Reclaiming Our Prophetic Fire: From Personal Faith to Communal Transformation
By P. Josh Hatala / hamptoninstitution.org
Jul 9, 2015

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.



Notes

 

[1] Alan Neuhauser, "In Sweeping Encyclical, Pope Calls on 'All Humanity' to Halt Global Warming,"U.S. News & World Report, June 18, 2015, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/06/18/pope-francis-encyclical-calls-on-all-humanity-to-halt-global-warming

[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, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/congress/inhofe-popes-climate-encyclical-could-harm-poor/2015/06/18/

[5] Rob Bishop For Congress, http://www.votebishop.com/meet-rob

[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.

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Reclaiming Our Prophetic Fire: From Personal Faith to Communal Transformation