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Martin E. Marty

Two Religions, Indivisible

Mark Noll's magnum opus

America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln
by Mark A. Noll
Oxford Univ. Press, 2002
656 pp.; $35

A generation ago, Sydney Ahlstrom and Sidney Mead led two schools of American religious historians in contention. In the landmark A Religious History of the American People, Ahlstrom told a story that dealt with American diversities more expansively than had any other. At the same time, he brought a distinctive focus to his lifework. He saw the American religious story as being in many ways the plot of New England Puritanism writ large. The Yale master devoted only a few pages to the religion of the Enlightenment, of "the Founders." When he finished his story, as Puritan influence waned in the tumults of pluralism, he thought America was, in a way, losing its way, or its plot.

Sidney Mead, meanwhile, who devoted himself early on to the New England theologies—he wrote a major work on Nathaniel William Taylor, for instance—when he turned synoptic and synthetic, saw the Puritan and then evangelical story as being one of relative irrelevance. America's real religion, which he called "the religion of the republic," informed American institutions and even set the boundaries for the free expression of religion that the "sects" enjoyed. His lifework hinged on precisely the elements Ahlstrom slighted. As he finished his story after the turmoil of the 1960s, many were questioning whether much integrity survived in that Republican religion or what Robert N. Bellah was then defining as "civil religion."

Let Mead frame the contention from his point of view with words first published in 1964:

Recognition that the theology undergirding the practice of religious freedom has always been in conflict with the distinctive theology of right-wing Protestantism enables one to diagnose Protestantism's present sickness as a psychosomatic indigestion, resulting from an inability either to digest the theology on which the practice of religious freedom rests or to regurgitate the practice. I am told that an animal that cannot regurgitate can be killed by getting it to accept as food something it cannot digest. I do not think Protestantism can give up the practice of religious freedom which it has accepted. Therefore, I conclude, if it cannot learn to digest the theory on which such freedom rests, the prognosis cannot be a happy one.1

Mead did not confine the meanings of his Republican religion to the account of how it helped assure religious freedom. This faith provided him with a canopy under which he saw housed almost the whole range of texts, interpretations, myths and symbols, rites and ceremonies, which made up national religious life. And by "right-wing" he did not mean far-right faith communities. In Mead's schema, virtually all of the varieties of denominational Protestantism that have been and continue to be the preference of a majority of Americans were boxed in and described as self-defensive sects that either practiced duplicity or suffered indigestion that could prove fatal.

A third of a century later, both the religion of the republic ("God Bless America") and evangelical Protestantism flourish, and they do so in close alliance, even and maybe especially on the political level. How account for their ability to coexist and indeed cooperate? America's God, by Mark Noll, as impressive and potentially influential a work of history in its field as we have seen since the generation of Ahlstrom and Mead, provides subtle and learned discernments for all who have tried to make sense of what Mead always called "America's Two Religions."

Today no single historian can dominate the way the Sydney/Sidney tandem could, because the domains historians address are too diverse and the perspectives scholars bring to their stories are too particular, too conflicted. Among them are those who would dismiss Noll's achievement as a too-late concentration on an old "mainstream," while now most concern is for "marginal" religion. Noll's is intellectual history, admittedly fused with social-contextual nuance, but still history of thought "from the top down." This means we read here mainly of New England professors and parsons, not accounts of impressed seamen, yeoman farmers, or spinners and weavers. Noll generously stretches to find and make reference to women, African Americans, and others previously overlooked in histories like his, but sources for developing their stories on the scale and with the scope he needs are simply not there. Other groups that Noll has treated elsewhere in his massive corpus find it hard here to make their way into his plot.

Those who might consider America's God an old-fashioned work about a bygone era and might therefore pass Noll by will do so at their peril. Noll has often written on the state of the American soul and the evangelical mind in today's world, but here he restrains himself from developing overtly the still obvious ties between what went on between the 1730s and the 1860s on one hand, and today on the other. The reader who cannot see the connections and find the relevancies across the decades either has not read Noll carefully or has not looked around carefully at American political and religious expressions today. And scholars who do not appropriate this will not be able to write their parts of the American story as perceptively as they will if they have appropriated Nollian insights, whether to accept or reject them.

A word about the genre, nature, and achievement of the book is in place before we encounter Noll's well-grounded argument. His extensive endnotes include scores of references to his own earlier work, but such citations here are not the marks of a self-server. He simply has covered archival territory which most scholars like to pass by, and his essays and articles have been building blocks in this major edifice. He has read and distilled the writings of many New England divines who are, frankly, unbearably dull and stuffy, and come up with themes that help him connect his story.

Almost 50 years ago, when I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I checked out many library books by the likes of Yale President Timothy Dwight, who shows up on Noll's pages often enough. In those pre-computer days one could read the names on the cards of those who had previously checked them out. I found "Perry Miller" and "Henry S. Commager" in those at the University of Chicago library, and found that in many cases—as with Dwight's benumbing systematic theology—that only the first few pages had been cut and thus possibly read after 150 years. Trust me to trust him: Noll has read widely in such works.

One final still preliminary word: Noll knows that the scene he describes has changed vastly. At the opening of his period, the time of Jonathan Edwards, there was not a single Roman Catholic church in New England. That circumstance was changing by the end of his period, that of Abraham Lincoln. Today not a single county in New England hosts more members of any denomination than do Catholics, and in the "land of the Pilgrims' pride," Catholics make up more than half the churchgoing population in each county. Noll is undeterred. I think of a book title by my other main dissertation adviser (Sidney Mead was one), Daniel J. Boorstin: The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson. Noll's book could be called The Lost World of the [mainly] New England [mainly] Puritan Divines. Yet however inaccessible to most of us the metaphysic of the Jeffersonians or the Edwardsians and older evangelicals may be, they survive and work their influence even as the nation moves on.

In fact, I know of no one who has done better than Noll at showing just how "the nation" moved on, since he describes a synthesis that informs the lives of people who never heard of anyone but a few "founding fathers" and Lincoln among the indexed figures. I recall sitting with Joseph Fitzer, a notable historically minded then-young Catholic theologian, who commented after having heard a brilliant lecture on "American thought" by Mead, a talk that dealt with "Edwards to Emerson": "Marty, I went to good American Catholic schools for almost twenty years, from kindergarten through master's, and none of those names ever came up." I went to good Lutheran schools just as long, and never encountered those names until I undertook doctoral work at age twenty-four. We were not alone among the outsiders; most people remain so. Still, I would insist, the plot of this book informs our ways of living.

Argue over interfaith services after 9/11, prayers by football teams at public schools, "creationism" versus "evolutionism," Focus on the Family; "the virtues," the American moral condition, "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, the political power of the Religious Right—engage in any or all of these debates, and you will be contending in the shadow of the achievements of Noll's cast of characters.

Noll not only finds the grounds for synthesis between America's "two religions" but also chronicles the astonishing way the theologians and preachers of the period themselves effected the synthesis. Astonishing it is, because whoever wants to be precise about theology, creed, doctrine, and ideology will see why Mead found the two systems incompatible and why he thought the evangelicals who swallowed the Enlightenment had to experience digestive upset. In fact, Mead went so far as to say that it was the religion of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and the other "antiparticularist" founders that formed the "theology behind the legal structure of America," whereas "it is religious particularity, Protestant or otherwise, that is heretical and schismatic—even un-American!"2

How did evangelical Americans swallow this conflicted mix? In Noll's story, they were not passive victims of the Enlightened founders, Deists though some of them may have been. They formed coalitions, celebrated places where their systems overlapped, gave their own interpretations to the Nature's God of the founders, took initiatives, and invented what Noll calls a synthesis of "Republicanism and Religion." Simply, frankly, boldly, baldly, they changed for the new circumstance of nation-building and interpreting. In what they would have called "saving faith," that huge aspect of religion to which Ahlstrom paid much attention and Mead little, they kept to the four basics that Noll—following David Bebbington's lead—finds and defines: biblicism, conversionism, activism, crucicentrism (Christ's redeeming work). The rest was negotiable and they negotiated.

From the viewpoint of historic scholastic confessional Reformation Puritanism that was their heritage, what most of them did over a several-decade period had to be, to paraphrase Mead, "heretical and schismatic—even un-Protestant!" To a person, their antecedents and many successors in our own time would resist formal acknowledgment of what John Cardinal Newman called "The Development of Doctrine," but Noll finds theirs developing in basic and determinative but only sometimes acknowledged ways. Unless I have misread them and Noll, when evangelical Republicans or Republican evangelicals (Republican here referring to the religion of the Republic, not the Republican Party, though they could later sometimes be blurred in this company) insist that their faith and doctrine are unchanging, I will not feel impelled to sit there and assent. They invented something that Mead, it seems to me, overlooked, and found ways to help write a new chapter in religious, especially Protestant, and national history.

On his first page Noll announces that he will chronicle a shift away from European theological traditions by direct descendants from the Protestant Reformation, "toward a Protestant evangelical theology decisively shaped by its engagement with Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America." Elsewhere, Noll says that this shift occurred only in America, which might help explain why American evangelicals and other theologians sometimes have trouble communicating on these subjects with Christians elsewhere. Now, italics mine, emphasis Noll's: "It is not an exaggeration to claim that this nineteenth-century Protestant evangelicalism differed from the religion of the Protestant Reformation as much as sixteenth-century Reformation Protestantism differed from the Roman Catholic theology from which it emerged."

How did this body of preachers and professors get a victory of sorts in this syncretistic fusion? Little in colonial history anticipated their "surprising intellectual synthesis," which not only contributed to the forming of American values but was a "key to the remarkable Christianization that occurred in the United States, North and South, in the decades to 1865." The answer to the "how" question is that here was "a compound of evangelical Protestant religion, republican political ideology, and commonsense moral reasoning."

The last two of those three phrases need some explanation in unfoldings that take up most of the book. "Republicanism," says Noll's glossary, was "a flexible term that linked the practice of virtue (however defined) with the presence of freedom and the flourishing of society." Most ways of the "however defining" had little to do with the four main themes of evangelicalism. Indeed, cruciformity, focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross, was shelved or bracketed in the interest of finding ways for evangelicals to connect with all but the clearly "vicious" political forces.

The instrument of outreach was "commonsense moral reasoning," usually of the Scottish commonsense philosophy school (read: Francis Hutcheson, Thomas Reid, Adam Smith, and Dugald Stewart), which came along in time (1790s to 1840s) to be of help to the evangelicals just as it became the standard-brand philosophy in American politics and the academy. Again, the glossary: "common sense" as a technical term "sought a source for ethics in human consciousness," wanted to fight off Humean skepticism, and serve as "a basis for political or religious opinions. … not infected by the corruptions of traditional European practice." Noll shows how alien such notions would have been to the towering Jonathan Edwards at the beginning of the story and how congenial they were to evangelical and Republican thinkers alike through the Civil War years.

To trace the steps these figures took and the delicate, complex, and patient ways that Noll follows them is not possible even within the generous limits of this review. Instead, one must hurry to the conclusion. Several things happen, including one that Noll has less time or inclination to treat than others. In the course of the 19th century, "secular" reasoners came to be increasingly skeptical about the claims of commonsense philosophy, regarding the Republican edifice to have been built on a metaphysically condemned site, and they set out to find new ones—or to abandon Americans in territories that were to become (and still remain) uncertain.

At the same time, polarities that Noll discerns throughout could no longer be contained around their axes: Methodist versus Baptist, African American versus white American, North and South, men and women, all of which united evangelicals over against "Roman Catholicism, establishmentarian Protestantism, pietistic quietism, or rationalistic religions of the Enlightenment." It was the third of these that did so much to lead to schism: North and South. Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and "supremely Abraham Lincoln" were pushed away from the successions of "American Christianity" into "post-Protestant, even post-Christian theism."

"The American God," Noll concludes,

may also have been working too well for the Protestant theologians who, even as they exploited Scripture and pious experience so successfully, yet found it easy to equate America's moral government of God with Christianity itself. Their tragedy—and the greater the theologian, the greater the tragedy—was to rest content with a God defined by the American conventions God's own loyal servants had exploited so well.

1865 was not the end of the story, though it is the end of Noll's story here. In numerous other books he has noticed what has happened since Lincoln, a sort of outsider hero in this book, as part of his effort to see the continual refashioning of syntheses, for better and for worse. This is, then, a story of Götterdämmerung, the twilight of the gods, or "the death of [America's] God" but one that anticipates resurrections, new syntheses, strains, polarities, and promises.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago.

1. Sidney Mead, The Nation with the Soul of a Church (Harper & Row, 1975) p. 27.

2. Mead, p. 22

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