The theme of this book, as the title suggests, is the plentitude of public religious conflict in America between the two world wars. Chapter after chapter recounts struggles between and within religious factions, between religious and nonreligious groups, and within nonreligious spheres where religious concerns had spread their roots. Marty’s angle, however, is to argue that this very situation of plural allegiances and crisscrossing tensions and strains acted (and acts) to hold modern American culture together by neutralizing the force a single allegiance might unleash. Religious and ethnic differences, even oppositions, find their power diverted when social, economic, or political interests bring religious adversaries into what can be rather surprising, even bizarre, coalitions. As Marty notes (quoting E. A. Ross), “One might say that society is sewn together by its inner conflicts.” For individuals, this meant that American culture could call forth two personality types: the “tribalistic” personality and the “pluralistic” personality. Marty supports the latter, but regardless of the individual’s choice, he argues, the general arena of cultural pluralism that America has become saves lives by allowing for inevitable conflicts while blunting single- allegiance fanaticism and its shadow, bloodshed.
To cut to this basic theoretical stance, one would be well- advised to begin a reading of Marty’s book by supplementing the first chapter with section one of the last chapter. In between, Marty presents a substantive and multilayered historical thesis. The thesis is that, first, the nostalgic vision of a homogeneous American paradise of the early twentieth century, a paradise from which we since have been expelled into competition and factionalism, is a fiction. In fact, the period in question was marked by tumultuous conflicts in which religion and religious concerns frequently played a central role. Second, at the heart of those conflicts was the desire of contesting groups to influence American public life. The privileged bearer of that power had long been what is now termed “mainline Protestantism.” Marty’s story details the withering of that privilege as America became an increasingly diverse culture. He asks us to follow him through an account of that gradual erosion, which, while predating the interwar decades, made its impact felt in crucial new respects during those years. The most astonishing feature of that change, he argues, is that “those dominant Anglo- Saxon Protestant peoples, for all the evidences of racism and attachment to privilege they showed, yielded their hegemonic place in the culture more gracefully than one could have expected.” In other words, the shift transpired with precious little bloodshed, all verbal and institutional blustering notwithstanding.
If the myth of early twentieth century American religious homogeneity seems initially plausible, this may be explained in part, according to Marty, by the failure of historians to note that many major and seemingly secular national conflicts of the 1920’s and 1930’s carried or were carried by a religious dimension. The myth also reflects the determination on the part of pastors, theologians, even U.S. presidents during the 1920’s to paint a picture of a religiously serene and peaceful country. Steadiness and security seem to have been the products many of the churches wanted to sell, and among the people were sufficient numbers of buyers. On the national level, the Federal Council of Churches, as the mainstream Protestant clearinghouse for public influence, exuded images of Protestant cooperation, ecumenism, and stability. Liberal Protestant theologians such as the Presbyterian William Adams Brown stirred the Protestant political imagination with powerfully articulated calls for a Protestant national religion. But beneath the tranquil veneer churned subtle local church and civic group rivalries, racial tension, competition between churches, creeping secularism. Popular religion rooted itself more and more in “marginal” (nonmainstream) religious movements. Even within the mainstream churches, many of America’s faithful pursued gospels of wealth and prosperity, eagerly embracing discipleship under the call of a capitalist Jesus billed as “the greatest business executive,” the savior whose parables, as vehicles of the message of “practical self-concern,” stand as “the most powerful advertisements of all time.” Perhaps one of Marty’s favorite observers on the period, the French journalist Andre Siegfried, was wise in suggesting that the moral glue holding Americans together was indeed a common religion, but one centering around materialism and economic prosperity.
Certainly the various Protestant groups held in common a deep sense that America was their country. The country was what it was, and could become what it was meant to be, they assumed, largely as a result of the efforts and influence of “original- stock Protestants.” Without the ongoing centrality of this faction, America would unquestionably falter. Marty’s book is in part concerned with the fundamental question: Whose country is this? His analysis focuses our attention from three angles. First, who were...
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