America’s Religious Roller Coaster Ride

Feb 21 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

This is what Amerca's Religious Landscape Has Looked Like Since 1606

The American religious landscape has not been static and unchanging but more like a roller coaster. It’s impossible to say, without being more specific, what you mean by “how it used to be” or “the good old days.” As I showed in my first article in this series, what began as state-sponsored religious terrorism ended in a First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion with the adoption of the Constitution in 1787. More shifts were to follow. After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment expanded the limits of the First Amendment to include the states as well as the federal government: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive to any person life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, had wanted this level of federal oversight in order to protect Americans from the “excesses of democracy” – the tyrannical effects of local legislatures in which a simple majority could deprive minorities of their rights.

As the Robert Bingham, the author of the Fourteenth Amendment told Congress, when states trampled constitutional rights, citizens were powerless.[1] We have seen these forces at work today, for example with California’s Proposition 8, by which an “excess” of democracy deprived a body of citizens of their constitutional rights. Southern states were guilty of doing this as well following the Civil War during the reconstruction process. Thus the Fourteenth Amendment. As Steven Waldman writes, “those who are angry that God has been ‘kicked out’ of public schools shouldn’t blame the ACLU or, for that matter, Thomas Jefferson – but Abraham Lincoln and General Grant. The decisive blow against prayer in school came when Lee surrendered at Appomattox.”[2]

Waldman identifies another source of change: immigration. This is a source of change we see at work today as well, as predominantly Catholic Latinos move into the United States. We have also seen the spread of other religions as a result of immigration – Hindus, Muslims and others. In 1789 the United States was 99 percent protestant. Today it is just over half.[3] The Era of the WASP is at an end, with a resultant loss of White Anglo-Saxon privilege. As Bob Dylan wrote in 1963, at the cusp of the counter-culture revolution, the times they are a changin’.[4] In 1985, he told Cameron Crowe: “”This was definitely a song with a purpose. It was influenced of course by the Irish and Scottish ballads …’Come All Ye Bold Highway Men’, ‘Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens’. I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.”[5]

In 1859 Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species, shaking the very foundations of religion. Christians were horrified. Evolution? What happened to God’s Creation? Ironically, some Christians have sought to co-opt Charles Darwin as a witness for what is euphemistically being called Intelligent Design, conservative Christians turning on its head the opinion of such notables as Wilberforce, Huxley, Darrow and Bryan, who believed that “if evolution was right, creation was wrong.”[6] Christianity has whole-heartedly embraced one of history’s lessons: If you can’t argue inconvenient facts away, you can always change them.

One can well imagine Darwin’s reaction to this news of his “revival”, not to mention that of Huxley, Darrow, Bryan and Wilberforce.

On the other side of the pendulum America has experienced several Protestant religious revivals; each called a “Great Awakening”. The first took place in the 18th century before the Revolutionary War (1734-1750). The Second was from about 1800 to 1840 and saw the rise of such denominations as Seventh-day Adventists, Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism). The Third, from 1890-1910, took place during the social and economic deprivations of the Gilded Age and embraced a social gospel some fundamentalist Christians today deny has any validity.

Glenn Beck, for example, seems as unaware of America’s religious history as he does any other form of history:

Where I go to church, there are members that preach social justice as members–my faith doesn’t–but the members preach social justice all the time. It is a perversion of the gospel. … You want to help out? You help out. It changes you. That’s what the gospel is all about: You.

Social justice was the rallying cry—economic justice and social justice—the rallying cry on both the communist front and the fascist front. That is not an American idea. And if we don’t get off the social justice economic justice bandwagon, if you are not aware of what this is, you are in grave danger. All of our faiths–my faith your faith–whatever your church is, this is infecting all of them.[7]

That’s not to say Beck has been alone in preaching against social justice. As far back as the 19th century Protestant clergy “often gave religious sanction to businessmen’s views” and “were defenders of laissez faire, property and the cult of success”; thus taking a negative view of social reform and state intervention.[8] Just  as religion in general in the United States, the issue of social justice has been a mixed bag and will likely continue to be so.

The Fourth Great Awakening was a modern phenomenon and it is more difficult to attach specific dates to it. Some put it after 1945[9], others the 60s and 70s but there is no consensus on when it happened or, indeed, if it happened at all. Suffice it to say that from the late nineteenth century the phenomenon known as Christian fundamentalism began to develop and the darkness we are seeing spread over the land like the Shadow of Mordor can be traced to the time of the Third Great Awakening. We will look it’s development in future articles. Suffice it to say too that during the entire time covered by this article, post-Revolutionary War to the 20th century, no Christians were persecuted or deprived of their right to practice their religion.

[1] Steven Waldman, Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty (New York: Random House, 2008), 189.

[2] Ibid., 189. See also Edwin Meese III, ed. The Heritage Guide to the Constitution (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2005) for a detailed discussion of the Fourteenth Amendment.

[3] Ibid., 190.


[5] Wikipedia

[6] Reported in the New York Times, May 5, 2007, the question within conservative ranks being, “Does Darwinian theory undermine conservative notions of religion and morality or does it actually support conservative philosophy?” How stunning a development this represents is noted by celebrated historian Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006) who notes that “Seldom in the history of the Christian church have theologians reacted as violently to a non-theological book as they did to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.” Jaroslav Pelikan, “Creation and Causality in the History of Christian Thought,” The Journal of Religion 40 (1960), 246-247.

[7] Emphasis added. Of course, it could be argued that social justice is a Jewish idea, original with Jesus’ ministry in the first century C.E., as some evangelical groups recognize.

[8] See E. V. Toy, Jr., “The National Lay Committee and the National Council of Churches: A Case Study of Protestants in Conflict,” American Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 2, Part 1 (Summer, 1969), pp. 190-209

[9] Ibid.

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