God bless America

Alan Brinkley

  • God in America: Religion and Politics in the United States by Furio Colombo, translated by Kristin Jarrat
    Columbia, 176 pp, $18.00, December 1984, ISBN 0 231 05972 8
  • The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War by Leo Ribuffo
    Temple, 369 pp, $29.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 87722 297 5

For nearly ten years Americans watched – with mingled fascination, horror, anger and incredulity – as the Iranian Revolution transformed a nation once assumed to be firmly moored to the world of the modern West into an apparent bastion of anti-Western, anti-modern, fundamentalist values. It was an event that seemed to confound the normal patterns of analysis; and the only explanation with which most Americans have since felt comfortable has been one that stresses a cultural irrationality rooted in the oddities of the Islamic mind or the peculiarities of the Persian character. A rational society, Americans believe, does not turn its back on modern development. It does not embrace fanaticism. It does not reject progress. During roughly the same years, the United States itself has experienced a resurgence of Christian fundamentalism which, if far less powerful and far less radical than its Islamic counterparts, has raised some of the same challenges to secular, scientific values and some of the same threats to what most Americans have come to consider the norms of modernity. And when American liberals attempt to understand what is happening in their own society, they begin with many of the same assumptions they use to explain fundamentalist fervour in the Middle East. In America, as in Iran, fundamentalism is essentially irrational, even pathological, the product of alarming cultural or psychological maladjustments. For in America, as elsewhere, rational men and women do not reject progress.

To understand why the resurgence of fundamentalism has caused such consternation among secular Americans, one must understand the enormous confidence with which these same men and women so recently supposed that their own values had become, if not universal, then at least so pervasive as to be unassailable. Twenty years ago, the liberal mainstream of American politics and culture took little heed of the religious right. Fundamentalists were thought to be an isolated, provincial fringe, declining in strength and doomed ultimately to extinction. The vast majority of Americans had, so liberals believed, embraced the secular, relativistic assumptions of the modern age. Science had become the new religion. God was dead. Modern man marched forward, inexorably, into an increasingly rationalised future. Not all liberals were entirely happy with the new world emerging around them, but few questioned its essential premises.

Others, however, did. Protestant fundamentalism has always been a stronger force in American life than the secular mainstream would like to admit. And as liberals became increasingly aggressive in the post-war era in imposing their own modernist values on society at large, fundamentalists became, in response, not only more numerous but more active politically. By 1980, they could no longer be ignored. The Christian right, mobilised behind a clear political agenda, played what seemed to be a major role that year in the defeat of several liberal members of Congress and contributed to the election of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency. They remain a significant political force still. They have thrust into the centre of national political discourse issues that liberals had considered long settled: prayer in public schools, the right of women to abortions, public funding for religious schools, even the teaching of evolution. They have revived ancient quarrels over banning books and produced such modern equivalents as organised boycotts of products advertised on ‘godless’ television programmes. They have used religious arguments to support conservative positions on seemingly non-religious issues: they have claimed, for example, that the Bible mandates the present massive expansion of the American defence budget – an argument the President himself has, on occasion, seemed to endorse. Right-wing fundamentalism has become a cultural and, of more concern to many Americans, a political force of considerable importance.

This is the phenomenon Furio Colombo, an Italian journalist living in New York, has attempted to explain in a brief but ambitious book published several years ago in Italy and now translated into English. According to Colombo, religion has always played a significantly larger role in American life than it has in the lives of most European countries. In Europe, he claims, ‘ideology is part of the explanation and part of the reason of almost everything.’ But ‘religion is to American culture, politics and life, what ideology is to French, Italian, Spanish and other European cultures, politics and life – a key, a matrix, a way of explaining and organising otherwise confusing events.’ American liberalism in its time of triumph, he argues, prevailed in large part because it fused itself to Utopian religious sentiments. American conservatism, similarly, owes much of its present strength to its association with the strong, comforting certainties of fundamentalist beliefs, which stand as a rebuke to liberalism’s recent retreat ‘into a deadening private and individual care for the self’. Religious intensity is not new, then, to American politics. But the present convergence of politics and religion is, Colombo believes, unprecedented and deeply alarming.

Although the new Christian Right began gathering strength shortly after World War Two, its real origins, according to Colombo, lie in the social and cultural turmoil of the 1960s. Those were the years in which liberal America lost its moorings, in which secular culture and mainstream politics found themselves awash in doubt and confusion. Fundamentalism offered an escape – in politics as well as in religion – from the frightening dislocations of the time; it served as a buffer against the complexities of modern society. As such, it has been most appealing to those men and women who feel lost in the secular world – rudderless people, uprooted from any personal or social web that might give their lives meaning and thus drawn to religious absolutism as an escape. Hence it is possible for Colombo to see links between the political activism of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the suicidal psychosis of the Rev. Jim Jones’s tragic colony in Guyana. It is possible to make connections between Southern Baptist revivalism and the violent tyranny of the notorious Synanon cult, or the crazed murderousness of the Manson gang, or even (more benignly) the extraordinary and, Colombo believes, essentially religious appeal of the investment adviser Henry Granville.

Colombo has written an earnest and timely book, but not a good one. Although he offers a number of intelligent and provocative observations, he provides nothing in the way of proof for any of them; his argument consists largely of a series of broad and often glib generalisations. His narrative is confused and fragmented (as well as poorly translated and sloppily published). More to the point, however, this is a book that rests on a highly questionable premise: the familiar claim that fundamentalism is a product of cultural or psychic maladjustment; that neo-Christians are men and women lost in the world, groping desperately for an anchor for their troubled, anomic lives. As such, its argument is comparable to earlier and now highly controversial explanations of populism, native fascism, McCarthyism and other ‘extremist’ movements in terms of ‘status anxiety’ and psychic distress. Colombo does not cite Adorno, but the ghost of The Authoritarian Personality (and the tradition of social science it helped to create) pervades his book nonetheless.

One of the most forthright challenges to the assumption that religious ‘extremism’ is necessarily a product of pathology appears in an excellent book by Leo Ribuffo, a historian at George Washington University. Eloquently and thoughtfully, he examines the careers of three earlier political activists from the Protestant far right: William Dudley Pelley, who led a small fascist brigade in the 1930s; Gerald Winrod, who published an inflammatory, anti-semitic and ultimately pro-fascist newspaper in the same years and ultimately spent several years in prison for his troubles; and Gerald L.K. Smith, an erratic Protestant minister who led a modest, right-wing, anti-semitic political movement from the late 1930s well into the post-war era.

Understandably, most of mainstream America viewed the activities of Pelley, Winrod and Smith with loathing and alarm. Yet liberals in particular erred, Ribuffo contends, when they dismissed them and their followers as part of an essentially irrational ‘lunatic fringe’. All three men made use of symbols, prejudices, resentments and fears borrowed from the heart of mainstream culture. All three could find at least some support for even their most offensive beliefs among otherwise respectable leaders and institutions. And all three attracted support, not only from unstable men and women searching desperately for scapegoats, but also from apparently ‘normal’ and rational people with enduring roots in their communities and their families.

If that was true of such appalling characters as Pelley, Winrod and Smith, it is likely to be even more true of the far less offensive leaders of the present-day religious right. The neo-Christian phenomenon undoubtedly contains its share of psychically troubled men and women and perhaps more than its share of bigots. But it also contains men such as Jerry Falwell, whose life gives few clues of instability and who rejects anti-semitism and racism. It attracts its greatest support, it seems, not from the pathetically rootless men and women who constituted Jim Jones’s constituency, but from rural and small-town Americans firmly tied to their communities and to a set of traditional values they consider under assault from without. Many of its political demands, far from occupying a position on the fringes of the ideological spectrum, have received open and at times enthusiastic support from the President of the United States, from some of the leading members of his administration, even from some intellectuals who see in aspects of the New Right an antidote to what they consider the destructive radical legacy of the 1960s. According to Ribuffo, secular liberals erred dangerously in the 1930s and 1940s in treating religious extremists as cultural mutants, in condescending to their beliefs, in attempting to deny them on occasion the freedom of expression that a genuine commitment to cultural pluralism should have guaranteed them. The anti-Fascist ‘Brown Scare’ of the 1930s, he claims, helped lay the groundwork for the anti-Communist ‘Red Scare’ of the 1950s, the results of which liberals found far less congenial. Similarly, liberals in the 1980s who treat the religious right with ridicule and contempt, who dismiss its adherents as irrational extremists, who make no effort to understand the faith behind even some of its most radical beliefs, do little but increase the already yawning gulf of animosity, suspicion and incomprehension between the secular and religious worlds.

The rise of the present-day religious right stands, finally, as a challenge to one of the most powerful assumptions of American centrists (and American historians): that the United States has in the 20th century moved decisively in the direction of becoming a consolidated, homogeneous nation united behind a set of shared, largely secular values. In fact, the fundamentalist phenomenon seems to suggest, fragmentation remains at the heart of the American social fabric. Robert Wiebe, one of the most creative historians of modern America, has argued recently that the United States is, in his phrase, ‘a segmented society’. Its people cope with the enormous diversity of their nation less by rallying behind common assumptions and national institutions than by creating discrete, isolated social spheres for themselves. America, as he describes it, is as much a cluster of distinct cultures with divergent world-views as it is a centralised, consolidated nation. It has survived in large part because its various ‘segments’ have been able to maintain a certain autonomy within the larger, national culture and have thus managed to avoid the difficult and disorienting task of adapting their lives and their values to the standards of people different from themselves. And America has suffered and struggled, he suggests, when this cultural segmentation has been challenged and assaulted.

One need not accept the full implications of Wiebe’s controversial and troubling argument to see in it at least a partial explanation for America’s present religious conflicts. Much of the history of post-war America is the story of an unprecedently vigorous assault by liberal (predominantly urban) Americans on the values of traditional, provincial cultures. Nothing enchanted liberal Americans in the 1950s and 1960s so much as the ideal of ‘cosmopolitanism’ – an outlook that stressed the virtues of tolerance, relativism and rationalism, and was generally accompanied by a strong contempt for the ‘provincial’ mind with its presumed superstitions and prejudices. It was provincialism (whether regional, ethnic or religious) that accounted for the survival of racism and bigotry in American life; it was provincialism that stood in the way of progress and rationalism in virtually every area of society. A culturally segmented America, therefore, was no longer acceptable: only by universalising the values of cosmopolitanism, by launching an assault on the backwardness and intolerance of the ‘village mind’ could the United States become a truly enlightened society worthy of serving as a model to the world.

That effort – the effort to make the values and assumptions of liberal, secular Americans the values of all Americans – now seems clearly to have been a failure. It was responsible, to be sure, for important accomplishments, perhaps most notably in loosening the grip of racism on American life. But it has not eliminated, and in fact seems to have increased, the cultural chasms separating different groups of Americans. Members of the secular centre continue to define America as a society committed to modern rationalism, committed to free inquiry and scientific discourse, committed to progress. But members of the fundamentalist right continue, despite (but perhaps in part because of) the assaults of recent years, to define America as a very different society: as a bastion of traditional values and traditional faith in an increasingly godless age, as a citadel of righteousness, as the world’s only truly Christian nation. It is unthinkable to secular Americans to contemplate any retreat from the progressive course on which they have always assumed their nation to be irrevocably embarked. But it is equally unthinkable to fundamentalists to consider abandoning in the name of progress the faith that gives their communities definition and their lives meaning.

It is not comforting, of course, to assume that the Christian right, with all its new-found assertiveness and growing power, is an irrational, rootless ‘lunatic fringe’, plagued by cultural and psychological maladjustments. But it is even less comforting, perhaps, for secular liberals to accept that fundamentalists can be rational, stable, even intelligent people with a world-view radically different from their own. To accept that is to accept that they may have been wrong in some of their most basic assumptions about America in our time, that they have made some of the same mistakes in interpreting their own society that they recently made in interpreting Iran. It is to recognise that the progressive modernism that they have so complacently assumed has become firmly and unassailably established in America – the secularism, the relativism, the celebration of scientific progress – may not in fact be as firmly entrenched as they thought. It is to admit the possibility that even in America some of the most elementary values of modern society have still not established full legitimacy with a large – and now politically powerful – segment of the population.