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Molly Worthen

Ultimate Concern

What Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich had in common.

Few historians find a way inside the heads of those human beings who do not leave behind a tidy published record. Polls lie, or oversimplify. Pop culture is only the ad man's guess. It is no easy thing to tell what the vast majority of ordinary individuals listening in the pews, reading at the breakfast table, or lounging in front of the television actually think about the ideas and problems of their world. Once upon a time, the business of historical scholarship lay with the stories of great men and their big ideas. However, in the wake of the new social history that arose in the 1960s—"history from below" that celebrates the lives of the masses left faceless in older books—intellectual historians have had to grapple with the question of how those big ideas move through society. It is no longer enough to claim that élite ideas "trickle down," as if the reading, listening, and thinking public functioned like a passive barrel at the end of a rainspout.

Andrew Finstuen has made an admirable—and largely convincing—effort to trace the cultural pathways of one of the most powerful and problematic ideas in Western civilization: original sin. Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety is a revisionist study that traces its subjects' influence beyond the rarified journal, seminary classroom, or evangelistic crusade and into the lives of ordinary people that Finstuen calls "lay theologians." He grants Niebuhr, Graham, and Tillich major roles in the theological revival noted by contemporaries in the late 1950s, but argues that this blossoming of religious thought was not a matter of dry debate among scholars wholly detached from tent meetings for the born-again masses. Instead, Finstuen suggests that the ideas of Niebuhr and Tillich flowed as easily into the popular bloodstream as Billy Graham's calls for repentance in Madison Square Garden, and that the two realms were not so different. The American people desired no superficial religion of self-help, but rather a theology that could account for the darkness of human nature and reality of suffering clear to all after two world wars and the Great Depression.

Original Sin and Everyday Protestants joins a spate of recent accounts of the 1950s that have challenged the clichs of a tranquil era of green suburban lawns, happy housewives, and economic prosperity with a subtler understanding of the fears and anxieties of the early Cold War. Contrary to the tableaux of Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best, World War II veterans struggled to forget the horrors of war; inflation and economic downturn loomed; and Americans' migration between South and North, cities and suburbs, tore the fabric of traditional communities. Finstuen challenges the received wisdom that in this "age of anxiety" Americans clung to a shallow faith typified by the positive thinking of Norman Vincent Peale. He cites a mass of protest against Peale's theology in a range of secular, mainline Protestant, and evangelical publications, as well as the simultaneous popularity of existentialist philosophers and other European intellectuals concerned with the darker side of life. The subject of original sin preoccupied magazines like Christianity Today and the Christian Century, not to mention Life and Time (which proclaimed a "Calvinist Comeback" as early as 1947). While he may go too far in finding theological weight in such ephemera as the Dial-A-Prayer telephone network, Finstuen's central claim—that "the conventional narrative of the 'captivity' of suburban Christianity has been overplayed"—is a helpful counterpoint to most popular understandings of this period.

His restoration of theological gravitas to postwar culture hinges on the roles played by his "curious trinity," Niebuhr, Graham, and Tillich. Finstuen's inclusion of Graham here will surprise many readers, and he knows it. He is at pains to emphasize that while Graham was often theologically inconsistent and could not rival Niebuhr or Tillich in intellectual heft, all three shared a "common theological anchor" in their emphasis on original sin. The caricatures lie, Finstuen insists. Graham was not blindly pro-American or a blithe perfectionist who always reduced the "fact" of original sin to the mere "acts" of booze, gambling, or adultery. Occasionally he critiqued American consumer culture and nationalism, and Graham's "Presbyterian roots" provided him with an "awareness of sin's covert operation in humanity [that] approached a degree of similarity with Niebuhr's and Tillich's discussion of sensuality and concupiscence." Hesitant language like this sometimes burdens Finstuen's narrative. But in the end he presents us with three consensus theologians, much as other scholars have cast the 1940s and 1950s as the era of "consensus historians" like Louis Hartz and Richard Hofstadter. They quarreled over details but agreed on America's common hopes and temptations.

Niebuhr's acid critiques of Graham's crusades are famous, but Finstuen has unearthed more sympathetic, lesser known assessments. Niebuhr called the evangelist "infinitely superior to the other popular versions of the Christian, or at least Protestant, message," noting that Graham "preserved something of the biblical sense of a Divine judgment and mercy before which all human strivings and ambitions are convicted of guilt and reduced to their proper proportions." Likewise, while Paul Tillich is known for his Teutonic erudition and heterodox departures from traditional Christian teaching, Finstuen casts him as a public intellectual whose catchphrase "the courage to be" was a 20th-century "reworking of the classical Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith" that resonated with the average American. Some readers will blanch at Finstuen's effort to collapse the chasms between these three figures. His claim that "their differences on these [theological] points, apart from Graham's biblical literalism concerning Genesis, were more in degree than in kind" understates the implications of Graham's view of inerrancy. But these occasional trivializations are small sins that detract little from his larger point: not only did Niebuhr, Graham, and Tillich preach original sin, but vast numbers of Americans listened and agreed.

Not only did Niebuhr, Graham, and Tillich preach original sin, but vast numbers of Americans listened and agreed.

Finstuen casts all three men as celebrity thinkers who frequently graced the mainstream breakfast table. Besides the spectacle of his crusades, Graham's syndicated column, "My Answer," ran in more than 150 newspapers and reached more than 16 million readers by the end of the 1950s. Niebuhr's major works, such as Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Nature and Destiny of Man, sold briskly and his opinions appeared often in Time and Newsweek. Millions prayed his Serenity Prayer. (GIs found a copy folded in among the chocolate and cigarettes in their care packages during World War II.) Tillich's The Courage to Be and Dynamics of Faith were bestsellers, and both he and Niebuhr supplemented their writing and teaching with peripatetic speaking careers, preaching their notions of sin and human nature to packed halls on college campuses around the country. While these three men spoke as prophets warning of an American spirituality gone off the rails, they were themselves so popular that they helped define the very age they criticized. Finstuen does not address the question of whether their prophetic stances were deliberate postures: the conscious strategy cultivated by so many public intellectuals who try to reside in the world, but not of it, in order to both win and challenge their audience at once.

At least some in that audience listened, and replied. Finstuen bases his assessment of these "lay theologians" on the vast amount of mail from readers that all three men received—a trove that has been largely ignored by scholars. His examination of letters to the editor and readers' personal letters to Niebuhr, Graham, and Tillich reveal many surprises: "liberal" Christian Century readers roaring to Billy Graham's defense after the magazine criticized him; a young Presbyterian pastor grateful to Niebuhr for sustenance in the "drought-stricken wastes" of west Texas; two hundred letters in response to a Saturday Evening Post article by Tillich on the estrangement of the human condition, including one from a Montanan who called the Harvard professor a "spokesman for humanity" and another from an elderly Methodist in rural West Virginia who praised Tillich's "distinction between sin and the results of sin."

It is hard to say whether these letters are exceptions to general apathy, or speak for the silent ponderings of the majority. Anecdotal data cannot provide a systematic portrait of popular opinion, but it does suggest that a broad swath of Americans took original sin seriously and found theology relevant to their everyday lives. Finstuen challenges the vague belief, shared by many students of American religious history, that over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries original sin evaporated from the average American's consciousness—that aside from a few grumpy Presbyterians and Dutch Reformed enclaves in the Midwest, most Americans had an increasingly sunny view of human nature and capability. Finstuen does not tell us in any detail what his lay theologians thought about the consequences of original sin, or its bearing on the challenges of their era, such the segregated South or Cold War rhetoric that blamed all evils on the godless, demonic Soviets. It would be a stretch to extract any systematic theology or political commentary from the brief and sometimes inarticulate letters he cites, though a few did include pages of exegesis. However, in the very act of brooding over sin as these laypeople did, there is some remnant of that "Augustinian strain of piety" that Perry Miller noted in the Puritans, a dark anxiety that neither Charles Finney nor Norman Vincent Peale could entirely sweep away. These letter-writers found more in religion than community or emotional sustenance. Their faith's intellectual content was, to use Tillich's phrase, a matter of ultimate concern.

As to the "Calvinist Comeback" that Time noted in 1947, it seems that TULIP is a perennial flower. Writing for Christianity Today in 1975, Presbyterian theologian and pastor James Boice described the flourishing of Reformed seminaries and asked, "Is the Reformed Faith Being Rediscovered?" More recently, a spate of articles and books have expressed surprise at the popularity of this theology among young evangelicals today, notably Collin Hansen's 2008 book Young,Restless,and Reformed. Finstuen's analysis of the cultural appeal of theology that takes seriously matters of human depravity and divine sovereignty (even if it is not always strictly Calvinist—neither Graham, Tillich, nor Niebuhr could be called so) helps us understand these revivals not as spiritual anomalies but as natural upwellings of a persistent feature of American piety. These three thinkers did not achieve popularity by telling Americans what to believe, but by articulating what they already felt.

Molly Worthen writes about American religion for Christianity Today and The New York Times magazine.

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