Monday, April 09, 2012

American Christianities

The historian Garry Wills describes U.S. religious history as a tale of oscillation and interplay between "force fields" broadly characterized as an intellectual Enlightenment and emotional Evangelicalism; Head and Heart: American Christianities lays out that story in a series of episodes. It's an interesting, somewhat uneven book. It is what I've called tendentious history, very much in conversation with the moment of its writing. That was the middle of the Bush II presidency when Karl Rove was manipulating the Religious Right as a means of taking power for his candidate and conservatism generally. The fact I cannot read this book apart from that moment which so evidently birthed it is not a criticism; none of us are ever fully apart from our contexts and our embedded consciousness of our present. The issues it casts the light of the past upon are clearly still with us, as the presumptive Republican nominee has spent months trying to make and remake himself to satisfy one of those religious poles.

I found Wills' explication of my intolerant Puritan ancestors' virtues and vices very illuminating. Looking at these highly educated and completely superstitious divines from a Catholic perspective, he points out something that I'd not previously understood.

The early settlers of New England faced many foes, visible and invisible. These enemies were leagued with one another against God and against his chosen people. This made for high spiritual drama in their lives, an exciting drama but also a terrifying one. Like Protestants everywhere, they faced this struggle in an almost naked state, stripped of many of the protections that their medieval forebears had worn. … Roman Catholic practice had supplied believers with many shields against devils and their evil power -- guardian angels, patron saints, exorcism, sacramental confession, holy water, priestly blessings, crucifixes and other sacred images. Protestant believers had rejected all of these as superstitions, but had retained the dark magic they were meant to counter.

No wonder these folks ended up hunting -- and burning -- witches, literally. Religion stripped of divine immanence via symbolic ritual left them terribly alone in the wilderness, surrounded by threatening "savage" foes.

These settlers had an enduring but paradoxical influence on the mental furniture of their new land. The colleges they founded, Harvard and Yale, embodied the Puritan intellect:

… formed to defend a pre-Enlightenment religion but [it] would forge tools later useful to the Enlightenment. The intellectual skills developed in the seventeenth century proved adaptable to the tasks of the eighteenth century. The subtlety, rigor, and erudition expended in exploring doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, predestination, justification (by imputed merit), the stages (or lack of them) in conversion, transubstantiation, or covenant did not lapse or fade when different concerns came into view. And the traits that went along with such energetic busyness of the mind would perdure in new and sometimes surprising ways. …

Their intellectual heirs were the religiously tolerant sages of the Enlightenment who founded the new country. Wills expounds in detail on Jefferson's and Madison's intent in drafting the Constitutional "separation of church and state," one of our country's signal contributions to religion and all of humanity, and one still under assault today.

For Wills, one of the great achievements of U.S. religion was overthrowing the Biblical justification for chattel slavery. He credits a little remembered 18th century Quaker, Anthony Benezet, for initiating questioning of millennia of Bible-based acquiescence in the owning of human beings.

Benezet seems to me the one unquestionably authentic American saint. The Quakers made possible all later forms of abolition by proving that one can be a sincere Christian and yet defy the scriptural endorsements of slavery. If reason says slavery is wrong, then it is wrong no matter what the Bible says. They also proved that Enlightened religion is indeed a religion. They are stellar exemplars of both religion and Enlightenment. And they prevailed. At the beginning of the eighteenth century slavery was legally recognized and actually practiced in all the Northern colonies. At the end of the century, only one state was still a holdout, and New Jersey would fall in line in 1804. …

In Wills' telling, the struggle within various U.S. Protestant denominations that led to North-South splits over slavery (Presbyterians, 1838; Methodists, 1844; Baptists, 1845) were the true first episodes of the Civil War that finally ended in 1865.

The nation was de facto divided from the time its principal religious bodies broke apart. In the past, some have claimed that the Civil War was not fought over slavery .… But the elephant in the room remains, and its name is slavery. The breakup of the religious bodies is clear proof of that, years before the war began.

Wills also chronicles the invention within late 19th century U.S. evangelical circles of the wacky notion of "The Rapture." In these days when so many have been exposed to the Left Behind novels, it's worth noting that this idea was a much disputed innovation.

I should not leave the Dispensationalists' theology without a look at their most distinctive belief, the Rapture, by which God's saints will be swept up to Christ before the world-rending Tribulation begins. Critics of Dispensationalism -- even other Fundamentalists -- argued that this belief is a strange one for believers in biblical literalism, since there is no one "proof text" for the idea in the Bible. It emerges, rather, from the whole concatenation of prophecy beliefs. Since the prophecies apply the Jews, they are the ones who will suffer the Tribulation. Christians have no real role in it. They will not, like the surviving mass of mankind, acknowledge the rule of Antichrist in his time of power, so they will be kept hors de combat. It was the total schema, too, that made [John Nelson]Darby [who created and popularized it] always refer to the secret Rapture. Not secret in the sense that no one would notice when thousands of people disappeared. But they would not know the explanation, since Jesus would not be seen except by those meeting him "in the air." This secret coming of Jesus is in contrast with his final coming in glory, which will manifest his power to all. Once the whole framework was in place, the Dispensationalists searched for biblical texts that can be made to conform with it. …

Possibly because I have more immediate experience of mid- and late-20th century U.S. Christianities, I did not feel the contemporary history sections of this book added quite as much as the earlier parts to my understanding of how we got where we are now. (That's the point of history, isn't it? Insofar has history has "a point," that is.) I did find interesting Wills' insistence that, despite the views of Republicans, Fundamentalists, and Catholic Bishops, we should remember that

much of the debate over abortion is based on a misconception, that this is a religious issue, that the pro-life advocates are acting out of religious conviction. It is not a theological matter at all. There is no theological basis for either defending or condemning abortion. … it is a matter of natural law …

Maybe so, but in this land of religious innovations, we seem to have generated a considerable number of "believers" -- some Catholic, more evangelical Protestant -- for whom opposition to abortion is their religion.

There's a great deal to think about in Head and Heart. I suspect my thoughts will often wander back to this book. We are a religious people; there's no evading that. Though I'm a Christian myself, I find it hard to be sure whether I see our national religiosity as more heartening than frightening.


paula said...

thanks for this, Jan. I'd like to hear more about his explanation of moral law, and where abortion fits in. If we look at other species, there's plenty of evidence mammals separate out newborns with birth defects, leaving them to die in favor of pouring resources into those who can flourish. I don't see how abortion is more or less than the same practice, done earlier and with the tools of modern medicine. It's nature's way of keeping the species going the best way it can. True, humans bring other factors into the decision, but basically, it's the same practice.
Guess I'll have to read the book.

Kay Dennison said...

I think I need to read this book. Frankly, I suspect that most people in this country don't really think too much or too deeply about their religion and just blindly follow. I know people who change churches more often than the weather for reasons that astound me.

Rain Trueax said...

In general (and this is a generality) most who call themselves Christians today absolutely do not follow the dictates of Christ. They have a new religion and just don't know it. Christ would be crucified all over again if he came around teaching what he did.

To separate that kind of mentality (think the kids of Billy Graham), I like the word christiansts. It fits them better and I know there are those who do follow Christ's teachings. They probably are not any more pleased with the bulk of what passes for Christianity than I am as more of an agnostic or pagan.

I really hate captcha. Do they have to make them so hard to discern which letters? I am trying again and again...

janinsanfran said...

Paula: our species has always practiced infanticide fairly widely. It does seem a moral advance that we now have the medical tools to end pregnancies before birth, rather than ending the lives of offspring. You might get a lot out of reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature on this and many other matters. I found it challenging, annoying, and worthwhile.

Rain: yup, there are a lot of Christianists out there, ready to try to enforce their beliefs on the rest of us.

Didn't know that commenters are subjected to captcha -- sorry. Google is upgrading Blogger and, at least for some time period, I find I've lost control of some aspects of this blog -- for example, updating the blog list. They say they are fixing us. We'll see.

Jane Meyerding said...

Jan, if you haven't read it already, you might want to check out Mark Auslander's "The Accidental Slaveowner." Not that you're about to run out of reading matter!

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