Martin Marty tries to cover everything in his new book on American religion, with the result of saying little about anything. He offers a sketch of the national religious terrain at the moment, dividing the ground into six main regions of religious identification and loyalty, and describing the social outlooks of the inhabitants of each region. Marty treats “Mainline Religion” (e.g., Catholics, Jews, Episcopalians, Lutherans), Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, the Pentecostal and Charismatic sects, the new religions (mostly Asian in origin), Ethnic Religion, and “Civil Religion”—a term which came into prominence some ten years ago in an essay by Robert N. Bellah, and whose meaning is more obscure now than it was then, despite an enormous amount of scholarly attention. A recent bibliography compiled on Civil Religion runs to ten pages, and a recent collection of essays distinguishes five quite different uses and interpretations of the term. The scholars seem to agree that there is something out there, somewhere, having to do with religious influence and rhetoric in public life, but they are not at all sure about what or where it is. It is a case of the blind men and the elephant.
The New Religious Consciousness edited by Glock and Bellah is a melange of sixteen essays on as many aspects of contemporary wild and enthusiastic religion. Most of the essays are in the form of case studies of one or another specific manifestation of the “new religious consciousness,” ranging from Hare Krishna through the Happy-Healthy-Holy Organization and on to Synanon and the Christian World Liberation Front. Showing a fine sociological impartiality, the editors also include a piece on Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan. Altogether, the book concentrates on the wild and the exotic, and reading it can produce the jitters. Furthermore, given the editors’ principle of selection, they manage to miss the really significant dimension of the new religious consciousness, which is the remarkable resurgence of Evangelical Protestantism and its increased attention to social and political questions.
The chief interest of such books as these is not scholarly. Rather, they seem symptomatic expressions themselves of the widespread yearning to be relieved of the anxieties and despair of our time, and to find shelter in simple belief and strong conviction. As many observers have pointed out, Americans are undergoing a crisis of meaning and self-confidence, and large numbers of them are turning or returning to religion, usually of the pietistic and evangelical kind. The twice-born are growing in number and visibility. The recent book by Charles Colson,1 for instance, is a before-and-after account of his own religious conversion. While misleading and perhaps even mendacious in its treatment of some of the political episodes in which Colson took part, the book does capture the current mood among the mighty. It is sanctimonious throughout.
Colson is only one among many prominent public actors who are “getting religion” (an expression, incidentally, which according to Mencken’s American Usage is distinctively American; and when you “get religion” here, what you usually get is the religion of the Carter and Colson kind). Furthermore, the ubiquity of the “honesty” and “morality” themes in the current campaign, while they are of course an obvious response to Watergate, are also an indication of the despair and impotence of the electorate. We seem reduced now to asking no more of our chosen king than that he be a good man, and that he tell us we are good people. Absolution all around.
It is difficult for most intellectuals in this secular and enlightened age to take religion seriously. Many of us have grown out of it—if we ever had it—and we are pretty sure that the same progress will be followed by others. As science and education expand, religion must decline. The “disenchantment of the world,” as Weber called it, is the inevitable trend of modernity. Religion is something that primitive, traditional, and simple-minded folk have and need, but it is bound to fade as they, too, are pushed into the “modern world,” where sustaining the old religious faiths may demand peculiarly subtle and tenacious modes of argument.
So it comes as something of a surprise and distress to see religious believers cropping up all over—springing from the most unpromising terrain, appearing in the strangest forms. Right here in the most advanced of countries there appears to be something like a third Great Awakening of the religious spirit. Nor is this the cool, basically social and traditional, religion of established Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. It is nothing so detached and vague as Paul Tillich’s notion of “ultimate concern”—a definition of religion so broad that it could cover all but aggressive skeptics. Much of the new light comes from Asia, brought by A.C. Bhaktivedanta of the Hare Krishna movement, the Guru Maharaj Ji, and the Reverend Moon, among others. Dozens of psychological-religious gurus attract tens of thousands of seekers into one or another branch of the “human potential movement.”2 Among the home-grown offshoots of traditional Protestantism, Christian Science, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are thriving today as much as at any other time in their history.
Nowhere is the quickening of the spirit more manifest than among the Pentecostal churches and sects, black and white, mainly Protestant, but affecting the Catholic Church as well, where the liveliest thing going is the Charismatic Renewal movement. Much of this growth has taken place during the last half-dozen years or so. William Warren Sweet’s standard history of religion in America, revised in 1950, gave one page to the Pentecostals. Martin Marty’s book gives them a whole chapter. The ranters, chanters, rollers, prophesiers, healers, and speakers-intongues have moved out of the hills and come uptown, appearing even among the Lutherans and the Presbyterians. Johnny Cash and Pat Boone are prize converts. The Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International numbers 100,000. David Wilkerson, champion and folk hero of the movement, sells millions of copies of his books, fifty years after H.L. Mencken demolished similar books, as some thought, once and for all.
The Pentecostals have never had much interest in or impact on public life. Rather, they have retreated from contemporary issues, drawn backward toward what they think are the purities of the primitive church, and inward toward enthusiastic religious experience. From time to time the fondness of a few of them for snakes has come under the cold eye of the courts, and now and again proposals to soften legal penalties against private vice will draw Pente-costal wrath, but in the main they have stood aside from public life.
That is far from the case with that large and motley assemblage of believers who loosely and sometimes uncomfortably share the label Evangelical Protestants. Here the book edited by Wells and Woodbridge is useful, its twelve essays treating intelligently the history and beliefs of the main branches of the evangelical denominations in the US. Shading off into fundamentalism on the one side and into “respectable” Protestantism on the other, the evangelicals are now clearly the main tendency of American Protestantism, as they were throughout the nineteenth century. Their renascence since 1950 is spectacular, and constitutes one of the most important and least understood social phenomena of the period. Most authorities place their number at between thirty and forty million. They count among their number three of the four men who are, according to the polls, the “most widely known” in America: Billy Graham, unofficial chaplain to the White House and spiritual adviser of recent presidents; Gerald Ford, formally an Episcopalian, but also a self-avowed practicing evangelical (the first such to become president in this century, and the only president who has had a son studying in a seminary); and Jimmy Carter, born-again Christian and brother of a celebrated “faith-healer.” Only the secretary of state remains outside the fold.
It is not easy to distinguish the fundamentalists from the evangelicals. The distinction is more a matter of mood or style than one of doctrine, or region, or the social and economic characteristics of the believers. It might be said that the fundamentalists hate sin more than they love virtue. Their leaders and preachers are experts in the discernment and denunciation of depravity. The joyless tone is widespread. Evangelicals, on the other hand, are more “positive” and ecumenical, ready to embrace more of the pleasures and practices of modern life. Both fundamentalists and evangelicals are rooted in Calvinist theology, and until recently saw the Roman Catholic church as the Antichrist. They believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, follow strict (literal) interpretation of scripture, take the doctrine of sola scriptura as of the utmost significance for the devotional life, and emphasize the experiential dimensions of being or becoming a Christian over doctrinal intricacies, a sacerdotal clergy, and church authority.
It is important to remember that throughout the nineteenth century very few Protestants would have called themselves fundamentalists and most would have called themselves evangelicals. Today’s fundamentalists are the heirs and memorializers of the fierce denominational fights of the 1920s. The “modernists” won most of those fights, and most observers thought the fundamentalists would disappear, victims of their own ignorance, boorishness, and refusal to evolve. This expectation was premature. They now number around fifteen to twenty million. The fundamentalist voice was at its most strident in the Goldwater candidacy of 1964. Fundamentalism in its purest forms and spirit represents a kind of Puritan subculture which has maintained itself long after the end of the Puritan epoch by resolutely turning its back on the richest fruits and most troublesome implications of modern learning and morality.
During the nineteenth century, Americans, in their own view, advanced farther than any other nation ever had on three great fronts: religion, democracy, and industry. Piety, patriotism, and prosperity advanced hand in hand, their way having been cleared by Union armies marching under the apocalyptic images of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. By the end of the century, it was the settled conviction of most Protestant Americans—and Protestant Americans were pretty sure they were the truest Americans—that the first of the three great things was the foundation of the others. Prosperity was both the product and the proof of our being favored of God among the nations. That view is still held by many. As David Kucharsky, managing editor of Christianity Today, writes in a recent book on Jimmy Carter,3 evangelicals who are aware of their history have understood that our “well-being in the world was a special favor from God.”4
Not that the path was easy. The most popular and democratic of the Protestant evangelical denominations have always been combative in tone, warring against sin in its liveliest personal forms—drink, fornication, gambling, sloth, and stealing—and yearning to bring unbelievers into the fold. Revivals, camp meetings, fiery preaching, and personal conversion set the tone of the evangelical sects. They struggled to free persons of the sins of the flesh, convinced that good public policies and practices could flow only from a people cleansed in the spirit and the flesh. Rarely did the Protestant denominations directly attack, or even much criticize the political and economic system itself. They were badly divided even on the question of slavery.
The two main exceptions to this indirect approach to the good society were the campaigns against strong drink, which led to Prohibition, and the public teaching of what William Jennings Bryan called the “brutish philosophy” and the “groundless hypothesis” of Darwin. But even here the emphasis was on souls and hearts. The American evangelical denominations have, with few significant exceptions, supported the basic structure of economic and political power. For a while, during the brief heyday of Populism and the earlier years of Bryan, the evangelical impulse was strongly reformist, particularly in advancing the interests of the rural debtor against finance capital. But after Bryan, evangelism lapsed back into conservatism, and was weakened by internal squabbles. (The subsequent strains in Southern politics that are loosely called “populist,” whether in such movements as those of Huey Long or among poor people in Appalachia, seem to me to owe little to the evangelist leaders themselves, however many poor and deprived evangelicals have taken part in them.) Despite the extensive and sympathetic attention paid it by historians, the “Social Gospel” of Walter Rauschenbusch and others was shared by few Protestant evangelicals, and had almost no impact on public policy.
The evangelical voice has had as much direct influence on foreign as on domestic policy. Taking up what over the centuries came to be called “The Great Commission” issued by Christ to the disciples (“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations….” Matt. 28:19), the American Protestant denominations launched a mighty overseas missionary effort. No denomination was or is more dedicated in that effort than the Southern Baptist Convention. Mainline Protestants have carried on their own version of The Great Commission, sometimes from high public office. President McKinley claimed direct instruction from God to detach Cuba and the Philippines from corrupt Catholic Spain and annex them to pure Protestant America. Another Christian soldier, Woodrow Wilson, ‘believed that the mission of this nation was “the redemption of the world,” by arms if necessary.
Bryan, a born-again Christian, did have the decency to resign the secretaryship of state in protest against Wilson’s “preparedness” policies, and in order to campaign as a private citizen for peace and prohibition. In 1923, after the passage of the Volstead Act, he wrote that “our nation will be saloonless for evermore and will lead the world in the great crusade which will drive intoxicating liquor from the globe.” That crusade launched, Bryan returned to the domestic front and entered the lists against Darwin and Darrow in the Scopes trial of 1925. The contest overtaxed him, and he died five days after the trial ended.
We have not seen quite his like since, though Billy Graham, perennially the second-most “admired man in America,” aspires to his mantle. He too has carried the word to foreign parts, mopping up the pockets of spiritual resistance left behind, as it were, after Eisenhower’s great military crusade in Europe, and Dulles’s sermonizing on the cold war. During the many years of the cold war, battalions of preachers and priests urged their flocks to enter the struggle against atheistic, godless communism.
I sketch this religious demonology for a few obvious but important reasons. First, to remind readers that while church and state may be legally separated in the United States, religion and politics have always been mingled. Even the legal separation of church and state is more a formula than a fact. The state favors religious institutions in many ways, and regulates religious practices when they offend one or another body of opinion and interest. Secondly, the close interrelation between religion and politics has been, on the whole, of such a sort as to support uncritical patriotism and the powers that be, and to encourage Americans to think of themselves as superior in virtue and mission to other peoples. Ever since the Puritan founding, many of our prominent statesmen and religious leaders have spoken and acted as though God had once again entered history as the Lord of Hosts, and had concluded a covenant of nations with this people, choosing it to fight his battles. It is rare for our religious and political leaders to remind us of Lincoln’s chastening vision of America as “this almost-chosen people.” Robert Bellah’s well-known work on American “civil religion” is a useful survey of the writings bearing on this theme, though it must be said that it adds little to the earlier treatments by, among others, Will Herberg, Sidney E. Mead, and W. Lloyd Warner.5
Finally, this brief sketch may help to put the current resurgence of evangelical Christianity in perspective. The evangelicals have surely returned from the wilderness they wandered in for some decades after the fierce internal struggles of the early decades of this century and the debacle of the Scopes trial. But they have reconquered only a modest part of the influence they had on national life in the nineteenth century, when theirs was the strongest voice in the shaping of the national culture, and when the working alliance between the politicians who made the nation’s laws, the industrialists who organized the production of its goods, and the clergymen who shaped and defended its morals was secure beyond challenge. It is very doubtful whether anything at all close to that earlier condition can be restored. We have simply gone too far down the paths of pluralism and secularism for that to happen.
What we are seeing in the current evangelical revival, or in the increased concern of evangelical leaders with public questions, is therefore not as new as it may appear. There is hardly the slightest possibility that the nation is experiencing a spiritual rebirth, although millions do indeed seem to yearn for forgiveness and salvation. Nor is there much likelihood that the leaders of evangelical opinion will develop any significant new visions of public life and policy. The brute fact remains that this country, which has produced more Protestant believers than any other, has also produced fewer powerful Protestant theologians and theological-social theorists than any other major Protestant country. The evangelical leaders are not equipped intellectually to think through the complex social issues of the times and offer genuinely new and promising solutions to them. Not since Reinhold Niebuhr has American Protestantism produced a theological-social thinker of the first rank. Without a genuinely critical position resting on Christian foundations and directed by a coherent theological vision that can deal with modern science and technology and the realities of foreign cultures, it is very likely that the evangelical voice in politics today will once again confuse Christian faith with the American flag, and condone social exploitation as the necessary price of “economic freedom.”
The citizenry too stands a fair chance of being disappointed once again in its last-ditch hope and plaintive cry for honesty, morality, and simplicity in public life through the election of honest, moral, and simple leaders. Even if those virtues were enough to prevail against the institutionalized iniquities—for example—of militarism, inflation, no work or debasing work, multinational corporations, urban decay and educational disorder, it is by no means certain that Protestant evangelicalism is the most secure home for those virtues themselves. Gerald Ford’s filthy attempt to impeach Justice Douglas was no sign of Christian decency; his proclamation of Nixon’s “innocence” six days before he resigned no display of honesty. Perhaps it is only “simplicity” that he offers. Carter may represent a relatively benign and gentle version of the evangelical conception of virtue, but I doubt he is representative of the dominant evangelical mood.
The Christ to whom all evangelicals appeal was virtuous because he loved God with all his heart and soul and his neighbor as himself. It must be said that very many fundamentalists and evangelicals see themselves as virtuous because they do not drink, smoke, or dance, or tolerate those who do. A certain harshness and censoriousness of spirit, a certain coldness and hardness of heart, have been conspicuous among the flock, although black evangelicals have largely been immune to this plague. Sadly, these strains of American religion have not always done what Marx saw all religion as doing—providing the heart of a heartless world.
October 28, 1976
Born Again, by Charles W. Colson (Chosen Books, 1976). ↩
Christopher Lasch has recently examined this aspect of the awakening in these pages (NYR, September 30, 1976), so I shall say no more about the subject here. ↩
The Man From Plains: The Mind and Spirit of Jimmy Carter (Harper and Row, 1976). ↩
Kucharsky, p. 60. ↩
For a useful summary of the “civil religion” debate, see Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones, editors, American Civil Religion, Harper and Row, 1974. ↩