Modern American Religion, Volume II

by Martin E. Marty
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2126

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.

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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 the real and imagined contenders to public influence? Second, what were the responses by which the contending factions defined themselves over against each other? Third, did there exist such an entity as Protestants imagined themselves to be, or was the truth that Protestantism had itself become quite hopelessly fractured and diverse?

The decades in question produced “scares” in which thousands, led by the likes of evangelist Billy Sunday, racist social theorists, or Ku Klux Klan bigots undertook knock-out strategies to rid the nation at last of “foreign” influences from liberals, socialists, Slavic and Asian immigrants, political radicals, Jews, Catholics, and Africans. At times the posturing appeared absurdly empty, given settings in the Middletowns of America where the presence of such “alien” elements was virtually nil. But empty it was not. Marty insists that perceived conflict and enmity function to produce the occasion for self- and group- identification and cohesiveness. Groups need enemies. The above- mentioned instances of religious and racial intolerance were localized efforts to define the national identity, efforts undertaken by the most bitterly resentful among those assuming as their birthright the ownership of American culture. And in the racist apologies for newly enacted restrictive U.S. immigration legislation, or in the federal government’s elaborate apparatus for tracking what was by all counts a minuscule number of “unamerican” activists, Marty wants us to see the national expression of this local process. Though churches and religious leaders frequently reacted against the harshest of the varied expressions of tribalism and prejudice which flourished in the early 1920’s, the “100 Percent Americans” were not without their own images of Jesus, including the Jesus of whom Albert Wiggam asserted (in all seriousness), that “had [he] been among us… he would have been president of the First Eugenics Conference.” Ten years later, in the desperation of the Great Depression, such sentiments would again rise in even more hateful tones in the prewar fascist orchestrations composed by the likes of William Pelley, Gerald L. K. Smith, and Father Coughlin.

If many of the scares functioned as imagined mirrors by which some Protestant Americans identified themselves through their exaggerated fears, there were nevertheless real contenders in the arena, contenders also engaged in self-definition in part through their own real and perceived enemies. As Marty pictures them, these non-Protestant groups were not the monolithic institutional bodies their enemies—or even their own members—often assumed them to be. Their conflicts were at times internal to the group, but also emerged over how to respond to outsiders. Further, the presence of nonreligious interests often moved adherents to form quite remarkable coalitions. Marty points out, for example, that liberal Protestants and Reform Jews generally had more dealings with each other than did Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews. Conservative premillenialist Christians, on the other hand, might be found in warm support of Zionist factions in the Conservative and Orthodox Jewish communities. But the role and definition of Zionism (not to mention Jewishness) was itself a divisive issue among Jews. Among “100 Percenters,” it proved more convenient simply to speak (Johannine style) of “the Jews.” Similarly, white Protestants and white Roman Catholics both acted to keep blacks out of their churches, while among blacks themselves there was no consensus among those espousing conventional avenues of religious community, those harboring Garveyite hopes, and those compelled by the religious and social messages of leaders such as Father Divine. And regarding strange coalitions, Marty relates how large numbers of back-to-Africa adherents were shocked to hear of Garvey’s cooperative dealings in 1922 with a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Another serious contender was Roman Catholicism. Though subject as usual to serious inner divisions and rivalries seldom noticed by its enemies, Catholicism, with its pope in Rome, seemed particularly menacing in the estimation of Protestants. Marty reviews the usual suspicions about the Catholic capacity for patriotism, especially as these fears surfaced when Al Smith, a Roman Catholic, ran for U.S. president. Few were the occasions for Protestant and Catholic religious dialogue, though during the Depression many reactionary Protestants did sponsor a lull in their anti-Catholic rhetoric out of respect for the bigotry of Father Coughlin. Otherwise, on many political issues—labor, prohibition, child labor laws—they were on opposite sides of the fence. For their part, Roman Catholics seized upon the image of public influence by offering their support to Roosevelt, especially in his decision to send an official envoy to the Vatican, and in his progressive New Deal policies. Already heated Protestant fears were fanned by political doctrines such as that proclaimed by Monsignor John Ryan (“the Right Reverend New Dealer”) to the effect that “error has not the same rights as truth.” By error, Ryan made quite clear, he meant anything not Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, mainstream Protestants soon found themselves lining up alongside Roman Catholics in support of the basic social goals of the New Deal.

The irony is that Protestants, for all of their claims to cultural centrality, could no longer coherently define themselves. To the Fundamentalists, Protestant modernism was a separate non-Christian religion, alien to God and country. To the modernists, God’s immanence in the fabric of American social, political, and economic institutions called for a gospel that was social and American in its ongoing commitment to the progressive establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth. In the 1930’s both options were confronted by a new radically realistic Protestantism voiced by the Niebuhr brothers and European imports such as Wilhelm Pauck and Paul Tillich. Theologically more conservative—especially concerning the doctrine of original sin—yet politically to the left, the realist movement captured a large share of seminary and academic appointments. But, as Marty tells it, the pastors in their pulpits and among their parishioners could ill afford the luxuries of radical social critique safely promulgated by tenured realists. Liberals would chasten themselves with realist criticisms while continuing to call for a socially effective, flexibly self-correcting gospel. Fundamentalists chose to keep their flame burning in their own “come-outer” Bible schools, churches, radio stations, and publishing houses. As a purveyor of public influence, Protestantism had long ceased to speak with one voice.

Marty warns his readers in the opening chapter that his book is about rhetoric, and is itself a piece of rhetorical writing. In the accounts of the conflicts surveyed, he says, the reader is not to expect new research. Of what is one to be persuaded? What is the expectation Marty aims to meet? Early in the book Marty distinguishes between two responses to the emergence of an America “without one center.” There are those who call for the recentering of America around one restored homogeneous core, and there are those who call for a dialogically constructed center consisting of shared values contributed from the diverse viewpoints of our time. Marty advocates the latter. In other words, he hopes for another of one of those strange (but life- saving) coalitions which he has shown may spring up between adversarial groups who find themselves sharing some unforeseen allegiance in a pluralistic arena. His narrative is designed to illustrate that no other option is feasible, and to persuade us to undertake the necessary dialogue without relinquishing our various corporate identities. His underlying theological conviction is that in such seeming chaos, God is active, carving the rotten wood and riding the lame horse. These themes are crucially relevant to contemporary American dilemmas, and certainly general readers will profit from a careful reading of Marty’s account. And while experts on the individuals and groups that appear in his tale may find few new facts here, what they will find is the construction of a comprehensive and challenging narrative context within which those individuals and groups are assigned fresh roles.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXV, September 21, 1991, p. 171.

Booklist. LXXXVII, May 1, 1991, p. 1676.

Chicago Tribune. June 23, 1991, XIV, p. 2.

Choice. XXIX, September, 1991, p. 123.

The Christian Century. CVIII, May 15, 1991, p. 552.

Commonweal. CXVIII, May 17, 1991, p. 344.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, March 15, 1991, p. 382.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, June 16, 1991, p. 27.

Theology Today. XLVIII, October, 1991, p. 371.

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