More American than Christian? - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

More American than Christian?


American Catholic: The Politics of Faith During the Cold War
By D. G. Hart
(Cornell University Press, 2020)

Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History
By Gillis J. Harp
(Oxford University Press, 2019)

Since the appearance of Donald Trump on the national stage, the voting habits of so-called white evangelical Protestants have dominated public conversation on religion and politics. This fixation has obliterated understanding of variation within American Protestantism. The distinction between evangelical and mainline Protestants is, at best, reductionist. And media have focused on the political dimensions of evangelicalism to such a degree that the religious category has become almost meaningless.

Disagreement over Pope Francis’s encyclicals and the politics of abortion have made understanding the taxonomy of Catholicism equally difficult. Should American Catholics be identified with a traditionalist minority that is often at odds with the church hierarchy? Or with the majority whose views are not so different from secular Americans’? D. G. Hart’s American Catholic and Gillis Harp’s Protestants and American Conservatism shed light on these complications.

Hart contends that, far from being committed to traditionalist conservatism, Roman Catholics in the United States largely embrace Americanism, adjusting their teachings and institutions to freedom, democracy, and popular sovereignty. This was not a movement by which the Roman Catholic Church was “protestantized.” Rather, it was a self-conscious movement within American Catholicism that aimed to allow Catholicism to remain distinctive while also shearing it of doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and social characteristics that had kept it from fully integrating into American society between 1880 and 1920.

The popularity of Americanism prompted Pope Leo XIII to condemn the program in an 1899 letter to Baltimore’s archbishop James Gibbons, which was subsequently published as Testem benevolentiae nostrae. The pontiff’s admonition cowed the bishops but not laypeople, who continued to adapt to American life. And even the bishops began ignoring the pope’s warning as the twentieth century progressed.

For much of that period, Catholicism in the United States remained tied to the identity of ethnic groups that provided the vast majority of Catholic believers. Hart notes that their devotion was not to the doctrinal, intellectual faith embraced by many conservatives today. Instead, it relied heavily on folk traditions handed down within Catholic immigrant communities.

Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic to be nominated for president by either of the major parties, exemplified this orientation. Although Smith attended parochial schools, served as an altar boy, and had a series of priestly mentors throughout his childhood and adolescence, he didn’t care very much about doctrine. Denounced as a servant of Rome, Smith would humorously ask, “What the hell is an encyclical?” Smith’s career shows how Catholic identity merged with American identity, especially in big cities and the northeastern states.

Three decades passed before another Roman Catholic garnered serious support for the presidency. John Kennedy’s 1960 bid enjoyed financial and social resources Smith never had, reflecting the continuing integration of Catholics into the mainstream of American life. Kennedy also addressed Protestant fears in a way his predecessor did not. In September 1960, Kennedy declared to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association that he believed the separation of church and state was “absolute” in the United States. Neither the pope nor any other religious body could rightly interfere with American politics. Kennedy also reminded the ministers—many from Baptist churches—that concerns about religious liberty expressed by the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, led Thomas Jefferson to propose a “wall of separation” between church and state. Kennedy’s affirmation of the Americanist religious settlement assuaged enough Protestant voters to garner him more support than Al Smith received in 1928.

But many still viewed the Massachusetts senator with suspicion. In the summer of 1960, Protestant luminaries met on the shores of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, to plan how they would address the election. Although the group included both evangelical and mainline Protestants—Norman Vincent Peale was a prominent mainliner who attended—the anti-Catholic energy stemmed from the evangelicals. Billy Graham warned that Kennedy would receive 100 percent of the Catholic vote. In response, Graham wanted to increase Protestant support for Richard Nixon—a personal friend—and promised him that he would send mailers to two million families and urge them to “organize Sunday School classes and churches to get out the vote.”

Graham’s strategy didn’t work. By proving that a Catholic could become president of the world’s greatest liberal democracy, Kennedy’s victory represented a victory for Americanism. In the world of letters and ideas, John Courtney Murray, S.J., labored to provide a theoretical justification for this practical synthesis. Father Murray and other “Americanist” clerics helped set the stage for the Second Vatican Council.

The Conservatives Strike Back

But the victory of liberalism was not total. As the American church modernized, some Roman Catholics articulated a conservative vision that opposed liberalism while remaining distinctively American. They adopted anticommunism from long-standing tradition but also embraced a broadly libertarian economic outlook somewhat at odds with church teaching. This new approach found disciples in figures like William F. Buckley Jr. and other contributors to National Review. If Smith represented the old immigrant Catholicism, usually allied with the Democratic Party, Buckley exemplified the Americanized Catholic conservative.

Catholics were disproportionately represented on the editorial board of National Review and other institutions of the postwar conservative movement. What did Protestants contribute to the emergence of a religiously traditionalist yet enthusiastically pro-capitalist American conservatism? Harp argues that this combination was far from inevitable. And he notes that recent discussions of “Protestantism” assume a reductionist contrast between conservative evangelicals and liberal mainline churches. His book’s greatest strength lies in showing a greater breadth of Protestant thought and movements.

Harp shows that Protestants in the United States have not always been wedded to Whiggism, liberalism, or even republicanism. Throughout the colonial period, British North Americans—especially in the southern colonies—defended social hierarchy and the principle of heredity. Robert Filmer was read as much as John Locke. Loyalist clergymen in the American Revolution redoubled their commitment to hierarchy and monarchy. Even Patriot revolutionaries enlisted Christianity to mitigate the radical consequences of overturning the British Empire in North America. After the success of the Patriot cause, High Federalists remained committed establishmentarians and championed the place of religion in state and federal politics for the purposes of moral, social, and spiritual instruction. These were Protestant conservatives without the libertarian tone that has become so familiar.

In the nineteenth century, Whigs in the North believed government was a useful vehicle for moral reform and rejected the Jeffersonian legacy. Even those who grudgingly accepted disestablishment continued to pursue support for religious activity. The middle of the century also saw the first sustained attempts by Southern Protestants to create a systematic defense of slaveholding. Only after the Civil War did theologically conservative Protestants begin to adopt classical-liberal economics and political theory. Industrial magnates, social reformers, and ministers believed the United States could bring about a level of socio-spiritual perfection never before witnessed in human history. Henry Ward Beecher served as an avatar for this new style. According to his biographer William G. McLoughlin, the result was “an odd, though very American, amalgam of Calvinist elitism, Federalist class-consciousness, transcendental hero worship, and Spencerian Social Darwinism.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, Protestant conservativism had lost its intellectual underpinnings. Heterodoxy in elite institutions led to schism within Protestant thought. By 1900 only Princeton Seminary opposed the tendency toward the “higher criticism” of scriptural texts. By 1920 theological and often political liberalism reached the northern Presbyterian church.

The opponents of liberalism—generally known as fundamentalists—were a broad coalition of Protestant ministers who argued for the inerrancy and primacy of Scripture. Some highbrow fundamentalists, such as J. Gresham Machen, developed a principled Christian politics with some libertarian features. But Machen was, by the time of his death in 1937, hardly a representative fundamentalist. Elite conservatives like Machen often unwillingly made common cause with revivalist groups that had little understanding of conservative or even traditionally Protestant civil order.

While not original, Harp’s use of the term fundamentalists to unite all opponents of liberalism is also not helpful. Rather than grouping them together because of their shared opposition to liberalism, we should distinguish between folk religion and doctrinally guided Christianity: agreement on soteriology did not create a meaningful unity between Princeton elites like Geerhardus Vos and open anti-Semites like William Bell Riley.

The Rise of Christian Nationalism

By the 1960s, when liberalism seemed politically dominant, many revivalist fundamentalists had become evangelicals. The causes were various: dispensationalists committed to innovative nineteenth-century eschatology became more influential after the creation of the State of Israel; biblicism increasingly defined how fundamentalists interacted with politics; the urgency to create a godly society made quietism unacceptable. Whatever its causes, the rise of evangelicalism was the significant reason why deintellectualized Protestantism became prevalent at the end of the twentieth century. Rather than a coherent political theology, its noncreedal and nonsacramental ecumenism was based on a powerful folk culture deeply invested in a Christian-inflected version of American nationalism.

Harp’s book does an excellent job cataloguing Protestant interactions with conservative ideas in the United States, but the book still leaves the reader wondering what meaningful connection modern Protestants have to older conservative antecedents. Most Protestants supporting what passes for conservatism in American politics attend churches born out of revivalist fundamentalism or midcentury evangelicalism that has little or no connection to a historic conservative political tradition. There were intellectual Protestant conservatives active in that era: R. J. Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer urged Christians to reclaim the world of ideas, for example. But groups like the Moral Majority eschewed intellectualism in favor of utilitarian political activism. The idea of a Christian Nation eclipsed Christianity.

The success of evangelical conservatism in mobilizing certain types of voters, as well as its intellectual failures, has been brought into stark relief by the Trump era and the revival of nationalism and populism. The consensus reached by midcentury American Catholics and evangelicals is being tested as realignment creates new coalitions. Protestantism and Catholicism will last, but whether the conservative American Catholicism created in the middle of the twentieth century and the evangelical Protestant consensus of recent times will outlast the realignment is another matter.

Miles Smith is visiting assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College.

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