What Do We Mean When We Say America Is a Christian Nation?

Matthew Bowman provides a dutiful if rather too clinical examination of how Americans have clashed or convened as to what Christianity encompasses and how this concept alters as the nation debates itself.

Christian: The Politics of a Word in America
Michael Bowman
Harvard University Press
Apr 2018

In the US, it’s hard to pin down what a Christian is, despite the axiomatic assumption by hundreds of its millions that it’s a nation rooted in this identity and enriched by its ethos. That proper noun betrays a fractured meaning lacking normative or essential definition, yet it provides Americans with “metaphysical justification for political belief”. Thus, historian Matthew Bowman opens his straightforward study with caution. Without common agreement on what Christianity encompasses, no “single consensus” exists about how its values are ranked or applied. But the country’s faithful have long agreed that materialism is the enemy of democracy.

Against too much faith in what passes away, eight factions over the past 150 years illustrate a “broad arc” of Christian political involvement, and serve as eight case studies. Reconstruction finds Republican reactions to U.S. Grant splitting his supporters from Horace Greeley; both sides face off against “Christian spiritualists” such as Victoria Woodhull. Fearing centralized power and opposing capitalism, Protestants united by this tension fueled the improving mission of the “social gospel”.

After another great conflict, threats of secularization among America’s foreign foes promoted liberal Protestant premises reforming the Contemporary Civilization curriculum at Columbia University. Opposed by fundamentalists like William Jennings Bryan, this reform in turn generated distrust of African-American, Catholic, and Jewish newcomers to the political arena. German theories of dialectical forces and a growing acceptance of evolution among intellectuals complicated this 1920s-era debate.

At Howard University, opposition to “white liberal Protestant narratives of progress” enabled the entry of black intellectual leaders into higher education. “Race historians” challenged not only Columbia’s assertions but Howard’s accommodations with the rulers of its capital city’s version of democracy. Howard’s faculty “constructed” a history which “reclaimed Christianity for a world beyond Europe”, particularly Egypt and especially Ethiopia.

The ’30s generated another confrontation, against another destroyer of heritage and community, this time among the emerging Catholic contingent. Priests from the left (John Ryan) and the right (Charles Coughlin) neatly represent two responses to the economic inequity of the Depression. One a scholar, one a demagogue, both took on the New Deal, if in contrasting critiques. Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker activists and faculty at Catholic University in Washington D.C. attempted to “blend American individualist democracy with the Catholic worldview John Ryan and Charles Coughlin struggled to actualize.” After a third catastrophic war, Cold War anti-Communism reduced the impact of socialist and anarchist critiques of capitalism. “In God We Trust” on currency and “under God” in the Pledge reified this reaction to radicals. Characters as varied as Fulton J. Sheen, B.F. Skinner, Richard Wright, Will Durant, Clare Booth Luce, Cesar Chavez, and William F. Buckley reveal how widely the cultural and political impacts of a postwar Christian consensus seemed to radiate.

Yet another conflict abroad accelerated Martin Luther King, Jr.’s egalitarian direction. His vision of harmony, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s call for ethics, justice, and peace programs, and the Freedom Schools’ push to educate black teenagers energized a massive voter registration drive in the summer of 1964. African independence, racial separatism, and black nationalism complicated responses to injustice and discrimination within and outside the Civil Rights Movement. Black Power promoted “self-reliance” rather than “integration” while uprisings loomed.

As demonstrated by Richard Nixon’s fall, weaknesses spread throughout the political and cultural establishments. Corruption countered by cults led to the growth of the Children of God and the Unification Church as rejecters of capitalism and democracy.

Evangelicals, roused against the counterculture, battled both Eastern imported trends and “pseudo-Christian” fringe groups such as the Children of God and the Alamo Foundation who demanded surrender by converts of all their property to their leaders.

As a more diverse religious landscape loomed, Robert Bellah’s sociological analysis of “civil religion” represented the increasingly non-practicing adherents in the New Left, facing down the Moral Majority on the Religious Right. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Carl Sagan and Phyllis Schafly, Jim and Tammy Bakker exemplify recent debates over secular education, American exceptionalism, humanism, morality, and free enterprise. The gospel of prosperity credits “biblical promises of abundance and healing through Christ” with a believer’s “economic and social success”. Bowman diminishes its role in the Religious Right; he cites Jerry Falwall’s dismissal of this Pentecostal perspective which exalts desire and pleasure. However, more here on the “prosperity gospel” would have been welcome.

These issues continue to vex many Christians. Bowman provides a dutiful if rather too clinical examination of how Americans have clashed or convened as to what Christianity encompasses and how this concept alters as the nation debates itself.

Today, evangelicals thrive; mainstream denominations decline, and immigration from Asia, Latin America, and Africa enlivens belief systems even as secularism dismisses their mindset as ignorant, immature, or logically impossible. In an epilogue, Bowman considers Mitt Romney’s contest in 2012, Barack Obama’s ties to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and finally the Donald Trump ascension as fresh case studies, ones which future historians will similarly dissect. For those left behind with the present unease and uncertain fate shared by billions beyond these 50 States, what we mean when we talk about — as against and/or among Christians — will continue to bedevil any brave soul who thinks that this hallowed identification or hated insult has been fixed and its faithful adherents once and for all have allied against the same old secular foe.

RATING 6 / 10