The shape of American religious discourse

28 10 2010

AG sent me an article in the Economist entitled, How the cold war reshaped Protestantism in America . It is an eye-opening reminder about how much religious discourse has changed in this country in the past fifty to sixty years. It used to be that Protestantism was a force for “progressivism” so to speak. Now even Catholicism and other religions are drawn into the culture wars that have their origin in militant anti-communism and pro-capitalist campaigning.

I had long understood that popular affirmation of Christian religious identity was an explicit part of the American government’s strategy for combating the sinister influence of atheistic communism. But I hadn’t known that Billy Graham goaded President Eisenhower into getting baptised while in office, that Eisenhower led the charge to insert “under God” into the “Pledge of Allegiance”, or that “In God We Trust” didn’t become the official United States motto until Eisenhower signed a 1956 congressional resolution. Nor did I know that Billy Graham had been launched onto the national stage because of his resolute anti-communism. Impressed by the charismatic young evangelist’s fiery anti-communist message, press baron William Randolph Hearst commanded the overseers of his influential national network of propaganda broadsheets to “Puff Graham”. (These are, apparently, “two of the most famous words in all of American religious history”, which goes to show how much I know about American religious history.)

Many items that are fought over in the culture war seem to be recent additions to American political discourse. This gets back to my idea that what has come to be normative in terms of a Norman Rockwell-esque portrait of America are really recent additions that date back no later than the Second World War. Before that, America was much more fragmented along class, ethnic, and racial lines. Christians were just as likely to share the platform of the socialists on many matters that today would be considered verboten to a religious person (anti-militarism, open borders, a one world government, etc.) And of course, the need to wrap oneself in God and the flag does not seem to be a particularly old paranoia. Perhaps it comes out of a reaction to the culture wars, or perhaps it is an attempt to try to unite all of these disparate elements that we know full well never really got along well together. Since Americans are not united by a single ethnicity or cultural tradition, we have to create a flattening narrative that unites everyone. The problem with such narratives is that they inevitably exclude as well.

The other aspect worth commenting on is how this article shows this flattening as being a top down phenomenon. American evanglicalism was not a product that emerged organically from the bottom up, but was manufactured in the board rooms of cultural and economic power. Yes, many of the elements were already there, but this politicized, anti-left, fear-mongering faith may not be so organic to the American psyche. All one has to do is look to Fox News and realize that such “God-n-country” rhetoric sells; it allows people to feel good about themselves and defends them against the ominous Other (the pervert, the multiculturalist, the socialist, the illegal alien, etc.) And it may be among our top cultural exports to other countries. Places like Brazil and Africa are eating this stuff up. It allows people to feel safe and secure, so that they can buy more things and be “good citizens”. It’s a win-win situation all around, except for those who are excluded from the get-go from the narrative, or at the very least, consciously marginalized within it.

Which is why I generally say nulla partem to any aspect of the culture wars. I read recently someone respond to a comment that I wrote elsewhere saying that sexual apartheid for homosexuals would not be such a bad thing. Maybe the commenter wanted for them to wear badges, get fired from their jobs, etc. He also presented the rather dystopian vision of children being forced to consider bisexual behavior as mandatory. Well, maybe that might happen in their paranoid, culture warrior imaginations, but personally, I would prefer my children to be mushy-headed people who tolerated everyone rather than a bunch of religious bigots who think that they have to break a few eggs (read: skulls) to make an omelette. Then at least I could live with myself, and know that I raised a brood of human beings and not beasts. But hey, that’s just how I roll. If you want to be a bigoted dupe of Fox News, be my guest. Just don’t expect me to go along with it.


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8 responses

31 10 2010
ochlophobist

The one thing that Niebuhrian Mainline Protestantism and Evangelicalism (in its Carl Henry – Graham, etc. manifestation in the 50s) shared was a hatred of communism. Graham’s broad appeal within Protestantism had everything to do with the Cold War. If you watch video selections from his crusades in the 50s and 60s, he spends almost as much time attacking communism as he does “preaching Christ” etc. The message of Christ and the message of anti-communism were morphed together, and this had everything to do with why Graham was so tolerated among American Mainlines, the majority of which at that time were very much influenced by Niebuhr.

30 10 2010
FrGregACCA

Actually, the Cold War had a great deal to do with it, and, at least up until about 1900, the political divide between progressives and “conservatives” cut across the theological divide between “liberals” and those who interpreted their Bible more literally. Think William Jennings Bryan, a biblical fundamentalist who was a progressive populist politically.

30 10 2010
Visibilium

The division between mainline (erstwhile Progressive, socialist, etc.) Protestantism and Bible-oriented Protestantism has been around since at least the mid-19th Century. Graham tried to straddle the divide as well as he could, and he did succeed in making his version of Bible orientation look a little mainstream. The Cold War has nothing to do with it. Journalists tend to lack a sense of history, and participate in the conceit that the world started when they were born.

28 10 2010
FrGregACCA

For the most part, one is far more likely to be duped by Fox than by NPR. The latter encourages critical thinking. The former does not: quite the opposite.

Regarding Graham: a major anti-communist, yes, but, AFAIK, never a McCarthyist, and, indeed, a registered Democrat who was at least as tight with LBJ as with Eisenhower or Nixon. Besides his “everybody gotta born again” preaching, Graham earned the enmity of the hard core Southern Protestant fundamentalists by a)working with “liberal” denominations and denominational leaders and the Roman Catholic Church; and b)demanding that his crusades, even in the South, be integrated in an era when this was cutting edge and groundbreaking behavior.

Indeed, as a college student, Graham ditched Bob Jones University and transferred to Wheaton College in Illinois over the question of racial integration. Graham is also on record as having opposed the emergence of the Christian Right, a’la Jerry Falwell and Francis Schaeffer.

28 10 2010
Manuel

Yes, I agree with this. Whether you’re duped by Fox News or NPR it makes no difference, we are all dupes now.

28 10 2010
NK

I find myself coming to a more or less similar stance on the culture wars. My only critique of your analysis is that mushy-headed people who tolerate everyone do not–and cannot–exist. The culture wars, and modernity in general, make everyone hungry for omelettes; the argument is simply over what flavor they should be. Every virtue designates a vice, and vise versa (hehe).

28 10 2010
James Kabala

“These are, apparently, ‘two of the most famous words in all of American religious history.'”

Never trust The Economist on anything American. Thr basic facts may be right, as here, but there will always be something wrong with the interpretation.

28 10 2010
Turmarion

Thanks for the link–it’s a fascinating article and concept. Even though I’m (slightly) less than fifty, I can still remember a more tolerant, diverse, pre-culture-wars Protestantism (yeah, I was Protestant then) in my early-70’s youth (in Appalachia yet–they were even less frenzied there!). I guess it hadn’t metastasized yet. I’ve often wondered what happened, and this is food for thought in that regard.

In the same vein, some (including his son) have suggested that Francis Schaeffer was also instrumental, at a later time and a different way, in ginning up the culture wars, especially through his bringing forth abortion as an all-or-none issue eclipsing all others on the relgious right. Any thoughts about that?

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