Comments 4

  1. I wholeheartedly agree until the end when you refer to a former, “lost” state of Christian “cultural dominance.” There never was any such time! When Francis Schaeffer started beating this drum in the 1980s, George Marsden and Mark Noll took him to task in a series of letters that unfortunately are not published but have been available and used by historians of the Evangelical movement.

    There was never a “Christian founding” of the nation; it has always been pluralistic and conflicted. Jefferson wrote his famous “wall of separation” letter about church and state to Jews in New England to reassure them about religious tolerance for non-Christian religions. Not all Christians cared for this tolerance of course. The fractious New England Puritans divided over how to relate to Native Americans, uppity women, and “witches.” Most colonies and then the states were anti-Catholic in their policies, as was Great Britain. Some Christians supported slavery; others did not. Quakers and other Anabaptists were pacifists; others were not and abused them for this. Christians of various kinds were loyal to the revolutionary cause while others remained loyal to Britain. Christian and generally Protestant nativism in the dominant culture was not very favorable to Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, and various “dark” and/or non-Protestant immigrant groups, especially if they tried to establish their own schools. A thriving bilingual German-American culture in many midwestern cities was squashed by the world wars and the “patriotic” anger that was taken out on German and also Dutch Americans. The American flag came into many churches as a result of that unhappy period which is now ironically celebrated as part of the “good old days” of a bygone “Christian America.”

    American pluralism works best when we are honest about our ugly, conflicted past and present, when we treat religious “others” honestly: as distinct, different, and often in disagreement with us. What matters is whether we are curious, open, and engaged with each other’s true views, values, and passions — despite our disagreement, distaste, or non-comprehension. We do not accomplish this if every four years Christians who are generally opposed to or uninterested in ecumenism and interfaith dialogue suddenly become advocates for a theopolitical “Christian unity” based on platforms developed more by pundits than theologians.

    1. David,

      I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. In fact, I teach the very ideas you are arguing to students every semester. You can also do a simple Google search to see that I have often argued vigorously against the “Christian America” thesis in print. In fact, it is kind of amusing to be accused of the opposite tendency because they are usually tying the ropes to hang me for not supporting the notion of America as the “New Jerusalem.” 🙂 I think you misread what I was saying. I do think you can argue that white Protestant Christianity enjoyed a sort of de facto cultural dominance in the nineteenth century due to sheer numerical strength and public influence. The very sources you cite, Marsden and Noll as well as Nathan Hatch, have made that case. But as you say, even as they were enjoying that broad cultural influence America was a dynamically diverse religious melting pot from the beginning. I like Marsden’s view in his “Religion in American Culture” where he portrays the negotiation between “insider” and “outsider” voices and the repositioning of sacred and ssecular as framing the story of religion in America. Actually, all I meant in the final sentence is that people of the culture war mentality are fretting about what they perceive as a loss of cultural dominance. And I think you can make the case that Christianity is less culturally influential that it was a few decades ago. I would make the argument that the culture mentality is partly to blame for that.

      1. Also, a great discussion of the Marsden, Noll, and Shaeffer debate you mentioned with extensive quotes from the letters can be found in Barry Hankins’ “Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America.”

    2. Good! In that case I just wish you had closed with …rather than obsessing over “our loss” of [a mythical] cultural dominance “we” never had.

      If there is a way to speak and think “Christianly” or even to do “culture warring” on that basis, the gospel model seems to emphasize ‘I’ and ‘all’ over ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It is a naked ‘I’ without a trace of identity politics. Christ, of course, did not “engage” his culture as “a Christian.” He is represented to us with a funny kind of ‘I’ that asserts itself confidently to offer itself humbly. Luther’s famous definition of Christian freedom comes to mind: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.