God in America
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Interview: Frank Lambert

Frank Lambert

Lambert is a professor of history at Purdue University and the author of The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 4, 2010.

Back to 1945, America had just emerged from World War II victorious, but it's been a difficult war. Religious attendance dipped during the war period, but there seems to be this resurgence of religious activity in the country. What is that all about?

After the war and after the jubilation, reality set in. Especially in the latter part of the 1940s, the United States finds itself in a unique position, and that is, it is a superpower. After earlier wars, the United States could withdraw back into its cocoon, into isolationism, [and it] really could not do that after World War II. Not only that, there was a second superpower, the Soviet Union. And I think where religion comes into play, in the biggest sense of all, is the way that it framed what was happening in the world. People like Billy Graham framed the Cold War as a moral conflict. It is evil versus good. It is godless communism versus a God-fearing America.

“If you look at the rise of Billy Graham in the 1950s, it's the rise that one usually thinks of in relation to pop music stars. His ascendancy was akin to that of the Beatles.”

So religion, both at the personal level and religion at the national level -- that is, religion in the sense of helping Americans understand who they were, and who they were in relation to the rest of the world -- certainly came to the fore.

Why religion? Why not something else?

Religion has always been important in American history, from the founding, especially what I call the founding by the Puritan fathers, who saw this land as a "city upon a hill," and Americans ever since that moment have seen themselves as an exceptional people, a chosen people. Certainly that theme was reiterated in 1776. The Puritan notion of a chosen people was writ large. Now the United States is a new Israel, a chosen people. …

[It is] what we call civil religion, and that is a religion of the nation, a religion that has its own sacred documents, and by those I'm talking about the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, which become, in the words of some historians, America's Scriptures.

Certainly if you look at public figures from the beginning, [they] invoke the name of God in overseeing American affairs. Whether or not the Founders were Deists or Rationalist Christians, they certainly believed in two things. They believed in a Creator, and they believed in Providence, that God somehow was controlling history, and that the United States played an important role in that. I think of Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Now, Franklin was a Deist. He said that he was unsure about the divinity of Jesus. He probably was much more comfortable with Jefferson's Unitarianism than anything else. Nevertheless, he believed that God's hand somehow directed affairs during the War of Independence and that America's victory was divinely sanctioned or divinely led.

So religion from the very beginning has been important, and certainly in every war, Americans have done two things: One, they've turned inward. Why are we in this war? That certainly happened in the Civil War. What did we do wrong? How have we turned our back on our God, and therefore we're being punished by this horrendous killing? Something similar to that happened in World War II. Americans turned inward, began to evaluate themselves. And then I think after the war, they turned outward and looked at the entire world and interpreted the world in moral terms, good versus evil, and claimed again, or reclaimed on the part of many people, their position as a chosen people, as a godly people. And we see that throughout the '50s.

When we listen to some of Billy Graham's sermons, for example, in L.A. in '49, he says Americans have in effect turned away from God, and they need to re-embrace God and rediscover themselves. There's quite a harsh message, but a difficult, challenging message.

Billy Graham believed that America was conceived as a Christian nation, and he thought that the United States, when it veered from its Christian heritage, suffered. He saw many of the woes following World War II as directly resulting from America's turning away from God. ...

We're his people; we're his chosen people. God has given America great blessings and expects much from his people, from the new Israel, and therefore Americans need to repent, in the words of Billy Graham.

What kind of woes was Billy Graham talking about?

One of the things that disturbed Billy Graham after the war is that in his view, Americans themselves had become a rather godless people. Now, he interpreted America's reliance on science as evidence of a lack of faith in God. In fact, science loomed large in American culture after World War II. After all, the atomic bomb had ended the war in a very dramatic and decisive way, giving people the belief that science could solve anything, could end a war.

And certainly in the '50s, science ended the scourge of polio, for example, that had rampaged throughout the country. But worse than that, Billy Graham was concerned about the teaching of science in American public schools, especially biology, teaching the theory of evolution. And Graham, among other evangelical leaders in the late 1940s and certainly in the 1950s, saw American public schools as embracing a new religion. They called it secular humanism.

They turned science into a religion. And of course, scientists bristled at that. Scientists reminded Billy Graham and others that science is about trying to understand and explain the natural world, not the supernatural world. When scientists talk about the supernatural world, they cease to be speaking the language of science. Nevertheless, Billy Graham saw Americans as becoming too secular, turning their backs on God, and certainly God's demands of his people.

Just a few days before he begins his crusade in L.A., '49, the Soviet Union explodes its first hydrogen bomb.

Sure, the United States had a monopoly of atomic power after the war. From the perspective of many Americans, that atomic power was used constructively, to end an evil war, to bring down an evil empire. But within a few years, and much sooner than Americans had thought possible, the Soviet Union tested successfully an atomic bomb, and soon after that, tested successfully a hydrogen bomb.

Now the world was on the brink of nuclear holocaust, and it heightened this sense that we need to turn back to God; we need to reclaim our Christian heritage in order to position ourselves in this world, which seemingly was an ungodly world, certainly in the eyes of Graham, but not just [him]. After all, Billy Graham, in 1949, was one of a number of rather nameless, nondescript revival preachers that flooded the West Coast. He was not distinguished until William Randolph Hearst heard about him and heard that he was linking his message to the battle against communism.

When Hearst sent a telegram to his reporters saying, "Puff Graham," Graham was elevated from the other revivalists and soon became a national figure. One of the things that Billy Graham did very successfully, and we see that repeated in the 1970s, with the rise of the religious right, is while Billy Graham spoke against the secular world, the world that depended too much on science and government and not enough on God, at the same time he used innovations in science and technology and in television, for example, the organizing abilities and organizing schemes that came out of corporate America.

He did that in a beautiful way, as did the religious right in the 1970s. So in a sense, Billy Graham was able to reconceive of evangelism and make it truly mass evangelism in the 1950s in order to combat this turn toward secularism, this turn away from God.

So "godless communism" is considered an atheistic philosophy.

Oh, sure. The Soviet Union embraced communism, and as a part of that embraced atheism, claiming that organized religion, including Christianity, had always been an opiate of the people, that it had been used to keep the masses down, to keep people in their places. So, without question, Graham was exactly right that Communist leaders, at least, embraced atheism. So he was able to cast his message as one of God-fearing America against godless communism.

The only problem with that is, he and others saw communism as a monolithic movement, made no distinctions whatsoever, and that turned out to be certainly an inaccurate view.

Graham's message fits America's political objectives, and he very quickly becomes very well known. Within a matter of a few years, he's consulting with presidents. That's an extraordinary rise.

It is extraordinary. If you look at the rise of Billy Graham in the 1950s, it's the rise that one usually thinks of in relation to pop music stars. His ascendancy was akin to that of the Beatles. Part of it had to do with very effective publicity, but undoubtedly a lot of it had to do with the message. Americans were filled with fear in the 1960s, fear of a nuclear war that would end life as we know it on the face of the earth. There was brinksmanship between the United States and Russia.

In the 1950s, schoolkids had drills, getting under their desk in the event of an atomic attack. People built atomic shelters. This was something that was real and something that people feared and expected. Politicians seized on that fear, some in rather egregious ways. One can think of Sen. [Joseph] McCarthy [R-Wis.] suggesting that the enemy is not so much the Soviet Union, but it's Communists within our own government. So the fear extended from abroad to home, and politicians fanned that fear.

So Graham struck a chord when he talked about godless communism and when he talked about America's need to return to its heritage, and certainly politicians tried everything they could to do that. It's in the '50s, in the mid-50s, that the country's motto really changes. It had been an Enlightenment motto from the period of 1770s and 1780s, "E Pluribus Unum," the idea of 13 disparate colonies, people of different ethnic backgrounds, people of different religious backgrounds [coming] together to make a common cause.

But many people feared, and they voiced this fear early in the republic, that God had been left out of the Constitution. For example, there's no acknowledgment in the Constitution, in the Preamble, for example, of the country as a Christian nation or of its dependence on God or [of] God's Providence or what have you. So throughout the 19th century, people lamented that from time to time. So Graham was doing the same thing, and evangelicals were doing the same thing, and conservative politicians were doing the same thing in the 1950s.

So it was in that environment, with this Red Scare, with this Cold War that had already erupted into one hot war with the Korean conflict, that the Congress decided that "In God We Trust" should be the new motto. And again, it's claiming or reclaiming this notion that we're a chosen people and that we were conceived under God and that we flourish under God, and we turn our backs on God at our own peril.

Graham begins as a fundamentalist, and then he broadens his appeal. So his popularity had to do with the political content of his sermons, but there was something else about him as well.

Yes. Without question, Billy Graham had a tremendous personal appeal. Religion operates at several levels. Certainly there was the appeal of politicians when they thought of the Cold War and that. But beyond politics, at the personal level, Billy Graham preached a very simple message. It was the message of his precursors, people like George Whitefield in the 18th century; in the 19th century, Charles Grandison Finney, [Dwight] Moody, [Billy] Sunday, others' very simple message: All one has to do is to repent, to turn from one's sins, and accept Christ. A rebirth -- God does the work; human beings express their faith.

That was particularly appealing in the '50s. It was a simple message that helped individuals make sense of their world and gave them assurance. And if you look at what was happening in the rest of their lives, there was a lot of confusion; there was a lot of fear. There was the fear of new technologies that brought both hope, but also new terrors.

There was the fear of many Christian parents that the public schools had pushed God aside, had pushed moral teachings aside, and now their children were left with secular teachings that seemed to turn [their] back on Christian values.

Billy Graham was certainly the most popular voice -- and certainly the most popular evangelical voice -- in the 1950s, and he is sometimes referred to as "America's preacher." It would be misleading, however, to suggest that all Americans lined up behind this view. He had critics, and he had critics from Christians, not from secularists, but from other Christians who thought that the message was too simple, that the message said to individuals, all you have to do is accept and believe -- nothing about moral change, nothing about change in behavior, nothing about responsibility and responsible citizenship, for example. So he was not without his critics in the 1950s.

Weren't some fundamentalists very upset at him for reaching out to Martin Luther King Jr.?

Of course. Billy Graham had critics on both sides of the political and theological spectrum. To those on the theological left, he was regarded as a fundamentalist who reduced the Christian message to two or three sentences, who reduced the biblical revelation to a few key verses and ignored much of the rest of it. From the theological right, he was far too liberal.

He was too liberal in his social outlook. He was too inclusive. He was too liberal on the race question. He reached out to Martin Luther King and to other African American ministers, and African Americans in general, so he was criticized from both sides. He certainly was not a person whose message appealed to everybody across the spectrum.

Given the legacy of the Scopes trial, you might say Graham made evangelicals respectable again.

Yeah, Billy Graham returned fundamentalist and very conservative Christians to the center of American culture. After 1925 and the Scopes trial, evangelicals were, in a sense, humiliated. Although they won the trial, they were defeated; their views were ridiculed and lambasted in the national press. And conservative Christians and fundamentalists retreated from much of public life. They didn't fade away. They built churches; they built Bible schools; they turned more inward and left the public scene.

What we see with Billy Graham is a return to the public arena, not just politics, but to the national culture. He becomes a spokesperson for the national culture in a way that blends Christianity and patriotism in an appealing way for a lot of people. So his voice is certainly a major voice in the 1950s, and it is a religious voice in a time when many people are thinking of the United States as becoming more and more secular, that religion is not as important as it once was.

But Billy Graham was one who was able to say that conservative Christians, fundamentalists have an important message. It is an appealing message to many Americans, and it is a message that should be aired. And indeed it was aired. He was a pioneer in the use of television for promoting religious causes.

How would you characterize secular thought at that time?

After the war, when one talks about growing secularism or a more secular society in America, there's no moment that Americans wake up and decide to embrace a more secular outlook and at the same time to turn their backs on religion. However, the fact is, in public life, America does become more secular, beginning with the New Deal. The New Deal in the 1930s offered many programs to people who were desperate, people who were hungry, people who were sick. …

After the war, the government continues to have a massive presence. It's the GI Bill that offers to millions of returning GIs, veterans, an opportunity to go to college. So in a sense, government programs secularized or democratized American higher education by providing many more opportunities for people to go to school. The government now provides many of the services that churches used to provide, like health and education and welfare. I would say the presence and the persistence of big government, with big social programs, and the power of science to end wars, to end suffering, to provide the very technology that people like Billy Graham used in communication, certainly those contributed more than anything else to this notion of a secular America.

Now, there had always been in American history tension between sacred and secular. If you look at sermons in the 18th century, sermons in the 19th century, ministers are concerned that Americans are pursuing earthly things rather than spiritual things: wealth, power, recognition, fame. As early as the 17th century, Puritan ministers were concerned that the Puritan errand into the wilderness, which was supposed to be a spiritual quest, had turned into a worldly quest. The fact of the matter is the United States was conceived in 1776 as a profoundly secular society as well as a profoundly spiritual or religious society.

I would say that in the 1950s, we still see a powerful secular influence in American culture, but we see a powerful religious influence. American religion has the ability to reinvent itself, to take many of the tools from the secular side and reorganize churches. Billy Graham did that with mass evangelism.

We begin to see, for example, a lessening of the importance of denominations. And we begin to see the rise of evangelicals, for example, in the 1950s, the rise of people who are believers or people who share the same faith, as opposed to people who are divided by organizational or doctrinal differences.

That tension seemed to manifest itself in this conflict over schools and ended up in the Supreme Court. Why were schools such a focal point for this?

Schools became very much at the center of a cultural debate over who we are as a people, over our heritage, and especially this notion of a Christian nation. It really came to the fore with the perception by some Christians, usually conservative Christians, who thought that science was becoming a national religion. And in fact they charged that scientism, the belief that science would solve all human problems, was a religion that was supported by the government [and was] in violation of the First Amendment.

What happened was, usually at the local level, local or state level, religious activists, fundamentalists, conservative Christians began to petition school boards and state boards of education to introduce prayer, Bible study, to return the nation to its Christian heritage and to teach that heritage to the children.

So when schools started doing that, and having prayers written under the aegis of the state Board of Education, then lawsuits were brought by parents who said, wait a minute, now we see a particular kind of religion, a particular type of Christian expression, being foisted upon all students. That is in violation of the principle of separation of church and state, a violation of the First Amendment, and so that's why these school cases, whether it was school prayer or quiet time, any religious instruction in school came to the attention of the Supreme Court.

What happened was a division between those that were known as separationist -- that is, those who believed in a strict separation of church and state -- and those who were accommodationist -- that is to say, surely our public school system can accommodate the teaching of a religion or a moral view that was so important in the nation's founding and continues to be an important part of the national culture. So that seemed to be the dividing line. ...

With people like Billy Graham, it seems that there was this real strong sort of ethos in the country that being religious of some kind was the equivalent of being patriotic. It seems there were stories, like in the [Vashti] McCollum case in Champaign, Ill., [McCollum v. School Board of Illinois], where there's this real sense that being secular or being an atheist is somehow perceived as anti-American.

It is more than about prayer in school. It's about what it is to be an American. It's about the way that people defined Americans, and probably a majority of Americans were God-fearing, God-believing, Bible-believing, and certainly accepted Judeo-Christian values and moral codes and what have you.

There were always some, however, who were uncomfortable with that. And again, we see that at the founding. Thomas Jefferson did not embrace the Christian doctrinal teachings. ... That has been a part of our heritage, that a person can believe what he or she wishes, including believing nothing, or certainly rejecting Christian orthodoxy.

So the tension became that between the rights of the individual to believe what he or she wishes and to express that versus the notion of a Christian nation, where Christianity and patriotism are enmeshed. And if you go back to the '50s, frequently, [at] evangelical churches at the front of the church would be two flags, the United States flag and the Christian flag, and nobody saw any problems with that.

So what was happening in the '50s was something that I would call American Christianity on the rise, not necessarily Christianity as taught by Jesus 2,000 years ago, but American Christianity. It was all about "God bless America," and that was God bless America against a godless culture, a godless world. So there's this tension between "We must be a Christian nation" and those individuals who said the very foundation of being American is individual rights, the Bill of Rights. …

We would see the same thing, by the way, emerging in the '50s and in the '60s with the civil rights movement, because there we're going to see individual African Americans standing up and claiming their rights as one person against a dominant majority, especially in the segregated South.

With the civil rights movement, you had leaders using faith to really hold a mirror up to white society.

Exactly. To me, Martin Luther King did the opposite of what Billy Graham did. Billy Graham said, "We need to return to our Christian heritage." Martin Luther King says: "We need to live up to a Christian heritage that we've never lived up to. Surely our heritage has to do with justice, decency, respect for the individual; we've never lived up to that. We have had 200 years of violation of people's civil rights, specifically based on the color of one's skin. That's un-Christian; that's un-American." He was calling on Americans, "If you're really serious about a Christian heritage and a moral foundation, civil rights is the arena to express that. Let's for the first time become the kind of Christian people that we often glibly profess that we are."

Graham was looking for individual redemption, while King was looking for the redemption of the nation.

Exactly. And King always talked about [how] it's not just redemption for African Americans that's an important part of it, but it's redemption of a nation, a nation who, for all of its previous history, had systematically denied basic rights to an entire class of people. He saw that as un-American; he saw that as un-Christian. And the way that America could redeem herself would be to undo that; to grant civil rights to everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, religion, what have you.

But Graham believed in the transformative power of the Gospel for the individual.

I think Billy Graham was primarily interested, as evangelicals always have been, in saving individuals. The way you save the nation is to save individuals one at a time. And if all Americans would become born-again Christians, from the Billy Graham perspective, then you would have a righteous society.

Martin Luther King saw things differently. [He] saw American society as lost. American society had turned its back on the redemptive message of the Bible, and he was calling on the country to in some sort of wholesale way to repent of its transgressions and to embrace the Gospel and apply the Gospel to the entire society.

What's striking is how he combines the religious message, and that's Jesus, with America's sacred documents, the Declaration of Independence.

Exactly. Martin Luther King did see America's founding documents and the principles in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as giving a voice, giving expression to fundamental biblical principles of justice and peace and equality. We're all equal before God, says the Bible. "All men are created equal," says the Declaration of Independence. So Martin Luther King is saying, "Let's take that seriously." Let's take those biblically inspired words that brought our republic into existence and let's make them real in practice, really for the first time.

Martin Luther King expected the white Christian church to get behind civil rights. He thought if any people were to be out front in the cause of human justice, equality, liberty, it ought to be the church; it ought to be evangelicals. And yet he laments in his "Letter From Birmingham Jail that the church was the taillight of the movement, resisting, only getting involved after the fact, instead of being the headlights.

Why did he write that letter?

Martin Luther King was arrested many times, and on this particular occasion he was arrested in Birmingham, pursuing his nonviolent but very persistent quest for civil rights. While he's there, fellow men of God, white evangelicals primarily, in the South are calling for him to back away. He's creating more problems; he's disturbing the peace; he is bringing woes to the South, and that civil rights may happen, but they will happen in God's own time, and that we should not have agitators, especially a man of God like Martin Luther King, leading the civil disobedience.

They saw that as ungodly. And Martin Luther King was appalled by that approach. How can someone who professes to worship a God and a Savior, who saw all people as being equal, who created all people equal, a Christ who died for all people, how could these servants of that God and of that Christ do anything other than join in the fight for civil rights? And that was behind that very powerful letter that he wrote, calling upon people of God, on both whites and African Americans, to join the struggle.

Does anyone know about where he got his inspiration, his resolve?

I don't know that we can ever say decisively how a human being finds within himself or herself the incredible courage and power to move ahead in support of a cause that they believe in, against insurmountable odds. It may have been when he had, as he related, a moment at the kitchen table, where he confronted the possibility of death and decided to move ahead.

Certainly there are many individuals in the past that must have inspired him. I'm thinking of Frederick Douglass. Douglass was a slave, and he was beaten; he was mistreated like other slaves were. He came to a point to realize, I had rather die with dignity, fighting for freedom; I'd rather live and die as a man than to go along with this injustice, and to live in fear, to live less than the life of a man.

I think in the case of Martin Luther King, clearly there was a deep spiritual component to that. After all, the Christ that he followed had to face that same sort of question: What do I do? Do I submit to injustice? Do I turn away from those who are doing me wrong, or do I confront it and then trust in God the Father to see me through?

However it happened with Martin Luther King, I think it must be explained and understood within the context of his own very deep personal faith. We know that later on he talked about dreams of being killed, of facing that death, that he lived with every single day. And yet the great courage that he had and the great faith that he expressed was to get up every day and fight the good fight, and fight for civil rights.

Should one understand the civil rights movement as part of a religious story of this country, or like any other social reform movement that had religion as some kind of component? How important was religion to that movement?

I think religion was a centerpiece of the early civil rights movement in the 1950s, early 1960s in the South, and I say for that several reasons. If you look at the leaders, Martin King, Ralph Abernathy, these were respected ministers in the South. If you look at where the meetings, the civil rights meetings and rallies took place, they took place in churches.

African American churches were always, especially in the South, far more than places to worship. They were community centers; they were job centers. They were places where African Americans, at least for a few moments or a few hours, could enjoy dignity. They could enjoy positions of leadership that were denied to them the other days of the week. So certainly the church was central.

If you look at the message, look at Martin Luther King's great speeches, they're all drawn from the Bible; they are sermons, in effect.

The letter from the Birmingham jail, the "I have a dream" [speech are] laced with religious language, religious meaning. Some civil rights workers in the 1960s who came from the North, many who did not come out of a Christian tradition, reported that they were moved by the words of the spirituals, the meaning that those religious hymns had to African Americans in the South. ... I would contend that it would be difficult to remove religion from any kind of exploration or explanation of the civil rights movement.

Now, religion wasn't everything. It was very much about the Constitution. It was very much about the history of the country. It was very much a part of human rights. After all, Martin Luther King was inspired by Henry David Thoreau, by Mahatma Gandhi, certainly by non-Christians in his whole approach to civil disobedience.

One could argue I think that at some point the civil rights movement took on a more secular cast. Certainly by the time we get the middle of the 1960s, as we move toward Black Power, "Turn the other cheek" and nonviolence and "Emulate Christ" ceased to be the centerpiece of the movement. It became much more militant, and in fact there were plenty of people in the South who had followed Martin Luther King, who by 1966 said, "We live in a militant nation, and the only way we can triumph is to take it on in a military way, and nonviolence won't work."

By the late '60s, how has religion in America changed over the course of that 20 years?

Now, by the late '60s, religion has changed, and the emphasis has changed, and that comes primarily from the civil rights movement. They have refused to accept the Gospel as simply a message of personal redemption. They embrace that. Martin Luther King certainly embraced the notion that Christ died for individuals, but he died for all individuals; he died for society. So in a sense what we see is a movement from emphasis of personal salvation to a social gospel. And in a sense, Martin Luther King and others echoed the Social Gospel movement of the 1890s.

It seems like, in the 20 years since the war, religion in this country has gone through quite a journey.

Exactly. ... To capture American Christianity in all of its diversity, one simply can't do that by talking about a couple individuals. That said, without question, I think we can see some very important trends taking place by looking at Billy Graham in the late '40s, early '50s, and then looking at Martin Luther King in the late '50s and the early '60s.

It seems to me that the direction of change is moving toward an emphasis on religion of the social gospel nature. And that is, just as people in the 1890s in America, ministers like Washington Gladden, looked at the rapid industrialization of America in the 1890s and criticized America as a nation, conceding that Christianity certainly is about the individual -- no quarrel with that -- but it's also about society; it has a social dimension. And so he preached a social gospel.

We ought to be concerned about the dispossessed, about the poor workers, about those that were exploited by the captains of industry and what have you. Martin Luther King preached a similar message. Certainly religion, from his perspective, was about the individual, but it was also about a society that systematically denied dignity and rights to a large percentage of its citizens.

So what kind of America did evangelicals, in their subculture, see in '73 and '74?

In the 1970s, evangelicals, and especially those who were more conservative in their theological perspective and more conservative in their social views, found an America that was very disturbing. They found an America, for example, that seemed to say that abortion was OK. After Roe v. Wade in '73, that was a very disturbing notion. How could our society, they said, actually embrace the destruction of life? But they also saw other concerns.

One was what to them was the disturbing trend of secularization. God had been removed from schools, in their phraseology. Prayer was outlawed, in their phraseology. So in the '70s, increasingly, especially in the South, evangelicals began to remove their school-age children from public schools, because the public schools, in their view, were too secular. They taught evolution, for example.

Evangelicals resented the heavy hand of the federal government intruding into their lives in the South. They saw the federal government support of civil rights in the South as a dangerous trend. If the federal government can come into the South and require schools to desegregate, then the federal government can come into the South and dictate what religious schools could teach, could intrude itself into the religious life of people.

So really, the issue in the South that motivated people like Jerry Falwell was the issue of the private Christian academies, and in the '70s, when President Jimmy Carter supported the notion that civil rights legislation would apply to all schools, including private schools, that the civil rights laws would not be suspended for religious schools, that is when the so-called religious right, or the Moral Majority, really found traction in the South, in the Midwest primarily. Certainly there were pockets of support elsewhere, but that's where they really found support.

So they saw a society that was disturbing. It was a society that was secular, a society that seemed to have a government that had a bias toward secular teachings, toward immoral laws such as those of abortion on demand.

Many of them had been reluctant to engage with politics directly, thinking it was the realm of the temporal, and they were engaged with the secular. What was the thinking behind that, and why did that begin to shift?

In the '70s, in fact, as late as 1965, Jerry Falwell had preached a sermon in which he called upon Christians to stay away from politics. Politics was of this world. Politics got Christians to move away from what they ought to be doing, and that is saving souls, individual evangelism, so stay away from it. By the 1970s, of course, he was calling upon Christians to engage, to become a part of the political process, to change the political culture. And what changed was primarily what he saw as a moral decline.

Again, we see Falwell and [Pat] Robertson preaching the message of "We need to return to our Christian values, to our moral foundation." ... And we find expression in the 1960s, as young people seemed to be following a licentious lifestyle. They were criticizing their elders; everything that evangelicals held to be decent and honorable and good and moral [was being] trounced upon.

The family was under attack by "feminists." Homosexuals in the broader secular culture seemed to be gaining support and were no longer ostracized, as fundamentalist Christians thought they should be. So it was this trend that encouraged them to engage. However, it would be wrong to conclude that Falwell and Robertson and other leaders, religious leaders, did this by themselves. There were some very shrewd operatives within the Republican Party, like Paul Wyrick and others, who saw a huge number of disengaged, of potential voters.

Wyrick said, for example, if we can bring these evangelicals who have stayed on the sideline since 1925, by and large, into the Republican Party, and if we can support what they're concerned about, and that is freedom for their Christian schools, if we can fight against the seemingly wholesale attack on religion per se, then that will be a political coup. So what happens in the 1970s is a blending, a meeting of minds of conservative religious leaders and political leaders who said, "We can do something great together, and we can help each other."

Is that a new story about religion in American politics, or have we seen it before?

That marriage of politics and religion was not new. The Democratic Party, for example, in the 19th century -- and certainly even more so at the end of the 19th century -- with the huge number of Eastern European Catholic immigrants -- made a play for Catholics and for Jews and for non-Christians of other stripes. So without question, throughout American history, there have been moments when there's been the politicalization of religion. Political operatives know votes, and they can count, and they're always looking for blocs of votes. They found it in the 1970s primarily in the South.

Richard Nixon had announced his Southern strategy. Nixon had, as it turned out, correctly concluded that white Southerners were very disturbed about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and they were disturbed that the Democratic Party had become too liberal, that it was too concerned about civil rights and what have you. So he thought that [for] the Republican Party -- even before the emergence of the Moral Majority or the religious right -- the South, which had been the Democratic South to that point, [was] ripe for the picking.

What the Moral Majority did, what the religious right did, was to give that strategy very specific meaning, and the Republican Party was able to add to the concerns of white Southerners' moral issues.

[How has the religious right mobilized in the past?]

... Throughout American history, there have been moments of direct engagement by religious groups. I can think of one, early in the 19th century, having to do with mail delivery on the Sabbath, on Sunday. Congress passed a law saying that post offices must stay open on Sunday to make sure that businesses primarily got their orders in the mail, and there was a constant [flow] of orders; it was good for business. And certainly business people backed that bill.

However, there were religious groups of all stripes who were opposed to that and who lobbied against it. So here in the early part of the 19th century, we have lobbyists in Washington lobbying Congress to make sure that the Sabbath is kept holy and that we do not treat it as any other trading day. …

The parallel is that church leaders mobilized church members to petition their congressmen. They sent lobbyists to Washington to try to get the legislation changed. They wrote extensively in the mass media of the day, which was primarily the newspaper, to try to influence public opinion. And the message was similar: We are turning our backs on our Christian heritage. If we're just turning Sunday into another day, then who are we becoming? …

So in the 1890s, they mobilized to pass social Christian legislation at every level: local, state and federal level. The more radical group in the Social Gospel movement actually called for Christian socialism. The fact that the Social Gospel movement fell far short of its goals does not undermine the notion that there have been plenty of times in American history when religious leaders and religious people have become directly involved in electoral politics and in the shaping of public policy.

So how did the Christian right emerge?

The Christian Right is like their predecessors in 1925 looking at America, and they're disturbed by what passes for modernity. In 1925, it was a modernity that embraced evolution, a modernity that embraced a critical analysis of the Bible. ...

Summarily, in the 1970s, the Moral Majority saw an America that was embracing modernity in a very disturbing way, embracing lifestyles like homosexuality, for example, in a way that seemed to make it OK, which, of course, from the viewpoint of fundamentalists, was not OK.

One of the critiques at the time of the Christian right was that they should stay out of politics.

The idea of religion and politics mixing or not mixing has long been a question that Christians have debated among themselves. And there are plenty of religious organizations who say let Caesar have his due; we have a bigger mission. We ought to be about God's work in saving people and in the kingdom that will come, and we should not become enmeshed or mired down in partisan politics.

By the 1970s, we begin to see a set of Christians saying, "We must engage." And they would cite Christ, for example, his culture, his society, and taking it on. Just as he drove the money changers out of the temple, so must we, some of the leaders say, drive the secularist, or the secular humanist, out of the highest places in American culture. And we must return to our heritage.

Over and over, the message of Falwell, the message of Robertson, is we have to return America to its moral foundation, or we must save America for our children. In that sense, it's an echo of Billy Graham's message in the 1940s, 1950s. It's an echo of the message of the fundamentalists in 1925. In fact, I would say there's always been in American culture a tension between evangelicals -- not all, but conservative evangelicals who see America primarily as a country with an evangelical heritage, and we must embrace that -- versus Americans, many of them Christians, who say, well, yes, but we were also conceived in the Age of Enlightenment, in the age of an emphasis on human reason, of natural rights, of religious toleration, of separation of church and state. ...

Do you think that the story of the religious right that began in the '70s is a chapter in American religious history that, in a way, has been closed in terms of the arc of that story? Have we seen a sort of an ending of that?

Yeah. My own view is that the religious right -- and I really hate to use that term; it's a pejorative and disturbing term, because it seems to be monolithic -- was never monolithic. What has happened, especially after the defeat of the Republicans in 2008, there's been a lot of soul-searching, and a lot of leaders of the Christian right have said, we made a big mistake. We allowed ourselves maybe to be used by politicians to seek our own ends. But what has it done for us? Abortion is still around; immorality is still around; it hasn't diminished at all. Politics is not the answer, many people on the religious right say. What we need to do is to go back to our churches, go back to what we're called to do, and that is call on individuals, call on the country, to repent of sins and transgressions and talk about what's most important, and that is a spiritual life, the life to come. ...

I think some leaders in the religious right have recognized that when they went into the political arena, they went in with a message that they thought was universal. But what happened is, they went into a political arena as partisans. They went primarily as Republicans, and they became just another group of partisan politicians, and they lost their prophetic voice. ...

What we have seen also is that in reaction to the religious right, we've seen the rise of a religious left. Now, granted, [it is] not organized as well, perhaps not as large, certainly not as vocal, but the religious left -- with Bill Clinton, with Barack Obama, leaders in the Democratic Party -- have said Christianity is not partisan. Christianity is not to be equated with the Republican Party, or even with the United States. It is more universal.

However, the Christian left has become politicized. The Christian left has, in the White House, a faith-based presence. Now, granted, the Christian left points out, oh, we're not like the Christian right. We're different, and we're more tolerant; we're more inclusive. But the problem they have for themselves is to try to tell people who do not agree with them that theirs is a universal, nonpolitical, nonpartisan expression of religion.

The other problem that the religious left has is a long history within the Democratic Party of having absolutely nothing to do with the sponsorship of a religious group, a very strong commitment to the separation of church and faith.

Where is the opposition to that coming from within the Democratic Party?

There are religious leaders who think that the Democratic Party has become too secular; that in terms of its voice, in terms of its actions, that it is afraid to talk about religion; it's afraid to give any credence to religion and what have you. So there's some voices, like Clinton, like Obama, that says no, that's not representative of all of us. Religion is an important part of our culture. It ought to be a part of the political culture, but not in a partisan, divisive way.

The problem is -- and there are people in the party that are veterans, for example, of the civil rights movement who say, well, if you allow the party to have a religious voice, you are going to divide the country, you are going to divide the party, because all religious expression, no matter how universal it sounds, no matter how generic it sounds, comes down, in the end, to being partisan, if nothing else, because it's interpreted that way by people who hear it. ...

The Democratic Party, and indeed to an extent the Republican Party as well, grapples with not whether or not Christian [belief] ought to be expressed in American society, but the reasonable question is, where? What is the place of religion in American society? And there are many people, nonsecularists, Christians in the Democratic Party, who think of course religion is important, and of course it ought to be expressed, but it is primarily a private matter, and it ought to be expressed in the private sphere, and in this country there are ample opportunities for that. And what government should do is fight to ensure the right of people to express their religious views privately, in their homes, in their churches, synagogues, temples and what have you. But it should not be enmeshed with politics, and they quickly pointed to history, not only our own history, but history worldwide, to see the mischief that is caused too often when priests and politicians make common cause and use each other for their own ends. ...

Was the Democratic Party blind to a potential voter bloc? Were they actually turning people off by not being comfortable with any kind of religious language for a long time?

I think it's a fair criticism to say that the Democratic Party was blind to the reality and to the continued presence of religion and religious influence in American culture. But in a sense, they were in a bind. Now, the big bloc of votes that Paul Wyrick and the Republican Party saw were Southern Democrats. Now, Southern Democrats were alienated not primarily on religious issues, although later they said it was. It was not primarily about religion and about morality; it was about civil rights; it was about the federal government backing civil rights, desegregating schools in the South. And I don't think there's any question about that.

So the Democratic Party had a problem. How could it reach out and say, "We're going to back away from civil rights and from voting rights"? They couldn't do that in the name of trying to hold on to people who were then saying, "Well, this is really about our religious beliefs, not about opposition to civil rights."

What is the relationship between religion and political power, and what lessons can we can glean from the sweep of history going back through the last 15 years?

Yeah, I think if you look at the relationship between religion and power, religion and politics, Christians are divided and fall along a broad spectrum of what that relationship ought to be. ...

Religious people sometimes say, in order to advance the good, we must risk embracing power for positive gain. The problem with that, as the religious right found out, is that politicians, while welcoming their votes and welcoming their influence, also are wary of the religious right. And we see that the Republican Party has two wings: those that are concerned about traditional Republican issues, economics, and those who are concerned primarily about social and cultural issues -- the religious right.

Of course, there are other religious groups that say we should have nothing to do with power. Power corrupts, and it will corrupt us. ... If we become involved with power, we might have some short-term gains, or there might be the potential that that power will agree with us and will advance public policy that we are comfortable with, but they might not. And they might simply use us; we're just another bloc to be used. And in fact, they might really push against us a bit. Let's don't bring up this divisive moral issue, because we're trying to deal with the economy, or we're trying to deal with the environment, or what have you.

So how do we understand the nature of religion and politics?

Well, I think it's a love-hate relationship. I think it is a relationship that religious leaders see [is] fraught with problems. I think it is enticing; power is enticing for religious leaders and religious groups. If we can find favor with whoever is in power, then we can advance the kingdom of God on earth with policy and what have you. How can we enjoy only the benefits of power and not become immersed, for example, in partisan politics that undermines our prophetic voice? When do we start looking too much like the party and not enough like the people of God?

Do you think that Americans still see themselves as a city on the hill? And do you think that that's an idea that will carry on?

I think the idea of America as a chosen people, sometimes scholars talk about American exceptionalism, that from the beginning we enjoyed divine favor for no other reason than we were isolated from hostile enemies until the time of air warfare. We certainly have an abundance of natural resources and what have you. So Americans have long clung to this, and I think they still cling to the notion that there is something about American religion, American Christianity.

Americans are always trying to explain to non-Americans how a capitalist society, a society that knows how to make money, a society that is very secular in many ways ... at the same time [is a place where] no people talk more about God. No people talk more about God's blessing their nation than do Americans. And I see two explanations for that.

One is that religion in America is so enmeshed with American culture, and we're back to secular and sacred in many ways are so enmeshed that one can salute the flag, and at the same time, that is an expression of being godly. Patriotism is godliness. Godliness is patriotism. ...

I think there's a second reason, though, why Americans continue to be very religious, and it comes to what I would call the marketplace of religion in America. With religious liberty, there is no official church; there is no official religion. There are hundreds, and it is -- a matter of fact, if we count megachurches as individual religious groups, there are thousands of religious groups. They're innovative; they're flexible; they change. They reinvent themselves, so there is something for everyone. If you don't like a lot of doctrine, there are places to go. If you like a more secular view, there are places to go within the Christian faith, within the Jewish faith. If you like fundamentalism, that's there. There's something for every lifestyle. ... If you look at the fastest growing religions, they are the ones, ironically, who speak against modernity but who embrace it. Look at the ministers. Look at the ministers blogging. Look at them with iPods, using the Internet.

So American religion operates in this great sphere of freedom, in this great free marketplace of religion, and they are very successful in positioning themselves so that they can attract people across the full spectrum from sacred to secular, because ultimately it's the individual American who gets to define what they mean by that. Ninety percent of Americans say, "I believe in God," but they also reserve for themselves the right to say exactly how they believe in God and what they mean by God. So it's a very flexible kind of understanding of religion.


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Published October 11, 2010

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