Tag Archives: Protestantism

Pinheiro, “Missionaries of Republicanism: A Religious History of the Mexican-American War”

Next month, Oxford will publish Missionaries of Republicanism: A 9780199948673_140Religious History of the Mexican-American War, by John C. Pinheiro (Aquinas College). The publisher’s description follow.

The term “Manifest Destiny” has traditionally been linked to U.S. westward expansion in the nineteenth century, the desire to spread republican government, and racialist theories like Anglo-Saxonism. Yet few people realize the degree to which Manifest Destiny and American republicanism relied on a deeply anti-Catholic civil-religious discourse. John C. Pinheiro traces the rise to prominence of this discourse, beginning in the 1820s and culminating in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.

Pinheiro begins with social reformer and Protestant evangelist Lyman Beecher, who was largely responsible for synthesizing seemingly unrelated strands of religious, patriotic, expansionist, and political sentiment into one universally understood argument about the future of the United States. When the overwhelmingly Protestant United States went to war with Catholic Mexico, this “Beecherite Synthesis” provided Americans with the most important means of defining their own identity, understanding Mexicans, and interpreting the larger meaning of the war. Anti-Catholic rhetoric constituted an integral piece of nearly every major argument for or against the war and was so universally accepted that recruiters, politicians, diplomats, journalists, soldiers, evangelical activists, abolitionists, and pacifists used it. It was also, Pinheiro shows, the primary tool used by American soldiers to interpret Mexico’s culture. All this activity in turn reshaped the anti-Catholic movement. Preachers could now use caricatures of Mexicans to illustrate Roman Catholic depravity and nativists could point to Mexico as a warning about what America would be like if dominated by Catholics.

Abend, “The Moral Background”

k10263This March, Princeton University Press will publish The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics by Gabriel Abend (New York University). The publisher’s description follows.

In recent years, many disciplines have become interested in the scientific study of morality. However, a conceptual framework for this work is still lacking. In The Moral Background, Gabriel Abend develops just such a framework and uses it to investigate the history of business ethics in the United States from the 1850s to the 1930s.

According to Abend, morality consists of three levels: moral and immoral behavior, or the behavioral level; moral understandings and norms, or the normative level; and the moral background, which includes what moral concepts exist in a society, what moral methods can be used, what reasons can be given, and what objects can be morally evaluated at all. This background underlies the behavioral and normative levels; it supports, facilitates, and enables them.

Through this perspective, Abend historically examines the work of numerous business ethicists and organizations–such as Protestant ministers, business associations, and business schools–and identifies two types of moral background. “Standards of Practice” is characterized by its scientific worldview, moral relativism, and emphasis on individuals’ actions and decisions. The “Christian Merchant” type is characterized by its Christian worldview, moral objectivism, and conception of a person’s life as a unity.

The Moral Background offers both an original account of the history of business ethics and a novel framework for understanding and investigating morality in general.

Bottum, “An Anxious Age”

Next month, Random House will publish An Anxious Age by Joseph Bottum. The publisher’s description follows.9780385518819

We live in a profoundly spiritual age, but not in any good way. Huge swaths of American culture are driven by manic spiritual anxiety and relentless supernatural worry. Radicals and traditionalists, liberals and conservatives, together with politicians, artists, environmentalists, followers of food fads, and the chattering classes of television commentators: America is filled with people frantically seeking confirmation of their own essential goodness. We are a nation desperate to stand of the side of morality–to know that we are righteous and dwell in the light.
In An Anxious Age, Joseph Bottum offers an account of modern America, presented as a morality tale formed by a collision of spiritual disturbances. And the cause, he claims, is the  most significant and least noticed historical fact of the last fifty years: the collapse of the mainline Protestant churches that were the source of social consensus and cultural unity. Our dangerous spiritual anxieties, broken loose from the churches that once contained them, now madden everything in American life.

Updating The Protestant Ethic and the Sprit of Capitalism, Max Weber’s sociological classic, An Anxious Age undertakes two case studies of contemporary social classes adrift in a nation without the religious understandings that gave them meaning. Looking at the college-educated elite he calls “the Poster Children,” Bottum sees the post-Protestant heirs of the old mainline Protestant domination of culture: dutiful descendants who claim the high social position of their Christian ancestors even while they reject their ancestors’ Christianity. Turning to the Swallows of Capistrano, the Catholics formed by the pontificate of John Paul II, Bottum evaluates the early victories–and later defeats–of the attempt to substitute Catholicism for the dying mainline voice in public life.

Sweeping across American intellectual and cultural history, An Anxious Age traces the course of national religion and warns about the strange angels and even stranger demons with which we now wrestle. Insightful and contrarian, wise and unexpected, An Anxious Age ranks among the great modern accounts of American culture.

Mandelbrote & Ledger-Lomas (eds.), “Dissent and the Bible in Britain, c.1650-1950″

Next month, Oxford University Press will publish Dissent and the Bible in Britain, c.1650-1950 by Scott Mandelbrote (University of Cambridge) and Michael Ledger-Lomas (King’s College). The publisher’s description follows.

The claim that the Bible was “the Christian’s only rule of faith and practice” has been fundamental to Protestant dissent. Dissenters first braved persecution and then justified their adversarial status in British society with the claim that they alone remained true to the biblical model of Christ’s Church. They produced much of the literature that guided millions of people in their everyday reading of Scripture, while the voluntary societies that distributed millions of Bibles to the British and across the world were heavily indebted to Dissent. Yet no single book has explored either what the Bible did for dissenters or what dissenters did to establish the hegemony of the Bible in British culture. The protracted conflicts over biblical interpretation that resulted from the bewildering proliferation of dissenting denominations have made it difficult to grasp their contribution as a whole. This volume evokes the great variety in the dissenting study and use of the Bible while insisting on the factors that gave it importance and underlying unity. Its ten essays range across the period from the later seventeenth to the mid-twentieth century and make reference to all the major dissenting denominations of the United Kingdom. The essays are woven together by a thematic introduction which places the Bible at the center of dissenting ecclesiology, eschatology, public worship, and “family religion,” while charting the political and theological divisions that made the cry of “the Bible only” so divisive for dissenters in practice.

A Penny for the Old Guy

At Mirror of Justice, my friend Rick Garnett has an interesting post about Guy Fawkes Day, which, for those of you who don’t know, was yesterday. The day commemorates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a conspiracy by British Catholics to blow up Parliament and end the Protestant Stuart dynasty. (Amusing, in its way, because the Protestantism of the Stuarts was always a little suspect). Guy Fawkes was one of the conspirators–the one in charge of the explosives–and for centuries Britons commemorated the day by burning effigies of Guy and the Pope. Nowadays, the holiday has morphed into Bonfire Night, in which Britons across the country light huge fires and set off fireworks. Probably the whole thing will morph into Halloween one of these days.

As an American, I’ve always thought knowing about Guy Fawkes Day was a mark of anglophile eccentricity, rather like reading P.D. James or renting Elizabeth R on Netflix. But here comes Rick, who writes that his public school celebrated Guy Fawkes Day as a holiday. And Rick comes from Alaska! Obviously, this great country is more than I know.   

Treasure, “The Huguenots”

This month, Yale University Press publishes The Huguenots, by Geoffrey Treasure.  The publisher’s description follows. Huguenots

Following the Reformation, a growing number of radical Protestants came together to live and worship in Catholic France. These Huguenots survived persecution and armed conflict to win—however briefly—freedom of worship, civil rights, and unique status as a protected minority. But in 1685, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes abolished all Huguenot rights, and more than 200,000 of the radical Calvinists were forced to flee across Europe, some even farther.   In this capstone work, Geoffrey Treasure tells the full story of the Huguenots’ rise, survival, and fall in France over the course of a century and a half. He explores what it was like to be a Huguenot living in a “state within a state,” weaving stories of ordinary citizens together with those of statesmen, feudal magnates, leaders of the Catholic revival, Henry of Navarre, Catherine de’ Medici, Louis XIV, and many others. Treasure describes the Huguenots’ disciplined community, their faith and courage, their rich achievements, and their unique place within Protestantism and European history. The Huguenot exodus represented a crucial turning point in European history, Treasure contends, and he addresses the significance of the Huguenot story—the story of a minority group with the power to resist and endure in one of early modern Europe’s strongest nations.

Tocqueville on Pantheism: Part I

We have seen that Tocqueville believes that the dominant American faith, Ralph Waldo EmersonProtestantism, will tend to decompose. The process of dissolution will occur in two phases. In the first, Protestantism (or more accurately, Calvinism) will tend to become a form of natural religion, such as he believed he had encountered in Unitarianism. This movement will take place chiefly among American élites; working class American Protestants, he believes, will be increasingly drawn to Catholicism. In the second phase, Unitarianism or natural religion will itself tend to become what he calls “pantheism.” These movements are traced out, albeit in very summary and schematic form, in Vol. II, Pt. I, chh. 6-7 of Democracy in America, dealing, respectively, with Catholicism and pantheism. In a powerful and illuminating study, Peter Lawlor has described these as two of the “least studied and strangest chapters” of Democracy in America. See Peter Augustine Lawlor, Tocqueville on Pantheism, Materialism, and Catholicism, 30 Perspectives on Political Science 218 (2001).

Tocqueville’s notions may seem very wayward and idiosyncratic to us. After Walt Whitmanall, contemporary America is neither predominantly Catholic nor predominantly pantheistic. Nonetheless, when examined more closely, Tocqueville’s analysis is full of interest and even, remarkably, of current applicability.

The “decline” of Protestantism

Since the 1960s, there has been vigorous and ongoing debate over whether American Protestantism – or at any rate “mainstream” Protestantism – is dead or dying. See, e.g., Stanley Hauerwas, The end of American Protestantism (July 2, 2013), available at http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/07/02/3794561.htm. Equally, the question whether American Catholicism has become, or is becoming, a form of Protestantism also provokes current controversy. (Tocqueville himself had noted the tendency of American Catholicism to be less dogmatic and less ritualized than French Catholicism.) Neither of these interesting issues can detain us here. What is more relevant to our purpose is why Tocqueville should have thought that Protestantism would decline, and whether the evidence from the period in which he wrote might have supported the prediction that it would turn into something radically different from traditional Christianity.

Bossuet

Tocqueville could certainly have derived his thesis from reading the work of the great eighteenth century French Catholic theologian, historian and apologist, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the Bishop of Meaux and the tutor of Louis XIV’s eldest child, the Dauphin of France. Probably the greatest work by the prolific Bossuet was his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches (1688; English trans. 1836). Bossuet’s History is a massively learned account of what the author sees as the steady fragmentation of the main branches of Protestantism into different and discordant sects. We know that Tocqueville had studied this work. In his letter of November 15, 1835 to Gustave Beaumont, he says that after finishing reading Machiavelli’s History of Florence, I turned to Bossuet’s Variations. Finding the “distance” between Machiavelli and Bossuet “great,” he writes that “I had never looked at [the Variations] so closely, and I cannot tell you how much I admired its content, and even more perhaps, its form. It is truly a magnificent and powerful arrangement.” Selected Letters 112. In thinking that Protestantism was bound to disintegrate, Tocqueville was very possibly adopting, if quietly, the polemical case that Bossuet had made for that proposition.

Tocqueville seems to have drawn on Bossuet in the places in Democracy in America in which he connects the growth of democracy with Divine Providence. For instance, in Vol. I, Pt. ii, ch. 17 of Democracy, entitled “A Few Sources of Poetry in Democratic Nations,” he writes that in egalitarian ages, as “each man . . . begins to perceive humanity itself, God reveals himself more and more to the human mind in his full and complete majesty . . . Observing the human race as a single entity, men find it easy to imagine that the same plan rules its destiny and they are inclined to perceive, in the actions of any individual, the trace of that universal and consistent design by which God guides our race.” Bevan trans. 563-64. Likewise, in his Introduction to Part I, Tocqueville speaks of the “gradual unfurling of equality in social conditions” as “a providential fact which reflects its principal characteristics: it is universal, it is lasting and it constantly eludes human interference; its development is served equally by every event and every human being.” Id. at 15. In such passages, Tocqueville is echoing another of Bossuet’s works, the Discourse on Universal History (1681), which he had also read. (For a fuller treatment of providentialism in Democracy, which downplays the influence of Bossuet, see David A. Selby, Tocqueville’s politics of providence: Pascal, Jansenism and the author’s introduction to Democracy in America, 33 The Tocqueville Review 167 (2012)).

Rousseau

It is also possible that Tocqueville formulated his thesis about Protestantism on the basis of reading Rousseau. After the publication of The Vicar of Savoy (on which see posting Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part II), Rousseau was compelled to defend his views against the Protestant authorities of his native city of Geneva, who accused him of undermining the Reformed religion. Rousseau defended himself in a series of lengthy pieces called Letters Written from the Mountain (1764). In the second of these Letters, Rousseau identifies what he considers to be the “two fundamental points of the Reform,” and contends that his writings fully comply with both. Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 9 at 154. These two core principles are “to acknowledge the Bible as the rule of one’s belief, and not to admit any other interpreter of the Bible than oneself.” Id. To this he adds: “Combined, these two points form the principle on which the Reformed Christians separated from the Roman Church, and they could not do any less without falling into contradiction; for what interpretive authority could they have reserved to themselves, after having rejected that of the body of the Church?” Id.

To make the Bible the sole rule for deciding questions of faith and practice appears to be adopting a common standard of truth that transcends any individual opinion; but to take the principle of private judgment to mean that each believer is the final judge for himself or herself of the Bible’s meaning is to abandon the idea of a common authority.

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Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part II

Rousseau: “The Savoyard Vicar”

In my last post, I introduced the subject of Tocqueville’s views on natural religion. As we shall see, Tocqueville believed that Protestantism had an inherent tendency to collapse into natural religion, and indeed that its transmutation into something very distinct from traditional Christianity might not cease there. Because of Tocqueville’s insistence on the importance of religion to American democracy, the transformation or decline of American Protestantism would be, from his perspective, a momentous development.

One of the main sources of Tocqueville’s understanding of natural religion, I argued last time, was likely to have been Montesquieu. We reviewed Montesquieu’s thought on that subject in his epistolary novel, The Persian Letters. A second likely influence on Tocqueville’s understanding of natural religion is Rousseau’s Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar (1783), which forms a section of Rousseau’s novel, Emile.

Although Tocqueville is silent on the matter, I believe that the Savoyard Vicar exercised a lasting and extensive influence on Tocqueville’s thinking, and I would even conjecture that reading this very work precipitated the shattering crisis of belief that Tocqueville underwent in his father’s library in Metz when he was sixteen.

The Savoyard Vicar is a complex and many-layered work, and I cannot pretend to do anything like full justice to it here. Its complexity stems, in part, from the ambiguity of Rousseau’s intentions in writing it. Although Rousseau’s critics, then and later, found nothing, or almost nothing, of Christian doctrine or sentiment in it, Rousseau himself contended vehemently that the work to provide a more secure foundation for revealed religion, above all Protestantism, that would make it more attractive to his contemporaries. See Robert Derathe, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau et le Christianisme,” in 53 Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 375, 381-85, 410-14 (1948). (As noted in my last post, Rousseau’s hostility towards Roman Catholicism was unremitting.) Furthermore, the work can be read both to extend the Enlightenment’s scathing critique of Christianity and at the same time to point towards a post-Enlightenment return to Christianity. See Arthur M. Melzer, “The Origin of the Counter-Enlightenment: Rousseau and the New Religion of Sincerity,” 90 American Political Science Review 344 (1996).

The Savoyard Vicar consists chiefly in a lengthy discourse delivered by a Catholic priest (the Vicar) to a young man identified in the story as Rousseau himself in his twenties. The discourse is divided into two parts of unequal length, marked by a short intervention by the young Rousseau. In the first and longer discourse, the Vicar discusses natural religion; the second and shorter speech concerns revealed religion. Rousseau later explained that the “more important” first part was “intended to combat modern materialism, to establish the existence of God and natural religion” and “contains what is truly essential to Religion,” while the second part “raises doubts and difficulties about revelation in general” and is designed to make believers “more circumspect.” J.-J. Rousseau, Letter to Christophe Beaumont, Archbishop of Paris (1763), in The Collected Writings of Rousseau, vol. 9 at 75 (Christopher Kelly and Eve Grace eds. 2001). In the break between the two parts, the young Rousseau exclaims that during the Vicar’s speech, “I imagined myself attending to the divine Orpheus singing his hymns and teaching mankind the worship of the g Continue reading

Tocqueville on Protestantism and Natural Religion: Part I

To this point, we have seen that Tocqueville believes that religion is necessary to the well-being of society, and especially to market democracies. Since the religious sentiment is natural to human beings, religion should flourish when it does not lend itself to exploitation by the State. But the natural tendency toward religious belief is weakened or even overcome by a competing passion for wealth. Because American democracy celebrates and encourages the pursuit of wealth, our democracy exerts a ceaseless, grinding pressure that gradually wears down our religion. Thus, American democracy has a built-in disposition to destroy a necessary condition of its own existence. To guard against that, Tocqueville urges American leaders and opinion-makers to surround religion with their protection – without, however, enmeshing it in the State. If they are wise, they will understand that our religion is “the most valuable bequest from aristocratic times.” Democracy in America at 633 (Bevan trans.). “It is vital that all those who are involved in the future of democratic societies unite together and . . . diffuse throughout these societies the taste for the infinite, the appreciation of greatness, and the love of spiritual pleasures.” Id. at 632.

But what, exactly, are the doctrines of the “religion” that Tocqueville considers necessary for the proper functioning of American democracy? Granted, America in the period of his visit was overwhelmingly a Protestant Christian nation, and would surely remain so for the foreseeable future. But Tocqueville does not contend that American democracy depended on the vitality of Protestantism. Instead, in an important chapter entitled “How Religious Belief Sometimes Diverts the Thoughts of Americans Toward Spiritual Pleasures,” he argues that “[t]he belief in a spiritual and immortal principle united for a time with matter is . . . indispensable to man’s greatness.” Id. at 633. That is, he appears at first to argue that a prevalent belief in one religious doctrine — the immortality of the human soul — is the irreducible minimum required for a healthy democracy. He does not, however, mention here any other doctrine that is characteristic of Christianity, Protestant or other, even the existence of God.

Furthermore, when read closely, Tocqueville does not even insist on the belief in immortality, as Christianity has traditionally taught it. Rather, he indicates that the belief which he considers necessary need not extend to “the idea of rewards and punishments” after bodily death, nor even that the “divine principle” that survives death be understood as personal: it would suffice if most citizens believe that that the soul was “absorbed in God or transformed to bring life to some other creature.” Id. Thus, he says that it is better for citizens to believe in transmigration, “believing that their souls will pass into the body of a pig,” than for them to think that “their soul is nothing at all.” Id. Finally, he concludes with an observation that seems intended for his more perceptive readers: “It is doubtful whether Socrates and his school had very definite opinions upon what was to happen in the afterlife.” Id. Instead, “Platonic philosophy” simply teaches the “one belief” that “the soul has nothing in common with the body and would survive it.” Id. The prevalence of that “one belief,” which does not even amount to the idea of personal immortality, is the indispensable prerequisite for a vital democracy.

Tocqueville thus does not teach that Christianity, or any other form of revealed religion, is absolutely indispensable for democracy. Indeed, he does not even say that democracy cannot function well unless belief in natural religion in its entirety is widespread. Rather, at least in this place, he reduces the indispensable minimum to something even less demanding than natural religion as that was generally understood – i.e., to the “one belief” that he associates with Platonic philosophy. All he contends for, in other words, is an extremely thin belief that amounts to little more than the rejection of philosophical materialism, i.e., of the metaphysical position that he associates with the dominance of the drive for physical pleasure and wealth. Nonetheless, some religious, or at least metaphysical, belief must be widely held in order to ensure against political calamity.

In order to understand his thinking fully, we need to start with the idea of “natural religion.” What did Tocqueville think constituted natural religion, and from what sources did he acquire that idea? We will see that a large and important body of French thought underlies the brief and enigmatic remarks cited above from Democracy.

The doctrines of natural religion

In his marvelous account of the origins of Unitarianism in America, Conrad Wright distilled the essence of “natural religion” down to three essentials: “the existence of God, the obligations of piety and benevolence, and a future state of rewards and punishments.” Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America 140 (1955). The chief points of natural religion were understood to be discoverable by Continue reading

Hollinger, “After Cloven Tongues of Fire”

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.