Like the United Church in Canada, the mainstream Protestant churches in the U.S. suffered serious declines in membership during the last 50 years. In this short and lively book, George Marsden, a distinguished historian of religion at Notre Dame University, seeks to answer a major question: how did novel forms of social and cultural thought, moving in a decidedly secular direction in the 1950s, both weaken the mainline denominations and provoke an angry uprising in the evangelical, fundamentalist churches?
Although Marsden duly acknowledges the large presence of Catholic and Jewish religious interests in American life, his larger efforts here are devoted to showing the impact on Protestant churches of the new social thinking. These departures from tradition embraced concepts that would cause difficulties for the consensus of orthodox belief: the authority of science, the search for human authenticity, the autonomy of the individual and the confident guidance of benevolent experts.
Readers are reminded to look for the deep roots of this insistently improving humanism in the rationality of the 18th-century Enlightenment, with its exalted view of reason as the high road to progress.
Much of Marsden's argument proceeds at a high level of abstraction that may intimidate non-academic readers. On the other hand, scholarly specialists may find his brief quotations and summaries of famous writers such as Walter Lippmann (The Public Philosophy), David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd), and Carl Rogers (Client-Centered Therapy) lacking in analytical rigour and depth.
This kind of secular-minded social thought and scientific sensibility dissolved the comfortable beliefs of the dominant churches. Protestants, having slipped their mooring to harsher notions of original sin, had long been vulnerable to easy optimism about American progress. One might call it faith without fear, which too often degenerated into complacent expectancy of divine approval for "the American way of life."
Marsden identifies Reinhold Niebuhr as a central figure in the quest for a more sinewy Protestantism that would remember and absorb the implications of original sin. Niebuhr found God working well beyond the literal words of the Bible -- in evolution, in moral philosophy, the new biblical criticism and broader social reform. The ever-true Bible, evangelical sentimentality and unreflective convictions of virtue were subjected to a powerful new scrutiny in Niebuhr's The Irony of American History.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the response came thundering into the public square. From Billy Graham to Francis Schaeffer, James Dobson to Jerry Falwell, evangelical ministers called for a revival of biblically-exact Christian faith and a return of the nation, in their view, to its foundational Christian principles. In the midst of the Vietnam War, Graham advised Richard Nixon in the White House (irony alert). Modernist social thought was fiercely assaulted from the battlements of southern Baptist seminaries and the pulpits of mega-churches.
Under the influence of secular social criticism, the mainline churches had already made fatal concessions to the alleged benefits of science, expert research and liberal pragmatism. The result was, to them, horrifying: the spread of abortion, bans on school prayer, radical disruption of gender roles and the disrespect for both traditional morality and patriotism.
Evangelists urged their followers to crush "secular humanism" in public confrontations and political action, thereby inspiring a return to the faith of the old rugged cross. They struck an opportunistic alliance with the Republican Party to attack liberal moral lassitude. Protestant consensus would not be restored.
As a long-time sympathetic student of evangelical believers, Marsden nourishes generous hopes for reconciliation among Christian factions amid the pluralistic diversity of the country. He endorses the theology of Abraham Kuypers, a Dutch theologian who advocates "confessional pluralism" as a bridge across the chasms of cultural strife.
Meanwhile, the culture wars continue, with the evangelical South, Midwest, and Southwest resisting the inroads of the secular culture and cosmopolitan modernism found in the metrosexual cities.
Garin Burbank taught the history of American religions at the University of Winnipeg.