31 Mar

Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955)

Will Herberg was an historian of American religion and a sociologist in the mid-twentieth century. Herberg published Protestant, Catholic, Jew in 1955. This book examined the increase in American religiosity and church membership after WWII. Herberg argued that the majority of Americans defined themselves either Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. But, these American did not focus too much on creeds and theologies. Instead, they promoted religion as Americans’ faith in faith. Herberg called this the “American Way of Life.” Herberg’s work foregrounded the relationship between religion and nationalism, what scholars today refer to as American Civil Religion.


In the 1950s, Americans appeared more religious than ever before. According to recent polls, the majority of Americans identified themselves as either Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. Church membership numbers had increased dramatically. Money spent on church construction also increased. Polls also suggested that Americans recognized religious leaders as the ones doing the most good for the country. Religion and the church gained respectability in American social life and politics. American used religion to talk about the “Godless” Communists. Americans also expected public officials to “testify to [their] high esteem for religion. Herberg argues that Americans recognized “religion as a ‘value’ or institution” in American life. Moreover, religion gained a new intellectual prestige in cultural life. Philosophers and theologians were successful in selling their “religious books” as many of them made the best-sellers lists. Religious ideas and topics were also popular in journals of literature, politics, and art. What did this new esteem of religion mean?

Herberg argued that despite people’s profession of religion, they were not actually more religious in any denominational or creedal sense. Rather, Americans’ increased religiosity was evidence of a common religion. Herberg defined America’s common religion as “the American Way of Life.” Robin M. Williams Jr.’s defined “common religion” as common ideas, rituals, and symbols that supplied an overarching sense of unity. According to Herberg, “The American Way of Life is, at bottom, a spiritual structure, a structure of ideas and ideals, of aspirations and values, of beliefs and standards; it synthesizes all that commends itself to the American as the right, the good, and the true in actual life.” The American Way of Life was “an organic structure of ideas, values, and beliefs that constitute a faith common to Americans and genuinely operative in their lives, a faith that markedly influences, and is in influenced by, the ‘official’ religions of American society.” The American Way of Life provided an undergirding unity among Americans with a particular value system as its center. This center upheld certain characteristics as foundational to American life: democracy, the Constitution, free enterprise, equalitarianism, economic competition, high mobility, idealism, individualism, “deeds, not creed,” progress, self-reliance, character, optimism, moralism, and activism. This American Way of Life “is, of course, anchored in the American’s vision of America.” Americans looked to the Puritans who defined America as “the new Israel” and “the Promised Land.” The American Way of Life was also a middle-class way of life. American perceive themselves as a middle-class people. Most importantly the American Way of Life had been shaped by American Protestantism.

Hererg argued that historical religions in America had been “Americanized” and imbibed these qualities.  The American Way of Life had secularized Judaism and Christianity so that they had become “integrated as parts with a larger whole defined by the American Way of Life.”  The American Way of Life promoted the belief of faith in faith. Americans held a common religion based on the elevation of religion as a value. Americans believed in the goodness of religion in general. Herberg attributes the seeming increase in piety, religiosity, and church membership to Americans’ participation in the American Way of Life. Practicing individual religion was a ritual in the American Way of Life.

For Herberg, the American Way of Life was detrimental to Judaism and Christianity. Herberg argues that the American Way of Life looked like the “civic religion of the American people.” According to Herberg, “civic religion has always meant the sanctification of the society and culture of which it is the reflection, and that is one of the reasons why Jewish-Christian faith has always regarded such religion as incurably idolatrous. Civil religion is a religion which validates culture and society, without in any sense bringing them under judgment.” Herberg calls for Americans to recognize the wrong in the American Way of Life, of common religion. He urges Americans to separate common religion from “real” religion. The American Way of Life opposes major tenets of the Jewish-Christian faith. The American Way of Life is too man-centered. There is no sense of the transcendent God and there is no sense of the “nothingness of man.” The American Way of Life promotes a religion that mobilizes God to serve man, instead of mobilizing man to server God. The American Way of Life does not call man to seek humility or his consciousness. Rather, “it is something that assures him about the essential rightness of everything American, his nation, his culture, and himself; something that validates his goals and his ideals instead of calling them into question…[it] offers him salvation in easy terms instead of demanding repentance and a ’broken heart.” For Herberg, the American Way of Life was “a strong and pervasive idolatrous element” in America. American civic religion had co-opted the Jewish-Christian faith in America. American civic religion was at odds with American religions. American civic religion was immoral and bad for the American people.

28 Mar

Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (1997)

Joel A. Carpenter explores the history of the American fundamentalist movement from the 1930s to 1940s. Carpenter argues that “Forced by their failed antimodernist crusades to rely on their own institutional network, fundamentalists spent these years developing a distinct religious movement with an ethos and identity that was different from the various denominational heritages of its members. Promoted by their revivalist heritage to dream of another great religious awakening in America, they set about to make it happen. The result was, if not a national religious revival, a popular resurgence of fundamentalist and other kinds of evangelicalism after World War II” (3). Central to the reemergence of fundamentalism was fundamentalists’ use of media, and the founding of institutions and organizations that served as national networks.


Fundamentalism survived the 1925 Scopes Trial debacle. In fact, the movement thrived as it developed “a complex and widespread institutional network to sustain its activities” (31). Fundamentalists founded Bible colleges and summer Bible conferences, continued foreign missions, engaged in publishing and radio networks, and trained leaders to evangelize. These leaders and institutions connected members across class lines and states. The intuitions and networks were integral to the success of fundamentalism because they allowed fundamentalists to work outside of the established, mainline Protestant denominations, which were experiencing rapid decline in membership. During the early 1930s, fundamentalists “were becoming a distinct religious community” (33). While they flourished, fundamentalists still felt ostracized from American culture and public life. Three factors contributed to this feeling. 1) The popularization and populism of fundamentalism “pitted it against the rising cultural authority of the university-trained expert.” 2) Dispensationalism predicted that orthodox Christians would be a fighting minority in the last days. 3) Once-respected conservatives were no longer taken seriously in public life. Thus, fundamentalists cultivated a separatist impulse of which the institutions and networks were a part.

This separatist impulse was cultivated in other ways through patters of devotion and thought “that marked [fundamentalists], both in the biblical and ordinary sense of the word, as a peculiar people” (57).  Fundamentalists rejected worldly pleasures like drinking, fashion, and dancing. They saw fundamentalism in conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil, and thus developed what Carpenter calls a “militancy and machismo” (66). They also believed in the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and supported Christian primitivism. Fundamentalist piety was characterized by conversion, or New Birth, and an event after conversion called “entering into a ‘higher Christian life’” (76). Fundamentalists viewed the world, history, the church, current events, and the future through dispensationalism. These habits of devotion and thought supported their notions of alienation and gave them purpose. That purpose, although paradoxical, was to quicken revival before the rapture. To bring revival to America, fundamentalists employed “a contemporary religious style by making extensive use of the popular arts and mass media: advertising, popular music and entertainment, broadcast journalism, and radio broadcasting” (125). At the same time, fundamentalists forged a coalition to present a united evangelical front. The National Association of Evangelicals, founded in 1942 and organized by moderate fundamentalists, foregrounded “evangelicals” in American public life. Thereafter, grassroots organizations, like Youth for Christ, set off “the revival of revivalism, which had percolated deep within the fundamentalist movement” (161). Revivalism reached beyond America as fundamentalists and evangelicals committed their efforts to foreign missions.

In 1947, Harold Ockenga called on fundamentalists to unite to win America. Okenga argued that fundamentalism needed “an intellectual overhaul” (193). Others joined in and called for an evangelicalism that “would affirm the great fundamentals but avoid the ‘deficiencies’ of fundamentalism. It would be intellectually engaged, socially aware, balanced and realistic about prophecy, positive about Christian unity, and based on a fresh and relevant rendering of biblical teaching” (201). This evangelicalism spread through colleges and universities among young people. In 1949, fundamentalism experienced the evangelical revivals it had hoped for in the widely popular crusades of Bill Graham, a preacher from North Carolina. Fundamentalism influenced the revival of evangelicalism in America culture and public life.


Revive Us Again serves as a sequel to George M. Marsden’s Fundamentalism in American Culture. Marsden argues that from 1925 to 1940, fundamentalism “was composed of less flexible and more isolated minorities often retreating into separatism, where they could regroup their considerable forces” (164). Marsden directed this conclusion at historians, like Richard Hofstadter, who suggested that fundamentalism was a social aberration destined for extinction. Carpenter examines this separatism more thoroughly to understand how fundamentalism survived and eventually thrived in American culture.  Carpenter convincingly shows how fundamentalism was more than a social aberration destined for extinction. It thrived in the 1930s and 1940s, and influenced the emergence and popularity of twentieth-century evangelicalism.

Revive Us Again is also important for its emphasis on the centrality of media and modernity in religion. Carpenter reminds scholars of Martin Marty’s description of modern evangelicalism: “there has been a symbiosis between unfolding modernity and developing Evangelicalism…Evangelicalism is the characteristic Protestant way of relating to modernity” (234-235). Carpenter concludes that secularism is a blessing to American religion: “In sum, the very secularity of American society—as well as it fluidity and pluriform nature—has made it possible for creative and entrepreneurial religious movements to win a hearing, a following, and, eventually, a measure of respectability” (239). This is an important point. Yet, Carpenter give little room for its explanation. If secularism is a blessing, what does this say about the relationship between secularism and evangelicalism, and, more generally, religion in America? Can evangelicalism exist without secularism? Can secularism exist without evangelicalism? What exactly does this symbiosis mean? Are evangelicalism and secularism of two different or overlapping spheres? What exactly does it mean that fundamentalists and evangelicals used media and secularism to thrive? The nature of the relationship between secularism and evangelicalism needs more parsing. Carpenter is not alone in evading the particularities of this relationship. Many scholars continue to ponder the meaning of secularism and evangelicalism today. Carpenter’s work is important for its emphasis on the centrality of media and secularism in American fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

18 Mar

American Tract Society. “Fashionable Amusements,” Volume 73. Tracts of the American Tract Society: General Series. New York: American Tract Society, 1832.

Amid a growing marketplace and entertainments, the American Tract Society (ATS) produced the tract “Fashionable Amusements” to remind Christians to keep their minds focused on their religious duties. Fashionable amusements included playing cards, dancing, and attending the theatre and plays. The ATS redacted and republished this tract from an 1815 version by the New England Tract Society. “Fashionable Amusements,” went through multiple printings from the 1810s to 1840s. The 1842 version included an image of the dangers of fashionable amusements (Figure 1). The image suggests that Satan, as the serpent, pushed Christians to indulge in fashionable amusements. Christian who participated in amusements danced themselves off a cliff and drowned in an anonymous sea. Amusements led to an unprepared death and the eternal damnation of the soul.

Figure 1. Cover page of “Fashionable Amusements,” Volume 73. Tracts of the American Tract Society: General Series. New York: American Tract Society, 1832.

Figure 1. Cover page of “Fashionable Amusements,” Volume 73. Tracts of the American Tract Society: General Series. New York: American Tract Society, 1832.

The tract puts forth and then refutes four arguments that “have frequently been adduced in favor of fashionable amusements.”[1] 1) Some Christians argue that fashionable amusements are not forbidden in Scripture. The author suggested that while they are not forbidden specifically, they are forbidden given the general tenor of Scripture. 2) Some Christians suggested that fashionable amusements are innocent because “many professed Christians indulge in them.”[2] The author counters that truly pious Christians, especially youth, profess their faith by engaging in appropriate activities, and following the cause and actions of Jesus. “Without such proofs of piety, however much we may respect them, they have no claim to authority as Christians.”[3] 3) Some argued that these amusements were a means of relaxation and enhanced religious duties. The tract insisted that these entertainments only promoted excessive neglect of religious duties. Amusements contradicted “those parts of Scripture which require Christians to separate themselves from the world, that they may live a pious life.”[4] Moreover, “Indulgence in these amusements is objectionable, even as a relaxation from secular concerns” since they make people more anxious than relaxed.[5] 4) Finally, some Christians argued that “the evil is past all remedy” and, thus, fashionable amusements should be been absorbed into Christian life. The author suggests that these entertainments are still sins and that God does not abide sin.

Fashionable amusements should be avoided, furthermore, because they are inconsistent with the general tenor of Scriptures. They are expensive and a waste of time. They waste not only earthly time, but eternal time. They led to the eternal punishment of the soul at judgment. Amusements “prevent the acquisition of valuable accomplishments,” including manners, taste, knowledge of business, and habits if industry. They also “unfit the mind for religious duties” and “communion with God.”[6] This includes inducing those called “to mourn the recent loss of friends” to refuse attendance. Mourning was a religious duty in the nineteenth-century that trained Christians to be ever mindful of the need of spiritual preparation before death. Mourning directed proper and timely religious formation. It reminded people of the nearness of death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Engaging in fashionable amusements suggested that “reference to particular doctrines of the Gospel, and especially to the momentous topics of death, judgment, and eternity, is proscribed as altogether impertinent.”[7] In other words, fashionable amusements kept people from contemplating the most serious and important aspects of their salvation: eternal life after death.

“Fashionable Amusements” points to several themes in nineteenth-century evangelicalism worth exploring in further detail. Evangelicals recognized the distinction between the secular and religious spheres. The secular sphere was not defined as fashionable amusements, or things which Christians should steer clear. The secular included everyday concerns, or the work that Christians took part in, including farming and mechanical work. Fashionable amusements were detriments to religious duties and secular concerns. They pulled Christians further into worldliness. But, worldliness was not the same thing as “the secular.”

The tract’s attention to worldliness is important. Christians were supposed to be focused on the next world, the world where their souls would live after death. The emphasis on the next world does not mean that Christians should not participate in the secular sphere. It meant that the ultimate meaning in this world was training oneself to communion with God after death. Salvation meant preparing oneself for heaven so that the soul could rest with God in eternity. This training focused heavily on the themes of mourning, Satan, death, hell, and judgment for spiritual preparation. This attention to the next world is important because it reminds historians that many evangelicals took supernaturalism seriously and were attentive to death and the afterlife in ways that twenty-first century Americans are not. The presence of death and the next world were always near for nineteenth-century Americans. Salvation prepared one for the afterlife. Participating in fashionable amusements wasted Christians’ earthly and eternal time.

[1] American Tract Society, Fashionable Amusements, vol. 73, Tracts of the American Tract Society: General Series (New York: American Tract Society, 1832), 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 9, 11.

[7] Ibid., 11.