Reclaiming Our Prophetic Fire: From Personal Faith to Communal Transformation
By P. Josh Hatala /

Pope Francis' call for action on climate change and his biting moral critique of late capitalism have been met with dismissiveness by self-professed Christian Republicans. Beyond mere political expediency and old-fashioned anti-popery, Republican leaders' responses to the Pope's encyclical are characteristic of an individualistic brand of American Christianity that has its roots in 19th-century religious revivalism and the early 20th-century triumph of consumer capitalism.

While it is easy to scoff at politicians who call upon Christian morality when it is politically advantageous, Republican insistence that religion, as Jeb Bush put it, "ought to be about making us better as people,"[1] is characteristic of an American Christianity that relegates faith to the realm of individual moral choice and subjective, often emotional, experience. This thinking runs deep in the American religious psyche and has been a feature of American evangelicalism since the early 19thcentury Protestant revivalism of the Second Great Awakening.

In this transformation of American religious life during the Second Great Awakening, believers privileged experience over dogma and abandoned their focus on the Hebrew Bible- a hallmark of their Calvinist (Puritan) forebears. As Stephen Prothero writes in American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, the Puritans' "…covenant theology took its cues from Israel more than Galilee, focusing not on the individual's relationship with God the Son but on the community's covenant with God the Father. In 1827 Ralph Waldo Emerson would famously describe his time as 'the age of the first person singular'. Puritans lived in a world of the first person plural." [2] As a result of the disestablishment of the churches, the 19th century saw the replacement of the covenantal communitywith individualistic piety, further propelled by a burgeoning class of populist preachers and seemingly inexhaustible new forms of scriptural exegesis. Prothero writes that, "through this orgy of activism, evangelicalism became not only the dominant religious impulse in the nation but also a major cultural force", later described as the "evangelical century".[3] No longer concerned with the fate of nations and whole peoples, by the mid 1800s Jesus was understood and described as a "comforter" and is depicted in popular art as a soft-faced, loving friend.

Republican chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources Rob Bishop's retort to the Pope that the latter's moral critique of capitalism and environmental degradation is "a political issue,"[4]reveals the extent to which faith has been divorced from the rigorous theology of American Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards and the Catholic Church's understanding of a collective and communal social justice. While Bishop describes himself as "pro-life, pro-family, and pro-Second Amendment"[5], and served for two years as a Mormon missionary (a denomination born of the Second Great Awakening), if we can take him at his word, the application of his faith to the public sphere ends where the collectivebegins. Much like the profound difference between collective covenant and individualistic Jesus piety, Bishop's religiously informed focus on individual restrictions and freedoms take center stage. If one's religious tradition restricts itself to internal piety then it will be ill-equipped to address contemporary moral issues like climate change.

Instead, it will focus exclusively on the individual's relationship to society, as is the case with the religious right's abandonment of public schools for home schools and vouchers and its insistence on regulating individuals' bodies, but not climate change or structural oppression. As Rick Santorum said, essentially calling for a relegation of morality and theology to private spheres that affect individuals but not the collective, "We probably are better off leaving science to the scientists, and focusing on what we're really good at, which is theology and morality."

Individualistic Jesus piety was bolstered by a Victorian era that saw the completion of a trend begun during the Second Great Awakening. In this era sentimentality triumphed over reason. In The Feminization of American Culture Ann Douglas analyzes the impact of literary women and Protestant ministers on 19th century American Victorian culture, and on each other. A battle for influence ensued between more traditional clergymen as their professional power waned as a result of disestablishment, and women authors, on the rise vocationally, who carved out their own domain, mainly in fiction. These authors began to "feminize" American culture through popular novels that raised sentimentality of above reason and doctrine. In this context, ministers and women competed for the attention of female readers and parishioners. Clergy responded in kind, tailoring their written work and tenor of their preaching to this new sentimental ethos in order to attract and retain parishioners. Grand Puritan theology was replaced by sentimental fiction that concerned itself with private and domestic life. This focus on the emotional and private life increasingly displaced the intellectual, public, and historical life of the people. Additionally, this resulted in a kind of "consumer" church life that relied on pandering to parishioners' desires that, Douglas argues, ultimately paved the way for a consumerist mentality.

In 1891 Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical on the rights of laborers, amplifying the Catholic idea that moral principles can and should inform economic and social realities. While Pope Leo composed, American capitalism was entering a new era. William Leach writes in Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture:

"In the decades following the Civil War, American capitalism began to produce a distinct culture, unconnected to traditional family or community values, to religion in any conventional sense, or to political democracy. It was secular business and market-oriented culture, with the exchange and circulation of goods at the foundation of its aesthetic life and of its moral sensibility. … The cardinal features of this culture were acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness; the cult of the new; the democratization of desire; and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society." [6]

This "land of desire" was built by the labor power of a working class that was the central focus of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, yet with the exception of a handful of "Social Gospel" preachers like Walter Rauschenbusch, or Catholic Monsignor John Ryan of Catholic University in Washington D.C. American Christianity was not prepared to raise a moral voice against worker exploitation, raw commercially driven desire, and naked greed- all of which are clearly antithetical to basic Christian teaching. Largely unchallenged, "American corporate business, in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this."[7] As a result, the triumph of consumerism "diminished American public life, denying the American people access to insight into other ways of organizing and conceiving life, insight that might have endowed their consent to the dominant culture...with real democracy."[8]

In 1906 John Wanamaker, merchant and owner of Wanamaker department stores, proudly coined the phrase "land of desire" to describe the emergence of a consumer culture he was helping to create. Emblematic of an American Christianity ill-equipped to challenge consumer culture, Wanamaker was a devout Presbyterian who contributed greatly to the development of the World Sunday School Movement and worked to grow the YMCA. He led parallel lives- one devoted to commercial ventures built on exploitation and the creation of artificial desire for consumer goods, and one equally dedicated to religious life. At one point, Wanamaker almost entered the ministry. The legacy of individualistic piety and sentimentalist Christianity, as Leach points out, "illustrate[s] the inadequacy of evangelical religion- and of mainstream institutional religion generally in this period- in dealing with the moral challenge of the new corporate industrial order."[9] Indeed, this inadequacy has again been illustrated by Republican leaders' responses to Pope Francis' latest exhortation, Laudato Si': On the Care of our Common Home. Their responses are grounded in a lasting legacy that has its roots in the 19th century and allows sharp divisions between the sacred and the profane, social justice and individual morality, personal piety and covenantal righteousness.

While none of us wants to return to our Puritan past, nor move into a theocratic future where religious tenets govern the public sphere, we can begin to consider ways in which mainline and evangelical American Christianity can speak, to paraphrase Cornel West, with a "prophetic voice" to our social and economic crises. This voice has survived among the marginalized, thriving in many Black churches across America- one of the reasons we are again seeing Black churches burnt down throughout the south. It comes through clearly in Pope Francis' encyclical. It is reflected in the social mission of many denominations and individual believers, yet it remains marginalized, drowned out by a current of mainstream American faith that lacks socially transformative power- a faith that is unable or unwilling to speak to climate crises, economic exploitation, and all forms of injustice, preferring inner transformation and personal experience to the common good. Walter Rauschenbusch wrote, "The Church, the organized expression of the religious life of the past, is one of the most potent institutions and forces in Western civilization. ...It cannot help throwing its immense weight on one side or the other. If it tries not to act, it thereby acts; and in any case its choice will be decisive for its own future." He went on to write that, "It is important to note, further, that the morality which the prophets had in mind in their strenuous insistence on righteousness was not merely the private morality of the home, but the public morality on which national life is founded. They said less about the pure heart for the individual than of just institutions for the nation." It's time to reclaim the prophetic fire that runs through the Christian tradition so that the "immense weight" of the social justice mission of the churches, along with their rich intellectual traditions, can be employed for the common good.



[1] Alan Neuhauser, "In Sweeping Encyclical, Pope Calls on 'All Humanity' to Halt Global Warming,"U.S. News & World Report, June 18, 2015,

[2] Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 44.

[3] Ibid., 49.

[4] Matthew Daly and Erica Werner, "Congressional Republicans Shrug Off Pope's Climate Message,"The Washington Post, June 18, 2015,

[5] Rob Bishop For Congress,

[6] William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Random House Books, 1993), 3.

[7] Ibid., xiii.

[8] Ibid., xv.

[9] Ibid., 224.

0.0 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 41,725 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 18,961 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 9,909 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
How Big Banks Launder Money and Get Away With It
9 min · 3,712 views today · 'I wrote about how money laundering was actually done... they spiked it.' Parliamentary Candidate David Malone was a popular second choice in the UK Green Party leadership...
Why I Didn't Vote Trump or Hillary
Joe Brewer · 3,646 views today ·   This is my ballot. It arrived in the mail where I live in Washington state — and I’ve already sent it back to the elections committee. Note how I didn’t vote for either...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 3,355 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Three Massive Mergers - Millions for One Bank and a Disaster for Food, Water, and Climate
Wenonah Hauter · 3,332 views today · In addition to advising on all three mega-mergers, Credit Suisse is playing a big role behind the scenes of the Dakota Access pipeline.
Heartbreaking Animation Reveals Plight of Animals Under Threat of Extinction
3 min · 3,312 views today · This stunning and heartbreaking animation gives voice to animals under threat from human activity. Made as part of the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival, it features a...
A Beautiful Reflection on What It Means to Be Human
8 min · 2,281 views today · Hello! We are Oh Wonder, a musical duo from London. We believe that everyone is equal. We are all human. We all deserve the world. And we can build that equality by sharing...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,581 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,028 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Speaking Out Against Australia's Unforgiving Refugee Policy
42 min · 957 views today · The Forgotten Children: More than a hundred child refugees are stuck in asylum limbo on the island of Nauru as a result of Australia's harsh and unsympathetic border policies...
Donald Trump Is the Mirror and Hillary Clinton Is the Mask
Chris Agnos · 849 views today · Disclaimer: I do not support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for president. I think the scope of the political debate is far too narrow for the kinds of actions that need to...
HyperNormalisation (2016)
161 min · 754 views today · We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless...
10 Quotes From an Oglala Lakota Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society
Wisdom Pills · 693 views today · Luther Standing Bear was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief who, among a few rare others such as Charles Eastman, Black Elk and Gertrude Bonnin occupied the rift between the way of...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 659 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 616 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
The Burden of the New Story
Adebayo Akomolafe · 548 views today · The 'new story' - that longed for milieu when all is right with the world and things are set straight - seems to be taking its sweet time coming. Why?
Donald and Hobbes Is Genius
Various · 443 views today · Some clever folk have been replacing precocious 6-year-old Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, with Donald Trump and the results are, well, take a look...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 440 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Reclaiming Our Prophetic Fire: From Personal Faith to Communal Transformation