Princeton University Press has published After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (2013) a collection of essays by Berkeley historian David A. Hollinger. The publisher’s description follows:
The role of liberalized, ecumenical Protestantism in American history has too often been obscured by the more flamboyant and orthodox versions of the faith that oppose evolution, embrace narrow conceptions of family values, and continue to insist that the United States should be understood as a Christian nation. In this book, one of our preeminent scholars of American intellectual history examines how liberal Protestant thinkers struggled to embrace modernity, even at the cost of yielding much of the symbolic capital of Christianity to more conservative, evangelical communities of faith.
If religion is not simply a private concern, but a potential basis for public policy and a national culture, does this mean that religious ideas can be subject to the same kind of robust public debate normally given to ideas about race, gender, and the economy? Or is there something special about religious ideas that invites a suspension of critical discussion? These essays, collected here for the first time, demonstrate that the critical discussion of religious ideas has been central to the process by which Protestantism has been liberalized throughout the history of the United States, and shed light on the complex relationship between religion and politics in contemporary American life.
After Cloven Tongues of Fire brings together in one volume David Hollinger’s most influential writings on ecumenical Protestantism. The book features an informative preface as well as concise introductions to each essay.
This looks like an absolutely terrific book about the intellectual work of the Italian clergy “in the public square” at a time of great political and social turmoil, The Pulpit and the Press in Reformation Italy (Harvard 2013), by Emily Michelson (St. Andrews). The historical importance of the American political sermon has been understudied as well, though this is slowly changing (for me, Michael McConnell’s work has been helpful in bringing these fascinating texts to light, though others have written about them as well). From the description below, it also appears that Professor Michelson usefully puts into some question the dichotomy that one often hears: Americans “choose” their religion while Europeans are “born into” theirs. At any rate, I am greatly looking forward to reading Professor Michelson’s book. The publisher’s description follows.
Italian preachers during the Reformation era found themselves in the trenches of a more desperate war than anything they had ever imagined. This war—the splintering of western Christendom into conflicting sects—was physically but also spiritually violent. In an era of tremendous religious convolution, fluidity, and danger, preachers of all kinds spoke from the pulpit daily, weekly, or seasonally to confront the hottest controversies of their time. Preachers also turned to the printing press in unprecedented numbers to spread their messages.
Emily Michelson challenges the stereotype that Protestants succeeded in converting Catholics through superior preaching and printing. Catholic preachers were not simply reactionary and uncreative mouthpieces of a monolithic church. Rather, they deftly and imaginatively grappled with the question of how to preserve the orthodoxy of their flock and maintain the authority of the Roman church while also confronting new, undeniable lay demands for inclusion and participation.
These sermons—almost unknown in English until now—tell a new story of the Reformation that credits preachers with keeping Italy Catholic when the region’s religious future seemed uncertain, and with fashioning the post-Reformation Catholicism that thrived into the modern era. By deploying the pulpit, pen, and printing press, preachers in Italy created a new religious culture that would survive in an unprecedented atmosphere of competition and religious choice.
From the beginning, Christian jurisprudence has tried to distinguish the “moral” elements of the Mosaic Law, which continue to bind Christians, from the “ceremonial,” which do not. Richard Ross (University of Illinois) has written what looks to be a fascinating essay, Distinguishing Eternal from Transient Law: Natural Law and the Judicial Law of Moses, on the efforts of Protestants in early modern Europe and New England to grapple with this distinction. He ties their work to similar efforts by natural law theorists of the period to differentiate between eternal and merely local principles. The abstract follows.
This essay examines two interlinked efforts in early modern Europe and New England to distinguish legal provisions valid across different societies and time periods from those that were local and transitory and therefore not compulsory in the present. Consider, first, the judicial laws of Moses. A minority of Protestants, whom I will call the “Mosaic legalists,” tried to ascertain which Old Testament judicial ordinances were no longer obligatory because they were particular to the Jewish commonwealth, and which were eternally-valid “appendices” to the natural law and Decalogue. The challenge of differentiating the perpetual from the local also occupied early modern students of the law of nature. Whether one believed that God impressed natural law upon the world or that people deduced natural law Continue reading
This February, the University of North Carolina Press will publish a paperback edition of Almighty God Created the Races: Christianity, Interracial Marriage, and American Law by Fay Botham (visiting assistant professor at Hobart and William and Smith Colleges). The publisher’s description follows.
In this fascinating cultural history of interracial marriage and its legal regulation in the United States, Fay Botham argues that religion–specifically, Protestant and Catholic beliefs about marriage and race–had a significant effect on legal decisions concerning miscegenation and marriage in the century following the Civil War. She contends that the white southern Protestant notion that God “dispersed” the races and the American Catholic emphasis on human unity and common origins point to ways that religion influenced the course of litigation and illuminate the religious bases for Christian racist and antiracist movements.
This month’s Pew Report on religious affiliation in America has drawn much well-deserved attention, particularly two of its findings: a continuing increase in the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion – the “Nones” – and a continuing decrease in the percentage who identify as Protestant. In the last five years, the Nones have gone from roughly 15% of American adults to roughly 20%. The increase is especially pronounced among adults under the age of 30, a third of whom say they are religiously unaffiliated. And, for the first time since Pew started polling, the percentage of adults who identify as Protestant has dropped below 50%.
These statistics could have profound significance for the future of American religion and law. Take the increased percentage of Nones among people under 30. In a couple of decades, this age cohort will be running American cultural, legal, and political institutions. Traditionally, American institutions have viewed religion as a good thing, both for individuals and society. Will they continue to do so if they are run by people who themselves lack a religious identity, who view religion, at best, with indifference? Will legislatures accommodate religious minorities as readily? Will courts defer to traditions that reflect assumptions large percentages of the population no longer share? It seems doubtful.
The media has jumped on the rise of the Nones, predicting everything from a political realignment (good news for Democrats, bad news for Republicans) to major changes in education and family structure. Maybe – but we need to be cautious. We shouldn’t assume that the increase in the percentage of Nones will Continue reading
This fall, as the Eurozone’s constitutional and economic crisis deepened, some observers suggested a religious explanation: the crisis had resulted from different worldviews in the Protestant north and the Catholic (and Orthodox) south. The Protestant culture of the north is thrifty, sober, and bourgeois: a contract society. The Catholic (and Orthodox) culture of the south is profligate, emotional, and traditional: a status society. Among the observers who have offered such explanations are Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Harvard Professor Steven Ozment.
As First Things’s Matt Schmitz points out in a fun post yesterday, these observations have an implicit moral component: Protestant values are better, or at least better promote economic efficiency. Maybe, says Schmitz, morality cuts the other way. The “passionate and ecstatic culture” of the Catholic and Orthodox south, he writes (quoting Christopher Dawson), a culture which “finds its supreme expressions in the art of music and in religious mysticism,” may, in fact, be morally superior. Schmitz would doubtless agree with Hillaire Belloc’s famous observation:
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
I need to think some more about all this. But it’ll have to wait till tomorrow. Here at the Center, we knock off early on Fridays, so we can drink ouzo and listen to Monteverdi.
A few weeks ago, I noted an essay by Estonian president Toomas Ilves hinting that religion may have something to do with Europe’s inability to agree on a solution to its fiscal crisis. Thrifty, rule-abiding Northern Protestants, Ilves suggested, do not like the idea of sending money to profligate Southern Catholics who think the rules about not spending what you don’t have don’t apply to them. Here’s another essay, by Harvard historian Steven Ozment, arguing that the roots of Northern unwillingness to bankroll the South lie in the Protestant Reformation. Germany’s refusal to agree to eurobonds, Ozment writes, reflects the Lutheranism that, notwithstanding “the forces of multiculturalism and secularism,” still informs German culture:
How little has changed in 500 years. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, a born-and-baptized daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor, clearly believes the age-old moral virtues and remedies are the best medicine for the euro crisis. She has no desire to press a Continue reading
Posted in Commentary, Mark L. Movsesian, Uncategorized
Tagged Christianity, European History, European Union, Financial Crisis, History of Religion, Protestantism, Religion and Culture, Religion in Europe, Sociology of Religion
Last week, we reviewed Cambridge historian Andrew Preston’s very worthwhile new book on religion in American foreign policy, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of the Faith. In the book, Preston (left) addresses religion’s complex, but constant, role in American diplomacy from colonial times to the present. This week, Preston kindly agrees to answer some questions from CLR Forum. He discusses historians’ tendency to ignore the influence of religion, the place of “Christian republicanism” and anti-Catholicism in American foreign policy, and the ways in which today’s secular human-rights campaigners echo the universalist notions of nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries. He also discusses the impact of post-War secularization, tensions between the religious right and religious left, and the place of religion in President Obama’s foreign policy.
CLR Forum: Andrew, you note that, although religion has greatly influenced the formation and execution of American foreign policy, most diplomatic histories neglect its role. Why do you think that is? Does the neglect reflect a realist approach that denies the importance of ideology in foreign relations generally or a failure of diplomatic historians to come to terms with religion in particular?
Preston: It’s an impossible question to answer definitively, but I think the general neglect of religion reflects both the prevailing dominance of the realist approach and the fact that religion is still poorly understood, and even seen as strange and alien, by most academic historians of international relations and foreign policy. This is despite the cultural turn’s phenomenal impact on diplomatic history, which now avidly incorporates non-traditional categories of historical analysis such as race, gender, and post-modernism.
CLR Forum: An important theme in Sword of the Spirit is the impact on American foreign policy of what you call “Christian republicanism,” a unique “blend of Protestant theology and democratic politics.” According to this worldview, Christianity is compatible with political freedom; indeed, Christianity is the source of political freedom. How did this ideology develop, and how is it distinctively American?
Preston: I’m not sure it’s distinctively American, though its endurance in American political thought for several centuries is unique. But the ideology of Christian republicanism developed out of the English and Scottish Reformations, when Protestant reformers argued that anyone who put Continue reading
Here’s a very interesting analysis, written just before the results, of the religious cross-currents in yesterday’s Wisconsin recall attempt. The author, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, points out the divisions among and within Wisconsin’s religious communities, which, he says, reflect divisions in the electorate as a whole. For example, on the central issue in the recall attempt, the right of public sector unions to bargain collectively, the Catholic archbishop of Milwaukee wrote a letter supporting collective bargaining rights, while the Catholic bishop of Madison wrote a letter stating that reasonable people could disagree on the matter. In the end, most Catholics supported Governor Scott Walker: exit polls had him winning the Catholic vote by 10 points. This could portend a shift in Wisconsin politics, where Catholics traditionally vote Democratic, in contrast to Dutch Reformed Protestants, who typically vote Republican. The article contains one great quote that has nothing to do with the recall attempt, but that is nonetheless reflective of the American penchant for non-sectarianism we have discussed elsewhere on CLR Forum. At his inaugural prayer breakfast, the Born-Again Christian Scott Walker declared, “The great creator, no matter who you worship, is the one from which our freedoms are derived, not the government.” Can’t get more American than that.
Last week, I discussed Walter Russell Mead’s interesting post on how the Greek crisis implicates the divide between the Eastern and Western Christian worlds. Here’s another reference to the religious implications of the eurozone crisis, in an essay by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Ilves complains that northern countries have been trying for decades to be fiscally responsible. Now, he says, the EU is asking these countries, even relatively poor countries like Estonia, to fund transfer payments to profligate southern countries like Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. And when political leaders in the northern countries object, their counterparts in the rest of the eurozone accuse them of courting “populism,” which, in the European context, carries the connotation of fascism.
These accusations irritate Ilves, and he says so bluntly. In the course of his essay, he makes a startling religious reference. It’s only a quick reference in a long essay, with a subtle, almost dog-whistle quality. But I think it’s significant. Ilves draws on the image of the Protestant Reformation to explain the current eurozone crisis:
When we still talk about new and old members, we still talk nonsense about “populism” in all the wrong ways. Indeed I believe that the “populism” and the “specter of the 30s” that all kinds of pundits unknowledgeably appeal to has nothing to do with the populism we see in Northern Europe. That is not a populism of the dispossessed, the unemployed. It is a populism more akin to what Calvin and Luther appealed to than what the fascists of the 1930s appealed to. It is, like most populism, based on resentment, and resentment at unfairness. But the unfairness is, as it was in the 16th Century, a resentment of those who flaunt their flouting the rules by which others abide. Resentment on the part of those who take commitments seriously regarding those who do not: Is that the “specter of the 30s”?
It would be silly to ascribe the whole eurozone crisis to the different worldviews of Protestants and Catholics, and Ilves doesn’t do so. Some fiscally responsible countries that Ilves praises, like Austria and Poland, are historically Catholic. And, anyway, politics throughout Europe is quite secular, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Still, one can’t help noticing that the “frugal” countries happen to be mostly northern and historically Protestant, and the “profligate” countries tend to be southern and historically Catholic (or Orthodox). Paging Max Weber! H/T: Rod Dreher.