|Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics|
By: Ross Douthat
THE LOST WORLD
Somewhere in the dark years between Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the turn of the Second World War’s tide, Wystan Hugh Auden returned to his childhood faith. The poet was living in New York, having emigrated from England shortly before the outbreak of the war, and he began attending services at St. Mark’s in the Bouwerie, an Episcopal parish and New York’s second oldest church. He officially entered Anglican Communion in October 1940, but he would later describe that precise date as less important than the general drift in his thinking about matters of religion, which had been pressing him back toward Christianity for some time.
Some of the reasons for Auden’s conversion were personal—in particular, the experience of being betrayed by his lover Chester Kallman, which Auden later wrote forced him to “know in person what it is like to feel oneself the prey of demonic powers, in both the Greek and Christian sense.” But he had other motives, intellectual and cultural, that were very particular to that specific historical time and place. These motives included the influence of his literary contemporaries. Along with Søren Kierkegaard, Auden would cite two of his fellow English writers, Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis—both members of a famous literary circle that also included J. R. R. Tolkien—as crucial to his return to religious belief, and once in America, he became fast friends with the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his wife, Ursula, as well.
Still more crucial, though, was the political context in which the poet found himself, and his reaction to the totalizing ideologies, Marxist and fascist, that were vying for mastery of Europe. In a 1957 essay on his re-conversion, Auden described a sojourn in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, at a time when the Republican struggle against Francisco Franco’s fascists was a cause célèbre for the West’s liberal intelligentsia. Following the example set by left-wing regimes from Mexico to Moscow, the Republicans had launched a campaign of persecution against the Spanish Catholic Church, and Auden arrived to find that all of the city’s many churches had been closed and its priests exiled or killed. “To my astonishment,” he wrote, “this discovery left me profoundly shocked and disturbed…. I could not help acknowledging that, however I had consciously ignored and rejected the Church for sixteen years, the existence of churches and what went on in them had all the time been very important to me.”
What he felt during his Spanish encounter with left-wing anti-Christianity was similar to his reactions to the anti-Christianity of the right. The “novelty and shock of the Nazis,” Auden wrote, and the blitheness with which Hitler’s acolytes dismissed Christianity “on the grounds that to love one’s neighbor as oneself was a command fit only for effeminate weaklings,” pushed him inexorably toward unavoidable questions. “If, as I am convinced, the Nazis are wrong and we are right, what is it that validates our values and invalidates theirs?” The answer to this question, he wrote later, was part of what “brought me back to the church.” When confronting the phenomenon of modern totalitarianism, he argued, “it was impossible any longer to believe that the values of liberal humanism were self-evident.” Humanism needed to be grounded in something higher than a purely material account of the universe, and in something more compelling than the hope of a secular utopia. Only religious premises could support basic liberal concepts like equality and human rights. Only God could ask human beings, as the poet put it, to “love their crooked neighbor with all their crooked heart.”
Auden being Auden, all of this was later summarized in verse, in two stanzas from his 1973 poem “Thanksgiving.”
Finally, hair-raising things
that Hitler and Stalin were doing
forced me to think about God.
Why was I sure they were wrong?
Wild Kierkegaard, Williams and Lewis
guided me back to belief.
The details of his pilgrimage were distinctive, but in its broad outlines, Auden’s story was emblematic of his era. The disillusionment with the utopias of left and right, the sense of religion as a moral bulwark against totalitarianism, the influence of a generation of brilliant apologists and theologians, even the physical migration from the Old World to the New—these elements in Auden’s return to Christian faith were also crucial elements in the larger postwar revival of American Christianity, which ushered in a kind of Indian summer for orthodox belief.
That age is lost to us now, almost beyond recall. It was the last moment in American life when the churches of the Protestant Mainline still composed something like a religious establishment capable of setting the tone for the culture as a whole. It was a period that saw the reemergence of Evangelical Protestantism as a significant force in American life, trading decades of self-imposed, often-paranoid isolation for cultural engagement and ecumenical revival. It was the peak, in certain ways, of the American Catholic Church, which had passed from a mistrusted immigrant faith to an institution almost unmatched in confidence and prestige, admired even by its fiercest Protestant rivals for the loyalty of its adherents and the vigor of its leaders. Most remarkably, perhaps, it was an era in which the black church, heretofore the most marginal of American Christian traditions, suddenly found itself at the center of the national story and claimed a moral authority unmatched before or since.
The strength of Christianity in this era rested on a foundation of swift demographic growth, as the steady, linear increase to which most American churches were accustomed gave way to a surge in membership and attendance that left denominations and parishes struggling to match supply to the newfound demand. In 1940, churchgoing rates hovered around 40 percent; by the late 1950s, they were close to 50 percent. Religious identification increased more rapidly than usual as well, with church membership growing almost twice as fast as population growth. In 1930, 47 percent of Americans were formally affiliated with a church or denomination; the number had risen to 69 percent in 1960. The prestige of religious leaders rose; for example, a poll from 1957 found that 46 percent of Americans described the clergy as the group “doing the most good” in the nation’s common life, easily outstripping politicians, businessmen, and labor leaders. Enrollments in seminaries and Sunday schools increased steadily, and there was a great surge in church construction: Americans spent $26 million on sacred architecture in 1945, $409 million in 1950, and a billion dollars in 1960. “Not since the close of the Middle Ages,” enthused one of the many advice books pitched to pastors and planning committees, “has there been promise of such able advance in the building arts of the church.” A British journalist, assessing America in the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville, remarked that “we did not need the evidence of polls and church attendance to confirm what we could so easily observe—the walls of new churches rising in town and countryside wherever we went.”
The popular culture partook of the same revivalist spirit. “The theme of religion dominates the non-fiction best sellers,” a Publishers Weekly analysis noted in 1953, “as it has in many of the preceding years.” Scripture sales soared: the distribution of Bibles rose 140 percent between 1949 and 1953. The mutual antagonism between Christians and the entertainment industry lay in the future: From New Testament–themed sword-and-sandal epics like The Robe (1953), Ben-Hur (1959), and Barabbas (1961) to Old Testament dramas like The Ten Commandments (1956), spectacle and piety went hand in hand in postwar Hollywood. (Some of the more amusing casting choices from this era include Victor Mature as Samson, Gregory Peck as King David, and a young Joan Collins as Queen Esther.) Catholic influence in the movie industry was particularly potent, visible in the cooperation between motion picture executives and the Church on decency standards—the famous/infamous Hays Code was written by a Jesuit theologian—and the way that movie stars lined up to play heroic priests and nuns. (For a generation, Charles Morris writes, “the Hollywood priest archetype was the ‘superpadre,’ virile, athletic, compassionate, wise.”) One of the first celebrities in the new medium of television was a Catholic bishop, the great popularizer Fulton Sheen, who delivered a prime-time mix of apologetics and moral advice in a full cape, cassock, and pectoral cross. (Upon receiving an Emmy in 1952, he cracked, “I wish to thank my four writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”) It was an era when “even the juke boxes and disc jockeys,” Sydney Ahlstrom wrote, “provided evidence of a change in public attitudes.”
The Christian renaissance wasn’t just a middlebrow affair. Taken on its own, the upsurge in church attendance could be chalked up to purely sociological factors (the return of veterans from war, the growth of the suburbs, the consequences of the baby boom), and the popular culture’s religious turn to simple trend-chasing by publishers and movie executives. But there was a shift in the intellectual climate as well, which suggests that something deeper was happening—that the experience of the 1930s and 1940s had really prompted a broader reassessment of the modern story, and that the same feelings that had impelled Auden back to Christianity were at work in society as a whole. After the death camps and the gulag, it was harder to credit the naive progressive belief that the modern age represented a long march toward ever-greater enlightenment and peace, or that humanity was capable of relying for salvation on its own capacities alone. Instead, there was a sudden demand for writers who could revise the story that modernity told about itself—explaining what had gone wrong, and why, with reference to ideas and traditions that an earlier generation’s intelligentsia had dismissed as irrelevant and out-of-date.
A host of thinkers answered this call. Not of all them were explicitly religious; their commitments ranged from the idiosyncratic European traditionalism of Eric Voegelin to the antitotalitarian liberalism of Hannah Arendt, from the continental socialism of Theodor Adorno to the very American conservatism of Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk. But they all contributed to a mood of historical and philosophical reassessment, in which the Christian past was mined for insights into the present situation, and the religious vision of a fallen world was suddenly more intellectually respectable than it had been for decades. Western liberalism originally sprang, in many ways, from Christian sources, and in the shadow of totalitarianism, the old Victorian-era debates over Darwinism, biblical criticism, and the like seemed less pressing than they once had, and the commonalities between the two traditions came rushing to the surface. From the halls of the United Nations (where the Catholic philosoper Jacques Maritain played a small but crucial role in the writing of the Declaration on Human Rights) to the streets of the Jim Crow South (where ministers and priests were joining arms with left-wing activists in the name of human brotherhood), the intertwining causes of democracy, civil rights, and anti-Communism provided orthodox Christians and secular liberals with a set of common purposes and a temporary common ground.
The result was an era in which religious intellectuals such as C. S. Lewis, Paul Tillich, and John Courtney Murray regularly graced the cover of Time magazine; in which the prolific historians Christopher Dawson and Arnold Toynbee (another Time cover subject) attempted sweeping syntheses of Western history from a Christian point of view; in which the work of writers like William F. Buckley and Whittaker Chambers helped forge a conservative anti-Communism rooted in religious faith.
It was a golden age for Christian literature as well, a time when the Anglosphere’s three greatest poets (Auden, Eliot, and the young Robert Lowell) were all Christian converts; when Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene were at the height of their powers and Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor were just coming into their own; when Lewis and Tolkien were publishing the twentieth century’s two most enduring works of Christian fantasy. Catholicism had been a fossilized substrate in the works of Lost Generation novelists, but the midcentury literary scene was crowded with self-consciously Catholic writers, many of them unjustly neglected today: J. F. Powers, Jean Stafford, Edwin O’Connor, Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate, and Walter Miller. And not only novelists; the two greatest spiritual memoirs of the twentieth century were produced within five years of each other, when Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) was followed by Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness in 1952.
Indeed, from the vantage point of the current religious moment, perhaps the most striking features of the midcentury revival are the ways in which mass-market faith and highbrow religiosity seemed to complement each other. The revival meetings in the Bible Belt coincided with what Commentary’s Will Herberg called the “religious stirring on campus”; the surge in church attendance in the heartland was mirrored in a sudden tendency for intellectuals to identify themselves, if not necessarily as believers, then at least as what one journalist termed “fellow travelers of faith.” As a writer for the Times Literary Supplement put it in 1954, both “the social climate for religious living” and “the intellectual climate for religious thinking” became “much more congenial” in the years following World War II.
Asked to assess “the revival of religion,” a major American theologian took note of this parallelism: “Mass conversions under the ministrations of popular evangelists,” he wrote in the Sunday New York Times, were suddenly proceeding at a pace unseen “since the days of Billy Sunday.” At the same time, there was an unexpected “receptivity toward the message of the historic faiths” among intellectuals, “which is in marked contrast to the indifference or hostility of past decades.” Among academic students of religion, especially, a “defensive attitude” about their subject has given way to a “conviction of the importance and relevance of the ‘message’ of the Bible, as distinguished from the message of, say, Plato, on the one hand, or Herbert Spencer, on the other.”
Or, as another observer put it: “The avante-garde is becoming old-fashioned; religion is the latest thing.”
* * *
A kind of Christian convergence was the defining feature of this era. In the postwar revival, the divided houses of American Christendom didn’t just grow, they grew closer together, reengaged with one another after decades of fragmentation and self-segregation. Four figures in particular—a Protestant intellectual, an Evangelical preacher, a Catholic bishop, and an African-American prophet—embodied this convergence.
The intellectual was Reinhold Niebuhr, author of the New York Times essay quoted above and a thinker who embodied the trend that he was describing. Niebuhr was the ideal type of a species all but lost to us today: the public theologian, deeply engaged in a particular Christian tradition—in his case, a “neo-orthodox” Protestantism—but capable of setting the agenda for the secular world as well. There were many such figures in the postwar era, and many of them had some sort of continental pedigree, from Auden-esque émigrés like Jacques Maritain and Paul Tillich to Europeans whose ideas crossed the Atlantic, even if they themselves did not: Protestants Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Denis de Rougemont (Auden’s favorable 1941 review of de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World was one of the first public clues to his conversion); Catholics Etienne Gilson, Yves Congar, and Henri de Lubac; the Eastern Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev; the unclassifiable Simone Weil.
But the Missouri-born Niebuhr loomed over them all. He was the leading thinker of the Mainline Protestant establishment in its last years of cultural supremacy, the most sophisticated interpreter of the American soul at a moment when the United States had suddenly achieved global preeminence, the conscience of a deeply religious nation reckoning with the moral perils of the nuclear age. For a generation of intellectuals and academics, his preachings and writings offered a model of highbrow Christianity and a reason to look anew at religious faith. For a generation of American policy makers wrestling with the challenges of the Cold War, he supplied a compelling vocabulary for thinking about the relationship between morality and politics in a fallen world. In the popular religious culture, his Serenity Prayer was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous (itself one of the most enduring institutional legacies of the midcentury revival), and soon claimed a place alongside the Our Father and the Hail Mary in the vernacular of American piety. In death, he has become a kind of universal intellectual, claimed as an inspiration by Protestants and Catholics, liberals and neoconservatives, believers and atheists alike.
He was an unlikely figure to become a pillar of the East Coast religious establishment. Born to a German Calvinist pastor in the Middle West of 1892, Niebuhr was educated in the middling academies of his denomination before making the leap to Yale’s School of Religion during World War I. (On the Ivy League campus, he wrote to a friend, his lack of intellectual training or East Coast polish made him feel like a “mongrel among thoroughbreds.”) The first thirteen years of his public career were spent as the pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, where he gained a reputation for what one biographer, Larry L. Rasmussen, calls “volcanic activity”: he was constantly preaching, writing, and traveling; throwing himself into the controversies of his city, his denomination, and his country. In the late 1920s, this activity brought him to the attention of Henry Sloane Coffin, dean of Union Theological Seminary in New York, the Mainline’s flagship school, who decided to offer the thirty-something Niebuhr a teaching position despite his conspicuous lack of a Ph.D. The faculty was skeptical, and the young minister had his appointment approved by a mere one-vote margin. But as Richard Wightman Fox writes, his electric impact on the Union campus soon vindicated Coffin’s judgment:
Already a celebrity on the Protestant circuit, he instantly drew circles of students around him. They dogged his steps as he careered through the hallways, they sat wide-eyed in the Common Room after lunch and dinner while he issued rapid-fire commentary on world events, they struggled to record even a small portion of his lectures as his words raced ahead to keep up with his mind. They flocked to chapel to hear him roar and watch him gesticulate: his words rolled down like waters, his ideas like a never-ending stream. Thoughts piled up on other thoughts with such speed that sentences were often abandoned halfway through, overwhelmed by the more potent images that followed. He worked usually from a one-page outline, having long before found it difficult to read aloud from a text…. Certain vital items like Biblical passages or literary allusions he memorized. Otherwise it was the free flow of an inspired mind, summoning a favorite Old Testament verse in an affectionate whisper, playing excitedly with some key irony of human living or paradox of Christian belief, clamoring with fists clenched for an end to Christian complacency and the dawn of a militant church fighting eyeball to eyeball with the principalities and powers.
When Niebuhr arrived at Union, the seminary and the denominations it served were dominated by modernist theology, which had been developed in the late Victorian era as a response to the twin challenges posed to Christianity by Darwinism and historical criticism of the Bible. The modernists’ goal was to adapt Christianity to the new scientific and historical consensus, and to maintain the relevance of faith in an intellectual climate suddenly grown dismissive of the authority of Scripture. To this end, they stressed ethics rather than eschatology; social reform rather than confessional debate; symbolic and allegorical interpretations of the Bible rather than more literal readings. Their great project was the Social Gospel, which urged believers to embrace an “applied Christianity” that would put Jesus’ commandments into practice here and now, through legislation as well as conversion, law as well as grace.
Some aspects of modernism were compatible with traditional Christianity, and many Protestants in the churches influenced by the modernist project retained a recognizably orthodox faith—albeit one that allowed room for Darwin-inspired doubts about the more literal interpretations of certain Bible passages, and that placed special stress on the obligation to convert societies as well as individuals to Christian ethics. But it was easy to go further. A famous cartoon from the era depicted theological liberals descending step by step from Christianity to atheism; the steps are labeled Bible Not Infallible, No Virgin Birth, and No Resurrection—and many modernists fit the caricature. They tried to strip away anything transcendent or mysterious in Christianity; they scoffed at the miraculous and dismissed creeds and confessions as irrelevant. They downgraded original sin and placed their faith in what Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) rather overoptimistically called “the immense latent perfectability in human nature.” Instead of merely reconciling their faith to Darwinian science, they subordinated their faith to a vulgar Social Darwinism, which divinized capital-P Progress and treated the unfolding of secular history itself as the only dispositive revelation of God’s purposes on earth.
In Europe, the modernist project died in the trenches of World War I, its utopianism gassed and machine-gunned and garroted on barbed wire. In the wake of that catastrophe, the young German theologian Karl Barth published his Epistle to the Romans (1922), a commentary on Saint Paul that doubled as a long attack on every kind of Christian accommodation—to history, to humanism, to the nation-state, to fashionable ideas of progress and development and reform. Barth preached a return to “the strange world of the Bible,” a return to original sin and transcendent hope, a return to the idea of God as a mysterious Other whose purposes could not be comprehended by the fallen mortal mind. He emphasized the limits of human knowledge and the absolute demands of divine revelation, rejecting the confident rationalism of liberal theologians in favor of the existentialism of Luther, Kierkegaard, and Augustine. And he depicted World War I as the inevitable end point of a theology that made human aspirations rather than the biblical God the measure of all things. “They have wished to experience the known god of this world,” Barth wrote of the modernists. “Well! They have experienced him!”
Barth’s “bombshell in the playground of the theologians,” as his Catholic contemporary Karl Adam called it, took some time to find an audience (or even a translator, for that matter) in the United States. But by the 1930s, with storm clouds gathering once again in Europe and our nation sunk in the Great Depression, the time was ripe for a reassessment of modernism’s worldliness and for a return to aspects of Christianity that the liberal theologians had downgraded or ignored.
From his position at Union Seminary, Niebuhr became the central figure in this reconsideration. He had grown up with modernist theology, but the more he immersed himself in the political and social controversies of his era, the more overoptimistic and implausible the modernist project came to seem. “About midway in my ministry,” he wrote in 1939, “which extends roughly from the peace of Versailles to the peace of Munich … I underwent a fairly complete conversion of thought which involved rejection of almost all the liberal theological ideals and ideas with which I ventured forth in 1915.”
In their place he championed what came to be known as neo-orthodoxy (Niebuhr preferred the term prophetic Christianity), which dismissed modernism’s blithe cosmic optimism and insisted on the relevance of traditional Christian concepts like original sin and divine judgment. (In the much-quoted words of Niebuhr’s brother, Richard, the modernists were guilty of believing that “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”) The details differed from thinker to thinker, but the overall pattern of neo-orthodoxy held: a rejection of utopianism in all its forms; a return to Protestantism’s Reformation roots; a renewed interest in creedal, confessional, and liturgical issues; a stress on the saving life and death (as opposed to just the ethical message) of Jesus Christ; and a demand for Christian humility in the face of the mysteries of God’s purposes.
Niebuhr’s particular emphasis was on humanity’s irredeemable sinfulness—what his fellow Union professor John Bennett called “the stubbornness of evil in the human situation,” which no philosophy can overcome and no political regime can legislate away. However, this pessimism did not lead him to abandon politics entirely, or even to break with the political left. (He famously rejected the pacifism of the interwar period, but he continued to call himself a socialist, and eventually embraced Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.) Instead, he preached a chastened form of Christian liberalism, which was alive to the possibility of social reform but constantly attuned to the realities of power and to the perpetual temptations of hubris, self-righteousness, and pride. “There is … no cultural or scientific task, and no social or political problem,” he wrote in the 1940s, “in which men do not face new possibilities of the good and the obligation to realize them.” But, at the same time, “every effort and pretention to complete life … or to eliminate the final corruptions of history must be disavowed.” For Niebuhr, the quest for reform was authentically Christian; the quest for utopia was a dangerous and destructive heresy.
This message found a wide audience in the world of the postwar revival. Sydney Ahlstrom writes, “If one looks to the remarkable way in which theology and theologians loomed up during the forties in the nation’s moral, intellectual and cultural life … neo-orthodoxy becomes essential to an adequate explanation.” The movement’s influence touched nearly every Mainline denomination, through figures such as Episcopalian theologian Walter Lowrie, Congregationalist Douglas Lawrie, Methodist Edwin Lewis, and many more. It reached upward to great ecumenical organizations like the Federal (later National) Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, whose founding conference featured addresses from Niebuhr and Karl Barth, and downward to the parish level, where there was renewed emphasis in many Protestant churches on Scripture, creeds, and formal liturgy.
A Niebuhrian worldview also radiated outward into national politics, calling America’s leaders to a sober realism, a reluctant shouldering of adult responsibilities in a world inevitably deformed by sin. George Kennan would later describe his famous “Long Telegram” from Moscow as a document written in the form of “a seventeenth-century Protestant sermon,” and the entire American political class’s understanding of their Cold War mission partook of the same spirit. In this climate, the classic image of an “American Adam,” born innocent of the Old World’s stamp of sin, gave way to an image of the United States as a post-Edenic Adam—Adam as “a tragic hero,” Jason Stevens writes, “bearing History as his cross.”
Even among the secular intelligentsia, the idea of a Christian realism, neither innocent nor cynical, appealed to many people who had seen their utopian hopes dashed by the lived experience of fascism and (especially) Communism. Many socialist intellectuals, Stevens points out, “had come from inherited religious backgrounds that they were either trying to lose or renovate.” Once the realities of left-wing totalitarianism became apparent, their credulous former support for the Soviet Union inspired a potent sense of quasi-Christian guilt—which was often “peculiarly expressed,” Stevens writes, in the “post-Edenic themes pronounced in American’s Protestant past.” Sometimes this guilt carried them all the way back to Protestantism itself, as with Whittaker Chambers, Soviet spy turned Quaker memoirist. More often, though, it inspired a general sympathy for the neo-orthodox worldview that stopped somewhat short of actual Christian belief, a dynamic captured in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s famous crack that he intended to start a movement of “atheists for Niebuhr.”
During this era the Protestant Mainline enjoyed a kind of twilight glow. The years of the Niebuhrs and neo-orthodoxy were the last years that Presbyterians and United Methodists and Episcopalians and Lutherans would see a sustained growth in membership, the last era during which Mainline churches conducted serious missionary efforts overseas, the last period when leadership seemed to care as much about evangelization as about political activism. This was the last era when the Mainline seemed to have a particular culture all its own—when magazines with names like Presbyterian Life and The American Lutheran reached millions of subscribers, when Mainline intellectuals had enough confidence in their faith to talk without embarrassment about “winning America” for Protestantism, and when their denominations had enough money and manpower to build new churches almost as quickly as other branches of American Christianity.
Perhaps the emblematic project of this period was the National Council of Churches’ new Manhattan headquarters, a nineteen-story skyscraper intended as a kind of “Protestant Vatican” that all Mainline churches could call home. The money for the Interchurch Center came from the Northern Baptist John D. Rockefeller Jr., who guaranteed the NCC a rent-free ninety-nine-year lease. The cornerstone had been excavated from the marketplace of ancient Corinth—the place, as the next day’s New York Times noted, “where the New Testament reports the apostle Paul ‘stayed a year and six months teaching the word of God.’”
That stone was laid in the autumn of 1958 by Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, whose grand progress from Riverside Church to the construction site was joined by two hundred choristers, three hundred religious leaders, and thirty-seven banners representing the various denominational participants. The spirit of the ceremony was the spirit of the age: a celebration of Christian convergence and institutional vitality, in which thirty thousand people heard the president of the United States hail the nation’s churches as “sturdy defenders of the Constitutional and God-given rights of each citizen,” and describe religion itself as the “firm foundation” of the nation’s moral life. Readers of the next day’s Times were informed, by no less an authority than the president of the United Nations General Assembly, that the new center’s main purpose was to “draw together the scattered sheep” of Jesus Christ.
When it came time, some years later, for New York City to rename the street in front of the center, there was only one possibility. To this day, the section of West 120th Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive is known as Reinhold Niebuhr Place.
* * *
Less than a year before Eisenhower made his pilgrimage to Morningside Heights, New York City played host to a very different but equally emblematic gathering: Billy Graham’s famous Manhattan crusade. Graham had been the nation’s most celebrated revivalist for almost a decade, but even by his standards the New York event was an extraordinary undertaking; the nightly services featured a four-thousand-member choir, three thousand ushers, and thousands of counselors ready to assist anyone who came forward to answer Graham’s call for conversion. For sixteen weeks, the famous evangelist preached at Madison Square Garden, drawing almost twenty thousand people a night in what was supposed to be the world’s capital of scoffing, sophisticated skepticism. (The mass media was completely won over: ABC began broadcasting an hourlong segment from the revival, and the New York Times took to printing the texts of his sermons—“as though he were some international dignitary addressing the United Nations,” David Aikman notes.) In midsummer, Graham drew 100,000 people to Yankee Stadium, breaking the record set by the Joe Louis–Max Baer fight a decade earlier. On the final weekend, Labor Day of 1957, a similar number crowded Times Square to hear Graham exhort them to turn their hearts over to Jesus Christ, temporarily transforming Forty-second and Broadway into a vast cathedral, pillared with skyscrapers and vaulted by the sky.
Graham’s rise to eminence was even more unlikely than Niebuhr’s. He was reared in Depression-era poverty in rural North Carolinia: His father was a dairy farmer with only three years of formal schooling, and Graham himself was an indifferent student who bounced from Bible college to Bible college in the 1930s before getting his diploma (and meeting his wife, Ruth, which was perhaps more crucial) at Illinois’s Wheaton College in the early 1940s. By then he had discovered his gift for preaching, and he spent the rest of that decade making his way up the revival-circuit ladder, as a field representative for Youth for Christ and then as a celebrity preacher in his own right, who burst into the nation’s consciousness (thanks in part to some boosterism from the Hearst newspaper chain) during a huge tent-meeting revival in Los Angeles in 1949. By the middle of the following decade, he had become the public face of American Christianity—an astonishing feat for a preacher from what was supposed to be a marginalized and fading religious tradition.
That tradition was Evangelical Christianity. In the nineteenth century, the term “evangelical” simply described the characteristic style of American Christianity in the aftermath of the Second Great Awakening: a Protestantism that emphasized biblical authority, personal conversion, and public evangelization. Prior to the rise of modernism, Evangelicals effectively were the Mainline. But the challenge of Darwinism and biblical criticism threw this style of faith into crisis. From the 1920s onward, American Evangelicals responded by retreating into the intellectual cul-de-sac of fundamentalism, losing a long battle with modernists for control of the major Protestant churches along the way. (Of the major Protestant bodies, only the Southern Baptist Convention remained a stronghold of Evangelical piety and belief.)
Just as many modernists saw themselves as loyal believers trying to make the Christian religion intelligible in an age of growing doubt, many of the Evangelicals who turned to fundamentalism during the 1910s and 1920s saw themselves as simply carrying on the unbroken traditions of their ancestors in faith. (The five “fundamentals” from which the fundamentalist movement took its name were mainly just a restatement of orthodox Christian beliefs—the divine inspiration of the Bible, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Christ, the historical reality of his miracles, and the atoning purpose of his crucifixion.) But, just as many modernists had slipped inexorably toward a quasi-Christian religion of progress, many fundamentalists gradually embraced interpretations of the Bible that would have been foreign to earlier Christian authorities, and looked untenable in the light of modern scholarship.
In their haste to defend scriptural authority against scoffing scientists and academic critics, fundamentalists adopted a radical literalism—including the deadly “six 24-hour days” reading of Genesis 1—that their Protestant forebears had traditionally rejected. (“He who would learn astronomy,” John Calvin wrote of Genesis 1, “let him go elsewhere.”) Meanwhile, their political and cultural anxieties left them prey to millenarian scenarios, chief among them the “dispensationalist” reading of Scripture popularized in the 1910s by Cyrus Scofield’s bestselling Scofield Reference Bible, which claimed to trace, with quasiscientific precision, a series of stages in salvation history that would soon culminate in the Second Coming of Christ. (This was the first time that the now-commonplace idea of a “Rapture” of believers entered Christian thought.)
Equipped with this mix of textual literalism and analytic pseudorigor, fundamentalism could claim to have a biblically based schematic for interpreting all of modern history—a kind of Christian version of Marxism, one might say, that offered all the answers to anyone willing to embrace its self-enclosed system of interpretation. This self-enclosure was cemented in the 1920s, when fundamentalists chose a courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee, as the central front in their battle against modernism, evolution in school textbooks as their enemy, and William Jennings Bryan as their general—and lost resoundingly.
In the aftermath of the Darwin wars, fundamentalists were either pushed to the margins of the major Protestant churches or else jumped ship to found their own denominations, and what remained of nineteenth-century Protestantism’s institutional inheritance (seminaries and universities, especially) slipped permanently beyond their grasp. By the Depression era, the stigma of fundamentalism ensured that Evangelical Protestantism was increasingly defined as a religion of the marginalized and dispossessed, retrenching in the rural heartland while the progress of modern civilization continued without them. “Of course, most Americans were aware that in the back country there were hillbillies, rednecks, holy rollers, tent revivalists, Bible colleges, and evangelistic radio stations and publishing companies,” Martin Marty writes. “But these were segregated in the Bible Belts of the Midwest and especially the South…. Since they were out of step with modernity, they were expected increasingly to disappear.”
This was the world in which Graham came of age. His parents were Presbyterians who joined a dispensationalist church after the family lost its savings in a Depression-era bank failure, and Graham’s theology in the early years of his ministry was for the most part an unvarnished fundamentalism, literalist in its reading of Scripture and apocalyptic in its interpretation of the signs of the times.
But his style was something else—ecumenical, openhanded, confident, American. The revivalists of fundamentalism’s wilderness years were figures of fun for nonbelievers—Aimee Semple McPherson, the leading evangelist of the 1920s, was accused of faking her own kidnapping for publicity purposes—and by the early 1940s revivalism itself seemed to be on the verge of dying out. (In 1946, the dean of the Harvard Divinity School remarked that the hacks and hucksters of fundamentalism had “discredited the tradition” of revivals entirely.) But Graham almost singlehandedly revitalized the form, using it to carry an Evangelical message from the backwoods tent meetings to the nation’s biggest cities and arenas—and then overseas as well, to Europe and the Third World and even behind the Iron Curtain.
As his audience grew and his horizons expanded, the trajectory of Graham’s career led inexorably up from fundamentalism, and his example helped pull millions of his fellow Evangelicals upward with him. His big-city crusades required cooperation with Mainline Protestants and even Catholic leaders, and required him to abandon the radical separatism that many fundamentalist preachers demanded. (The people who answered the altar call at his massive urban rallies were referred to local churches afterward—Mainline as well as Evangelical, Catholic as well as Protestant.) As the civil rights movement gathered steam, he invited blacks and whites to worship together at his rallies. Fifty years later, Bill Clinton remembered Graham’s refusing a request from the city fathers of Little Rock to segregate his revival there in 1959: “I was just a little boy,” Clinton said, “and I never forgot it, and I’ve loved him ever since.”
Visiting England in the mid-1950s, Graham was asked about his theological convictions, and answered, “I am neither a fundamentalist nor a modernist.” Instead, he was on his way to becoming the prototypical neoevangelical, a term coined by Harold Ockenga to describe Evangelicalism’s midcentury reemergence from the fundamentalist ghetto. The neo-evangelical movement coalesced around a group of new religious institutions: the National Association of Evangelicals was founded in 1942; Fuller Theological Seminary opened its doors five years later (with its namesake, Charles E. Fuller, host of the “Old Fashioned Revival Hour” radio show, as its first president); Campus Crusade for Christ began ministering on UCLA’s campus in 1951; Christianity Today, the movement’s flagship periodical, was founded midway through Eisenhower’s presidency and quickly claimed a readership in the hundreds of thousands. Like Graham’s own ministry, these were all “parachurch” organizations, deliberately designed to transcend the fissiparous tendencies of Evangelicalism, and unify where too many fundamentalist churches had divided.
The key neo-evangelical text was Carl F. W. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), which chastised fundamentalists for their separatism and anti-intellectualism, and called for Evangelicals to reengage with the nation’s great political and social debates. Officially, Henry and his fellow neo-evangelicals were proposing a shift only in tactics, not in theology. “The ‘uneasy conscience’ of which I write,” Henry insisted, “is not one troubled about the great Biblical verities … but rather one distressed by the frequent failure to apply them effectively to crucial problems confronting the modern mind.” But the neo-evangelical movement clearly had theological purposes as well. From its inception, its leaders were intent on detaching their cobelievers from the millenarian temptation—Evangelicalism must not preach an “imminent utopia,” Henry warned, but rather, approach the future with “sober optimism”—and returning them to their Reformation roots. And while the movement’s first generation was at pains to emphasize its fidelity to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, the process of intellectual engagement they set in motion led inexorably to a reevaluation of fundamentalism’s insistence on a strict literalism in scriptural interpretation as well.
Graham himself was no intellectual, but he understood his moment and picked his allies wisely. He became a board member at Fuller Theological Seminary, a frequent attendee at NAE, a vocal supporter of the neo-evangelical movement’s forays into political engagement. When Christianity Today was launched, with Henry as its editor, it was under the umbrella of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The new magazine, Graham promised, would “plant the evangelical flag in the middle of the road, taking the conservative theological position but a definite liberal approach to social problems.”
He understood his role in the wider culture as well. Just as Niebuhr’s Christian realism fit the Cold War mood, so did Graham’s call to national revival, his message of Christian hope in the shadow of the atom bomb, his emphasis on the salvation of nations as well as individuals. (The highbrow Niebuhr disdained the great revivalist, but they were working different ends of the same street.) Year after year, rally after rally, Graham took premises that fundamentalists had placed in the service of off-putting jeremiads and turned them, through the elixir of his charisma, in the service of a message of God’s universal love. As Marty writes, “Paradoxically, this preacher of an exclusive Gospel—Jesus Saves! meant Only Jesus Saves!—came to be seen as an inclusivist who could figuratively wrap his long arms around Protestant-Catholic-Jew, around black and white, male and female America.”
Little more than a generation passed between the Scopes Monkey Trial and the great Manhattan crusade of 1957, but it might as well have been an eternity. With his command of mass media, his television broadcasts and stadium appearances and global tours, Billy Graham had done the near-impossible: he had carried Evangelical Christianity from the margins to the mainstream, making Evangelical faith seem respectable as well as fervent, not only relevant but modern.
* * *
The controversies that divided American Protestantism in the first decades of the twentieth century had also troubled the Roman Catholic Church, but among Catholics the papacy still had the last word, and it was delivered in Pope Pius X’s sweeping 1907 condemnation of the entire modernist project. Calling modernism the “synthesis of all heresies,” the pope listed sixty-five propositions that were incompatible with Catholic faith, and required that “all clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, and professors in philosophical-theological seminaries” take an oath against modernism and its works. The sixty-fifth proposition, summarizing the thrust of the entire anathema, condemned the conceit that “modern Catholicism can be reconciled with true science only if it is transformed into a non-dogmatic Christianity; that is to say, into a broad and liberal Protestantism.”
Notably, Pius’s syllabus of modernist heresies did not directly reference evolutionary science or the proper interpretation of Genesis 1, sparing the Catholic Church from some of the dead ends explored by fundamentalists. Nonetheless, the atmosphere of purges, loyalty oaths, and forbidden books took an undoubted toll on Catholic intellectual life, driving the modernist tendency underground rather than engaging its errors and assimilating its insights. Pius’s crackdown temporarily spared the Church from division and dissent, but his victory was inevitably impermanent, and he may have made later intra-Catholic civil wars that much more intense. In the years following the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic essayist James Hitchcock has noted, modernism would “haunt Catholicism like a repressed desire.”
With that being said, the conventional wisdom on this episode—“it was as though someone had pulled a switch and the lights had failed all across the American Catholic landscape,” runs an analysis quoted in Jay Dolan’s The American Catholic Experience (1992)—seems perhaps overstated, given how little American Catholicism at midcentury seemed to have suffered from the suppression of the modernist impulse fifty years before. Quite the reverse; the postwar era was a kind of Catholic golden age, a time when the Church’s demographic strength was unrivaled, its political influence unparalled, and its cultural footprint large and deep.
The architects of American Catholicism, nineteenth-century prelates like John Hughes of New York, had dreamed of a church that (as Charles Morris puts it) “would be in America, vehemently for America, but never of America.” By the Eisenhower era, they seemed to have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. On the one hand, American Catholicism felt like a rich world unto itself—with its own educational system (half of all Catholic children attended Catholic schools), its own holidays and festivals, its own newspapers and professional associations, its own language and literature, its own kitsch. Catholic exceptionalism, visible in church attendance, birthrates, and other indicators, was one of the striking facts of midcentury life. The memoirs of the period—whether critical or nostalgic—invariably emphasize the comprehensiveness of Catholic culture, the sense of Catholicism as “primal identity that absorbed and conditioned all the others,” in Kenneth Woodward’s words, and of the Church as an institution that “judged things not out of a deeper antiquity,” as Garry Wills put it, “but from outside time altogether.”
Yet, for all its internal strength, the Catholicism of midcentury wasn’t ghettoized and marginalized, as the immigrant church had often been in the nineteenth century, and as Evangelical Protestantism had recently become. Instead, both American politics and pop culture bore a distinctively Catholic stamp. Campaigning for the presidency in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt had linked Pope Pius XI’s social encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (“one of the greatest documents of modern times,” the future president declared) to his own economic agenda, and over the course of the next decade the papal vision of a third way between laissez-faire capitalism and socialism seemed to find expression in the Democratic Party’s New Deal. (Monsignor John Ryan, head of the D.C.-based National Catholic Welfare Conference, earned the nickname “the Right Reverend New Dealer” for his vigorous efforts on behalf of Roosevelt’s programs.) By the 1950s the political economy of the United States looked remarkably like the vision of the good society outlined by Pius and his predecessors, complete with labor-industry cooperation and a pro-family welfare state.
The entire media-entertainment complex, meanwhile, was almost shamelessly pro-Catholic. If a stranger to American life had only the movies, television, and popular journalism from which to draw inferences, he probably would have concluded that midcentury America was a Catholic-majority country—its military populated by the sturdy Irishmen of The Fighting 69th (1948) and The Fighting Sullivans (1944); its children educated and its orphans rescued by the heroic priests and nuns celebrated in Boys Town (1938), The Bells of Saint Mary’s (1945), and Fighting Father Dunne (1948); its civic life dominated by urban potentates like Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York and Denis Dougherty of Philadelphia; its everyday life infused with Catholic kitsch, from the 1950s hit single “Our Lady of Fatima” to the “win one for the Gipper” cult of Notre Dame football.
No figure embodied the double life of Catholic culture—its simultaneously self-enclosed otherness and intense all-Americanism—more than the bishop and religious broadcaster Fulton Sheen. Like Niebuhr and Graham, Sheen was a Middle American who made good. Descended from Irish immigrants who fled the Great Famine, he was raised in Peoria, Illinois, by a farmer father and educated exclusively within the network of American parochial schools, rising through Catholic grammar school and high school to St. Viator College in Bourbonnais, Illinois (a school run by French priests in a town founded by Quebecois immigrants), and thence to the seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. After his ordination, in 1919, he completed his education in Europe, earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Catholic University of Louvain before returning to a tenured position at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where his academic work was soon eclipsed by a stream of apologetics and polemics and then by a career in radio and television.
In an earlier era, this biography could have made Sheen seem like an exotic and even threatening character—the suave and sinister papist, subverting Protestant America from within. From his personal piety (the teenage intuition of his vocation to the priesthood, the particular devotion to the Virgin Mary) to his style of dress (in the full old-world regalia of the pre–Vatican II Catholic priest) to his unembarrassed interest in winning converts (he was associated with numerous high-profile conversions, including those of Henry Ford Jr. and Clare Boothe Luce), Sheen offered skeptics enough material to weave an entire web of anti-Catholic suspicion. And yet he was instead embraced as an American icon—a highbrow televangelist without a hint of scandal, a courtly and more intellectual version of Billy Graham. Like Graham, he had flair for turning the new mass media to Christian ends, and a talent for disarming and charming viewers who didn’t share his theological commitments. Like Graham, he understood his era perfectly, using first World War II and later the Cold War to sell an ecumenical audience on the idea of a Christian civilization imperiled by secularism and Communism alike.
Sheen honed his skills as a radio broadcaster on the Catholic Hour in the 1930s and 1940s: a Time magazine profile in 1946 described him as “the golden-voiced Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen, U.S. Catholicism’s famed proselytizer.” He was consecrated as an auxiliary bishop for New York in 1951, and offered the Tuesday-night slot on ABC that same year. The 8 p.m. hour had been a ratings graveyard, but within a few years Bishop Sheen could claim 30 million viewers. I will not attempt to improve on Morris’s description of his television persona:
Sheen may have been the finest popular lecturer ever to appear on television … he was elegant, elevated, relaxed, often very funny. Only Jack Benny could top Sheen’s ability to hold back a punch line—for ten seconds, sometimes even longer—gazing calmly at the camera for the entire time. The shows had a precise formula. Sheen, wearing his bishop’s cross, crimson cape, and skullcap, would stride into a parlorlike studio, pause, tell a humorous story, and then pose the problem for the evening: Are we more neurotic today? How to deal with the rat race? with temptation? with teenagers? What is the nature of love? the meaning of intimacy? About ten minutes would be devoted to analyzing the problem, always with diagrams on a blackboard … and a stock joke about the off-camera angel who cleaned the board. He had a knack for flattering his audiences. The lectures invariably introduced a technical term or two, usually from psychology or philosophy, which he wrote carefully on the board as if they were the key to wisdom. Every few minutes there would be another story, always on point, always seemingly impromptu. The problem analysis inevitably pointed in one direction—to humanity’s need for God, for Truth, for Divine Love. Then the informal delivery would give way to a dramatic peroration, arms flung out, the cape spread wide, the voice suddenly husky with emotion, that would end, with a rhetorical shake of the fine head, exactly twenty-seven minutes and thirty seconds from the moment he had first walked on stage.
Most remarkably, Morris adds, while “the philosophy was very Catholic,” Sheen “pulled it off without a hint of sectarianism,” never mentioning Catholic doctrine or the Church itself. Like Graham (again), he somehow made a very particular form of Christian thought seem like the natural common ground for a pious but deeply pluralistic society.
Not every viewer was persuaded. The assumption that the Catholic Church was fundamentally an enemy of democracy was deeply ingrained in the psyche of American Protestants, and the Church’s midcentury strength prompted a last spasm of anti-Catholic anxieties. Just before Sheen began his prime-time career, Paul Blanshard’s surprise bestseller American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949) warned non-Catholic Americans against the Church’s “antidemocratic social policies” and accused Catholicism of being “intolerant,” “separatist,” and even “un-American.” Around the same time, Reinhold Niebuhr himself voiced similar concerns, fretting over the gulf between “the presuppositions of a free society and the inflexible authoritarianism of the Catholic religion.”
Sheen had an answer for this critique. Like many American Catholic apologists, he argued that the Church was actually a better custodian of American values than many of its secular critics, because of the way that Catholic natural-law philosophy overlapped with the Declaration of Independence’s insistence on natural and inalienable rights. “The principle of democracy,” Sheen argued, requires “a recognition of the sovereign, inalienable rights of man as a gift from God, the Source of law.” Because Catholics believed that rights were genuinely “endowed by our Creator,” whereas many secular thinkers did not, Catholics were actually the natural heirs of the Founding Fathers. (“There is vastly more in common between the modern Catholic and the colonial Protestant,” a typical Catholic polemic in this vein insisted, “than between the old colonial Protestant and the modern secularized product of public education.”)
The argument had a surface plausibility, but in the 1930s and 1940s it was undercut by the example of the Vatican, which didn’t merely frown on American ideas about religious liberty but seemed actively biased toward the Catholic authoritarianism of a Francisco Franco, an António Salazar, even a Marshal Pétain. By the postwar period, though, America’s Catholic intellectuals were tugging the Church’s political thought forward, out of the defensive antimodern crouch that the nineteenth-century papacy had assumed, and into a more mature appreciation of the benefits of democratic politics. The effort began with a group of European exiles, led by the French émigré Jacques Maritain, who reached America during the 1930s and found their new home remarkably congenial. Writing in the Eisenhower era, Maritain suggested that the United States, the secularism of its Constitution notwithstanding, possessed “a certain hidden disposition that is Christian in origin, and appears to me as a kind of humble and remote reminiscence of the Gospel.”
The American Jesuit John Courtney Murray took these ideas and ran with them. Active in ecumenical efforts from the 1940s onward, Murray produced a series of books and essays arguing not only that Catholicism blessed democracy but that it should bless American ideas about religious liberty as well. The long-running Catholic suspicion of the separation of church and state, he suggested, was rooted in a historical context—the chaos of the early Middle Ages, when the Church had no choice but to assume a civic and governmental role as well—that no longer obtained in the modern world. The true Catholic doctrine on church-state relations was suggested by Jesus’ “render unto Caesar,” not the contingencies of the barbarian invasions, and the best expression of Catholicism’s original belief in the autonomy of civil government was to be found in (you guessed it) the American Constitution. In We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960), Murray ingeniously baptized Madison and Hamilton into an honorary Catholicism, suggesting that the Founding Fathers had been, in their understanding of church-state relations and of the rights of conscience, more Catholic than some popes.
Not all of this was greeted enthusiastically at the highest levels of the Church. A general acceptance of democracy was one thing, but the longstanding hope that the faith might retain some sort of privileged status in an idealized Catholic state died very hard. Maritain’s views came under suspicion, and many of his fellow reformers were harassed or silenced. In 1950, Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis echoed Pius X in rebuking certain “false opinions threatening to undermine the foundations of Catholic Doctrine.” In 1955, Murray’s Jesuit superiors ordered him to temporarily cease writing on church-state questions altogether.
In a sense, these conflicts anticipated the bloodier intellectual battles of the 1960s, pitting liberals seeking change against a Church hierarchy that resisted it. But what’s striking, looking back, is how Catholic the reforming midcentury intellectuals were—how confident they seemed in their own tradition’s intellectual resources, how naturally they framed their critiques of the present-day Church in the light of the Catholic past, how determined they were to find Catholic solutions for the problems they identified. The Church’s own traditions, rather than the agenda of the secular world, were assumed to provide the natural patterns for reform. When liturgical reformers proposed changes to the Latin Mass, they looked back to medieval habits of worship for models to adapt and emulate. When Murray wanted to persuade American theologians that Catholic doctrine could make room for religious liberty, he urged them to start by studying the Church Fathers. So too with Sheen himself: when the great apologist set out to bring the Catholic faith to a mass-market audience, he didn’t doff his collar and throw on blue jeans; instead, his prime-time performances drew much of their power from the way his costume and style hinted at an authority that transcended the spirit of the age.
This style of Catholicism could have a touch of snobbery about it, and sometimes hints of self-deception as well. But it’s telling that unlike a later generation of would-be reformers, the American Catholics of midcentury actually gained ground in Rome as well as in the United States—not least because the self-conscious Catholicity of their arguments ultimately brought their more conservative cobelievers around. All through the 1940s and 1950s, despite opposition and distrust, they pressed their argument and eventually won. At the Second Vatican Council, with both Sheen and Murray in attendance, what had once been distinctively American Catholic ideas about democracy and religious liberty were embraced as official teachings of the universal Church.
* * *
The trajectories of midcentury Evangelicalism and Catholicism were striking and surprising, but the developments in African-American religion were more remarkable still. The black church had spent a century as the darker brother of American religion, omnipresent within its own community—“the central organ of the organized life of the American Negro,” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois, at once “a lyceum, library, and lecture bureau”—and nearly invisible in the wider Christian world. Judged on the enthusiasm of its adherents and the institutional strength of its churches, no form of Christian belief was more vital, potent, and potentially transformative. But judged on its influence in the culture as a whole, no form of Christian belief was more marginal to the modern world’s concerns.
“The most segregated hour in America,” Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of saying, arrives at “11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing that Christ has no east or west.” But, unlike most other forms of segregation, the exile of the black churches had been partially self-imposed. Both the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the National Baptist Convention, the two largest black religious bodies, had been formed by black ministers seeking refuge from the racism they encountered in white-led denominations. Their choice of exile had great advantages: it enabled blacks to do their own institution-building rather than waiting on white paternalism, and it turned the church into a source of pride, fellowship, and solidarity—“a refuge in a hostile white world,” as E. Franklin Frazier writes in The Negro Church in America (1964), with none of the taint of second-classness that hung around many all-black institutions in the age of separate-but-equal.
But unity and solidarity came with a price. As Frazier notes, the self-sufficiency of black churches sometimes “aided the Negro to become accommodated to an inferior status,” even as it deprived African-American religious leaders of the wider cultural influence that they deserved. For those with eyes to see, the black church’s indirect impact on white culture was enormous. From Duke Ellington to James Baldwin, black music, novels, and poetry were all steeped in the cadences of gospel choirs and Sunday-morning services. But this was secondhand influence, passed along through African-American artists and intellectuals who had usually left the world of the black church behind. In the first half of the twentieth century, tellingly, black culture produced novelists, poets, musicians, essayists, actors, agitators, educators … but hardly any famous evangelists or public theologians. Indeed, tracing the life and work of pre-civil rights-era figures such as Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Marcus Garvey, and Richard Wright, one encounters a persistent sense that black Christianity is insufficient to the task of black uplift, that the answer must lie in secular ideology instead—in socialism, in pan-Africanism, in Marxism, or in some synthesis as yet undiscovered.
All of this changed with King’s generation. In the decade between Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African-American religion—its churches, its ministers, its distinctive mix of conservative theology and prophetic social concern—moved to the center of national life with astounding speed. Beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, a generation of younger preachers (led by King and Ralph Abernathy) recognized and then released the enormous political potential that was latent in African-American religion. Over the ensuing decade, the black church supplied the civil rights movement with most of its organizational muscle, and Christianity itself (supplemented with a dose of Mahatma Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent protest) supplied the moral and theological capital.
“We must keep God in the forefront,” King told the boycotters in Montgomery. “Let us be Christian in all our action.” Two years later, his Southern Christian Leadership Conference invited civil rights activists “to accept Christian love in full knowledge of its power to defy evil.” Their cause had the tone of a crusade or a revival, shot through with doses of miracle and prophecy, and their political strategy was nothing less than the imitation of Christ, in the form of absolutist moral rhetoric joined to physical self-surrender. Fred Shuttlesworth, Birmingham’s leading pastor-activist, described the cause of civil rights as Christianity’s “greatest opportunity in centuries to make religion real in the lives of men,” and the movement’s progress seemed to vindicate his boast. In an age of general religious revival, the most powerful image of Christian love available to any midcentury believer was supplied by the black protesters who stood praying and singing while segregationist policemen loosed dogs and water cannons on them. Through their actions and activism, what had been the most marginal of American Christian traditions suddenly came to define Christian heroism and the gospel fully lived.
This change did not happen without considerable resistance from within the black church itself, many of whose leaders had grown comfortable preaching what Abernathy called “the Gospel of ‘otherworldliness,’” whose “ultimate solution to Jim Crow was death—when you died you were equal in the eyes of God.” The leader of King’s own National Baptist Convention, the Reverend Joseph Jackson, was one such figure. He “symbolized the old black establishment,” Martin Marty writes, which had “settled for its place in segregated America and grown somewhat complacent in it, while serving seriously the needs of its members in their communities.” The needs of those members, Jackson had decided by the late 1950s, did not include risking their lives for integration, and he moved repeatedly to block King’s efforts to consolidate the National Baptist Convention behind the civil rights movement. In 1957 and again in 1960, Jackson loyalists fended off civil rights activists in the Convention’s leadership elections, and by the early 1960s it was clear that King’s SCLC, not the older institutions of black Protestantism, would remain the locus of the movement. (Describing the contrast between the cautious older leaders and the bolder younger ones, one activist remarked that “for the first time, I can imagine what type of persons the pharisees must have been and I can imagine what type of persons the Disciples must have been—intense, devoted, earthy, erring, but still moving forwards.”)
But if King sometimes failed to assuage the doubts of his co-religionists, he succeeded beyond all expectations in winning over white Christians to his cause. The moral witness of the marchers was the crucial element here, but the intellectual aspect of the civil rights movement deserves particular attention. King himself wasn’t just an activist and preacher; he was a public theologian as well, whose intellectual journey followed the same path that many Mainline Protestants had taken in the 1930s and ’40s, when they reconsidered modernism and liberalism and turned to neo-orthodoxy.
King’s initial training for the ministry took place at Pennsylvania’s Crozer Theological Seminary, where he studied under disciples of Social Gospel theorist Walter Rauschenbusch. But the future civil rights leader tempered the modernist influence of his academic environment with the pessimism of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose work he praised for refuting “the false optimism characteristic of a great segment of Protestant liberalism.” Studying for the theologate at Boston University, he began writing his dissertation on Paul Tillich, in many ways the least traditionally Christian of the great midcentury theologians. But he rejected the impersonal qualities of Tillich’s God in favor of a more orthodox emphasis on the importance of personality, both human and divine. “I am convinced of the reality of a personal God,” King wrote. “In Him there is feeling and will, responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart: this God both evokes and answers prayer.”
Calling King’s worldview a kind of African-American neo-orthodoxy, though, is insufficient to describe its scope and reach. What he really did was to graft together the high-toned, sometimes overintellectualized Protestantism of figures like Niebuhr with the more visceral, prophetic Christian spirituality of the black church, creating an organic whole where many observers saw only contradiction. (“I was always amazed,” the secular civil rights activist Bayard Rustin told an interviewer later, “at how it was possible to combine this intense, analytical philosophical mind with this more or less fundamental—well, I don’t like to use the word ‘fundamentalist’—but this abiding faith.”) In certain ways, King had more in common with Billy Graham than with the Mainline intellectuals he studied under, since both men shared a sense of providence and the supernatural, a belief in tongues and prophecy, that many neo-orthodox thinkers probably found more than a little embarrassing. As David Chappell notes in A Stone of Hope (2007), his revisionist history of religion and the civil rights movement, “to Graham, belief in old-time concepts like Hell was just as natural as disbelief in modern concepts like racism,” and King’s “similar beliefs … generated uneasiness among his less pious advisers.”
But unlike Graham, King managed to successfully combine the emotional and intellectual sides of Christian faith, shifting easily from register to register depending on the forum and the audience, and suggesting—more than any other figure in that age, perhaps—the essential unity between the Christianity of Augustine and Aquinas and Luther and Barth and the Christianity of the revival tent. Meanwhile, the movement that he led hinted at another unity as well. The fact that it took a revivalist, prophetic, supernaturally inclined mass movement to fulfill the promise of American democracy seemed to vindicate those postwar Christians, from Auden onward, who had decided that the supposedly “secular” ideals of liberal civilization rested on a preliberal and essentially religious foundation.
Certainly the Christian character of the civil rights movement was crucial to winning over (or at least neutralizing) the most important constituency of all: the Protestant churches of the white South. As The Atlantic’s Ben Schwarz writes, distilling Chappell’s argument from A Stone of Hope:
In the struggle over segregation white denizens of the Bible Belt, no less than black ones, needed the cultural depth, tradition, and moral authority of their churches. But … the segregationists got none of that. In the mid-1950s the Southern Baptists and the Southern Presbyterians each overwhelmingly passed resolutions endorsing desegregation, and appealing to all southerners to accept it peacefully (in the Southern Baptist Convention the vote was staggeringly lopsided—about 9,000 to 50). In a land that embraced literalist views of the Bible, nearly every important southern white conservative clergyman and theologian averred that there was no biblical sanction for segregation or for white supremacy. And the country’s—and world’s—best-known Southern Baptist, the North Carolinian Billy Graham, shared the pulpit with Martin Luther King in 1957, [and] commended what he called the “social revolution” King was leading in the South.
Southern clergymen were not the great heroes of the civil rights era, for the most part. Steeped in a racist culture and wary of alienating their parishioners, they opted for lukewarmness over zeal and circumspection over confrontation. Graham took some risks for integration, but he never went nearly as far as civil rights activists wanted him to go, and his friendship with King cooled as a result. The white evangelists stressed individual conversion over political change, supporting legal reform in cautious terms while insisting that only the Gospel could really improve race relations. Where King used eschatological language as a spur to political change, Graham regularly used eschatology to emphasize the limits of politics. “Only when Christ comes again,” he reportedly said after the 1963 March on Washington, “will the lion lie down with the lamb and the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with the little black children.”
But even a grudging, ambivalent endorsement of King’s cause from white Evangelicals was enough to fatally undermine support for segregation. Chappell writes, “King and others saw where the weak points were, and they drove in wedges…. The historically significant thing about white religion in the 1950s–60s is not its failure to join the civil rights movement. The significant thing … is that it failed in any meaningful way to join the anti–civil rights movement.”
Meanwhile, the rest of American Christianity was enthusiastically in King’s corner. Mainline Protestantism’s leadership had sometimes flirted with eugenics and racial science during the high tide of modernism, and Catholicism’s record on race, slavery, and segregation had even more blemishes. (In one of the more grotesque moments, Pius IX sent a crown of thorns to the imprisoned Jefferson Davis as a gesture of solidarity.) But both branches of American Christendom embraced the civil rights movement well before the politicians did. The Catholic hierarchy was particularly proactive: urged on by Rome, bishops and archbishops moved to desegregate their own school systems, often employing threats of excommunication to overcome furious local opposition. (Sometimes it was more than a threat: In 1962, New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Rummel excommunicated three Catholics who had organized protests against his efforts to integrate the archdiocese.) In Washington, D.C., in 1956, Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle personally met with a delegation from southern Maryland, who insisted that their parishes wouldn’t be ready for desegregation for ten years. “Well, gentlemen,” the cardinal told them, “we’re going to do it tomorrow.”
Thanks to these efforts, the civil rights movement became the place where the converging lines of the postwar revival intersected. The purely spiritual revivalism of Graham helped seed the ground where the more political revivalism of King and Abernathy bore fruit. The Catholic hierarchy’s efforts on behalf of integration helped Catholics build bridges not only to black churches but to the Protestant Mainline as well. (“I don’t prefer an authoritarian church to a democratic one,” Niebuhr remarked to a friend in 1957, but Protestants needed to have “a measure of respect for what the Catholics are doing.”) From Rome and Manhattan to Atlanta and New Orleans, Christian churches seemed to speak with one voice. In Selma and Birmingham and Montgomery, their representatives—black preachers and white ministers, nuns and priests and seminarians—marched shoulder to shoulder for a single cause.
King’s second greatest flight of rhetoric, his 1962 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” stands as a kind of literary monument to this convergence. In his famous apologia for Christian political activism, directed to precisely the kind of white southern clergymen whose support ultimately guaranteed the civil right movement’s success, King marshaled all the intellectual resources of a “mere orthodoxy” on behalf of his cause. He quoted Jesus, Augustine, Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Reinhold Niebuhr, and T. S. Eliot; he drew analogies to Paul of Tarsus and the prophet Amos; he invoked the example of the early Christians; he wove together scholastic theology and Reformation polemic. Above all, he presented himself as a minister of a universal church that transcended both racial and denominational divisions, which made the same claims on every Christian—and whose universality was such that a black Baptist could cite the Catholic theory of natural law to persuade white Protestants of the merits of his case.
The “Letter” was a tour de force. It made Christianity seem vital, inexhaustible, and permanently relevant. And it could have only been written, as King’s larger cause could only have succeeded, in the world that the postwar revival made.
The foregoing is an interpretation of an era, not a comprehensive history. A different set of emphases and shadings could yield a very different portrait of American Christianity at midcentury. Instead of highlighting the convergence between Protestants and Catholics, it could emphasize the continuing mistrust that defined their relationship—the persistence of bigotry on the Protestant side, down to the election of John F. Kennedy, and the mix of triumphalism and intellectual closed-mindedness that often characterized the Catholic response. Instead of dwelling on the sudden receptiveness to religious ideas in the secular intelligentsia and the mass media, it could dwell on the many figures in the same era who earned their celebrity by making open war on Christian ethics—think of Alfred Kinsey or Wilhelm Reich, Ayn Rand or Hugh Hefner, plus all the various Freudians and B. F. Skinner acolytes who cluttered up the culture in those days. Instead of placing figures like Barth and Niebuhr at the heart of its portrait of Mainline Protestantism’s last hurrah, it could focus on the many suburban parishes that were more interested in putting a Christian gloss on middle-class striving than in preaching the stark gospel of Barth’s Epistle to the Romans. Instead of highlighting the positive political contributions of many religious leaders, it could emphasize the negative—from white preachers who did their utmost to thwart the civil rights movement to Catholic prelates who waxed enthusiastic for Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts.
True golden ages do not exist. Martin Luther King was a Christian hero, but he was also a reckless adulterer whose academic work was partially ghostwritten. The neo-orthodox theologians did a brilliant job of making the Christian intellectual framework intelligible to a secular audience, but they also frequently seemed to purposefully dance around some of the most important—and necessarily controversial—issues of Christian faith. (Martin Gardner’s 1971 novel-of-ideas, The Flight of Peter Fromm, features a young seminarian driven mad by Reinhold Niebuhr’s evasiveness on supernatural questions: “He tapped his finger on the book’s brown cloth cover and said angrily: ‘Can you imagine this? There are six hundred pages here. It’s a full statement of the theology of America’s most famous Protestant thinker. How many references do you suppose there are to the Resurrection of Christ? … Not one! Not a single one!’”) John Courtney Murray’s marriage of Catholic faith and American democracy was an ingenious shotgun wedding, but its emphasis on rendering unto Caesar made it rather unclear what Catholics should do when Caesar’s policies were at odds with the Church’s teaching—a problem that would present itself to both left-wing and conservative Catholics soon enough. The neo-evangelical escape from the fundamentalist ghetto was intellectually significant, but in terms of raw numbers of congregants, a harder-core fundamentalism probably saw the most growth in the 1940s and 1950s. And the entire Christian cultural renaissance, from the box office to the bestseller list, was made possible by a middlebrow mass media whose dominance was as much an accident of technological progress as an expression of the culture’s deepest values. (More than a few of Fulton Sheen’s 30 million viewers would presumably have been happy to turn their television dials to The Real Housewives of Levittown if that option had been available.)
At the same time, many of the heresies that have flourished amid institutional Christianity’s decline were very much present at midcentury as well. Contemporary preachers of self-help and self-love such as Oprah Winfrey owe an enormous debt to Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, which debuted on the New York Times bestseller list in 1952 and stayed there for 180 weeks. The prosperity gospel, mainstreamed in our own era by smooth televangelists like Joel Osteen, has its roots in the ministry of proto-Osteens (Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin, and others) who already loomed large among American Evangelicals in the 1940s and 1950s. The “spiritual but not religious” mentality, embodied today by figures as diverse as Deepak Chopra and Elizabeth Gilbert, animated Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, a huge bestseller in 1955. The perfervid blend of religion, paranoia, and American nationalism that made Glenn Beck a phenomenon in the last few years owes an immense debt to the midcentury conspiracy theorist W. Cleon Skousen, whose tract The Naked Communist debuted in 1958.
In the Eisenhower era, as in our own, frequent churchgoing and public professions of piety often coexisted with scriptural ignorance and spiritual self-satisfaction; “American” values often trumped genuinely Christian ones when the two threatened to conflict; and Eisenhower’s famous remark that American democracy depended on “a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is” seemed to be the first and greatest commandment for many believers. As apostles for a revived orthodoxy, figures like Niebuhr and Graham and Sheen and even King often tended to succeed only insofar as they met the American Way of Life halfway, making the Christian message seem nonsectarian, forward-looking, and obviously relevant to the questions of the age.
Nevertheless, there were still great differences between their era and our own, and the continuities should not obscure the dramatic changes that overtook the nation’s religious culture after the postwar revival ran its course. Of course there were limits to the midcentury Christian renaissance, and compromises with the spirit of the age. But Reinhold Niebuhr’s quest to make orthodox theology relevant in the academy and the halls of power alike was undertaken from a far stronger position than any of his Mainline Protestant successors have enjoyed. Fulton Sheen’s genial confidence in the underlying theological coherence of the Catholic faith contrasts sharply with the posture of preemptive surrender or the hunched defensiveness that too many Catholics have adopted in the decades since. No subsequent evangelist has managed to strike Billy Graham’s delicate balance between Evangelical rigor and openhanded ecumenism, between a Christian particularism and a universal Americanism, between warnings about God’s justice and promises of God’s all-encompassing love. And no subsequent marriage of Christian faith and political activism has come close to matching Martin Luther King’s ability to use the language of Scripture to break down ideological barriers and transcend partisan divides.
The crucial element, in each of these cases, was a deep and abiding confidence: Not just faith alone, but a kind of faith in Christian faith, and a sense that after decades of marginalization and division, orthodox Christians might actually be on the winning side of history. Both institutionally and intellectually, American Christianity at midcentury offered believers a relatively secure position from which to engage with society as a whole—a foundation that had been rebuilt, as we have seen, rather than simply inherited, and that seemed the stronger for it. At its best, this culture enjoyed the mix of openness and well-defendedness that any religious tradition should seek in its dealings with the world, supplying believers with both “a place to stand and look outward on the world,” as Jody Bottum put it in a 2008 essay on the era, and a “system of truth by which other things could be judged.”
For a fleeting historical moment, it seemed as though the Christian churches might not have to choose between becoming religious hermit kingdoms or the spiritual equivalents of Vichy France. Instead, they might become something more like what the Gospels suggested they should be: the salt of the earth, a light to the nations, and a place where even modern man could find a home.
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