The Fate of Faith: Histories of American Protestantism

By Benjamin Schwarz

21 December 1997 LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW

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Although Alexis de Tocqueville, perhaps the foremost observer of American character, recognized that “there is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” religion has traditionally been relegated to the backwaters of American historical and literary studies. Over the last 15 years, however, a number of the most innovative American historians and literary scholars have brought religion and, specifically, evangelical Protestantism–perhaps America’s quintessential religious expression–to center stage in the study of our culture and political life. Although Christine Leigh Heyrman’s “Southern Cross” and Joel A. Carpenter’s “Revive Us Again” don’t approach the breadth and originality of such works as Sacvan Bercovitch’s “The American Jeremiad” and Nathan Hatch’s “The Democratization of American Christianity,” they are nevertheless nuanced and important examinations of religion and American culture. Unfortunately, this is not true in the case of Alfred Kazin’s “God and the American Writer.”

Heyrman’s extraordinarily well-written book builds on a growing and important scholarly literature, including Rhys Isaac’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Transformation of Virginia,” to illuminate the ways in which evangelicalism both transformed and was transformed by Southern culture. That the South became the Bible Belt is among the most surprising developments in American history. After all, throughout the colonial period, New England was the bastion of fierce and devout Protestantism, whereas the Southern states adhered to a rather tepid Anglicanism. As late as 1822, the most famous Southerner of the time, Thomas Jefferson, confidently predicted that Unitarianism would become the American religion. Evangelicalism, in fact, initially represented a frontal assault on the South’s political, economic and racial status quo.“Many of the first shall be last and the last shall be first” was one of the favorite biblical passages of Southern evangelicals in the late 18th century. Indeed, in a society stratified by rank and racial caste, common people in the South embraced evangelicalism, which allowed them to shape their culture and spiritual lives rather than depend upon the mediations of political and religious elites. These early Baptists and Methodists regarded slavery as a sin, and the churches that they formed were close-knit, interracial communities. Often black church members outnumbered their white brethren (nearly one-third of all Methodists in America were black in 1800), and blacks preached to whites. Blacks and whites embraced each other as brothers and sisters in Christ because a “second birth” elevated all believers to a common level. Black and white evangelicals testified and prayed together, were baptized in the same ceremonies, were held to the same moral expectations and were buried in the same cemeteries.
aarprayermeetA number of historians have recently revealed and examined this largely forgotten Southern interracial religious history, but Heyrman continues the story into the first decades of the 19th century, when evangelicalism in the South largely betrayed its egalitarian underpinnings and accommodated itself to the region’s prevailing cultural values, beating a shameful retreat from its initial opposition to slavery and racism. Heyrman has imaginatively used primary sources to produce among the finest assessments of the “born again” experience and–even more important–of the relationship between narcissism and religious inwardness. (Although evangelicals urged introspection as a means of transcending the self, Heyrman perceptively shows how some converts “became so transfixed by the drama of emotion unfolding within that they grew oblivious to the world without, save for its uses as a stage for dramatizing those feelings.”)But in her eagerness to show how white Southern evangelicals came to assimilate the very cultural values they at first opposed, Heyrman too often fails to discern the subtle, double-edged ways in which religion and culture shaped each other and remained in opposition. The early interracial interaction profoundly influenced the style and substance of later Southern evangelical Christianity. So, even though blacks lost their position of equality in Southern evangelical churches by the beginning of the 19th century, and the black and white churches separated after the Civil War, both continued to bear the stamp of early integration, so much so that W.E.B. DuBois called the poor Southern whites’ church “a plain copy of Negro thought and methods.” (Today the “Southern” evangelical churches that have spread throughout the country still possess that character.)Furthermore, in arguing the undeniable fact that evangelicals “chang[ed] their ways to accommodate Southern hierarchies,” Heyrman paints too stark a picture of the separation of black and white worship in the antebellum period. She ignores the persuasive evidence that for all their ignominious compromises with the slave system, antebellum “white” Southern evangelical churches remained, in fact, biracial. In a society that forbade blacks from testifying against whites in courts of law, blacks’ testimony in church was heard and accepted and even overruled whites’. In fact, as John Boles, perhaps the leading historian of Southern religion, concludes, “in the churches slaves were treated more nearly as equals than anywhere else in the society.”And, of course, despite its compromises with the slave system and later with the Southern system of racial caste, evangelical Christianity provided blacks with the most powerful and resilient institution of African American life. Christianity gave slaves (and, perhaps more important, the descendants of slaves) a way to live with whites without hating them. As historian Eugene Genovese wrote, Christianity “curbed [slaves’] self-destructive tendency toward hatred. It left them free to hate slavery but not necessarily their individual masters. It left them free to love their masters as fellow sinners before God and yet to judge their relative merits as Christians and human beings.”

In short, although Southern evangelicalism’s accommodation to the prejudices of Southern society was enormous, it was never the complete surrender that Heyrman at times tends to argue. Had it been, the progress made in late 20th century Southern race relations probably would not have occurred. After all, the civil rights movement in the South of the 1950s and early ’60s took its inspiration, leadership and rhetoric from evangelical Protestantism. Its leaders recognized that the movement’s ultimate success rested less on a change in the laws than on a change in the hearts of white Southerners. That change came about because whites responded to the Christian message that they shared with the civil rights movement.

Heyrman astutely discerns and describes the inherent tension in evangelicalism: It demands a renunciation of all worldly things even as it commands its adherents to participate in the world to save lost souls, an endeavor that perforce demands engagement in and compromises with the very forces it opposes. This has meant that American evangelicals have always had an extraordinarily complicated relationship with the broader American culture, as Carpenter elucidates in “Revive Us Again,” a historical analysis of fundamentalism, which was mid-20th century America’s most successful strain of evangelicalism. Carpenter has successfully combined institutional, intellectual and cultural history to write the definitive account of the “lost years” of American fundamentalism: the period from its nadir following the Scopes trial in 1925, when it seemed to have lost all influence and prestige in the culture at large, to 1949 when, following Billy Graham’s triumphant Los Angeles revival, it was poised to transform the religious landscape of postwar America.

It is perhaps a measure of just how far certain elements in the fundamentalist camp have strayed from their roots to recall that during World War I,george-caleb-bingham-early-americana-painting-stump-speaking-1854 liberal Protestants accused fundamentalists of unpatriotic sentiments and even of subversion for their insistence that the struggle was not, as the liberals would have it, “a war to end all wars” and that an American victory would not help realize the Kingdom of God. Because they refuted the idea of human progress, fundamentalists opposed the war, especially when it was rationalized in terms of a holy crusade. Far from desiring a political voice, or even to play an active worldly role, fundamentalists, in the words of the 19th-century conservative revivalist Dwight L. Moody, looked “on the world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’ ”

Fundamentalists, like other evangelicals, took the Gospels’ injunction “Be not conformed to this world” seriously, and Carpenter expertly illuminates what he calls fundamentalists’ “separatist impulse.” He shows how fundamentalists were a truly countercultural force in an America that increasingly embraced modernism, radical individualism and the consumerist ethos. They spurned what they called “the world’s frantic search for empty pleasure,” pursued the “things of God”–prayer, Bible study, fellowship with other believers, efforts to convert others–and insisted on leading their lives, as the saying went, “with eternity’s values in view.”

But an equally powerful set of different, and perhaps antithetical, impulses militated against this separatist world view. For even as they desired to shelter themselves from what Carpenter calls “the threatening blasts of modern life,” fundamentalists believed that, as evangelicals, it was their duty “to go out into the storm and rescue the lost.” Arguably, these impulses could be balanced if fundamentalists could manage to be in the world but not of the world, but Carpenter shows how two factors made such a balance difficult to maintain.

The first was a sense of history and proprietary responsibility. Fundamentalists were haunted by the marginal influence of evangelical Protestantism in the second quarter of the 20th century compared with the extraordinary sway and prestige it enjoyed from the Great Awakening of the 1740s through the urban revivals at the end of the 19th century. Of course, as Carpenter notes, fundamentalists worked not only for what they hoped would be a national revival in order to save souls but also, in keeping with Northern antebellum evangelical thinking, to “heal the land” and create a “Christian America.” This ambition, ironically, contradicted the position that fundamentalists took in World War I and led almost inevitably to a sense of national mission that, in turn, dictated political and cultural engagement.

The second factor, which Carpenter explicates, was the contradiction posed when fundamentalism, a movement that was at once anti-modernist and populist, eagerly, subtly and brilliantly assimilated the latest promotional techniques of mass communication and the style and idiom of popular entertainment to propagate the old-time religion. As early as the 1880s, Moody made himself into a national celebrity. By the early 1940s, fundamentalist Charles Fuller’s “Old Fashioned Revival Hour” was the most popular show on radio; the fundamentalist organization “Youth for Christ” became a national sensation in the mid-’40s thanks to its religious rallies, which were patterned after entertainment revues. And at the end of Carpenter’s story, fundamentalism seemingly regained its lost cultural influence in American life when, with the help of William Randolph Hearst’s publicity machine, Billy Graham became, literally overnight, a national figure.

Historians usually examine fundamentalism’s tremendous resurgence in the mid-20th century United States from the “demand side”; that is, they seek explanations in changes in the public climate, such as a burgeoning concern over the apocalypse engendered by fears of atomic warfare. Carpenter, on the other hand, primarily seeks an explanation from the “supply side”–from new, or newly packaged, “products” that fundamentalists offered to the “market.” When one examines the organization and precision that guided the machinery promoting Billy Graham’s crusades and the sunny manner in which Graham–perhaps the greatest salesman of the century–transformed the Gospels’ otherworldly and uncompromising message into something familiar and easy, it is obvious that Carpenter is right in pointing to fundamentalists’ “product” as an essential factor in their success.

But, as Carpenter realizes, that explanation ultimately suggests larger questions about modern American culture. How is it, for example, that our increasingly commercial, optimistic and hedonistic culture was able to absorb and assimilate, to tame and convert on its own terms, such a countercultural force as fundamentalist Christianity?

We badly need a book on the theme that Alfred Kazin promises to address in “God and the American Writer.” The only work that broadly assesses the subject is Randall Stewart’s out-of-print and neglected gem, “American Literature and Christian Doctrine.” Stewart’s point of view was orthodox Protestant, and his interpretation could be characterized as “reactionary,” so his brilliant book, which is really an extended essay, is hardly the last word on the subject. Although Kazin’s book, which devotes 12 chapters to discussing 12 different classic American authors, contains interesting assessments of William James and of Herman Melville’s trip to the Holy Land, I would nevertheless advise readers to search for Stewart’s book rather than attempt to wade through Kazin’s, for both stylistic and substantive reasons.

awakening7“God and the American Writer” is extraordinarily diffuse and repetitious. It should have gone through several more drafts and been edited far more carefully. Furthermore, it is not about its ostensible subject. It couldn’t be, since Kazin’s anodyne and New Age-like conception of religion, “the most intimate expression of the human heart,” is too flimsy a framework upon which to hang any meaningful interpretation. Strangely enough, to the extent that the book is about anything, it is about slavery and the Civil War, which Kazin acknowledges in the preface to be one of its central concerns. He explains that a friend recognized that Kazin really wrote the book to explore this topic. Even so, the book is unsound and intemperate on this subject. There is a host of complex and important questions about the relationship between American religion and the Civil War, abolitionism and slavery, which have been explored in Curtis Johnson’s “Redeeming America: Evangelicals and the Road to Civil War,” C.C. Goen’s “Broken Churches, Broken Nation” and Richard Carwardine’s “Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America.” Kazin, however, hasn’t chosen to examine these difficult and subtle issues but, instead, simply uses “God and the American Writer” to register a defiant indictment of slavery, about which there seems already to be some moral consensus.

Kazin, however, misses this point because he confuses one interpretation of the cause of the Civil War, a view he argues against, with a lax moral stand on slavery. The shadow overhanging his book is Edmund Wilson’s “Patriotic Gore,” a book on the literature of the Civil War and among the finest American works of criticism of the second half of the century. Wilson, who was greatly disturbed by what he saw as America’s self-righteous Cold War foreign policy, was repelled by slavery, but he took a cynical view of the moralistic interpretation that the North retroactively imposed on the Civil War. (Gore Vidal and John Updike also embraced this point of view.) To Wilson, and to a number of revisionist historians whom Kazin castigates, the North didn’t fight the war to free the slaves but to consolidate and extend its system of political economy.

Even with his cool and essentially amoral view of the war, Wilson wrote sympathetically of unionists, abolitionists and confederates. Kazin, on the other hand, takes a narrow, didactic and anachronistic view. Rather than condemn Nathaniel Hawthorne’s view of slavery as “maladroit and insensitive,” for instance, he would do better to explain it. And when he criticizes Hawthorne for being more “disturbed” by the prospect of war between the North and South than by slavery, he should remember that the same criticism could be leveled against all the Founding Fathers, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster,1839-methodist-camp-second-great-awakening every antebellum president and, at least until 1863, Abraham Lincoln.

Because in Kazin’s mind to be skeptical of a moralistic interpretation of the Civil War is to be soft on slavery, he feels entitled to take nasty gibes and level accusations at white Southerners, who have traditionally rejected the notion that Northern objectives in the war were altruistic. (Kazin insists on referring to white Southerners as “Southerners,” forgetting that black Southerners, who make up about 20% of the South’s population, have an equal claim to that identity.) He asserts that “the race hatred never end[ed]” in the South and even speculates, with no supporting evidence, that black prisoners are being lynched in Mississippi prisons. In short, he speaks of white Southerners in a mean and shallow manner that he would roundly condemn if the subject were, say, New York Jews. Kazin writes admiringly of Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but he should remember that she also wrote: “Moral justice dissents from the habitual sneer, denunciation and malediction, which have become consecrated forms of piety in speaking of the South.”

Protestant fundamentalism also suffers from Kazin’s simplistic condemnation. In truth, there is much in historical and certainly in contemporary fundamentalism and evangelicalism that could trouble a sensitive observer. But evangelicalism has always reflected and helped form the best, as well as the worst, aspects of the American character. Its adherents have been self-righteously militant but also self-abashingly inward. They have been narrow, petty and mean but also, as Carpenter notes, “sweet-spirited in yielding to their Lord, to each other and to the call to serve in the world’s hard places.” They have made themselves too much at home in the world and even at times succumbed to a most un-Christian racism but, in their hunger and thirst after righteousness, they have also fiercely resisted the temptations of power and privilege and sought to live a holy and just life and to embrace their brethren irrespective of class and race. In short, they have embodied the paradoxes at the heart of our history and culture.

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