Religion and American Culture

During the last several weeks I had the opportunity to read Religion and American Culture by George M. Marsden. This will be the third time that I’ve read the book. I read it while I was in graduate school, and then I read it again in cooperation with my department at Trinity Christian College during the summer of 2005. I have found it incredibly insightful every time that I have read it.

Along with Mark Noll, Marsden is a historian of American Christianity and has led the late twentieth century revival of interest in the history of American religion. This is a textbook drawn from secondary sources and his own research, especially in the development of Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism during the 1900s. However, instead just being a history of American Religion or American Christianity, Marsden’s book tries to answer two questions:  1) What does American religion tell us about American culture? and 2) What does American culture tell us about American religion?  If there is a thesis to the book, I think that it is that the United States is both incredibly religious and incredibly secular at the same time. Marsden finds this an incredibly powerful way of engaging the influence that religion has had on American culture and vice versa. He also finds that this reality has caused American history to be different from the history of modern Europe, and that it has created a multitude of ironies in American history itself.

I appreciate Marsden’s emphasis on the dual character of American culture itself, not just Americans. It is easier to admit that some Americans have been more Christian than others. For instance, some Europeans came to America during the 1600s for economic reasons, such as to get land and grow cash crops, while others came for religious reasons, for religious freedom or to set up an ideal Christian community. But Marsden argues that American culture is simultaneously very religious and very secular at just about every point in American history. Some examples:

  • The Constitution is based on a Christian understanding of human nature – that people are sinful and need government, but that since sinners will be the ones governing that government should have built-in limitations. Federalist 51 discusses this at length. But the Constitution itself does not mention God at all, unless one counts the date at the end which includes “in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven.”
  • The development of European transatlantic slavery between the 1400s and 1700s was driven by economic considerations. The emancipation of slaves in northern states after the American Revolution was eased by the fact that their economies were not built on slavery the way that southern states’ economies were. But many Europeans and Americans used Christian arguments for the perpetuation of slavery. Southern culture before the Civil War was deeply Christian and deeply tied to slavery. Abolitionists also used Christian arguments for the elimination of slavery.
  • During the industrialization of the late 1800s, business leaders created and greatly expanded corporations. American jurisprudence treated corporations as persons before the law. But those corporations acted at times in ways that their Christian founders and directors would have found morally unacceptable for an individual.
  • American participation in both World War I and World War II had widespread support from Christians for moral reasons. But during World War II, the United States participated in the firebombing of both German and Japanese population centers, killing tens of thousands of civilian men, women, and children, and then dropped atomic weapons on two Japanese cities.
  • Finally, during the late twentieth century, religious Americans faced a reality where “many Americans are strongly committed to traditional or semitraditional religious and moral values; yet in an era of the vast expansion of government control and regulation, the necessities of public neutrality toward religion seem increasingly to limit areas where distinctive religious views can be freely exercised… Probably the key issue is whether governmental neutrality toward religion will be essentially hostile to all religion by attempting to exclude as much of it as possible from the public sphere, or whether the neutrality will take the form of truly encouraging religious pluralism whenever that is compatible with equity.” (276) Even though Marsden wrote this in 1990, I think that it is incredibly appropriate for today.

I think that Marsden’s formulation – that American culture is simultaneously very Christian and very secular – could be a possible way of viewing aspects of the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder. As I wrote in my entries on the Little House books almost two years ago (whoa), the profile of Christianity in the Little House books seems low for a person who was a lifelong church attender. It may help to explain why religious worship is not mentioned in Little House books until Chapter 21 of On the Banks of Plum Creek, the third book of the chronicle of the Ingalls family life. I have wondered if it is because Laura or Rose were thinking about what their audience might want or whether it was how they viewed the world. As readers of this blog know, I’m still working through all of this.

Thanks for listening.

(The page number reference is from George M. Marsden, Religion and American Culture [San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1990].)

Links:

Religion and American Culture

Amazon’s George Marsden Page

 

 

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Author: johnfry2013

Chair, Department of History, Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, IL

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