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Has America Invented a False God?
The author wonders about the Americanization of Christianity after reading Mark Noll's book on America's God.
By Davey Henreckson
Editor's Note: A couple years ago I read Mark Noll's book called America's God and wondered if it was more true than not that this country had invented a false God. As I have watched the growth of the religious right and the prosperity gospel it seems to me that the basic concept of God expressed in these religious expressions is far from that of the Reformation heritage. Both Luther and Calvin had very high concepts of God as a mystery beyond human comprehension. They were both opposed to a Roman Church which was at the time terrorizing the hearts and minds of the people with its detailed claims to know absolutely the mind of God.
At his blog on February 22, 2010, called Theopolitical Davey Henreckson speaks of the Americanization of Christianity in his own discussion of the Noll book. If the primary way God is conceived by many in this country is false, then worship of this God is a breaking of the first commandment not to have any other gods before me.
After Mark Noll describes his work America’s God as “a social history of theology,” the reader might expect the narrative to subsume theological developments within a broader history of class conflict or political debates. The striking feature of Noll’s work, however, is how theological and cultural trends are seen as integrated forces, perhaps with one as the dominant influence at one moment, and in a receptive mode at another.
In the aftermath of the War for Independence, Noll argues that there was a unique synthesis of evangelical religion, political republicanism, and common sense philosophy which together framed the American identity. This symbiotic relationship worked, in part, by appealing to the emerging democratic impulse. The appearance of evangelical religion in this synthesis is perhaps the most surprising, since, as Noll points out, colonial evangelicals were marginalized at the time of the Revolution. What is remarkable is how the post-Revolution evangelicals were able to appropriate the late Puritan theology of the church and covenant for use of political republicanism. This unprecedented alliance had the effect of Americanizing evangelical religion, and thus welding the national and religious identities closely together. Between the Revolution and the Civil War, effectually, a distinctively American civil religion emerged, replacing the older “Puritan canopy.” Although it varied between north and south, formalists and anti-formalists, men and women – the American element remained constant.
The American synthesis had far-reaching effects. The “exchange” of theological and cultural language was so thorough that it became difficult to distinguish between a formerly theological concept like “virtue” and the political ideal of “liberty.” Further, as the new American religion embraced the democratic novus ordo, the hierarchical denominations, encumbered by tradition and inherent suspicion of the masses, were unable to keep pace with the Baptists, Methodists, and a host of upstart sects. Theologically and philosophically, “simplicity” was highly valued, in the reading of both Scripture and commonsense rationality – perhaps suggestive of evangelicalism’s burgeoning anthropocentrism. The consequence was a certain confidence in ethical and theological reasoning that led eventually to violent conclusions – most poignantly in the debate over slavery. Opposing sides, each assured of its own self-evident convictions, each with finger poised over biblical proof-texts, eventually collided in what amounted to a regional-theological-political Civil War.
It is perhaps this last link between Reformed hermeneutics and the violence over slavery that is most striking. The denouement leaves the reader feeling a certain sense of (qualified) tragedy, as the dynamism of evangelical religion is eventually and unwittingly submerged beneath the weight of its political aspirations. Noll quotes the criticism of Bonhoeffer: American secularization derives from the church’s excessive confidence that it could join itself to the world and not become subordinate to the world. While the confusion of ecclesial and national identity is unmistakable, was this muddled alliance the only reason for the evangelical dynamism? Was the Faustian bargain the only way for American religion to claim its cultural inheritance? And could it be possible that a fuller explanation for the emphasis on human moral responsibility (across all social classes) extends beyond republicanism, to some deeper, reformational trend?
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