Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Evangelicalism and Nationalism

If I can ever get funding to do so, I hope to someday research and write a short book about the strange confluence of evangelicalism with American nationalism.

One of the greatest paradoxes of American history is that the strain of evangelicalism represented by revivalists like Finney – and latter his heirs such as Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday – which stripped religion of its sacerdotal, institutional and liturgical apparatuses, would begin to invest all these same qualities in the civic rites, institutions and metanarratives of American nationalism, in addition to what William Cavanaugh has called the “enacted myths of patriotic ritual.”

By the early 20th century, evangelicalism loudly echoed Robert Smith when he stated in 1782 that “The cause of America is the cause of Christ.” It became second-nature for Americans to tell the story of liberal democracy as their own story, operating in what Leithart called “Eusebian mode,” (Against Christianity) treating America as the culmination of redemptive history. Indeed, the rites and ceremonies of American nationalism came to be invested with a sacral significance.

Consider, evangelicals who would never dream of making the sign of the cross before they go to bed will put their hands on their hearts every morning to say the Pledge of Allegiance with liturgical devotion.  Evangelicals who had long ceased to tell the story of redemption through the yearly cycle of Church holidays will celebrate Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Memorial, Veteran’s and Independence Day with quasi-religious regularity. In place of the rejected church year, these holidays become public festivals of a new civic order celebrating the achievements of American nationalism. Those for whom religion has long been individualized, subjectivised and Gnosticised, find corporate, covenantal identity living out the drama of what it means to be American.

When I write my book on the subject, I will explore how throughout the 19th century it was the priestcraft of political bureaucrats that became the new hierarchy even as the egalitarianism leveling began sweeping through America in other areas, not least the church. Political officials begin to be the ones we look to for security, the ones who offer intercession and make sacrifices.  Building on this, I will argue that the state came to offer a substitute for religion after matter/spirit dualism emptied evangelical religion of its sacramental core and communal centre.

I will also point out that the new nationalism also began to offer American evangelicals a segregate soteriology. One of the reasons that vying political candidates started to need to be good story-tellers is that each needed to successfully convince their audiences that they came from traditions that are bringing civic maturity and national redemption. In countless ways Americans are urged to trust them and to structure their lives around the benefits they bring and the obligations they demand. At the heart of such obligations lies the type of implicit soteriology that was identified by Mumford when he remarked:
“Emerson well said in his essay on Man the Reformer that it was stupid to expect any real or permanent change from any social program which was unable to regenerate or convert  – these are religious phrases for a common psychological phenomenon  – the people who are to engineer it and carry it through.”

Significantly, Billy Sunday never ended his sermons by presiding over the Liturgy of the sacred Eucharist, but he did end a number of sermons “by jumping on top of the pulpit and waving an American flag.”  When World War I broke out, it not only united Americans in a way that the church never had since the days of the Puritans, but it united them as Christians. Shailer Matthews, dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, was reflecting a wide body of opinion when he announced: “For an American to refuse to share in the present war…is not Christian.”

William Cavanaugh has noted that“[W]hat remains when humans attempt to clear a space of God’s presence is not a disenchanted world, but a world full of idols. Humans remain naturally worshiping creatures, and the need for liturgy remains a motivating force, as we have seen in supposedly secular space.” Building on this I will argue that 19th century evangelicalism did clear the world of God in the sense that it relegating sacred space to a truncated range of activities and states of consciousness which by default left the external world of society spiritually neutral at best and spiritually antagonistic at worst. The growth of American nationalism following the Spanish American War of 1898 may have been propelled in part by an unconscious drive among evangelicals to embrace substitute narratives that could fill the evacuated centre. Just as the breakdown of communal religious narratives within the colonies may have contributed to the ease with which American Christians embraced the new republicanism in the period directly following the French and Indian Wars, so the evacuation of the “worldly” within early to mid 19th century evangelicalism (think Holiness Movement and Phoebe Palmer), together with the corollary dismembering of the institutional church in favour of a disembodied individualism (think Hodge and Nevin debates), may help to account for the migration of the holy from the church to the state which became an implicit feature of post-Civil War consciousness.

The words which Kuyper would later speak at the inaugural address for the Free University of Amsterdam – “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” – came to be descriptive of the aspirations of the American State following evangelicalism’s departure from the institutional to the personal, from the worldly to the heavenly, from the public to the private, and her embrace of a network of dualisms which made such migrations theologically coherent in the first place.

Anyway, those are some of the themes I will try to explore if I can ever afford to write the book. It would also be fun to trace these themes right up to the present day, or at least to the Bush era.

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