American Christianities

American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity

Catherine L. Albanese
James B. Bennett
Edith L. Blumhofer
Ann Braude
Catherine A. Brekus
Kristina Bross
Rebecca L. Davis
Curtis J. Evans
Tracy Fessenden
Kathleen Flake
W. Clark Gilpin
Stewart M. Hoover
Jeanne Halgren Kilde
David W. Kling
Timothy S. Lee
Dan McKanan
Michael D. McNally
Mark A. Noll
Jon Pahl
Sally M. Promey
Jon H. Roberts
Jonathan D. Sarna
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 544
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    American Christianities
    Book Description:

    From the founding of the first colonies until the present, the influence of Christianity, as the dominant faith in American society, has extended far beyond church pews into the wider culture. Yet, at the same time, Christians in the United States have disagreed sharply about the meaning of their shared tradition, and, divided by denominational affiliation, race, and ethnicity, they have taken stances on every side of contested public issues from slavery to women's rights.This volume of twenty-two original essays, contributed by a group of prominent thinkers in American religious studies, provides a sophisticated understanding of both the diversity and the alliances among Christianities in the United States and the influences that have shaped churches and the nation in reciprocal ways.American Christianitiesexplores this paradoxical dynamic of dominance and diversity that are the true marks of a faith too often perceived as homogeneous and monolithic.Contributors:Catherine L. Albanese, University of California, Santa BarbaraJames B. Bennett, Santa Clara UniversityEdith Blumhofer, Wheaton CollegeAnn Braude, Harvard Divinity SchoolCatherine A. Brekus, University of Chicago Divinity SchoolKristina Bross, Purdue UniversityRebecca L. Davis, University of DelawareCurtis J. Evans, University of Chicago Divinity SchoolTracy Fessenden, Arizona State UniversityKathleen Flake, Vanderbilt University Divinity SchoolW. Clark Gilpin, University of Chicago Divinity SchoolStewart M. Hoover, University of Colorado at BoulderJeanne Halgren Kilde, University of MinnesotaDavid W. Kling, University of MiamiTimothy S. Lee, Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian UniversityDan McKanan, Harvard Divinity SchoolMichael D. McNally, Carleton CollegeMark A. Noll, University of Notre DameJon Pahl, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at PhiladelphiaSally M. Promey, Yale UniversityJon H. Roberts, Boston UniversityJonathan D. Sarna, Brandeis University

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0249-3
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    Christianity—like electricity—is simultaneously omnipresent and invisible in the modern United States. It so thoroughly permeates American sensibilities about space and time, right and wrong, us and them, that many citizens find it remarkable only when it does something unexpected, spectacular, and potentially dangerous: the cultural equivalents of a power failure or lightning on the golf course. But in the more usual course of everyday life, a department store manager may possess scanty knowledge of the Christian liturgical year yet, nonetheless, presuppose its dominance over her marketing strategy. Pervasive invisibility punctuated by spectacular attention tacitly narrows the working definition...

  4. Part I Christian Diversity in America
    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 25-28)

      The amazing diversity of Christianities in the United States has numerous sources. Many traditions arrived in the cultural luggage of immigrants, from Europe or Asia, from Ethiopia, or from the Caribbean. Other groups, including the Assemblies of God and the Latter-day Saints (Mormons), arose as new Christian movements in the United States. Still others emerged in the aftermath of controversies over doctrines, ethnic differences, or regional tensions such as those that fractured Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians in the years preceding the Civil War. On some occasions, church unions have temporarily reduced the number of different Christian denominations, only to see...

    • Understanding Christian Diversity in America
      (pp. 29-58)

      Christianity shapes people to think in terms of oneness. Ideologically, there is one God over all nations, and there is one Great Commission from Christ to the nations. Historically, there has been one “true church”—whether conceived in material form as in medieval Europe or understood spiritually as in post-Reformation theologies. Historiographically, generations of American religious historians (originally, church historians) played off all of this as they wrote this nation’s religious history. Their story line proclaimed Protestant consensus and, with the passage of time, increasing departures from it (unhappily, in the view of the earliest consensus historians). Moreover, the departures...

    • The Practices of Native American Christianities
      (pp. 59-75)

      Only recently have scholars begun to traverse the disciplinary boundaries that have prevented their fuller apprehension of the wide range and complex texture of the practices and theologies of Native American Christians. Specialists of indigenous religions largely have left the story of Native Christianity to missions historians. Historians of missions, in turn, lacking the linguistic and ethnographic training to otherwise interpret the subtleties, have understood Native Christianity largely as the straightforward product of missionary intentions and efforts. But this has begun to change. Informed by a number of important recent studies, I aim in this essay to examine what Native...

    • From the Coercive to the Liberative: Asian and Latino Immigrants and Christianity in the United States
      (pp. 76-101)

      In his essay “Liberty, Coercion, and the Making of Americans,” Gary Gerstle argues that the coercive has been no less operative than the liberative in the history of immigrants in the United States.¹ Gerstle finds the locus classicus for the liberative motif inLetters from an American Farmer, written in 1782 by the French immigrant Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, who wrote: “What then is the American, this new man? … He is an American who, leaving behind him all ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the government he obeys,...

    • African American Christianity and the Burden of Race
      (pp. 102-118)

      It may be necessary to note why we treat “black Christianity” in a separate category from other Christianities in America. The facts of American history will come to mind for most literate Americans: slavery, legal segregation, and informal and formal customs of keeping blacks out of neighborhoods and positions of power. All of these factors have served to distance African Americans from whites in terms of both geographic proximity and issues of positions of power and cultural authority. It is within black churches that the most salient differences emerged between blacks and whites. Consider the following: African American Christians and...

    • Christians and Non-Christians in the Marketplace of American Religion
      (pp. 119-132)

      On September 9, 1844, South Carolina governor James H. Hammond issued the following Thanksgiving Day Proclamation to the citizens of his state:

      Whereas, it becomes all Christian nations to acknowledge at stated periods, their dependence on Almighty God, to express their gratitude for His past mercies, and humbly and devoutly to implore His blessing for the future:

      Now, therefore, I, James H. Hammond, Governor of the State of South Carolina, do, in conformity with the established usage of this State, appoint the first Thursday in October next, to be observed as a day of Thanksgiving, Humiliation and Prayer, and invite...

    • Tensions Within: The Elusive Quest for Christian Cooperation in America
      (pp. 133-152)

      Christians in America have struggled to get along with one another from the moment the colonial impulse first arose. Only a year after Columbus sailed to the Americas, Pope Alexander VI had to issue the 1493 bullInter Caeterato resolve the competing colonial claims of Portugal and Spain and thereby protect the harmonious expansion of Christendom in the New World. Over the next century, the Protestant Reformation intensified the link between colonization and conflict, as Protestant and Catholic states raced to claim territory for their respective religions. The proliferation of Protestant sects only increased religious conflict in Europe, leading...

  5. Part II Practicing Christianity in America
    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 153-154)

      Alasdair MacIntyre, in his historically attuned study of moral theory,After Virtue(University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), emphasized that “every action is the bearer and expression of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts; every piece of theorizing and every expression of belief is a political and moral action.” Taking its lead from MacIntyre, Part II ofAmerican Christianitiesexamines Christian theology and Christian practice as interdependent and interpenetrating. “Theory-laden” rituals, such as baptism, the images of gravestones or religious statuary, and the potent narratives of the Bible, convey, at least implicitly, Christian ideas about the factors that enhance...

    • Redeeming Modernity: Christian Theology in Modern America
      (pp. 155-182)

      “In what sense, if in any,” Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce asked in 1912, “can the modern man consistently be, in creed, a Christian?”¹ The efforts of Catholic and Protestant theologians to resolve Royce’s question about the connection between modernity and Christian ideas shaped the task and methods of theology in the United States for a full century, from the 1860s to the 1960s, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, from the First Vatican Council to the Second. “Modern” is, of course, a capacious term, and as a consequence, the beginning of the modern age has been variously...

    • Hearts and Stones: Material Transformations and the Stuff of Christian Practice in the United States
      (pp. 183-213)

      American Christian practice in past and present is intimately engaged with stuff, as inherently sensory and material as it is textual. Studies of the subject might effectively consider how Christianities look, feel, smell, taste, and sound, as well as what Christian practitioners say and write. The density of “religious” things with which many Christians daily surround themselves makes this a truly voluminous subject, spatial as well as pictorial and material. It includes buildings, landscapes, and yard assemblages as well as house blessings; dish towels and wall plaques printed with biblical mottoes and pictures; religious paint-by-number kits and embroidery patterns; illustrated...

    • A Contested Legacy: Interpreting, Debating, and Translating the Bible in America
      (pp. 214-241)

      If, as the editors of this volume observe, Christianity is everywhere in America, the same may be said of its sacred text, the Bible, the nation’s best-selling book. Each year, Americans purchase 20 million new Bibles, with annual sales generating between $425 million and $650 million.¹ A perusal of the religion section in national chain bookstores turns up more Bibles or books about the Bible than any other single work on the shelves. Guests in a hotel often find a Gideon Bible or, if in a Marriott-related hotel, the Book of Mormon in the nightstand. John 3:16 banners continue to...

    • Space, Time, and Performance: Constitutive Components of American Christian Worship
      (pp. 242-258)

      Christianity in America is profoundly physical, material, and performative. Many Christians have only a rudimentary understanding of the theological or conceptual foundations of their beliefs and instead experience their religious commitment in religious practices. These practices might include such home-based rituals as prayer, saying grace at meals, reading the Bible or other devotional materials, collecting prayer cards or other objects, creating home shrines, displaying religious art, or watching Christian television. Many participate in Bible study groups or other church-based organizations, proselytize door to door, or operate food shelves. Some groups have even conceived of everyday work as a form of...

    • Spreading the Gospel in Christian America
      (pp. 259-274)

      On Sunday, October 5, 1913, New Yorkers waited in long lines at a Harlem rail station to file through a railroad car refashioned as a Catholic Church and sidelined for a few days in Manhattan to showcase Catholic evangelism. Billed as the longest car in the world, St. Peter’s chapel was built to order by the Barney & Smith Car Company of Ohio, one of the nation’s premier suppliers. Its oversized copper roof and attractive interior provided appealing space for “bring[ing] the gospel to the churchless.” St. Peter’s followed the nation’s rails wherever opportunity beckoned, crisscrossing especially remote regions of the...

  6. Part III Christianity and American Culture
    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 275-278)

      When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the early 1830s, the Christian character of American culture surprised him. Although he had expected to find religion and democracy at odds, the reverse turned out to be true. Unlike in Europe, where people often resented Christian churches because of their formal ties to the government, Americans saw religion and democracy as inseparable, and they expected Christianity to influence virtually every aspect of American life. As Tocqueville remarked in his 1835 bookDemocracy in America, “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over...

    • The Perils of Prosperity: Some Historical Reflections on Christianity, Capitalism, and Consumerism in America
      (pp. 279-306)

      The United States is one of the most Christian countries in the world, with more than 80 percent of the American people identifying themselves as Christian. It is also one of the most capitalist countries in the world, with an economy built on a seemingly endless desire for consumer goods. Throughout much of American history, these two identities—the United States as a Christian nation and the United States as a capitalist, consumerist one—have been in tension. On the one hand, American Christians have depended on the profits earned in a capitalist economy to finance new churches, social service...

    • A Wilderness Condition: The Captivity Narrative as Christian Literature
      (pp. 307-326)

      The possibilities for a single essay on Christianity and literature in America are endless. One could take up Christianity, literature, and social activism, exemplified byUncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the “little woman who started this big war,” as Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have greeted her.¹ One could interrogate the ways the seventeenth-century Puritan plain style extended beyond its moment, influencing modernism’s spare style. One could turn to individual authors like Flannery O’Connor, Madeleine L’Engle, or John Updike, who weave together faith and fiction. Then there is popular literature and Christianity. Stephen King termed his 1978...

    • Science and Christianity in America: A Limited Partnership
      (pp. 327-346)

      During the past several decades, historians have devoted a great amount of attention to the history of the relationship between science and Christianity. Although this attention has unquestionably led to a more nuanced view of that history, it may have unwittingly fostered an exaggerated view of the importance of science in shaping Christian thought. Christian theology consists of a broad complex of ideas concerning God, human nature, and the dynamics of the divine-human encounter. The interaction of Christians with the natural world has doubtless played a role in determining the formulation of those ideas, but that role has rarely been...

    • “My Homosexuality Is Getting Worse Every Day”: Norman Vincent Peale, Psychiatry, and the Liberal Protestant Response to Same-Sex Desires in Mid-Twentieth-Century America
      (pp. 347-365)

      The Reverend Dr. Norman Vincent Peale famously urged Americans to engage in “positive thinking” to rid themselves of guilt, pain, and insolvency. That message of healing through faith and optimism captured the imaginations of millions of Americans who read his best-selling self-help books (most famously, the 1952 blockbuster hitThe Power of Positive Thinking), tuned in to his radio programs, and listened to his sermons from his pulpit at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Less understood has been Peale’s unlikely role as a spokesman for postwar liberal Protestant understandings of same-sex desire. In December 1956, Peale used...

    • Christianity and the Media: Accommodation, Contradiction, and Transformation
      (pp. 366-381)

      The relationship between Christianity and “the media” is more profound than is often appreciated by clerical, scholarly, or lay observers. It has been convenient to think in rather simple and straightforward terms, but upon closer investigation a complex history of interaction is revealed. In this essay, I will argue that such a close reading shows that there are important ways in which the mediation of Christianity makes such profound sense that it is hard to think of the movement without its media. Even though this is particularly obvious from the perspective of the twenty-first century, there are important ways that...

    • What Is “American” about Christianity in the United States?
      (pp. 382-396)
      MARK A. NOLL

      Debates about whether the United States is “exceptional” are usually less productive than considerations about what has been “distinctive” in American experience. For religious history, claims about American “exceptionalism” are often confusing precisely because they elide results of empirical research with assertions about the United States’ uniqueness in the plans of God. The difference between asserting “exceptionalism” and assessing “distinctives” can be illustrated when considering claims that God intervened in the American Revolution to ensure the victory of the patriotic cause. In terms of “distinctives,” fruitful investigation results when such claims are compared with similar claims made by religious believers...

  7. Part IV Christianity and the American Nation
    • [PART IV Introduction]
      (pp. 397-398)

      “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

      The First Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1791, prohibited the creation of an established national church and defended the principle of religious freedom. Few documents in American history have been as celebrated, as revolutionary—or as controversial. Most colonial Americans had assumed that government could not survive without strong religious foundations, and nine of the original thirteen colonies had required people to pay taxes to support an established church. In the new republic, however, Americans would be able to worship—ornotworship—...

    • Christianity, National Identity, and the Contours of Religious Pluralism
      (pp. 399-426)

      In his 2009 inaugural address to the nation, President Barack Obama affirmed that “our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and nonbelievers.”¹ The new president’s salutary nod to America’s religious variety differed from those of his recent predecessors in extending the scope of recognition beyond the so-called Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But the pride of place Obama gave to religious pluralism among America’s strengths was not itself new. In the founding documents and in the speeches of statesmen, presidents, and policymakers, the nation’s vaunted...

    • Beyond Church and Sect: Christian Movements for Social Reform
      (pp. 427-444)

      Christian efforts to reform the social order have roots as deep as the prophets and the gospels. Amos’s call to “let justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24) and Jesus’ promise to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy by “proclaiming release to the captives” (Luke 4:18) resonate in Saint Francis’s call to gospel simplicity, John Calvin’s reorganization of public charity in Geneva, and Menno Simons’s creation of a nonviolent Christian community. The same impulses arrived in North America with the earliest European settlers and missionaries. They appear in the “holy commonwealths” created by Pilgrims and Puritans in New England, by Quakers in Pennsylvania,...

    • Shifting Sacrifices: Christians, War, and Peace in America
      (pp. 445-465)
      JON PAHL

      “Love your enemies.” This simple imperative attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew has been ignored, interpreted, and applied in often startling ways by Christians in America. American Christians have not, by and large, had a difficult time identifying enemies. What it has meant to love them, in contrast, has repeatedly been more difficult for followers of Jesus in America to discern. Much of the difficulty has centered, over the centuries, in the shifting ways that discourses and practices of “sacrifice” have been understood and applied. For many Christians in America, the central act of Jesus’ life—his death...

    • Women, Christianity, and the Constitution
      (pp. 466-490)

      The Reverend Maria Bliss, a homemaker and mother of three in North Carolina, combined her call to ministry with leading her state’s campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (era) to the U.S. Constitution. Still a relative rarity as an ordained woman in the early 1970s, Bliss joined a fast-growing cohort of Methodist women clergy. As a United Methodist, she belonged to the denomination with one of the nation’s largest and strongest women’s organizations—religious or secular. Her sense of responsibility for elevating women’s status through political activism grew out of a vision of social Christianity deeply embedded in the...

    • An Enduring Contest: American Christianities and the State
      (pp. 491-508)

      From their beginnings in a new-to-them world, the experience and ideals of British and Dutch North Americans required them to confront the issue of church-state relations. The nature of their response, as a matter of law, varied according to their experiences in their homelands and their purposes in crossing the Atlantic. Initially, all colonists imported religious establishments, of course. No other form of government was conceivable as they mapped their new terrain with old forms. The vast majority of seventeenth-century immigrants were children of the Protestant Reformation, whether British or Continental, and came from societies that had substituted their own...

  8. Contributors
    (pp. 509-512)
  9. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 513-514)
  10. Index
    (pp. 515-534)