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After George W. Bush’s reelection, few people doubt that the United States is a Christian nation. But who are American Christians, where do they come from, and what do they want? Discontinuity makes American Christianity a baffling quantity to outsiders; only a small minority of American Protestants can point to a direct link to spiritual ancestors a century ago.
Little remains of the membership of the traditional Protestant denominations who formed what Samuel P. Huntington calls “Anglo-Protestant culture” a century ago, and virtually nothing remains of their religious doctrines. Most of the descendants of the Puritans who colonized New England had become Unitarians by the turn of the 19th century, and the remnants of Puritan “Congregationalism” now find themselves in the vanguard of permissiveness.
More than any other people in the industrial world, Americans change denominations freely. During the past generation, the 10 largest born-again denominations have doubled their membership, while the six largest mainstream Protestant denominations have lost 30%:
This suggests an enormous rate of defection from the mainstream denominations, whose history dates back to the 16th century (in the case of Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians) or the 18th century (in the case of Methodists), in favor of evangelical churches that existed in seed-crystal form at best at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Catholic historian Paul Johnson argues that “America had been founded primarily for religious purposes, and the Great Awakening [of the 1740s] had been the original dynamic of the continental movement for independence.” But he struggles to explain in his History of the American People why not a single traditional Christian can be found among the leading names of the American Revolution. Neither George Washington, nor John Adams, nor Thomas Jefferson, nor Benjamin Franklin, nor Alexander Hamilton professed traditional Christian belief, although most of them expressed an idiosyncratic personal faith of some sort. The same applies to Abraham Lincoln, who attended no church, although his later speeches are hewn out of the same rock as the Scriptures.
Johnson’s less-than-convincing explanation is that “by an historical accident”, the US constitution “was actually drawn up at the high tide of 18th-century secularism, which was as yet unpolluted by the fanatical atheism and the bloody excesses of its culminating storm, the French Revolution.” Despite the French Revolution, Harvard College became Unitarian in 1805, and all but one major church in Boston had embraced Unitarianism, a quasi-Christian doctrine that denies the Christian Trinity. John Calvin had one of its founders, the Spanish physician and theologian Michael Servetus, burned at the stake in Geneva in 1553.
The New England elite ceased for all practical purposes to be Christian. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian minister, abandoned the pulpit in 1831 for a career as a “Transcendentalist” philosopher, admixing Eastern religious and German philosophy with scripture. But a grassroots revival, the so-called “Second Great Awakening”, made Methodism the largest American sect by 1844. Just as the First Great Awakening a century earlier gave impetus to the American Revolution, evangelicals led the movement to abolish slavery.
Different people than the original Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were swept up in the First Great Awakening, and yet another group of Americans, largely Westerners, joined the Second Great Awakening during the 19th century. Yet another group of Americans joined what the late William G McLoughlin (in his 1978 book Revivals, Awakenings and Reforms) called a “Third Great Awakening” of 1890. If the rapid growth of born-again denominations constitutes yet another “Great Awakening”, as some historians suppose, the United States is repeating a pattern of behavior that is all the more remarkable for its discontinuity.
Few of the Americans who joined the Second Great Awakening knew much about the first; even fewer of today’s evangelical Christians have heard of Jonathan Edwards, the fiery sermonist of the 1740s. Without organizational continuity, doctrinal cohesion, popular memory, or any evident connection to the past, Americans are repeating the behavior of preceding generations – not of their forebears, for many of the Americans engaged in today’s evangelical movement descend from immigrants who arrived well after the preceding Great Awakenings.
This sort of thing confounds the Europeans, whose clerics are conversant with centuries of doctrine. They should be, for the state has paid them to be clerics, and the continuity of their confessions is of one flesh with the uninterrupted character of their subsidies. Americans leave a church when it suits them, build a new one when the whim strikes them, and reach into their own pockets to pay for it.
Christianity, if I may be so bold, does not fare well as a doctrine for the elites. Original sin cannot be reconciled with free will, as Martin Luther famously instructed Desiderius Erasmus, which led the Protestant reformers to invent the doctrine of predestination, and their Unitarian opponents to abandon original sin. The Catholic Church refused to admit the contradiction, which explains why philosophy became a virtual Protestant monopoly for the next four centuries. The Unitarian path, which stretches from Servetus to Emerson, leads to doubt and agnosticism, for one throws out original sin, the personal God Who died on the cross for man’s sins becomes nothing more than another rabbi with a knack for parables.
Intellectual elites keep turning away from faith and toward philosophy – something that Franz Rosenzweig defined as a small child sticking his fingers in his ears while shouting “I can’t hear you!” in the face of the fear of death. But one cannot expect the people to become philosophers (or, for that matter, Jews).
My correspondents point out frequently that one can trace no obvious connection between the religion of America’s founders and today’s American evangelicals. For that matter, observes one critic, there is no direct connection between the 14th-century English reformer and Bible translator John Wycliffe and the 16th-century Lutheran Bible translator John Tyndale – none, I would add, except for the Bible.
Two combustible elements unite every century or so to recreate American Christianity from its ashes. The first is America’s peculiar sociology: it has no culture of its own, that is, no set of purely terrestrial associations with places, traditions, ghosts, and whatnot, passed from generation to generation as a popular heritage. Americans leave their cultures behind on the pier when they make the decision to immigrate. The second is the quantity that unites Wycliffe with Tyndale, Tyndale with the pilgrim leader John Winthrop, and Winthrop with the leaders of the Great Awakenings – and that is the Bible itself. The startling assertion that the Creator of Heaven and Earth loves mankind and suffers with it, and hears the cry of innocent blood and the complaint of the poor and downtrodden, is a seed that falls upon prepared ground in the United States.
Within the European frame of reference, there is no such thing as American Christendom – no centuries-old schools of theology, no tithes, no livings, no Church taxes, no establishment – there is only Christianity, which revives itself with terrible force in unknowing reenactment of the past. It does not resemble what Europeans refer to by the word “religion.” American Christianity is much closer to what the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in 1944 from his cell in Adolf Hitler’s prison, called “religionless Christianity.” Soren Kierkegaard, I think, would have been pleased.