Book Review

“Religion and American Culture”: Looking back so we can look ahead

January 17, 2019

In American Evangelicalism: George Marsden and the State of American Religious History (2014), a host of scholars acknowledge their indebtedness to the historian widely regarded as “the dean of evangelical history.” The editors insist, “George Marsden’s illustrious career bears witness to the rise of religion in America’s new historical consciousness and the attempt by some scholars to write history from a faith-friendly perspective.” (3) This is essentially the impetus and ethos behind Marsden’s Religion and American Culture: A Brief History (2018). It is a fair-minded history equally yoked with culture and religion yet admittedly from a Protestant worldview.

Marsden’s honest presuppositions combined with his commitment to engage the broader academic community are part of the legacy he leaves behind in students such as religious historian Thomas Kidd. In some sense, Religion and American Culture is representative of Marsden’s method and goal in doing American religious history.

Human nature and history

Marsden’s approach to American religious history in Religion and American Culture is a middle road between what he calls the secular “Jack-in-the-Box faith” of most American histories, wherein religious themes occasionally “pop up” in the midst of a secular narrative, and the narrative of America as a “Christian” nation. Marsden refuses to capitulate to either of these histories. He explains, “Many people assume that American religious history is simply the story of a transition from the more religious era of colonial times to the more secularized era of recent times. That story is too simple. Rather, what we find is a repositioning of the religious and the secularized” (6).

Instead of feeding the American church or the unbelieving public the narratives they wish to hear, Marsden chooses to nuance  the story of America. It is not the story of one religion or even one culture, but of many subcultures vying for influence.

Rather than sanitize the finer points of American history for the sake of organization, Religion and American Culture is centered around the idea of paradox, and this is where Marsden’s background colors his scholarship. Just as Augustine identified a paradoxical humanity both good and evil in its nature, so American history testifies to an equally paradoxical tension between religious and secularizing forces, between the spiritual and material.

In Marsden’s words, “The paradox in Western civilization reflects a paradox in human nature” (102). In sum, theology influences anthropology which influences history. Any telling of the American story which does not account for this Augustinian friction is an overly-simplistic retelling of the American situation. From the Protestant colonials’ alliance with Catholic France in the Revolution to the “methodological secularity” of the U.S. Constitution to the Christian justification for slavery to the “Gilded Age” of superficial spirituality to the unlikely Democratic union of Southerners and Catholics in the early 20th century, Marsden takes the reader on a tour of American “paradoxical society” (57). In Marsden’s view, the tension is built into the fabric of American culture because it’s endemic to fallen humanity.  

Perhaps one of Marsden’s greatest insights in Religion and American Culture is the competing social and political visions between the Puritanical idea of a Christian civilization and Roger Williams’ conception of Christian separateness (155). This theme is dominant through the work and, remarkably enough, Marsden is able to revisit this motif in almost every subsequent chapter (of which there are nine). For instance, the contesting moral visions of fundamentalists and modernists was largely a battle to control culture born out of civic responsibility, even while each side consciously maintained its distinctiveness. Even the tension between “Americanist” and papal Catholicism, ultimately reconciled at Vatican II, were part of this broader discussion (225). From Catholics to Adventists to Mormons, Marsden labors to include each subculture as partners in the larger cultural conversation.

Pluralism in American history and the present

The incisiveness of the book is a strong deterrent to any reader seeking to find their tradition at the center of influence. Religion and American Culture is as humbling as it is pedagogical. Now in its 3rd edition, the latest is a more popularized version of the 1990 and 2001 editions, written for a general audience but with no less historical breadth. Characteristically, Marsden’s style is pithy without being shallow or simplistic.

Religion and American Culture is an excellent resource for the local churchgoer because it comfortably integrates popular culture, politics, and American religion, much of which is familiar to any modern reader. The book begins with John Winthrop in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and extends all the way to Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life (2002). By the time Marsden is finished, the average Christian finds herself at the end of the American story, knowing many of the names and dates along the way.

In an era when evangelical Christians are suffering from a cultural siege mentality and increasingly being pushed out of the mainstream, Marsden’s work is a reminder that America has always been a religious yet pluralist nation. “A pivotal theme in American religious and cultural history,” Marsden observes, “is the interplay between these two motifs, Protestantism and pluralism. Neither makes sense in the American experience without the other” (74).

Marsden concludes the work with several constructive thoughts on religious pluralism in a modern age, an idea that features prominently in his 2014 book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment. In some sense, this is perhaps the greatest strength of George Marsden’s approach to religious history: the underlying assumption that history is both descriptive and prescriptive. For evangelicals in 2018 struggling to define themselves against the larger American culture, in Religion and American Culture Marsden beckons us to look back before we look forward.

Obbie Todd

Obbie Tyler Todd is pastor of the Church at Haynes Creek in Oxford, Georgia, and a Ph.D. candidate at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He also blogs regularly at www.themajestysmen.com/obbietodd on theology, history, and culture. Obbie and his wife, Kelly, have boy and girl twins.  Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24