America is not, and never has been, a “Christian nation.” Roger Williams clarified that almost 400 years ago, asserting that there are only Christian people, bound to Christ not by citizenship but by faith. Yet from the colonial period to the present, American society consistently privileged one form of Christianity, Protestantism. Recognizing that reality is important, especially now, because Protestant privilege is fading fast in American public life, and because many Protestants seem fearful that the gospel will be weakened by such a cultural disconnect.
Links between Protestant and American identity were present from the start. In his 1702 epic, the Magnalia Christi Americana or the Ecclesiastical History of New-England, Puritan theologian Cotton Mather declared: “I write the Wonders of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION, flying from the Depravations of Europe, to the American Strand: And, assisted by the Holy Author of that Religion, I do, with all Conscience of the Truth, required therein by Him, who is the Truth it self, Report the Wonderful Displays . . . wherewith His Divine Providence hath Irradiated [illumined] an Indian Wilderness.”
For Mather and other Puritan divines, the American Strand provided sacred space in which Protestant Reformers could fully abandon the corruptions of popery, restoring true biblical Christianity. (Sadly, the “Indian wilderness” was doubtless “irradiated” more by muskets and smallpox than by gospel.)
The Magnalia, Mather wrote: “is the History of these PROTESTANTS, that is here attempted: PROTESTANTS that highly honoured and affected The Church of ENGLAND, and humbly Petition to be a Part of it: But by the Mistake of a few powerful Brethren, driven to seek a place for the Exercise of the Protestant Religion, according to the Light of their Consciences, in the Desarts of America.”
“Modern jeremiads mark divisions over war/peace, Civil Rights/Jim Crow, liberalism/fundamentalism, gender/sexuality, abortion/contraception, Republican/Democrat and now pro/anti-Trump.”
Not all Protestants were immediately welcomed. Establishmentarian Puritans and Anglicans harassed sectarian Quakers and Baptists along with Catholics, Jews and “Turks.” Yet as a culture-privileged religious community, American Protestantism carried the day. With privilege came global mandate. In his Plea for the West (1835), Protestant preacher/educator Lyman Beecher (father of Harriet and 12 other Beechers) asserted that “this [Protestant] nation is, in the providence of God, destined to lead the way in the moral and political emancipation of the world.” (Nothing big, mind you.)
From the beginning, Protestant ministers feared that they or their descendants would succumb to inherent human depravity and foil the Divine plan. Observing such willfulness in third generation New Englanders, Mather asked whether God’s American “Plantation may not, soon after this, Come to Nothing,” calling his readers to pray “that these Golden Candlesticks may not quickly be Removed out of their place!”
Hence the jeremiad. In distinct, sometimes contradictory terms, the jeremiad was a prophetic, rhetorical device that challenged Americans to live up to their divine calling. In Prophecy without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square (2016), Boston College professor Cathleen Kaveny describes the jeremiad as “a moral discourse . . . modeled on a legal complaint.” In colonial times, jeremiads were a specific type of sermon preached in churches and public squares, reminding Americans of their covenant with God, enumerating various evils that thwarted individual and collective destiny, warning of impending divine retribution. These jeremiads, so called, echoed the prophetic, “passionate condemnations of sinful behavior that pervades the biblical Book of Jeremiah.”
Kaveny calls prophetic discourse “a kind of moral chemotherapy . . . a brutal but necessary response to aggressive forms of moral malignancy.” She believes that with nationhood and increasing religious-cultural pluralism “jeremiads began to be used by some members of the community to indict other members on the basis of a contested view of the national compact. Rather than serving to call the community together in repentance and reaffirmation of common commitments, they began to function as instruments of the culture wars of the time.”
That’s us in America 2018, heirs of a rhetorical tradition as contradictory as Richard Furman’s 1822 “biblical” defense of chattel slavery and Martin Luther King Jr’s inclusively prophetic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Modern jeremiads mark divisions over war/peace, Civil Rights/Jim Crow, liberalism/fundamentalism, gender/sexuality, abortion/contraception, Republican/Democrat and now pro/anti-Trump. As Kaveny notes, today’s differences over “social matters” are based on “religious belief systems or other comprehensive worldviews that are not shared by everyone in a pluralistic society.” Protestants, whose jeremiads once dominated theological and political discourse, are now only one set among many diverse voices. And apparently, fewer Americans are paying attention.
“Protestants, whose jeremiads once dominated theological and political discourse, are now only one set among many diverse voices. And apparently, fewer Americans are paying attention.”
In The End of White Christian America, Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, documents that decline, describing a “cultural generation gap” by which “the descendants of White Christian America are confronted with a diversity-and-youth-driven country that seems alien to their sense of what it means to be an American.” While two thirds of Americans age 65 and above consider “being Christian” a significant element of “being truly American,” only three of ten millennials (ages 18-29) agree with that affirmation. (One in three millennials claim no religious affiliation.)
As Protestant privilege diminishes, how might churches regain gospel witness and vision? Robert Jones and Cathleen Kaveny offer helpful reflections.
First, Jones notes that despite declining numbers and “dwindling social clout,” churches maintain a prominent presence across “the American civic landscape.” He urges congregations to extend their community service, specifically by making racial reconciliation “central to the mission of churches.”
Second, Kaveny warns that the accompanying sin of prophetic discourse is the preachers’ own arrogance, a failure to acknowledge their limited “grasp of divine plans, purposes, and relationships.” Jones illustrates that dilemma by citing comments from 2015 by Mark Tooley of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy regarding the “deserved and self precipitated” decline of mainline churches. “Mainline Protestantism,” Tooley contended, “lost its way when it forgot how to balance being American and being Christian, choosing American individualism and self made spirituality over classical Christianity.” Ironically, a mere three years later, Tooley’s dire comments describe much of American conservative evangelicalism. Jeremiads can come back to bite any of us!
Third, the jeremiads of an unprivileged gospel demand that we reclaim and restate a clear vision of what it means to be “in Christ,” a renewed understanding of the ways persons enter and continue in gospel faith. In a 1985 essay on “Religion and Politics in the South,” my longtime friend and mentor Samuel Hill affirmed “evangelical Christianity” for its emphasis “on righteousness, love of neighbor, disciplined behavior, and a sensitive conscience.” Restoring those now-diminished gospel traits will require strong doses of “moral chemotherapy,” beyond culture privilege. It’s worth the treatment.