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Religion Making A Comeback In American Popular Culture Essay

But if American religious individualism smoothes the path to conversion, it also smoothes the path to apostasy. Until recently, this may be what happened most often. Even though conversion in the U.S. was easy by European standards, it was easier still to drop out of religion totally. The complications facing a back-slid Protestant, a lapsed Catholic or a nonobservant Jew were simple compared with those facing a Southern Baptist converting to Catholicism or a Catholic converting to Judaism or a Jew converting to any form of Christianity. By condemning the turncoat so much more harshly than the deserter, organized religion may have actually fostered desertion.

By the same token, if Americans now take conversion more casually, the result may be an aggregate increase in religious participation. Two years ago I attended the wedding of a Catholic and a Jew, blessed jointly by a priest and a rabbi. Forty years ago, the marriage itself could doubtless have taken place one way or another, but not the doubly sanctified wedding. Instead, quite probably, the young wedding partners would have become dropouts from their respective traditions. In one way, the joint wedding ceremony represents the confounding of two proud and ancient traditions by the youthful spirit of American religious individualism. In another, it represents a victory for both over the tendency of American religious individualism to make each man and woman a happy sect of one.

That tendency is scarcely to be counted out. Unbelief remains omnipresent in American life, the position one takes by taking no position. Is there any reason to believe that fewer Americans are defaulting to this position and that, as a result, religion in the United States is experiencing a net gain at the expense of irreligion?

A recurring experience that I had as the author of ''God: A Biography'' suggests to me that there has been such a gain. In that book, I wrote about God as -- and only as -- the literary protagonist of the Old Testament, but my very abstention from theology seemed to embolden people to tell me what they thought about God. Over time, what struck me most about these conversations was a note of defiance, the defiant rejection of the widespread assumption that doubt and religion are incompatible. ''Take it (belief) or leave it (religion)'' -- this was the dilemma I heard brusquely rejected in favor of a third alternative: If I may doubt the practice of medicine from the operating table, if I may doubt the political system from the voting booth, if I may doubt the institution of marriage from the conjugal bed, why may I not doubt religion from the pew?

Why this mood of challenge or dare? Because this was a novel attitude for the people expressing it. Some were newcomers to the expression of doubt, but others were newcomers to the pew. They were excited and a bit combative, as people tend to be when they are doing something they have been told they may not do. But why were they doing it? Why not just vacate the pew (or never enter it) if you have doubts about God?

In answering that question, it matters greatly where one imagines the doubting to originate. Is religion in question? Are the doubts mainly doubts about God? Or is society in question and religion one of the proposed answers, notwithstanding the difficulty of belief?

It may well be true that organized religion has functioned as a corrective to American individualism. But religion has not been the only corrective available. Innumerable secular forms of association have also tried to deliver the psychological and moral counterbalance that American individualism requires. There are Americans for whom knowledge or politics or career or therapy provides sanctuary, collective purpose and a measure of personal transcendence. There are even those for whom, as we say, bodybuilding is a religion. The question that must now be asked is whether the society that has relied so heavily on such alternatives to religion is succeeding or failing. Have its own citizens lost confidence in it? Are they suffering a secular loss of faith?

One who believes they are is the Mexican poet-philosopher Octavio Paz. In his recent memoirs, ''In Light of India,'' Paz maintains that capitalist democracy has turned us all into ''hermits,'' replacing ''fraternity with a perpetual struggle among individuals.'' An admirer of Tocqueville, Paz finds the Frenchman's worst fears about the corrosive effect of individualism ''utterly fulfilled in our time'' and in a rather violent reaction, manages a degree of sympathy for India's religiously grounded caste system. (Paz was once Mexico's ambassador to India.) That system is full of disgraceful abuses, Paz admits, and yet, he insists, it at least brings an entire population into a stable and understood relationship.

Paz does not endorse a systematic rejection of capitalist democracy. He simply looks at what it has become and recoils. Though he cannot be said to proclaim his faith in religion, he confesses a loss of faith in the viability of Western society without religion. If Americans of some indeterminate number are finding themselves where Paz finds himself, we should not wonder that a religious revival may be under way. These would be Americans who, like Paz, have looked at what their society has become and recoiled, who are weary of being hermits, who want to place some collective check on their relentless competitiveness. Like Paz, these Americans have not so much recovered their faith in religion as lost their faith in the alternatives.

Several months ago, I came across a recent anthology of essays titled ''Outside the Law: Narratives on Justice in America.'' One scathingly brilliant contribution, ''The Myth of Justice,'' announces that ''religion isn't the opiate of the people, the conception of justice is.'' Mere atheism, the essay explains, is for beginners. Real unbelief requires flushing out and crushing delusions like ''As you reap, so will you sow and Whatever goes around comes around. In your dreams, sucker, the writer sneers, and the empirical evidence for his view is undeniably enormous. Still, what his lacerating bitterness most bespeaks is the personal cost to him of his own conclusion. I read his statement with sadness, for I knew him, and I knew that shortly after writing it, he committed suicide.

Neither Octavio Paz's social despair nor this kind of personal despair leads infallibly to religion, much less to suicide, yet the alternatives can seem almost that stark. It thereby follows that, though many people who turn up in church or synagogue are not truly believers, they are not hypocrites either. What appeals to them in the first instance may be the social and esthetic refuge provided by religion, but they arrive with open minds regarding belief. This openness is the defiance I noticed in my book-tour conversations. It is the defiance of the doubter in the pew.

Organized religion typically provides for the seasons of life: for birth, childhood and coming-of-age; for marriage and other forms of life companionship; for old age and death, bereavement and remembrance; and even for a harmonious division of the calendar year into seasons of mourning and joy, repentance and triumph. Though some will always find this rigmarole repellent, more find it calming and attractive. To make their attraction intellectually acceptable, they do not require that an irrefragable case for belief be established. They require only that the case for unbelief be somewhat neutralized.

This may be little to ask, but that little is indispensable. Accordingly, even if few people have the patience or the intellectual preparation for theology, those few are disproportionately important. If the social viability of religion for the many depends significantly on the intellectual viability of religion for the few, then the question becomes: Can a post-modern path be opened for the few to a form of religion they can honestly practice?

If the answer is yes, I suspect that the first step on that path will be religious reflection on secular uncertainty -- a reversal of the familiar phenomenon of secular reflection on religious uncertainty. The question ''Does God really exist?'' takes on a different coloring when and if the reality of other things now confidently thought to exist also comes into question. Take mathematics, for example, the paradigm of clear answers to clear questions. Reuben Hersh, in a new book titled ''What Is Mathematics, Really?'' writes that ''mathematics is like money, war or religion -- not physical, not mental, but social.'' There is no mathematical reality ''out there,'' he maintains, and his mathematical agnosticism would seem rather clearly to have implications for the reality behind any theory that depends on mathematics.

Most mathematicians do not share Hersh's agnosticism, but none can deny that, despite it, he is a practicing mathematician. This state of affairs -- a theory standoff between agnostics and believers that leaves practice surprisingly untouched -- can be documented in many other disciplines. Why may it not be so in theology as well? Some who come to worship believing in the old way might find this stance strange, just as some mathematicians find Hersh's stance strange, but would they bar the door?

Religion has always been, among other things, a response to the intellectual inadequacy of the human species: neither individually nor collectively can we know all that we need to know, much less all that we might wonder about. Recalling that fact and taking full note of the current state of secular dubiety at the highest intellectual levels, a man or woman who decides to practice a religion may do so not to acknowledge the mystery of religion but to acknowledge, first, the mystery in response to which religion has come into being and, second, the felt necessity -- somewhat mysterious in itself -- to live a moral life even when the grounds of morality cannot be known.

In short, to ask Does God really exist, yes or no? may not be the right question. It might be better to ask, Is the word 'existence' really just another word, yes or no? When the latter question is in the air (and it increasingly is), an intellectual decision pro or con religious affiliation need not wait on a final verdict about whether God (or anything else) really exists.

''Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them,'' Immanuel Kant wrote 200 years ago, ''the starry heaven above and the moral law within.'' Judeo-Christian morality has linked these two sources of wonder through God, the creator and guarantor of the physical as well as the moral order:

Thy steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,

thy faithfulness to the clouds.

Thy righteousness is like the mountains of God,

thy judgments are like the great deep. (Psalm 36: 5-6)

Even when silence is maintained about God, the fact that existence can be predicated of cosmos and conscience alike creates a link between the two. If, however, we begin to entertain doubts about existence as such, then all links become dubious, not just the link between the heavens above and the moral law within. Once the philosophical glue is gone, everything comes unstuck. Our various intellectual enterprises, call them what we will, may go forward unchecked, but they will go forward under an enormous question mark.

The armed-and-dangerous ignorance of religious fanaticism deserves to be quarantined. Let's be clear about that. I dread it as much as any atheist does. All the same, the trouble in which secular ideology finds itself -- and it does find itself in some kind of trouble -- does not seem to me to be generated wholly from without. During the cold war, Americans dared not consider the erosion of our interlocking secular beliefs any more than we dared consider the nuclear contamination of our landscape. Now, like a jury summons that can be put off no longer, the long-postponed questions are being taken up. At the deepest level, nothing else can explain the recent resurgence of interest in religion. Alas, there is a vast difference between taking the questions up and answering them.

Despair, according to a study published in the American Heart Association's journal, is as bad for the human heart as a pack-a-day smoking habit. ''Steps should be taken,'' writes one doctor in the study, ''to try to change'' the cardiac patients' situation ''so they gain hope or become more optimistic.''

Steps should be taken by whom? In our day, religion often begins in despair -- in personal despair that hardens the arteries, in cultural despair that darkens the heart, in intellectual despair that humbles the mind -- and moves from there to hope, not through argument but through affiliation. (I hesitate to use the word love.) Just how anyone makes the decision to affiliate -- to go it, but not alone, to be (gag) a joiner -- is difficult to describe and impossible to recover, but it happens, this decision, and many such decisions can accrue to a movement. A movement toward hope? Perhaps. A refusal, at least, to despair.

What I Believe

Sister Joanne Gallagher is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph. She teaches at Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree, Mass.

Q: Have you ever experienced an epiphany?

A: Yes and no. I became aware of the pres-ence of God at age 7, but it's been more like a developing relationship. How do you ever know that a relationship with another person -- and God is a person in my life -- crystallizes? It never crystallizes. It's always in the process of developing and growing. I vividly remember telling a friend, another sister, ''This is crazy and I'm not doing this anymore.'' She said, ''Why not give it two more weeks?'' Well, that was back in 1970. There have been times since then when I've asked myself if I'm doing the right thing. Then God gets in my face, continually reminding me that this is where He wants me. It's not like God comes down in some apparition. I find Him in the ordinary events and people in my life, in my relationships with others. God is where my deep center is.

Continue reading the main story

By Benjamin J. Wetzel

“For a while,” Richard White observes in a bibliographical essay at the end of The Republic for Which It Stands, “the Gilded Age became the flyover country of American history, but at other times it has loomed large” (874). White is correct, and at this particular moment the late 19th century seems to be making a comeback. In October 2017, Ron Chernow (whose biography of Alexander Hamilton was the inspiration for the eponymous musical) released Grant, a 1,074-page biography of the Civil War general who served as president from 1869 to 1877. One month later, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank criticized the Republican tax plan with the headline, “Welcome to the New Gilded Age.” Milbank never explained the term or referenced the 19th century, evidently assuming that his readers already possessed a stockpile of assumptions about the period from 1865 to 1896. Perhaps Milbank was right, since the economist Paul Krugman has for some years taken to associating our current era with the past age of robber barons and laissez-faire economics.

Whatever they think of the ideas of Chernow, Milbank, and Krugman, American historians will have to reckon with the late 19th century once again thanks to the newest contribution to the Oxford History of the United States series. Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896 (Oxford University Press, 2017) weighs in at 941 pages, a mammoth book about an era known for its excesses. White’s tome is no excess, however; in this work the author of the Pulitzer-finalist Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2011) brings his expertise in western history to bear on American history more generally in this fascinating period. This review will evaluate the book as a whole with special attention to White’s treatment of religious topics.

White (Stanford University) uses a birth metaphor to explain the history of the three decades after the Civil War. In his telling, the American nation was a mother with unborn twins. The first twin embodied the hopes and dreams of the Republican Party in 1865—a unified nation based on free labor and equal rights for black and white men. That twin, White says, died in the womb. The other twin represented the world that was actually born; the Gilded Age became a highly stratified class society based on corruption, contract labor, and the suppression of non-whites. Still, “haunted by its sibling” (1), the second twin never entirely lost the nobler, if failed, ambitions of the mid-1860s.

Several metaphors and recurring characters populate White’s narrative. The most central image is that of the “home”—it was evoked to justify everything from the expulsion of Indians to laws policing sexual morality. Native Americans suffered because they had no “proper” homes, while African American men tried to gain equality based on their claims as guardians of homes. Most white women accepted the “home” ideology but others like Elizabeth Cady Stanton thought it oppressed women by denying them individual rights. Like the “home” metaphor, certain figures appear often throughout the book. White’s guide to the age is the novelist William Dean Howells (1837–1920), who embodied many features of the era. We see him initially as a “liberal” (a category more like today’s libertarians, White reminds us), then as a literary realist with socialist leanings. Howells makes sense as a central figure since he came of age during the Civil War and grew to maturity during the subsequent decades.

Yet it is in White’s other recurring characters that religion comes to the fore most clearly. White gives us three Protestant leaders—Henry Ward Beecher, Josiah Strong, and Frances Willard—as representative of certain strains in American cultural life. Beecher, says White, was typically “a flag in the wind” (101)—making him useful for charting the cultural mood. He appears as an invader of the home (because of the adultery allegations against him), as a proponent of liberal theology, as a spokesman for life insurance, and as an opponent of labor strikes. In 1835 Henry’s father Lyman Beecher had made a “plea for the west,” where he warned of Catholic influence on the frontier. A half century later, the Beechers’ fellow Congregationalist Josiah Strong published Our Country, where he expanded on this theme. According to Strong, the United States was threatened by Catholics, Mormons, saloon keepers, and immigrants, to name only a few groups. He merged Christianity, Darwinism, and white supremacy in his prediction of a triumphant Anglo-Saxon race. Strong’s concerns and assumptions, White says, “reflected the Gilded Age sensibilities” (571). A third figure in the Protestant triumvirate is Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) leader Frances Willard. Willard and the WCTU initially demanded temperance as a way to protect the home, but they also proved adept at using the defense of the home as a justification for expanding women’s political reach. In doing so, they epitomized Gilded Age culture: women pushed for greater rights but made their argument in terms of their different role in society.

While these three stand in for white Protestantism, White also discusses Catholicism at some length. White characterizes the Catholic Church as “the country’s only explicitly conservative institution; it rejected contract freedom, individualism, liberty of conscience, and equality” (315–16). He recounts the disputes over public schools, funding for sectarian education, the Cincinnati Bible War of 1869–1873, President Grant’s 1875 condemnation of Catholicism, and other familiar episodes. De facto religious pluralism between Catholics and Protestants, White argues, emerged not from an ideological desire for tolerance, but from “conflict and stalemate” (321). While experts might want more—“where is Cahenslyism?”—White manages to cover most of the important events in American Catholic history in this period.

White also includes other religious traditions in his narrative. Like Catholics, Jews proved themselves friends of immigrants. This fact should not overshadow the era’s significant intra-Jewish tensions, however. German Jews, who had immigrated decades earlier, looked askance at the flood of Eastern European Jews arriving in the 1880s. Ethnic tensions combined with disputes over Reform Judaism resulted in controversies concerning the extent to which Americanization was desirable. Others stood even further outside the boundaries of the American religious mainstream. Mormons threatened the home with their practice of polygamy. Some Native American groups adopted the Ghost Dance around 1890 in a tragic development that ultimately resulted in the massacre at Wounded Knee. While the vast majority of Americans in this period remained at least nominally religious, voices of unbelief could also be heard. By far the most famous American skeptic was the Republican orator Robert Ingersoll, but White also notes the visibility of a handful of Chicago anarchists who publicly mocked religion.

The Republic for Which It Stands has a myriad of strengths. First is its comprehensiveness, a mark of all of the volumes in this series. White’s background is in western, environmental, and Native American history, but readers will find informed treatments of religion, culture, economics, and high politics in this period as well. Second, the book is a boon since it relies to a large extent on recent literature. Those teaching the U.S. survey can quickly become acquainted with some of the most recent work on the Gilded Age by examining the volume’s footnotes. Relatedly, the 29-page bibliographical essay at the end of the book is itself worth the price of admission. It synthesizes much of the important work on this period and covers nearly every conceivable subtopic. Finally, the image inserts—which contain photographs, paintings, diagrams, sketches, and political cartoons—helpfully reinforce the points made in the text.

The only major criticism I would make of the book is that White provides an unremittingly negative account of the era. To be sure there is much to be negative about: the oppression of Native Americans, the birth of Jim Crow, the growth of monopoly and political corruption, and the violent suppression of labor strikes are just some of the age’s features White rightly condemns. And, to be fair, early on he praises the more egalitarian vision of the Radical Republicans and celebrates their temporary successes during Reconstruction. Still, we must be wary of the dangers of caricature, especially on a scale as large as this. Do we really want to think about the Gilded Age as simply a dark prelude to the happy days of the Progressive Era? One senses there is more to the story than we get in this treatment.

Nevertheless, however one evaluates the period from 1865 to 1896, historians can no longer afford to treat it as “flyover country.” Textbooks, edited collections of documents, and U.S. history survey courses might pause and spend more time in this period. It is easy, to paraphrase White, to jet from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt without touching down in between (2–3). However, such an itinerary misses the culture, politics, and people formed in the intermediate period. We will not really be able to understand the Progressive Era, let alone the rest of the 20th century, without grappling with the challenges, contradictions, and hopes of the Gilded Age. The Republic for Which It Stands allows us to begin doing just that.


Benjamin Wetzel is a postdoctoral research associate with the Cushwa Center.

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