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It is virtually impossible to understand the history of the American experience without Protestantism. The theological and religious descendants of the Protestant Reformation arrived in the United States in the early 17th century, shaped American culture in the 18th century, grew dramatically in the 19th century, and continued to be the guardians of American religious life in the 20th century. Protestantism, of course, is not monolithic. In fact, the very idea at the heart of Protestantism—the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages so it can be read and interpreted by all men and women—has resulted in thousands of different denominations, all claiming to be true to the teachings of scripture. Protestantism, with its emphasis on the belief that human beings can access God as individuals, flourished in a nation that celebrated democracy and freedom. During the period of British colonization, especially following the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, Protestantism went hand in hand with British concepts of political liberty. As the British people celebrated their rights-oriented philosophy of government and compared their freedoms with the tyranny of France and other absolute monarchies in Europe, they also extolled the religious freedom that they had to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Following the American Revolution, this historic connection between political liberty and Protestant liberty proved to be compatible with the kind of democratic individualism that emerged in the decades preceding the Civil War and, in many respects, continues to define American political culture. Protestantism, of course, is first and foremost a religious movement. The proliferation of Protestant denominations provides the best support for G. K. Chesterton’s quip that “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” Spiritual individualism, a commitment to the authority of an inspired Bible, and the idea that faith in the Christian gospel is all that is needed to be saved from eternal punishment, has transformed the lives of millions and millions of ordinary Americans over the course of the last four hundred years.

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Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence Speech” of July 1979 was a critical juncture in post-1945 U.S. politics, but it also marks an exemplary pivot in post-1945 religion. Five dimensions of faith shaped the president’s sermon. The first concerned the shattered consensus of American religion. When Carter encouraged Americans to recapture a spirit of unity, he spoke in a heartfelt but spent language more suitable to Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency than his own. By 1979, the Protestant-Catholic-Jewish consensus of Eisenhower’s time was fractured into a dynamic pluralism, remaking American religion in profound ways. Carter’s speech revealed a second revolution of post-1945 religion when it decried its polarization and politicization. Carter sought to heal ruptures that were dividing the nation between what observers, two decades hence, would label “red” (conservative Republican) and “blue” (liberal Democratic) constituencies. Yet his endeavors failed, as would be evidenced in the religious politics of Ronald Reagan’s era, which followed. Carter championed community values as the answer to his society’s problems aware of yet a third dawning reality: globalization. The virtues of localism that Carter espoused were in fact implicated in (and complicated by) transnational forces of change that saw immigration, missionary enterprises, and state and non-state actors internationalizing the American religious experience. A fourth illuminating dimension of Carter’s speech was its critique of America’s gospel of wealth. Although this “born-again” southerner was a product of the evangelical South’s revitalized free-market capitalism, he lamented how laissez-faire Christianity had become America’s lingua franca. Finally, Carter wrestled with secularization, revealing a fifth feature of post-1945 America. Even though faith commitments were increasingly cordoned off from formal state functions during this time, the nation’s political discourse acquired a pronounced religiosity. Carter contributed by framing mundane issues (such as energy) in moral contexts that drew no hard-and-fast boundaries between matters of the soul and governance. Drawn from the political and economic crises of his moment, Carter’s speech thus also reveals the all-enveloping tide of religion in America’s post-1945 age.