Civil Religion, part ten
Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these.
At this point we are looking at the second book for this series: Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, by John Fea. Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.
• • •
“This nation divinely recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of Nations through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God.”
• Suggested resolution to the U.S Constitution
by the National Assoc. of Evangelicals, 1947 & 1954
After World War II, Protestant fundamentalists had split from “modernists” and separated from alliances with those they considered compromisers from biblical faith. They were soon to find reason to distance themselves from more moderate evangelicals (or “neo-evangelicals” as they came to be called), asserting that they were “worldly” in their pursuit of respect from cultural and intellectual elites. They concentrated on building a world of their own consisting of Bible colleges, faith missions, prophecy conferences, and southern denominations and associations. They pretty much took themselves out of the game of cultural engagement.
But three streams of Christian faith continued to flow through American culture in the post-war years to advance their agenda of “Christianizing” the land. John Fea talks about them, and here is a brief summary of his description and analysis.
The Rise of “Evangelicalism”
Evangelicals, especially in light of the Cold War, pressed for a “Christian America” through revivalism by leading evangelists, the construction of evangelical institutions that they hoped would impact intellectual and cultural elites, and the development of parachurch mission ministries that focused on youth, returning soldiers, and college campuses.
A leading figure in a renewed evangelical movement was evangelist Billy Graham.
During the 1940s and 1950s evangelicals wed their hopes for the preservation of Christian America to revival meetings conducted by charismatic preachers. No one was better suited to fulfill this role than Billy Graham. The young preacher, who began his career as an itinerant youth evangelist with the evangelical parachurch organization Youth for Christ, crusaded throughout the United States and the world delivering the message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Graham always understood hi ministry to be more about winning souls than forging a cultural agenda for the nation, but he probably did more to contribute to the evangelical vision of a Christian America than any other figure. Graham used his sermons to rail against what he believed to be America’s pressing moral problems. His messages were filled with jeremiads against divorce, promiscuous sex, materialism, alcohol abuse, and crime. The only way to overcome these social problems eroding the moral fabric of the United States was for individuals to turn to Jesus Christ. The Cold War often served as a backdrop for Graham’s sermons, many of which included anticommunist rants. Unlike the atheistic Soviet Union, the United States was a Christian nation, or at least had the potential to become one if more people would accept Jesus as their personal Savior. (p. 45).
Graham was the public face of those fundamentalists criticized as “neo-evangelicals.” As Fea describes below, these Protestant Christians were not convinced that dropping out of participation in society was the right tactic. Instead, they sought to engage American culture by building a new culture of “evangelicalism” that would actively dialogue with and challenge the growing secularism they saw in the nation’s institutions.
These so-called neo-evangelicals, who included [Harold] Ockenga and theologians Carl F. H. Henry and Edward J. Carnell, had a deep concern for what they perceived to be the decline of Christian culture in the West. They set out to construct institutions, establish publications, and develop intellectual networks to cultivate an evangelical vision of cultural transformation. Neo-evangelicals founded Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, in 1947 as an evangelical divinity school that would reject the separatist tendencies of fundamentalism by engaging in theological and religious dialogue with mainline and liberal Protestantism. The periodical Christianity Today, founded in 1956, was originally designed as a magazine that would bring evangelical theology to bear on American culture. Though Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today, and other similar initiatives were never as successful as the neo-evangelicals had hoped they would be at moving the country in a Christian direction, they did represent significant evangelical attempts to Christianize America. (pp. 45-46).
Though Fea doesn’t mention it (at least at this point in his book), a significant amount of energy was provided to the movement not only by the mass revivals of preachers like Graham, but also through a number of parachurch ministries that sought to evangelize and “disciple” young people. Such groups as Youth for Christ, Navigators, Young Life, and Campus Crusade for Christ penetrated schools, college campuses, and military bases with outreach efforts and Bible studies designed to win a generation for Christ and turn them into lay evangelists.
The full blossoming of evangelicalism would require the dramatic storms of the 1960’s, which provided fertile ground for the movement’s public ascendancy in public awareness and political engagement from 1970 to the early 2000’s.
Disillusionment in Mainline Protestantism
Once fundamentalism fled the scene and the country had been through the devastation of two World Wars and a Great Depression, Mainline Protestantism went through a period of stagnation, even depression. Its optimistic doctrine of “progress” had been seriously wounded. The energy it had gained in the battles with fundamentalists now was dissipated. So the mainline churches were treading water. But, as John Fea suggests, two new foes were gaining ground and soon became the next “enemies” to give them new energy for the fight.
Despite these difficulties, mainline Protestants fought doggedly to maintain their place as the religious custodians of American culture. The fight was no longer against the fundamentalists for control of Protestant denominations. Mainliners now saw themselves engaged in a larger culture war against two emerging forces in American life: secularism and Catholicism. In 1946 The Christian Century, the flagship periodical of mainline Protestantism, ran a thirteen-part series by retiring editor Charles Clayton Morrison entitled, “Can Protestantism Win America?” Morrison noted that membership in mainline churches was growing, but Protestants were losing the battle for cultural influence. The mission of American Protestantism was not only to win souls and bring spiritual nourishment to the faithful, but to win the culture. Morrison lamented that Protestants were abandoning their “ascendant position in the American community” to the forces of secularism and the rising Catholic threat. (p. 46).
Here were some of the problems Morrison cited in his diagnosis of why the Protestant denominations needed revitalization:
- Mainline Protestantism had accommodated too much to American culture and had become sterile.
- Ecumenical leaders had focused too much on dialogue with other religions and had watered down the uniqueness of the Protestant faith and the mission to Christianize America.
- Protestant leaders were too preoccupied with the politics of their own denominations.
So, as Fea writes, “Morrison challenged local churches to see themselves as part of a biblically rooted ecumenical Protestant movement that transcended denominational identities and differences. He believed that if mainline Protestant churches would rally around these ideas they might have a chance to “win America.” (p. 47)
As we’ll see below, there was a season in the 1950’s when these churches began to grow and exercise renewed influence again when a new threat arose, prompting a wave of “civil religion,” led by mainliners.
Resurgence in Roman Catholicism
At the turn of the 20th century, Pope Leo recognized that the situation in the U.S. had changed and would continue to change dramatically. Despite widespread anti-Catholicism stretching back to the founding of the nation, in the latter decades of the 1800’s immigration had swelled the ranks of Catholics in the U.S., and the Church had begun to secure “a foothold in American culture through the establishment of churches, colleges, hospitals, monasteries, and convents” (p. 48). The Pope issued an encyclical called, “On Catholics in the United States,” in which he traced the impact of the Church on America from the beginning, noted the advantageous changes that had taken place in the current day, and urged the leaders of the Church in the U.S. to seize the opportunity to influence the country for the Catholic faith.
Leo was conscious of some profound changes taking place in American life that might lead to a Catholic revival. Catholic immigrants were flooding American shores. In addition to the large number of German and Irish Catholics who had arrived just prior to the Civil War, massive numbers of southern and eastern Europeans were coming to America as part of what has been called the “new immigration.” The demographic makeup of the country was changing, and the Catholic Church was ready to exert its power to Christianize America. As Leo put it, “America seems destined for greater things. Now it is Our wish that the Catholic Church should not only share in, but help bring about, this prospective greatness.” (p. 48)
The bishops, priests, and churches took this challenge to heart and aggressively made their voice known in American culture. As a result, “from 1945 to 1960 the Catholic population in the United States grew by 90 percent.” (p. 49).
Similar growth was seen in the number of bishops, priests, women religious, seminarians, hospitals, parochial schools, and colleges. Catholicism set out to build a “Christian culture” in the United States and in doing so seemed to pay little attention to the nation’s dominant Protestant ethos. The Catholic attempt at Christianizing America required doing battle against the forces of secularism. Catholics led assaults against the secular and anti-Christian nature of popular culture, defended the family and condemned divorce, criticized the materialism of American capitalism, and excoriated communism’s failure to respect the dignity of humanity. Dolan sums this resurgence up well: “Catholic intellectuals believed that Catholicism was more than just a religion, it was an ‘important cultural reality.’” It should pervade every inch of American culture, including “literature, politics, philosophy, indeed even athletics.” (p. 49).
The 1950’s Revival of Protestant Religion
During the 1950s the U.S. population grew by 19 percent, but church attendance grew by 30 percent. Between 1951 and 1961 Protestants added over twelve million people to their ranks. Church giving also boomed. Between 1950 and 1955 financial contributions to some Protestant churches rose by close to 50 percent. (p. 50)
In response to two perceived threats — Catholicism and Communism — Protestants not only grew but also came closer together, as symbolized by Billy Graham’s inclusion of mainline Protestant pastors and leaders in his crusades. This was accompanied by an increased emphasis in the country and in the government upon “civil religion,” reflected in several public symbolic acts, among which were:
- A suggested resolution to the Constitution recognizing Christ’s authority over the nation by the National Association of Evangelicals (see above).
- In 1950, at the founding meeting of the National Council of Churches, they met under the banner, “This Nation under God.”
- In 1954, the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
- In 1955-56, the words “In God We Trust” were added to U.S. currency and became the national motto.
- President Eisenhower urged and practiced “civil religion,” opening his cabinet meetings with prayer and reading a prayer at his inauguration.
Of course, all three of these streams that we’ve described today ran white. However, in the post-war years, another huge cultural movement in the U.S. was gaining momentum. It found its voice in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and along with other countercultural movements of liberation, added a whole new set of ingredients to the mixture of politics and religion in the U.S.