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Interview: Stephen Prothero
Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of several books, including 2007's Religious Literacy: What Americans Need to Know. He is also a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. This is the edited transcript of interviews conducted on Jan. 25 and Jan. 29, 2010. [Read additional interviews with Prothero conducted for night one and night three.
… Is there a shift in terms of Americans' relationship with God by the time you get to the 1850s? Has it advanced from the period of the Pilgrims, or is it quite similar?
I think it's largely similar, but I think that there's more confidence about it. There's still a sense that we are in this covenantal relationship with God, but in the colonial period, I think there's a nervousness about, "Is God going to help us, or is God going to hurt us?"
“Both sides are fighting over this question of slavery, but they're also fighting over this question of what is America. But notice what they're not disagreeing about: They're not disagreeing about that God is with us.”
I think there's more confidence by the middle of the 19th century, more of a tendency to say that what it means to be in a relationship with God is that God is on our side. … There's a greater sense of optimism. America's been around long enough now. It's getting on toward 100 years in terms of a nation, and there's a greater confidence that what we're doing is right and that God is with us. And that, of course, is going to get tested pretty severely by the Civil War. ...
And how is the Civil War going to test that?
The war blows that whole thing up, because, you know, isn't this the place that God has favored? If this is the place that God has favored, why are these hundreds of thousands of people dying in this war that doesn't seem to make much sense? Everything's going forward pretty well, right? We've created this new nation; the Industrial Revolution is happening; American prosperity, we get through some economic hiccups, but it looks like the story's working its way out in the way that it had been plotted by people in the colonial and early national periods -- God's favored country, Americans as God's chosen people. Well, how does that fit with this war? And the answer is, it just doesn't. …
Can you describe those two sides of "God is on our side"? …
I think one thing that holds Americans together is this idea that God is with us. And then the place where Americans are split on this question is whether God is with us no matter what. Is God sort of like our nice mother that, no matter if we're good or bad, God is going to love us no matter what? Or is God more like a sort of angry task-master sort of father who's going to slap us on the back when we do well, but is going to kick our butts when we do wrong? I think that's the tension between the sort of conditional covenant and the unconditional covenant. ...
How does this hard relationship with God and believing, "I know what God thinks is right" -- and that bleeds into everything, including politics -- how does that get a country into trouble if you've got this polarization between the North and the South over the issue of slavery?
Both sides -- the North and the South -- have this American idea that God is with us. And both sides believe that God is pushing them ahead on the question of slavery. In other words, the North thinks that God is with them in opposing slavery, and the South thinks that God is with them in favoring slavery. "Slavery is a divine institution," say the people in the South. "Slavery is a satanic, evil institution," say many in the North. If neither side has the sense that God is backing that up, it just becomes a human argument, but if both sides have the sense the God is backing that up, it becomes a sort of cosmic conflagration. And that's part of what's going on with the Civil War. This is, again, Lincoln's insight: Both sides believe that God is with them, and that's what makes it so difficult for either side to compromise and for either side to say, "No"; to say: "OK, this is over. We've had enough." How do you have enough when you're fighting a holy war? It's hard to do.
The Civil War is so often considered without thinking of religion. Is religion central to the Civil War?
For people to fight and lay down their lives for something, what do we do that for? We don't just do that. "I want the line in Massachusetts to be drawn on this side of the Charles River as opposed to that." People aren't going to be willing to die for that. People lay down their lives for things that they think are hugely important, are ultimately valuable. And one way that happens is through belief in God. This happens throughout human history. People in the modern period, in some times, are willing to die for their nation because the nation takes on a quasi-religious character, but traditionally, people have been mostly willing to die for theological matters, for God.
And in the Civil War, a lot of the clash, a lot of the momentum from both sides is coming from this idea of a sort of divine calling, that you're not just going to war for the North; you're going to war for God. You're not just going to war for the Confederacy; you're going to war for God as well. And that's what makes the conflict in some ways intractable, and that's what makes the conflict so bloody as well.
And when you think about secession, even if you're not anti-slavery in the North, secession somehow --
That's right. You have some Northerners who are willing to fight the war because God hates slavery, but you have other Northerners who are willing to fight the war because God made America, and who are these people to cut it in half, what God has put together? So on the Northern side at least, you have these two kinds of theologically explosive reasons for fighting, both to get rid of the sin of slavery, but also to get rid of the sin of secession, to keep this great, godly, divine, chosen nation together.
And then on the Southern side, you're fighting for slavery and you're fighting for --
The true America. On the Southern side, you're fighting because slavery is a divine institution, but you're also fighting because this is the actual America that God has made, where the states can make decisions for themselves, where the nation isn't going to impinge, where you aren't going to have a president that thinks he's a king, right?
So both sides are fighting over this question of slavery, but they're also fighting over this question of what is America. But notice what they're not disagreeing about: They're not disagreeing about that God is with us. Both sides have this idea. It's something that they share.
Lincoln is a secular leader, and yet we're considering him our central character in this story of religion in America. Why?
Lincoln is not a secular figure. Lincoln is a thoroughly theological man. I think the problem with Lincoln is that we tend to think of religious people in terms of these boxes we can put them in: Is he Jewish? Is he Catholic? Is he a born-again Christian? ... Lincoln doesn't fit the categories. Is he a Calvinist, predestinarian, evangelical like he sort of was raised in? No, he's not. He's repudiated that. But you can't get out from under a religious formation as deep as Lincoln's all that easily.
Lincoln is a kind of secularized version of a Calvinist or a secularized version of a predestinarian, born-again Christian. There's these ideas about God and about destiny that haunt him his whole life and that inform the way he views his political world, his family world and the Civil War itself. Key among those is the idea that we are not in charge. We can make decisions -- we must make decisions -- but ultimately, something else controls what's going on. Now, you can call that God, you can call that Providence, you can call that fate, you can call that destiny -- and Lincoln called it all those things at various times in his life -- but we are not in charge.
I think Lincoln is a deeply, deeply theological figure. I think he's one of our most theological presidents ever. He asks the great religious questions, especially the great religious questions of the West, which is, "What is this God doing in the midst of all this pain and anguish in which we are living?" That's arguably the great theological question of the Western monotheisms, and Lincoln asked that every day before and after he gets in the White House. And he asks that in light of everything he's seen, all the carnage he's seen around him in the midst of the Civil War.
But what makes us care about him now as we're looking back at American religious history?
I think Lincoln asks and answers some of the great theological questions in a very, very sophisticated way, in part because he doesn't come up with simple, pat answers. ...
Some of the greatest theologians ever in the Jewish and Christian West are the people who are willing to say: "I don't know what's going on here. I have a sense that God is active. I haven't given up on the idea that God is here, but who else but God can make sense of this situation?" That's a deeply theological thing to say. That's not throwing out religion; that's like getting into religion in a way that's profound as opposed to the sort of simplistic ways that people around you are calling on God or calling down Christian truths. And Lincoln was a master at that. And he didn't just do it for himself; he did it on behalf of the country. ...
Does he feel somehow closer to God through the course of the war?
It's interesting. I think any president would have to feel more isolated in the midst of having to make these decisions, right, more isolated from other humans, and that may make him closer to God. I think what he just has is a sense, a greater sense of the mystery of the activities of the divine: "What is God doing here?"
One of his sort of fundamental confusions is: "God is obviously opposed to slavery. We have a war now that is increasingly being defined over the issue of slavery. Why doesn't God make us win?" It's sort of the opposite of: "Why do bad things happen to good people? Why don't good things happen to good people? Why doesn't this war end when we seem to be in the right?" And he has a profound answer to that, which is, "Well, maybe we're not exactly in the right." What a great answer! Don't you wish more religious people had that answer? And isn't that a more profoundly religious answer, or a profoundly faithful answer than: "I know what God's doing here. I know the mind of God"? ...
It seems that when Lincoln goes into the war, he has these ideas on slavery, but he's willing to compromise on them in order to preserve the Union. Does he really always think that God is against slavery no matter what, or is that something that he comes to believe as the war progresses?
I think he has a sense from his youth that slavery is wrong. His theology about "God is in charge, and humans aren't" can enforce a kind of passivity that he has early on, like, "This will go away." Another way of saying that is like, "God will take this away eventually, so we don't really have to do anything." I think you can do that as a politician early in your career, or as an ordinary American, but when you become president -- and especially when you become president in the midst of a war -- that becomes a lot harder. ...
I think that is a shift, where you make the decision that you need to act in the face of uncertainty, act knowing that there will be all of these unintended consequences of the things that you do and act not even sure that you will be on the side of the right and the side of God, but you just have to do your best. I think that's one of the tragedies of any person in power, and I think that's one of the tragedies that Lincoln takes on in the midst of the war.
So it's sort of ironic, but it almost emboldens him, right, to be more decisive and more active and more, we might say, radical or less pragmatic. As he gets more power, he needs to be less of a fatalist, maybe, less of putting things in God's hands and realizing that "I am a co-conspirator with God. I am in charge. My job now is to do the things that God would want in the world, even though I don't know necessarily what they are and even though I might totally screw up." ...
How is [Methodism] important in how people relate to one another in the country, from state to state?
One thing that happens in the early part of the 19th century is that we get these new denominations that overtake the old ones, and the new ones that win are the ones that go with the born-again Christianity theme, the ones that go with conversion and heartfelt transformation of the individual. And the key ones there are the Methodists and the Baptists. They're willing to go out -- and in the case of the Methodists, get on horseback -- and ride around America and gather up crowds ... and tell people the story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus and bring people to Christ. And those are the denominations that are successful. You have the farmer-preachers of the Baptists and the circuit rider, horse-riding Methodist preachers. And those denominations do well because they go out to the people as the people are going West and South moving into the frontier. The denominations that succeed, like the Methodists, they follow them. The other denominations, like the Episcopalians who just sort of sit back in their churches back East, they kind of lose out.
But one interesting thing that happens is that people start to get a kind of denominational identity, so they'll think about themselves as Americans, and they might think of themselves as people from Kentucky, but they might also think of themselves as Methodists, and they might have a sense of fellow feeling across state borders and across rivers and across occupational categories as, "Hey, we're Methodists," or, "Hey, we're Baptists," or, "Hey, we're members of the Disciples of Christ." So these start to emerge as identity markers in the heads of Americans.
And Methodists have a big meeting every four years where Methodists from all over the country meet. Is that coming together important for a connection between this growing geographic area when the federal government isn't very strong?
The denominational connections could have been a kind of glue that would have held the nation together, but unfortunately, the main denominations all split over the issue of slavery before the Civil War. So they're not able to function in that same sort of way. ...
As the abolitionist movement gains traction in the '30s, why do these denominations avoid talking about slavery?
The churches are nervous about slavery because they don't want to get drawn into a battle that's going to divide them, and they know from reading Bible that you can read it both ways. They're trying to avoid a splintering. They're also focused on changing hearts. They're focused on evangelism, so they're trying to stay away from politics to some extent. The denominations tend to be focusing on the individual conversion piece, and then on the more political side of things -- the people who are working against slavery or working for women's rights or working for peace or for educational reform -- they tend to be forming these voluntary associations that are cutting across denominational lines. So there's a sort of splintering of what we might call the political-social agenda of religion and the sort of conversionary or more religious agenda of these religious groups.
How do abolitionists push the dialogue?
Neither side is willing to say, "This is an issue over which good Christians can disagree." That's one thing that becomes very important, that it isn't an issue over which that many people are willing to let bygones be bygones. People are reading the Bible and feeling the tug of God in their own hearts and in their own conscience, and it's pulling them very strongly in one direction. And it's not like the Bible doesn't talk about slavery; it talks about slavery a lot, so there's a lot of data there that people can mine for. In other words, God isn't indifferent toward slavery, according to the Bible, because it's all over there. So the question is, "What does God think?" I think the denominations realize that this is a kind of a powder keg, and their job is to convert people, and they don't want to let this question get in the way of converting people.
The Methodists meet in 1844 and do split over slavery along regional lines. What does that do for the topic of slavery as a religious topic? If the churches have been keeping it away and all of a sudden they split, does it then open the floodgates?
It's an embarrassment that the churches are going to split over slavery because it's an admission that Christians don't really know what to do about this question. It's also a problem because the Methodists and the Baptists and the other denominations that split over this are supposed to have a job, right? They're supposed to be spreading the Gospel, and now they're divided over how they're supposed to be doing this.
This is one thing that intrigues me about American religion from really this period forward, from the middle part of the 19th century forward, which is the ways in which the mission of evangelism gets caught up with political social agendas and then gets, in a way, hijacked by them so that the issues, the most important issues, become not really the religious ones, but what we might call the social or political ones. Another way of saying that is that you can't really cordon off the religious from the social and the political and the economic. So I think the splintering of the denominations over slavery just kind of throws American Christianity into a little of a tizzy: "What are we doing? And if we can't agree about these most basic kinds of questions, how do we move forward? And is the church bigger than a debate over slavery? And if we're not, why can't we somehow agree to disagree?," and the answer is that because both sides see this as divinely mandated. ...
Why do you think the First Inaugural speech is important? ... What's at stake as Lincoln is taking on the presidency at the First Inaugural? ...
I think what's at stake is the future of the country, obviously his legacy as a president, whether, in fact, the country is going to hold itself together. ... The First Inaugural has a lot of conciliatory language but isn't religious at all. So it gives us somewhere to go to with the Second Inaugural. ...
It's less theological, and it's less vexed, and it's more hopeful, and it's more, maybe, in the spirit of the more optimistic side of American culture at the time, whereas the Second Inaugural is more in the sort of darker, Lincolnian side of America.
There's this sense in the First Inaugural that if he can create a really great argument in the speech, like in a lawyer's closing argument, he can bring everyone back together. But if we understand the position the North and the South each have, that God is on their side, then a conciliatory speech isn't going to work.
Right. And I think part of what's up in the air there, with the First Inaugural, is to what extent this is negotiable. To what extent are the sides kind of dug in with theological certainty? And I think Lincoln's hopeful at the time he delivers that that they aren't, that there is room for compromise. He is this figure who's always looking in politics for a middle way, for a compromising way. And I think that he's hopeful there in ways that four years later he's not going to be, can't be. ...
Was it typical, up to the First Inaugural, for American presidents to talk about God in their speeches? Did they make theological speeches?
American inaugurations before Lincoln almost always mentioned God, but they mention God in very abstract ways -- and even phrases -- that nobody every uses except for in inaugurations, right? (Laughs.) Even Jefferson, who we associate with the separation of church and state, ...would refer to the Almighty, as did Washington, as did subsequent presidents. So there was always a sense that you kind of needed to tip your cap to God in a way that was vague. You would never talk about Jesus, but you kind of tip your cap to this idea that America is involved with God, that God cares about what's happening here, that God's listening to this speech.
And Lincoln was, in the First Inaugural, in that mode. Religion isn't really a big deal. Tip your cap a little, but don't try to be theologizing in front of the American public.
Why is he getting it so wrong in terms of understanding where the country is? Is he missing something in giving that kind of speech?
I don't think he's missing something in giving a more political and lawyerly and less theological speech, because I think that that was in the tradition of what was going on in America. Americans weren't at the point yet where they wanted their president to be a theologian. I think it was the crisis of the Civil War that bought that on, and we weren't there yet. …
I want to ask you about the lead-up to the war. When the South secedes, many preachers in the North are saying the Southerners are ruining this sacred compact that we have. What is sacred that's being ruined? What's happening that they're threatening?
I think the key idea is that there was a contract or a covenant or a compact between the American people and God and that that contract was very much like the contract between God and the Jews, when God chose the Jews in the Bible. And now, in this post-biblical period, God chose America. ... Who is anyone to bail out of that deal?
I think that was the sense of moral and religious indignation that the Northerners felt of the Southerners. In the South it was an idea that "No, this was a contract, in a way, between states, and any state could pull out of it when they wanted to pull out of it." Sacred stories can be built upon that, but the sacred story that the Northerners were telling was this one of this inviolable deal between God and God's people, and those people were the Americans. And that's what was going awry.
So even if you didn't believe in ending slavery, you could still get fired up by your minister about going to war.
Right. I think you had both, because not everybody in the North had decided that slavery was this sin that needed to be eradicated. Lincoln's early career wouldn't have made much sense if that's where people were. Lincoln correctly sensed people weren't there for the most part in the North. They were like: "We don't like this idea. Slavery is bad. We don't want it to spread; we don't want it to come here. But as long as it doesn't come here and as long as it doesn't spread, all right, fine, we can live with it." That was Lincoln's position; that was the position of many in the North, not the idea that slavery was a sin -- the slavery-equals-sin proposition of the abolitionists was a small group of Northerners -- but the idea that this was God's country, well, that was even more widespread I think than the idea that slavery was sin, and that was being violated by the Southern secession.
How do preachers and clergy play a role in getting people rallied behind the idea of a war?
Ministers fire people up, and they put the sacred stories, the sacred Scriptures, the rituals of a tradition behind the military march of the troops. They tell the troops that "When you go into war, you're going with God; you're going with the Bible; you're going with Jesus." That's part of war, is the motivation of the troops. And one of the strongest motivations, historically, for war throughout human history for troops has been religious. ...
Can you characterize the Civil War right from the beginning as a holy war?
Early on, the Civil War has elements of holy war, but it has elements of economic war and elements of political war. I don't think it starts as a holy war. I think it becomes more so as it moves along and as the body counts build up, which in some way is natural. As a war becomes more and more horrible, it becomes less and less tenable to say: "We're fighting this war over money. We're fighting this war over some political principle of states' rights versus federal rights." To say you're fighting it in the cause of God, in the justice that is God's justice -- that becomes more plausible. And I think as the war goes on, the religious reading of the war becomes more and more widespread. ...
Lincoln is worried about holy war. He knows, as a religious person, that religious people tend to push conflicts to the extremes, and he doesn't want this to become Book of Revelations-style, apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and he knows that, from reading history, that that often happens. He wants this to be a political conflict that is therefore amenable to political solutions, even as the military side of it gets ramped up. I think someone who wasn't as steeped in the Bible, who wasn't as steeped in religion, might not have been as aware of the danger. But he was aware of it, and he was trying to avoid holy war. And he wasn't, as we now know, entirely successful. …
How does Lincoln's "Meditation [on the Divine Will"] reveal something to us about how Lincoln sees God and how Lincoln is understanding the war?
I think it's one of the most theological documents by Lincoln that we have. It's sort of first draft of the Second Inaugural. It's a man struggling with a world in which God seems to be doing horrible things, and yet we're not willing to give up on God, and we're not willing to give up on the fact that God's in charge, and we have no idea what God's doing. It's a little hard for some modern, secular people to grasp, because a lot of modern, secular people are sort of going through the world without any assumption that God is there, much less active, but I think in Lincoln's world, there was something -- whether it was God or fate or Providence -- that was in charge, and humans were not in charge. And that's not that big a deal when you're just going through life and you're a country lawyer and you win a case, you lose a case; it doesn't really matter. But when you're a president and there's a war, and there's something at stake like whether human beings are going to be bought and sold, that becomes heavy.
I think what's going in this meditation is him doing what theologians in the Christian and Jewish and Muslim traditions have always done, which is wrestling with the will of God in a world in which so much evil occurs. And it's just the kind of beautiful throwing up your hands and saying, asking a question, really: ... "What is God doing?" And we don't know. The faith part of it is that we know God is doing something. We know that God -- or Providence or fate -- is in charge, and we know that God -- or fate or Providence -- is on the side of the right, but this doesn't make any sense. And I guess for some people that can be frustrating. For me, that's sort of the most profound thing that a religious person can say, because anything that's simpler or more pat, like "God is good and always wants us to be happy," well, look at the world around you: That's not what's going on. What's going on is tragedy and pain and sadness and love that's crushed and lost. And Lincoln felt that.
I think in that meditation he's just struggling to come to grips with what he's always known -- both as a person who's lost his son [Willie Lincoln in 1862 at age 11], but as a young man who had a hard life in his family, as a grown man who had a very difficult marriage -- and now he's kind of putting on a much bigger screen, a much bigger template, these issues that had preoccupied him in his life. But now the template is America, war, these much bigger, grander themes.
Up until the summer of '62, he's been quite explicit about the war being about bringing the Union back together. Something shifts in terms of what he believes what the war needs to be about, and he's willing to go public with that. In September 1862, he says that God has decided this issue in favor of the slaves. What happened? Why is he saying that?
He has this sort of crazy … moment, and it doesn't seem in keeping with him, right? "Oh, I talked to God and God told me this, and therefore I'm going to do that." That sounds much more like a kind of confident evangelical who is on more personal terms with God. The way I make sense of that -- and this is just one way -- but the way I make sense of that cabinet craziness is that he is really trying to figure out what God wants, and there seems to be some message that he's not getting, so he's going for almost like an oracular, divination process. Instead of casting bones or nuts or whatever he might do at an oracle, he's sort of doing this very primitive thing, that, "If I do this and you do that, then I'll know that you want this and that." I think it's uncharacteristic of Lincoln. What's characteristic of it is it speaks to his idea that God is in charge. It speaks to the idea that he needs to figure out what God's doing, and it speaks to a kind of desperation almost about -- he's got to figure it out because he doesn't know what's going on.
If he's uncertain about what God wants and he thinks that the best thing he can do is to decide what he thinks God wants, what does changing the purpose of the war allow him to think or do?
I think he's edging toward more and more religious reading, and it's a more religious reading to say this is a moral venture to end something that is aberrant to God than to say this is a political venture to keep the Union together. Now, keeping the Union together is not entirely only political, because this idea that God has chosen America -- or almost chosen America -- is still operative there, and I think that that idea gives Lincoln a kind of theological oomph to the other side of the story. ...
That's part of what's going on, that as you get more deaths and as it drags on more and more, you need to have a loftier and grander reason for it and to say that this is about saving the Union, and putting an end to the sin of slavery has more oomph than saying it's about saving the Union and that's it.
How does that -- adding God's will to end slavery as meaning for the war -- then help him to do whatever it takes to win the war? ...
I think the move to reinterpreting the war as a war against slavery is a move that makes compromise less possible, and it's a move that pushes him in the direction that he didn't want to go, which is toward a more apocalyptic, good-versus-evil scenario. And I think that's part of why he avoided that earlier. Once the war progresses and it gets to the point where it's sort of becoming an apocalyptic, good-evil scenario in a way, to join that battle may get it over quicker than not to do so. I don't know. I think that on slavery, [it] was a very slowly, slowly evolving story. ...
As a kid, you learn about Lincoln's the guy who got rid of slavery, but he was very reluctant throughout his life to go there. And the fact that he went there at the end, it really was the pressure of the war that pushed him there. And I don't know what more to say about it except for that the moment seemed to call for higher stakes, and when they did, Lincoln raised the stakes and made it about the sin of slavery instead of about holding the Union together. …
Throughout his life and throughout his time as president and throughout the Civil War, he's in that uncomfortable space of a lack of assurance, a lack of knowing precisely what he's supposed to be doing. He's moving and shifting through different kinds of arguments, different ways of making meaning. I don't think he ever gets to a place where he's thinking: "I know that this war is about ending slavery. I know that this is how we're supposed to do it. I know that God is on our side on this." ...
That's the thing: He has to act. He has to come to what he thinks, but it's always thinking, not knowing. It's not certainty.
Notice that he never stops asking, "What does God want here?" That's where the sort of secular reading of Lincoln makes no sense. He's always saying, "What is God's will here?" And then he never knows. But then he's always acting to try to promote God's will. It's a very kind of sophisticated and tricky and subtle thing that he's doing, but he's never just being a secular person. And then when things go bad, he's assuming that he has screwed up, because God doesn't screw up: "What have we done that God would bring this horrible thing on us?" ...
I'm happy to tell you what the book of Job is all about since it's perplexed Jews and Christians forever. It's the most confusing book in the Bible, but I think it's the book that's closest to the Lincoln story. It's a story about a man who has a special relationship with God, and all he seems to get is grief. And the question is why? Why doesn't God bring grief to the people who are out of relationship with God or the people whom God doesn't favor or the people whom God has not chosen? And the message seems to be that to be in some close relationship with God brings on all this suffering, and religion isn't about ending suffering.
One way of reading the book of Job is the message is that religion isn't about making you happy, but religion is about giving you resources to make sense of your unhappiness. I think that that was the kind of religion Lincoln had, that theology was there, thinking about God was there, to make sense of tragedy. But God's job wasn't to take away the tragedies of life. God's job wasn't to fix our world. It's our job to fix the world in the direction that we believe God is pushing it. ...
When Lincoln gives his Second Inaugural, why does he bring up God so much when he barely mentioned God in his first one?
I think he realizes that part of his job is to make sense of the tragedy of the war, and it's a religious country, and he's an increasingly self-consciously religious person, and he's going to do it in a theological way. The lawyer Lincoln isn't going to work now. What's called for is a thinker who has a sense of the tragedy of life, who has a sense of the inscrutability of God. And that's where he goes. It's quite extraordinary in the history of American presidential rhetoric. I can't think of a more theological pronouncement ever by a president. I think that presidents in times of war are often moved to more deeply theological statements, but it could be in part because of the precedent of Lincoln, because that's what Lincoln did. So when we are confronted with the war on terror, or we are confronted with World War II, or we are confronted with the Vietnam War, we might go there.
It's such a mature reflection on this conundrum of "God is with us, but we don't know what God's doing. God is with us, but God doesn't seem to be helping the good guys against the bad guys." The cowboy God that we're looking for is not riding into the country and doing his thing, shooting up the evildoers. That's the sort of foolish kind of religion that we do see surface in American history, but it's not going to surface for Lincoln in the Second Inaugural.
If we've gone into the war with the tension about the covenant idea, what does Lincoln do in the Second Inaugural for our understanding of America in relation to God?
The Second Inaugural is the most sophisticated expression ever in American life of the conditional covenant with God. It goes back to the founding of the first Americans who come over from England who understood they were in this relationship with God where God would bless them if they did good and God would punish them if they did bad, and where they wouldn't really know exactly what God was doing, and they would try their best to be on the side of God and righteousness and justice. And that's what he's expressing. ...
How is Lincoln transformed in death, even immediately after his death? Is there a religious piece to that transformation?
Lincoln is the first great American martyr. One thing that martyrs do is that they allow their followers to express their highest values because they get to say what the person died for. Martyrs are made by circumstances, but they are particularly made by their followers. And the martyrs don't get to tell you what they died for, but their followers do.
So Americans early on, when Lincoln dies, they understand him as Moses, that he was a religious person that led his people -- his "almost chosen" people -- toward freedom, but died before he saw it, because Moses never got to the promised land with the Israelites. He was read in that kind of Old Testament, Hebrew Bible way in the sermons immediately after his death.
Eventually, some weeks later, people start to say: "Gee, he was killed on Good Friday. This is a Christian nation. He was Jesus. He died for our sins. He shed his blood for what? To pay for the sin of slavery. Slavery was this horrible national sin. God's righteous anger was called down upon the country. God sent this horrible conflagration to punish us for the sin of slavery. We deserve more punishment than we got, but Lincoln, like Christ, took the sin of slavery onto his own body and onto his own person and felt the anguish of it and died for it. So he's Christ." ...
Is there a religious-like quality that we have in our relationship with Lincoln and that Lincoln somehow did for America?
Yeah, I think we relate to him as a person, which I think is part of why his body is there. We might think of Jefferson as the Declaration of Independence, right? We think of FDR as the New Deal. We associate presidents with their accomplishments. I think with Lincoln, we think about him more as a person. And it's interesting that of all the monuments, that's where we go. That's where Martin Luther King goes. That's where Barack Obama goes the night before he's inaugurated. Why do they go there? Why don't they go to the Washington Monument? Why don't they go to the Jefferson Memorial? I think it's because Lincoln is this guy who we associate ourselves with.
My understanding of that is that he articulates our sense of chosenness, but he also articulates the fact that we have not achieved what we should have achieved, that the freedoms that we should be manifesting are always out in front of us, and that life is more confusing than more simple-minded politicians would convince us that it is. …
How did Lincoln voice a public theology or a civil religion of America? What is that?
There is this idea of American civil religion which says that, alongside Judaism and Christianity and Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism, we have this other thing, which is American religion, where we worship a God that all Americans worship, and where the key scriptures are things like the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, and the key temples or the key churches are places like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and that the saints are people like Washington and FDR and Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. In other words, we have a kind of sacred attachment to America, that America is not just a secular nation-state; it's also an object of devotion.
I think there's a lot of truth to that. I think that Americans have a kind of emotional stirring when they hear "America the Beautiful" or our national anthem that they might have when they hear a Christian hymn or "Amazing Grace." In that civil religion we have those heroes, like Lincoln, but Lincoln was one of the first to really give voice to it, and maybe we might say to give content to it in the Second Inaugural, where he's giving us a sort of story of America, but he's also giving us a theology. And I think that that does continue to operate in American life, this American civil religion. And it isn't so much a competitor to Christianity or Judaism as it is a sort of supplement to it.
This is the way to think about America as a religion: Well, there's a God. This God acts in history. This God has somehow favored or chosen America; therefore America has a kind of mission in the world to do good in the name of democracy and freedom and civil rights and other things. Then we get to debate what that content is, right? And you can have a kind of Republican version of civil religion and a Democratic version of civil religion, but what's shared is that this isn't just a country; it's also a sacred project. And Lincoln is a key figure both in gestating that and then in symbolizing it.
How is Lincoln a key figure in it? Why do we care about it in relation to this story?
From the very beginning, from the Puritans and the Pilgrims on, you have this idea that this is a religious story, so there's a kind of incipient civil religion that's happening even before we have the founding of America. But I think it's really the Civil War and Lincoln that kick it in. Also, America is young until then. I mean, it hasn't been around. So we're getting on toward a century, and I think we're trying to figure out what the national religious story is, and Lincoln gives voice to that. ...
In the Second Inaugural, Lincoln voices something that takes a long time for us to acknowledge -- that in God's eyes we are all equal -- and if we didn't have Lincoln, we might not think of that as who we are as Americans. ...
Lincoln didn't believe in racial equality himself, but in some ways that doesn't matter, because one thing that happens with people after they die is that they no longer get to say what their lives meant. So Americans get to do that. That's part of what we do as Americans is we decide, what did Washington mean? What did Lincoln mean? What did Martin Luther King mean? And one way we've chosen to read Lincoln, which is through this prism as Lincoln as Moses and Lincoln as Christ, is as a bearer of racial equality, even though in my view and the view of most historians, Lincoln was uncomfortable with the idea of racial equality, even as much as he thought that slavery was a sin.
But after he dies, we decide, over time and gradually, that that's what his legacy was about. In other words, that getting rid of slavery was step one, and then another step was getting rid of Jim Crow segregation legislation in the South, and maybe another step even is equal rights for gay people, right? We get to decide. It's not up to Lincoln to decide what he died for. ...
After the Civil War, where is America in terms of religion, particularly the evangelicals?
I think after the Civil War, you get all these challenges and shocks to American religion -- and particularly to American Christianity, and Judaism as well -- kind of the intellectual shocks of, what are we going to do about [Charles] Darwin? What about other religions? What about biblical criticism? There's these challenges to the old ways of looking at things that come up in our heads intellectually.
And then there's also the more social, political, economic challenges. Urbanization, industrialization, immigration are totally changing the way Americans are living, where the economy is moving from farms to cities and it's becoming more and more industrial. And this gives rise to whole other sets of questions like, what do Christians think about capitalism? Is it good for people to be rich and other people to be poor? ...
By the 1870s, '80s, what was the traditional view of the Bible?
I think biblical authority is really widespread, so the sense in American culture that the Bible is true is something that the vast majority of Americans would agree on. What happens in this period after the Civil War is, people start to realize it's kind of a tricky question. Before that, I think people just thought, OK, it's the Bible, it's from God, and it's true, without a lot of problems of thinking about, are we interpreting it literally? Are we interpreting it allegorically? Are we privileging the Old Testament over the New, or the New Testament over the Old? These kinds of questions aren't really there so much. I think after the Civil War, we really start to reckon with them, and we start to say, "Oh, I believe in biblical inspiration, but I don't believe in biblical inerrancy," or, "Oh, I believe the Bible is true, but it's true in the sense that a wonderful poem is true."
And people start to debate the hermeneutical question, the question about this is a book that needs to be interpreted. I think that's a key move. It isn't so much that people are questioning whether it's true. It's [that] they're starting to realize it's tricky to figure out how to interpret this text, and where people really diverge isn't so much between the people who think the Bible is stupid and the people who think the Bible is smart, but among the people who think the Bible is true. True in what sense? ...
How do people believe, [in the traditional way], that the Bible was written?
The traditional view is that human beings wrote the Bible, but they were inspired by God, and God inspired even the process of collecting the Bible, making the decisions about what books were going to be in the Bible, etc., so that it was trustworthy. That was the key idea: It was authoritative, and it was trustworthy, and it came from God.
And so if you question it, what are you questioning?
If you question the Bible, you're questioning the whole system of Christianity, ... because, especially on the Protestant side, the Bible is the core source of authority. It would be like challenging the pope in Roman Catholicism or, more broadly, challenging the tradition of doctrine and practice in the Roman Catholic tradition.
The Bible is the linchpin of Protestantism, and it's part of why there's so much vexation in the late 19th century about biblical criticism, because the stakes are super high. Catholicism has all these sources of authority. It has the pope; it has the Vatican; it has saints; it has all these rituals and sacraments. So there's all these different ways to get to God inside Roman Catholicism, but Protestantism says: "No, we're not going to go with all that hocus-pocus of the sacraments and the priests and the saints. That's ridiculous. We're just going to have this one route of authority to God, and that's the Bible." So [the] Bible becomes even more important in the Protestant tradition than Catholicism. So when it starts to get challenged in the late 19th century, that challenge is felt much more deeply by Protestants because it's so important to them, this source of authority.
What is biblical criticism?
Biblical criticism is basically just looking at the Bible as an objective interpreter, as an objective social scientist, so looking at the Bible as a human document rather than revelation and asking very basic questions like, was Mark, the Gospel, written before Matthew, the Gospel? Did the author of Matthew have Mark in front of him? Did he copy, in part, from Mark? Was there one author of the five books of Moses? Is it even possible? Is there the same writing style or the same kind of word choices that are used? ...
It doesn't necessarily mean that you think the Bible isn't divinely inspired. It just means, let's set aside that question, and let's look at this as a human text and see what we can figure out about it. So some of the key questions in biblical criticism, for example, were, did Moses write the five books of Moses, or were they written by multiple people? Is there one author of Genesis? Or maybe, oh, it looks like there's two accounts of creation in Genesis. How do we make sense of that? Maybe there were two authors; maybe the book was put together by a kind of editor instead of by an author.
And more broadly, what biblical criticism does is, it looks at the Bible as a patchwork of very different genres, very different voices and different authors, and it starts to look like that instead of like a book that some guy named God sat down one day and took out pen and paper and wrote, and had a deadline, and finished at the end, and started with Genesis and finished with Revelation. Biblical criticism isn't looking at the book that way.
Are you looking at the Bible as you would study another ancient text?
Right. … It's important, though, to emphasize that the earliest people who were doing biblical criticism weren't skeptics at all. They were total Christian believers and Jewish believers who thought this came from God. They wanted to figure out how it's put together. They knew that Moses probably didn't write the passage about him dying. Like, just think about it; doesn't make much sense. So they still have a confidence that God is behind this book, but they want to get beyond really naive notions of how the book was put together. So it was really in the service of faith that this whole process started.
But once people started looking at [it] this way, they started saying: "Oh, this is interesting. There seems to be places where the Gospel of Luke seems to disagree with the Gospel of John. Can they both be right? How do we make sense of this?"
What ideas is [Presbyterian theologian] Charles Briggs exposed to at the University of Berlin? Why Germany?
Germany in the 19th century is a real center for biblical criticism. There's a spirit of science and social science and skepticism that's promoted by some German philosophers. ...
When Briggs is going there, he's being exposed to this new way of looking at the text, a kind of science of the Bible -- which is the way that they refer to this biblical criticism, as a the science of the Bible. It's very much informed by history, by historicism, which is very big in 19th-century Germany. So the idea is that we can understand things through the historical stories that they're a part of as opposed to, say, understanding them philosophically. …
Another way of looking at is, is that each of the biblical texts is addressing a particular moment in history, and if you don't understand that moment, then you just don't understand the text, right? So it's a little bit like saying, oh, Mark Twain -- if you want to look at Huck Finn, you need to understand, well, there was slavery in America, and this guy Jim was a slave, and you have to understand something about the American South and the history of slavery to understand the novel.
So the historicists, in biblical terms, were the people who were saying you have to understand something about what was going on in the Mediterranean when Mark was putting together the Gospel of Mark. Otherwise you won't understand it. But the other side is like, no, you don't need to know that. Just read the text, see what it says, and it speaks universally to all human beings across time. ...
Is Briggs a modernist? What does it mean to be a modernist?
A modernist is someone who thinks that the modern way is the way to be. To be a modernist is to believe things are getting better, and to believe that things are getting better in the religious realm as well, and it's to believe that the new is to be privileged over the old. So this "out with the old, in with the new," that's the spirit of modernism. The opposite spirit is the spirit that says, no, we've been doing it like this forever. My great-great-great-great-grandfather, he understood the Bible that way, so we should understand the Bible that way, too. Two very, very different ways of seeing the world. …
How would you characterize Briggs as he heads back to America?
I think as Briggs is coming back, he's thinking he's coming back with this new thing that he wants to share with people. Part of what gets him in trouble at his trial is that he seems like he's arrogant. But really he's just kind of a very typical modern person who just think he's made some discovery, in the way a scientist has made a new discovery, and wants to share it with the world. This is a new way of understanding the Bible, and he wants to share it with other people. ...
Then all of a sudden, people in America aren't as keen on him as he thought they were going to be, and he has to make his way out of his Presbyterian denomination over to the more friendly Episcopalians. ...
What does Briggs say in his inaugural sermon at Union?
The main thing he's saying is that revelation and reason need to be put together, and sometimes when you look at reason, you see that there's errors in the Bible, or you'll see at least that the way we've understood the Bible in the past doesn't make any sense. And I think that in some ways what was troubling about the speech for people was the content, but I think in other ways it was sort of the tone. There was this sort of ebullience and confidence that Briggs had that was troubling to people; that it wasn't that he was looking at the Bible and saying: "You know, I have this problem that I don't think Moses really wrote the five books. I don't know what to do about that." It was more like: "Isn't this great? We're learning more and more about the Bible, and let me tell you about some mistakes that are made in the biblical text, in the original text, that can't really be trusted the way we thought about it." And he wasn't really troubled about it in the way that he maybe should have been troubled about it. ...
They try him for heresy and expel him. Why such drastic measures?
It's sort of foreign to us nowadays -- I mean, heresy, right? Like, who gets tried for heresy? If your neighbor was tried for heresy, you would just think, this is something that happens in the Middle Ages.
I think, though, that any religious tradition needs to have a bottom line in some way, and this is something that religions are always testing. Is something essential, or is something inessential? Part of what's going on here in the 1890s in the United States is, is a certain reading of the Bible essential or inessential? Do you have to believe that every word in the Bible is true to be a Christian, or in this case a Presbyterian, or can you think that there are mistakes in the Bible, and that you think overall, in general, it's a divinely inspired text? ...
Heresy is just a way of talking about borders and saying: "Look, we're not going to kill you, Mr. Briggs, but we'd like you to leave. You're not one of us." So that's what they were doing. ...
Are there ripple effects from this trial?
Yeah, there's definitely a larger effect from the Briggs trial in the sense that it's being watched not just by Presbyterians at all. Anybody in America who cares about the Bible -- which is to say, virtually everyone -- is interested in this question of, where are we going to draw the line? And is it necessary for Christians to believe that every sentence, every word in the Bible is true, or can we just believe that the Bible is divinely inspired? And obviously, American Christianity has gone the way of Briggs and not the way of people who pushed him out, for the most part, although we continue to have a debate about this, obviously, today. ...
Besides these intellectual threats, what other threats are there?
The question of capitalism is another one of these wedge questions. What should we as Christians think about capitalism? What should we as Jews think about capitalism? Is this something that the Bible wants to give a thumbs-up to, or is this something the Bible wants to give a thumbs-down to? Americans are definitely reckoning with that after the Civil War, especially as you start to get huge accumulations of wealth, with people who are running the steel companies, people who are running the railroads, and you see more and more this split between labor and capital, between the rich and the poor. I think that's another huge issue in this period.
How are East European Jewish immigrants challenging established Jews in the U.S.?
Another story that runs throughout American religious history is this intrareligious conflicts across generation, and particularly across immigrant groups. The Jewish story in the 19th century is the classic example of the early-coming Germans, who tend to be more liberal, more Reform, and then the new arrivals coming from Eastern Europe. So there's a real tension there between Eastern Europe, Germany, German-speaking, Russian-speaking, more liberal, more conservative -- it's going to get played out. And so immigration is definitely a part of that.
How is immigration challenging Protestants in America?
Immigration is a huge part of the American story throughout. On the Protestant side, it really pops up with this issue of the Social Gospel and the question about to what extent is Christianity about helping the poor. To what extent is it about enabling the rich to get richer? To what extent is it about helping your neighbor, the Good Samaritan story? As the immigrants come over, do we see ourselves as Good Samaritans helping them, or do we see them as threats to our jobs? These questions of Christian ethics get really highlighted by the immigration stories, immigration question.
How or why is ritual an important aspect of Judaism?
Ritual is really important in Judaism, and it's very different from the Protestant tradition. So Protestants who look at Judaism often think, why do they care about how they do this particular thing, whether they eat this particular food or they do this ritual in this way? Frankly, a lot of Protestants think it's silly. What does religion have to do with these kinds of obsessive-compulsive behaviors? ...
But inside Judaism, there's always been a debate about to what extent is the religion about ritual performance, and to what extent is it about sincere feeling toward God, and to what extent is it about ethical action in the world. Jews have always debated this.
Part of what happens in the late 19th century in the United States is that this comes to a head, and people start to really get up in a tizzy about it. The Reform Jews are going to say, listen, it's not about ritual; it's not about what you eat; it's not about what one critic says, "kitchen Judaism." What you eat doesn't make you a Jew. What makes you a Jew is what? Well, maybe it's sharing in the story. You're part of these Exodus people. You're part of people who tell this story. Or maybe it's a more prophetic understanding of -- it's by taking care of the poor, by trying to do justice in the world. That's what makes you Jewish, the love ethic. But it's a debate inside Judaism that's going to come out and play out in the late 19th century.
Does being in America bring this to a head?
Right. I think for Jews in Europe, being ritually observant, it just seems normal. It doesn't seem odd, because for example, in Eastern Europe, where you're interacting with Orthodox Christians, they think ritual is really important. [There]'s all kinds of rituals that you're going to be doing in Russian Orthodoxy and Greek Orthodoxy, right? But the United States is a real, I want to almost say, ritually-deprived country, or country where ritual is devalued. You come here from a tradition where ritual is central, you kind of look and feel sort of weird, so there's a pressure to be done with the ritual.
There's also a very strong Christian prejudice against [ritual]. It comes out in the New Testament, where Jesus is saying, look, I don't really care about these rituals. I don't care what you do on the Sabbath. I just care what's happening in your heart. This whole idea of sincerity and the internal notion that religion is this thing that happens inside you. It's not what happens with a bunch of people doing a bunch of stuff. That's very strong in America.
So as Jews come here, they have to reckon with that, and they have to either say, "Well, you Americans don't know what you're talking about. Ritual's really important," or they say, "Oh, yeah, maybe you're right. Maybe we should get rid of the rituals that we're doing, or at least some of them."
I think the most interesting thing about the banquet is the way it plays out afterward. It's really intriguing to me how some of the Reform Jews just kind of don't get ... why it matters. … And I think the reason they don't get why it matters is because of this incredible high modernism that they were experiencing; that everything was being made new. Judaism was being made new. Couldn't everybody see? It just doesn't matter what you eat. God doesn't care what you eat. So people who care about that [said], "What's up with these people?"
You would think that in the spirit of liberalism and tolerance, ... you make accommodations for everyone, like we do now, right? Like you're on the airplane, you can have the kosher meal, or you cannot have the kosher meal. But in this moment, it just seemed to some of the reformers that these more conservative, more Orthodox people were just not with the program, not really very American or not really very modern, so like, just slap them around a little bit and have them wake up and be normal, modern people. ...
Tell me about the menu.
There were all these things on the menu that are just not allowed. Everybody tends to think about [the] shrimp [that] was there, but there were these littleneck clams, there were the frogs' legs, and there was the dessert that had dairy in it that came too fast after the beef, and etc. So there's all kinds of problems with the menu from a kosher perspective. You could imagine that, OK, the observant people would just -- I don't know what they were supposed to do, if they were just supposed to not eat anything or they were supposed to pick around or whatever.
But I just think it's a great case of this moment in American history, of this ebullience about the modern; that things were coming in and things were changing, and change was good. And people who weren't up to it, so much the worse for them. ...
Then two years later you get the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, where they're articulating this whole new view of Reform Judaism that is just really very, very different from old ways of viewing Judaism, and really drawing a line in the sand between reformers and other forms of Jews.
What is the impetus for the Social Gospelers? What changes are happening?
The key thing underlying the Social Gospel [movement] is capitalism. We have people moving to the cities as America urbanizes. We have immigration, people coming in to work here, and we have a rapidly industrializing economy, so things are changing very, very quickly. And the things that are result of that are a lot of rich people and a lot of poor people. It's very different from the image you have of colonial New England, where people are out on the farm, making their own food, getting along on their own labor. You're getting huge disparities of rich and poor.
People like [Baptist minister] Walter Rauschenbusch, who's working in Hell's Kitchen in New York City, he's looking around him, and he's seeing all these poor immigrants, poor non-immigrants, and all these rich people walking down Fifth Avenue buying stuff. That seems an offense to him, but to other Christians, it seems like, no, this is the kingdom of God happening. This is America. This is capitalism at work.
So capitalism becomes this wedge issue in the same way that evolution can be a wedge issue. Are you for it or against it? "What would Jesus do with capitalism?" becomes the question.
You get a split-off into people who say yes, who articulate what Andrew Carnegie calls the "gospel of wealth": We have a duty to get rich. It's good to get rich. What would Jesus do if he were here? He'd run a company. He'd be a CEO. And then the other side, the Social Gospel, says, you have a duty to help the poor. Jesus is on the side of the poor. "Blessed are the poor," says Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. What would Jesus do if he were here? He'd open a settlement house and help poor immigrants in New York City or Boston or Cincinnati. So I think that's the key question underlying the Social Gospel.
Another key question is, is Christianity about getting you to heaven? Is that the point? Is it about the other world? Is this kind of a way station on the way to the real thing? Does this world matter? Is this a place that we should try to save the world itself? Is sin something that's just inside a person, or is sin institutional? And if sin is institutional, shouldn't we be changing institutions so that people aren't being oppressed and hurt by those institutions?
So the question about these classic Christian categories, like sin and salvation, it gets reworked, and people start to say, no, Christianity is not about getting us to heaven. Christianity is about taking care of us here. We should be about the business of helping our neighbor. We should be about the business of taking care of poor people. ...
What is Walter Rauschenbusch's vision of the world?
Walter Rauschenbusch is a Baptist minister who's doing what we don't think about as particularly Baptisty things. He's not going out and trying to save souls, but he's trying to make the kingdom of God on earth. He's trying to make this earth, our human society, look like the kingdom of God Jesus describes in the Bible. And for him, that means a place where poor people are fed, where homeless people are housed, where naked people are given clothing. And the key idea for him -- this is where we get the word "Social Gospel" -- the key idea is that sin and salvation are social; that sin is not about something in the individual heart; sin is something that pervades a society by the way it's organized, by the way its institutions work. Therefore, to fix it, we can't just save souls. We need to fix and change and transform institutions.
So Rauschenbusch is going to flirt with kind of Christian socialism, which is to say, capitalism is wrong; we need to get rid of it. We need to change the institutional structures of America to get rid of capitalism. And there's moments when he's attracted to that. He finally doesn't go that way, which is smart in America, because socialism doesn't have much traction here. But the basic impulse is, we need institutional transformation in order to get salvation, because salvation is social and not just individual.
Does Social Gospel have anything to do with liberal or modern and traditional?
Social Gospel is definitely on the liberal side, and it's presenting a new reading of the Christian story, but very much one that is rooted in the Bible. It's not just made up. If you read the Hebrew Bible prophets -- people like Amos that so influence people like Martin Luther King -- and if you read the Gospel of Luke, this is very clear. It's in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus says things like: "I'm sorry, but rich people aren't going to get into heaven, because it's easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven." That's pretty strong stuff. And that's the kind of stuff that Rauschenbusch and other Social Gospelers are drawing on.
William Jennings Bryan was called "the Great Commoner." He was a populist. He was definitely on the left, the kind of guy who you could trust to be on the side of poor people, on the side of farmers. He ran for president three times and failed every time. So he knew something about loss himself, personally, and he was definitely associated with that left spectrum of American politics. ...
Is Bryan watching the world change in a way that surprises and scares him?
I think for Bryan and for the Populists, modernity is a little bit scary. There's a sort of nostalgia for the old ways of doing things, particularly for agricultural ways of doing things. And as the world becomes more and more industrialized, it seems to be getting more and more fractured. There's a sort of nostalgia for that old agricultural way of being, which by the late 19th century and into the early 20th century is still very much alive, still hasn't quite urbanized as much as we have today. ...
That said, Darwin represents a really important challenge, because Darwin says we can make sense of the most basic piece of human existence, like where did we come from, without any recourse to God. That's just an amazing claim to be making in the 19th century. And I think that the ramifications of that come out kind of slow. It's clear from the beginning that Darwin is a threat, because we didn't come from monkeys -- that's offensive -- and because God doesn't seem to be needed in the picture.
But the broader picture then becomes, well, can't we just get along entirely without God? And the idea that we can get along morally without God, see, that comes much later from the idea that, oh, maybe human beings evolved without any recourse to God. So Darwin is like the entry drug. ... You get a little Darwin, and pretty soon you can just start seeing the whole picture, without any reference to God at all. I think that's what the real threat is, and that's part of what [famed orator and atheist Robert] Ingersoll is representing, is like, "I can do this whole thing without using the word G-O-D at all." And I think that was the fascination.
What is the impact of World War I on religious people in the United States?
World War I has a huge impact on liberalism and on modernism, because this kind of crazy ebullience that's going on between the Civil War and World War I just has a huge slap in the face. The kind of confident "everything's getting better and better and better, religion is moving forward, religion itself can modernize," this kind of way of seeing the world without much reference to sin -- in terms of the theological category -- just becomes really problematic. So that little word "sin" really starts to come back in terms of World War I.
In fact, one reason why Rauschenbusch is one of the few liberals who survives World War I is because he cares about sin. He talks about the kingdom of evil. He talks about social sin. His theology accounts for human sinfulness and for human pain and for human suffering, and that's the pain and suffering everybody's seeing in World War I is around us. These really confident, modernistic readings of both Judaism and Christianity don't really seem that tenable when we start to get that shock, the shock of World War I, like, oh, my gosh, maybe things aren't just getting better, better, better every decade as we move forward.
How do conservatives respond to World War I?
Part of the conservative response to World War I is a kind of: "I told you so. We need traditional values. We need traditional ways of reading the Bible. We need traditional ways of being religious as antidotes to the craziness that we see around us."
Well, first of all, it's traditional conservative -- well, that's not even true. It's not traditional, because fundamentalism really is a 20th-century invention. I think fundamentalists and evangelicals both believe that the Bible is true, and they both believe the Bible is inspired by God. Fundamentalists are more likely to use the word "inerrancy" when they talk about the Bible than the word "inspiration," which is what evangelicals do. Often evangelicals will say the Bible's inspired by God, but they don't want to say it's without any errors at all, that it's inerrant, and fundamentalists are very happy to say that.
The other thing about fundamentalists is, they're angry at modernity, which evangelicals aren't. So sometimes it's said a fundamentalist is an evangelical who's angry. And what the fundamentalist is angry at is the modern world. I think it's that spirit of stiff-arming the modern world that really is the spirit that underlies fundamentalism. …
Modernist readings of Christianity proceed sufficiently far that the fundamentalists feel there's a big threat to them. It's actually very similar, the way it happens in Protestantism and Judaism. We get Orthodoxy in Judaism and we get fundamentalism in Protestantism as responses to the push by the liberals and the modernists and the reformers, pushing ahead, plowing ahead. And the fundamentalism, like Orthodoxy, is saying, no, whoa, we need to stop here. We need to go back and ask, what are the fundamentals here? Are we going to give up on Jesus? Are we going to give up on the Virgin Birth? Are we going to give up on the atonement? Are we going to give up on biblical truth? And they're going to say, no, we're not going to give up on any of those things. …
Why is William Jennings Bryan drawn to fundamentalism?
… I think Bryan is drawn in part politically. I think he's worried about social Darwinism. He's worried about this idea that if the Bible goes away that we're going to replace it with survival of the fittest, so the idea that might beats right. And he has a career of looking out for the little guy, looking out for small farmers. I think he's worried about that.
We sort of associate him as a fundamentalist and therefore right wing, but he's got a left-wing political heart, and he's using the right wing of religion to defend his left-wing politics. It's kind of intriguing. I think that's his concern. He's not a theologian; he's a politician. He thinks that Darwinism can be used by right-wingers to justify a kind of "run over the next guy" kind of capitalism, and he's worried about that. …
Bryan is definitely coming in as this elder statesman toward the end of his career. He's been a politician. He's been on the national stage, running for president three times, unsuccessfully. He ran in 1896, so that's already almost 30 years, three decades prior to this moment. So this is very much the elder statesman coming into town, defending what he thinks is right.
How would you describe Clarence Darrow as he arrives in Dayton? ...
Clarence Darrow is on a mission, too. He's got a sense that he's got history on his side. He knows he's probably going to lose this trial, because the guy did it; the guy taught evolution when it wasn't allowed. He's hoping to move forward and have a challenge at the higher-court level, but he's also very much a public figure, hoping to get a platform to make an argument for his vision of a more secular America. These are two figures who are both using this local moment for more national purposes.
The '20s is a decade when the media has advanced to a point that we are really starting to have national culture. So before the '20s, things tended to be kind of local; but now you have film and you have national magazines and you have networks around, so that people can have a buzz in an argument about something that's going on in Tennessee nationwide. And I think both these figures are aware of that, that they're on a national stage. ...
If Bryan has a national stage, is it really about this teacher on trial, or does he want something else?
I think Bryan wants to defend traditional Christianity. He wants to defend fundamentalism against the onslaught of modernity, because he believes that if the modernists win in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy that Christianity is going to go under, and then American society will go under with it. I mean, if you accept his premises, you want to applaud him for showing up and doing battle, because he thinks the society's just going to go to hell in a handbasket if it doesn't have the mooring, the moral underpinnings of Christianity -- which is itself underwritten by the Bible, which is itself underwritten by God.
Darrow is quite the opposite. He thinks, hey, this is a country that has a godless Constitution, that rightly does not have religious tests for its politicians, that is different from European countries, that it's not a state religion -- Christianity's not supposed to be the religion of the state. He hopes that that vision, that more secular vision of the world, will be upheld, because science is true, because evolution is true, and we should stop burying our heads in the sand in the face of scientific evidence. ...
[Why is Dayton significant?]
Well, this is the Bible Belt. This is Tennessee. This is traditional America. There's a lot more people on the side of Bryan there than there are on the side of Darrow. Darrow is looking like very much the outsider coming into the South to try to pull one over on the country bumpkins.
What is the atmosphere in Dayton?
I think people there have the sense of something momentous here. This debate about evolution is not something that's five or 10 years old. This is a debate that's gone back to the Civil War, so it's been a couple generations stewing. And here there is a sense of evolution is on trial, or God is on trial, right? And people want to show up to find out whether God's going to win or whether the seculars are going to win. People are very much interested in it.
I think that nowadays we're used to these "trials of the century," because we've seen O.J. Simpson [as the] trial of the century. But this really was the trial of century, at least of the first half of the century, and I think people had a sense that something really historic was going to happen.
Does it depend on your point of view what you see this trial is about? Are there two different audiences that Bryan and Darrow are playing to?
I'm not sure there's two different audiences. I think the audience is an audience of people who care about this debate, who care about the evolution question, but more broadly who care about the contest between traditional faith and secularism.
Actually, though, the people on the extremes are the few, and the people in the middle are the folks who are -- most Americans, then as now, are kind of religious and scientific both, and I think that those people, the big middle, were looking to see what is the mix. Sometimes we can think about this as a zero-sum game, where either secularism is going to win or God is going to win. But I think another way of framing the question is, how do we mix these things together? How do we mix science and faith? How do we mix Bible and Darwin? And I think that was part of the curiosity here, is, is something like that going to emerge, some sort of middle ground going to emerge?
Why does Darrow put Bryan on the stand, and what is it going to prove for him?
Well, it was a brilliant move for Darrow to put Bryan on the stand You sort of wonder what kind of legal advice Bryan was getting -- obviously not very good -- that he decided to go on.
I think that Darrow had the sense that this wasn't a trial about whether John Scopes was going to go to jail or not for teaching evolution in high school, but it was a trial about the bigger questions. And he was keen to show that Bryan didn't know what he was talking about and that he couldn't know what he was talking about, because this position didn't make any sense, and the only reason that this more biblical, fundamentalist inerrancy position made any sense to anyone is because no one ever thought about it, and if somebody thought about it and literally cross-examined it, then it would be shown to be idiocy.
And he was very effective at it. He asked questions like, "Why didn't the fish survive the flood?" Like, the two by two. Good question. I mean, I never really thought about that till I read about that. It's a good question. And he asked him all these questions that he couldn't handle. And he destroyed him on the stand, because these are the kinds of scientific questions that just aren't answered by the Bible.
What are the bigger questions that he wants to get at with these smaller questions?
The big issue he wants to get at is that the Bible is not a scientific text; the Bible is not a historical text. This is one of the big issues in the modernist-fundamentalist debate, is, what kind of book is this? A lot of people nowadays will say the Bible is not a scientific textbook. The purpose of the Bible is not to tell you how long it took for creation or how many animals there were on the ark. It's not a history book. The people who were writing it were not thinking they were writing history. History is a modern invention. They weren't scientists, because science is a modern invention. So we misunderstand this book if we think it's that.
But the fundamentalists kind of had two feet in very different worlds. They had a foot in the ancient world of the biblical text and a foot in the modern world, where they were arguing like it's scientifically true. And this [is] actually a new idea. People in Germany in the 16th century didn't think that the Bible was scientifically true. People in France in the 10th century didn't think the Bible was scientifically true. People in the 1st century, when some of the New Testament texts were being written, they didn't think that either.
So I think Darrow was trying to expose that conceit, that: What kind of book is this? This is a book of faith and belief and poetry and, for him, foolishness. But it's not a book of science, and it's not a book of history.
So is this about evolution?
Well, of course it's about evolution, but in some ways, not at all, because the question is about authority, and the question is whether religion, Bible, God have authority, or whether reason, humans, science have authority. And that's one of the big questions of the 19th and early 20th century that's still with us today. ...
Was the perception of who won and who lost the same across the board, or does it depend on who you are?
There were people there who saw the cross-examination who thought that Bryan did great. But that's irrelevant, because the question isn't just what happened in that moment. The question is, how did people read it? ...
The way the media played it out -- the sort of "liberal media," as we would say now -- the liberal media played it out as this huge defeat for the kind of rural, stupid, country-bumpkin kind of fundamentalism. But fundamentalists took in that reading themselves by, as I say, by disappearing.
If Bryan hadn't died three days later, how might that have changed the outcome?
I don't know how the death of Bryan right after the trial really factors in. I mean, in some ways you could imagine that might have set him up as a martyr, which I think he was read by some fundamentalists in that way. He sort of died for our cause. He went down swinging, as it were.
But I think the more general reading really was, this kind of religion is on its last legs, and it sort of is dying with Bryan, and it's sort of fitting that he died, too. This is kind of old-fashioned, ancient religion that's not suitable for the modern world, and it might as well disappear. And that, of course, was the story that throughout most of the 20th century most Americans believed, until we saw fundamentalism -- boom -- re-emerge in the last quarter of the 20th century.
Why is the trial important for understanding religion in America in this period?
It's a moment that crystallizes the battle between liberals and conservatives. I think it's wrong to read it as a battle. I mean, it's part this, a battle between religion and secularity, but I think it's more accurate to read it as a battle between forms of religion. What should American religion look like? Should it look like the fundamentalist, traditionalist kind of Protestantism, or should it look like the more liberal, modernist kind of Protestantism? [I] think the story is rightly read as a victory for the more modernist way of looking at things.
Certainly America didn't go secular after the Scopes trial, but it did become more and more liberal in terms of its form of religion. So the early 20th century is a moment when liberal forms of religion emerge victorious. That's going to get challenged later in the 20th century, but the moral of this story is, the upstart form of religion, the modernist form of religion that's trying to be up to date at the same time that it's faithful to the tradition, that it wins out over the form that tries to just say "no, no, no," to modern life.
Is this a moment when religion and cultural ideology are bound together, the beginning of culture wars in America?
Yeah, I think it is. It is a sort of a first skirmish in the culture wars. One thing that's happening between the Civil War and the 1920s is that the denominational identity is sort of going away, and it becomes more and more important for American Protestants, Catholics and Jews to think about themselves as liberals or conservatives, for or against the modern world. That's what the culture wars are about, right? Should we be looking back, looking forward? Are we defending traditional authority or defending the authority of the new? And the Scopes trial is this key moment in the early 20th century where we really learn how to do this.
And we're continuing to do it today over all sorts of different issues. Right now it's about gay marriage and abortion. Then it was about evolution. But the conversation is really quite similar: Where does authority lie? Does it lie in the Bible? Does it lie in tradition, or does it lie in our reason? And are things getting better, and therefore we trust new voices more than we trust old voices, or do we trust old voices more than we trust new? It's really kind of an ancient conversation that every society has, and the Scopes trial was where we learned to do it, where we learned to fight in this particular cultural sort of way. ...
Why do we put these stories together -- Briggs' heresy trial, trefa banquet, [the Scopes trial]?
All these stories are about authority. And the question is, to what extent do we listen purely to traditional religious authority of the Bible as it's been understood? And in the case of the trefa banquet, do we look at the Talmud as it's been traditionally understood? And to what extent is religion supposed to change with the times? To what extent do the times have authority? To what extent does science have authority? To what extent does social science have authority? That's the big question, and that's a big question always in religious and even cultural life, is where does the authority lie? To whom should we listen when we want to understand how we should move forward in a culture?
So whether it's "What kind of food should we as Jews eat?," or "How should we interpret the Bible? Is it important to believe that there's no errors in it?," [or] "To what extent is evolution true, or the biblical account true, when it comes to the seven-day question or how humans were created?," in each case you have this contest between religion and science, religion and modern life. …
In each case you have this sort of wedge that's pushing us where we're forced to identify ourselves not so much as Jews or as Catholics or as Protestants or as Presbyterians or as Baptists, but as, you know, conservative or modernist religious people. I think that's the story of this period, is figuring out what's the mix between our fidelity to the modern, our fidelity to America, and our fidelity to God as we understand God. ...
Published October 11, 2010