Christianizing America Americanized Christianity

I was glad to see W. Jason Wallace receive attention from the Historical Society’s blog. Wallace is the author of Catholics, Slaveholders, and the Dilemma of American Evangelicalism, 1835–1860 (Notre Dame University Press, 2010), a book that triangulates the politics of northern evangelical anti-slavery proponents, southern evangelical defenders of slavery, and apologists for Roman Catholicism against anti-Catholicism.

I recommend the book and also the interview which includes the following nugget:

Over the course of the mid-nineteenth century the Protestant theological divisions of the past came to matter less than how Christianity translated into social and political questions. Evangelicals, however, faced a serious problem when they began to disagree about what constituted legitimate social concerns. Nowhere was this problem more pronounced than with the slavery question. Where theology could be either ignored or debated without real public consequence, politics could not. Antebellum politics betrayed the appearance of unity evangelicals so desperately desired. Both northern and southern evangelicals held fast to the notion that there was in fact a relationship between Protestant Christianity and good government. This relationship, though never explicitly defined, divided millions of evangelicals when the slavery question could no longer be ignored. Northern evangelicals believed slavery to be as incompatible with American values as Catholicism, and they launched a semi-coordinated campaign against both Catholics and slaveholders in sermons, speeches, and journal articles. A consequence of this campaign was that slaveholders, like Catholics, shared the position of the northern evangelical ideological “other”—the outsider who had to be assimilated or reconstructed. While southern theologians retreated into a myopic defense of the peculiar institution, Northern evangelicals increasingly allowed their understanding of the church to be defined by the American experiment.

The lesson appears to be that when you make a religious defense of a particular political order a habit, politics wind up swallowing your religion. Americanism is and was as much a problem for Protestants as it was for Roman Catholics in the United States.


14 thoughts on “Christianizing America Americanized Christianity

  1. Excellent. We should conclude that the Bible has no implications, and it has no applications in this vale of tears. It has absolutely no meaning.

    Our Bibles should always be checked at the gate to the public square. God save us from Bible thumpers.

    (I speak as a fool, of course.)


  2. Philip, if you’re going to put your name and your picture along with your words, why don’t you go “all in” and say something substantial? Hecklers usually just remain anonymous. Except for OB.


  3. I always enjoy how folks like Philip seem to define “public square.” They borrow the secularist usage of the public square which always has something to do with government policy or space. Apparently, our churches don’t worship publicly and ministers only preach privately.

    I must have been wrong to think that our churches are open to the public.


  4. Keep it up Phillip! When M&M tries to downplay your words, it really means you have cut him to the quick. They (Old Lilfers) hate being made to look *foolish*, which is exactly what your post did; keep pressing on! Let them flail about talking to each other; I love it when you stick it to them!

    When you get DGH to respond, it means he felt the force of your words 😉


  5. The Made-for-TV Version of the Bible was Like CliffsNotes

    by Hector Avalos

    It was a television phenomenon by most accounts. “The Bible” miniseries on the History Channel attracted 13.1 million viewers for its debut, and finished with 11.7 million on Easter Sunday.

    The miniseries was produced by Mark Burnett, the man behind “Survivor” and “The Voice.” Burnett’s wife, Roma Downey, is co-producer and plays Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the miniseries.

    Having taught a course on religion and film at Iowa State University, I was very interested to see how this miniseries compared to previous renditions of the Bible for the small or big screen.

    Burnett certainly follows the tradition of mitigating or erasing violence by biblical protagonists, and enhancing any violence by the “bad guys.”

    For example, when the firstborn children of Egypt are killed (Exodus 12:29-30), they go to sleep quietly after a death cloud engulfs them, as in “The Ten Commandments” (1956) and in “The Prince of Egypt” (1998).

    The biblical text suggests a more violent killing of children, as the destroying angel usually uses a sword (Exodus 12:23; 1 Chronicles 21:15-16). No fog or cloud is mentioned in the biblical text as the agent of death.

    Similarly, when Joshua and his army slaughter the men, women, and children of Jericho (Joshua 6:21), we don’t see them hacking children to death. Herod’s men, on the other hand, are shown explicitly killing children with swords as they desperately search for the newborn Christian Messiah.

    Likewise, when we see the Philistines or Babylonians kill the Hebrews, we see more graphic depictions of violence, including the gruesome slitting of throats and the direct impact of swords and other weapons on human bodies.

    The Romans beat Jesus to a bloody pulp in a manner reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004).

    When it comes to accuracy, the results are mixed. Downey is quoted as saying, “We brought experts in once the scripts were created to take a look at the scripts to make sure we were accurate and true to the Bible, but obviously we’re making a movie, and so we breathed creative expansion into that.”

    However, the experts listed are mostly conservative Christian pastors and activists, such as Rick Warren, T. D. Jakes, and Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, rather than trained biblical scholars.

    Instances of historical errors and a licentious imagination are too numerous to mention, but one of the more humorous instances has angels fighting in Ninja-Kung Fu style in Sodom when trying to protect Lot and his family from the local men trying to assault them. The biblical text only indicates that the angels miraculously blinded the attackers (Genesis 19:11).

    There are, of course, political angles one can detect. Satan bears a striking resemblance to President Barack Obama, who has been accused of waging a war on religion by many conservative Christians. Burnett denies any reference to Obama.

    The importance of the security of Israel’s homeland in light of hostile neighbors is often referenced. The word “homeland” (think Department of Homeland Security) is repeatedly used for what is often called “the land” or “the land of Israel” in most English biblical translations.

    But if Burnett exhibits a pro-Israel stance, he also continues a long Christian tradition of portraying Judaism as a dying legalistic religion destined to be superseded by the superior teachings of Jesus.

    The Christian viewpoint also appears in the commercials interspersed through each episode. These commercials range from calls to return to the Catholic faith to those promising that God will find you a good heterosexual match for a reasonable fee.

    Will this miniseries win new people for Christianity? This is debatable. Much of the audience probably consists of believers, especially since it was heavily marketed to Christian churches.

    Despite its good ratings for these days, the premier of the “Hatfields & McCoys” miniseries on the History Channel still had more viewers (a reported 13.9 million) last May. “The Bible” did not remotely approach the viewership that a Super Bowl usually attracts.

    So, if anything, Burnett’s miniseries may reflect a continuing diminution in actual Bible-reading, and an increasing contentment with just getting a razzle-dazzle CliffsNotes version on television.


  6. D.G. Hart: The lesson appears to be that when you make a religious defense of a particular political order a habit, politics wind up swallowing your religion.

    RS: Yet we are told to make disciples of all the nations (people groups if you will). Is there a way to swallow the political order by the sovereign rule of God rather than have the political order swallow up religion? Does your conclusion necessarily mean that politics will always swallow up religion when they are combined? Did politics swallow up the religion of Kuyper?


  7. RS, it swallowed up Israel, it swallowed up Eusebius, it swallowed up the papacy, and it swallowed up Kuyper. I’m still waiting for a case where politics don’t change the church in a harmful way.


  8. D. G. Hart: RS, it swallowed up Israel, it swallowed up Eusebius, it swallowed up the papacy, and it swallowed up Kuyper. I’m still waiting for a case where politics don’t change the church in a harmful way.

    RS: Got it. Therefore (the conclusion of Dr. Hart’s statement), 2k. That might be a compelling argument in a certain context.


  9. Richard, I commend you for commending DGH’s argument at this point. The subsequent history of the Netherlands and even Kuyper’s children bear looking into as we muddle through the concepts of kingdoms, spheres, and church.


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