Hot Dogs

Malcolm Bull

  • Mine eyes have seen the glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America by Randall Balmer
    Oxford, 246 pp, $19.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 19 505117 3
  • In God’s Country: Travels in the Bible Belt, USA by Douglas Kennedy
    Unwin Hyman, 240 pp, £12.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 04 440423 9
  • The Divine Supermarket by Malise Ruthven
    Chatto, 336 pp, £14.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3151 9
  • The Democratisation of American Christianity by Nathan Hatch
    Yale, 312 pp, £22.50, November 1989, ISBN 0 300 44470 2
  • Religion and 20th-Century American Intellectual Life edited by Michael Lacey
    Cambridge/Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars, 214 pp, £27.50, November 1989, ISBN 0 521 37560 6
  • New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America by Mary Farrell Bednarowski
    Indiana, 175 pp, $25.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 253 31137 3

In recent years, nothing has done more to reinforce the European sense of cultural superiority than the sight of America’s televangelists. Easily stereotyped as politically reactionary, sexually hypocritical, intellectually retarded and financially dishonest, the televangelists confirmed every prejudice about American society. That such men should be allowed, not only to appear on television, but to run for the Presidency of the United States, is taken as proof of the immaturity of the nation’s social institutions and the inherent gullibility of its people. Whatever the weaknesses of European civilisation, it has been possible to take comfort in its relative secularity; Europe, at least until the Rushdie affair, seemed immune during the worldwide resurgence of fundamentalism – the one place where religious fanatics remained at the margins of public life.

And yet America is everything that Europe hopes to become: a united continent with a secular constitution where ethnic and religious differences are not permitted to impede the pursuit of material prosperity. It was the Erastian nation-state that quelled religious enthusiasm in Europe. If national identities grow weaker, religious identities may harden and long-forgotten disputes re-ignite. Evangelical religion thrives on population mobility and social change: the frontierless European Community and the newly-liberated countries of Eastern Europe may both prove receptive to fundamentalist Christianity, and (if the recent Soviet invitation to televangelist Robert Schuller is anything to go by) the satellite channels of a united Europe may one day broadcast the gospel of individual salvation which its inhabitants have long thought fit only for their American cousins.

It is worth remembering that the social evolution of Europe may be towards, rather than away from, the social conditions which have nurtured American Christianity, for it is tempting to explore the topic with the bemused condescension once reserved for the exotic customs of other races. Take the announcement (recorded by Randall Balmer on his visit to Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana, California) that ‘we’ll play volleyball, eat some hot dogs, and then baptise anyone who wants to identify with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.’ How can this elicit anything but a wry smile: how can such a combination of the inconsequential and the theological be of serious social importance? Both Randall Balmer, a professor of history at Columbia, and Douglas Kennedy, an American writer resident in London, confronted this question on numerous occasions in their travels through the evangelical sub-culture of America. Their narratives abound with the exploits of Christian stunt women, Christian tee-shirt salesmen, Christian heavy metallists, Christian weight-watchers and Christian bikers – people whose lives affirm that consumer preferences can become the channels of divine grace. Of the two authors, Kennedy has the sharper eye for the ironies of free-market religion, for cases like that of the Manhattan life-insurance saleswoman who sent donations to Oral Roberts, a preacher who raised millions of dollars by proclaiming that God would ‘call him home’ if he did not receive the money. Balmer, who hopes to explain as well as entertain, sometimes plays down the strangeness of his subjects by emphasising the historical continuities: the success of ‘secret rapture’ films is said to ‘illustrate’ the influence of dispensationalist millenialism, and Phoenix faith healer Neil Frisby is described as ‘not terribly exceptional’ in the context of earlier religious healers and health reformers.

The danger inherent in Balmer’s approach is that it obscures the importance of novelty. It isn’t its long pedigree that has nourished belief in the imminent end of the world, and the history of religious healing does not provide arguments for its current practitioners. In evangelical groups, unlike mainstream denominations, church history is irrelevant to personal commitment; faith is inspired, not by the weight of tradition, but by the sense that God is revealing himself anew in the events of everyday life. Fundamentalism gives the unchurched a Christian past newly-formed from the detritus of modernity – Jim Bakker’s uncompleted Christian amusement park was called Heritage, USA. As one Cuban refugee told Douglas Kennedy, ‘reinvention’ is ‘what the American life is all about’. It is not memory but amnesia that provides the oxygen for retrospective Christianity: revivalists offer old-time religion to those who have forgotten what it was like; those raised in conservative denominations, such as Randall Balmer himself, often leave to join churches with a more liberal theological orientation.

In this context, Malise Ruthven’s journey – which begins at the tomb of Roger Williams (the founder of Providence, Rhode Island), takes in memorials to Brigham Young, Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton, and ends at the grave of Thomas Jefferson – has a distinctly antiquarian flavour. Ruthven believes that myths ‘become plausible when canonised by arts that penetrate the collective cultural psyche’, and he seems happier visiting monuments than talking to people more credulous than himself – even chatting to the attendant of a museum devoted to the ‘embarrassingly recent’ history of Mormonism leaves him ‘exhausted ... from the psychic strain’. In his anxiety to avoid being taken in by the salesmen in the ‘Divine Supermarket’, Ruthven has lost their sense of urgency; he forgets that the shelf-life of a myth is often limited, that time can secularise as well as sanctify.

The success of evangelical religion may be independent of its history, but its staying power is part of the problem. Historians are accustomed to dealing with outbreaks of religious enthusiasm, but these are usually contained within brief periods of social transition. In the United States, the fusion of the eternal and the conspicuously ephemeral seems to have produced a form of Christianity peculiarly resistant to change: every European observer for two centuries has encountered the same, often disconcerting phenomenon – a significant minority of the population in a state of heightened religious excitement. This is a problem for those who see religion primarily as a means of social control. Revivals far outnumber the incipient political revolutions they are supposed to frustrate, and perpetual revival appears to be sustainable in a way that permanent revolution is not. One testing ground for theories about the relationship between political and religious upheaval is the early republic, with the American Revolution sandwiched between two major revivals – the Great Awakening of the mid-18th century and the Second Great Awakening of 1790 to 1830. Since it is difficult to place the same interpretation on both revivals, it has often been suggested that the second mopped up the fissiparous forces released by the first. The Democratisation of American Christianity presents an alternative hypothesis. In this perceptive and carefully-researched study of popular preaching in the Methodist, Christian, Baptist, Mormon and Afro-American Churches, Nathan Hatch argues that the Second Great Awakening did not effect a consolidation, but a shift from ‘classical republican values to those of vulgar democracy and entrepreneurial individualism’.

Hatch’s thesis is perhaps best exemplified by the Baptist preacher John Leland who, on New Year’s Day 1802, presented to the President, Thomas Jefferson, a 1235-pound cheese bearing the motto: ‘Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.’ When Leland spoke before the Houses of Congress, he was described by one Congressman (the clergyman Manasseh Cutler) as a ‘poor ignorant, illiterate, clownish creature’, who ‘bawled with stunning voice, horrid tone, frightful grimaces, and extravagant gestures’. Leland would have been gratified to learn that his sermon had been ‘extremely painful to every sober, thinking person present’, for the tyranny against which he felt called to rebel was that of just such ‘sober, thinking people’. He questioned the idea that ‘Schools, Academies and Colleges, are the inexhaustible fountains of true piety, morality and literature,’ and, in a pamphlet entitled ‘The Rights of Conscience Inalienable ... or, The High-flying Churchman, Stripped of his Legal Robe, Appears a Yaho’, he asked:

Did many of the rulers believe in Christ when he was upon earth? Were not the learned clergy (the scribes) his inveterate enemies? Do not great men differ as much as little men in judgment? Have not almost all lawless errors crept into the world through the means of wise men (so-called)?

The egalitarianism of Leland and other popular preachers may have been painful to the privileged, but it gave relief to ordinary people who could not reconcile themselves to what they were taught to believe – men like Samuel Crane who, unable to resolve the contradictions in the sermon of his Calvinist minister but certain that the clergyman must be right because he was a ‘very learned man’, left church and ‘commenced pounding his head with his fist, for he really thought his stupidity must be owing to his having an uncommonly thick skull.’ The liberation provided by the Second Great Awakening was intellectual rather than social. Men and women realised that there was no need to bang their heads against the paradoxes which sustained the authority of the Calvinist clergy: they could simply dispense with the clergy and keep their intellectual self-respect. The popular religion of the period was thus not so much anti-intellectual as anti-authoritarian: people wanted to think for themselves, follow their consciences and express their beliefs without inhibition. In this context, the ‘frightful grimaces and extravagant gestures’ of John Leland can be seen as a form of intellectual self-expression, not abnegation. The bid for theological independence took place against the weight of the-past. The materials and techniques of popular culture were used to circumvent tradition; improvisation replaced ritual, and unconventional behaviour was encouraged. The emotionalism and gimmickry of popular religion were essential to its success. If Christianity was to become truly democratic it could not employ the language of the cultural élite. As Hatch claims, ‘the heart of the movement was a revolution in communications.’

Although he concedes that some popular movements had authoritarian leaders, Hatch assumes that for the most part populists affirmed the democratic values they embodied. This is a questionable assumption in the case of at least two of the movements he discusses, Mormonism and Millerism. While some preachers appropriated the rhetoric of the revolution to promote intellectual and religious freedom within the republic, Joseph Smith and William Miller saw liberation as the fruit not of revolution but of exodus. Smith envisioned a new kingdom of the saints and led his followers to the West; the Millerites awaited the end of the world, and prepared themselves for the journey to a celestial kingdom. Whether the kingdom was to be found on earth or in heaven, both movements were attracted by the idea of monarchy, and Smith was reported to have been crowned king at Nauvoo, Illinois in 1842. In their longing for a divinely-sanctioned return to a pre-revolutionary social order, Mormonism and Millerism can be seen as a reaction to the process of democratisation. Both groups emerged at the end of the Second Great Awakening and took the religious confusion it had caused as indicative of the need for theocratic government. Although popular in their appeal (the Millerites were renowned for their dramatic use of visual aids in preaching), the Mormons and Millerites do not seem to have been democratic in orientation, and it was precisely because they were seen to be setting themselves up as an exclusive spiritual élite that they encountered so much ridicule and hostility.

Popularisation may not always have meant democratisation, but it did foster an enduring enmity between evangelical religion and high culture. In the 20th century, the dispute has focused on the sciences. This is a curious development, for there seems to be no reason why Christians should find Darwin unassimilable, and studies show that scientists are more disposed to religious belief than their counterparts in the humanities. Several essays in the valuable collection edited by Michael Lacey are illuminating on this point. David Hollinger shows how, in the early 20th century, scientists buttressed their claims to wider moral authority by making scientific inquiry into a spiritual quest, and George Marsden’s contribution reveals that conservative evangelicals became uniformly hostile to evolution, not in the 19th century – when it was merely a scientific hypothesis – but in the 20th, when it became the token of every counter-intuitive theory that experts sought to impose on American life. Popular hostility to science seems to have less to do with its cognitive content than with its position of cultural dominance. The problem, one suspects, is not science as knowledge, but science as culture.

While both secular culture and popular Christianity have prospered on their mutual hostility, the no man’s land between them has grown desolate. The Niebuhr brothers (the subject of a stimulating essay by Richard Wightman Fox) were probably the last theologians to participate in, rather than merely comment on, public debates about moral and political values. Christian intellectuals have since found it increasingly difficult to command an audience. Their traditional base in the mainline, liberal denominations has been eroded by membership loss; the fundamentalists denounce them as collaborators with evil, and their secular colleagues dismiss Christian perspectives as irrelevant. The isolation of Christian scholars is, as Van Harvey contends, both symbolised and institutionalised by their virtual confinement to the divinity schools, where they are distanced from both the universities and the Churches. Given this marginal position, it is not surprising that when theologians do succeed in gaining wider attention it is as a result of some piece of intellectual self-immolation (Death of God theology was the most spectacular).

While orthodox theology has declined, the new religions have been developing theologies from a mixture of traditional Christianity, popular science, mysticism and folk wisdom. Unlike academic theology, which has come to dwell lovingly on the ambiguities of religious language, the new religions are often highly rationalistic. Yet according to Mary Farrell Bednarowski, what unites the founders of these movements is the fact that they did not emerge from ‘the rigours of an academically orientated theological education’, but tried to find answers to universal questions outside the framework provided by ‘established traditions or the secular culture’. It is interesting to note that several of these attempts to escape from unthinking adherence to secular values have led to accusations of brainwashing, for it suggests that contemporary cultural élites are no more willing to consider their educational inferiors capable of ratiocination than were their ecclesiastical predecessors during the Second Great Awakening.

Whether explicitly or implicitly, all of the books under review offer support for Hatch’s claim that populism is ‘the driving force behind American Christianity’. It is probably best to see subsequent religious innovators as the children rather than the heirs of the early 19th-century ‘revolution in communications’. The religion of the culturally disinherited is not transmissible but it is renewable. Unlike economic poverty, cultural deprivation is entirely relative; the privileged can never buy off the dispossessed, and the causes of resentment are ineradicable. Popular Christianity endures because its sources are constantly replenished. By aligning itself with the unsophisticated, Christianity has found an inexhaustible constituency: secularity becomes co-extensive with sophistication, and the sacred spawns in every backwater. The paradoxical union of the inconsequential and the theological (so often noted by Balmer and Kennedy) can thus be seen, not as a trivialisation of traditional Christianity by consumerism, but as a sacralisation of popular culture. This is scarcely the kind of thing that Reinhold Niebuhr had in mind when he entitled his first book Does civilisation need religion? But then, he seems to have been asking the wrong question.