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Philip Jenkins

Cotton Mather, Meet Bill Clinton

Two histories of religion in America

The Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story from Colonial Times to Today
by Edwin S. Gaustad and Leigh E. Schmidt
HarperSanFrancisco, Rev. ed., 2002
464 pp.; $29.95

If you want proof that all the scholars involved in writing these two volumes are men, look no further than the fact that they have forgotten at least one very significant anniversary. Only by an effort of will can two major religious histories of America published in 2002 have failed to note that they appear exactly three centuries after the pioneering work that invented this whole genre, Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). Three decades ago, moreover—in 1972—Sydney E. Ahlstrom published his Religious History of the American People (Yale Univ. Press), the book that taught a generation of scholars the crucial importance of moving beyond denominational boundaries to integrate religious history into the broader picture of political and social life.

Reading both the books to be discussed in this essay gives us a splendid opportunity to see how American religious history has evolved in the past generation. This process of development is all the more evident because The Religious History of America is a fully updated version of a book first published by Edwin Gaustad in 1966, and aptly described as a "modern classic." Just what have we learned in the intervening decades?

What has not changed—arguably, since Mather's time—is the realization of the central role of faith and faiths in the making of America. As Jon Butler et al. note in their beautifully written volume, "the story of religion in America therefore usually stands with the grain of American secular history, not against it." That formulation brings me up short only to the extent that I struggle with the concept of "secular history." In the American context, just what is that? Have not religious movements provided the organizing framework for most of the transforming events of American history, the social movements that bubbled forth from successive awakenings, revivals, consciousness reformations, or whatever we call them? Was abolitionism really a secular movement? Was feminism (whether in the 19th century or the 20th)? The civil rights movement? Can we hope to understand the antebellum period without taking account of concepts like millenarianism and restorationism? What about the Progressive Era, the age of the Social Gospel? Who can doubt that in studying American religion, we are dealing here with the heart of the nation's story?

Having said this, the heart looks very different than it once did. Cotton Mather told a simple story of good and evil, night and day, in which English Puritan Christianity was unquestionably in the right. His aim was to "report the wonderful displays of [God's] infinite power, wisdom, goodness, and faithfulness, wherewith His Divine Providence hath irradiated an Indian Wilderness." Later historians were less overtly triumphalist, but well into the 20th century, the Protestant story was clearly meant to be the dominant thread.

Obviously this vision has been diluted in recent scholarship, and by no means as a mere response to political correctness. To take one obvious point, an America in which the population's center of gravity is so rapidly shifting south and west inevitably has a greater appreciation of the non-Puritan, non-New England Christian traditions that have exercised such an influence in other parts of the nation. When you pass Spanish missions on the way to work, and the driver in front of you has a bumper sticker of the Virgin of Guadalupe, there is something unconvincing about the implicit claim that America's Christian culture fanned outwards from Massachusetts Bay.

Religion in American Life: A Short History
by Jon Butler, Grant Wacker, and Randall Balmer
Oxford Univ. Press, 2002 544 pp.; $35

At every stage, then, both these new studies try to get beyond the Puritan/Protestant emphasis to give due attention to non-British traditions, to the Catholic side of the story, and to the history of non-white religion. The revision of Gaustad's survey especially notes the greater stress now placed "on the varieties of Christianity, African and Native American traditions, religious diversity, and Eastern religions in America." Butler et al. likewise offer a wonderfully polychrome account, giving the most extensive coverage I have ever seen in such a general history of Native spiritual traditions and their interactions with Catholic authorities. (To indicate just how far we have moved from traditional emphases, this is a book of 420 pages of text in which the Pilgrim Fathers do not even appear till page 51, and the Great Awakening not till page 127.)

In stressing diversity, both books also try to give due weight to European religious stories that were once rather submerged, including the ubiquitous occult movements and the many strands of what Catherine Albanese has called "nature religion" running through American life from the earliest times. Such a wide-ranging definition of religious life is all the more important if we are to reclaim the story of African American spirituality, which has often been manifested outside formal church structures. Even more so than for white Americans, "fringe" movements have often been quite central to the black religious story.

The problem with any kind of comprehensive history of the sort we are dealing with here is likely to occur at the very end, in reacting to recent developments. Looking at the last decade or so, what exactly are the major religious themes that are likely to resonate in another 50 or 100 years? In the 1970s, everyone knew that the most important fact in American religious life was the growth of the New Age and the "culting of America"—a perspective that now looks incredibly dated. Today, it seems inevitable that events like the Waco massacre will be remembered into the foreseeable future, but who knows? My interactions with classes of college students suggest that trends that seemed overwhelmingly significant just five or ten years ago have already faded into oblivion (To take an alarming example, nobody in one of my current undergraduate classes had ever heard the term "Hare Krishna"). Randall Balmer may or may not be correct in devoting substantial coverage to Promise Keepers in his account of the 1990s, but does this movement really merit that much more attention than the pro-life organizations? (I was also surprised to see Balmer take so seriously the 1996 crisis over alleged arson attacks at black churches, a phenomenon that many subsequent writers portray as largely mythical). Reading Gaustad and Schmidt, we find a heavy emphasis on gay and women's issues as the defining trends of the last decade or so, and generally more consideration to events outside the Protestant world. They end with a discussion of religious pluralism, implying that the new religious America coming into existence will be reshaped by the encounter with other non-Christian religions. Who can tell?

Both books seek quite heroically to tell a vast story in a limited space, and any number of additional topics could have been included. I have no wish to criticize the authors for keeping both books within manageable bounds. The only omission that I really regretted was the comparison that could have been made at so many points between religion in America and the situation in comparably advanced European lands, or in the British Empire. How for instance can we determine what difference it made that the United States lacked a formal church establishment unless and until we consider the experience of other countries like England or even Canada? And why is it that "years of revolution" like 1848 result in purely political upsurges in Europe, but often produce religious consequences in the United States?

The lack of comparison with Europe becomes all the more important when considering the last 50 years or so, when the continuing high level of religiosity in the United States is in such sharp contrast to the rapid secularization in Europe. This point never emerges from either of the books discussed here, which both note matter-of-factly that religious issues continue to be central to American life, in a way that would be unthinkable in contemporary Germany or England. Indeed, American clergy are still deemed worthy of being furiously denounced by political enemies, a luxury that their European counterparts have rarely shared in recent years.

Even for America's most supposedly secular social movements, the most potent rhetoric still draws on underlying religious assumptions and frames problems in the language of martyrdom and crucifixion, of righteous victims and evil Pharisees. Witness the crucifixion imagery in media accounts of the death of gay martyr Matthew Shepard, or the powerful themes of martyrdom and vindication running consistently through black political rhetoric. One reason that Bill Clinton retained the presidency for eight years was that he was such a master of the pseudo-evangelical oratory that clearly resonates with large sections of the American public, at the same time that it appalls secular Europeans. Why, though, should such similar economic, cultural and demographic trends seem on the face of it to have produced such radically different consequences on either side of the Atlantic? I don't have an answer, and I am little the wiser for reading these books. But perhaps this transnational approach represents yet another kind of "diversity" that will reshape a future generation of American religious history.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and the author most recently of The Next Christendom: The Coming Global Christianity (Oxford Univ. Press).

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