J. Tomlin’s research examines the intersection of religion and politics in Early America. His principal focus is on the influence of Protestant ideas in constructing both the religious and political “other” in early American society, with particular interest on issues of race, heresy, political identity, and social hierarchy. Major questions that animate his work are the role of religious thought in forming American identity in the pre-national and early national periods, the role sectarian xenophobia and fear played in constructing political identity, and what insights the study of these issues offers modern political and religious debates surrounding American identity and, more generally, the role of religion in American thought.
His current book project, Papal Plots and Muslim Mischief: Religious Fear and Democratic Sensibilities in Early America, examines how the English tradition of anti-Catholicism came to inform American religious dissenters’ notions of freedom and democracy, and the ways in which fears regarding the loss of freedom of conscience perpetuated those ideas in the decades leading into the American Revolution. The consensus among early American historians is that anti-Catholicism served as an important unifying force within the Protestant British Empire after the Glorious Revolution.Yet anti- Catholic rhetoric was not always about Catholicism itself. It was often a popular means of expressing fears of multiple forms of corruption and any perceived threat to liberty of conscience. These fears pre- dated the Glorious Revolution, and they divided Protestant Anglo-Americans as much as they brought them together. Protestant immigrants in Pennsylvania decreed their political and religious neglect under the Quaker establishment as “popery.” Baptists called their struggle for religious and political equality in Congregationalist Massachusetts “anti-papist.” Anyone or anything, from Anglicans to Muslims, who were seen to be corrupt or tyrannical was subject to be so-labeled. Reformed theological fears that individual heartfelt piety was constantly at risk from various real and imagined threats drove Americans of different Protestant denominations to demand democratic reforms. Baptists in Massachusetts wanted compulsory tithing laws repealed. Moravians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians in Pennsylvania wanted more political and economic power. Religion and politics were intertwined in early America. Religious prejudices were a crucial component of democratic thought.
His next book project will examine how the language of democracy, constructed and defined by religious fear and resentment, came to espouse a peculiarly American political and social identity during the Revolutionary period. In sum, J.L.’s research considers the paradox of how ideas and language that originate in fear, xenophobia, and conflict ultimately inform an American political and religious worldview defined by diversity, egalitarianism, religious pluralism, and individual freedom.