The release in 1992 of celebrity literary critic Harold Bloom's The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation was less than the smashing success that both the author and Simon & Schuster were hoping for. Published on the coattails of the Yale professor's idiosyncratic but widely noticed foray into source criticism, The Book of J, and suffering from Bloom's usual vices—arrogance and melodramatic exaggeration—not to mention a tin ear to some aspects of the faith, the book was mostly dismissed or ignored by the religious and quickly forgotten by the secular.
In a review of a later Bloom book, Omens of Millennium, Boston University Professor John J. Reilly spoke for the consensus when he judged the earlier work's conclusions to be "a trifle eccentric" to those "familiar with the professed theologies of America's major denominations."1 Particularly baffling to many was Bloom's contention that Mormons stand well within the mainstream of a uniquely American mode of faith.
The American Religion's thesis was stated repetitively, even tediously, throughout. The religion that most Americans adhere to "masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian." Bloom elaborated:
There are indeed millions of Christians in the United States, but most Americans who think they are Christians truly are something else, intensely religious but devout in the American Religion, a faith that is old among us and that comes in many guises and disguises, and that overdetermines much of our national life.
Bloom argued that this faith is a slippery devil that "needs to be tracked by particles rather than by principles." Nevertheless, he contended, a set of basic assumptions run through America's "indigenous religions"—Mormonism, Southern Baptism (in Bloom's peculiar schema, an American original), Seventh-day Adventism, Christian Science, and the like—and rub off on transplanted sects, Christian and otherwise. In his "Invocation" (as the introduction is waggishly styled), Bloom cogitated on the fact that nearly nine out of ten Americans believe that God loves them personally—
To live in a country where the vast majority so enjoys God's affection is deeply moving and perhaps an entire society can sustain being the object of so sublime a regard, which after all was granted only to King David in the whole of the Hebrew Bible.
—and set down his explanation for why this is so. That is, whatever trappings of faith most Americans claim to possess, they are actually practicing a new form of the Christian heresy called gnosticism.
In its ancient, more élite, form, gnosticism held that (a) the world and almost everything in it was created by an evil demiurge—often associated with the evil "Jewish god"; (b) Christ's crucifixion, therefore, was both illusory and beside the point, the body being evil; (c) there is a part of all of us—a divine spark—which antedates the demiurgical creation; (d) the sum total of these sparks is really a fragmented god; (e) through a gift of knowledge—basically code words—a mass of believers can ascend the various levels of heaven, and eventually reunite the sparks to re-form this shattered god, who will then destroy the evil demiurge and his counterfeit creation.
At first glance, the connections between this ancient heresy and Willow Creek or the Southern Baptist Convention, say, seem pretty tenuous. Not so, according to Bloom. The essence of the American Religion is "experiential." Few concessions are made to ancient ecclesial authority or tradition, and then only grudgingly. Such structures, in the minds of American believers, can only serve as impediments to the real point of religious experience, to wit, "being alone with God or with Jesus."
Moreover, this Jesus is different from the historical Jesus or the Christ of the Creeds. Rather, American Religionists yearn for that gnostic spark—that part of their soul that is older than creation itself—to be utterly alone with and to know a less challenging figure than the Jesus of the Gospels: "the American God or the American Christ." In this radically personalized vision, certain distinctive Protestant impulses—a distrust of works-righteousness and anti-sacramentalism, for example—are assigned such weight that they warp and bend the historic Christian faith until it becomes something else.
Nor is this a late-20th-century development. Bloom traced the particles of our putative national faith back to borrowings from African religions imported along with the slaves—particularly the idea of the "little me" or "self within the self" which talks to God without the need of any mediation—and saw the first flowerings of it in the Cane Ridge revivals around the turn of the 19th century. It was this religion, argued Bloom, that led Joseph Smith to create the Mormons and the Southern Baptists to work out their creedless faith.
Claims like the last one seem preposterous, and Bloom did himself no favors by often substituting invective for argument. The conservative majority in the Southern Baptist Convention he called "Texas Know Nothings" only because people would misunderstand his designation of them as Fascists. Jehovah's Witnesses reminded him "of why very small children cannot be left alone with wounded and suffering household pets." I joined many other readers in blowing off The American Religion after first sampling it in 1997.
And yet, in the intervening years, I have not been alone in rethinking that dismissal. In a recent installment of his series on religion in America, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus seized on Bloom's book to argue that conservatives "should nurture a measure of skepticism" about the possible benefits of a massive religious revival. Though Bloom's portrait of the American Religion was "intended to be provocative … it should not be lightly dismissed." Much of what passes for Christianity today, argued Neuhaus, is indeed a kind of "sub-Christian gnosticism" incapable of "sustain[ing] a normative moral tradition."2
Lutheran theologian Carl E. Braaten has issued a more full-throated endorsement of The American Religion's analysis—although, unlike Bloom, he is horrified by it. In a recent book Braaten excoriated "this American neopagan religion that is becoming increasingly more dominant in the pulpits, pews, and bureaus of the Protestant denominations":
Gallup-style findings show that the American believers are religious in a general sense with scarcely no correlation to the specific beliefs of historic Christianity. They become church members without believing in the biblical sense. It is no wonder that every year as much human traffic goes out the back door as comes in through the front.3
Clearly some of Bloom's book is overwrought or just plain wrong. But if thinkers of the stature of Neuhaus and Braaten are suggesting that we ought not dismiss it outright—indeed, that we might learn something from it—we'd be well advised to pay attention. If gnosticism isn't as pervasive as Bloom proclaims, and if orthodox Christian faith is much healthier than he allows, nevertheless American Christians of every stripe, from the seminary to the Barbecue Bible Study, certainly flirt with this heresy often enough. For evangelicals in particular, the book should serve as cautionary tale and barbed warning.
Particularly valuable is Bloom's insight that this American gnosticism carries with it strong antinomian impulses that can effectively set the adherent beyond good and evil. Once one has been "alone with Jesus" or "saved," petty moral considerations can fall away with distressing regularity. Philip Yancey offered a case study in these pages when he wrote of a friend of his named Susan, a Christian who told Yancey "that her husband did not measure up and she was actively looking for other men to meet her needs for intimacy":
When Susan mentioned that she rose early each day to "spend an hour with the Father," I asked, "In your meetings with the Father, do any moral issues come up that might influence this pending decision about leaving your husband?"
Susan bristled: "That sounds like the response of a white Anglo-Saxon male. The Father and I are into relationship, not morality. Relationship means being wholly supportive and standing alongside me, not judging."4
Early in the book, Bloom refers to a remark by Spinoza, that "whoever loved God truly should not expect to be loved by God in return," and proposes this to be the antithesis of the American Religion. Bloom is right that the American sense of entitlement often extends even to God: he owes us. But Bloom appears not to grasp the difference between such monumental hubris and joyful gratitude for God's grace.
Is the distinction observed in America's churches? Some soul-searching may be in order. There are worse places to start than The American Religion.
Jeremy Lott recently graduated with a degree in biblical studies from Trinity Western University. This past summer, he was the 2002 Burton C. Gray Memorial Intern for Reason magazine. With the Rev. Dr. Lawrence VanBeek, he is the author of a fourthcoming book, The Case for Enoch.
- John J. Reilly, "Getting Over the End of the World," First Things (February 1997), pp. 43-47.
- Richard John Neuhaus, "The End of Abortion and the Meaning of 'Christian America,'" First Things (June/July 2001), pp. 67-74.
- Carl E. Braaten, Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism (Fortress, 1998).
- Philip Yancey, "Nietzsche Was Right," Books & Culture (January/February 1998), pp. 14-17.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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