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True Stories

A Christian America?

Do we live in a "Christian America"? This question is one that historians and sociologists of American religion find exhausting -- and it is also one which they have exhaustively discussed. This past week I have been reading through several classic works that address this question, primarily so that I can get a better handle on the American religious scene of the 1970s and 1980s. What was new about the "age of evangelicalism," as one historian has described the 1970s? With the increased visibility of cults and Eastern expressions of faith, were Americans encountering a "spiritual marketplace"? Were the choices they encountered the result of a "third disestablishment" of religion, or the decline of the mainline religions?


It's easy to get lost in the weeds of these arguments, but I find a couple of main points interesting. First, scholars note an increasing emphasis on "personal fulfillment" and "individualism" in American religious life across the twentieth century, but especially since the 1960s. Second, the scholars who lament that trend are more likely to conclude that the United States has experienced not just one "disestablishment" of religion -- most famously after the First Amendment stated that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," and state constitutions followed suit -- but several, as attempts by "mainline" Protestants (and Catholics and Jews, sometimes) failed to pull the levers of government as they desired. What these scholars seem to be noting, however, is the decline of a certain kind of religion (often coded as "mainline," which is ecumenical in the sense of Church of Christ allied with Methodist and Episcopalian) in favor of nondenominational evangelicals and fundamentalists, spirituality that is celebrated beyond the bounds of organized religion, and eclecticism in the ways that believers choose rituals, theologies, and faith groups according to their desires. (And of course other scholars have stepped in to say that anything "mainline" in American religion has pretty much always been in decline, and that bemoaning those losses distracts us from the fact that Americans have become increasingly, not less, religious, since the Revolutionary era as they flow into the most dynamic and emotionally satisfying groups, rather than adhering to staid traditions.) Much of this scholarship dates from the 1970s through the 1990s. Perhaps by the time George W. Bush came into office it no longer made sense to talk about religion's public decline, but more recent scholarship has instead described the survival of a "moral establishment" despite the official separation of church and state that the First Amendment effected.


A third aspect of this scholarship that stands out for me is the extent to which the scholars arguing over disestablishment and the problems of "personal autonomy" use the economic language of market choice to describe these trends, and the degree to which most of them ignore the neoliberal economic trends that surrounded the changes they describe. The best exceptions to this lacuna in the scholarship are the historians Bethany Moreton and Darren Dochuk, with a signal contribution from the late Sarah Ruth Hammond, all of whom dispense with the questions of disestablishment and instead dig in to the copious evidence of the ways that Protestantism (the religion at the center of all three of their first books) both enabled and became entangled with late capitalism in the twentieth-century United States. Insights from scholars like Anthea Butler leave no doubt that we live in a new era of (for many of us, frightening) allegiance between a particular kind of evangelical Christianity, political power, and capital accumulation.


All of which is to say: American religious history demonstrates conclusively that the United States has never been a Christian nation in its official documents (which disestablished religion) or its population's faith (which is dynamic and diverse). Yet Christian groups have had unquestioned influence on our nation's laws, policies, and social norms. And I also think the obvious but too often overlooked answer to the question of whether we live in a "Christian America" is just what we mean by that phrase. What kind of Christianity are we talking about? The prophetic faith of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Rev. William Barber? The transphobic, anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-woman Christianity of Vice President Mike Pence? The Christianity whose scriptures Attorney General Jeff Sessions quotes to justify separation of children from their parents at the border? The Christianity of Catholic leaders who have spoken out against those separations? 


I am not invested in the pursuit of a Christian American of any particular variety; I'm not a Christian. My commitment to the separation of church and state is firmly in place. I am interested, in my research and writing, in figuring out how these debates over religious authority and power play out in American history. And I'm curious to see how future historians will explain the rise of a certain kind of Christian moralism that is unapologetically allied to neoliberal political economy and supportive of white nationalist politics, such that it celebrates the individual (white, straight, male, able-bodied) autonomous actor out of one side of its mouth while denigrating the choices of women, people of color, the disabled, and immigrants from the other side.

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