The Lost Soul Of American Protestantism
by D.G. Hart
Rowman & Littlefield, 197 pp., $37.50
EVANGELICALS number in the tens of millions in the United States, but you'd hardly know it from their intellectual, moral, and cultural influence on the rest of the nation. Compared with the prestige of Catholic colleges and universities, evangelical schools appear to be second class. Compared with Jewish public thinkers, evangelical intellectuals create very little of the nation's stock of public ideas. This observation is nothing new and, in fact, evangelicals themselves are often the first to concede the point, as did historian Mark A. Noll in his acclaimed 1995 volume "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind." What many Americans may forget, however, is that this was not always the case, but appears to be a casualty of the twentieth century.
Exactly how evangelical Protestants lost this cultural capital is a complicated story, but one that Darryl G. Hart of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute skillfully dissects in "That Old-Time Religion in Modern America." The book begins with the first two decades of the twentieth century, when Protestantism had not yet fragmented into the mainline and the anti-mainline, and nearly all Protestants considered themselves evangelical. It then traces the evangelical story through the Scopes Trial of 1925 and the fundamentalist-modernist battles of the 1930s, after which conservatives went underground and started building new educational institutions, communication networks, and independent churches, forging a separate Protestant identity under the term evangelical with a narrower reference. This emerging subculture still felt much at home in mid-century America; witness the endlessly popular Billy Graham. But Hart documents how--after the cultural revolution of the late 1960s when mainline Protestantism lost its cultural hegemony--evangelicals began to assert themselves aggressively in the public square, particularly in politics, only to find themselves "unwanted, expendable, and in some cases a nuisance."
HART PACKS this standard outline with fascinating detail. He highlights, for example, the role that an unlikely missionary to the Swiss Alps, Francis A. Schaeffer, played in shifting the evangelical center of gravity from Fuller Theological Seminary and Christianity Today at mid-century to the popular southern televangelists and their explicitly conservative political agenda by the 1980s. While conceding that the transition from "the homogenous culture of the late nineteenth century to the multicultural United States in late twentieth century" played a role in the Protestants' fall from social grace, Hart identifies the internal dynamics he believes most responsible for the current awkwardness of evangelicals in America. The heart of the problem: Evangelicals fundamentally misunderstand the nature of human society and how religion relates to society, especially a secular one. Consequently, "evangelicalism does not give its adherents the tools to adapt to a secular United States because this faith cannot separate religious concerns from public ones." Unlike Catholics who can "distinguish the affairs of the church from those of civil society," evangelicals reverse or simply confuse the sacred and the secular.
"Another way of putting this," Hart writes, is that evangelicals follow a form of Christianity--which, for lack of a better word, we might call "pietism"--that "demands and looks for evidence of genuine religion in affairs not typically considered sacred or religious." This helps explain the success of James Dobson and Pat Robertson in developing financially profitable communication empires that "blur the lines between religious programming and entertainment with religious themes." In both cases, Hart points out how these entrepreneurs exploit "forms of communication that are decidedly different from those experienced in church" and that aim less to evangelize or build the church than to provide an alternative to mainstream entertainment.
In seeking thus to make the world sacred, evangelicals end up making the church secular. During the same decades when they were flexing their political muscles as the Religious Right, evangelicals were simultaneously pioneering dramatic innovations in the public worship of their churches, carving out a whole new Christian music industry where the "most popular musicians are those who sing and write religious words to rock and roll, a form of music not well known for promoting the family values that evangelical politicians and activists trumpet." The ironic consequence: Evangelicals end up with "a religion that on Sunday is comfortable with the church looking like the world (such as [Christian Contemporary Music]) and throughout the rest of the week insists that the world look like the church (as in family values)."
AS THE FORMER ACADEMIC DEAN of Westminster Theological Seminary, an evangelical Presbyterian institution near San Diego, Hart has the credentials to render this unflattering judgment. Yet his more scholarly and more important work, "The Lost Soul of American Protestantism," makes clear that the confusion of the sacred and the secular is not unique to evangelicals in the late twentieth century, but has been part of the entire Anglo-Protestant experience in America since the mid-eighteenth century.
American Protestants once followed a more traditional, European approach to religion, which Hart calls "confessionalism," that stressed the importance of the institutional church, including creeds, liturgy, and polity. These older-style Protestants valued formal religious ceremonies and corporate practices that nurture the faithful for the life to come. But the revivals of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards in the 1730s and 1740s introduced what Hart calls "the American way of faith," which moved the focus of religion away from the church and toward the personal activities of the individual. Dissenting from most historians who look with favor upon the Great Awakening, Hart believes these changes were a theological mistake, directing Protestants on this side of the Atlantic on an endless quest to make religion relevant to the here and now.
This separating of "the essence of Christianity from the external practices and observances of it" not only led American Protestants to invest the upcoming American Revolution with religious significance, but also perfectly fit the ethos of the colonies after independence. Just as the new country was freed from the political structures of the Old World, her religion was likewise freed from traditional ecclesiastical arrangements. This new religious economy (reinforced by the Second Awakening of the early nineteenth century) elevated the power of the people to take religious matters into their own hands--to choose, rather than inherit, their faith--while dramatically diminishing the authority of the church, forcing clergymen to compete for parishioners like politicians in perpetual reelection mode. Formal denominations and congregations prospered, but they were in actual fact secondary to the vast network of parachurch, voluntary societies established by born-again Protestants to apply, in Whig-Republican fashion, their moral earnestness to the nation at large. The church was not the center of faith, but the place where believers could charge their batteries to do the real work of God in the world.
HART SHOWS HOW the nervous energy of this kind of pietism wrought (to borrow a phrase from Joseph Schumpeter) "creative destruction" of anything that stood in its way. It not only blurred significant theological differences between denominations but also marginalized those who tried to hold on to Old World, confessional patterns. Even hard, unified groups of immigrants, such as the German Lutherans and the Dutch Reformed, eventually seemed to surrender. But the greatest damage was suffered by the Presbyterian Church. Presbyterians were just getting settled in the New World when they were blindsided by the controversy generated by the First Great Awakening, which pitted revivalists against Scotch-Irish traditionalists. Foreshadowing a pattern that would repeat itself for two centuries, the confessionalists lost, enabling the followers of John Calvin and John Knox to become the leaders of the American faith, exchanging "the intolerance of creeds, the sectarianism of polity, and the irrelevance of liturgy" for the pragmatic goal of building the kingdom of God in America.
The elevation of pietism over confessionalism intensified after the Civil War, when the remnants of the Old School were tamed again, this time for the sake of the Union, allowing northern Presbyterians to take the lead in church union and federation schemes that would culminate in the formation of the Federal Council of Churches, the twentieth-century counterpart to the benevolent empire of voluntary associations of the nineteenth century. Again, the goal was not so much sacred or religious, a building of the church, but civil and national, a preserving of the Christian America that the Civil War secured. The last vestiges of Presbyterian confessionalism were laid to rest when Princeton Theological Seminary, an Old School holdout, was reorganized in 1929--to such an extent that its prominent New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen was defrocked in 1935 because his southern style of confessionalism threatened the northern Presbyterian Church's perceived influence on American society.
One may be tempted to read all the great twentieth-century battles of American Protestantism in this way, from the fight between fundamentalists and modernists during the 1920s and 1930s to the war between evangelicals and mainline Protestants in the 1970s and 1980s. But Hart insists that in all these struggles both camps showed their commitment to the idea of the "Social Gospel." In fact, they often made strange political bedfellows: Both supported Prohibition; both objected when Roman Catholics ran for president in 1928 and 1960; and both lamented the Supreme Court school-prayer decisions in the 1960s. True confessionalism had passed from the scene by the early decades of the twentieth century. The National Council of Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals may look as far apart as it is possible for Protestants to be, but they are in fact merely two sides of their shared American way of faith that vanquished the real alternative of confessionalism.
NONETHELESS, Hart believes confessionalism is better suited for the cultural and religious diversity of the United States. By lowering expectations of what can be achieved in the public realm, confessionalism reduces the kinds of strains that Protestants have historically imposed on other Americans. In elevating the sacred ministry, it empowers the church to deliver the "spiritual resources to endure the trials of this world." Moreover, because confessionalism "possesses resources for careful reflection about personal and social affairs" (such as the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms and the Reformed doctrine of common grace), it enables adherents to negotiate life outside the church more responsibly. Most important, confessionalism does not lose sight of the essence of religion, "which has more to do with eternal rather than temporal realities."
Hart's analysis is clearly coherent. "That Old-Time Religion in Modern America" and "The Lost Soul of American Protestantism" take aim at several sacred cows, including the widely held culture-war thesis that American religion has been, at least since the 1920s, split between liberal mainline Protestants and conservative evangelicals. One may not trump both sides of the culture wars quite as easily as Hart seems to imagine, but it is true that the liberal-conservative divide never did justice to such confessional and immigrant groups as the Missouri Synod Lutherans and the Christian Reformed. Most important, Hart argues, the culture-wars analysis "fails to grapple with an ideal that both sides share" as "neither side wants to limit religion to the private worlds of family devotions or worship services."
Against the notion that evangelical religion is largely anti-modern, rural, and southern, "That Old-Time Religion" shows that evangelicalism, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century, was centered in Northern urban centers and strove to be up-to-date in countless ways. Citing such fundamentalist pastors as Mark Allison Matthews and William Bell Riley, who were leaders in urban reform of Seattle and Minneapolis, Hart claims that evangelicals have always been "more oriented to moral reform in this world than the comforts of the world to come." Their lower public profile at mid-century was simply due to the fact that evangelicals had no reason to be engaged politically, given the predominant Protestant mores of the time. Indeed, the whole society was less politically charged than it is today.
Hart's most enduring contribution, however, is his challenge to prevailing assumptions about religion and public life. Many American leaders today, Democratic and Republican alike, welcome a greater public role for religion--something beyond the evangelical public-schools mantra of "prayer in" and "evolution out." Yet most of this discussion concerns how religion can be useful to the state or the society. Hart insists we also look at the issue from the interests of religion, believing that religion has a far more profound function in human affairs than helping to build a better society. In fact, he maintains that religion best influences society when pursued for its own sake. Turning H. Richard Niebuhr's 1951 "Christ and Culture" on its head, Hart encourages American Protestants to think less in terms of being crusaders in this life and more in terms of being pilgrims preparing for the life to come. Striving to build a corrective to Reinhold Niebuhr, Hart also offers orthodox confessionalism as the framework with which to understand the ironies of Christian faith and practice in America.
For these purposes, Hart needs to explore the relationship between the New England Puritans and the religious revolution that Whitefield spawned, for those confessionalists certainly prepared the way for the Great Awakening. What assurance do we have that Hart's brand of confessionalism won't do the same? Even Hart's take on more recent events needs some clarification. The religiously neutral, secular state that Hart believes exists today--and which he favors--seems more an abstraction than he realizes. That ideal was never really achieved in the United States, and religion continues to pop up in what Hart would think of as strange places (as, for instance, at presidential inaugurations).
Hart does not consider this question because he is writing not as an informed citizen seeking to improve the affairs of the state but as a churchman seeking to improve the affairs of the church. The result will surely irritate nearly everyone, but his warnings about the dangers of seeking to gain the world while losing one's soul should be welcomed by all who sense that something is fundamentally wrong in the way religion appears today on the American scene.
Robert W. Patterson, a former Presbyterian minister, is a domestic policy consultant in Washington, D.C.