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60The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianityhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/06/the-old-religion-in-a-new-world-the-history-of-north-american-christianity
Sat, 01 Jun 2002 00:00:00 -0400 Historians of American religion have been congratulating themselves of late on the booming state of scholarship in their field. In the past thirty years, according to the editors of a recent anthology, no field of U.S. history has enjoyed a greater renaissance. Moreover, what used to be called church history was concentrated in seminaries and denominational colleges; today, religious his tory pours forth from major research universities. Mark Noll teaches at Wheaton College, which might be described as pan“denominationally evangelical, but he is an outstanding historian of American religion, and his book confirms the excellence of work being done in the field. Before taking it up, however, a look at the larger picture is in order.
It is certainly true that religious history is booming, but rapid growth has generated some problems too. One is the troubling fact that the new research has had little impact on the writing of general U.S. history textbooks, where religion is still virtually invisible. There is also sharp disagreement over whether personal religious beliefs can legitimately enter into the historians scholarly work. For despite the rise of postmodern perspectivism, a religious position is not as acceptable as, for example, a feminist stance. However, these issues have gotten less attention than a more diffuse concern about what American religious history really is, and how it should be approached.
The explosion of scholarship itself naturally blurred the boundaries of the field. In addition, more general shifts in American society”racial strife, massive immigration, multiculturalism, identity politics, postmodernism, and a succession of culture wars”abetted revisionist tendencies among all historians, including those who work in the field of religion. Some scholars question the idea of
religious history as too narrowly nation“bound, if not offensively nationalistic. Other revisionists deny the possibility of any master narrative, or call for a de“centering that would recast the story of religion in America as multiple stories, most of them previously overlooked.
Virtually all agree that historical scholarship must reflect the fact that the U.S. is a post“Protestant land. Others argue that the recent influx of Muslims, Buddhists, and other non“Christians”along with the historic presence of Jews and Native Americans”requires giving the religions of these groups something like equal billing with Christianity. The role of women in American religion also claims greater attention. The same is true of spirituality, understood as the way religion is internalized and reflected in the lives of ordinary believers.
Where does Nolls book fit into this picture? In tackling that question, we begin with a quick look at its contents and structure.
The Old Religion in a New World
, Noll reports, is a revision, expansion, and update of a volume he published a few years ago in Germany as an introduction to the subject for readers in that country. One of its principal aims is to highlight aspects of North American Christianity that distinguish it from Christianity in Europe. To supplement the text, Noll has added two appendices of statistical information on church membership and its regional distribution in the U.S. and Canada, an eight“page chronology of significant events, and a bibliography listing some five hundred books under three major headings and forty“plus subheads.
The contents proper include an introduction, six narrative chapters, five thematic chapters, and a short epilogue. The narrative stresses religious diversity from colonial days on; the hegemonic cultural role of evangelicalism in the early nineteenth century, and its waning influence after the 1830s; the impact of increasing racial and ethnic pluralism after the Civil War; and a mixed scene in the first half of the twentieth century, marked by deep divisions in mainline Protestantism, the impressive growth of Catholicism, and the emergence of new Pentecostal, charismatic, and neo“evangelical impulses. Since the upheaval of the 1960s and the influx of Hispanic and Asian immigrants, the religious picture has become even more mixed, with conservative Christians taking a more active interest in politics and what Noll calls charismatic spirituality exerting a pervasive influence on religion itself.
In situating Nolls book within the context of recent scholarship on American religion, the most obvious point to be made is that it couldnt have been written without the flood of new research. In a chapter selected at random, only fifteen of the sixty books and articles cited were published before 1975. It is likewise obvious that Noll has few peers in his mastery of this enormous literature, and in his ability to synthesize it cogently and present the results in lucid and readable prose. His brief but meaty sketches of Christianitys development in Mexico and Canada provide a useful comparative dimension, and the attention he gives to the views of foreign observers reflects the same aspiration to transcend a narrowly national perspective.
Nolls emphasis on diversity as a defining feature of the American religious scene is also in keeping with recent interpretive trends. Present from the beginning and nourished by the freedom of action valued so highly in the national culture, pluralism among Christian denominations has reached staggering proportions (there are, for example, twenty“two distinct Orthodox churches, thirty“six branches of Methodism, 241 of Pentecostalism), and produced a bewildering array of church“related or religiously inspired organizations that extends from Bread for the World to the National Catholic Conference of Airport Chaplains. Along the same line, Noll singles out racial and ethnic diversity as a key element in the distinctive development of American Christianity. He discusses African“American churches in considerable detail, and ethnicity gets careful attention in the narrative treatment of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Orthodoxy, as well as in a thematic chapter on religio“cultural assimilation.
Noll takes note of the role played by women at various points in the narrative”most notably in discussing Phoebe Palmers influence in the antebellum shift toward inward spirituality and holiness”but he does not treat gender as a way of looking at the whole subject. His thematic chapter on day“to“day spirituality is more clearly in accord with the latest thinking. It covers such topics as the intermingling of formal religion and magic, spiritual reading, hymns, and material Christianity (that is, the use of religious artifacts). Noll finds that most of these popular beliefs and practices are as characteristic of Christianity in Europe as in the United States. Two, however, he identifies as distinctive to this country: the emphasis on personal conversion, and the salience of the Bible in American history and culture. He links conversion to Americans deep respect for the principle of free choice by individuals, and he calls the Bible the only form of religious authority exempted from Americas profound suspicion of the past.
While he thus incorporates in his work a number of revisionist tendencies, Noll is quite clearly a traditionalist in terms of aim and approach. First of all, he has no qualms about offering a master narrative”a synthesis that provides a comprehensive and coherent story. True, he presents it as the story of American Christianity, rather than American religion. But the Christian story reaches so far into the nations past, and is so interwoven in the fabric of national development, that it inevitably comes across as pretty nearly the whole story of American religion. Noll sees the pres ent religious situation as problematic; indeed, he might even concede that post“Christianity is a future possibility. But his book leaves no doubt that he would regard
equal billing for non“Christian religions as a gross distortion of the past.
On the post“Protestant question, Nolls position is more complex. He brings out Protestantisms overwhelming dominance of the religious scene throughout the nineteenth century, and its continuing importance in the twentieth. He also argues that Protestantism played a centrally shaping role in the broader national culture before the Civil War. He cites here the relevance of the idea of covenant for the polity, and the nice fit between Protestant voluntarism and republican liberty. He even strikes a Weberian note in stressing the point that most of the Protestants of the colonial period were Calvinists of one sort or another. That made a difference culturally because Calvinism tied religious concerns more closely to this“worldly activity than was true of other forms of Protestantism.
But Noll also shows that harmony between the dominant religion and the national ethos could lead Protestants to bless prevailing social trends uncritically, thus inadvertently reinforcing secularizing tendencies. And he readily concedes that America is now a post“Protestant land, if by that one means that Protestantism has long since lost its cultural dominance and, though still quite significant religiously, takes its place today as only one among many traditions of belief.
That might be sufficiently post“Protestant to satisfy most revisionists, but Nolls efforts to break out of the narrowly national mold would probably be viewed as less satisfactory. The problem here is American exceptionalism”which to the historiographically virtuous is a grievous matter indeed. The objection that Noll does not claim that American Christianity is an exception to anything would not acquit him of offense, since whatever even squints toward national uniqueness falls under the ban. Noll, of course, explicitly sets out to highlight the differences between American and European Christianity; moreover, purists would probably complain that his sidelights on Mex ico and Canada”despite being in tended to enlarge our horizons”actually serve to reinforce the perception of American distinctiveness.
Nolls book would be open to objections of this sort, but if made how seriously should they be taken? Not at all, in my opinion. Chauvinism, to be sure, distorts, and must be guarded against. But to make a bugaboo of American exceptionalism is just as great a distortion, and it is one to which U.S. historians who came of age since the 60s are far more susceptible. In the case at hand, Noll draws attention to real conditions and actual developments”most notably separation of church and state, unprecedented religious, ethnic, and racial diversity, and the relative harmony that has prevailed between dominant religious and political principles”that have combined historically to make American Christianity distinctive. Surely there is nothing wrong with that.
This book is a splendid achievement, which triumphantly vindicates the authors way of combining new historiographic perspectives with a traditional approach. It is the finest introduction to the subject available, and should be read by anyone who wants to understand our national religious past.
Philip Gleason is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame.
The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Educationhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/01/the-university-gets-religion-religious-studies-in-american-higher-education
Mon, 01 Jan 2001 00:00:00 -0500 D. G. Hart teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary, an institution that serves the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a tiny denomination best known, according to a standard reference work on American religion, for its vigorous affirmation of the truths of historic Christianity and Reformed orthodoxy. That influence shows: although Hart does not say so explicitly, his new book on religious studies in American higher education leaves the reader to conclude that such study can be effectively pursued only in places pretty much like Westminster.
Harts critique is embedded in a historical narrative that proceeds in three phases, becoming more frankly negative the nearer it comes to the present. The first of these phases, 1875“1925, covers the emergence of the modern university and the place of religious activities and religious studies within it. Here Hart adds depth and detail to a revisionist view of the subject that is now well on its way to becoming the conventional wisdom.
The new scholarship shows that the university movement in this country was not nearly so secular in motivation as we used to think. Rather, the principal leaders of the movement”men like Charles W. Eliot, Andrew Dixon White, and Daniel Coit Gilman”were earnest Christians who saw the university as advancing the cause of true religion. While religion may not have been their principal motivation, their religious beliefs reinforced their educational ideals and made the new university a congenial place for various forms of religious activity.
The university founders were, of course, liberal Protestants, and they (particularly White) did actively oppose religions that were dogmatic, authoritarian, or, above all, sectarian. Hart traces the genealogy of this outlook, linking it to the influence of the Enlightenment, especially Scottish common sense philosophy, and to the stress on private judgment and the spiritual freedom of the individual, which was rooted in the Reformation but was carried to its fullest political and cultural expression in American republicanism.
The continuity”indeed, near identity”between their religious beliefs and civic ideology gave Protestant educators a sense of responsibility for the well“being of the national culture, and encouraged them to equate the progress of civilization (which universities would vastly accelerate) with the realization of genuine Christianity. They found contemporary support for this view from liberal theologians like those of Andover Seminary, whose immanentism blurred the distinction between natural and supernatural, who downplayed traditional doctrines such as the atonement, and who preached that the Christians duty was to work for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Since Hart describes himself facetiously as a vinegary, rigid Calvinist, he could hardly endorse this kind of theological liberalism. However, his treatment of the first phase in the evolution of religious studies is relatively benign. Besides exploring the intellectual roots of the movement, he provides a great deal of information about the various forms of pastoral and pedagogical activities carried on, the organizations set up to promote them, and the persons who led them. He also shows how the fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s served as a foil for the promoters of religion in the university, who stressed their nonsectarianism and dedication to academic ideals.
One of Harts recurring themes is the tension between the pastoral/ spiritual aims of the religious studies movement and its commitment to academic standards of scientific neutrality in teaching and research. This tension was present from the beginning and provides the framework for later debates. Another such theme is the status of mainline Protestantism. At the beginning of the story it was so hegemonic that most people assum ed that, being
American faith, Protestantism furnished the obvious subject matter for religious studies in the university. In fact, when religious studies programs began, they simply imported their curriculum from Protestant seminaries, emphasizing the Bible and ethics while leaving out professional courses such as homiletics.
So long as mainline Protestantism dominated the American religious landscape, its dominant status in religious studies seemed perfectly natu ral. That situation continued through the second phase of Harts story (1925“1965), which traces the academic maturing of the movement and its more aggressively religious note. In these years, educational, theo logical, and broader social and political developments combined to enhance the intellectual respectability of religious studies, which became a more or less standard feature of the university scene.
The criticism leveled by Robert M. Hutchins and others at the superficiality of collegiate studies, and the resulting movement to restore the liberal arts and general education to their proper place in the curriculum, only helped the religious studies movement. Religion was, after all, central to the understanding of Western Civilization; for that reason, it was likewise indispensable to true humanistic learning. At the same time, the rise of Neoorthodoxy in Protestant theology”especially the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr”demonstrated anew the relevance of religious thought. That added immensely to the self“confidence with which the promoters of religious studies asserted their claims. The case for the eternal verities took on compelling force for a generation that lived through economic collapse, a war of unprecedented destructiveness, and the continuing threat of nuclear cataclysm.
Thanks to this combination of circumstances”and to the prodigious overall expansion of higher education”religious studies enjoyed its golden age in the two decades after World War II. Secure in its niche among the humanities, religious studies prospered as the academic version of a society“wide revival of religion. Between 1945 and 1960, the number of undergraduate programs jumped from twenty to thirty“eight, and sixteen new Ph.D. programs came into being. In 1953, the
began publication as a high“level journal dedicated to exploring issues of faith and learning in various disciplines.
Hart gives a full account of this era, but argues that a good deal less was going on than met the eye. Rather he detects several kinds of hollowness at its core. True, theology in the university had figuratively ascended in status from campus minister to assistant professor. But as an academic field, it was overly dependent on a few Neoorthodox luminaries who dealt mainly in generalities concerning religion and culture, while the mass of its professors failed to build up a solid body of research on questions proper to theology as such. Hart roundly declares that American Protestant theology at midcentury was a mirage.
Biblical studies, the curricular mainstay of religious studies, had a firmer scholarly base, but there was no consensus as to whether the Bible should be taught as the Word of God, as great literature, or as a founding text of Western Civilization. The pastoral/scholarly tension was particularly marked in this area, as was the sentimentality so characteristic of liberal Protestant attachments to Jesus, whose uniqueness as a religious figure was assumed rather than proved.
Church history, something of a stepchild in the seminary curriculum and in religious studies, was also thought to be prospering in this golden age, but here too Hart diagnoses a weakness. American church history, he reports, suffered from a species of cultural captivity in that its narrative framework derived from U.S. history rather than being structured by strictly ecclesiastical developments, such as the introduction of new religious teachings or . . . liturgical practices.
This last seems more than a little strained. Indeed, Harts appraisal of the whole movement at what he considers its zenith is surprisingly critical. Surprising, that is, until we recall that he is probing for weaknesses that help explain why religious studies fell apart in the last phase of its evolution, which he dates from the mid“sixties. By that time it was clear, in Harts view, that the movement had failed to meet the mark academically. The scholarship coming out of religious studies departments was second“rate, and the leaders of Protestant divinity schools thought the subject pedagogically unsuitable as an undergraduate major for prospective ministerial candidates. But these were minor issues compared to the crisis brought on by the sudden realization that the whole activity, as hitherto carried on, was sectarian. Too Christian! Too Protestant! The tensions that had been there from the outset burst forth, with the result that religious studies secularized just like many Protestant colleges had a century earlier.
Unfortunately, repudiation of the Protestantism that had been its tacit foundation robbed the field of its coherence. An early symptom of the resulting hodgepodge was the transformation in 1964 of the National Association of Biblical Instructors into the inclusive, but invertebrate, American Academy of Religion. A few years later, the too“sectarian
and grandiloquently proposed to make common human concerns its unifying theme. Curricula seemed designed on the let“a“hundred“flowers“bloom principle, and no consensus existed on the methodology proper to the discipline”or whether it even
The fundamental incoherence at the bottom of the disorder is identified by Hart as follows: religious studies derives its subject matter from the determinations of faith communities . . . [but rejects] as unscientific the basis upon which those determinations were made. The conclusion he draws from this shrewd perception, and from the whole of his well“informed analysis, is one that believers may find idiosyncratic and unsettling (as Bruce Kuklick puts it in a dust“jacket endorsement): religion cannot rightfully claim a place in the university precisely because it cannot meet Enlightenment standards of rationality and scientific neutrality on which”postmodernists to the contrary notwithstanding”knowledge as the university understands it is based.
Hart is undoubtedly correct in saying that the history of religious studies shows that commitment to this epistemology inevitably dilutes religion to the disappearing point. Yet contrary to what one might expect, he is an academic fundamentalist about the propriety of the universitys adherence to Enlightenment rationality and scientific neutrality”from which it follows logically enough that religion is well“off without the blessings of the university. What does not follow so logically is why we should assume religion will do better
at places like Westminster Seminary, where its grounding in faith is accepted. For it is not simply the case that the university is incapable of evaluating dogmatic claims and supernaturally inspired texts. The university, rather, rejects the legitimacy of such claims as pathways to knowledge. And so long as the university sets the standard for what constitutes knowledge, faith“based scholarship cannot gain intellectual acceptance regardless of where it is produced.
Historians arent very comfortable with matters epistemological, and Harts skirting this kind of complication is understandable enough. Similarly, his failure to explain in detail why everything started to come unraveled in the 1960s is understandable, since that would require a book in itself. The book he has given us offers richness of information, astute analysis, and provocative interpretation. That is quite enough.
Philip Gleason is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame.