We are experiencing COVID-related supply chain delays. Please note, orders are currently taking 10-15 days to be delivered.
We thank you for your understanding and patience.
Penn Press logo
 
Religion in the Public Square

Religion in the Public Square examines how three very different members of clergy—Ven. Fulton J. Sheen, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rev. Jerry Falwell—each persuaded politicians and ordinary people that his theological ideas formed the foundation of American politics.

Religion in the Public Square
Sheen, King, Falwell

James M. Patterson

2019 | 248 pages | Cloth $49.95
Political Science / Religion
View main book page

Table of Contents

Introduction
Chapter 1. Americanism: Fulton J. Sheen, Catholic Patriotism, and the Fight Against Totalitarianism
Chapter 2. The Beloved Community: Martin Luther King Jr., Civil Disobedience, and the Second Great Emancipation
Chapter 3. The American Dispensation: Jerry Falwell, the Nehemiad, and the Signs of the Times
Conclusion. American Religious Foundations After the Judeo-Christian Consensus

Notes
Bibliography
Index
Acknowledgments


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Introduction

Therefore, everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on rock.
Rain came down, floods rose, gales blew and hurled themselves against that house, and it did not fall: it was founded on rock.
—Matthew 7:24-25
During the early years of the twentieth century, a "Judeo-Christian consensus" formed the foundation for public discourse in the United States. At first, remnants of the old Protestant hegemony resisted integration of Catholics and Jews, but after the Second World War the new consensus had taken root. Catholics, Protestants, and Jews sought a shared dogma from which citizens could draw when debating political issues. Not only was it necessary that this dogma satisfy three faiths, it also had to square with the liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The dogma of the Judeo-Christian consensus changed over time, and it was the priests, bishops, pastors, reverends, and rabbis who negotiated these changes and brought them to their congregations. When a new, more radical generation of secular progressives emerged during the late 1960s, they advocated for the liberation of and equal respect for repressed groups, but religious leaders continued to insist on the close tie between an adherence to a religious faith and the preservation of a free country. The prevailing view among those leading the Judeo-Christian consensus was that its tie to American liberalism required defending and, over time, such a defense would succeed. Thus began the "Culture War."

During the Culture War from the 1980s until the recent years, generations of defenders of the Judeo-Christian consensus made their stand, but at present the ranks are thinner and less certain. At the same time, their old secular, progressive opponents in the Culture War have more favorably appraised the Declaration of Independence. For example, Danielle Allen believes that religious faith is inessential to it. She explains, "You do not need to be a theist to accept the argument of the Declaration. You do, however, require an alternative ground for a maximally strong commitment to the right of other people to survive and to govern themselves" and that this commitment is "the achievement of equality," which "is the sole foundation on which we can build lasting and meaningful freedom." In the past, conservative American Catholics would have vigorously disputed her position; however, conservative American Catholic Patrick Deneen agrees with Allen's assessment, arguing that the liberalism of the Declaration of Independence "was premised upon the limitation of government and the liberation of the individual from arbitrary political control," but those Americans now seeking liberation of individual have discovered the necessity of limitless government. Deneen claims, "remnants of associations historically charged with the cultivation of norms are increasingly seen as obstacles to autonomous liberty, and the apparatus of the state is directed toward the task of liberating individuals from such bonds."

For Deneen, modern conservatism offers no help because conservatism was always a liberal project. Observing the state of conservative politics, he pronounces, "The dying gasps of a 'conservative' reaction to that disassembling [of preliberal institutions] only accelerated liberalism's self-destruction—including the demise of a 'conservatism' that by its nature could not conserve." Rather than return to a theistic ground for the Declaration of Independence, he calls for America "to be founded again, now explicitly in departure from the philosophic principles that animated its liberal founding, appropriating those structures and even the language of liberty and rights to build anew a civilization worthy of preservation." Precisely because the Declaration of Independence adheres to a liberal philosophical tradition and this tradition seeks liberation from all preliberal authority, religious Americans should found "intentional communities" that appear "nonthreatening to the liberal order's main business" from which "a viable postliberal political theory will arise." Deneen, in other words, endorses what Rod Dreher has called "the Benedict Option."

Deneen's position has two problems. First, Deneen stresses the agency of "liberalism" as a concept always lurking behind the scenes, usually "invisible" and becoming visible only when "its deformations are . . . too obvious to ignore." Ideas matter but not because they are agents of political change. Politics remains a human activity performed by individual persons within a regime composed of laws and norms. Hence, for ideas to influence politics, persons must introduce them, defend them, and revise laws and norms according to them. Second, because Deneen mistakenly identifies ideas as agents, he condemns the ideas as if they were guilty of crimes, and he strangely exonerates liberal political actors as hostages to an ideological false consciousness.

Political actors are agents for ideas, and their agency is freely chosen, if not always free from external constraints. Chief among these political actors are the American clergy (who, oddly, receive no attention in Deneen's recent work), and since the founding of the United States many among them sought to limit the power of the state and redirect it to what they regarded as its proper moral ends and its proper limits in achieving those ends. One critical decision the clergy have tried and too often failed to avoid was affiliating their faiths with a political party, since such a decision would then premise the success of the faith on the capricious outcomes of electoral politics. By the 1990s, however, leading members of clergy had declared their affiliation with the New Conservative Movement and its avatar the Republican Party. The GOP thereby increasingly became the party of religious conservatives as the Democratic Party began to become more secular—except for its African American Protestants. As a result, these churches then began to decline as existing and potential congregants regarded them merely as political entities instead of anchors of a local community, a source for human salvation, or a tradition connecting generations past, present, and future to the divine. Hence, Deneen's general idea of "liberalism" conceals more than it explains. Specifically, it conceals the political decisions that have led to so deep and numerous divisions over faith in American life. American churches, first among the "pre-liberal" institutions on which American liberalism depends, ceased to operate as independent, indirect influences on citizens and, instead, lowered themselves to merely ordinary political factions seeking to work their ministry through state coercion instead of grace or tradition. "Liberalism" is not the cause of the problems Deneen observes, since ideas lack agency. Rather, one of the most important defenses against the excesses of American liberalism, religious institutions, failed to remain independent of politics. In short, liberalism did not fail the church; the church failed liberalism.

To make this case, this book offers two claims. First, ideas make their way to the public by way of popularizers, and these popularizers have very often been clergy. Second, to remain persuasive to the public, clergy must focus their efforts on moral and religious education rather than direct participation in government or political parties.

While a small number of thinkers might do the difficult work of developing philosophies of life, a second, middle tier connects the thinkers and the people at large. Between these two worlds were popularizers that sought to connect the two groups, but it is wrong to regard popularizers as somehow merely derivative or pandering. The genius of the popularizer is in rendering difficult ideas into simple tenets with direct relevance to the everyday lives of regular people and, at the same time, elevating these everyday lives by joining them to a higher purpose than mere material consumption. During the twentieth century, many of these figures were members of clergy who sought to link their specific ideas about faith to a diverse religious population. Hence, they took for granted this diversity and sought to develop a consensus that satisfies the members of the several faiths. This consensus rested on a dogma, or a set of assumptions out of which popularizers could build arguments for ethical and political reform, and the consensus would remain robust if clergy generally understood their responsibility to be the preservation of its terms through persuasion, conversion, and tradition.

This book examines three cases illustrating this process. They are Ven. Fulton J. Sheen, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rev. Jerry Falwell. The three were nationally recognizable figures who promulgated difficult ideas to a large, engaged American audience. The three figures are somewhat contemporaneous but spaced out over the course of the twentieth century. Sheen began his ministry during the 1920s to preach American Catholic patriotism and opposition to totalitarianism, and his television show Life Is Worth Living ran until 1957, the year after King had successfully led the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Falwell was a successful independent Baptist preacher in Lynchburg, Virginia, when, in 1965, he condemned King's political activism as antithetical to a preacher's job to save souls. Fifteen years later, he would reverse this position when he formed the Moral Majority to mobilize Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians into the New Conservative Movement and increase its influence over the Republican Party. Throughout his career, Sheen avoided endorsing a political party or tying his ministry to a political ideology. Once a national figure, King had informal relationships with elected officials, but he carefully avoided making political overtures that would compromise his ability to influence members of both parties. Falwell, however, premised his moral and religious teaching on the direct sponsorship of an ideological movement within a political party, and it was this decisive break that has sundered liberalism in America from its traditional religious constraints.

To explain this position in greater detail, this introduction provides an explanation of the proper relationship between American religious and political institutions. This discussion will draw from the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, who argued that churches were the only institutions that could provide a religious dogma that could rival the dogma of American liberalism. To preserve the integrity of religious dogma, however, churches had to observe the separation of church and state, since direct church participation in politics would reduce the church to a mere political faction. The introduction then briefly examines previous scholarly efforts to define dogma within comprehensive "conceptual frames." The trouble with conceptual frames is how often they become agents rather than the political actors. Therefore, this introduction briefly explains how to use the concept of "foundations" to explain how popularizers borrow from traditions, improvise on them, and thereby influence American dogma. The introduction concludes with an explanation for the selection of cases and the order of the book.

Historical and Institutional Arrangements for Religious Consensus

Alexis de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat from Normandy, who visited America with his friend Gustave de Beaumont from 1831 until 1832. Upon returning he wrote one of the most perceptive treatments of American democracy ever written. Among his insights was the way that American religious institutions favored political freedom. The United States had unique historical and institutional arrangements that facilitate the formation of a religious dogma. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville observed the following:

Historical:
A Puritan founding that linked democratic self-government to religious discipline
An unbroken continuation of English traditions respecting individual rights
A diversity of sects with no one sufficiently dominant over national affairs

Institutional:
Religious disestablishment at the federal and (mostly) state level
Religious liberty guaranteed at federal and state level
Exclusion of clergy from public office

The arrangements, in turn, shaped the popular assumptions about the role of clergy and the importance of political freedom. Tocqueville observed that congregations wanted their clergy to attend to congregational matters, and these clergy publicly admitted to wanting this. The clergy also adamantly favored religious liberty for all churches, despite believing that their own constituted the true church. The reason is what Tocqueville calls "self-interest well understood." The clergy might want the establishment of their own faith as the one, true faith; however, no sect had the majority necessary to establish itself. Of course, the First Amendment prohibited an establishment at the federal level, but even if there were no such prohibition, the lack of a majority denomination precluded any single faith from securing the privilege. If no single church could monopolize the faith of Americans, then the second-best option is to provide religious free exercise for all faiths. That way, all churches would share the freedom normally only afforded to established faiths. In exchange, all faiths renounced efforts to claim state establishment. The renunciation bore a cost—no sect could depend on the state—but a cost equally borne by all sects.

Renouncing state sponsorship, Tocqueville stressed, carried with it a benefit that far exceeded the benefit of state sponsorship: the embrace of political freedom among clergy. Because clergy benefited from religious free exercise, they preached its blessings from pulpits, and the blessings were all too apparent to congregations aware of religious repression in other parts of the world. For Tocqueville, the result was something thought impossible in his native France: an alliance between "the spirit of religion" and "the spirit of liberty." In France, the Catholic Church remained strongly aligned with the French monarchy in the hope of protecting its establishment. Therefore, advocates of political freedom in France understood themselves as enemies of the Catholic Church, as well. American historical and institutional arrangements had prevented such a division and even transformed churches into the greatest bulwarks of freedom.

In America, religion defended political freedom but also set its limits. As Pierre Manent explains, on the one hand, religion for Tocqueville was "the premier political institution of the Americans, which guarantees and supports freedom in the best fashion, in preventing them from daring all," while on the other hand, "religion forbids Americans, much to their happiness, to conceive the idea of the unlimited power of society only by virtue of the reality of this very power!" These limits provoke relief among citizens for whom, as Aristide Tessitore describes, "the possibility of limitless independence inspires fear and agitation." Tocqueville calls these religious limits to democratic power, "dogma." Manent explains that, for Tocqueville, the separation of church and state ensures the predominance of social power over religion, since: "Religion is the instrument of this shared opinion, the specific mode of expression of the social power of democracy. It is not dogma that comprises shared opinion; it is shared opinion that is dogma. It follows that the separation of church and state is largely an illusion if one means by this the establishment of their mutual independence. In the United States, this separation is the vehicle by which the submission of religion to a new political regime—the democratic regime—is established and expressed." American clergy provided religious instruction to their congregations and thereby shaped their opinions. These congregations, when combined, form the people, and their shared opinions became dogma. The dogma had no constitutional or government power; rather, its power came from the people who acted on dogma in their every political decision.

By dogma, Tocqueville meant something different from specific sectarian commitments like the Augsburg Confession or the Baltimore Catechism. He disputed that one could avoid dogma at all, saying, "one cannot make it so that there are no dogmatic beliefs, that is, opinions men receive on trust without discussing them. If each understood himself to form all his opinions and to pursue the truth in isolation down paths cleared by him alone, it is not probable that a great number of men would ever united in any common belief." As Alan S. Kahan explains, for Tocqueville, without dogma, "action would be impossible. If we had to constantly figure out, first individually, and then as a community, whether 'green' should mean 'go' and 'red' 'stop,' or with which hand one should a hold a knife, the only question left would be which would come first, death by automobile accident or death by starvation." One should note that Kahan argues that, for Tocqueville, dogma was inescapable. He is not quite right. Tocqueville did argue that dogma was inescapable, but it could be either shared or individual. The absence of shared dogma, however, rendered a united public impossible. If one wanted a public capable of acting on united beliefs, one had to insist on dogma. Without dogma, individuals fell back into their own private lives to define terms in isolation from one another, a condition Tocqueville regarded as the precondition for despotism. Therefore, Tocqueville presented a choice between the "salutary servitude" of religious dogma or the smothering tutelage of despotic government. Dogma, for Tocqueville, held together a consensus for public discourse in America. Americans depended on religion to provide "general ideas relative to God and human nature" in a regime "for which there is most to gain and least to lose in recognizing an authority."

By "religion," Tocqueville meant Christianity, broadly understood. Christianity offered very little in the way of a political constitution. Tocqueville observed, "The Gospels . . . speak only of the general relations of men to God and among themselves. Outside of that they teach nothing and oblige nothing to be believed" and had proved adaptable to the changing political and social conditions where the Gospels persisted. Moreover, Americans, being democrats, disliked ornate forms of religious observance. Therefore, even American Catholic priests have little "taste for small, individual observances, for extraordinary and particular methods of gaining salvation." In this respect, Catholicism had reconciled itself to American democracy, if not theologically, at least socially, and the latter was more important for the preservation of political freedom in American democracy. Tocqueville observed that "Although Christians of America are divided into a multitude of sects, they all perceive their religion in the same light."

The clergy accommodated the democratic tendency to enjoy material goods even as dogma curbed the power of democratic majorities and state power. Clergy "do not associate themselves with industry" but are "at least interested in its progress and applaud it . . . while constantly showing to the faithful the other world as the great object of their hopes and fears." In the same way, "they do not mix in the quarrels of the parties, but they willingly adopt the general opinions of their country and time." Instead, clergy "strive to correct their contemporaries." The clergy did not fight with the people but guided them because, as Tocqueville stressed throughout his two volumes, democracy naturally produced a rival dogma: popular sovereignty. Religious dogmas could not avoid popular sovereignty; indeed, it was this dogma that grounded the American republic. However, if clergy retained their place detached from political life, Americans could remain adherents to dogma, and even those without faith would strive to imitate the outward appearance of obedience. Faithful or not, Americans agreed that the state simply did not have the authority beyond what dogma permitted, and Christian clergy could credibly guide the people away from complete submission to the state in favor of political freedom both because the clergy themselves enjoyed the benefits of political freedom and because the health of the churches themselves depended on it. Settling on this dogma, as well as the limits to the clergy in propagating it, provided the intellectual space for politics and material well-being.

The surest way to undo the salutary servitude to religious dogma would be for the clergy to take sides in partisan disputes. Tocqueville was concerned about clergy attaching themselves to transient political causes, since the effect was to associate religion with transience rather than eternity and divisive politics rather than shared dogma. The tension in Tocqueville's thought is that he did not want religion, Christianity in particular, to enter into politics; however, Christians too often tended toward political indifference. Christianity found its cause "to form a human society outside all notional societies," and, hence, articulated "the duties of men toward each other as citizens, the obligations of the citizen to the fatherland, in a word the public virtues seem to me to be badly defined and pretty neglected in Christian morality." The French aristocrat never found a resolution to the problem, but Tocqueville's best effort came in a curious speech by a Catholic priest.

The speech is strange. Tocqueville did not identify the priest by name or by town, preferring the anonymous description, "one of the largest towns of the Union." The priest wore "his ecclesiastical habit" but spoke as an equal among an assortment of orators. Despite his appearing as an equal, the audience gave due respect to the priestly office by "removing their hats" and remaining "in silence." The priest stressed the universality of the Christian religion yet spoke of the divine interventions in the lives of nations. He invoked martial terms when describing God's role in defending the rights of Americans: the "God of hosts! Thou who did maintain the hearts and guide the arms of our fathers when they sustained the sacred rights of their national independence; thou who made them triumph over an odious oppression and granted our people the benefits of peace and freedom." The priest entreated God to "watch over the destiny of the Poles, render them worthy of being free," and he did not forget Tocqueville's homeland when prophesying: "arouse [Polish] allies to the sacred cause of right; make the French nation finally rise, and, leaving the repose in which its heads keep it, come to fight once again for the freedom of the world." The priest stressed not just a common God but a common human nature. Americans, Poles, and the French constitute each an individual nation, yet are "created . . . on the same model," and he ended the speech with a benediction acceptable to nearly all Christians at the time and in a way that stressed Christian universality, "We ask this of thee in the name of thy much loved son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the salvation of all men." Perhaps the most explicit endorsement of Tocqueville's ideal, and perhaps most incredible to his contemporary French readers, was to quote this Catholic priest, "permit us always to be the most religious people as well as the most free." This speech was Tocqueville's ideal prayer for how Christian dogma can offer salutary servitude to a democratic nation. The priest appealed to a common God to affirm sacred rights that shape the boundary of majority rule and state power and the connection of those rights to generations past. Tocqueville's priest did not direct the audience to agitate for an American intervention in Polish or French affairs but merely petitioned God for divine assistance out of respect for common humanity. This priest had found the language for making Christianity no longer an indifferent or retreating remnant but instead a fighting faith in democratic politics. Tocqueville's priest demonstrated how religious dogma blessed and constrained liberal dogma, and he also revealed how clergy serve to popularize religious dogma in a way that earns popular respect and assent.

Prior Conceptual Frames for the American Dogma

There are several prior efforts to understand how religious ideas influence American public life. There are three to discuss, albeit briefly: the American jeremiad, the American civil religion, and the "Great Denouement."

In his study of the New England Puritans, Perry Miller discussed how their clergy deployed the "jeremiad" as a narrative to encourage congregations to return to the moral and religious discipline necessary to preserve their community in the wilderness. Sacvan Bercovitch expanded the application of the jeremiad from New England Puritans to American history up until the present, and more recent scholars in American political development, such as James Morone and Andrew Murphy, have innovated on the approach. These scholars have argued that American clergy warn their congregations that the sins of the nation angered God. If such sin were to continue, God would punish them. The only way to avoid decline and eventual ruin is to repent and to return to the old Gospel teaching that God rewards nations for following.

There are two problems with the American jeremiad. First, the American jeremiad assumes that the diverse American clergy adhere to the same relationship between God and the nation, which is the one that the New England Puritans believed in. As one moves from the Puritans into the Protestant denominations of the nineteenth century, the jeremiad functions well enough; however, as Jews and Catholics worked their way into the national consensus, this view became less useful as both faiths rejected the Protestant assumptions at the heart of the jeremiad. Even twentieth-century Protestants offered more complicated views about the relationship between American religion and politics, as this book will argue in chapters on King and Falwell. Second, the American jeremiad suffers from something of an ideological bias. Bercovitch deployed the jeremiad to explain the failure of radical social change that he wished America would embrace. Both Morone and Murphy dispute this conclusion only to argue that some cases of the American jeremiad might work toward that very same social change Bercovitch envisioned. Therefore, to study dogma through the lens of the American jeremiad is to presuppose, first, that American religions fundamentally agree with the peculiar New England Puritan interpretation of the Reformed Protestant faith and, second, a commitment to repurposing religion to facilitate radical social change. The first presupposition becomes more problematic as America becomes less subject to Protestant hegemony, and the second presupposition pushes scholars to promote a political program that may skew both the cases the scholars select and how the scholars treat those cases.

Scholars of the American civil religion examine how Americans honor a parallel national creed alongside their revealed religions. Robert N. Bellah introduced the concept in his seminal 1967 essay, "Civil Religion in America," and spawned a genre of scholarship of incredible verve and volume. Bellah defined the civil religion as a "collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity," which in the American context includes venerating the American founders, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the martyrdom of Abraham Lincoln, commemorating fallen soldiers, and other sacred tasks specific to the nation rather than one faith. Scholars like Peter Gardella and Philip Gorski have recently explored the liturgical, mythological, and ceremonial uses of the civil religion in public life with both searching for political circumstances in which Americans could find in the civil religion a renewed consensus. Gorski wishes for return to the old Cold War civil religion of the vital center. Gardella hopes for an American civil religion rendered less American and more international, which he believes was a trend former president Barack Obama had started during his presidency.

The difficulty with the American civil religion is its impermanence. Despite Gardella's and Gorski's efforts to offer a comprehensive account of it, other scholars have explained how the American civil religion always seems to change in accordance with political and religious leadership. In a recent volume, historians indicated how differently the civil religion operated under different presidents, as well as how different religious denominations responded to the American civil religion. To the latter point, John D. Wilsey has argued that the American civil religion is an institutional artifact of religious disestablishment. Even as the civil expression of American religion lacks denominational preference, Wilsey shows that "in many ways, churches have served as agents of the civil religion to support it and advance it. American clergy do not serve in political offices as an extension of their ecclesial role, but they have historically served as mouthpieces for the civil religion." In short, the American civil religion remains dependent on American revealed religions as mediators and interpreters of it. Of course, this difficulty does not indicate that the American civil religion does not exist but merely that it never exists as one set of beliefs. As Americans experience new events requiring historical commemoration, the civil religion must integrate those experiences into its canon, and differing political and religious leaders are the ones integrating them. As these leaders change, they not only integrate the new events but revise or even reverse the decisions of prior leaders.

Finally, the newest, least well-known of the three conceptual frames is Hugh Heclo's "Great Denouement" of American Christianity. He defines it as a "profound historical achievement, centuries in the making, [that] blended commitments to religious liberty and popular self-government" and "the political freedom of elected governments from control by religious authorities, and the religious freedom of individuals and groups from control by the government." By Heclo's account, the superficial secularism of the American founding was merely a way "to avoid inviting sectarian disputes and diversions that might interfere with the ratification business at hand." Instead, the founders hoped for "something like an entente cordiale between the forces of Christian faith and Enlightenment reason" in which "concepts revealed by the light of reason—inalienable rights of the individual, limited government, social compact theory—were no less evident to the Christian political theology developing out of the Puritan heritage." Over time, what Heclo finds is an ever-increasing capacity for American faiths to bind together into a shared dogma that does not favor one sect over another but facilitates individual liberty even for those who belong to no sect at all.

The weakness in Heclo's theory of the Great Denouement comes with his description of its historical unfolding. To stress the continuity of a "Christian democracy" and a "democratic Christianity," he downplays the tremendous discontinuities that beset efforts to preserve Protestant hegemony during the nineteenth century. The most notable omissions are the American Protestant responses to the rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and the arrival of Roman Catholics in large numbers. Anti-Mormon and anti-Catholic discourse served as a way of preserving the Protestant hegemony even as Protestant churches multiplied sects and parachurch organizations. Mormons and Catholics provoked intense Protestant anger, since American Protestants understood their consensus as disestablished from government but nonetheless informally binding. Mormons and Catholics at the time broke with this view. Until the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church opposed the liberal and republican ideas at the heart of the American proposition. LDS founders originally wanted an explicitly theocratic republic, and some hoped to establish one in the Utah Territory. The issue was important enough to warrant the first platform for the Republican Party to refer to the LDS church as one of the twin evils in America—the other being slavery. The issue came to a head when Mormon settlers in Utah, disguised as Native Americans, began attacking federal suppliers. In 1858, President James Buchanan sent out the army to suppress them. The "Utah War" was the culmination of decades of violence between LDS members and local, state, and federal officials since the founding of the church in 1830. Even though there was little bloodshed, the mobilization of federal power against a threat to Protestant hegemony demonstrates that there were very strict limits to the Great Denouement.

The American jeremiad, the American civil religion, and the Great Denouement each offers a deep insight into the nature of the dogmas that have held together a changing national consensus. However, too often, scholars treat their conceptual frames as fixed entities that act in history. The American jeremiad is an agent of religious reaction against radical social change. The American civil religion actively binds together citizens to serve a common aim. The Great Denouement is the spirit of religious reconciliation through Enlightenment reason and American democratic institutions. On the contrary, it has been the popular religious and political actors that seized upon these concepts and improvised on them to persuade audiences of whatever position those actors advocate.

This problem with conceptual frames is not new. No single conceptual frame can capture the fullness of American dogma, hence Donald S. Lutz warns that, for political scientists, one "unfortunate habit is to seek a single source that was decisive in the formation of American political thought" and Rogers M. Smith has concluded, "I have also come to question whether we are sweeping too much into academic categories, some of which . . . were almost never used during hundreds of the years to which we apply them." James W. Ceaser concurs, explaining that conceptual frames, which he calls "traditions," are "prefabricated essences . . . that analysts have imported from the outside in order to organize and make sense of the disparate ideas of American political life." The strength of the approach is that "the breadth of this concept is what allows for a general characterization of the whole polity. But it is also its weakness, since few have bothered to define what a tradition is. It is a rule of logic that you get out of an inquiry only what you put into it. If scholars begin by looking for traditions in the study of American political development, then this is what they will find. But if parts of a tradition change, at what point does it cease to be the same thing?" At its worst, the approach merely becomes efforts "to 'score' ideas based on which traditions they fall into" without concern about the origins, applicability, or historicity of the conceptual frames themselves. Therefore, this book avoids identifying one single conceptual frame as an explanation or solution. Instead, the argument of this book rests on the constant political debate over the tenets of an American dogma and the consensus that holds it together. In the past, American clergy have served both as agents for settling on dogma and representatives of that consensus, and it should be clear why. They become the public voice for a congregation or sect, and what clergy preach can also form the "religious foundation" for the political positions the preacher advocates.

The term "religious foundation" has a specific meaning. Ceaser defines the role of a political foundation as "an idea offered in political discourse as a first cause or ultimate justification for a general political position or orientation. It is usually presented as requiring no further argument, since it is thought to contain within itself its first premise. It supplies the answer to the question 'Why,' beyond which any further response is thought unnecessary." A religious foundation posits a divine authority as the source for right judgment on public policy. As shown in subsequent chapters, all three clergy members studied in this book explicitly invoke the term "foundation" when presenting their fundamental beliefs about American politics. America rests on popular sovereignty as the source for legitimacy, but the people require dogma to unify and act politically. Clergy seek to provide their religious foundations to define that dogma to set moral limits on the dogma of popular sovereignty. In sum, successful foundations become dogma. Religious foundations are the source for the views that Americans use in politics, but they are not conceptual frames themselves. Clergy offer religious foundations by incorporating multiple views of America to persuade an audience, but the foundations are what the clergy hope to make American dogma, or the limits Americans agree to place on their own sovereignty. Hence, the study of religion and politics in America should begin with those foundations.

The Origins of the Judeo-Christian Consensus

Instead of Americans living through a slow and steady assimilation of religious faiths into a great denouement, they have experienced the unstable, dynamic, and sometimes violent conflict over who can determine American dogma and what that dogma taught. The first consensus was the Protestant hegemony. Throughout the nineteenth century, American Protestants of all sects were a sufficiently large majority to establish the dogma of political decision-making. Because Protestant rights of conscience were essential to their faith and because no Protestant sect had sufficient numbers to violate conscience rights, they established and preserved a separation of church and state. Even so, the social state in America remained decidedly Protestant. Upper-class Protestants raised funds to establish missions, passed legislation for Protestant public schools to Americanize immigrants, and campaigned to end the buying and selling of alcohol to improve the moral and even biological composition of the nation. From the pleading sermons of Lyman Beecher to the paranoid scribblings of The Menace, what held together this broad Protestant worldview was a unified understanding of decentralized religious authority among pastors, congregations, and denominational organizations in opposition to the conspiracies of Rome. Anti-Catholicism, and to a lesser extent anti-Mormonism, had served as the "last acceptable prejudices" because American Protestants drank deeply from the theological traditions preserved in the storied divinity schools of Ivy League institutions that taught the origins of the Reformation in opposition to the papacy, the persecutions commanded by Queen Mary Tudor, and the great revival of true religion and civil liberties that sprang from the victory of the Gospel and self-government in 1688. Even during the American Civil War, the two sides did not divide between Protestant and secular but between regional divisions in parachurch organizations. As Abraham Lincoln himself noted, the North and South read the same Bible and prayed to the same God.

The Judeo-Christian consensus slowly replaced Protestant hegemony but operated in the same way. Beginning with the 1920s, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews committed themselves to dogmas of religious liberty, civil rights, and traditional morality to express limits on majority tyranny and state power. In the earliest stages of the Judeo-Christian consensus, American Catholics and Jews carved out a place for themselves as religious minorities with the help of liberal Protestants with a common commitment to preserving the right of free exercise among religious peoples at home and abroad. During the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, the Judeo-Christian consensus applied these rights to the specific case of African Americans, whose church leaders invoked a prophetic tradition that challenged white clergy and, for a time, claimed the moral leadership of a nation, black and white. It was precisely when the Judeo-Christian consensus embraced the dogma of popular sovereignty that its members experienced political decline. When the Judeo-Christian consensus became, by attribution, the "moral majority," its religious dogma became indistinguishable from the tendency for democracies to embrace majority tyranny and limitless state power. What many Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians during the 1980s failed to understand was that this language was fundamentally at odds with the Judeo-Christian consensus itself, since no single congregation ever constituted most Americans.

The fatal blow to the Judeo-Christian consensus was its transformation into the Religious Right. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are not, theologically speaking, natural friends. To hold them together required a political consensus, but the late twentieth-century secularist challenge forced the Judeo-Christian consensus to decide on whether to preserve its political alliance by direct participation in politics or split up to minister to the unique challenges faced by the terminal decline of liberal Protestantism, the dramatic reforms of the Second Vatican Council among Catholics, and the fractious battles among Jews over Zionism, tradition, and social integration. The fate of churches became tied to the fate of the Judeo-Christian consensus, which was itself tied to the fate of the New Conservative Movement and the Republican Party. Because partisanship and ideology rise and fall, so did the several faiths committed to preserving their influence with direct political participation. Rather than find a new way to speak to all Americans indirectly, the clergy found themselves speaking to a shrinking number of stakeholders, campaign staffers, and elected officials interested less in the Gospel or Torah and more in donations, voter registration, and campaign volunteers.

Selection of Cases

There are other qualified cases for analysis not considered in this book. Instead of Sheen, this book could consider the work of Monsignor John A. Ryan, or "Monsignor New Deal," who tied his work on moral theology to policies such as the living wage and federal public works programs. In the same vein, another candidate could have been Dorothy Day. Day pioneered trade unions as religious and patriotic organizations. A somewhat later example could be Fr. Thomas Merton, OCSO, whose 1948 The Seven Storey Mountain appealed to the spiritual lives of Americans of many faiths. Finally, the most obvious alternative would be Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ. His We Hold These Truths and later participation in the Second Vatican Council brought the American conciliarist position into the heart of Catholic social teaching. Why not any of these figures?

Sheen stands out from these examples in several respects. First, his career in apologetics was much longer than Ryan's, and his influence extended into more national issues than Day's. Murray left a great intellectual legacy. We Hold These Truths remains a formidable work. However, Sheen's career—begun in the aftermath of the 1928 anti-Catholic rages against Al Smith and his presidential campaign—had generated public sympathy, acceptance, and even conversions. Murray had his influence in largely intellectual and clerical circles, but to shape a national consensus required the broader appeal to national audiences. Sheen exceeded Murray at this objective in every respect; indeed, it was Sheen's job. He was National Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith from 1951 until 1965. None of this is to say that Ryan, Day, Merton, and Murray did not contribute to the formation of the Judeo-Christian consensus. It is only to explain the selection of Sheen for this book.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is something of an easier choice. Many black church contemporaries of King's either worked for him or worked with him. King was the only pastor among the "Big Six" African American civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s. The other five—James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young—worked as leaders of political pressure groups. Other leaders defined themselves, in many respects, by contrasting themselves with King. Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael—to name a few—each found something in King's traditional black church hierarchy and nonviolent direct action to censure. Of course, leaders like Baldwin and Baker had much to say in their own right, but placing them within the Judeo-Christian consensus would be a category error.

Falwell is perhaps (for once) the least controversial choice, though he emerged at the same time as many other conservative Fundamentalist Christians, including James Dobson and James Robison, as well as the Religious Roundtable founded by Ed McAteer. The reason for choosing Falwell is the same as with Sheen and King; Falwell was the figure with the greatest popular reach and strongest political message. Another figure, Marion "Pat" Robertson, peaked higher in influence with the Christian Coalition of the 1990s than Falwell but only after Falwell had broken the taboo of Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestant participation in conservative Republican politics. Fundamentalists were "separatists," or rejected national politics as fraught with sinfulness decent Christians had to avoid. Falwell's popular televised sermons directly challenged that prevailing orthodoxy, as did his books—right down to the titles, America Can Be Saved and Listen, America!

One might notice that the Judeo-Christian consensus contains, presumably, some number of Jews, yet no Jewish leader is the subject for this study. There are a few reasons for this. First, no Jewish leader ever reached the same notoriety and influence of Sheen, King, and Falwell. The two who came closest were Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, author of the 1946 book Peace of Mind, who tragically died young. The other is the storied Rabbi Abraham Heschel who passionately allied with the Civil Rights Movement. In civil rights, however, Heschel was, like Rabbi Joachim Prinz of the World Jewish Congress, strongly tied to King, and they sought to ground America in the same Beloved Community that King prophesied. Hence, treating Heschel would merely reiterate the study of the more foundational figure in King. Second, American Jews were part of a consensus and, hence, did not require a Jewish leader to lead them. Indeed, Sheen, King, and Falwell each believed himself to be a national moral leader for Jews as much as Christians, while no renowned Jewish leader sought to speak definitively as the leader of the Judeo-Christian consensus. Indeed, one feature of the "Judeo-Christian" consensus was that it tended to be much more "Christian" than "Judeo." Sheen was on good terms with Jews and publicly condemned anti-Semitism. King experienced great support not only from Heschel as well as among American Jews in the South. Falwell, on the other hand, had a compromised claim to leading Jews, though he made efforts to earn Jewish trust. Finally, the relationship of Jews to Protestant hegemony and the Judeo-Christian consensus has its own political development, which is beyond the scope of this book.

Outline of the Book

Chapter 1 illustrates how Sheen defined a political foundation he called "Americanism." As early as the 1930s, Sheen insisted that the Catholic Church provided the true moral leadership to face secular totalitarian ideology, especially as the Soviet Union emerged as an existential threat. The Church also provided the proper moral instruction for citizens and the proper standard for social and economic life. Sheen's opposition to totalitarianism reverses the old anti-Catholic fears of Romish plots against a Protestant republic. Rome was not an enemy but an ally against the true conspirators: the Communist, Fascist, and Nazi conspiracies against religious freedom. Sheen also preached that Americans should view themselves as congregations enjoying religious free exercise with a duty of liberating those who did not. Finally, the chapter explains the three primary ways Sheen made this effort: public conversions, public acts of patriotic piety, and direct political interventions.

Chapter 2 examines King. The first part of the chapter strips away recent efforts to render King's "Beloved Community" a Christian-inflected variety of social democracy. King advocated a federal intervention against state-sponsored racial segregation that would usher in a closer approximation of the Kingdom of God on earth. The Beloved Community depended on agape, a conversion of the soul to the good community and nation and ultimately the cross on which all citizens suffered to redeem the sins of Jim Crow and northern segregation. This chapter then examines how King used prophetic language to refound the nation in a pluralistic covenant that obliged elected officials in Congress and the presidency to take immediate action to usher this Beloved Community into the world. Finally, this chapter examines how political officials adopted religious language to show support and justify the legal action they took in response to his pressure.

Chapter 3 moves on to Falwell, one of those who originally opposed King and the Civil Rights Movement more broadly. Falwell grounded this opposition in separation of church and state but reversed his position after the Civil Rights Movement fragmented into more aggressively secular movements that succeeded in separating the church and state in the way that he opposed. This chapter finds in Falwell's political sermons of the late 1970s and 1980s some use of the jeremiad, but his sermons relied much more on the neglected "nehemiad," or narrative of religious perseverance to do the "great work" of religion. Like the biblical Nehemiah, American Protestants, Catholics, and Jews had to rebuild the moral walls that kept the nation safe, but they faced the Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem of the secular press, pornographers, and most of all liberal Democrats. Falwell's narrative choice mirrored his political one: he closed off Protestants, Catholics, and Jews as a party who must not "go down to the plains of Ono" and leave the great work unfinished. Instead, to complete the great work required joining the faithful to those in the Republican Party who might otherwise be less interested in the common mission that the Judeo-Christian consensus needed. Finally, the chapter examines Falwell's partial political success, despite the amateur operation of the Moral Majority and the fateful and fatal retrenchment of the Judeo-Christian consensus into a single political party.

This book concludes with an assessment of the Judeo-Christian tradition as a spent force and the rise of ersatz creeds that compete to secure a majority to wield the power of the state against enemies. This outcome Tocqueville anticipated—and feared.

Penn Press | Site Use and Privacy Policy
Report Accessibility Issues and Get Help | University of Pennsylvania
Copyright © 2021 University of Pennsylvania Press | All rights reserved