Putting America’s Religious Change Into Perspective

Yesterday I gave a few observations about a new book, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (Oxford, 2011). Author Kevin M. Schultz has done a major new analysis, as well as a critical update, of the thesis religious sociologist Will Herberg wrote on the impact of religion upon American culture.

Schultz demonstrates that religious pluralism and civic secularism were increasingly being wed before and after World War II. By 1962, when the Supreme Court outlawed prayer in public schools, Protestantism, and religion in general, was being disestablished in American life. This decision formalized that which had already been taking place for decades. Following this decision very conservative Protestants wanted to take back what they saw as “their country.” At first this response came from fringe voices but before long it became a vital part of Protestant evangelical Christianity in America. jerry_falwell_2plusw In 1963 Jerry Falwell got the idea to build a Christian school after the Supreme Court ruled against enforced Bible reading in schools. This decision further disestablished Protestantism in the schools. Falwell said, at that time, “the Christian world view was not only going to be pushed back but eliminated, and that another might replace it.” Lynchburg Christian Academy was opened in 1967 to be a place “for any and all who loved Christ and who wanted to study under born-again teachers in a Christian environment.” By 1971 Liberty University was started. The mission of both schools was not only to teach Christian values but “to oppose secularism.” By 1979 the Moral Majority was launched. This did more to help the religious right to enter partisan politics than any other development in modern American history.

By the middle 1960s we had elected our first Catholic president and anti-Semitism was increasingly disgusting to the vast majority of Americans. Racism was being exposed for its ugly evils and change was in the wings.  But by the 1970s conservative evangelicals were arguing that much of this was a result of secularism and secular ideals that would remove Jesus from America. Os Guinness noted that “nostalgia” was prominent during this time.

The focus of the religious right was on “perceived slights by a overly lenient mainstream . . . which was departing from pure Christian principles in the name of pluralism” (Tri-Faith America, 200). The religious right knew the power of names and thus co-opted the term Judeo-Christian America and “Judeo-Christianity” to promote their cause. Ronald Reagan would openly pursue the support of these religious conservatives quite powerfully and became a symbolic leader to the movement. (He did very little to alter the social and moral landscape in terms of actual presidential action, except for his personal statements from the White House pulpit!)

But as Schultz notes in the 1970s conservative Catholics, Jews and Protestants were becoming “co-religionists,” or as some put it, “co-belligerents.” They realized they did have more in common than they did with co-religionist liberals. Schultz concludes, “No longer were antipathies between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews animating social change; rather, the force behind change was the aversion between liberals of all faiths and conservatives of all faiths” (Tri-Faith America, 201-2). This had dramatic impact and demonstrated how radically different latter-day Protestants were from their mid-century heirs. As religious conservatives sought government aid for private religious schools they did not know they were standing against those Protestants who had held an entirely opposite position less than fifty years before!

Evangelicals now appealed to “minority rights” and employed strategies that would have been unimaginable only a few decades earlier. A complete shift had taken place and very few noticed. That shift still has rather dramatic impact upon religious and social life in America.

Tomorrow: The Increase of Other Faiths and the Future