As American as Apple Pie
Since at least 1776 the upstart sects have grown as the mainline American denominations have declined. And this trend continues unabated, as new upstarts continue to push to the fore.
— Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1992
It is impossible to locate a period of American history when so-called small sects were not growing at a faster clip than denominations then viewed as large and stable.
— R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, 1986
T he place of the United States as the world's only remaining superpower magnifies the importance of the Christian history of North America. The spread of American influence around the world has meant that American versions of the nature, purpose, and content of the Christian faith have also spread widely.
— Mark A. Noll, The Old Religion in a New World, 2002
Few questions will be more important to the twenty-first-century United States than whether renascent religion and its accompanying political hubris will be carried on the nation's books as an asset or as a liability. While sermons and rhetoric propounding American exceptionalism proclaim religiosity an asset, a somber array of historical precedents — the pitfalls of imperial Christian overreach from Rome to Britain — tip the scales toward liability.
Christianity in the United States, especially Protestantism, has always had an evangelical — which is to say, missionary — and frequently a radical or combative streak. Some message has always had to be preached, punched, or proselytized. Once in a while that excitability has been economic — most notably in the case of the Social Gospel of the 1890s, which searched through Scripture to document the Jesus who emphasized caring for the poor and hungry. In the twentieth century, though, religious zeal in the United States usually focused on something quite different: individual pursuit of salvation through spiritual rebirth, often in circumstances of sect-driven millenarian countdowns to the so-called end times and an awaited return of Christ. These beliefs have often been accompanied by great revivals; emotionalism; eccentricities of quaking, shaking, and speaking in tongues; characterization of the Bible as inerrant; and wild-eyed invocation of dubious prophecies in the Book of Revelation. No other contemporary Western nation shares this religious intensity and its concomitant proclamation that Americans are God's chosen people and nation. George W. Bush has averred this belief on many occasions.
In its recent practice, the radical side of U.S. religion has embraced cultural antimodernism, war hawkishness, Armageddon prophecy, and in the case of conservative fundamentalists, a demand for governments by literal biblical interpretation. In the 1800s, religious historians generally minimized the sectarian thrust of religious excess, but recent years have brought more candor. The evangelical, fundamentalist, sectarian, and radical threads of American religion are being proclaimed openly and analyzed widely, even though bluntness is frequently muted by a pseudo-tolerance, the polite reluctance to criticize another's religion. However given the wider thrust of religion's claims on public life, this hesitance falls somewhere between unfortunate and dangerous. Charles Kimball, a North Carolina Baptist and professor of religion, speaks very much to the point: "Although many of us have been taught it is not polite to discuss religion and politics in public, we must quickly unlearn that lesson. Our collective failure to challenge presuppositions, think anew, and openly debate central religious concerns affecting society is a recipe for disaster."1
Still, the challenge is gathering. Academic projects that spotlight the resurgence of religious fundamentalism around the world now routinely include the United States, along with India, Israel, and many Islamic countries. Scholars have always touched on "militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism," but there is a renewed focus.2 Some moderate-toliberal theologians have begun to challenge half-baked preaching about the rapture and the end times as "a toxin endangering the health — even the life — of the Christian churches and American society."3 Suburban megachurches, in turn, find themselves explained as offering the spiritual equivalent of a shopping mall: would you like psychic healing today, Hindu breathing exercises, or just a little observant mood music?4 Ultimately, the larger political resurgence of historically controversial religiosity is what demands attention.
Evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal denominations began the new millennium verging on juggernaut status. To the surprise of some observers, the sectarianism and fragmentation of American Christianity remained as visible at the turn of the twenty-first century as they had been one hundred years earlier. A consensus on this development is taking shape, as we will see. The old mainline churches have been culturally and institutionally displaced by a new plurality; yesteryear's supposed fringes are taking over American Protestantism's main square.
Documentation is far from perfect, and statistics can be as misleading or obscure in this realm as in any other. The half dozen or so periodic religious surveys, membership directories, and atlases of religion published in the United States are useful but incomplete, in part because of the unwillingness of many small and midsized denominations to participate in religious samplings. The Atlas of Religious Change in America, 1952–1990 begins with several pages to explain its methodologies and omissions. In a nutshell, only 80 to 85 percent of religious adherents were included because scores of churches, mostly white conservative or black, did not cooperate or submitted unsatisfactory data.5 Fully presenting them would only enlarge the biblical and conservative predominance.
In contrast to the secular and often agnostic Christianity dominant in Europe, Canada, and Australia, the American view encompasses a very different outlook — one in which a large minority is in key ways closer to the intensity of seventeenth-century Puritans, Presbyterian Covenanters, and earlier Dutch or Swiss Calvinists. As we will see, these are not comforting analogies. The world's leading economic and military power is also — no one can misread the data — the world's leading Bible-reading crusader state, immersed in an Old Testament of stern prophets and bloody Middle Eastern battlefields.
There is, to be sure, a large and growing secular culture in the United States. Among northern university graduates and cultural elites, it is dominant — stronger by far than that of the biblical and salvationist contingent. However, the Republican coalition and administration of George W. Bush is heavily weighted toward the 30 to 40 percent of the electorate caught up in Scripture and the prospect of being suddenly transported to God's side. This is enough to push the United States toward what chapter 6 will posit as a national Disenlightenment. Indeed, American foreign policy has its own corollary to the end-times worldview: the preemptive righteousness of a biblical nation become a high-technology, gospelspreading superpower.
Figure 1 details several of the most striking public faces of this extraordinary American belief system. Against this backdrop, Christianity's unusual evolution in North America does indeed merit more attention, as religious historians such as Mark Noll contend, than sophisticated elites in London, Paris, Beijing, or New Delhi — or for that matter in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles — have so far extended. While American religious tendencies toward parochialism and moral or political crusades mattered little in 1890, 1914, or even during the Cold War, they take on much greater importance now as Christian, Jewish, and Muslim holy lands occupy absolute center stage in world politics and as sites of military confrontation.
The idea of the United States as a biblically spurred great power, which has been framed by historians such as Walter McDougall in Promised Land, Crusader State (1997), has had unforeseen relevance to the Bush administration and cannot be cavalierly dismissed.6 Historically, great powers have too often gone out in blazes of religious invocation. The newly Christian fourth-century Rome of the emperor Constantine and his successors held up the cross as Rome faced military defeat and crumbling frontiers from Hadrian's Wall to Assyria. So did seventeenth-century Spain, the proud but ill-omened command post of the Catholic Counter Reformation. Vestments of crusaderdom also cloaked imperial Britain's overreach in World War I and its aftermath. Those uncomfortable precedents will be elaborated upon in later chapters. First, however, we will take on the prominence and many flavors of religious radicalism in the United States, truly as American as apple pie.
The Sect-Driven Dynamic of American Religion
Part of the unusual sectarian quality of U.S. Protestantism derives from its cultural parentage. Britain, itself once a biblical nation convinced it was God's chosen one, was unlike other European powers in a willingness to populate the American colonies with Scripture-reading religious dissenters. The resultant flow from Britain and Europe helped to stamp the North American colonies as a religious refuge — for English and Welsh Puritans, Baptists, and Quakers, Scottish and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, Jews from many parts of Europe, French Huguenots, and a myriad of German speakers fleeing continental wars: Moravians, Palatines, Amish, Mennonites, Anabaptists, Dunkers, and Salzburgers. Especially in the middle colonies, New York and Pennsylvania, the result was a population that exhibited the religiosity of refugee faith across a kaleidoscope of denominations and sects. Following independence, this all but mandated tolerance and ruled out any official church in these states. Only relatively homogeneous New England kept official Congregational churches in three states: Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.
While many foreign visitors commented on this national trait — high religiosity and tolerance seemingly buoying each other — fewer remarked on a related belief pattern. With choice of worship permitted, lateeighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century American Protestants, among the world's most Bible-reading, flocked to the sort of individualist and antihierarchical faith that emphasized a personal relationship with God. This made them responsive to pioneering evangelists such as English visitor George Whitefield during the so-called Great Awakening of the 1740s and to others during the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s.
Periodic revivalism, in turn, fed a still-resonant exodus of Americans from established churches that had given up emotion for respectability, turning instead to movements or sects that emphasized salvation, spirituality, physical displays, founders' claims to special revelation (Mormons, for example), faith healing, and "holiness upon the land." Over the years, new waves of fervor, zeal, and agitation — from quakes, shakes, and jerks to millennial watch keeping and speaking in tongues — have sparked almost continuous cultural and behavioral comment from domestic and foreign observers. In one of the latest nontraditional evolutions, "third wave" Pentecostalism, hundreds of churches have replaced organ music with guitars, drums, and synthesizers, some adding unusual new forms of personal expression and spiritualism.
Mark Noll, one of America's foremost religious historians, in 2002 wrote the book The Old Religion in a New World, explaining the differences in Christianity in Europe and in North America. The major divergences go to the heart of what is unusual about American religion. As might be expected, the United States has a superabundance of denominations and sects compared to Europe, as well as a far higher ratio of churchgoers. By one count, the United States in 1996 had 19 separate Presbyterian denominations, 32 Lutheran, 36 Methodist, 37 Episcopal or Anglican, 60 Baptist, and 241 Pentecostal.7 Globalization and immigration have added to the proliferation in surprising ways. In A New Religious America (2001), Diana Eck pointed out that Muslims in America outnumber Presbyterians or Episcopalians, and that Los Angeles is the most varietal Buddhist city in the world.8 Each Sunday the Los Angeles Times publishes a directory of services that includes more than six hundred denominations.
To add to the complexity, theological crosscurrents are sapping the old denominations and making their labels less meaningful. In Noll's words, "free-flowing Pentecostal and charismatic styles will go on spreading their influence far beyond the explicitly Pentecostal churches. The most important Christian schisms will increasingly follow theological-ideological lines rather than denominational lines. Especially as the historic Catholic-Protestant chasm continues to narrow, Christians will be linked to fellow believers from other denominations according to shared convictions."9 Examples of this emerging transdenominationalism include the growth of the new suburban megachurches — some boasting congregations of ten to fifteen thousand — and the post-Pentecostal networks of Calvary Chapels and the Association of Vineyard Churches.
Also to the point, U.S. Protestantism uniquely abounds with what Noll terms "populist innovations," or forms of worship developed by laypeople. One is the widespread American embrace of "dispensational premillennialism" — a fervor launched in the nineteenth century around biblical passages interpreted to signal the second coming of Christ. A second, Pentecostalism, is based on the "latter rain" of revival in the Holy Spirit prophesied in Joel 2:23. To Pentecostals the defining sign of an individual's possession by the Holy Spirit is the gift of tongues — the ability to utter words and sentences intelligible only to God and those with the gift of interpretation.10 Noll acknowledges that "neither dispensationalism nor Pentecostalism has ever appeared respectable in academic environs, but each has attracted far more adherents and driven far more practical religious activity than any academically respectable theology of the twentieth century."11 Although survey results vary, some 7 to 10 percent of U.S. churchgoers appear to be Pentecostals, and perhaps a quarter of churchgoers are full-fledged end-times believers, as opposed to the 50 percent or so who relate to the symbolism when holy wars or tsunamis dominate the news.12
Conversion on the part of adults — the deep personal experience of being "born again" in Christ — is also far more important in the United States, with its emphasis on individual choice and personal experience, than elsewhere.13 In the mid-1980s some 33 percent of respondents told the Gallup Poll they had been "born again"; by the early 2000s the number had climbed to 44 to 46 percent.14 George W. Bush's own tale of coming to God struck a chord in the churchgoing United States that would have been impossible in less-observant Europe. Even in kindred Canada, supposedly no prime minister has ever claimed to be born again. 15
Likewise notably American is the pervasive influence of the Bible, from the first English migrations a staple of belief and interpretation. Bible publishing in the new republic quickly became an industry — some 1,800 different English-language editions were published between 1777 and 1865 — and remains one today, with more than seven thousand editions available as of 1990.16 National attentiveness to Scripture, in turn, helps to explain the unusual popular commitment to biblical inerrancy, prophecy, and the supposed end times. A related topic, the recurrent conflict between religiosity and science, reflects how much American thinking has been steeped in both. Tensions between the Book of Genesis and Darwinian theories of evolution, brought to a theatrical and political head in 1925 in Tennessee's famous Scopes trial, still throb. "The result," concludes Noll, "has been a much greater salience in America concerning evolution and 'creation science' than in any other Western society."17
Sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, in their pioneering study The Churching of America, 1776–1990, provide a revealing explanation of America's religious idiosyncrasies. The religious history of the United States, they say, rests heavily on sectarian emotion and revival — a process under way since the eighteenth century, in which churches become establishmentarian, "compromise their 'errand into the wilderness' and then ... lose their organizational vigor, eventually to be replaced by less worldly groups, whereupon the process is repeated."18
Even by the time of the American Revolution the old colonial elite denominations — Congregationalists in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania, and Anglicans from Chesapeake Bay and to the south — were in places being challenged or overtaken by upstart Baptists and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. By 1850 revival-minded Methodists and Baptists, with their itinerant preachers, circuit riders, and camp meetings, ranked first and second nationally. By the early twentieth century Baptists had pulled ahead, with Pentecostal, charismatic, "restorationist," holiness, and other sects gaining traction. The colonial-era elite denominations kept slipping down the list, holding ever smaller ratios of U.S. worshippers.
By the end of the twentieth century, the fundamentalist-leaning Southern Baptist Convention, wedded to biblical inerrancy, was by far the largest Protestant group. Indeed, as we will see in greater detail, the SBC, together with other once-peripheral sects, boasted some forty million adherents versus a combined fifteen million members of the four leading mainline churches (Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Church of Christ Congregational).19 Like Stark and Finke, historian Noll observed that "previously marginal groups have become larger and more important, while previously central denominations have moved toward the margins. ... The Protestant bodies whose rates of growth in recent decades have exceeded general population increases — sometimes far exceeded — are nearly all characterized by such labels as Bible-believing, born again, conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist, holiness, Pentecostal, or restorationist."20
While avoiding judgmental descriptions, Stark and Finke did insist on "the primary feature of our religious history: the mainline bodies are always headed for the sideline."21 Sectarianism keeps claiming center stage, reinforcing or reinventing the radical aspects of American religion.
The Ever-Expanding American Revival Tent
As the twenty-first century began, none of the western countries in which Reformation Protestantism bred its radical or anarchic sects nearly five hundred years earlier — England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands — still had congregations of any great magnitude adhering to that theology. Even sympathetic commentators have described church attendance in England with phrases such as "catastrophic decline," and a recent survey of students at Belgium's ancient Catholic University in Louvain found only 16 percent crediting the resurrection of Christ and a mere 3 percent believing in the infallibility of the Pope.22 The United States, religiously inspired and settled by some of those same radical Protestant sects in the 1600s and early 1700s, took a different course. Its religious revivals keep coming, now jumping from rural tents to the electronic podiums of televangelism.
At the close of the American Revolution, which began with only 15 to 20 percent of the population regularly attending church, Anglicans, Quakers, and even politically victorious New England Congregationalists found their strongholds besieged by Baptists and Methodists. Inspired by democratic rhetoric and opportunity, the insurgent denominations found the late 1780s and 1790s a fruitful time for promoting personal salvation and harvesting souls. In contrast to the staid services and educated clergy of the established denominations, Baptists and Methodists shared practices and techniques especially successful in remote or frontier areas — reliance on part-time or itinerant preachers who had little formal education and received minimal pay and, most of all, revivals and camp meetings.
It is an exaggeration to think of this as a largely American behavioral innovation. Princeton's Leigh Schmidt and other religious historians have located important roots in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Presbyterian "holy fairs" that developed in the southwest of Scotland and then in nearby northern Ireland. Sometimes involving many thousands of worshippers, these outdoor events were marked by swaying, crying, swooning, and the like — mockingly caricatured by the famous Robert Burns and others. Being much in the minds of Scottish and Scotch-Irish settlers in North America, their memories helped to inspire the similar revivals and camp meetings along the Appalachian frontier.
But if the Scottish ancestry is clear, the enthusiasm and lack of re-straint does seem to have been greater in the New World. New physical ecstasies joined "Quaker" and "Shaker" in the religious lexicon. One Methodist recalled that "while I was preaching, the power of God fell on the assembly, and there was an awful shaking among the dry bones. Several fell on the floor and cried for mercy."23 Cane Ridge, Kentucky, where on one evening in August 1801 twenty thousand sobbed, shrieked, and shouted themselves into near hysteria, gained particular fame as a revival ground. Between 1800 and 1850 the western half of New York became known as "the burned-over district" because of the emotional inflammations there that matched the searing heat of forest fires.24
Both evangelical insurgencies saw their flocks multiply. Between 1776 and 1806 Methodist ranks in the United States increased by 2,500 percent — from 4,900 adherents to 130,000 — while Baptist membership ballooned from 35,000 in 1784 to 173,000 in 1810.25 By 1850 populist outreach had made Methodists the largest U.S denomination, with 2.7 million members, the Baptists placing second, with 1.6 million.26 Successful American Protestantism proselytized with an evangelical accent.
For both churches the burgeoning South (including the southern settled Ohio Valley) had emerged as their principal center of gravity.27 Nevertheless, before the Baptists and Methodists could make evangelical religion dominant below the Mason-Dixon Line, they had to — and did — shed notions that were perceived as radical, such as opposition to slavery and enmity to social hierarchies, as well as their early emphasis on selfrevelation and church fellowship, which in some localities had been deemed harmful to family bonds. As one recent historian of the Bible Belt has pointed out, this meant "altering, often drastically, many earlier evangelical teachings and practices concerning the proper roles of men and women, old and young, white and black, as well as their positions on the relationship between ... Christianity and other forms of supernaturalism. As a result, evangelism looked much different in the 1830s than it had in the 1790s."28 In some poor, low-slaveholding areas, white dissidents did break away into minor sects.
Especially in the North, well-educated, established clergy often deplored the emotionalism, physical displays, and lack of erudition among the Baptists and Methodists. Those churches, said Connecticut Congregationalist Lyman Beecher, were "worse than nothing."29 Critics also harped on the prurient incitements when baptism involved total immersion of girls wearing flimsy shifts, and they disparaged the liquor often sold in proximity to camp meetings. Barton Stone, later a famous evangelist, candidly described the "bodily agitations" seen at the Cane Ridge revivals of the early 1800s. They included "falling" (often with a piercing shriek), "the jerks" (often of the head), "dancing" (as an extension of the jerks), and "barking" (as an accompaniment to the jerks).30 While opponents frequently exaggerated this behavior, they were hardly making it up.
Comparable insults had been leveled in the 1740s, when old-line Virginia Anglicans and New England Congregationalist leaders blistered evangelists like George Whitefield for emotionalism, enthusiasm, and threat to good order. Even so, the first half of the nineteenth century introduced a range of new denominations that made Baptists and Methodists look sedate.
The frontier-centered restorationist movement — by some also called "primitivism" — sought to recapture the pure, unencumbered Christianity of the New Testament by stripping away the imported corruptions of European ecclesiastical authority and practice. Labels such as Lutheran, Anglican, or Baptist — for that matter, even the term "reverend" — were to be cast aside. During the 1830s the several groups of dissidents cohered as the simply named Christian Church but later split into three separate networks — confusingly named the Churches of Christ, the Christian Churches, and the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ. Accepting no more than a bare-bones institutional framework, the three became significant sects in the upper South and Ohio Valley states during the decades before the Civil War.31
Greater flamboyance marked two other new sects, both enlivened by founders' claims of special divine revelation. After the failure of predictions by William Miller, a self-educated farmer from upstate New York, that Christ would return in 1843 and then 1844, elements of his following were reorganized by associates. They claimed that the return had indeed taken place, but only as a spiritual (and invisible) passage into the presence of the father.32 A full return was still to come. One founder, Ellen White, claimed to have had a personal vision of creation. The Seventh Day Adventists, as they became known in 1860, worshipped on Saturday, kept awaiting the advent, and emphasized dietary practices that pioneered the role of grains as cold cereal. They, too, thrived and grew to count one million members in the United States by 2000.
Most provocative of all was the emergence of the Mormon faith in the 1820s under the messianic leadership of Joseph Smith, another New Yorker. In 1830 he published The Book of Mormon, explaining how God had prevailed on Christopher Columbus "to venture across the sea to the promised land, to open it for a new race of free men." Revelations to Smith by the angel Moroni told how the future United States had been occupied many years before Christ by several Hebraic peoples: the Lamanites (ancestors of the American Indians) and the Nephrites. Mormon himself, the father of Moroni, was a Nephrite who recorded the story of his tribe on gold plates.33 The New Jerusalem would be in America, and when Jesus returned it would be to the area near Independence, Missouri. No shrinking violet, Smith announced in 1844 that he was running for president. With his popularity as worrisome to the respectable as his beliefs — an early example of the political threat of populist religion — Smith was jailed in Illinois and then shot while incarcerated.
The Mormons had embraced polygamy, authorized by a revelation to Smith, while honoring both the Christian Bible and The Book of Mormon. After Smith was killed, they left their major settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois, and followed new leader Brigham Young west to Utah, establishing their New Israel around the Great Salt Lake, the River Jordan, and Utah Lake, a grouping that resembled an upside-down map of the biblical Galilee -Jordan–Dead Sea region. A century and a half later, more or less (but not entirely) shorn of polygamy, the Mormon religion dominated Utah and Idaho and constituted an influential regional force in six adjacent states. From under fifty thousand in 1850, the Mormon population of the United States expanded to 1.1 million in 1950 and 5 million in 2000.34 In most surveys, however, Mormonism is still categorized as not quite Christian and not quite Protestant.
Jehovah's Witnesses were yet another of the militant denominations assembled in the nineteenth century to await a second coming. Founder Charles Russell, who rejected the doctrine of the trinity, proclaimed that Christ had returned to earth invisibly in 1874 preparatory to establishing a full presence. The cataclysm or advent was predicted for 1914. Over the years, Witnesses refused to serve in the military, vote, hold office, or salute the American flag, calling such practices the province of the antichrist.35 As with the upsurge of the Seventh Day Adventists, part of the Witnesses' twentieth-century growth was international, resulting from missionary activities. In the United States alone, nearly one million witnessed the millennium.
Evangelism of the more prosaic sort also accelerated after the Civil War. This time, though, Methodism — now the nation's largest denomination, embracing a middle-class mind-set and edging away from earlier Wesleyan intensity — had become a religious establishment to be raided. The holiness movement, which had pre–Civil War roots, advocated a return to Methodist founder John Wesley's striving for Christian perfection as a gift of the Holy Spirit. As Methodism boasted more costly church buildings, seminaries, and a plentitude of bishops, breakaway movements proliferated. They included the Indiana-based Church of God in 1881, the Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1887, the Church of the Nazarene in 1895, and the Church of God in Christ in 1897.36 Poaching-minded holiness preachers called on "all true holiness Christians to come out of Methodism's church of mammon."37
In the nineteenth century, as we have seen, religious historians tended to minimize fragmentation and downplay the sects. They preferred to emphasize eventual and ultimate Christian unity (and the fulfillment of America's divine mission). In his 1986 book Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, Cornell University's R. Laurence Moore explained that historians writing in the 1840s and 1850s also wanted to support the separation of church and state, in New England still politically controversial. (Massachusetts, the last New England state to disestablish Congregationalism, did so in 1837.) To that end, they argued that sectarianism had not run wild and that "many churches existed in America, but only a few were significant."38
That tenuous hope could still be justified during Methodism's midnineteenth-century heyday, but not for much longer. Too many Protestants, lacking priests to assure them of forgiveness, searched for God's grace in personal experience. By the 1890s holiness Methodists were defecting from their old church. Baptists were overtaking and passing Methodists in the South and overtook them in the nation as a whole around 1906.39 As the twentieth century got under way, not only were the holiness churches thriving, but fundamentalism and Pentecostalism were beginning their own ascents. Mainline Protestantism fell behind the revivalminded denominations by World War I, if the restorationist and holiness churches are counted alongside the Baptists. However, religious historians of that era, mainline Protestants, were not eager to give them such credence and position. Moore quotes one respected chronicler, William W. Sweet, whose Story of Religion in America became a standard text in 1930, ridiculing the sects while matter-of-factly describing the recruits of the "great Protestant churches" as "sane Christians."40
Sociologists Stark and Finke, for their part, employed a new technique in their statistical trail blazing. Disregarding the actual head counts of individual churches — numbers that usually rose as population increased — they introduced a comparative calculus: the rise or fall of each denomination's share of the total sum of religious adherents in the United States. Middling membership gains, they argued, often disguised a relative decline. These mathematics shone a more negative light on the appeal of the established churches while spotlighting insurgent developments. For example, between 1776 and 1850 the Congregationalists dropped from 20.4 percent of all religious adherents to just 4.0 percent, and the Episcopalians from 15.7 percent to 3.5 percent, while the Methodists soared from 2.5 percent to a peak 34.2 percent.41 Then between 1850 and 1980, in a different statistical format, the Methodists fell from 117 adherents per one thousand population to 74, a relative decline even though actual Methodist numbers rose over those 130 years.42 Few of Stark and Finke's predecessors or colleagues swung such an iconoclastic ax, and so the rise of extreme sects was slow to be recognized.
Another explanation why the early-twentieth-century strides of the holiness, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal groups escaped emphasis for so long hangs on these unfashionable elements' much publicized embarrassment during the 1920s. Press and public mockery swelled after the evolution-centered 1925 Scopes trial, the foolish 1924 attempt of the Presbytery of Philadelphia to bring modernist Harry Emerson Fosdick to trial for heresy, and the 1927 publication of Elmer Gantry, novelist Sinclair Lewis's scathing portrait of a corrupt revivalist. As the fundamentalists reeled, pundits employed dismissive characterizations such as "split and stricken," saying such movements had "lost any semblance of unity or collective force."43
According to Calvin College historian Joel Carpenter in his book Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism, after "fundamentalism's fall from respect in the late 1920s," inward-turning adherents used the thirties and forties to "consolidate an institutional network, and rethink their mission to America," using Bible institutes, fellowships, and radio gospel hours.44 As for Pentecostals, they were even more withdrawn civically. Their "journals that appeared between the early 1930s and the late 1940s, years of a catastrophic depression and war, [gave] no sense that events took place in the world other than the wonder working, soulsaving miracles of the Holy Ghost."45
Small wonder, then, that most observers, naturally unaware of what trends the late twentieth century would confront, glossed over any indications of mainline Protestant weakness — its public and social authority during the twenties remained unchallenged — and saw little future for primitive fundamentalism and revivalism. In fact, though, the actual statistics of the World War I years and the 1920s document their gains, not a retreat. Between 1916 and 1926, according to Stark and Finke, the Presbyterians (USA), Congregationalists, and Methodists retired or closed down a significant percentage of their denominations' individual churches. Yet during that same period unfashionable sects were recording huge expansions of churches: a 656 percent rise for the holiness Churches of Christ, 577 percent for the Church of the Nazarene, 553 percent for the Assemblies of God, and 442 percent for the Tennessee-based Church of God.46
Noll, too, concluded that "during the first half of the twentieth century, the fragmentation of Protestantism meant that the nation's historically most potent religious force became a declining influence in the nation as a whole."47 He argued that "the 1930s marked the beginning of the relative decline of the older, mainline Protestant churches." Meanwhile, despite any lingering negative imagery, "for fundamentalist, holiness, Pentecostal, African American, and the new-evangelical churches and organizations, it was a time of expansion. The Southern Baptist Convention, the holiness Church of the Nazarene, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, and the main black Baptist denominations all grew rapidly during this period."48
Acceptance of this thesis has been solidifying: sects up, mainline down. Carpenter also agrees that the religious crisis during this period was only among the "older or more prestigious denominations," some of which lost membership, baptisms, and revenues. At the same time, "fundamentalists' missions and ministries grew, Southern Baptists gained almost 1.5 million members between 1926 and 1940, and the pentecostal denomination the Assemblies of God quadrupled."49 During the 1930s, moreover, the middle-class Northern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterians (USA) were split by a fundamentalist exodus that launched new conservative denominations: the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (1932), the Presbyterian Church of America (1936), and the Bible Presbyterian Church (1937).50 These multiple citations buttress a different interpretation than the received wisdom: that evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal religion, far from evaporating or stagnating in a backwater during the early twentieth century, seem to have been a gathering force, like an incoming tide. No wonder the much-reported revival captained by the youthful Billy Graham in 1949–1950 could surprise with such unexpected attendance — and bring in its wake a further conservative momentum throughout the sixties and seventies. An important piece of missing U.S. religious history seems to be slowly, albeit belatedly, reappearing.
By this point the reader may feel baptized by statistical and denominational total immersion. However, there is no other way to lay out the foundations, crossbeams, and buttresses of the unusual American religious structure that led to the rise of the religious right and to the related transformation of national politics, the consequences of which we face today.
By the 1950s even the mainstream media perceived the implications of Billy Graham's fulsome public reception. A graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois, the Harvard of American evangelicalism, Graham had roots in born-again, biblically inerrant, premillennial Protestant fundamentalism. His achievement, first in southern California, and then in bringing fifty thousand listeners to Boston Common in January 1950, where the great evangelist Whitefield had drawn twenty thousand or so in 1740, gave his contemporaries pause about the real meaning of the supposed rout during the cynical 1920s.51 Graham himself was wise enough to duck any fundamentalist tag, embracing ecumenicalism and preferring the unelaborated label "evangelist."
In retrospect, the apparent seamlessness of holiness, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal expansion from the 1880s and 1890s through Graham's Christian crusade should focus our questions about the rise of today's influential sects. The mismeasurement after the twenties is not the only one. We should be more broadly skeptical about the labeling of the several so-called great awakenings, which start to look less like sudden eruptions than high points in ongoing momentum. Based on the data now available, the twentieth century saw sectarian gains and surges to match those of the eighteenth and nineteenth. Indeed, Stark and Finke match up the reasonably continuous revivalist tendencies of the public with a more or less steady rise in the percentage of Americans who stated some religious adherence — from 17 percent in 1776 to 34 percent in 1850 to 45 percent in 1890, 56 percent in 1926, 62 percent in 1980, and 63 percent in 2000.52 Neither historical calculus has been seriously rebutted, although their calculation of religious adherents does not represent one uniform statistical series, and the new figure for 2000 is controversial.
A bit more history is in order to grasp the twentieth-century emergence of the fundamentalists. We have seen how the century began with the Baptists pulling ahead of the Methodists as the largest Protestant denomination. By one account, the impetus that became fundamentalism "began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century as an interdenominational revivalist network that formed around the era's greatest evangelist, Dwight L. Moody. This movement drew most of its constituents from the generally Calvinist wing of American Protestantism."53 At this point, it was more northern than southern.
Between 1910 and 1915 Moody's conservative successors, alarmed at the growth of liberal theology and secular spirit, published a series of booklets called "The Fundamentals." These most basic of the basics, all beyond compromise, included an intense focus on evangelicalism; the need for an infilling of the Holy Spirit after conversion; belief in the imminent second coming of Christ; and the absolute, inerrant authority of the Bible.54 In 1919 the hard-liners promoted the formation of the World's Christian Fundamentals Association, and in 1920 the new antimodernist faction was given the name "fundamentalist" by Curtis Lee Laws, editor of the Baptist paper The Watchman-Examiner.55 To some religious historians, the rise of fundamentalism from the 1920s through the 1960s is now seen as the period's most dynamic and influential U.S. evangelical impulse.56
Joel Carpenter, in his profile of fundamentalism during those years, cites the interpretations of two principal authorities, Ernest Sandeen and George Marsden, that fundamentalism had serious roots in nineteenthcentury religious ideas and so could not be dismissed as simply a revolt against modernism.57 Of course, roots in nineteenth-century sectarianism, itself born amid the dislocating modernism of steamboats, railroads, and the telegraph, are not necessarily very different.
Pentecostalism, the faith many religious historians identify as Protestantism's late-twentieth-century populist innovation, emerged out of the late-nineteenth-century holiness movement, updated in the sectarian pressure cooker of early 1900s California. It caught hold in the 1910s and 1920s, abetted by preachers in the black community and then by the flamboyant Aimee Semple McPherson, radio personality and founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, another fringe sect that has since climbed much higher in membership. McPherson, who sometimes rode a motorcycle down the aisle of her Los Angeles temple, thrived on publicity and even claimed to have been kidnapped in 1926 when she was actually hiding out with a new lover.58 Like Baptism in its early form, Pentecostalism did not thrive by being respectable.
The movement's distinguishing characteristic, the practice of speaking in tongues, took its name from the New Testament. During the biblical celebration of Pentecost, when "the Holy Spirit descended in power upon the apostolic worshipers, one manifestation of that power was that those present 'began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.'"59 Today, only people with the "gift" could understand words and sentences of godly derivation that otherwise seem babbling and unintelligible. As with early southern evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, in order to take hold, was obliged to ease its initial egalitarianism and interracialism and become more acceptable to middle-class and commercial society.60 Like the Baptists in the South, however, it prospered from some perceived moderation. Economic conservatives often warm to sects in which a preoccupation with personal salvation turns lower-income persons away from distracting visions of economic and social reform.
To return to the mainstream, observers have long identified the tumultuous 1960s as the decade when the mainline Protestant denominations declined, partly by taking cultural and political positions on war, society, and civil disobedience that were too liberal for their congregations. Religiously, though, the decade of Vietnam and Woodstock seems to have been less of a watershed than assumed. By the calculations of Stark and Finke, between 1940 and 1985 mainline Protestantism's share of all U.S. religious adherents was steadily plummeting. The largest group, the United Methodists, dropped from 124.7 adherents per thousand total church members in 1940 to 93.0 in 1960 and to just 64.3 in 1985. For the Presbyterians (USA), the simultaneous decline was from 41.7 to 36.4 to 21.3, while the Episcopalian fall was from 30.9 to 28.6 to 19.2.
Meanwhile, the United Church of Christ (Congregationalists) slid from 26.5 to 19.6 to 11.8. In mid-twentieth-century cultural and political terms, these denominations, seats of relative theological centrism, had been home to a disproportionate share of the nation's college graduates, business elites, and elected national officeholders. Changes in theological dominance thus proved to be harbingers of broader political and societal changes.
The ascendant Southern Baptists, during the same period, climbed from 76.7 adherents per thousand total church members in 1940 to 85.0 in 1960 and to 101.3 in 1985. The Pentecostal Assemblies of God vaulted from 3.1 in 1940 to 4.4 in 1960 and to 14.6 in 1985.61 These, in the 1940s and 1950s, were national outsider denominations, found more often in unfashionable locales than in wealthy ones. Nonestablishment Protestantism were moving to the fore.
Wheaton's Noll dates the gathering mainline slump from the thirties but acknowledges that "the public turmoil of the 1960s accelerated that decline."62 For the nearly four-decade period between 1960 and 1997 — and taking denominational mergers into account — the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ (including the Congregationalists), and the Methodists lost between 500,000 and 2 million members each, the last being the Methodist slippage.63 In the meantime, the Southern Baptist Convention added 6 million, the Mormons 3.3 million, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God 2 million, and the Church of God (Tennessee) some 600,000.64 The direction in these several tabulations is clear: the sectarian gains race across the decades like an express train, another hint of the changes to come.
Taken together, Starke and Finke, Noll, and Carpenter concur that in recent decades American Protestantism, through itself slowly ebbing in relative adherence, has increasingly leaned toward the Pentecostal and charismatic movements and churches.65 The two categories are hardly monolithic. The more numerous Pentecostals of the older Assemblies of God are fundamentalist and Scripture-minded, epitomized by former attorney general John Ashcroft, who on being sworn into office also had himself anointed with cooking oil in the biblical manner of King David. A nondancer and disbeliever in frivolity, Ashcroft, on becoming attorney general, covered the bare breast of the Justice Department's large statue of the Spirit of Justice.
In a vivid contrast, the small but fast-growing Vineyard Churches and Calvary Chapels — California-born, charismatic, and third wave — mix informality, unchurchly language, and soft-rock music with what skeptics call the "spiritual smorgasbord" of charismatic experience from physical healing to speaking in tongues. Their story has been told sympathetically in Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium.66
However, critics have noted that the "holy laughter" cultivated in some Vineyard churches can degenerate. In 1995 the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church was booted out of the Association of Vineyard Churches for allowing it to include animal noises — barking like dogs, oinking like pigs, roaring like lions, and so forth.67 Some sociologists assert that elements of West Coast Pentecostalism, very much a minority nationally, have made a liberalizing cultural accommodation to the loose and mellow Pacific Coast culture — a so-called Californication of conservative Protestantism.68
By a careful synthesis of polling results, we can affirm that "about one in four Americans (or 25 percent) are now affiliated with a church from this network of conservative Protestant churches (that is, fundamentalist, evangelical, holiness, or Pentecostal). Not quite one in six (around 15 percent) are affiliated with the older denominations that used to be called the Protestant mainline."69 Still, the conservative ratio may be understated by leaving out America's million Mormons and million Jehovah's Witnesses, and perhaps also by pegging Pentecostals at a cautious ten million adults rather than in the sometimes suggested twentymillion range. On the other hand, the so-called third wave may be misplaced in the conservative category.
This is no abstract inquiry. The fundamentalist, evangelical, and sectarian head count helps to explain the poll findings in figure 1 of such widespread popular belief in matters ranging from biblical inerrancy to the imminence of the end times. The national population does appear to be more sectarian and movement driven, with a lower proportion of mainline Christians and fewer secular nonbelievers than common wisdom has assumed.
Because these pages are principally concerned with the radicalization of U.S. Protestantism, they touch only lightly on overlapping phenomena within American Catholicism. However, Noll and Stark and Finke see the church of Rome as caught by some of the same trends that have sapped the mainline Protestant denominations, principally inroads by charismatic movements, widespread nonattendance, and rising losses to Pentecostalism. The Roman Catholic Church claims some sixty million members, but only half are frequent churchgoers. The sharp decline from 1965 to 1990 in church ability to recruit priests, nuns, and seminarians in the United States has been charted from the Official Catholic Directory by Stark and Finke. From 10.6 enrollments in seminaries for every ten thousand U.S. Catholics in 1965, the number plummeted to 1.1 in 1990.70
Until the last generation or two, their argument goes, the Catholic Church in the United States was an amalgam of outsider ethnic factions and parishes — Irish, Italian, French, Serbian, Polish, Hungarian, et al. For this reason Catholicism as an institution behaved more like a group of sects than an established church. Outsider psychologies and distinctive ethnic nationalisms were supporting pillars for the church, not debilitating weaknesses. As these were lost, and as the U.S. Catholic hierarchy followed the papacy's Vatican II liberalizations in the 1960s — ending masses held in Latin, voiding the prohibitions against eating meat on Fridays, removing impediments to Protestant-Catholic marriages, promoting Christian unity — the old Catholic hold weakened. Not everyone agrees, but Stark and Finke cite these changes to explain why, between 1964 and 1978, the percentage of U.S. Catholics regularly attending services dropped from 71 percent to 50 percent.71
Although Stark and Finke do not hypothesize the "Protestantization" of American Catholicism, they do promote an analogy between weakening faiths.72 Because Catholics can marry non-Catholics, can set foot in other churches, and can miss mass without thereby committing a sin, less is being demanded of them, and less loyalty is being returned. As with Protestants, more decision making and interpretation is being left to individuals and consciences. Many Catholic organizations and universities have measurably secularized. Pentecostal and other Protestant inroads among Hispanic Catholics have been described by theologian Andrew Greeley as an "ecclesiastic failure of unprecedented proportions," trends that lead Stark and Finke to doubt that "the American Catholic Church will be able to halt its transformation from an energetic [nineteenthcentury] sect into a sedate mainline body."73
The point here is less to survey the various denominations — in examining the GOP electorate, we will revisit aspects of their size, ideology, and political geography from several perspectives — than to sketch the revival-prone sectarian and radical side of American religion. Its increasing presence is breeding a politics of cultural narrowness, moral and biblical bickering, revivalism in the White House, and international warfare to spread the gospel, fulfill the Book of Revelation, or both. Yet far from being a sudden national departure, religion's powerful role in U.S. politics and warfare goes back to the seventeenth century.
Religion, Politics, and War
We can begin by describing the role of religion in American politics and war with two words: widely underestimated.
To be sure, forces that once impelled twentieth-century sophisticates and academicians to minimize the role played by religion — Marxist economics, scientific modernism, market determinism, Enlightenment fashion, secular humanism, and dismissive sociology — are giving ground. The resurgence of faith is too clear, not least in Islamic, Christian, and Jewish fundamentalism. Pentecostalism is turning parts of Latin America into "burned over" districts like that in New York in the nineteenth century. Dismissals of worship as the mere opium of the people are today running up against hypotheses that humankind may have something like a "God gene" that breeds religious impluses.74
From colonial days to the present, war and politics in the United States have borne a heavy imprint of church leadership and denominationalism, the latter frequently overlapping with racial, regional, and ethnic self-identifications. Economics has been subordinate in this basic framework, more of a separate cross-hatching that becomes increasingly important during downturns and panics. My own research into U.S. voting patterns over five decades beginning in the mid-1950s turned up regional, racial, ethnic, and religious factors as the most frequent and best explanations of why State A or County A differed from State B or County B. To find out how people in a particular neighborhood or apartment building in New York City, for example, were likely to vote, your first question should be ethno-religious: are the residents Irish, Jewish, black, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or what? Incomes would tell you less. In Greenville, South Carolina, especially in a Republican primary, you would want to identify various Protestant evangelical, fundamentalist, and separatist factions. Despite its importance, religion remained an underappreciated factor in U.S. politics well into the 1960s.
To suggest the depth of religion's political influence, an examination of the historical and political dynamics of the three principal civil wars among English-speaking peoples — the English Revolution of the 1640s, the American Revolution, and the 1861–1865 War Between the States — will show religion as a major factor, often the decisive one, in how individuals and communities chose sides.* Moreover, in these cases the clergy were commonly among the most prominent drumbeaters. This involvement has also been documented in less significant combats — notably, the War of 1812 and the Spanish-American War — and in the two U.S. military engagements in Iraq. Unfortunately, relatively few Americans know what to watch for. Ignorance is not bliss.
So, too, for religion's role in electoral patterns. In 1990, Oxford University Press published Religion and American Politics, a volume that assembled distinguished contributors. Its purpose was trenchantly described in a chapter by editor Mark Noll and contributor Lyman Kellstadt: "Social scientists studying twentieth-century politics have assumed, until quite recently, that religion in America is a private affair of little public influence. From this assumption, the conclusion followed that it was not worth studying religion with the same care that sociologists and political scientists devoted to race, income, education and other important social variables. Scholarship on nineteenth-century America should have shaken these assumptions, but it took the surge of the Religious Right to alert academics to the continuing salience of religion in political life."75
Consider: America's founding event, the Revolution, was in many ways a religious war, reiterating some of the cleavages found 130 years earlier in the English Civil War. Two major religious denominations, Congregationalist and Presbyterian, furnished the highest ratios of patriots in 1776, just as their antecedent groups had been leaders on the parliamentary side in the England of the 1640s. Meanwhile, colonial parishioners of the Church of England — Anglicans then, Episcopalians now — divided in fair measure along high church–low church lines. High Anglicans, especially in New England, New York, and New Jersey, supported the Crown, as their forebears had in 1642. Low-church Anglicans — the Enlightenment-oriented vestrymen planters of Virginia and the Carolinas who read John Locke and wanted bishops in America no more than Massachusetts Puritans did — supported the Revolution.76
Much more supporting detail exists, as well as the inevitable exceptions. Suffice it to say that when Federalist and Jeffersonian political-party lines began to emerge in the late 1790s, religious divisions again bulked large. The depleted ranks of Anglicans joined New England Congregationalists on the conservative (Federalist) side, whereas the anti-ecclesiastical Baptists of the southern backcountry were ardent Jeffersonians.
In Religion and the American Civil War, another useful volume, Randall Miller, Harry Stout, and Charles Wilson waited barely a page into their introduction before instructing that "the United States was the world's most Christian nation in 1861 and became even more so by the end of the war. In the late 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville had remarked on the pervasive influence of religion on American private and public life, and swelled by revivals during the 1830s and again during the 1850s, membership in churches rose dramatically."77 During the 1830s and 1840s, when U.S. national politics matched Democrats against Whigs, religious divisions were central enough that most denominations could be assigned to one camp or the other.78 Religious cleavages remained central when the Republican party replaced the Whigs in the mid-1850s.
Organized amid the slavery crisis, the Republican Party enjoyed lopsided support from members of those northern Protestant churches that took strong antislavery positions and also from free blacks in states where they could vote. Before and after the War Between the States, the Democrats could count on the southern churches that defended slavery and split away from their national organizations. That party also commanded usual majorities among members of the two major faiths — Catholic and Lutheran (particularly Missouri Synod) — that took no position on slavery. With some variations, these divisions lasted into the 1890s.
So clear was the religious imprint that historian James McPherson argued in the 1990s that "because the American Civil War was not a war of religion, historians have tended to overlook the degree to which it was a religious war. Union and Confederate soldiers alike were heirs of the Second Great Awakening. Civil War armies were, arguably, the most religious in American history."79 Indeed, as we will see, the major Protestant denominations split along geographic lines before the nation as a whole did along political ones. And in the case of the Confederate flag–waving Southern Baptist Convention, the consequences of that separation still resonate.
By most criteria the cleavage of U.S. politics left by the Civil War lasted through World War II, only beginning to shift in the 1940s and 1950s. During these transitional years, one could still cite the old alignments in religious divisions. Mainline Protestantism was Republican and centered in the small-town and suburban North. Catholics clustered in ethnic and industrial areas and voted Democratic disproportionately. Members of black churches usually couldn't vote in the South and rarely had much influence in the North. Southern white Baptists and sects were still heavily Democratic, especially in local elections.
Over the four decades beginning in the 1960s, new alignments slowly emerged in which religion played a new kind of central role, as chapters 5 and 6 will pursue. In the 1990s pollster George Gallup stated that "religious affiliation remains one of the most accurate and least-appreciated political indicators available."80 By 2004, as religiosity became the key to how Americans voted for president, USA Today led off a lengthy analysis by labeling the "religion gap" as the clearest divide in U.S. politics.81
However, with religion also playing so much of a role in the 2002–2003 buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in which George W. Bush proclaimed America's commitment to upholding liberty and freedom, it is well to note important antecedents: among Anglo-American Protestants these twin threads of justification for wars hark back to the Reformation. As detailed in The Cousins' Wars, these themes can be traced from the English Civil War through the American Revolution to the American Civil War, but they always applied to internal freedoms and jeopardies. That U.S. Protestant theology has now refocused itself on the biblical holy lands as a battleground is just another of the extraordinary transformations taking place on account of the influence of religion on American politics and war.
American Self-Perceptions of Being a Chosen People and Nation
This national self-importance is no secret, at home or abroad. For centuries Americans have believed themselves special, a people and nation chosen by God to play a unique and even redemptive role in the world. Elected leaders tend to proselytize and promote this exceptionalism — presidential inaugural addresses are a frequent venue — without appending the necessary historical cautions. Previous nations whose leaders and people believed much the same thing wound up deeply disillusioned, as when Spanish armadas were destroyed while flying holy banners at their mastheads, and when World War I German belt buckles proclaiming "Gott Mit Uns" became objects of derision in the Kaiser's defeated army.
Millennial prophecies have fared no better. They conspicuously failed in the fourth century, at the millennium in 1000, amid the tumult of the medieval Crusades, during the savage seventeenth-century European religious wars, in prerevolutionary New England, in the U.S. Civil War period, during World War I, and in 2000. In consequence, believers have time and time again had to work out elaborate explanations for why Jesus did not appear, why premillennial claims had not been borne out. Books and videos detailing and amplifying these relentless embarrassments and disappointments — as far as I know, few such exist — might offer a useful counterpoint to the end-times and second-coming materials marketed in such profusion by current fundamentalist drummers.
Subsequent chapters will return to the high stakes of contemporary religious politics. However, one corollary — the importance of supposed biblical covenants with God in shaping self-perceived national identities as a New Israel — must be raised here. The relevance is that such peoples tend to be zealous, driven by history — risky leadership for a great power. The pertinence of this self-image to the United States is visible from the first settlements through the nineteenth century, drawing upon the importance the public attached to Scripture. The South, as we will see, long ago passed New England as the region most caught up in manifest destiny and covenanted relationships with God. It has become the banner region of American exceptionalism, with no small admixture of southern (they'd prefer a capital "S") exceptionalism.
Identification of the English colonies in North America as a New Israel enthused not only John Winthrop in New England but the earlier settlers of Virginia. Seventeen years before Winthrop set down the Puritan covenant with the God of Israel on board the Arbella en route to Massachusetts in 1630, Anglican clergyman Alexander Whitaker, a founder of Virginia's Jamestown, penned "Good Newes from Virginia." It assured Protestant England that "fortie yeares were expired before Israel could plant in Canaan, and yet God had called them by the word of his mouth, had led them himself by an high hand. Yet may you boldly look for a shorter time of reward."82
Besides the British Isles, the post-Reformation geography of the New Israel aspiration also included the Puritan and Calvinist Netherlands. The embattled Protestant city-states elsewhere on the continent were all too small to think nationally — and we are talking about national psychologies. To historian Simon Schama, a specialist in both Britain and the Dutch Republic, the latter's "Hebraic analogy" was weightier than the former's "Puritan Zion-Albion." With vivid description, he envisions how "every Sunday (at least) a cascade of rhetoric would crash down from the pulpit, invoking the destiny of the Hebrews as though the congregation were itself a tribe of Israel. Lines dividing history and scripture dissolved as the meaning of Dutch independence and power was attributed to the providential selection of a new people to be as a light unto the nations. In this Netherlandish addendum to the Old Testament, the United Provinces featured as the new Zion, Philip II [who sent the Spanish Armada] as a king of Assyria and William the Silent [the Dutch liberator] as a godly captain of Judah."83
Anthony Smith, professor of ethnicity and nationalism at the London School of Economics, in Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity, agrees in limiting this post-Reformation syndrome in Europe to the British Isles and the Netherlands.84 Outside Europe, he includes the United States, Afrikaner (Dutch) South Africa, and the latter-day Zionist reprise of ancient Israel.85 A third scholar, Canadian historian Donald Akenson, in God's Peoples, concentrates on the force of covenant and land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster.86
We should note a coincidence — or is it one? The three Protestant "Hebraic analogy" and covenanting cultures — Dutch, British, and then American — just happened to produce the three successive leading world economic powers of the seventeenth through twenty-first centuries. All opened their doors to religious refugees and their commercial skills — Protestant French Huguenots and Flemings, as well as Jews — an inflow that fertilized local economies and reinforced already strong national interests in the holy lands. Obviously, claiming covenant has been a potent self-conception. If any unusual lobby has guided Dutch, British, and U.S. attentions, clergy and readers of Scripture must have been in the van.
The disseminating nations were England, Scotland, and Holland. The Boers of colonial South Africa, in turn, drew on the seventeenth-century Dutch Reformed psychologies explained by Schama, which were reconfigured by nineteenth- and twentieth-century geography and events. The 1834–1838 Great Trek took the Boers away from the British-ruled Cape of Good Hope and northward to independence in the soon-to-be Orange Free State and Transvaal. This exodus, to Smith, "became the central myth and epic of later generations of Afrikaans-speakers, particularly among adherents of the Dutch Reformed Church. The wanderings of the Boers from British oppression to the freedom of a promised land on the high veldt echoed, indeed re-enacted, it seemed, the biblical story of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. Just as the Lord had saved the Israelites from Pharaoh's hosts, and from Midianites and Amalekites, and caused them to cross the Jordan, so had he miraculously delivered the Boer voortrekkers from danger and defeat at the hands of the British imperialists, and the Ndebele and Zulu warriors."87 The "covenant" made in 1838 was celebrated, repeated, and commemorated by Afrikanerdom at various later dates — 1864, 1881, 1903, 1910, 1938, and so on. That renewal has lapsed, to be sure, because of the collapse of South Africa's white politics and apartheid regime beginning in the late 1980s.
Historic Ulster, the onetime Irish province now embattled Northern Ireland, took its Protestant Calvinism and covenanting memory from Scottish settlers who crossed the Irish Sea to settle there during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In Ulster, these Scotch-Irish, as they were later named in America, fought indigenous Irish Catholics with the same Old Testament self-congratulation that the Dutch marshaled against their Spanish occupiers and the Boers directed against both nearby Zulu tribesmen and would-be British colonial rulers. Harking back to Scottish Presbyterian national covenants in 1557, 1590, 1638, and 1643, as well as to the Scotch-Irish triumph of 1689–1690, the Ulstermen, too, became a people driven by sacred memory and biblical analogy.
In Akenson's words, "On 23 September 1912, more than 218,000 men — virtually the entire adult male Protestant population of Ulster — signed 'Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant.' This Ulster covenant was modeled on a Scottish Presbyterian original of the late sixteenth century which, in its turn, took its doctrine of the reciprocal responsibilities of God and a righteous civil polity directly from the Hebrew scriptures."88 In 1969 British troops were again deployed on Ulster streets, and the bloody sectarian conflict they have since policed, recently fading, has diminished the perception of Ulster as a militant Protestant polity based on Hebrew Scripture.
The reason for spotlighting history's relative handful of covenanting cultures is the biblical attitudes their people invariably share: religious intensity, insecure history, and willingness to sign up with an Old Testament god of war for protection. To use a modern-day analogy, these are proud, driven peoples, not ones who would find it easy to get risk insurance. Besides comparing the Boer, Ulster, and Hebrew covenanting mentalities and histories, Akenson finds other parallels in their shared Old Testament moralities of tribal purity and sacred territoriality. The reasons for the elaboration in these pages have less to do with Ulster and South Africa and more to do with the United States and particularly the South. Israelis and, to an extent, Scripture-reading Americans are on their ways to being the last peoples of the covenant.
Some of the attendant psychologies involved may be cause for worry. Akenson brushes by comparisons between South Africa and the American South or between the Ulster Scots and their cousins below the Mason-Dixon Line. In footnotes, however, he lists several such studies.89 Smith diplomatically confines his American promised-land and chosen-people discussions to nineteenth-century art — the grandiose "Promised Landscapes," he calls them, of Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt.90
By contrast, in 1971 Conrad Cherry, later the director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, grappled with the American self-perception head-on in his book God's New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny. Time after time, images from the Bible have been used to translate bits of American history into scriptural challenges and analogies: a grateful nation hailing George Washington as the American Moses (or Joshua); the 1776 portrait of King George III as Pharaoh in his chariot; and the no-longer-downtrodden South of 1876 claiming "redemption" from northern (read: Egyptian) occupation and Reconstruction. We might even add the image building circa 2002 of Saddam Hussein as another Nebuchadnezzar and Baghdad as the second Babylon. As chapter 7 will show, religious allies of the Bush administration voiced these and other scriptural analogies.
To Cherry, the American Revolution and the Civil War were the principal revelatory building blocks: "The first was a moment when God delivered the colonies from Pharaoh Britain and the 'evils' of the Old World, revealed the purposes of the nation, and adopted the Young Republic as an example and instrument of freedom and republican government for the rest of the world. The Civil War was the nation's first real 'time of testing' when God tried the permanence of the Union or, in some interpretations, brought judgment upon his wayward people."91 Blended with American exceptionalism, subsequent variations of this national self-assuredness have transcended church or creed. "Beheld from the angle of governing mythology," says Cherry, "the history of the American civil religion is a history of the conviction that the American people are God's New Israel, his newly chosen people. The belief that America has been elected by God for a special destiny in the world has been the focus of American sacred ceremonies, the inaugural addresses of our presidents, the sacred scriptures of the civil religion. It has been so pervasive a motif in the national life that the word 'belief' does not really capture the dynamic role that it has played for the American people, for it passed into the 'realm of motivational myths.'"92
Indeed, as religion extends its sway over U.S. politics, "theology" may be the better word. To be sure, the contemporary United States hardly claims the covenant relationship with God that Israel still does, and which remained real to the Afrikaners and Ulster Protestants well into the late twentieth century. Still, Puritan and then Congregationalist New England did so up through the Revolution, and even the men from Scotch-Irish towns in revolutionary Pennsylvania and the Carolinas marched off to fight the British in 1776 with the memories of covenanting Scottish and Scotch-Irish Presbyterian forebears in their minds.93 The Mormons in the American West of the 1840s and 1850s likewise immersed themselves in self-proclaimed chosen nationhood. Utah was colonized as New Zion, and July 23, the date of Mormon entry into the promised land, became their principal holiday and their occasion for celebrating their own exodus and triumph.94
More to the point, as the next chapter will amplify, the New Israel Protestantism established by Yankee New England generations earlier passed, figuratively at least, to the true-believing South during the Civil War era. Religion thrived and intermingled with a new history. After the Confederacy's defeat, southern churchmen routinely sermonized that God had chastened his beloved South between 1861 and 1865 but had not abandoned it. Suffering as the South did under Reconstruction, ministers argued, could be redemptive. Thus, when the last Yankee troops withdrew from the South in 1877, in the wake of considerable northern popular disenchantment, God was proclaimed to have kept faith with a South that had kept the covenant. Dixie's victorious white conservative politicians were duly named "Redeemers."
One southern historian has further enlarged the analogy: "The New South promoters reveled in the Resurrection story. The South, paralleling Jesus, had risen from the dead of Reconstruction to the living Redemption. The southern economy could sustain that story and repeat it again and again. As Virginian Philip Alexander Bruce wrote in 1905, the story of the New South is 'a vital narration of the progress of a mighty people, who, from adversity which as no other section of North America has ever experienced,' had risen and 'won the race with adverse fate and become the pride of the Union.'"95
Such boasts from southern nationalists in 1905 were romantic fiction. The North had the power and pride of victory. A century later, however — after great religious and political transformation in both the South and the nation as a whole — the evidence of ascending southern political and religious influence is substantial. From presidential-election dominance to military adventurism and Southern Baptist expansion to become the leading U.S. Protestant denomination, more Dixie ambitions have been fulfilled than any Confederate war veterans' convention could ever have contemplated. And as W. J. Cash wrote in The Mind of the South, that region is "not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it."96
The outlook that Israel, Ulster, and South Africa supposedly had in common — the sense of a biblical nationhood bathed in blood and tribulation — closely resembles the scriptural fidelity and religious nationalism forged by the South but too little understood beyond its bounds. This mentality now has an unprecedented influence in the United States as a whole. Well may Americans — and the rest of the world — ponder what William Faulkner said about the land of his birth: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips. Copyright (c) 2006 by Kevin Phillips.