God in America
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Interview: Stephen Prothero

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. 4, 2010 and Feb. 20, 2010. [Read additional interviews with Prothero conducted for night one and night two.

What's happening in this postwar period of American history that's different from what's come before?

I think we've always had a flirtation between religion and politics in American life from the very beginning, from even before the founding of the republic. But what you get after World War II is really a marriage between the two, where religion and politics are going to be closer and closer intertwined. You're going to have preachers who draw on politics to promote their own agendas and also to turn America in a social/economic/political direction that they think is more Christian.

“The success of the civil rights movement is going to move people to say ... let's use religion in the political space in the direction that we want to go.”

And then you're going to have politicians who are using religion, sometimes cynically, sometimes not, for their own public policy reasons. And so the sort of wall of separation of church and state that has been around as an option is going to be gradually whittled away in this period. And religion is going to emerge as a powerful public force, but politics is going to encroach on the religion space as well, so [you see] more and more entwining of the two. …

We're coming out of the Second World War, [with] America victorious, a new enemy. What epic story are we going to tell with [evangelical preacher Billy] Graham, [Martin Luther] King Jr.? What are we going to learn about this country, about ourselves?

One of the big things that happened is after World War II is there's the sense of this enemy of the Communists who are also the enemies of God, and therefore Americans need to be on the side of God, and that's what distinguishes us from the Communists. America has always had this sense of itself as a religious nation, but now it becomes sort of politically and even militarily imperative that we have a God we can call on and that we distinguish ourselves through adherence to that God. …

And that requires us to be more open about who's in our group, right? It becomes trickier to say: "Oh, this is just a Protestant nation," or "This is just a Christian nation," because we need everybody on board against the communists. And that's when Christianity and Judaism start to get together into this Judeo-Christian nation that really coalesces after World War II.

And is everybody happy with that?

The people who are more secular are not happy with it. And the people who fall outside the sacred canopy of Judaism and Christianity are not going to be happy with it either. But those groups are very small after World War II. When you're able to open it up to Protestants, Catholics and Jews, and say, "This is the religious character of America; we're a Judeo-Christian country," that really is a very broad canopy, at least for the time. And so it's a rallying point for Americans after World War II. …

But also, there are African Americans, people who say, "We're a part of this, but we are excluded." They hold a mirror up to society and say, "You're not living up to the [Judeo-Christian] ideals that you claim that this country lives by."

One of the interesting things that's happening after World War II in the United States is that we have this sense of religious opening -- that we're including now, somehow, Catholics in this formerly Protestant America. We're including, somehow, Jews in this formerly Christian America. And yet the freedom that we are seeing increasingly in religion isn't necessarily translating over into the political and the secular sphere, particularly when it comes to race.

Part of what's happening also in this period is the sort of legitimate yearnings for religious freedom that are being increasingly met [and] are spilling over into the political space into legitimate yearnings for political freedom that are increasingly being frustrated. And that's part of what's happening with the civil rights movement.

[How are the stories of Billy] Graham and [Martin Luther] King [Jr. both similar and different?]

One really interesting thing about Billy Graham and Martin Luther King is that I think they encapsulate these two types that we find in the Bible. And the one is the priestly type, which is Graham, who is the person who has this sort of cultural authority and can go to the king, can go to the political leaders and has some kind of clout, but really isn't a mover and shaker in terms of society, and tends to sort of have hands off in terms of politics and economy.

And then you have, on the other hand, the prophetic type who is in a clash in the Bible with the priests, who is always saying: "There's something wrong with this society. We can be better. God has told us to be a certain way, and we're not following the laws of God. We're not listening to God. And if we don't listen to God, God is going to smite us. God is going to disrupt our society, and therefore, we need to be just. We need to take care of the poor." And this type, that is King, is sort of working politics more through the grass roots instead of going to the president, to the king, [and] is sort of working more with ordinary people. …

Let's go through some of the Graham story. … Who is this guy? What's going on in the country at that time? And why does this strike a chord?

After World War II … there's been so much focus overseas with the war and these big questions of Nazism and fascism and communism. And I think after World War II there's a sense of: "What's happening here? What are we supposed to be doing?" And one of the answers that comes up in the conversation we're having with communism is: "No, we're not Communists, this is a religious country."

If what distinguishes America from the rest of the world is our religiosity, the question becomes, why aren't we more personally religious ourselves; what's our problem? … If we really believe that there's a God and we really believe Jesus died for our sins, why are we just going to church on Sunday? Why is that enough?

And Billy Graham comes in and he says: "It's not enough. If this is about faith, if this is about God, if this is about a God who came to Earth and died for your sins, it should matter. It should transform your life." And so he offers the promise of radical transformation. …

And, of course, we have this long tradition that goes back to the First Great Awakening of the 1700s and the Second Great Awakening of the 1800s and all these revivals, this tradition of born-again Christianity, so we kind of have it in our DNA as Americans. And we start to think, well, why don't we go for this more kind of hardcore religion rather than our more lukewarm religion that we might be getting right now in our Lutheran Church or our Episcopal Church or in our Northern Baptist Church?

Graham, in his early sermons in L.A. in '49, it's quite striking because I hadn't realized how much he saw America as in a deep moral crisis at the time, that America had turned away from God. We just won the war. What was he talking about?

This is the implausibility, in a way, of the argument that we had turned away from God, because this appeared in our history when "God talk" is just exploding everywhere, right? But Americans have had this tradition that's called the Jeremiad, that comes from the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, that's saying, "Something's gone really badly wrong and this is a sinful place and we need to turn it around." And this is a place where, actually, Graham and King sort of come together, in this idea that there's a malaise.

For Graham, that was personal. For King, it's more public. And the two have very different ideas as well of what Christianity is about. … Sin is personal for Graham; sin is social for King. But when Graham … [is] there in L.A. and he's saying: "OK, fine. We're having all this talk about God. We just beat the [Nazis], but where are we with Jesus in our heart?" …

He's looking at L.A. and he's saying:"You know, this is like Sin City, right? This is the place of prostitution and the place of drunkenness and the place of fantasy in terms of Hollywood, in terms of reality. And we need to turn this around, and we have a problem as a country, and we have a problem as individuals that we need to turn to Christ."

And I think you also can't underestimate the charisma of the individual person, who's now able to show up on television and on the radio. We have these new technologies that can put this guy in front of you, and here's this attractive, well-spoken man who's appealing to our heart, appealing to us as individuals. And I think that resonates with people, even people who are skeptical. I've been to some of these revivals, and you go to one of these revivals and you sort of start listening, and you're sort of like, "Yeah, maybe I need to go forward, too." And he'd give you the push and he'd give you the time. And a lot of people said, "Yes," they were going to go up. …

And [Graham] invoked the rhetoric of the Cold War at the same time.

… We're in a battle with the forces of evil out there in the world, and that was palpable. But that same battle is going inside you. That's part of the Cold War mood. There's this battle of good and evil inside you, and who's going to win the battle? You should win the battle, so come forward and accept Jesus into your heart. That was part of the appeal.

And it's by extension, if you don't come forward, is that somehow empowering the [enemy].

Exactly. If there's a battle between good and evil that's going on in your heart and going on out in the world, not only are you giving up your soul to the wrong side if you don't accept this call, but you're also joining the Communists. You're on the wrong side of history.

I think what made the appeal of Graham different from some of the earlier appeals is that it was joined to a big world picture. … And so you weren't just saving your soul, you were, in a way, saving the country, and maybe even saving the world.

It's extraordinary when you look at some of the footage and the photographs. … He comes to New York [in 1957] and he fills Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium and Times Square. …

I think you have to also remember the entertainment value. This is before the Internet, before video games, and so it was a show. And it was advertising, and part of what he was good at was the advertising. And part of what he was good at was using the local churches and the local media. He was putting on a good show. And there was good music and he gave a good sermon.

And a lot of people went just for the fun of it. And a lot of those people went home and weren't changed by it, but some of them who came for a show left as born-again Christians. So that was part of the secret of his success.