God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World
John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
The European Way:
The Necessity of Atheism
IN 1811, a troublesome undergraduate at University College, Oxford, published a short pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism. Percy Bysshe Shelley dismissed the idea that we have an obligation to believe in God—and a concomitant obligation to attend tedious chapel services—on the grounds that there is no solid proof of God’s existence. He challenged readers to give him proof, if they had any. Shelley was ordered to appear before the college court, but he refused to answer their questions, so the dons expelled him. Shelley had to make his way in the world without the benefit of an Oxford degree.
Nearly two centuries later, Shelley is having the last laugh. Not only does his old college boast a statue of its most lauded poet, but the views for which he was expelled are common in the intellectual world. Richard Dawkins has made a fortune by expounding his own version of The Necessity of Atheism from the comfort of an Oxford professorial chair. He is just the most voluble of what Friedrich Schleiermacher once dubbed, in a different context, “Cultured Despisers” of religion. And for every cultured despiser, there are thousands who have a vague sense that religion is past it, incompatible with reason and science. Only about 6 percent of Britons attend church on an average Sunday.’
How did secularism triumph?
Losing Their Religion
Prophets have been predicting the death of God for generations. One sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, of Baylor University in Texas, claims that Thomas Woolston, an English Deist, was the first person to set an exact date for His last rites. In the early eighteenth century Woolston predicted, with the self-confidence that seems to be God’s gift to certain types of English polemicists, that Christianity would be entirely expunged by 1900. Half a century later, Frederick the Great wrote to his friend Voltaire to say that Woolston had been too pessimistic: religion “is crumbling of itself, and its fall will be but the more rapid.” Voltaire replied that its end would come in the next fifty years.”2 In 1882 Friedrich Nietzsche insisted that God was already done for. “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
For the most part, however, the prophets of secularization have been reluctant to put an exact date on religion’s “inevitable” demise. Bertrand Russell’s father, Viscount Amberley, announced that religion was going to disappear “shortly.” (He tried to hasten the process by decreeing in his will that his son should be raised by atheists, a provision that did not survive the courts’ scrutiny.) C. Wright Mills chose “in due course” rather than “shortly” in 1959. One of Tom Stoppard’s characters in Jumpers (t972) observes that there came “a calendar date—a moment—when the onus of proof passed from the atheist to the believer, when, quite suddenly, the noes had it.
The “Noes” Have It
The movement that began all this was the Enlightenment. In 1762 David Hume had dinner with Baron d’Holbach at his home in Paris. The Scottish philosopher said that he doubted that there were any real atheists in the world. “Look around you,” the French philosophe replied, “and count the guests.” There were eighteen at the table. “I can show you fifteen atheists right off. The other three haven’t yet made up their minds.”
D’Holbach and his friends in Paris made a business out of helping people make up their minds about religion. Voltaire littered his letters with the battle cry, Ecrasez l’infame.” And there was no shortage of French thinkers, hanging around the coffeehouses and writing in the magazines, encyclopedias and dictionaries that poured from the presses, who were willing to engage in the intellectual struggle. The philosophes deployed every weapon they could against “l’infame”— from classical learning to modern science. But in the end their critique rested on two foundations.
The first was confidence in human reason. Human reason allows men to produce peace and prosperity, they argued; by contrast, “unreasonable” superstition and fanaticism produce war and misery. In 1784 Immanuel Kant defined the Enlightenment with a simple motto: Sapere aude, or “Dare to know.”6 Cast off the fetters of the past. Take your fate in your own hands. Dare to exercise your own talents. Above all, reject the superstition and fanaticism that conspired to kill reason and spread bloodiness. Every Enlightenment thinker had his favorite example of Christianity’s blood-soaked past: Voltaire claimed that he awoke from his sleep in a sweat every year on the anniversary of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
The second foundation was confidence in human goodness. The rejection of original sin has been described as the “key that secularizes the world.”7 It set men fighting against obscurantism in thought and repression in government. It transformed education from rooting out evil in God’s garden to tending to young shoots. And it freed people to pursue real virtues such as human sympathy rather than false ones such as saintly self-mortification. CA gloomy, hare-brained enthusiast, after his death, may have a place in a calendar,” David Hume scoffed, “but [he] will scarcely ever be admitted, when alive, into intimacy and society, except by those who are as delirious and dismal as himself.”) This was a key that the philosophes turned whenever they could.
The philosophes did more than just argue with religion. They mocked it, Edward Gibbon was never happier than when chronicling the absurd activities of the likes of St. Simeon Stylites, who for over thirty years lived on top of a seventy-foot-high and four-foot-square pillar. Voltaire was at his most waspish when ridiculing primitive superstitions like baptism: “What a strange idea, inspired by the wash-pot, that a jug of water washes away all crimes!'” In his novel La Religieuse, Denis Diderot mocked the religious for their psychological oddities and deviant pastimes, not least flagellation.
William Blake argued, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, that all this sarcasm was in vain.
Mock on. Mock on. Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on. Mock on: ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
But as Blake well knew, the wind did not throw all the sand back, at least in France. Religion became an object of ridicule and contempt. The number of full-blooded atheists who wanted to destroy both the church and Christianity multiplied in the eighteenth century. And eventually the French Revolution was unleashed upon the world in 1789.
End of a Regime
For the revolutionnaires, attacking religion was more than just dinner-party chitchat. The Catholic Church was one of the three pillars of the ancien regime, along with the aristocracy (which provided the church with many of its leading figures) and the monarchy. The church was one of the country’s wealthiest institutions, fattened on both tithes and its clerical estates. Religious functionaries were omnipresent at royal occasions. Religious orders all but controlled education. At their coronations French kings were girded with the sword of Charlemagne, with which they were supposed to protect the church as well as widows and orphans.”
The French Revolution became more anticlerical as it gathered strength. The revolutionnaires started off by attacking the church’s abuses, particularly its habit of siding with the monarch. Then they turned on the religious establishment and church functionaries. (Diderot rhapsodized that “man shall not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”) In 1790 the revolutionnaires dissolved the monasteries and convents that weren’t engaged in useful work, consolidating the remaining monks in fewer orders and sending the surplus priests out into the world. Barbers and tailors did a roaring trade turning ex-monks into presentable citizens. In 1792-93, three-quarters of France’s bishops and a third of its lower clergy—some 30,000 people in all—fled the country.” By 1794 only about 150 of what had been 40,000 French parishes in prerevolutionary days openly celebrated the mass.
But there was always a tension in the revolutionaries’ attitude toward religion: as much as they disliked traditional Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular, some of them also recognized that religion, stripped of superstition, might serve a valuable social function. Maximilien Robespierre devised a new religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being, which was based on a combination of Deism and “civic religion,” and which tried to provide the principles of the French Revolution with divine sanction. Robespierre claimed that his new “rational” religion had all the benefits of traditional religion without the vices. Many devout revolutionaries baptized their children in the name not of “the Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” but “of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”
Robespierre’s decision, in 1794, to make the Cult of the Supreme Being the official state religion, complete with an official festival of the Supreme Being on June 8, helped to inspire the Thermidorian Reaction. Why bother to overthrow one official religion only to have another one imposed upon you from above? Napoleon was much more pragmatic about religion than the first wave of revolutionaries. He once boasted the he had conquered the Vendee by making himself a Catholic, and established himself in Egypt by making himself a Muslim. But he was really only happy when religion was subordinated to the state, by which he meant himself.
The revolutionnaires set the fashion for all subsequent assault on religion—replacing the worship of God with the worship of man. Alexis de Tocqueville complained that they turned the revolution itself into a “new kind of religion”: “an incomplete religion, it is true, without God, without ritual, and without a life after death, but one which nevertheless, like Islam, flooded the earth with its soldiers, apostles and martyrs.”” This actually understates the comparison. There was plenty of ritual. The revolutionnaires deliberately created secular saints: the remains of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were transferred to the Pantheon with elaborate processions and ceremonies. They created a secular calendar, with the revolution taking the place of Christ’s death. They transformed Notre Dame into a temple of reason. “The only true religion is that which ennobles man by giving him a sublime idea of the dignity of his being,” one revolutionary proclaimed, “and of the great destinies to which he is called by the human orderer.”‘*
This tradition was picked up by many others. Henri de Saint-Simon, the godfather of French socialism, christened his philosophy the “New Christianity”—what was new about it being the substitution of man for God. “The throne of the absolute could not remain untenanted,” he argued.” Auguste Comte, who drew on Saint-Simon’s ideas, created an even more elaborate Religion of Humanity complete with a priesthood and secular saints. (British wits dubbed his weird creation “Catholicism minus Christianity.”16) Robert Owen, one of the founders of British socialism, came to the conclusion, while still a child, that theologies were nothing more than tissues of lies, and subsequently set about replacing religion with a “spirit of universal charity toward the human race.” But when he established his model communities in New Lanark and then New Harmony he found himself borrowing from religious rituals. Owen presided over “naming” ceremonies for children and delivered “ethical lectures” to his workers on Sundays. 0 wenites pored over The Book of the New Moral World and sang secular hymns that maintained that communal labor offered “redemption from the fall.”‘” Owen was convinced that the “Old Immoral World” would soon be replaced by the “New Moral World” and that universal love and happiness would prevail. He inscribed the letters CM, meaning “Commencement of the Millennium,” on the main hall of his last model community, Queenswood, in Hampshire; he also built “Halls of Science” across the country, which were supposed to offer people a foretaste of the rational world to come, once religion and exploitation had been done away with.
The French Revolution cemented the link between European radicalism and European anticlericalism. The European ancien regimes responded to the revolution by embracing the religious establishment even tighter, creating a synthesis between religion and reaction. Conservatives rejected the Enlightenment faith in reason and progress—a faith that several eighteenth century monarchs had endorsed—on the grounds that it had led to anarchy, bloodshed and dictatorship. Instead, they re-embraced ideas such as the divine right of kings, the harmony between social hierarchy and celestial hierarchy and the virtues of the Middle Ages. European conservatives not only celebrated the church as a prop of the old order, they turned religion into a backward-looking ideology that was thoroughly opposed to liberal modernity.
For their part, European radicals responded by celebrating the revolution’s assault on religion. France remained a hotbed of popular anticlericalism. During the Paris Commune in 1870-1 the rebels shot the Archbishop of Paris and dozens of lesser clergymen. France was not alone: across Europe, radicals of various hues dreamt of overthrowing the corrupt church along with the corrupt state—sometimes because they wanted to see “real Christianity” flourish but often because they wanted to replace superstition with reason.18 Leading Social Democrats in Germany regarded religion as “the main bastion of antisocialism” and “of reaction.”19 Popular anticlericalism drew on deep wells of emotion: on the belief that priests were props of an unjust social order; on the belief that they were hypocrites, preaching religion while pursuing personal advantage; and on the belief that they were somehow unnatural. A striking proportion of eighteenth and nineteenth century pornography, at least as far as we can judge, is devoted to the hypocritical indulgences, real or imagined, of monks, priests and nuns. Even today, in French slang, abbaye is a synonym for a “whorehouse.”‘
When Giants Walked the Earth
The decline of religion was certainly not smooth. The Enlightenment begat the Counter-Enlightenment. The German Romantics emphasized the importance of cultural traditions—including religious ones–as opposed to Enlightenment abstractions about faith and reason. Thomas Carlyle raged that secular capitalism was producing an ugly and atomized society held together only by the cash nexus. Arthur Schopenhauer and Nietzsche mocked the Enlightenment’s naïve belief in reason.
European churches fought a rearguard action against the forces of secularism. The Catholic Church in France tried to recover lost ground after the Bourbon Restoration in 1814-30. Victorian England saw a resurgence of piety—first in the form of Evangelicalism and then also in the form of High Church enthusiasm within the Church of England. British Evangelicals led most of the great British social reforms of the nineteenth century, from abolishing slavery to combating drunkenness and dissolution. The Duke of Devonshire, for example, celebrated the civilizing role of the Evangelical movement in a passage that is worth contemplating by anyone who has braved a modern British city late at night:
Can you imagine for one moment what England would have been like today without those churches and all that those churches mean? … Certainly it would not have been safe to walk the streets. All respect, decency, all those things which tend to make modern civilization what it is would not have been in existence. You can imagine what we should have had to pay for our police, for lunatic asylums, for criminal asylums . the charges would have been increased hundredfold if it had not been for the work the church has done and is doing today.
Britain eventually produced a flourishing Christian socialist movement, with early Labor MPs boasting that their party owed more to Methodism than to Marxism. But these would prove to be exceptions. Religion was more often than not allied to the old order. And the successive religious revivals were too weak to overcome the most powerful intellectual tides of the era. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a succession of intellectual giants taking sledgehammers to the very foundations of faith.
Ironically, the man who did as much as anybody to start the sledge-hammering was one of religion’s most subtle defenders. G. W. F. Hegel’s deification of history–his conviction that it was the march of God on earth—had the paradoxical effect of opening the way to secular arguments. Ludwig Feuerbach, the most radical of Hegel’s followers, branded himself as a second Luther.22 He argued that history was a tale of progressive disenchantment: the Christian God had displaced the parochial deities of earlier men with a universal abstraction; now the job of philosophers was to replace theology with anthropology, and put man in God’s place. Man had invented God as both a consolation and distraction from the sorrows of the world.23 For Feuerbach, God was a pretty thin consolation: religion distracts us from the real joys of the world and persuades us to focus on an illusion. Man is thus oppressed by the creation of his own mind—and the only way that he can end that oppression is to destroy his creation. Feuerbach wanted to produce nothing less than a new Copernican Revolution—instead of man revolving around God, God would revolve around man.
Feuerbach provided the raw materials for the most influential assault on religion of the past couple of centuries. Karl Marx embraced two of Feuerbach’s ideas: that religion was a consolation for life’s miseries (the “opium of the people”); and that the answer to the riddle of theology was to substitute God for man (“the criticism of religion,” Marx once said, “ends with the precept that the Supreme Being for man is man”24). But he added two new arguments. The first was the materialist interpretation of history: religion, like all forms of intellectual life, is simply a superstructure that sits on top of the material “base.” There is thus little to be gained in demonstrating that religion is intellectually empty or contradictory: the point instead is to demonstrate what material interests it advances.
The second addition was his revolutionary teleology: the only way for man to free himself from the illusions of religion was to free himself from a ruling class—and the only way to rid himself of the ruling class was to rid himself of the illusions of religion. “The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.”as This is not only because the ruling class uses religion to dupe the workers into accepting their swinish lot; it is because class societies are by their nature alienated societies. End alienation and you kill the demand for religion.
Marx’s critique of religion was all the more powerful because it was a critique with a chaser: it provided a substitute, an alternative solution to many of the longings that religion tried to satisfy. The descendant of a long line of rabbis, Marx found it impossible not to think in terms of grand eschatologies. He offered an end to the problem of alienation, a word taken directly from the Christian vocabulary, and one redolent of emptiness and despair. He argued that history has a meaning and a destination—the meaning lies in the class struggle and the destination lies in communism, a world in which contradictions are overcome and paradise is created on earth. He employed numerous religious tropes—Communists are latter-day Gnostics, communism is heaven on earth, the revolution is the last judgment, workers are the saved and capitalists the damned. Having first punched a “God-shaped hole” in the heart of modern man by deconstructing religion, Marx then offered to fill the hole by revealing the meaning of history.
God Versus Galapagos
The most powerful challenge to religion, however, came not from philosophy—whether in the manicured hands of the French philosopher or the heavy hands of German scholars—but from science. Since the mid-nineteenth century, a growing number of people have come to think that the “scientific” attitude and the “religious” attitude are incompatible. Religion might provide consolation in bereavement. It might express wonder at the grandeur of the universe. But it no longer offers a coherent explanation of the origin of life.
The most devastating questions were posed by a mild-mannered English gentleman who was intensely worried about upsetting his pious wife, Charles Darwin. The Origin of Species (t859) ignited a passionate public debate not just about giant lizards in the Galapagos Islands but also about the validity of the Christian faith. Benjamin Disraeli famously quipped that if it was a choice between apes and angels, he was “on the side of the angels.” In fact the controversial thing about Darwin was not natural descent—even the Catholic Church jumped onto the apes’ side fairly quickly—but two other ideas. The first was survival of the fittest. This implied that evolution was an amoral or even an immoral process: “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson had it.” The second was the idea of random variation and natural selection—again this was immensely hard to reconcile with belief in an all-knowing, benevolent Creator. The recent fuss about intelligent design reflects a deep Christian unease about the notion of a blind and purposeless universe.
Some of Darwin’s followers were less restrained than their gentlemanly master when it came to doing battle with the religious establishment. T. H. Huxley, known as Darwin’s bulldog, believed that the battle to advance science was also a battle to diminish the influence of Christianity. “Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules,” he wrote in 1860, “and history records that whenever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter have been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed, if not annihilated; scotched, if not slain.”27 Note the reference to Hercules: Huxley believed in science’s ability to empower and liberate mankind. And note the phrase “fairly opposed”: Huxley also believed that the only way religion could survive was by using the power of repression. These two themes—science’s Herculean powers and religion’s propensity to resort to oppression—were the stock in trade of other scientific bulldogs who yapped at the heels of a retreating Christian faith over the coming decades. In the 1890s a priggish Harrow schoolboy, George Macaulay Trevelyan, spoke for educated opinion when he informed his teacher that “Darwin refuted the Bible.”28
Another blow came from a new school of biblical criticism. Gibbon and Voltaire had perturbed the pious by casting doubts on the authenticity of miracles, such as the virgin birth or Jesus walking on water. In the early nineteenth century, a school of German theologians, based at the Tübingen School, went further by treating the Bible as a historical document, subjecting it to close textual reading and testing its claims against historical and archaeological evidence.
Christianity is a historical religion, based on the claim that the divine world once intersected with the human world. Jesus was born at a particular time and place—in the town of Bethlehem to a woman called Mary in the reign of Herod. But as a historical religion it is open to historical inquiry, and the historical inquiry of the nineteenth century shook Bible-believing Christians to their core. The Germans argued persuasively that the first five books of the Old Testament, traditionally attributed to Moses, were in fact written much later and by a number of different authors; and that the book of Isaiah had at least two different authors. They also argued that many biblical events had no historical basis, and dismissed biblical miracles as literary tropes rather than real events.
The work of the Tubingen scholars—summarized in newspapers and reviewed and popularized in books such as David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus (1835)—acted like acid on the Christian faith. It seeped into popular intellectual culture. And it unmoored many distinguished minds from their simple Christian faith. Jacob Burckhardt, the great Swiss historian, read The Life of Jesus and became convinced that the history of the New Testament could not bear the weight that faith imposed upon it; T. H. Green, an Oxford philosopher and disciple of Hegel, embarked upon a quest to free Christian morality from its historical foundations.29
A Shared Neurosis
As if that were not enough, a further attack on religion came from a new discipline that hovered somewhere between science and pseudoscience. If Marx tried to bring God down to earth by digging into the material infrastructure of society, Sigmund Freud tried to bring Him down to earth by digging into the unconscious mind.
Freud thought religion was the manifestation of an immature personality. “The more the fruits of knowledge become accessible to men,” argued Freud, “the more widespread is the decline of religious belief.” His biographer, Peter Gay, called Freud “the last of the philosophes,” but if he was a philosophe, he was a bad-tempered one, with a personal ax to grind)”
A Jew who was used to being looked down upon by the local Christians, Freud was at his most coruscating about Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. For the author of The Future of an Illusion, religion was merely a shared neurosis, a personal malady made public and communal. Freud compared the obsessive behavior of religious people—repeating prayers, performing rituals and so on—to the obsessive behavior of neurotics. He insisted that the belief in God was just another manifestation of the “father complex”: religious people cling to the idea of God because they haven’t managed to escape from their infantile belief in the almighty father? To be religious is to be trapped in childhood—taking comfort in an illusory protector and refusing to grow up. And, as if being childish is not bad enough, religious people are also female children: they want to be possessed by a masculine god. (Many of Freud’s most religious male patients fantasized about changing their sex) He argued that losing faith in religion is part of growing up: once we realize that our parents are not all-mighty and all-knowing, once we come to terms with our human limitations, we lose our belief in God.
Huxley, Freud and their kind had a tally-ho approach to the fight against religion. Others only abandoned their faith reluctantly. Many of the Enlightenment philosophes were of two minds about religion—educated in Christian schools, attached to Christian families and happy with the social order.32 Voltaire refused to let people talk about atheism in front of the maids. “I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God, and I think that then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often.”” He didn’t stop at hoodwinking servants with religion: “An atheist king,” he wrote, “is more dangerous than a fanatical Ravaillac.” Gibbon admitted that religion might have its uses, though he much preferred the manly ancient Roman kind to the hysterical modern Christian variety: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.”
For many Victorian men of letters the loss of faith was the most painful drama of their lives. Leslie Stephen sank into depression when he lost his faith and with it his career as a clergyman. In his “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” (1855), Matthew Arnold, convinced that faith was at once impossible and essential, wrote of “Wandering between two worlds, one dead / The other powerless to be born / With nowhere yet to lay my head.” Thomas Hardy envisioned “God’s Funeral” as a time of mourning, not liberation. “I did not forget / That what was mourned for, I, too / Once had prized.” Thomas Carlyle lamented that he and his friends “have quietly closed our eyes to the eternal Substance of things, and opened them only to the Shews and Shams of things…. There is no religion; there is no God; man has lost his soul, and vainly seeks antiseptic salt.”35
“Believers Without God”
One solution to the loss of faith was to find an alternative in secular ideology. These ideologies were at once substitutes and antidotes: substitutes because they helped to satisfy the yearning for meaning; antidotes because for the most part they tried to marginalize religion still further. Four secular faiths sprung to the fore in the nineteenth century: science, culture, the nation-state and socialism.
The most powerful was the cult of science. It is hard to recapture the force of this cult now that we have seen the dark side of science in the atomic bomb and Dr. Mengele. But for many Victorians and Edwardians science was an object of unqualified veneration. Science was explaining the world through such intellectual achievements as The Origin of Species. It was forcing men to give up their childish illusions and deal with the world as it actually is. (Science’s appeal to John Stuart Mill was precisely that of “good down-right hard logic, with the minimum of sentimentalism,” logic that enables you to “look facts in the face.”;’) It was also improving the world with a cascade of technological breakthroughs. Turn scientists into philosopher kings and war would be a thing of the past. Apply science to reproduction and you could bid farewell to stupidity and illness. H. G. Wells and many of his fellow Fabians believed that the world should be ruled by a scientific elite. Pablo Neruda, a Chilean writer and politician, summed up these feelings in his memoirs: “I shall never forget my visit to that hydroelectric plant overlooking the lake, whose pure waters mirror Armenia’s unforgettable blue sky. When the journalists asked me for my impressions of Armenia’s ancient churches and monasteries, I answered them, stretching things a little: ‘The church I like best is the hydroelectric plant, the temple beside the lake.’ “
One of the most instructive products of this cult was social Darwinism. Its most illustrious advocate, Francis Galton, one of Darwin’s cousins, wanted scientists to become a “new priesthood”—charged not just with officiating over wedding ceremonies but with preventing the unfit from getting married in the first place. A striking number of people believed that man was divided into distinct races that could be ranked according to their virtue and ability—and that the best way to produce progress (or social evolution) was to purify the race through selective breeding (or worse). The epicenter of racism was Germany: the Gobineau Library at the University of Strasbourg contained six thousand volumes on race. But it was not just a German phenomenon: Gobineau was French, and many of the movement’s main proponents were English (Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Karl Pearson) or American (Madison Grant). Almost every advanced country in the world had flourishing eugenics societies, attracting the support of the left as well as the right. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the founders of the Fabian movement, believed in population planning. George Bernard Shaw thought, “The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialization of the selective breeding of man.”39
Shaw points to another religion substitute that flourished in the nineteenth century: the cult of culture. Many people in that Age of Innocence—before modernism and postmodernism blurred the distinction between the sublime and the ridiculous–spelled culture with a capital C. They worshipped great artists, particularly Goethe and Beethoven, with the same reverence that religious people reserved for the prophets. They regarded great art as something that could forge a link between man and God—or, as Goethe put it, “He who possesses art and science has religion; he who does not possess them, needs religion.” They treated great books as religious objects and concert halls as temples of worship. “One goes to the Conservatoire with religious devotion as the pious go to the temple of the Lord,” one French writer put it in 1846. And they believed that Culture could civilize and redeem mankind—spreading “sweetness and light” among a vulgar and materialistic people and binding together a fractured nation. As Matthew Arnold argued, “Culture, disinterestedly seeking in its aim at perfection to see things as they really are, shows us how worthy and divine a thing is the religious side in man, though it is not the whole man.”40
For many of its votaries, Culture wasn’t just a substitute for religion but was superior to it. Culture wasn’t contaminated with barbarism or superstition. Culture didn’t generate wars or persecution. Culture—and particularly music—provided the distilled essence of religion free from the stains of dogmatism and warfare.41 And the cult of culture was not restricted to a self-regarding aesthetic elite. Byron, Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope enjoyed John Grisham-like sales. Mark Twain raked in a fortune traveling the country on the lecture circuit. More than two million people turned out to watch Victor Hugo’s hearse pass through the boulevards of Paris—and the government gave him a twenty-one-gun salute. 42
The third secular ideology was the ideology of the nation-state. Jules Michelet hoped that his “noble country,” France, would “take the place of the God who escapes us” and “fill within us the immeasurable abyss which extinct Christianity has left there.” Nationalists nationalized religious icons, such as St. George or St. Joan of Arc, and turned secular politicians, such as Giuseppe Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel, into quasi-religious figures. Nationalism, in its triumphant nineteenth century form, drew much of its strength from the near-deification of two things—the “folk” and the state.
Cultural nationalists such as Johann Gottfried Herder believed that various peoples have a “creative soul” whose destiny is to fulfill themselves in a self-aware nation-state.43 Thus Russia and Germany discovered their identities by rebuffing Bonapartism, and Italy realized its identity through the Risorgimento. Other nationalists spoke more simply of “chosen people” who had a quasireligious identity and purpose.
Hegel regarded the state as “the Divine Idea as it exists on earth” and, more famously, as “the march of God in the world.” The state is more than just a system of law and government. It is the embodiment of ethical principle and rational purpose—all-knowing and all-providing. The essence of human freedom lies in surrendering your will to the higher will of the state. “The Nation State is mind in its substantive rationality and immediate actuality,” mused Hegel, “and is therefore the absolute power on earth.”45 These ideas naturally appealed to politicians keen to increase their power, especially ones who found the church in their way.
The nation-state marginalized religion as well as providing a substitute for it—sometimes consciously so (Otto von Bismarck presented his Kulturkampf as a cultural struggle between enlightened nationalism and obscurantist religion) but more often unconsciously. Bismarck decried the “Black International” of Catholic priests as a threat to the Prussian state, and demanded that candidates for ordination must be German citizens and graduates of German theology faculties. An Italian newspaper celebrated Garibaldi’s march on Rome in 1870 by declaring that “the medieval world has fallen: the modern age stands resplendent on the ruins of the theocracy.”46 In 1902 France witnessed the vigorous expulsion of the church from the public square, complete with the further expropriation of church property and the establishment of a state school system with a hard-edged state ideology. But you did not have to have an animus against the church to end up unintentionally squeezing it out of public life. Merely by providing public education, Victorians began the process of edging the church out of the business of education; merely by creating the first bits of a welfare bureaucracy, they began to perform functions that had previously been associated most with the church.
The fourth ideology—unsurprising, given Marx’s views—was socialism. Socialists were divided over religion. Many, particularly on the European Continent, wanted to sweep it away as an illusion that legitimized an unjust social order. Others, particularly in England, argued that socialism was nothing less than Christianity in practice: indeed, only eight of the 249 Labor MPs in the House of Commons in 1929-31 described themselves as atheist or agnostic.47 But, whatever their ideas about the hereafter, most socialists believed in some version of building Jerusalem first on earth.
The Godless Express
In the twentieth century, many of these new secular faiths came together in a poisonous totalitarian cocktail. Communism didn’t just draw on Marx’s ideas. It also drew on Russian nationalism (“socialism in one country”) and on the cults of science and culture. Stalin was keen on using science to solve man’s problems and on exploiting culture to burnish Russian nationalism. Likewise, Nazism didn’t just draw on “scientific” racism. It also drew on German nationalism and German cultural chauvinism, worshipping German gods such as Thor and German artists such as Goethe and (particularly) Richard Wagner. Both Hitler and Stalin owed a debt to Hegel’s idea that freedom lies in the “realm of necessity”—submerging the individual’s will into the will of the collective–and that history’s purposes justify the crushing of individual rights.
On the totalitarian left, religion was simply unacceptable. The Soviet Union was an officially atheist state, just as Saudi Arabia is an officially Muslim state. “All modern religions and churches,” Lenin wrote, “every kind of religious organization are always considered by Marxism as the organs of bourgeois reaction, used for the protection of the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class.” Communists expropriated church land, closed churches, shuttered seminaries, banned religious publications, erected museums of atheism and killed, purged or imprisoned priests. Symbolically enough, the first Soviet Gulag was opened in a former monastery in the Arctic region.48 Communists also replaced Christian ceremonies with Red Weddings, Red Funerals and Red Christenings. Members of the League of the Militant Godless, which was established in 1925, wandered around the country mocking religion or took the “Godless Express” to the far corners of the Russian vastness. Alas, this enthusiasm for Godlessness did not prevent the Communists from embalming Lenin and erecting thousands of statues to him and his even more violent successor.
Things were more complicated on the right: Fascist sympathizers made common cause with the religious right in Spain, France and elsewhere in order to defeat socialism. But the Nazis had a much more ambitious agenda than just forming alliances with reactionary clerics—they wanted to create their own religion out of a mishmash of Christianity and Teutonic mumbo jumbo and then use it to strengthen the power of the party. They presented Hitler as a semimessianic figure who would not only make the fatherland work again, but redeem the soul of the volk.49 This vision swept up much of the country, converting intellectuals (including Martin Heidegger), Prussian aristocrats, unemployed workers and people of all religions and none. In the 1930-33 elections Hitler proved particularly appealing both to people who had drifted away from religion after the First World War, and to Lutherans, whose church had nearly gone bankrupt.
Hitler described Aryans as “the highest image of the Lord,” the tools of human redemption, the bearers of pure Aryan blood that needed to be harbored by eugenic breeding. Goebbels dismissed “the Jew” as “the Antichrist of world history.” The Nazis had their own liturgy: fires, wreaths, altars, the swastika, bloodstained relics and a special Nazi book of martyrs commemorated on November 9, the Day of Mourning to mark both the 1918 revolution and Hitler’s failed beer-hall putsch of 1923. Initiates into the SS promised, “We believe in God, we believe in Germany, which He created … and in the Fiihrer … whom He has sent us.” But in all of this blather God was strictly subordinated to the Fiihrer and the church to the state: as with Bonaparte, religion was acceptable only in so far as it was a tool of political power.
Hitler and Stalin were unusually brutal. But many other countries produced leaders who tried to marginalize religion in the name of national integration and top-down modernization. The trend was particularly powerful in the developing world. The forerunner in this was Kemal Ataturk, who established a strict separation of mosque and state in Turkey in the 192os: abolishing the Caliphate, the central source of religious authority; getting rid of separate religious schools and colleges; establishing a secular system of public education; doing away with religious courts, which applied sharia law, and replacing them with a new legal system based on the Swiss civil code; and replacing Arabic with Roman script.
This was welcomed at the time. Our own magazine gushed, “The repudiation of the Caliphate by the Turks marks an epoch in the expansion of Western ideas over the non-Western world, for our Western principles of national sovereignty and self-government are the real forces to which the unfortunate [caliph] has fallen victim.”50 There was also a broadly positive reaction to Reza Shah, an army officer who seized power in Iran in 1925 with Western help. He used an iron fist to enforce secular orthodoxy. Soldiers roamed the streets ordering women to strip off their veils, forcing clerics to remove their turbans and, on one occasion, gunning down religious students in the streets. Believers were forbidden to visit Mecca.
Such brutal tactics were not confined to the Islamic world. Across Latin America a weird assortment of populists and dictators attacked the Catholic Church in the name of progress. Plutarco Elias Calles, presidentof Mexico in 1924-8, shut down churches, convents and religious colleges, and established dozens of museums of atheism. One of his henchmen had the phrase “the personal enemy of God” inscribed on his calling cards 5′ In Argentina, Juan Perón crudely tried to replace the Catholic Church with his own nationalist iconography.
After the Second World War, many of the rulers of the developing world followed Ataturk in linking modernization with secularization. They not only imported Western technology and economics (often in the misguided form of socialist planning); they also imported Western ideas about the backward nature of religion. Mesmerized by European ideas, dressed in European clothes, surrounded by French- or English-speaking friends, they made war on the mullahs and priests and their primitive practices.
In the Arab world they eventually had a European sociological text to substantiate their beliefs, Daniel Lerner’s The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East (1958), which argued that Islam was “defenseless” in the face of rationalization and modernization. Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, seized land controlled by the clergy as part of his “White Revolution.” The shah, as he was known, substituted the term “holy book” for the Koran in Iran’s constitution in order to prevent discrimination against religious minorities. He sent “mullahs of modernization” into the countryside to promote literacy and build infrastructure. When all this provoked a clerical backlash, he traveled to Qum, the seat of Shia learning, to denounce his critics as “lice-ridden mullahs.” In Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser took a more middle-of-the-road position, trying to modernize Islam rather than marginalize it—though he all but crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in 1955 after a failed assassination attempt.
In India Jawaharlal Nehru replaced Gandhi’s devout religiosity (the Mahatma once declared that “anyone who thinks that religion and politics can be kept apart, understands neither religion nor politics”) with a Fabian commitment to reason and modernization. Secularization theory was not just an abstract concept: for many leaders throughout the developing world it was a (sometimes brutal) program for action.
The Long Withdrawing Roar
Europe saw a brief revival of religion in the wake of the Second World War, as people tried to find a deeper meaning in the whirlwind of wartime events, and the West defined itself against Soviet tyranny. In 1954, for example, Billy Graham persuaded millions of Britons to turn up at greyhound tracks and football stadiums as part of his “sweep for God through Britain.” In the same year seven out of ten Italians regularly attended mass? But secularization soon resumed its long advance in the old Continent, gathering pace as the European economies heated up. For most people, the retreat of religion was not bloody and traumatic, but more gradual. For every hothead determined to fight a head-on battle with religion, there were countless people whose faith just seemed to ebb away. By the mid-twentieth century, fashionable intellectuals were presumed to be atheists. (The few who weren’t—such as Graham Greene and Malcolm Muggeridge—found their writing defined by the mere fact that they believed, however doubtingly, in God.)
As for politics, the old establishment might still bow the knee in church and sniff at atheism (some even called themselves Christian Democrats), but the foundations were crumbling beneath their feet. Politicians mentioned God less and less, and even those who drew on religious principles seemed to trust the state more than churches. Clement Attlee, Britain’s Labor prime minister in 1945-51, cut his teeth working in a Christian socialist mission in the East End of London; and Attlee’s government happily described its new welfare state as nothing less than a New Jerusalem, but his creation left ever less room for churches.
We will take a snapshot of the current state of European religion in chapter four. But by most measures, the second half of the twentieth century saw the almost complete secularization of the British white working class—the estrangement of the indigenous population from the Anglican Church and other denominations. A century ago, Britain had the same level of religious faith as the United States. Respect for the general tenets of Christianity united the country. Half of under-fifteen-year-olds were enrolled in Sunday school. Soccer crowds regularly sang “Bread of Heaven” and “Abide with Me.”53 Today Britain is an “agnostic nation,” in the words of Roy Hattersley, a Labor politician, and soccer crowds usually chant rather different fare.
In the Land of The Bald Knobbers
In the 1960s secularism seemed to be carrying all before it, with priests questioning God’s existence, the young testing received boundaries, and leftists dreaming of building heaven on earth. In 1968 Peter Berger, then a prophet of secularization, assured The New York Times that by “the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.””
In the same year that Berger made his apocalyptic prediction, a hedonistic young American arrived at Shelley’s old college in Oxford. But Bill Clinton shared none of the careless atheism of his British contemporaries or his Oxford tutors. He had joined the Southern Baptist Church at the tender age of nine—attending church every week even if it meant walking there alone—and, as he grew up, he refused to allow his success to dull his interest in religion. The most vivid parts of his autobiography concern religious faith—particularly the “hotter” forms of worship. “In 1955, I had absorbed enough of my church’s teachings to know that I was a sinner and to want Jesus to save me,” he wrote in one passage. “So I came down the aisle at the end of Sunday service, professed my faith in Christ, and asked to be baptized.”55 He recalled attending a Baptist service as governor in which one worshipper got so carried away that he had to be removed from the sanctuary and locked in a nearby room, where he continued to holler and bang about—and eventually tore the door off its hinges, returning into the church screaming.°
Clinton was particularly gripped by Pentecostalism. During the first Pentecostal service he attended he was reduced to tears at the sight of worshippers speaking in “tongues” and transported into religious ecstasy—and thereafter he made a point of attending Pentecostal summer camps every year from 1977 until he ran for president. He even sang with a Pen tecostal quartet of balding ministers called the Bald Knobbers.57 When he was defeated for reelection as governor of his home state in 1980, the Bald Knobbers were among the first people to visit him to offer their prayers.
As president, Clinton maintained an interest in religion that would have had him branded a dangerous Jesus freak in Europe. A few weeks after moving to the White House he hosted a private dinner for Billy Graham, whom he credited with bringing him to Jesus 58 Unlike many of his predecessors, including Ronald Reagan, he regularly attended church in Washington, DC. Many members of Clinton’s inner circle were devout Christians. Al Gore was a Southern Baptist who studied theology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. George Stephanopoulos studied theology as a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford. Rahm Emanuel (who is now Obama’s chief of staff) was an observant Jew. Mike McCurry was an active Methodist who helped out in his local Sunday school. Paul Begala was a pro-life Catholic who named his eldest son John Pauly” Clinton cultivated close relationships with several leading Evangelical preachers such as Billy Graham, Bill Hybels and Tony Campolo, a Baptist minister and academic. He cited Jesus Christ in public speeches more frequently than his successor: 5.1 times a year compared with 4.7 times for George Bush.60 At the lowest point of his presidency, during the Lewinsky scandal, he turned to leading Evangelicals to ask for forgiveness, including Campolo and Gordon MacDonald. Evangelicals who encountered him casually were struck by the quality of his faith. Jack Hayford, the pastor of an eight-thousand-strong church in Los Angeles, said, “It may bewilder some to have it said that this man believes in the Bible and in Jesus Christ as God’s son, the Savior.” Compolo recalls that “I don’t think I’ve met him where we both didn’t pray,’
Clinton’s enthusiasm for religion extended to a willingness to lower the wall of separation between church and state. He dealt heavily in religious symbols, talking in 1992 of a “New Covenant” between the federal government and the American people. He tried to welcome religious people into the public square. In August 1993, during a holiday in Martha’s Vineyard, he strolled around the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven and came across The Culture of Disbelief a book by Stephen Carter, a Yale law professor. The book argued that America’s high culture—the culture of the universities and law schools and liberal elites–did far too much to marginalize religious people. The Baptist from Arkansas strongly agreed. lie told reporters, “Sometimes I think the environment in which we operate is entirely too secular. The fact that we have freedom of religions doesn’t mean we need to try to have freedom from religion.” The Culture of Disbelief became that summer’s surprise best-seller.
In 1997 Clinton signed the most sweeping sanction for the expression of religious views in the federal workplace ever issued. Workers could discuss their religious views in the halls and cafeterias of federal workplaces just as freely as they could discuss the latest episode of Sex and the City. They could display religious messages such as “What Would Jesus Do?” just as easily as they could display football posters. And they could organize Bible studies and religious meetings. “The American workplace has not been the same since,” argues Michael Lindsay, a prominent sociologist.62 Clinton even flirted with faith-based social services: “You cannot change somebody’s life from the outside in,” he once said, “unless there is also some change from the inside out.”63
In short, Bill Clinton–a man whom many Europeans regard as a kindred soul and whom many religious Americans regard as a godless fornicator—had very little in common with Shelley, at least when it came to the battle between modernity and religion.
Why did America evolve so differently from Europe?
The American Way I:
The Chosen Nation (1607-1900)
THE IDEA THAT America was born religious is engrained in national mythology. Samuel Danforth talked of America’s “errand into the wilderness.” Samuel Sewall, one of Massachusetts’ leading judges in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, dubbed America a “God City.” Every American divine worth his salt had a sermon in his drawer about how America came into life as a “new Israel” with a special covenant from God. These days Evangelical publishers pump out books with titles such as Faith, Stars and Stripes, and conservative intellectuals revel in the contrast between God-fearing America, with its flexible economy and high birth rate, and secular Europe, with its empty maternity wards and sclerotic labor markets.
We do not pretend to know whether God has, indeed, chosen America for special blessings. But a dispassionate look at history quickly proves three things. First, America was not born religious. Church members never made up more than a third of the adult population of New England before the revolution, and may never have climbed as high as seventeen percent in the southern colonies.’ Instead, America became religious. Second, religion and modernity have never been enemies in America in the way that they have in Europe. On the contrary, they were fraternal twins that grew up together: the more modern America became, the more likely people were to go to church. And third, the key to America’s religious life was its “extreme division of sects,” as Tocqueville had it. Evangelical historians make much of the Holy Spirit working in mysterious ways; the real unseen presence in American religion, however, has been Adam Smith’s invisible hand.
The Not-So-Shining City
The hundred or so settlers who alighted from the Mayflower at Plymouth Harbor were certainly zealots. They had fled England, first for the Netherlands and then for America, because of theological quarrels; and they worked hard to organize their lives according to scripture.’ The death penalty awaited not just murderers but also witches, heretics, adulterers and sodomites. Wigs were banned because they do not appear in the Bible)
Yet the colony failed to maintain its purity. By 1645 only 70 percent of Boston’s 421 families could claim some link to the church—a proportion that shrinks to less than half if you include servants. And 1645 was in many ways a high-water mark: the proportion kept heading down for decades after. The number was even lower in Salem, a town that Americans associated with their God-fearing past long before Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible: by 1683 some 83 percent of the taxpayers confessed to no religious identification.4 New England’s religiosity was diluted still further by the fact that English judges were in the habit of sending their most undesirable charges—thieves, rapists and murderers—to the colonies. Between 1718 and 1775 at least 66,000 felons were transported to America by the British courts.5
And Massachusetts was a model of piety compared with Virginia.
The Virginia Company professed all sorts of highfalutin ideas about converting the heathen, who, according to the company’s charter, lived “in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God.” Initially, the citizens of Jamestown had been legally obliged to attend church twice a day. Failure to observe the Sabbath was punishable by a whipping on the second offense and execution on the third. But the good intentions did not last. The Church of England had few resources to spare for the distant province. (In 1661, by one count, only ten of the colony’s fifty parishes had ministers.6) The colonists made little effort to convert the ever-growing number of slaves they needed for the cultivation of tobacco?
If America was not born religious, it was not born pluralistic either. The colonists sailed to America to establish the reign of truth, not a zone of tolerance. Perry Miller, the premier historian of the Puritans, described Massachusetts as a “dictatorship, not of a single tyrant, or of an economic class, or of a political faction, but of the holy and regenerate.”‘ For one of the colony’s religious leaders, John Cotton, “theocracy, or to make the Lord God our governor,” was simply “the best form of government in a Christian commonwealth “9 Increase Mather, Cotton’s son-in-law and another leading divine, dismissed “the toleration of all Religions and Persuasions” as the “way to have no Religion at all.””‘ And these theocrats enforced religious conformity with a terrifying range of punishments, including whipping, tongue-boring, ear-chopping and execution. Indeed, they were so zealous in stamping out dissidence that their British overlords were obliged to intervene: Charles I I sent a missive to the Massachusetts authorities telling them to stop executing his subjects, and William and Mary issued an Act of Toleration that allowed all forms of Protestant worship, in the colonies as well as at home.”
The Puritans also began to think like members of a religious establishment. Pastors and governors all had to be members of the church in good standing. The franchise was restricted to church members. The state had the power to exact taxes to support the church and compel people to attend. Many of the bitterest religious disputes in New England had less to do with doctrine than with the benefits of church membership. In 1662 the Massachusetts General Court, or synod, decreed that there should be three levels of believer with accordant privileges. Solomon Stoddard’s counterblast to this idea, The Doctrine of Instituted Churches, was so incendiary that it had to be printed in London.
America became a land of tolerance not because the colonists left European habits of mind behind but because it was impossible to police such a huge country. From the mid-seventeenth century Rhode Island became a refuge for Baptists and Quakers, leading Cotton Mather to dismiss it as “the sewer of New England.” William Penn, who gave his name to Pennsylvania, built his “holy experiment” on tolerance in Philadelphia, allowing in anybody who believed in Jesus Christ. Farther south, when the church authorities in Virginia clamped down on Protestant dissidents, the dissidents promptly fled across the border to more tolerant Maryland and then to the Carolinas, whose gentlemen investors used religious freedom to attract colonists. The result was a striking amount of religious diversity in a relatively small population.” The historian Sydney Ahlstrom points out that a traveler trekking from Massachusetts to the Carolinas in 1700 would run into several different varieties of Congregationalists and Baptists; Presbyterians and Quakers; Dutch, German and French Reformed; Swedish, Finnish and German Lutherans; Mennonites and radical pietists; Anglicans, Catholics, Jews and Rosicrucians.13
Awake For a While
The history of American religion under British rule is more than just a history of decay and decline. America experienced the first of its three (or perhaps four) Great Awakenings in the 1730s and 1740s. It was ignited by America’s first significant theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who was “born again” in late adolescence—he said that he was seized with “so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God that I know not how to express”14—and who later preached a series of sermons such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The fire was reignited by America’s first proper megapreacher, George Whitefield. “The reason why congregations have been so dead,” Whitefield declared, “is because they have dead men preach them.”15
Whitefield was a tireless performer who preached on more than fifteen thousand occasions, and a highly skilled stirrer of souls who, in his own words, spoke with “Much Flame, Clearness and Power.” Benjamin Franklin calculated that his voice was so resonant that he could make himself heard outdoors by as many as thirty thousand people. All he had to do was pronounce the single word “Mesopotamia,” the legend went, and grown women would burst into tears.’
The Great Awakening had a lasting impact on American religion. Edwards remains a revered figure in Evangelical circles. He also had a great effect on John Wesley in England, who had started what became Methodism in the 1730s. The Great Awakening brought competition for souls, as some upstart sects began to poach members from established institutions. (In 1769-74, the number of Baptist churches in Virginia jumped from seven to 5401 It also brought some modern marketing techniques. One of the main complaints among the Boston clergy against Whitefield was that he “used his utmost craft and cunning to stoke the passions and engage the affections of the people.”18
But at the time it looked as if the Awakening had achieved little. The fires of enthusiasm guttered out. Church membership declined. Edwards spent most of his last years trying to convert the Native Americans (an Indian disciple translated his words into Mohican as he spoke) before finally being appointed to the presidency of the College of New Jersey (which became Princeton University) in 1757. His son and a few of his followers struggled to get his work published. Yale’s president, Ezra Stiles, pronounced that his work would “pass into a transient notice perhaps scarce above oblivion.””‘ The only church with a presence throughout the colonies was the Church of England, which was beholden to a clerical hierarchy that was based more than three thousand miles away and largely staffed by indolent duffers.
The smoldering row over America’s relationship with the motherland also diverted attention from religion to the city of man. The great issues in 1780 were no longer man’s relationship with God but America’s relationship with Britain; and, increasingly, America’s most illustrious intellectuals were no longer clergymen but statesmen. Political science took over from theology as the queen of the sciences.’ The reason that there was no reference to God in the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton joked, was that the Founding Fathers had simply forgotten to put one in.
The truth was that religion in prerevolutionary America was not that exceptional. There was more tolerance and pluralism than in Europe. (In 1763 New York celebrated Britain’s victory over France with a victory party at which the city’s two Anglican clergymen were joined by ministers from Dutch, French, Presbyterian, Baptist and Moravian churches.” But most colonists lived in a world of state-sponsored religion. Most lived by the code of cuius regio, eius religio; many paid church taxes. American ministers complained about the same things as European ones—that the common people were sunk in superstition and addicted to bestial pleasures. Moreover, American religion was still shackled to Europe. The Church of England answered to Canterbury; and some of the most vigorous preachers were European imports. Wesley was a British Tory who only spent a couple of (frustrating) years in the colonies, in 1735-37. Whitefield may have visited America thirteen times, but he was a minister in the Church of England, supported by the Countess of Huntingdon (to whom he generously bequeathed his American slaves who worked in the Georgia orphanage he founded). It took the American Revolution to set America on a different path from Europe.
A Tale of Two Revolutions
The American Revolution was a unique event in modern history—a revolution against an earthly regime that was not also an exercise in anticlericalism. As we have seen, in Europe the state and the church were so intertwined that it was impossible to attack one without attacking the other. In America the identification between the established regime and the established church was much less pronounced. Some clergymen supported the revolution (about a hundred chaplains, half Anglicans and half Presbyterians, served in the revolutionary army). Others preferred to keep their heads down in what they regarded as a secular conflict. The Philadelphia Presbyterian synod in 1775 insisted that “it is well known … that we have not been instrumental in inflaming the minds of people, or urging them to acts of violence and disorder.”22
Tocqueville’s verdict on the revolution remains the best available. “There is no country in the world where the boldest doctrines of the philosopher of the eighteenth century in matters of politics were more fully applied than in America,” he argued. “It was only the anti-religious doctrines that never were able to make headway.” Almost alone in the world, Americans saw no contradiction between embracing the values of the Enlightenment and republicanism while at the same time clinging to their religious principles. Revolutionary France defined itself by its hostility to religion (no less a person than Tom Paine worried that “the people of France were running headlong into atheism”); revolutionary America embraced religion alongside liberty, reason and popular government.
There are plenty of historians who quibble with this argument. Evangelical historians like to stress their country’s deep-rooted religiosity. Didn’t George Washington kneel in prayer at Valley Forge? Secular historians like to portray the Founding Fathers as Frenchified Deists. Didn’t Thomas Jefferson go through the Bible with a pair of scissors, removing the bad bits? (The bad bits usually concerned resurrection and miracles and other “deliria of crazy imaginations.”) And wasn’t Washington an irregular churchgoer who never took communion and refused to display religious symbols in his house at Mount Vernon?”
The truth is that Tocqueville got it just about right. The Founding Fathers were certainly not enemies of religion in the French manner. Some, like Patrick Henry, John Jay and John Witherspoon, were fervent believers. (Witherspoon was a first-rate theologian.) Most of the Deists would have agreed with Tocqueville’s aperçu that “despotism can do without faith, but freedom cannot.” Franklin and Jefferson regarded Jesus as an important moral teacher. Washington declared in his farewell address, “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” John Adams argued that “no other institution” was as effective as “the Christian religion” in dispensing moral education throughout the entire society.”24 Without their Puritan faith, he argued, the original settlers would have been “rakes, fops, sots, gamblers, starved with hunger, or frozen with cold, scalped by Indians.”25
But the revolution they made was essentially a secular affair. There were no religious grievances among the long “history of repeated injuries and usurpations” in the Declaration of Independence. The Founders occasionally cited God in their various writings but as a great watchmaker rather than an intervening presence. There were no references to biblical texts in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or the new state charters, an astonishing fact for the time. Washington seldom referred to God except under vague titles like “the Great Disposer of events,” and never mentioned Jesus Christ in his personal papers.”
The problem that the Founding Fathers were grappling with was political rather than theological. How can you prevent tyranny? How can you stop overmighty people—whether they are princes or priests—from imposing their will on ordinary folk? How can you preserve liberty? They consulted the Bible, but they also drew on other sources, classical historians and philosophers such as Thucydides and Aristotle, European theorists such as Montaigne, Locke and Smith. This points to the paradox at the heart of the revolution. If the Founders were intent on grappling with a secular problem, their solution to that problem—the separation of church and state and the division of power—allowed the survival of religion in the modern world.
The Founders’ Gift to God
The First Amendment–that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof—did two remarkable things. It created tolerance in its fullest sense: not just the top-down tolerance involved in allowing dissent but the bottom-up tolerance that recognizes that individuals have a right to choose their own religious opinions. And it introduced competition: churches had to get people in through the door. Neither of these things happened immediately, but the result, in William Lee Miller’s words, was that “Christianity, the great muddy Mississippi of Western civilization, was able almost uniquely in the American setting to flow unvexed to the sea of modern democratic life.”27
Why did the Founding Fathers strike out in this radically new direction? Few questions in American constitutional history have produced so much heat. But the answer is surprisingly simple: because they did not want to see an established church on the European (and particularly the British) model. This did not mean driving religion out of the public square. (Seven years after the amendment was passed, John Adams saw nothing odd about calling for a day of fasting and prayer before God.) But it did mean making religion a matter of individual conscience rather than statecraft. Once you grant that principle, the entire edifice of established churches and religious compulsion comes tumbling down.
This was not only a radical break from established European practice. It was also a radical break from what was going on in America. Most of the state constitutions written immediately after the revolution supported Christianity in some war -for example, by declaring Christianity the true religion and imposing religious tests for office-holding. The Congregationalists would remain a de facto established church in Massachusetts for a long time. Congress proclaimed national days of prayer. Five of the new nation’s thirteen states raised taxes to support ministers. Twelve imposed religious tests for office.
The turning point for the Founding Fathers came in Virginia. In 1784 the state legislature allowed the new Episcopal Church to take over its Anglican predecessor’s property. But what about church taxes? Only about a third of the state’s believers belonged to the Episcopal Church. Why should the other two-thirds be forced to pay taxes to support it? The Episcopalians and their allies initially proposed an ingenious compromise whereby Virginians would be taxed, but only to support the denomination of their choice.28 This compromise had the support of Patrick Henry and most of the squirearchy. But it was eventually defeated by an odd coalition of Evangelical dissenters (who wanted to keep politics out of religion) and Deist revolutionaries (who wanted to keep religion out of politics). This strange coalition then rallied behind a very different solution to the problem—Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, a measure that was designed to disestablish the church and make religion a matter of individual conscience. Jefferson later described the debate over the measure as one of the “severest contests in which I have ever engaged.'” But the measure eventually passed the Virginia Assembly—and provided the model for the First Amendment.
The two presiding geniuses of the act were Jefferson and Madison. Garry Wills has demonstrated that the two were not simply engaged in pragmatic politics. Nor were they engaged in a battle to sideline religion. They believed firmly that disestablishment was good for both religion and the state. Jefferson repeatedly emphasized that disestablishment was good for religion because it would promote competition and punish idleness.3° Madison argued that disestablishment would be good for the state because it would free religion to promote public morality unencumbered by state patronage and corruption.3′
The Constitutional Convention repeated many of the arguments that had already been rehearsed in Virginia. There was a sharp debate about church taxes. Constitutional politics sometimes trumped principle: some states, most notably Congregationalist New England, had to be bought off by allowing the northeastern states to continue to give state support for religion—hence the idea that the First Amendment would apply only to federal law. (It begins, “Congress shall . ..’) But the Constitution nevertheless established the principle that religion is a matter of individual conscience. And Madison and Jefferson became increasingly determined to reinforce that principle as time went on. The decision to get government out of the religion business did as much as almost anything else to establish America’s role as the most religious country in the advanced world.
Why is disestablishment a recipe for religious vigor? As we have already pointed out, Adam Smith gave the best answer to this question more than two centuries ago in The Wealth of Nations: a free market in religion forces clergymen to compete for market share. But English fiction is also an acerbic commentary on the way that an established clergy can sometimes behave: think of the obsequious Reverend Mr. Collins pursuing his patron Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice or the infighting over livings in Trollope. And the European clergy’s close alliance with the political establishment meant that political dissidents had to turn against the church as well as the state. In Europe left-wing politics have been tinged with anticlericalism: many left-wing firebrands embraced atheism along with socialism, and even Christian Socialists were fiercely critical of established churches. In America—at least until the 1960s—left-wingers were as likely to be Christian as their conservative opponents were.
One of the things that most struck foreigners was the power of America’s religious market. Francis Grund, an immigrant from Bohemia, noted in 1837, “In America every clergyman may be said to do business on his own account, and under his own firm. He alone is responsible for any deficiency in the discharge of his office, as he alone is entitled to all the credit due to his exertions. He always acts as principal, and is therefore more anxious, and will make greater efforts to obtain popularity, than one who serves for wages.”32 Karl Griesinger, a German liberal who personally disliked American religiosity, remarked in 1858, “Clergymen in America must … defend themselves to the last, like other businessmen; they must meet competition and build up a trade, and it’s their own fault if their income is not large enough. Now is it clear why heaven and hell are moved to drive the people to the churches, and why attendance is more common here than anywhere else in the world.”33 A Swedish Lutheran noted, “In America the shepherd seeks the sheep and gathers them to his bosom, and does not conduct himself after the manner of Sweden, were the sheep must seek the shepherd and address him with high-sounding titles.”34
Two modern scholars, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, have used this insight to provide a compelling account of “the churching of America.” The free market reduced the start-up costs of getting into the religion business. It boosted the supply of both sects and clergy. And it produced relentless innovation. The American religious market threw up new religious “products,” some of them suspiciously well adapted to their local market. (The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, said he had discovered a new book of the Bible that proved that Jesus had visited America.) It also put a premium on communication—colloquial sermons that offered “plain truth for plain people,” revival meetings that encouraged audience participation, and a new form of popular religious music.
Method in their Methodism
The organization that personified this direct approach was the Methodist church. The growth of American Methodism, especially the way that it plugged into the religious energy of the people, was one of the wonders of the Age of Reason.35 Francis Asbury, a preacher who arrived in the country from Britain on the eve of the revolution, inevitably gets a lot of credit for this. He traveled through every state in the union annually for more than thirty years, covering around five thousand miles a year and making himself the most widely recognized face in the new country.36 He was so much on the move that he did not have time to acquire any of the trappings of normal life, such as a wife or a home, and when age and illness made it impossible for him to ride, he hauled his frail body around in a buggy 37
Superhuman though Asbury’s effort was, the genius of Methodism lay in its system. It was centered on itinerant preachers like him, who brought the Word to a scattered population (which was moving ever westward). The preachers, who were plucked from the common folk, got a quick training and a minimal salary. This ensured that their overheads were low, that enthusiasm was high, and that they spoke to people’s hearts. Methodists were famous for using the language of ordinary people and for focusing on preaching rather than engaging in arid theological debates.° “Methodist preachers never converted the pulpit into a professor’s chair,” the Reverend C. C. Goss wrote in 1866, “but with earnestness have urged and beseeched men to flee the wrath to come.”39
Congregations were divided into classes of about a dozen members that met once a week. These classes provided a mixture of social support and religious reinforcement; they also offered ordinary people a chance to lead others, putting the faith in line with the democratic spirit of the country. Yet there was direction from above. National and regional organizations (which focused on record-keeping and publishing) provided the movement with a spine: they also helped organize camp meetings. These meetings exposed as many people as possible to Methodism’s superstar preachers, such as Asbury, and created a highly charged atmosphere in which people were particularly susceptible to being moved by the Holy Spirit.
The old established churches struggled to compete. By the mid-nineteenth century there were ten times as many Methodist preachers as Congregationalist ministers. The mainline churches had high fixed costs. Their clergy were educated in expensive seminaries and they expected job security: what self-respecting Harvard man would forsake the drawing rooms of New England for the shotgun shacks of the frontier? Inevitably, more attention went into holding on to their existing markets through gentlemen’s agreements and what were in effect restrictive practices.40
By 1850 the Methodists were by far the biggest religious group in the country, with more than a third of the country’s church members (up from just three percent in 1776).41 But thereafter they began to suffer from many of the problems that plagued the mainline churches. They created a professional clergy–trained in formal seminaries, rather than in on-the-job-apprenticeship, and increasingly concerned with impressing polite society. These professional priests not only softened many of Methodism’s once-austere rules and rituals, they also shifted their focus from preaching the Word to reforming society and doing good works.
The waning of Methodism created a marketing opportunity for the Baptists, who were even more “bottom-up” than the Methodists.* Local congregations jealously guarded their independence, hiring and firing their own preachers (most contracts only lasted a year), and vigorously resisting the emergence of Baptist seminaries. The result was that they preserved a much more fundamentalist approach to faith—and a much stronger commitment to winning souls. After the Civil War, the Southern Baptists had the added advantage of being the main vehicle for the preservation of the distinctive culture of the shattered South.
Forging Evangelical America
The result of all this religious energy was spectacular. Between the Revolution and the Civil War the proportion of churchgoing Americans rose from 17 percent in 1776 to 34 percent in 185043 andthe number of clergymen rose three times as fast as the population as a whole. The ratio of one minister per 1,500 Americans in colonial times became one per 500.44 By 1830 the American Bible Society was producing over a million copies of the Good Book every year (with an average of twenty-seven new editions), and the American Tract Society was producing over six million tracts,45 There were some 605 distinct religious journals.
This period is best known for the Second Great Awakening—an awakening that started in New England but also spread to the frontier, where week-long revival meetings had Americans weeping and falling to their knees in prayer. It saw the birth of the black church as well as an explosion of Methodism and Baptism. The Second Great Awakening was even more powerful than the first, but it was really a symptom of two more fundamental developments.
The first might be described as the forging of Evangelical America. Jefferson had predicted that the future lay with liberal Unitarianism—”I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian,” he once wrote. But in fact the religious market that he did so much to establish hugely favored the “hot” form of religion that he despised. By 1860 Evangelicals of one sort or another made up at least 85 percent of America’s churchgoing population.
The other development was the “Americanization” of religion. The Puritans had brought over a European theology shaped by the Protestant Reformation. The Evangelicals created an American theology shaped by the exigencies of revolutionary and postrevolutionary America–particularly by the rejection of hierarchy and tradition. Out went the Calvinist emphasis on the spiritual elect and predestination; in came the preoccupation with being born again. Out went the idea that salvation needed to be mediated through social institutions—the church, the family, the covenant; in came the idea that all you needed was a Bible and your own conscience. Out went the traditional clergy; in came a troupe of charismatic leaders who had a gift for preaching. “Crazy” Lorenzo Dow 0777-1834) would never have survived in Trollope’s Barchester, with his weird hair, harsh voice and disheveled clothes, but he was such a charismatic preacher that his autobiography became the country’s best-selling book after the Bible, and “Lorenzo” was one of the most popular names in the 1850 census.
By 1850 American Evangelicals were in effect on their own: far more emotional than the dour Calvinists of Scotland and Northern Ireland, far more committed to the Bible and the experience of conversion—or being born again—than Swiss and Danish Protestants, far less impressed by ecclesiastical tradition than the Anglicans in England or Canada, and much more democratic than Protestants or, of course, Catholics just about anywhere.46 America’s brand of Evangelicalism was as different from the religion of the Protestant Reformation as the religion of the Protestant Reformation was from medieval Catholicism…?
The more distinctive American religion became, the more successful it grew. “In no other part of the world,” boasted Robert Baird, “do the inhabitants attend church in larger proportion than in the United States; certainly no part of the Continent of Europe can compare with them in that respect.”48 Philip Schaff, a Swiss theologian, stated in 1854 that “there are in America probably more awakened souls, and more individual effort and self-sacrifice for religious purposes, proportionately, than in any other country, Scotland alone perhaps excepted.”
Both these two trends—the emergence of Evangelical America and the Americanization of religion—took place during a time of rapid change. Two and a half million Americans in 1776 became twenty-three million in 1850. It also took place despite or because of the movement of millions of people into the dark corners of the land. In 1790 three-quarters of Americans lived in the thirteen former colonies; by 1850 only half of a much larger population did. The similarities between Dow’s America and Wang’s China are hard to ignore.
The Glue of a New Nation
The Methodists and Baptists were the shock troops of what almost amounted to a second American revolution, one that was much more raw and populist than the gentlemanly revolution of 1776. The churches were the first effective national institutions in a country where the federal
government was little more than a “midget institution in a giant land.” Itinerant preachers saw more of America than anybody else: Asbury put in fifty visits to New York and eighty-four to Virginia.50 “The ties which had held each denomination together,” observed John Calhoun, a leading Southern politician, “formed a strong chord to hold the whole union together.”51 By 1850, the Evangelical churches, taken together, employed twice as many people as the post office, then the most important instrument of the federal governments’ They even delivered more letters.
Evangelicals were compulsive institution builders. They formed societies of every kind—the American Bible Society, the American Sunday School Union, the American Temperance Society and so on. Indeed, there were so many societies with so many intricate connections that people talked of “the Evangelical United Front.” And this front did have an effect: illegitimacy, drunkenness and various other unfortunate conditions declined under the relentless criticism of the Evangelicals. The front also provided a counterweight to the disorientating social mobility—the America where, as Tocqueville pointed out, there were “no traditions, or common habits, to forge links between their minds.” The more people were uprooted from the moorings of family and community, the more they turned to religion to give their lives an anchor. New communities formed around churches and voluntary societies. And new immigrants discovered an enthusiasm for God that they had not felt back home.
The Evangelicals even provided an inspiration for America’s emerging political system. Political campaigns borrowed liberally from revivalist meetings, with their torchlight parades, pitched tents, and emotional hullabaloo. Evangelicals formed the backbone of the Whig Party (which gave birth to the Republican Party). They also provided the nucleus for the country’s first political convention. The Anti-Masonic Party, which held the first presidential nominating convention in 1831, was both an Evangelical reform movement and a political party.53
A Faith That Spoke American
American religion also adapted itself to the governing assumptions of the new nation: assumptions that were—for the most part—republican, democratic, individualistic, optimistic. (We say “for the most part” because the South is always an exception to such cultural generalizations.) In Europe, Christianity was a creature of the old establishment; in America, it was a child of the revolution.
The idea of the free individual was at the heart of American Evangelicalism. The link between “freedom” and “religion” preceded the revolution. The rebels hung effigies of George III and his ministers on “liberty trees” alongside effigies of the Antichrist and the Pope. But it became far more pronounced as the years wore on. “In France, I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions,” Tocqueville noted. “But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country.”54 By embracing the notion that conversion was a matter of individual choice for everybody, Americans also embraced the idea of equal opportunity. All a man needed was a clean heart and a good Bible—”a book dropped from the skies for all sorts of men to use in their own way.”55
Evangelicals swept away the age-old distinction between the clergy and the laity. “I see no gospel law that authorizes any man, or set of men, to forbid, or put up bars to hinder or stop any man from preaching the gospel,” Lorenzo Dow once wrote.56 In the first quarter of the nineteenth century virtually every restriction to ordination was swept aside. The archetypal form of American religion—the Methodists’ revival meeting—was religious democracy at its rawest. Revivalists pitched huge tents outside towns, conducted mass rallies and torchlight processions, employed gospel singers, and sent their audiences into paroxysms of emotion. Asbury estimated that revival meetings brought together three million to four million Americans every year—a third of the total population. He called camp meetings “the battle axe and weapon of war” that could “break down walls of wickedness” and “part of hell.”
Nineteenth century America did not see the open warfare between religion and the forces of progress that was common in Europe. The educated classes read Hegel and Darwin—but those thinkers did not strike the same chords. Indeed, many American Protestants thought that natural science would provide irrefutable proof of the existence of God. Benjamin Rush, an ardent Evangelical, was the first professor of chemistry in America. Charles Finney was fascinated by the possibility of applying
practical science, particularly advanced planning, to the organization of revival meetings. Producing a revival was just as scientific as producing a crop of grain, he argued: both were God’s handiwork but man could discover the principles of success,’ William Miller, a New York farmer, proved, by dint of careful reading of the Bible and elaborate calculations, that the Second Coming would occur in 1843.59 Theologians at Princeton University tried to use reason to prove that every word of the Bible was true. One of the reasons why so many Protestants rejected the advance of Darwinism was precisely because they clung to an older notion of scientific reasoning. As late as 1920, A. C. Dixon, the founder of fundamentalism, explained that he was a Christian “because I am a Thinker, a Rationalist, a Scientist.”
Modernity and Religion
So religion had a very different relationship to reason in America from the one it had in Europe: republicanism, liberalism and Protestantism were combined into a single God-flavored cocktail. It also had a different relationship to liberty.
Consider the different fates of Methodism in England and America. British Methodists faced a choice between religious purity and social respectability. Many of them chose to embrace the establishment even at the cost of losing their earlier fire. American Methodists faced no such choice. They could embrace their faith and social acceptance at the same time, saving them from the agonies of their British counterparts and cementing their support for the American experiment. Indeed, by the time Tocqueville visited the country in the 1830s there was a consensus that religion helped sustain the new republican order: “I do not know if all Americans have faith in their religion—for who can read to the bottom of hearts?—but I am sure that they believe it necessary to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion does not belong only to one class of citizens or to one party, but to the entire nation; one finds it in all ranks.”
The identification of religious fervor with America was certainly not a smooth process. Witness the two great schisms of nineteenth century FAmerica—the Civil War and the growing squabbles between Catholics and Protestants. These disputes simultaneously tore religious America apart and showed how different America had become.
The Civil War split religious America asunder: with slavery being denounced from some pulpits and defended in others, denominations that had done so much to bring the country together split between North and South even before a shot was fired.’ Once the conflict began, two of the most religious armies in the world rode into battle to slaughter each other, each believing God was on their side. Evangelicals showered the soldiers with Bibles. Soldiers sang hymns and attended revivals. The South even invoked “the favor and guidance of Almighty God” in its Constitution. All this religious fervor contributed to the war’s bloodiness—and, for the South, made the experience of defeat all the more dreadful.
The battle between Protestants and Catholics never reached the same bloody intensity as North against South, but it was a bitter war nonetheless. Protestant mobs rioted against Catholics and even burned churches to the ground. James Blaine, the Republican presidential candidate in 1884, denounced the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” But beneath these tensions, something rather intriguing was going on: Catholicism was becoming a very American faith.
Catholicism was arguably the most striking Evangelical success story of the second half of the nineteenth century. In much of Europe, Catholicism was the definitive state religion, relying on tradition and habit rather than on personal conversion. But in America the Catholic Church had to fight for every soul. A church that was in the habit of thinking of itself as an establishment rapidly became yet another religious entrepreneur. And a religion that, in Europe, emphasized tradition began to emphasize individual conversion and personal relations with God.
The American Catholic Church focused on two things—turning nominal Catholic immigrants into the real thing and then deepening their attachment to the church by building a parallel welfare state. Parish priests met new immigrants at the dock, welcoming them with open arms, and followed them westward.61 (Even today Catholics make up 60 percent of churchgoers in San Francisco but only a quarter of the population.62) They abandoned Europe’s formal sermons in favor of soul-stirring performances. They produced their own version of revivalist preachers, such as the Jesuit Francis Weninger, who traveled more than two hundred thousand miles across the country preaching to more than eight hundred Catholic parish missions.
The Catholic Church provided immigrants with a private welfare state offering a mind-boggling range of services: in one working-class parish in Chicago in the 1890s the church sponsored twenty-five societies that dealt with everything from charity to baseball.° But its greatest glory was its education system. The parish grammar schools equipped young Catholics to compete with the best that Protestant America had to offer (and absorbed a huge amount of the church’s wealth and energy). The church also provided immigrants with a decompression chamber, allowing them to adapt to the rigors of the new country while helping them to preserve their ethnic identities. Immigrants couldn’t think of their native food or language without also thinking of their local Catholic church. Being Catholic was not just a matter of attending church. It was a matter of belonging to a church.
A Convenient Creed
Americans of all persuasions, Catholics as well as Protestants, commingled the Puritan sense of being God’s chosen people with a quasi-religious sense of their national identity. America was the first modern country to shift public veneration of the government from veneration of particular kings or princes to veneration of the nation and its principles. And in doing so it endowed the nation-state with a quasi-religious identity.
The United States developed a set of rituals and symbols that bore a striking resemblance to Christianity. The flag was a sacred object with elaborate rules about how it could be handled. The Founding Fathers played the role of patron saints. Americans made pilgrimages to national monuments, they celebrated the Republic with national holidays and they were taught that they were a chosen people—with a God-given duty to export the creed.
This much more aggressive version of American nationalism had in fact been building for a long time. Even bookish old Jonathan Edwards believed that God worked His will through favored nations and empires. In 1783 Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale College, celebrated independence by assuring his congregation that “God has still greater blessings in store for this vine which his own right hand hath planted.” In his inaugural address as president in 1797, John Adams thanked an “overruling Providence which had so signally protected this country from the first.” A generation later, his son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, remarked that “the Declaration of Independence was a leading event in the progress of the gospel dispensation.”64 Throughout the nineteenth century clergymen argued that “the cause of America” had become “the cause of Christ.”
This Christian nationalism had huge consequences. From fairly early on, Americans justified expansion in religious terms. At first, America’s religious leaders focused on the “errand” at home. Missionaries traveled to the “dark corners of the land” to try to convert the Indians and bring frontiersmen back to God. In 1798, the Congregationalists created the Missionary Society of Connecticut to take the Gospel to the “heathen lands” of Vermont and Ohio. The Congregationalists were soon outperformed by more muscular denominations, particularly Methodists and Baptists. Missionaries moved westward with the American population, first to the great Midwest and then to the West Coast. The land rushes and gold rushes were also soul rushes. In Cotton Mather’s phrase, the aim was to turn American geography into “Christianography.”65
The vision of “Manifest Destiny,” which so perfectly summed up the mood of a nation that was expanding over a vast continent and pushing aside Native Americans and Mexicans as it did so, was a more grandiose version of the Puritan vision of America as a latter-day Zion. The man who coined the phrase, John O’Sullivan, the editor of the Democratic Review, captured the mood of exuberant expansionism:
The far-reaching, the boundless future will be an era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High—the Sacred and the True. Its floor shall be a hemisphere–its roof the firmament of the star-studded heavens, and its congregations a Union of many Republics, comprising hundreds of happy
This desire to improve the world soon pushed beyond the North American continent. Walter McDougall argues that religion inspired America’s first attempt to “improve” a foreign society. In 1819, when the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions decided to evangelize the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), it told its young missionaries to rebuild the feudal realm from the ground up. They were to “aim at nothing short of covering those islands with fruitful fields and pleasant dwellings, and schools and churches; of raising up the whole people to an elevated state of Christian civilization … to make them acquainted with letters; to give them the Bible with the skill to read it; to turn them from their barbarous courses and habits; to introduce … among them, the arts and institutions and usages of civilization and society.”67
The links between evangelism, missionary work, diplomacy and imperialism became stronger as the century wore on. Missionaries helped to shape America’s relations with other powers, great and small. Some of America’s earliest treaties with China, Japan, Siam and the Ottoman Empire were designed to give missionaries the right to operate without persecution.” America was willing to use its military might to support its missionary sons. In 1844, for example, the USS independence rescued endangered missionaries in Lebanon. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Manifest Destiny had become a pretty broad one. American Christians felt they were better missionaries than other nations: as Josiah Strong, one of the founders of the Social Gospel movement, argued in 1891, they had all the right qualities for evangelizing the world—”moneymaking power,” a “genius for colonizing” and “persistent energy.”69 They also firmly placed their country at the center of the world—like the Israel of old. “Wherever on pagan shores the voice of the American missionary and teacher is heard,” John Barrows, the leader of the World’s Parliament of Religions, argued in 1898, “there is fulfilled the manifest destiny of the Christian Republic.”‘
It was a short step from this to celebrating what the Reverend Alexander Blackburn called “the imperialism of righteousness.”‘ In 1898 President William McKinley formally annexed Hawaii and fought the Spanish-American War, which brought in Guam, Cuba and the Philippines. He said that America had a religious duty to bring God to the (Catholic) Filipinos. “There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellowmen for whom Christ also died.”‘ American religiosity was too vigorous a force to be kept within the borders of even such a gigantic country.
Moody but Magnificent
The forces that kept religion vital in nineteenth century America can all be seen at work in the career of a man who died in its last year. Dwight Moody built one of the great religious-cum-business empires of the Gilded Age. He started life as a successful shoe salesman in Chicago before turning to God full-time in 1860. He spent years working in Chicago slums. He preached to vast crowds about the “three Rs”- –Ruin by sin, Redemption by Christ and Regeneration by the Holy Spirit- -while his partner, Ira Sankey, set ancient hymns to hummable tunes.
Moody never lost his sense of what America was about. “As he stood on the platform,” the Reverend Lyman Abbott remarked, “he looked like a businessman: he dressed like a businessman; he took the meeting in hand as a businessman would.”‘ He applied the most meticulous business methods to his revival campaigns, preparing the ground for each city visit with an advance staff of a dozen and titillating the audience with carefully targeted advertising. Every moment of his audience’s time was scripted—with ushers holding wands to show them to their places and huge choirs entertaining them between his sermons. He turned to business leaders for financial support—he needed huge tabernacles to be erected wherever he spoke, for example, because churches were too small to house his gigantic crowds. He eventually built a Bible-study empire, including Bible-centered schools and the Moody Bible Institute, which was a combination
of a publishing-cum-broadcasting center and a training school for evangelists. And Moody did not stop at America’s borders: he inspired the creation of the Student Volunteer Movement, which brought hundreds and then thousands of students into the missionary movement under the watchword “the Evangelization of the World in this generation.” By the time Moody died it was estimated that he had spoken to a hundred million people. Moody represented something new. For all the myths about the country’s religious origins America had clearly become a very different country, in matters of faith, by the late nineteenth century. For the most part people like Moody did not exist elsewhere. Nowhere else was religion so bound up with emotion, competition and big business. Europeans no doubt continue to view Moody as an example of American exceptional-ism. But for the rest of the world he was a harbinger of the future.
The American Way II:
Surviving the Acids of Modernity (1880- 20 00)
ROBERT INGERSOLL was the Christopher Hitchens of the Gilded Age—a voluble atheist who crisscrossed the country railing against Christianity. In 1880 he proudly announced that “the churches are dying out all over the land.” To which Charles McCabe, the head of the Methodist Church Extension Society, immediately replied by telegram, -All hail the power of Jesus’ name—we are building more than one Methodist Church for every day of the year, and propose to make it two a day.”1
McCabe was right about the numbers. Churches were making converts to the “power of Jesus’ name” at an astonishing pace. But Ingersoll also had a point. Even if America’s religious free market ensured that it was never as deeply affected by secularization as Europe, it was affected nevertheless. What the great American journalist Walter Lippmann called the “acids of modernity” did their corrosive work in the United States just as they did in Europe. In the twentieth century American religion underwent three setbacks that reduced its ability to resist.
The first setback saw American Protestantism split between liberals (who wanted to compromise with secularism) and fundamentalists (who wanted to resist it). The hegemonic Protestant culture that had done so much to define America was forever split asunder. The second defeat saw Protestantism— particularly fundamentalism—humiliated in its battles with two great demons, drink and Darwin. The hard-core Protestants were marginalized as well as divided from their more liberal colleagues. The third defeat was rather more complicated. After the Second World War, the political establishment embraced “the Judeo-Christian tradition” as a symbol of Americanism. But in the process it threatened to reduce religion to a mere civic bauble—a symbol of respectability that had little power to shake up people’s lives or roil the public realm. That never happened: American religion returned in the final years of the twentieth century, as “hot” and as disruptive as it ever had been.
The Power of Jesus’ Name
James Bryce, one of the intellectual giants of the British Liberal Party, remarked, upon visiting America in the 1880s, that clergymen were America’s “first citizens,” who exerted “an influence more powerful than that of any layman.” These “first citizens” not only presided over a remarkable exercise in church building, they also presided over a moral reformation. One historian has calculated that 85 percent of social reformers of the era had some connection with Evangelical Protestantism.2 Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” at its great 1912 convention.
The reason why America’s Christian soldiers, old and new, kept marching on regardless of the prophets of secularization was one we are already familiar with—they embraced the free market with such enthusiasm. Nineteenth century America remained a petri dish of new religious movements, such as Phoebe Palmer’s “holiness” movement (which taught that every believer should experience a “second blessing” leading to a holy life) and Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science (which melded science, Christianity and health faddism). Millenarians wandered the country preaching that the Second Coming was at hand.
America also remained a breeding ground for charismatic preachers. In 1900 there were 650 full-time evangelists wandering the country and 2,200 part-timers.* For instance, Billy Sunday, a former baseball star, railed against humanism and alcoholism, and sang the praises of virility and muscles. “Lord save us,” he implored, “from off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, sissified, three-carat Christianity.”5 Sunday preached to more than a hundred million people, visited the White House as an honored guest and, in 1918, tied with Andrew Carnegie in a newspaper poll to find the greatest American.6
These charismatic preachers treated new technology as a God-given tool rather than a challenge. Preachers used new railway networks to reach the far-flung corners of the land. They even created special “chapel cars” or “cathedral cars,” with names like Glad Tidings and elaborate interiors that included a pulpit, an altar, an organ and, on occasion, stained-glass windows. In 1922 a Chicago pastor, Paul Rader, created a radio station called WJBT—Where Jesus Blesses Thousands. R. R. Brown sent listeners certificates of membership of his “radio church” in return for donations.’ Father Charles Coughlin, a voluble Detroit priest, who at different times supported FDR, Huey Long and Mussolini, was so popular that, according to legend, his broadcasts blared out of so many windows in ethnic neighborhoods that you could walk a dozen blocks in a big city without missing a word.
There is no better example of the creativity of American religion than Pentecostalism. In 1906 an itinerant black preacher arrived in Los Angeles and began to preach wherever he could. William Seymour had no formal theological training. He was also a forbidding-looking chap—” dishevelled in appearance,” blind in one eye and scarred by smallpox. One woman who heard him pray wrote, “I felt that serpents and other slimy creatures were creeping around me. After he had left the room, a number of the students said they felt he was devil possessed…. In my evangelistic and missionary tours I had met all kinds of religious fakirs and tramps, but I felt he excelled them all.”‘
Yet this strange man, this untutored son of freed slaves, was also on fire with a vision—that Jesus was about to return and that God would send a new Pentecost if only people would pray hard enough. On April 9, 1906, he watched as one of his followers was overcome with the Holy Spirit and started speaking in tongues. Within days he founded a makeshift church in a run-down part of town—the Apostolic Faith Mission in Azusa Street—and soon thousands joined him. Most of his flock were poor and disappointed—domestic workers, itinerant laborers, janitors and no-hopers. “God sent this latter rain to gather up all the poor and outcast, and make us love everybody,” D. W. Myland, one of Pentecostalism’s earliest chroniclers, wrote in 1910. “He poured it out upon the little sons and daughters, and servants and handmaidens. … God is taking the despised things, the base things, and being glorified in them “
Los Angeles was becoming the embodiment of the American dream of progress and prosperity. The city was the most modern bit of the most modern nation on earth—conjured up out of an inhospitable terrain by optimism and technology. But LA also had its dark side. The city was divided between a white overclass and the racial minorities who existed to serve them. It was also full of losers—people who failed to find their dreams, or people who were condemned to a life of thankless toil so that the golden people could frolic in the sun.
Many of these losers were spiritually hungry refugees from the South and the Midwest. They quickly filled the church and responded to Seymour’s sermons. People spoke in tongues, floated six feet in the air, or so we are told, burst into tears, fell to the floor in trances, “slain by the Lord.” The faithful prayed every day for three years, sometimes all night too, and dispatched hundreds of missionaries abroad. They began to refer to Los Angeles as the New Jerusalem.
This new religious movement derived its name from the biblical feast of the Pentecost, which takes place on the fiftieth day after Easter. According to scripture, a mighty wind blew through the house in Jerusalem where the Twelve Apostles were gathered and the Holy Spirit, taking the form of tongues “as of fire,” baptized them with the supernatural ability to spread the Gospel to men “from every nation under heaven.” The curse of Babel was lifted; people from different countries could understand each other; and three thousand souls were saved that very day by the Apostles’ newfound eloquence. Doubters heard only gibberish and mocked that “these men are full of new wine.”
Pentecostals are like Evangelicals in their emphasis on being born again and on spreading the Word. But they differ from Evangelicals, as well as other Christians, in their emphasis on the Holy Spirit. They not. only believe that the Last Days are coming, but that the Spirit can enter ordinary mortals and give them extraordinary powers.
Respectable America had no time for the Azusa Street revival. The Los Angeles Times complained about a “weird Babel of tongues,” a “new sect of fanatics” and “devotees of a weird doctrine” who “work themselves up into a state of mad excitement.” Respectable people were outraged that Seymour encouraged interracial worship, particularly given that the worship involved hugging and ululating. This was, after all, Jim Crow’s America. They were also offended that the dregs of society had the audacity to claim that they had found a door to the New Jerusalem. Mainline churches were predictably hostile, but even fundamentalists condemned Seymour for focusing on the Spirit rather than the Letter. “The last vomit of Satan,” was one preacher’s verdict on the movement.”
But the revival continued to gather strength, throwing up charismatic preachers, establishing churches and sparking off fiery religious revivals. The year after Seymour’s death in 1922, Los Angeles was the scene of yet another great Pentecostal crusade—this time led by a woman rather than a black man, and this time marketed with all the glitz of a Hollywood spectacle.
Like Seymour, Aimee Semple McPherson had no formal religious training. She grew up in a Methodist home, where she preached to her dolls, but seems to have lost her faith as a teenager. Marriage to Robert Semple, a young Pentecostal, changed that: they set out to take God’s word to the heathens of Europe and Asia, but Robert Semple died in Hong Kong in 1910, leaving her with a young daughter. Back in America, another marriage and another child resulted in postnatal depression. By all accounts extremely ill, she heard God’s call and started driving around in her “mission car” from one revival meeting to another, children in tow, Aimee writing sermons in the backseat: she was an immediate hit. In 1923, two years after her second husband filed for divorce citing “abandonment,” she established her own megachurch, the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, and her own denomination, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
The temple was one of the religious wonders of the era: a $1 million mammoth that could seat five thousand worshippers. On either side of the church sat two massive radio antennae—like huge electronic bookends—powerful enough to broadcast Aimee’s words around the world. The nerve center of the complex was a prayer tower where volunteers equipped with telephones prayed in two-hour shifts. The church was topped off with a huge rotating cross that could be seen from fifty miles away.
Aimee was a master self-publicist. She flew around the Los Angeles Basin dropping prayer leaflets on the masses below. She ordered members of her orchestra to wander the streets playing hymns. (One player was the young Anthony Quinn) Charlie Chaplin was an admirer. Her sermons were everything that you could hope for from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Angels and devils did battle. Trumpeters played “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The orchestra and choir worked the crowd into a frenzy while ushers passed around the collection plate. Then a staircase appeared from nowhere and Aimee, bathed in spotlights and cradling a bouquet of roses, descended as if from on high. Aimee held services seven days a week—three times on Sunday—but still people had to be turned away.
Perhaps setting a fashion for subsequent Pentecostal televangelists, Aimee’s career was hardly free of controversy. There was a scandal when she disappeared in 1926. Many of her followers feared her dead, but she appeared out of the desert in Mexico with an elaborate story about how she had been abducted. The fact that a man who could have been her lover had vanished at the same time (and, some claimed, been seen with her) gave the press a field day; and she was charged with obstruction of justice. The charges were dropped—perhaps fairly—on grounds of lack of evidence. Her publicity did not altogether improve when she moved to a huge garish mansion, an hour’s drive from the city. Yet she was soon back on the road again and married again (it didn’t last), her mission re-enforced by the Depression. She eventually died in 1944. The Foursquare Gospel church, which was then run by her son, Rolf, for four decades, still boasts a couple of million members, the vast majority outside the United States.
The Acids of Modernity
Yet for all the raw vitality of religious America, there was no escaping the acids of modernity. Indeed, they had been quietly seeping into American intellectual life throughout much of the late nineteenth century—especially in the universities.
The rise of America’s colleges to global prominence coincided with the secularization of the campuses. In colonial America there had been an explicit link between intellect and religion. The Puritan oligarchy was one of the most highly educated in history. Most of the founding divines had been educated at Oxbridge—thirty-two at Oxford, a hundred at Cambridge. New England pastors were expected to know Hebrew and Greek as well as Latin. Many published learned works: Cotton Mather, for example, churned out an astonishing 458 books and pamphlets. One of the first things the Puritans did was to establish Harvard University. America’s great seats of learning were originally factories for clergymen, very much like their English models. The universities taught Protestant theology and Christian ethics, required students to attend chapel, and had clergymen as presidents (in 1839, 51 out of 54 were men of the cloth). The book most highly regarded by the majority of American academics was the Bible.
All this changed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Academic reformers such as Harvard’s Charles Eliot put forward a radically new model of university life. They not only argued that the purpose of universities was to advance knowledge and understanding rather than to inculcate eternal verities, they argued that the best way to do this was through a market in ideas—with scholars competing to advance knowledge and students picking and choosing from the resulting theories. If religion could flourish in this market of ideas, then bully for religion; but it was to be given no special privileges or protections. Cornell University, which was founded in 1865 as a seminary for technicians, avoided religious connections of any kind. Johns Hopkins University was founded in 1876 as a new sort of creature, a secular research institution. The university invited T. H. Huxley to give a speech during its opening ceremony and eschewed prayers completely. Ten years later, Harvard dropped compulsory chapel.
Thereafter, the priests were driven from the temples. Clergymen were replaced on governing boards by businessmen and bankers. The colleges increasingly measured themselves against purely academic standards. Few professors—particularly in the elite schools—would describe the Bible as the book that they most admired. Some members of the new academic elite were self-conscious enemies of religion. Andrew Dickson White, the first president of Cornell University, published a two-volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). The message was simple and extremely “European”: science was on the side of progress and enlightenment, religion on the side of reaction and superstition, and one was bound to win.
The revolution in the universities both reflected and reinforced a wider revolution among America’s intelligentsia. William Graham Sumner, a prominent Yale professor who had been trained for the ministry but later discovered that his real vocation was for social science, once remarked that he had put his religious beliefs in a drawer one day, and twenty years later he opened the drawer only to find that his beliefs had gone. A striking number of American intellectuals did something similar, sometimes finding their beliefs gone, sometimes finding them mouldering away under the influence of powerful intellectual tides.
One of the most powerful tides was social Darwinism. Sumner merrily applied the doctrine of the survival of the fittest to human society, dismissing Christianity as sentimental tripe and consigning great political principles to the realm of illusion. Man had “no more right to life than a rattlesnake,” he proclaimed, “no more right to liberty than any wild beast.” Sumner felt that man’s “right to the pursuit of happiness, [was] nothing but license to maintain the struggle for existence.” Sumner had legions of followers: so many that social Darwinism became a sort of unofficial creed of the intelligentsia and eugenics the de facto policy of a startling number of states.
Many intellectuals who balked at the harshness of social Darwinism accepted the Enlightenment idea that history was a battle between scientific light and superstitious darkness. John Dewey argued that education should replace religion as the foundation of moral life, and that schools should replace churches as agents of socialization. A few even queried America’s conception of itself as a God-blessed nation. In 1913 the leader of the “progressive” school of historiography, Charles Beard, published a Marxist history of America’s founding document, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, which argued that, far from being a semi-sacred embodiment of natural law, the American Constitution was an expression of economic interests. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Supreme Court judge who had fought in the Civil War, took a similar approach to justice: for him the law was simply the product of social forces—an evolving social experiment that was created by the play of power and self-interest. Thus were the Founders’ lofty certainties about “natural law” dissolved in the acids of social Darwinism and economic reductionism.
At the same time, some of the country’s finest literary figures treated religion as an object of fun. In The Gilded Age 0873) Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner lampooned Senator Dilworthy, a Republican who was rancid with corruption but who nevertheless spent his election campaigns addressing Sunday schools and missionary societies. In 1906, the same year that Seymour started preaching in Los Angeles, Ambrose Bierce, one of America’s finest satirists, published a wonderful guide to bullshit, The Cynic’s Word Book, or, as it was later rechristened, The Devil’s Dictionary. To pray, he said, is “to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.” A Christian is “one who follows the teachings of Christ so long as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.” Religion is “a daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.” For Bierce, as for so many sophisticates of his generation, Christianity was an antiquated superstition. Sinclair Lewis cast Elmer Gantry (1927) as a self-rightous hypocrite. H. L. Mencken (to whom Gantry was dedicated) treated Evangelicals as hypocrites and nincompoops, even suggesting, to the delight of many of his readers, that American cities should build giant stadiums in which clergymen could be turned loose on each other while the public watched.
Divided We Fall
These advances by Ingersoll’s forces of secularism coincided with a succession of setbacks for McCabe’s army of Jesus. The first setback was a sharp division within American Protestantism. America started this period as an overwhelmingly Protestant nation—ruled by a self-confident WASP upper class and defined by a Protestant ethic of hard work and social respectability. “Surely, to be a Christian and an Anglo-Saxon and an American in this generation,” the Reverend Josiah Strong wrote in 1893, “is to stand on the mountaintop of privilege.”‘
But this mountaintop was split asunder by a bitter struggle between traditionalists and reformers, which, in the 1920s, led to open competition for control of the Protestant denominations. The subject of the struggle was nothing less than modernity: How should Protestantism adjust itself to the rise of science? Should it revise faith in the light of reason or should it cling to the fundamentals? And should it use the expanding state to create a better society—or resist state intervention in the name of traditional charity?
Most mainline Protestants took a “progressive” stance. Forget about the earth being created in six days: this was just a poetic way of saying a jolly long time. Many of them also embraced a more activist state. Mainline Protestants were heavily influenced by the Social Gospel movement, which began in the 1880s and directed Christians to do as much as they could to help the poor. They read books such as Archibald McCowan’s Christ the Socialist (1894), in which Jesus stood upon the steps of New York City Hall and denounced corporations as Pharisees, or In His Steps (1896) in which Charles Sheldon asked what life might be like in small-town America if people consistently asked themselves, ” What would Jesus do?” They pored over the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch, who ran a church on the edge of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and preached that Christians should do everything in their power to overcome the “social crisis.” They flicked through If Christ Came to Chicago (1894) and shuddered at the stories of un-Christlike neglect of poverty. They might even have listened sympathetically to Eugene Debs, the head of the American Socialist Party and railway union boss, who constantly invoked the name of “the supreme leader,” Jesus Christ. But their real political home was in the progressive movement. The social gospellers were the progressive movement at prayer.
Most Evangelicals took a much more traditionalist position. They fought to preserve the “fundamentals” of Biblical Christianity. (The term “fundamentalist” came from a series of pamphlets in which Evangelical scholars, led by A. C. Dixon, argued against the modernist attempt to dilute the Bible) They also accused the social gospellers of being unable to tell the difference between the Bible and what Billy Sunday called “godless social-service nonsense.””’ Traditionalists believed in personal responsibility rather than government welfare.
The modernists had the weight of respectable opinion on their side. But the traditionalists tapped into two rich wells. One was the growth of “hot” religions like Pentecostalism that emphasized the role of the supernatural in everyday life. People who were in the grip of these ideas regarded modern scientific thinking not so much as wrong but as irrelevant: they saw God intervening in the world on a daily basis to heal the sick and perform miracles; they also saw history hurtling toward the “Rapture,” a series of dramatic events that included the transport of the faithful to heaven, seven years of wars on earth, the conversion of the Jews to Christianity and Jesus’ victory over the Antichrist in the Battle of Armageddon. The other was southern culture. The South determined to rise again from the humiliation of the Civil War–and the southern religious denominations were crucial parts of southern cultural identity. The fight against “modernism” was bound up with the fight to preserve southern Christian civilization, with its belief in biblical literacy and its enthusiasm for revivals, against northern hegemony.
The traditionalists were also highly innovative in their own idiosyncratic way. They developed the notion of the “inerrancy” of the Bible as a counterblast to the modernists’ insistence on the importance of context. (The notion of papal infallibility dates from the same era.) They also developed an elaborate theory of premillennial dispensationalism. This divided history into seven eras (“dispensations”) and argued that a careful reading of the Bible revealed that man was living at the end of the sixth dispensation. At any moment Jesus would return to inaugurate the Rapture. Cyrus Scofield’s 1909 edition of the Bible for Oxford University Press, which viewed the document entirely through a dispensationalist framework, was a fixture in every fundamentalist household.
So the traditionalists were strong. But they overreached in two dramatic ways.
A Drinking Problem
For a while Carrie Nation was one of the most famous women in America. She was an imposing figure (almost six feet tall and 180 pounds) as well as an angry one (her husband drank himself to death) and she regarded herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like.” She wielded her Bible and her ax with equal enthusiasm as she burst into saloons to “preach, pray and smash.” In the first decade of the twentieth century she was arrested some 30 times—but she wouldn’t let things like the law get in the way of her campaign to produce a “liquor-free, tobacco-empty, sex-abstaining and decadence-rejecting America “
The Prohibition movement was the last great hurrah of the United Evangelical Front. The movement drew progressives and traditionalists, and indeed northerners and southerners, into a great dry coalition. Protestant America saw all sorts of evils lurking in the bottom of a glass—not just drunkenness and loss of self-control, terrible though they were, not just loose women and debauchery, but also the new America that they feared, an America of polyglot immigrants and unassimilated Catholic crowds. “This battle is not a rose-water conflict,” roared the Anti-Saloon League Yearbook, “it is war–continued, relentless war.”‘
The drys won the early battles, introducing some form of Prohibition in twenty-six states in 1906-17 and then getting the Eighteenth Amendment ratified in 1919. But they ended up losing the war, much as their latter-day descendants are losing the war against drugs. Speakeasies sprang up everywhere, from inner cities to politicians’ mansions. Gangsters and Kennedys made fortunes out of illicit drink. The police were forced to waste their time trying to prosecute people for doing what people had done throughout history. Congress eventually repealed Prohibition in 1933—and Protestant America suffered a long-standing rebuff to its reputation for sense and moderation.
The second exercise in overreach was equally disastrous. The fundamentalists had long railed against Darwinism, for undermining the dignity of man, for robbing the universe of its purpose and design, for contradicting the Good Book, and for acting as a Trojan horse for godless socialism. They would rather trust the rock of ages than the age of rocks, they argued. Their railing became ever more strident as the Darwinists became more and more self-confident and, indeed, more and more arrogant, producing the pseudoscience of eugenics and the pseudotheory of social Darwinism.
The Evangelicals constructed a battering ram of organizations to advance their cause, such as the Research Science Bureau (1920), the Anti-Evolution League of America (1924) and the Defenders of the Christian Faith (1925). They also turned to the law, with clutch of heartland states passing laws banning the teaching of evolution. Progressive forces, led by the newly formed American Civil Liberties Union, massed to challenge the most extreme of these laws, Tennessee’s Butler Act. The pretext was provided by a young schoolteacher, John Scopes, who deliberately incriminated himself by teaching evolution in the small town of Dayton.
The result was the Scopes “Monkey” trial, a Jazz Age version of the 0. J. Simpson trial. The Evangelicals enlisted William Jennings Bryan, a former presidential candidate and cabinet member who was affectionately known as “the great commoner,” to make their case. The defense enlisted a polished trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow. The Baltimore Sun sent five journalists, headed by the greatest newspaperman of the era, H. L. Mencken. The judge allowed radio lines to be brought into the courtroom, bent over backward to accommodate photographers and, when the court got too crowded, moved the events outside. A bizarre crowd of preachers and peddlers, local worthies and wild-eyed misfits marched up and down in the street outside, adding to the carnival atmosphere.
The result was a public relations disaster for Evangelical America. The Evangelicals scored a legal victory: the judge decreed that the Tennessee legislature had the right to decide what was taught in its schools, and anti-evolutionary ordinances stood across the country until the 1960s. But the victory was Pyrrhic. The fundamentalists were branded as numbskulls and know-nothings. People across the country chuckled at Mencken’s descriptions of “the boobs” of Tennessee. They chuckle still. The “monkey trial” became a global example of backwardness and bigotry. Inherit the Wind, a 1950s play that lambastes Evangelicalism and McCarthyism in one fell swoop (and was made into a film in 1960), has been rerun ever since.
The Evangelicals responded to their humiliation by withdrawing into a private cave of their own making. Until Scopes, they had harbored dreams of conquering the wider culture. Now they detached themselves from public affairs, retreated into their own subculture and laboriously created a network of inward-looking Evangelical institutions—Christian schools and Bible institutes, Evangelical colleges, Evangelical support groups. The great imperative was self-preservation rather than cultural conquest.
Garry Wills has also identified a more subtle consequence of the Scopes overreach: the marginalization of progressive Evangelicalism. In the long term the biggest losers from the public relations catastrophe were not conservative Evangelicals, who were to reemerge after the war even stronger after their period of self-imposed isolation, but liberal Evangelicals. It is easy to forget that William Jennings Bryan was a liberal, not a conservative: a two-time Democratic presidential candidate who stood for the little guy—particularly western farmers—against the money power of the East Coast. The Scopes trial drove a wedge into progressive Evangelicalism. It created identification in the public mind between liberalism and secularism, and it drove Bible-believing Christians into the arms of people who were both culturally and economically conservative.
The Age of Equipoise
The next threat to American religion, which did not gather till the 1940s, was far subtler: a threat born of success rather than failure. This was that religion would degenerate into mere observance—its power diluted, reduced to a bland celebration of “Americanness.”
The Second World War hugely reinforced American religiosity. One of the most widely quoted remarks of the era was, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” And one of the most widely repeated stories was the story of how the Reverend Howell Maurice Forgy, a naval captain, told his tired troops, during Pearl Harbor, to “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” an exhortation that was later expanded and set to music. God and Jesus were rooting for the good guys against the axis of evil.
The government did not have any ACLU-style worries about turning religion into a morale booster. Thousands of army chaplains distributed prayer books and Bibles. The U.S. Printing Office worked around the clock to produce religious publications. The government distributed small statues of Jesus and Mary. Crosses, crucifixes and Stars of David were standard army issue to anyone who wanted them. Six hundred interfaith chapels were built at military posts.
The religious revival continued after the war. Postwar polls revealed that Americans were significantly more religious than people in other industrial countries—nineteen out of twenty Americans believed in God, nine out of ten prayed, six out of seven regarded the Bible as the Word of God, and three out of four believed in life after death. Church membership rose from 49 percent of the population in 1940 to 55 percent in 1950 to 69 percent in 1959. Church construction became the fourth-largest building activity in the private sector. Religion saturated the popular culture. Books such as Fulton Oursler’s The Greatest Story Ever Told and Norman Vincent Peale’s A Guide to Confident Living reached the best-seller lists. Popular music hits included “I Believe,” “It’s No Secret What God Can Do” and “The Man Upstairs.”” Hollywood celebrities dropped the Lord’s name into their conversation, with the bodacious Jane Russell calling God a “livin’
At the same time, religion regained some of the intellectual prestige that it had lost in the Jazz Age. Religious books such as Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain sold remarkably well. Sophisticates turned to Soren Kierkegaard, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and Simone Weil. “There is evidence,” Niebuhr mused, “that in the world of culture, there is at least receptivity toward the message of the historic faiths which is in marked contrast to the indifference or hostility of past decades.” Departments of religious study even began to spring up in academia. Will Herberg noted in 1955 that the old-time “village atheist” was a thing of the past, a folk curiosity like the town crier.” Most Americans simply could not understand what it meant to be “against religion.” “The avant-garde is becoming old-fashioned,” quipped Herberg; “religion is now the latest thing.”
Politicians reinforced the link between religion and patriotism. In the Cold War religion was “the shield of the nation,” America’s “secret weapon,” a force “more powerful than the H-bomb.” And Soviet communism was, of course, “a great sinister anti-Christian movement masterminded by Satan.” George Docherty, a pastor who was popular in Congress, preached that “an atheist American is a contradiction in terms.” Dwight Eisenhower turned himself into a spiritual as well as a political leader, declaring himself “the most intensely religious man I know.” He publicly embraced religion before his inauguration, also making up for his parents’ oversight by getting himself baptized, and began his inaugural speech with a prayer. After listening to a sermon by Docherty, he worked with Congress to ensure that the words “under God” were added to the pledge of allegiance. “Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first, the most basic, expression of Americanism,” he declared in a speech launching the American Legion’s “Back to God” campaign in 1955. “Without God, there could be no American form of government, nor an American way of life.” The Supreme Court lent its weight to the general fervor: in one case about religious instruction William Douglas, writing on behalf of the majority, argued that “we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”
This period also saw a remarkable step forward in religious toleration. The flames of anti-Catholicism still burned in the immediate aftermath of the war. Paul Blanshard’s polemic American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949), which argued that “neither Rome nor Moscow knows what tolerance means,” remained on the best-seller list for six months; in 1951 Harry Truman was forced to abandon his attempt to appoint an ambassador to the Vatican. But the Pope seemed an ever less convincing target. After all, Catholics had proved their patriotism in the Second World War, and proved it again in the Cold War, sometimes going a little over the top, as with the McCarthy crusades. (Daniel Patrick Moynihan quipped that during the Cold War Fordham men checked the anti-Communist and patriotic credentials of Harvard men.) Catholics also moved into the American mainstream. The new universities turned “shanty Irish” into “lace-curtain Irish.” Meanwhile, the local Catholic church became more determinedly American, adopting American views on both the separation of church and state and religious pluralism.
The growing prominence of American Jews also encouraged tolerance. The Jewish population was growing at a healthy clip, from 50,000 in 1850 to about 5.5 million in the mid-1950s, or 3.2 percent of the population. Jews were producing spectacular intellectual successes, with the arrival of distinguished refugees and the success of the children of immigrants, and the Holocaust discredited the casual anti-Semitism that had been rife in American society. The publication of Herberg’s Protestant-Catholic-Jew in 1955 marked the culmination of a broad trend: what Richard Fox, an academic at the University of Southern California, has called “pluralizing the symbolic sacred core of America.”35 Herberg summed up his thesis in a single sentence that elided his own view of the country into the view of the majority of Americans: “America today may be conceived, as it is indeed conceived by most Americans, as one great community divided into three big sub-communities religiously defined, all equally American in their identification with the ‘American Way of Life.” America was a “community of religious communities,” a “triple melting pot” into which various populations were poured before emerging not as Protestants, Catholics and Jews but as Protestant Americans, Catholic Americans and Jewish Americans, which was something else entirely.
There was something a little odd about this idea of equal status: Jews were a tiny proportion of the population, compared with Catholics or Protestants. But the contrast with earlier views of America as a basically Protestant nation is clear. Catholics and Jews were now fully eligible for membership in the religious club at the heart of America’s national identity. They just had to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the existing members of the club that their primary loyalties were not to Rome or to Israel but to the United States. The Judeo-Christian nation was born.
Yet the identification of religiosity and Americanism carried dangers—not least the draining of religion of any of its distinctively religious content. Eisenhower embodied the danger perfectly (if unwittingly) when he urged people to practice their faith and then added, “And I don’t care what it is.” It is one thing to tolerate doctrinal differences and another to be indifferent to them.
Religion was not only reduced to a symbol of patriotism, it was reduced to a vehicle of upward mobility—a cheap ticket to the American dream machine. All you needed to do was believe in yourself and success would be yours. Norman Vincent Peale, a prominent minister at the Marble Collegiate Reformed Church on New York’s Fifth Avenue, preached self-help with a thin religious veneer. His Power of Positive Thinking (1952) was not only an instant best-seller, it was also often blind to the real meaning of religion. Self-confidence and faith can work wonders, the book argued, particularly when it comes to getting on in life: self-doubt and defeatism are the road to ruin. Religion was reduced to a mere badge of commitment to the American creed of individualism, egalitarianism and upward mobility. Martin Marty, a prominent religious historian, has described it as “faith in faith itself.””
America could hardly be called a secular country during this period. Religion prospered in a wide variety of forms—from suburban piety to Peale’s self-help. Politicians bent the knee to the Lord. America was not Europe, but religion was nevertheless in danger of what might be termed secularization from within. It was in danger not so much of marginalization as blandification—of religion becoming so all-embracing that it was almost a synonym for “Americanism.” That changed dramatically in the next few decades.
The End of Equipoise
The apogee of Eisenhower’s age of equipoise came with John F. Kennedy’s speech to a convention of Evangelical preachers in Houston in September 1960. Kennedy told them that his Roman Catholicism was a strictly private affair: he would not allow the pope to tell him what to do in his public life (or, indeed, in his private life, cynics added). The issue, as far as Kennedy was concerned, was not what sort of church he believed in but what sort of America he believed in—and that was one where the separation of church and state was “absolute,” where there was no state funding for church schools, where there was no discrimination for or against any particular church. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he told the ministers, “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters and the church does not speak for me.” This was the high point of bland civic religion. Americans all warmed themselves around the hearth of “faith,” even as they agreed to keep their theological positions to themselves.
But the next forty years saw the emergence of a very different religion—far less tame and far less unifying. By 2000, the country was split just as dramatically over religion as it had been in 1900-but this time the split was not between different denominations (Protestants for the Republican Party and Catholics for the Democrats) but between people who were hot for religion, whether they were Protestants, Catholics and Jews, and people who were cooler, whether they were atheists, modernists or infrequent church attendees. How did this happen?
The first blow to Eisenhower’s religious settlement came from the left. The two great protest movements of the 1960s—the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement—both reinserted religious passions into politics. The anti—Vietnam War movement included large numbers of prominent religious figures such as Dorothy Day and William Sloane Coffin. (Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak, who went on to become leading theoconservatives, also cut their teeth in the movement.) A poll in 1968 found that 85 percent of Lutheran clergy felt that the church should support antiwar protests.
If religious people contributed to the antiwar movement, they were the soul of the civil rights movement. Its leadership was almost entirely composed of clergymen, many of them with highly traditional theological views: Martin Luther King (who was not christened Martin Luther by accident) was the son, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist preachers. Many of the activists were also religious, including some white mainstream Protestants who for once allowed themselves to be swept up by religious passion. More than five thousand church people were arrested in demonstrations leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in t964. Indeed, as Brink Lindsey has pointed out, civil rights marches were “redolent of religious ritual,” with their beatings and jailings, water-cannon dousings and teargasings, sanctified protesters and evil billy-clubwielding police officers. “Like a holy crusade,” was the verdict of John Lewis, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, on the movement.
The second blow to Eisenhower’s religious settlement came from legal secularists. If the religious wars of the early twentieth century were ignited by the overreach of America’s Evangelicals over alcohol and evolution, the religious wars of the second half were ignited by the overreach of those bent on driving religion to the margins of American society. The most important overreacher was the Supreme Court. The Court issued two rulings in the early 1960s (Engel v. Vitale in 1962 and School District of Abington Township v. Schempp in 1963) that banned official prayers and Bible readings from public schools on First Amendment grounds. These decisions shocked even modernists such as Niebuhr, who complained that Engel “practically suppresses all religion, especially in the public school.” They infuriated Evangelicals who thought that prayers and scripture were the foundation stones of all real education. Billy Graham called the rulings part of a “diabolical scheme” that was “taking God and moral teaching from the schools.” “They say God is dead,” Ronald Reagan quipped during his campaign for the governorship of California. “Well, He isn’t. We just can’t talk about Him in the schoolroom.”
The Court’s decision on school prayer was made all the more unholy to religious Americans by the fact that it was soon followed by a permissive decision on pornography. The very people who had tried to ban the Lord’s Prayer from schools were making it easier to get your hands on dirty books! But the thing that drove religious Americans over the edge—that transformed a collection of angry individuals into an organized army—was a 1973 decision that legalized abortion throughout the country. Roe v. Wade not only left social conservatives feeling disenfranchised. (Even Ruth Bader Ginsburg, no friend of the right, argued, in her nomination hearings for her position on the Supreme Court, that it would have been better, for the social health of the nation, to allow the state legislatures to decide the subject.) It left them determined to capture the Supreme Court from the legal secularists.
And it was not just the Supreme Court that was driving religious America mad. They were infuriated too by the Democrats, the new class of leftish bureaucrats and the academics. (In 1972, thirty-four of thirty-eight Harvard Law School professors voted for George McGovern, a left-wing Democrat, a proportion not entirely in line with the feelings of the wider electorate, who gave Nixon a landslide victory.) Cultural luminaries not only defined “deviancy down”—in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase—but also mocked Leave It to Beaver America. And what did they have to be so snooty about? By the end of the 1960s, the ask-not optimism of the start of the decade had curdled into doubt, pessimism and violence. The inner cities exploded in fiery rebellion. The campuses were torn apart by protests. “Five serious crimes every minute,” U.S. News and World Report noted in a typical article on August 8, 1965. “A murder every hour . . a rape every 23 minutes . a burglary every 27 seconds . . . a car stolen every minute.” The rate of teenage pregnancies and illegitimate births soared.
Michael Novak, a Catholic intellectual who began his political career as a left-wing activist before moving steadily rightward, tells two anecdotes that highlight the growing tension between blue-collar America and the liberal elite. The first concerns a New York judge called Bruce who was so soft on crime that he earned the sobriquet “let ’em loose Bruce.” Bruce was eventually mugged himself Festooned in bandages, he told a meeting on crime about his pain and humiliation, but insisted that he would not allow the experience to change his views. The ensuing silence was broken by a voice from the crowd: “Mug him again.” Novak’s other anecdote concerns the 1972 McGovern campaign, in which he worked for the Democrat’s vice presidential candidate, Sargent Shriver. Novak kept hearing that Shriver was doing badly with Pennsylvania steelworkers, a bedrock constituency. But why? He discovered the answer in the party’s advance person in the area—”a young woman wearing a miniskirt, high white boots and a see-though blouse with a large pro-abortion button on her collar”
This liberal overreach coincided with a resurgence of Evangelical America. The person most identified with this was Billy Graham. Graham presided over an internal revolution—encouraging conservative scholars to muster more sophisticated arguments and founding first-class publications such as Christianity Today. He also became the public face of Evangelical religion for millions of Americans who had never visited the Bible Belt.
There was no doubt where Graham’s sympathies lay. In 1949 he stated that “communism is inspired, directed and motivated by the Devil himself. America is at the crossroads. Will we turn to the left-wingers and atheists, or will we turn to the right and embrace the cross?” But he was also elegant and stylish—a man who dressed well and charmed Middle America with his smooth cadences and southern manner. He became a close spiritual adviser to every president from Eisenhower onward. His favorite Old Testament character was Daniel, a prophet who relished politics and politicians.
In the 1950s other Evangelicals followed Graham’s example. They dropped the harder edges of their faith and began to venture into “enemy territory.” Bill Bright and Stacey Woods brought evangelism to America’s universities with, respectively, the Campus Crusade for Christ and the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. They created national organizations such as the International Council of Christian Churches to act as counterweights to national mainline organizations.
This resurgence was driven by success. In 1940-60 the Southern Baptist Convention doubled its membership to ten million. But as the 1960s revolution gathered pace, conservative denominations continued to grow while the mainline denominations headed downward. In 1965 the Southern Baptists and the Methodists both claimed around 10 million souls; by 1985, the Southern Baptists had jumped to 14.5 million, while the number of Methodists had shrunk to 9 million. The largest Pentecostal church, the Assemblies of God, quadrupled to 2 million in 1985. And the Pentecostals’ charismatic style was being copied by both Protestants and Catholics.
The next generation of prominent Evangelicals were more divisive figures than Graham. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were born on the opposite sides of the tracks. Falwell was the son of a drunk who killed his own brother in a gunfight, and his higher education was limited to a humble Bible college. Robertson was the son of a U.S. senator (for Virginia) who studied law at Yale and joined the Marines. But they both demonstrated Evangelical America’s talent for institution-building.
Robertson bought a ramshackle UHF station in Norfolk, Virginia, for a few thousand dollars and turned it into the giant Christian Broadcasting Network. By 1985, CBN enjoyed an annual budget of $230 million and broadcast on two hundred TV stations. Falwell began his ministry in 1956 in an unused soda-bottling plant in Lynchburg, Virginia, with just a handful of congregants. When he died in 2007, he bequeathed to his children a sprawling religious empire–a church with twenty-five thousand members, a house for alcoholics, a summer camp for children, and Liberty University. He may have preached the good old-time religion—insisting on the literal truth of the Bible and fulminating against smoking, drinking and short dresses—but he was also an enthusiastic user of the fruits of modernity. His “Sounds of Liberty” choir featured good-looking young women with Charlie’s Angels haircuts.
Falwell and Robertson rediscovered Aimee McPherson’s media savvy. They realized that radio and television stations were megaphones for Evangelical America to reach beyond the Bible Belt into greater America. The broadcasting establishment had been in the habit of handing free airtime to the mainstream churches while leaving Evangelicals to fend for themselves in the free market. This stood them in good stead when the Federal Communications Commission decreed an end to free handouts and technological innovation created new market niches. Other televangelists included Jim Bakker (whose empire also included a Christian amusement park and a luxury hotel) and Jimmy Swaggart (who perfected the art of weeping on air). By the end of the 1970s there were thirty religious TV stations and more than a thousand religious radio stations. “We have a better product than soap or automobiles,” Bakker claimed. “We have eternal life.”
Evangelical culture was out of its cave. “Evangelical Christianity has finally emerged from its anticultural ghetto into the mainstream of American life,” Richard Quebedeaux argued in The Worldly Evangelicals in 1973. “It is now a force to be reckoned with. Evangelicals produced their own blockbusters, their own pop songs, their own cultural forms, their own version of Bible-infused modernity. They even produced their own sex guides, thanks to Tim and Beverly LaHaye. Miss America contestants and professional athletes, country-and-western singers and film stars, sex therapists and management writers, B-list celebrities and even academics—all started popping up and proclaiming that they had been born again. The loosening of the Bible Belt’s buckles changed American politics too.
Behold, The Jesus Machine
Evangelicals had a long tradition of disdain for politics. Falwell condemned Martin Luther King’s involvement in the civil rights movement on the grounds that “preachers are not called to be politicians but soul-winners.” Robertson refused to campaign for his father because “active partisan politics is the wrong path for true Evangelicals.” And insofar as they had any political allegiances, those were to the socially conservative southern wing of the Democratic Party.
The early relations between religious activists and political conservatives were tentative—clumsy gropings followed by frustration. Many religious Americans rallied to Barry Goldwater and even more to Richard Nixon, who captured 80 percent of the Evangelical vote in 1972. But Goldwater was a libertarian with little sympathy for social conservatism, and religious conservatives felt betrayed by Nixon’s foulmouthed Machiavellianism. (Billy Graham confessed to vomiting when he read transcripts of the Nixon tapes.) As for Gerald Ford, he seemed like a nice enough chap–a regular American if ever there was one—but he treated the born-agains as if they were creatures from another planet, and he was married to a woman who winked at premarital sex (it reduced the divorce rate), likened marijuana smoking to drinking “your first beer,” and praised Roe v. Wade for taking abortion “out of the backwoods” and putting it “in the hospitals where it belongs.”
All this changed in 1976 when a proudly born-again Christian ran for the presidency. Jimmy Carter was a Democrat, but he was a southern Democrat—and rather than seeing his religion as a purely private affair, like Kennedy, Carter wore it like a badge of honor. The first Evangelical to run for the White House since William Jennings Bryan, Carter was a Southern Baptist who had memorized his first Bible verse (“God is love”) at four, who had accepted Jesus as his savior at eleven, who had done missionary work “up north” in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and whose sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, was a well-known faith healer (his brother, Billy, was a different matter). Carter persuaded millions of Evangelicals who had hitherto been leery of politics to vote for him, including Robertson, who boasted that he had done everything short of violating FCC regulations to get him elected.
Alas, like many whirlwind romances, things soured on the honeymoon. Why would a born-again Evangelical give an interview to Playboy, as Carter did, famously confessing that he had committed adultery in his heart? And why would he climb into bed with pro-choice feminists? Carter’s support among Evangelicals began to dissolve before the election, and fomented into furious hostility over the next four years. The biggest grievance was the IRS’s decision to deny thousands of religious schools tax-exempt status, on the grounds that they were de facto racist institutions. Evangelicals departed en masse to the Republican Party.
Horrified by Carter, Falwell organized a series of “I love America” rallies in state capitols, and introduced a new ritual in his church services, asking the entire congregation to stand when the service was over and then telling the registered voters to sit down. The nonregistered voters had to continue to stand while he delivered a long soliloquy on the importance of voting.50 “If you would like to know where I am politically,” he said, “I am to the right of wherever you are. I thought Goldwater was too liberal.”” James Dobson founded Focus on the Family in 1977. Beverly LaHaye formed Concerned Women of America, which agitated against abortion, no-fault divorce and the Equal Rights Amendment. CWA soon had a membership of five hundred thousand, significantly more than the left-leaning National Organization of Women.
All that was missing was a way to bring these disparate conservative groups into a coherent movement. This came in the shape of the Moral Majority, set up in the late 1970s by Falwell with three social conservatives from Washington, Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips. The new organization, which Falwell described as “pro-life, pro-family, pro-morality and pro-American,” quickly set about meshing Evangelical organizations with the wider conservative movement. By 1981 its Moral Majority Report was circulated to 840,000 houses and its daily commentary appeared on 300 radio stations.
The rise of the religious right bound Evangelical Protestants to “conservatives of the heart” from other religious traditions that they had previously disdained. A generation before, Nelson Bell, Billy Graham’s father-in-law and the executive editor of Christianity Today, had dismissed the Catholic Church as “a political system that like an octopus covers the entire world and threatens those basic freedoms and those constitutional rights for which our forefathers died in generations past.” Evangelicals were initially reluctant to get involved in the right-to-life movement, because they regarded it as a “Catholic affair.” (The Southern Baptist Convention even passed a resolution supporting certain sorts of legalized abortion in 1974.) But the Moral Majority changed this. Viguerie was a Catholic, Phillips a Jew and Weyrich a Catholic Mennonite. In the budding culture wars the enemy of my enemy was my friend.
As for the Republicans, the GOP moved somewhat closer to becoming God’s Own Party. Ronald Reagan told an adoring crowd of Evangelicals in Dallas in 1980, “I know you can’t endorse me but I want you to know that I endorse you.” At the close of his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention he asked his audience to “begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer.”” His successor, the preppie George Bush, Sr., also posed as a born-again Evangelical. In office neither man remotely delivered on his promises. In 1981 Reagan refused to throw his weight behind the Human Life Statute and the Family Protection Act, both of which would have outlawed abortion. But “values voters” relentlessly increased their influence in the party. White Evangelicals had split their vote almost evenly between Carter and Ford in 1976. Four years later they broke two to one for Reagan. On the morning after Reagan’s election, Falwell marched into a rally at Liberty University to the tune of “Hail to the Chief,” which is usually reserved for the president.
From being merely vocal supporters, Evangelicals became players and organizers. In 1988 Robertson mounted a spirited run for the Republican nomination, beating George Bush, Sr., in the Iowa caucuses (and helping to persuade Bush to appoint a leading social conservative, Dan Quayle, as his running mate). The defeated Robertson then teamed up with Ralph Reed, a rising Republican operative, to form the Christian Coalition. Reed, a born-again Christian who had turned to God after a hard-drinking youth, wanted to build a mass religious-cum-political movement from the ground up. The religious right should focus on local races for parent-teacher associations and schools, rather than the big political prizes, he argued. Three years after its foundation in 1989, the Christian Coalition had 350,000 members, an annual budget in excess of S10 million and a vast network of state and local affiliates. Twenty-two percent of the delegates attending the 1992 Republican convention identified themselves as fundamentalists and 52 percent as either members of the “Christian right or sympathizers (though arguably Reed’s greatest success came in 2008, when a Christian activist who had gone into politics through the PTA was nominated as vice president).
Sand in the Gears
Life on the Christian right was never easy. Evangelical religion and radical politics are volatile enough forces in themselves without being mixed together. The history of the Christian right is a history of fissure and fallout. Combinations that seem to work magnificently fall apart; people who seem to be committed to political activism retreat into their caves; organizations that bestride the political landscape implode.
The religious right was unusually susceptible to scandal. Everybody likes to read about a preacher–or a preachy politician–who is caught with his trousers down or his hand in the till. In 1987 Jim Bakker was caught committing adultery with his church secretary and embezzling millions of dollars of church money, while Jimmy Swaggart was spotted with a roadside prostitute. The Republican Class of ’94, which surfed to power on a wave of worry about “family values,” was stuffed full of miscreants. Newt Gingrich was having an affair with a former member of his staff during the Clinton impeachment. The GOP’s first choice to replace him as speaker, Bob Livingston, withdrew his name when he too was exposed as an adulterer.
A second problem was organizational decay. All pressure groups are difficult to sustain—they start with a burst of energy before being transformed from agencies of righteousness into administrative chores—and religious pressure groups are particularly prone to the contrast between their Godly ambitions and the mucky compromises of political life. The Moral Majority never quite lived up to Weyrich’s vision–it was a mechanism for organizing pastors rather than galvanizing the masses—and Falwell finally wound it up in 1989. The Christian Coalition never succeeded in delivering votes with the machinelike efficiency of the big trade unions: in 1996, when Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson endorsed Bob Dole, nearly half the Christian Coalition voters in the Louisiana and Iowa caucuses supported the Catholic Pat Buchanan over the Protestant Bob Dole. The Coalition imploded after Reed left, accumulating millions of dollars in debt and tangling with antidiscrimination laws.
A third problem was Christianity’s otherworldly focus. Christians are always tempted to give up politics in favor of saving mankind one soul at a time, or preparing themselves for the next world. Christian activists have been perpetually disappointed by their political champions. Reagan was more interested in cutting taxes than ending abortion. George Bush, Sr., put the liberal Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court. Cal Thomas, a former secretary for the Moral Majority, worried that Christians were “blinded by the might,” to quote the title of one of his books. Weyrich was so disgusted by the public’s indifference to Bill Clinton’s adultery that he urged conservative Christians to retreat from politics.
A final problem was faction fighting, both theological and political. Though a shadow of its former self, anti-Catholicism survived. Bob Jones University churned out anti-Catholic literature and awarded an honorary doctorate to the arch Ulster Protestant Ian Paisley. (His entourage affectionately call him “the doc.”) Swaggart said that Catholics were destined to burn in hell because they simply weren’t Christians.” Tim LaHaye denounced Catholicism as a “false religion.”
Christians also had an uneasy relationship with the wider Republican Party. Country club Republicans looked down on them as wild-eyed hicks. Libertarians dismissed them as killjoys with bad haircuts and drip-dry shirts. In Holidays in Hell (1989), P. J. O’Rourke argued that holidaymakers would be better off joining the Ku Klux Klan than vacationing in Jim Bakker’s Heritage USA. At least they would be able to smoke and drink again and “wear something halfway decent like an all-cotton bed sheet.” For their part, Christian conservatives worried that business Republicans were more interested in making a fast buck than in protecting family values.
Still, for all these difficulties, the religious right succeeded, from the 1980s onward, in constructing a mighty political infrastructure. Religious conservatives created what Dan Gilgen has christened a “Beltway Bible Belt”—a network of organizations that were designed to bring the right’s message to bear on Washington politics day in and day out. James Dobson founded the Family Research Council in 1981 to promote family values in the capital. (It now has 4.5 million members, revenues of more than $10 million a year, and an impressive office building that is the center of seminars, lectures and lobbying.) He also, to litigate on behalf of socially conservative issues, helped in 1994 to found the Alliance Defense Fund, which has notched up more than twenty-five victories before the U.S. Supreme Court and hundreds more before the lower court. The conservative churches and denominations all got into the habit of sending representatives to Washington, notably Richard Cizik, of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The religious right was even more successful in the states than in the nation’s capital. Social conservatism is the opposite of neoconservatism the product of the heartland rather than the East Coast Bos-Wash corridor, an army in search of generals rather than generals in search of an army. James Dobson created a network of Family Councils in states across the country. Louis Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition embraced forty-three thousand churches from more than twelve denominations. And local churches across the country were the most important cogs in the Jesus machine.
A Religious Nation
For all its problems, the religious right tapped into two powerful movements that kept propelling it ahead. The most obvious was the continuing growth of hot religion. The Southern Baptist Convention grew by an average of 5 percent a year during the 1990s. The other was the demographic shift toward the Sunbelt. Gallup’s survey of religious practices in 1992-98 shows that 70 percent of people in the South said that they found religion “very important” in their lives compared with 52 percent in New England and the mid-Atlantic states.
The rise of the religious right, the expansion of the Sunbelt and the success of hot religion: in 2000 all these things came to a head in the candidacy of George W. Bush. Bush was the first modern American president who was seen by the religious right as “one of us,” an Evangelical of the heart. His administration contained a remarkable number of committed Christians; and he went further than any previous president in putting the religious right’s agenda into practice. More clearly than any other president, he also signified the immense gap between Europe and America when it came to religion and politics.