CHRISTIANITY'S AMERICAN FATE: How Religion Became More Conservative and Society More Secular- A review
Democracy is severely threatened and hatred flourishes. Much is fueled by reactionary religion as society grows more secular. A pre-eminent historian of religion explains how.
Political scientists in decades past gave scant attention to religion. It was considered an archaic phenomenon that was epiphenomenal to economic and political forces that were the drivers of policy, whether international maneuvering by nations or conditions within those nations. Moreover, in the United States, since at least the 1930s, it was assumed by intellectuals and academics that religion would steadily fade away in the wake of the advance of scientific knowledge and as the population became increasingly educated. Sociologists found that as education spread and people climbed the economic ladder, they became less religious. Religion, at its base, was superstition embraced by the undereducated who were not society's prime movers. In brief, religion was not a significant political actor.
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History has shown these presumptions to have been dramatically short-sighted. In the past four decades, religion has come out of the closet and asserted itself with the power of the long-repressed. On the international stage, the Islamic Revolution in Iran of 1979, which was also an assault on Western values, launched a movement of religious nationalism that has taken hold around the world. Its influence continues to be felt in nations such as Turkey, Russia, and India and throughout swaths of the Muslim world. As such it threatens democracy and liberalism, and resonates with the footsteps of fascism.
The movement embracing religious nationalism has its American expression as well. Since the late nineteen seventies, the Christian Evangelical subculture, which had been politically quiescent for half a century, became repoliticized. In the process, it has dramatically transformed the political landscape, rendering it far more conservative. It forms the backbone of the Christian Right. During the administration of George W. Bush, the movement had hundreds of Congressional members in its pocket, and Donald Trump would not have become president without the support of evangelicals and their allies. The evidence is irrefutable: Long ignored, religion must now be construed and understood as a powerful political actor.
This is a subtext of David Hollinger's most recent text, Christianity's American Fate: How Religion Became More Conservative and Society More Secular. Hollinger is emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He has authored and edited a dozen texts on American religion and related subjects. I was familiar with, and admired, Hollinger's work while I studied for my doctorate in religion at Columbia University. I came upon Christianity's American Fate, when reading a laudatory review of the work by Linda Greenhouse, long the Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times, in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books.
Christianity's American Fate is an important book. Numerous texts have dealt with how American society has arrived at this strange and perilous moment. We have become viciously divided as political adversaries are denounced as enemies and compromise and dialogue have completely broken down. Irrationalism flourishes, with 35 percent of Americans and more than 68 percent of Republicans embracing “The Big Lie.” Conspiracy theories, which in the past were relegated to the lunatic fringe, have become increasingly normative. The Republican Party, bereft of any program, remains in the thrall of Donald Trump, a pathological narcissist and liar, seemingly totally lacking in empathy and without any interests beyond augmenting his personal power, ego, and wealth.
There are many complex causes that have brought us to this state of affairs. David Hollinger's perspective looks at the contribution of religion, primarily the rise of evangelical Protestantism, which is almost completely aligned with the Republican Party and its reactionary politics. It is a stance built on resentment and total disparagement of any ideas or programs put forth by the opposing party. As the subtitle of the book suggests, religion's move to the right, somewhat ironically, is taking place at a time when American society is becoming more secular, as increasing numbers of the formerly faithful are abandoning the churches.
The virtual takeover of the Christian landscape by evangelicals cannot be understood in a vacuum. As Hollinger makes clear, it can only be illuminated by situating its development in the broader context of American Protestantism. The propelling dynamic has been competition between evangelicals and so-called mainline, or ecumenical, Protestant churches, as Hollinger prefers to call them. The latter has been comprised of the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Northern Baptist, Congregationalist, Disciples of Christ, and several smaller denominations. These two major branches of Protestantism developed almost independently from each other and appealed to distinct sectors of the Protestant majority, based in great measure on class, educational level, temperament, and geographical region.
Hollinger makes the interesting observation that the conventional assumption that evangelical Christianity confronts the believer with difficult challenges, whereas ecumenical churches require less of believers, is false. He maintains that the opposite pertains, and this conclusion segues into his prevailing thesis.
According to Hollinger, the ecumenical churches demand an openness to the complexities of modernity, including an appreciation for diversity and relations with other denominations both within the Christian world and beyond it. They also require a range of social obligations that evangelicalism has walled itself off from. As with so much of American history, race and racism is a great divider. Here Hollinger cites the observation of Randall Balmer (whose book “Bad Faith” I reviewed in an earlier newsletter) that in response to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which ended racial segregation in public schools, evangelicals founded their own private, segregated academies. Under Jimmy Carter's administration, these private schools had their tax-exempt status removed. Their subsequent anger caused them to re-enter the political fray while turning their backs on Carter, who was a devout born-again Christian. As Hollinger mentions, it also enabled evangelicals to posture themselves as victims of an aggressively secular culture despite the reality of their massive political clout.
In Hollinger's view, the ecumenical denominations, who throughout most of American history comprised the Protestant establishment, were in concert with Enlightenment values, were cosmopolitan in outlook, embraced science, and in many ways were consonant with the values of the secular world. He also discusses at length their support of racial equality and their activism in the civil rights movement. These commitments cleaved a greater distance from the evangelical subculture, which created a redoubt from the complexities and racial outreach that the mainline churches engaged. As Hollinger notes:
“Evangelicalism created a safe harbor for white people who wanted to be counted as Christians without having to accept what ecumenical leaders said were the social obligations demanded by the gospel, especially the imperative to extend civil equality to nonwhites.”
This observation could not be of greater political consequence. It directly explains how evangelicals became tightly identified with the Republican Party, who after the Civil Rights Act appropriated their “Southern Strategy, ensuring that it become a bulwark for whites discomforted by racial integration.
Hollinger notes that Billy Graham, the most popular of evangelical preachers and personalities, vividly reflected, as well as propelled, the divide between ecumenical Protestants and evangelicals. When asked to comment on Martin Luther King's Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech Graham responded, “Little white children of Alabama will walk hand in hand with little Black children only when Christ comes again.” So much for racial and integrationist priorities.
The ecumenical churches reached their high water mark in the 1940s and `50s, when churchgoing was a mark of social probity. As they moved up the economic ladder, even some evangelicals joined mainline churches. Its members could pride themselves on such luminaries as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, and Protestant leaders were, for example, influential in the founding of the United Nations and its adoption of the human rights regime.
However, the 1960s was an inflection point for these established churches, as it was for many mainstays of American culture. Having crested, ecumenical churches began to rapidly lose members, indeed some hemorrhaged badly. Hollinger explains why. One cause is what we might refer to as a paradox of liberalism. Hollinger underscores that the ecumenical churches embraced broadly liberal values. They were early proponents of the civil rights movement, and in the 1960s were in the forefront of protesting the war in Vietnam. They embraced science, respect for social pluralism, and engagement with civic life and the secular world. With such values comprising their intellectual foundation, it should not be surprising that the children of members would decide to not be affiliated with the churches of their parents. Many left entirely.
A second cause coheres with the sociological observation cited above, namely as the educational level of adherents rose, they abandoned religion altogether and joined the population of the unaffiliated. A final cause for a decline in membership was a declining birth rate among those who remained in the churches.
Statistical losses of these churches are dramatic. Hollinger notes,
“Former ecumenicals constituted the vast majority of 'nones'... Between 2010 and 2018, the Disciples of Christ declined by 40 percent. The United Presbyterians lost 40 percent between 2009 and 2020. Lutherans lost 22 percent between 2010 and 2019. The Dutch Reformed...lost 45 percent between 2000 and 2020. The Episcopalians lost 29 percent between 2002 and 2019.” The affiliated Jewish population, of course much smaller, experienced analogous losses, as did Roman Catholicism. Catholics became ex-Catholics. Protestants became post-Protestants. Hence, the United States, which has had the most religious population in the industrialized West, has become increasingly secular. Some sociologists speculate that the United States is at long last following Western Europe, which is arguably a post-religious society.
Hollinger includes two others factors that have led to the increasing secularization of American society. One has been the influence of America's Jewish population. Though never more than 3.5 percent of the population (today through assimilation and intermarriage it is below two percent) the influence of America's Jews has been disproportionately great. Prior to the influx of millions of Jewish immigrants between 1881 and 1924, the United States was readily identified as a “Christian nation.” The Jewish presence and contribution to society changed that. Many arrivals from Eastern Europe were themselves secular, and many were predominant intellectuals.
Jews excelled in positions of leadership in law and medicine, academia, literature, the arts, Hollywood, and in science. Think J. Robert Oppenheimer, I.I. Rabi and Albert Einstein, among other luminaries. The social work and psychotherapy fields (following Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis) were greatly peopled by Jews, who for many replaced the church pastor in providing emotional support and counseling. Hollinger provides interesting insight as to how the philosophical professorate, William James and Josiah Royce being the most influential, implicitly carried forth Protestant values. After World War II, antisemitic barriers were removed and the place of Jews in philosophy departments rapidly rose, so that by the 1960s one in five members of the leading philosophy departments was a Jew. Also influential was the role of Jews in the second wave feminist movement, whose leadership was almost entirely comprised of Jews, from Bella Abzug to Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.
Jewish attorneys also spearheaded legal cases promoting the separation of church and state. They were active in such organizations as the American Jewish Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union which were at the forefront of pushing ahead the cause. I personally recall conferring with Leo Pfeffer, a prominent attorney who was at the helm of the separationist legal movement.
Through the influence of Jews, Anglo-Protestant cultural hegemony noticeably declined and America shifted from being a Christian nation to becoming "Judeo-Christian.” Notable was the 1955 book by sociologist Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, proffering that Catholics and Jews were equal partners in defining an understanding of American society.
A second secularizing influence, which was frankly new to me, was Hollinger's discussion of international missionary activity carried on by the ecumenical Protestant churches. This initiative was vast and its influence in altering the domestic landscape was far-reaching. While the purport of missionary work was to convert others to Christianity, many missionaries returned with a newfound respect for the integrity, sophistication, and wisdom of those whom they encountered overseas. The authenticity of their religious cultures had profound effects. Those effects would lead ecumenical Protestants to question the importance of their own denominationalism. In time, ecumenical Protestants acceded to a growing cosmopolitanism and greater commitment to the universal needs of humankind that transcended parochial and local interests. It gave rise to a pluralist appreciation that added to the increased secularization of society at large. Evangelicals would have none of this, and in time filled the missionary space from which the ecumenical churches had withdrawn.
David Hollinger does not provide a solution to the state of affairs that he has so amply analyzed. But he is a powerful witness to what he refers to as a “remarkable paradox,” namely that America is “an increasing secular society…saddled with an increasingly religious politics.”
An aspect of contemporary American secularism, spearheaded by younger generations, is that it is generally more progressive than the politics of their elders. Hollinger notes that even the children of evangelicals are becoming disaffected from the churches of their parents. They are tired of the doctrinal rigidity and politics obsessed with a narrow range of issues laced with contempt for gays, and women's equality.
Perhaps this is where the long-range future lies. As the older generations depart, they will be replaced by a more benign politics that conforms to a society that is inexorably becoming more diverse and pluralistic, in which equality and mutual respect will become fundamental to our very survival. Demographics and time may have the last word.
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Fabulous article, Dr. Joe. Excellent. The rise of evangelical Christians to a level of political power that they control Congress and many of its committees, Senate appointment of judges and justices to advance Christian nationalist agenda, is impossible to ignore. The death of liberal ecumenical Christianity equates to the death of liberal democracy. A decided minority now contemplates withdrawal from our federal union (Marjorie Taylor Greene), banning books that don't support their cherished narratives (Gov Desantis), banning professional care of pregnant women with medical complications, the elimination of social security, medicare and more. None of this is theoretical anymore.
In today's Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin wrote an opinion article entitled, "Why white Christian nationalists are in such a panic." She identifies Christian nationalists as MAGA. It may be more complicated than that. White Christian numbers are in decline along with the economic privileges long accorded white Christian males. No longer is the leveling of white privilege a thing of the future for white Christian nationalist. MAGA is intent on dismantling social progressive institutions, law and programs.
In the meanwhile, Blue States continue to embrace diversity of every stripe and oppose trickle down economics led buy the 1-2% and corporate economic interests. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kate Porter and many others call out this social and economic dynamic as they inveigh for social and economic justice.
The culture wars are on. The lines are drawn. It is kinetic. Who is on which side is clear and it is rattling the foundations and institutions of our democracy. It might be best if we recognize the existential threat liberal democracy has for white Christian nationalist and address their fears and needs rather than moralize about their wrong-headedness. Heated rhetoric will not assuage their wounds. A search for a middle-way between right and wrong, black and white should be in order.
How a coming together is to be accomplished when the exchange of invectives is red hot I can't say. Biden is giving a go at it while both sides mock him. Obama got pancaked by the radical Right and Trump was embraced as an answer to Christian nationalist complaints. All that said, we must put our best minds and intentions toward civil discourse and workable solutions. My hunch is that addressing the enormous inequities of wealth distribution is a starter. Finding common ground among the warring 98-99% for example. White Christian nationalist have a stake in this larger battle with oligarchy as does everyone else. In this we might find common cause. Best if we work toward peace and make war no more.
Thanks, Joe for this analysis of a complex issue.