant weakening property rights and federalism constraints across the board. The triumph of the evangelical reform movements convinced many Progressive-era Americans that key constitutional categories like "property" and "commerce” were simply social constructs that could be modified to reflect the views of the present generation.

JF: Why do we need to read The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution​?

JC: The book demonstrates that many of the constitutional changes that trouble modern-day conservatives (weakened property protections, the growth of federal power vis-a-vis the states, the shift away from original intent) were the indirect result of the evangelical reform movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were not, as we are often told, the work of a small cabal of secular progressives.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JC: I’m actually trained as a political scientist, but I work in the subfield of American political development, which examines the historical construction of American political institutions and ideas.

JF: What is your next project?

JC: I plan to continue investigating the links between religion and political development in the United States. For example, I hope to examine the relationship between mainline Protestantism and the liberal establishment of the post-New Deal period.

JF: Thanks John! 

Thanks to Megan Piette for organizing and facilitating The Author's Corner.