The American Constitution aims to restrict entanglements between Church and State. The reason for this is not that ethics and politics are unrelated, but rather that the concerns of each are potentially undermined whenever Church or State comes under the governance of the other. It is thus remarkable that our “secular” political culture is so profoundly vulnerable to appeals based on a civil religion that mixes Christian metaphors with nationalistic aspirations. G.K. Chesterton, the great Roman Catholic apologist, once remarked that America is “a nation with the soul of a church” and that it is “the only nation in the world founded on a creed.”
Because American civil religion relies so heavily on Christian metaphors for its expression, evangelical Christians are frequently beguiled into equating the civic creed with the Christian religion itself. Appeals to the Judeo-Christian traditions that broadly inform our national political conscience are interpreted to suggest that America is a “Christian” nation. Recognition that providence governs over the affairs of nations is perverted to the insistence that America has a “manifest destiny” that secures divine sanction for American national ambition.
The syncretizing of civil religion and historic Christianity shows itself frequently and blatantly in the relationship between some right-wing fundamentalist Protestantism and right-wing political fanaticism, though there are functional equivalents to be found in Roman Catholicism and Jewish Zionism as well. The anti-Christ of Revelation 13 is uncritically identified with the Roman Catholic Church, the Jewish nation, the Common Market, or the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The “remnant” who refuse to serve the “beast.” assured of the “righteousness” of their cause, recognize no restraints in combating the enemy. The division between the saved and the damned is transferred to the area of political policies and leaves no room for compromise, prudential adjudication of issues, or moral ambiguity. This radical fringe reflects a paranoid view of the world and views the powers that be as conspiratorial.
The theological controversies raging within evangelicalism between neoevangelicals, mainline evangelicals, and fundamentalists tend to reflect some of that paranoia and Manichean temperament. Black-white thinking that reflects an inability to distinguish between an inch and a mile in matters of heresy develops a temperament that can easily be transferred to political matters and provide good soil for extremist political views. (The fact that these remarks are being published in this journal suggests that evangelicalism has matured substantially in the last generation. It also illustrates that we are aware of the temptation to which we have too often succumbed and by which we are still beguiled.)
However, let us not be so naïve as to think that evangelicalism is tempted only from the right. The fact that evangelical Protestantism has gained social acceptance simply changes the nature of the beguilement. The civil religion of middle America represents an equally dangerous seduction. We need to remind ourselves that the City of God is not Peoria, Illinois. God’s chariots are not Chevy Malibus. His house is not split-level. Nor, might I add, is She black!
Rather than being tempted by paranoid fringe groups that were once so seductively appealing because they shared the same rejection of the general culture once characteristic of fundamentalism, modern evangelicalism is tempted to conform itself to the general culture befitting its newfound socioeconomic status. If that be the case, the only difference between old-line fundamentalism and contemporary evangelicalism is that the latter represents fundamentalism dressed up in a pin-stripe suit.
We must guard against the ever present temptation to syncretize Christian faith with the civil religion. But let us not make uncritical attacks on the value of civil religion itself. Civil religion serves as the public philosophy or the political culture by which our very heterogeneous population defines its values. Although the Judeo-Christian metaphors of civil religion can easily be abused, a civil religion that genuinely recognizes the Transcendent, the moral restraints on the use of political power, and the moral foundations of the state is infinitely preferable to one that makes no such claims.
All societies have a public philosophy and political culture to which their peoples appeal. The Judeo-Christian metaphors of the American creed are both a curse and a blessing: a blessing insofar as they accept some Christian truths, but a curse when confused with the historic Christian faith.
—PAUL B. HENRY, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Robert Willard Pierce, 1914–1978
Bob Pierce died last month after battling leukemia for several years. He was born in Iowa and moved to California when he was ten. In his twenties he was an evangelist and in his early thirties he joined with Torrey Johnson, Billy Graham, and others in the beginnings of Youth for Christ.
While on a YFC evangelistic trip to Asia in 1947, Pierce was brought face to face with stark human deprivation. He resolved to combine a ministry of aid to those who were suffering physically with the preaching of the Gospel and the discipling of believers. Pierce founded World Vision in 1950.
There is a long tradition in the church, which is often ignored, that combines care for men’s bodies with concern for their souls. Although this combination has never been eclipsed, in the past century or so there has been a strong tendency for religious leaders to focus on one or the other.
It is to Bob Pierce’s credit that he not only preached concern for men’s bodies but practiced it. Indeed, his intense concern for the needs of others may have interfered with the proper attention due to his own needs and the needs of those close to him. The strain was such that he had to resign from World Vision in 1967. However, unlike many organizations, it continued to flourish after losing its founder and is now many times larger. That, too, is a tribute to the foundation that Bob Pierce laid.
There’s considerable difficulty, it seems, in gauging the political currents. You know, the “Who is Jimmy Carter?” and “What’s he all about?” and “Does anybody care?” and “Whither America?” kinds of questions we’ll be increasingly subjected to in the months to come. Candidates already are limbering up for the Big Run, the political consulting business is booming, the journalists are out testing the political winds and divining the public mood.
Here, as a public service, free of charge to pollsters, pundits, politicians, scholars, sociologists, psychohistorians and just plain citizens, is the sure-fire, fail-safe survey of who we are and where we’re going as we head into the 1980s.
We are selfish, vain, narcissistic, insecure, introspective, overweight, ugly—and we don’t give a damn about politics. Self-improvement is our preoccupation, hedonism our philosophy, looking out for No. 1 our theme. That last trait especially speaks to what passes for the politics of the moment.
Evidence? you say. Why, it’s clearly spelled out for all to see each Sunday morning in the pages of The New York Times Review. That’s right, the elite, esoteric NYT Book Review, the authoritative journal of the book business, the Bible of the trade. There, carefully compiled from computer-processed sales figures covering 1,400 bookstores in every region of the country, are the latest best-sellers. They are, I submit, an incomparable guide to mass tastes, and to the real politics of the late 1970s.
Last week, for instance, the nonfiction newcomer to the best-seller list was entitled “Adrien Arpel’s Three-Week Crash Makeover, Shapeover Beauty Program,” a winner at 12 bucks offering us advice from the head of an international cosmetics corporation. It takes its place alongside such other timely tracts as “The Woman’s Dress for Success Book,” a guide to tasteful apparel, and “Designing Your Face,” on how best to use cosmetics.
Three best sellers on cosmetics and clothes alone. In keeping with them, stylistically, are the other self-improvement-at-any-price books: “The Complete Book of Running,” our No. 1 seller, competes with “Inner Skiing,” about improving your mental attitude, and “Arnold: The Education of a Body Builder,” which gives tips from the superstar of the film “Pumping Iron.”
Five of the remaining nine best sellers qualify as escapism: “All Things Wise and Wonderful,” the adventures of a Yorkshire vet, ranks in sales just above “Gnomes,” which is all about the little people, while “The Second Ring of Power” deals with a spiritual quest and encountering a witch, and “The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady” presents—well, just what its title implies.
The last in this category is a rendering of Alaska, our final frontier. This one, John McPhee’s “Coming Into the Country,” stands alone among all the books. It promises to become a classic, and to be read long after this dreary current list has been forgotten.…
Close to the top is a mod bit of introspective wrestling with self and intimate relationships from an author who previously cashed in with an account of women’s sexual fantasies. Now, Nancy Friday’s “My Mother/Myself” looks at how mothers and daughters relate, as they say. Presumably, it’s the other side of the Oedipus complex. Whichever way you look at it, sex still sells.…
For more than a generation, nonfiction books have been the big sellers in the hardcover book business. And, looking back on those lists, the topics that led to the most sales did reflect the public concerns of the times.
A few years ago the Watergate trauma inspired a plethora of successes, not only from Woodward and Bernstein but other players, major and minor: the Magruders and Deans, as husbands and wives in separate accounts, and Colson on conversion were among those who chronicled the Nixon years and fed the public appetite for insights on the scandals.
Before that the stream of Kennedy books dominated the trade in the years following the 1963 assassination. In 1967, for instance, William Manchester’s “Death of a President” outsold its leading fictional counterpart by nearly 2 to 1. During the Kennedy years, strong topical themes, with a flavor of reform and exposé on serious public issues, were nonfiction successes: James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” called the turn on black unrest and the prospect of urban violence while Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” sounded an alarm on man’s abuse of the environment.
Best-sellers of the Eisenhower era clearly reflected the period. Religious and spiritual themes won their way to the top with such saccharine books as Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking,” Fulton Sheen’s “Life Is Worth Living,” Fulton Oursler’s “The Greatest Faith Ever Known” and Catherine Marshall’s “A Man Named Peter.”
It was no time for experimentation; the public stayed with favorite authors, who struck familiar and safe themes. Those attitudes were in marked contrast to the war years. Then, the book-buying public had reached out in all directions, hungrily assimilating a wide range of serious works. As Time magazine remarked then, it was the most remarkable period in the history of U.S. publishing. In 1943, when serious, sobering books were being consumed almost as fast as they could be produced, the No. 1 publishing success was a political book—Wendell Willkie’s “One World.” The former GOP presidential candidate’s account of his trip around the world sold more than 1.5 million copies that year alone.
After the war, America retreated back into itself, and the book sales showed it. And now?
Now, it’s self-improvement—and watch out for No. 1. But a different sort of self-help: even the how-to-do-it sex books of such recent success appear to have lost some of their appeal. Now, it’s leave me alone. Just let me paint my face, slim my shape, dress in style, and look attractive. Then everything will be OK.
After all, it’s the facade that clearly counts.—HAYNES JOHNSON, staff writer, The Washington Post. © 1978. Used by permission.
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