By / Jan 17

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.

By / Jun 3

The 1950s and 1960s marked the beginning of sweeping societal upheaval in the United States. The most sensational headlines have always gone to sex (the sexual revolution), drugs (the pharmacological revolution), and rock and roll (the musical revolution), but alongside this well-known triumvirate the Baby Boomers also brought us fast food and frozen dinners (the culinary revolution). These revolutions are all related. They have cross-pollinated one another and they share common dependencies. They all endure, with any of the four of them likely to steal the headlines on any given day. They have not, however, progressed all at the same pace.

The musical and culinary revolutions rocketed ahead of the pack. The pharmacological revolution met a bifurcated destiny, with a few illegal drugs encountering enduring resistance, a burgeoning pharmacological industry charging forward in bewildering ways, and alcohol and marijuana caught somewhere in between these two poles. The sexual revolution has been both widely adopted and widely opposed, yet the pace of sexual change in our nation has accelerated, fueled by the wide availability of pornography on the Internet. As social conservatives wonder what awaits us in the future of the sexual revolution, we might do well to consider the parallels between it and the culinary revolution and to see where the American obsession with food has led us.

Both the sexual revolution and the culinary revolution depend upon technological advances in the early twentieth century. The invention of latex in the 1920s led to the widespread use of this form of birth control in the 1930s. The sexual revolution and the pharmacological revolution intersect in the laboratories of G. D. Searle & Company during the 1950s, where ongoing research in endocrinology yielded oral contraceptives.

Technology also enabled the cultural shift away from fresh, locally produced, home-cooked food to embrace fast food, restaurant food, frozen food, and engineered food. Pasteurization arrived in the 1860s. Chemical food preservatives emerged into widespread use in the mid-twentieth centuryanother example of the pharmacological revolutions broad cultural impact. Swansons TV Dinners arrived in 1953. Ray Kroc joined McDonalds in 1955. Julia Child published The French Chef in 1961.

Both the sexual revolution and the culinary revolution correspond closely with feminism. Women in the 1960s were dissatisfied with the experiences both of eating food and of preparing it. The latter was a prominent component of the domestic slavery that Betty Friedan was urging women to flee. Child harnessed the former to bring women back into the kitchen, but as cultural sophisticates able to embrace cooking as adventure and self-realization. Cooking need not be drudgery if food ceased to be boring.

On a parallel track, many women eschewed sex as a marital duty without abandoning sex altogether. Rather, men and women adopted a new rationale of sexuality wherebymuch like Childs French cuisinesex became worthwhile insofar as it was varied and fun. Titles like Sex Begins in the Kitchen may reveal more truth than they realize. In both the kitchen and the bedroom, American society began to discard a domestic vision of life in favor of a new youth-oriented, cosmopolitan life in which variety ranked high among the chief virtues.

A look at cultures beyond the reach of these revolutions provides us with a glimpse at what we once were ourselves. Much of the world is quite content to eat mostly the same thing every day. A Cuban pastor-friend whom I hosted in my home years ago asked my wife and me to stop taking them to nice restaurants. The rich food upset their digestive systems and they didnt understand why we would need so much seasoning and food choice in order to be satisfied. A Senegalese pastor-friend who translates for me when I am in that region explained to me about his dietary regimen: He eats rice and fish every day. Period. Hes perfectly happy with that. While we are with him, we bestow upon him Mountain House Red Beans and Rice and Chewy Mini SweetTarts. He obliges us, and he likes them (or so he says), but he seems not to be wooed at all away from his quotidian fare of fish and rice.

Your great-great-grandparents probably viewed food in much the same way, eating a local diet that consisted, if not of the same foods every day, limited rotation among a few dietary staples. Humans share the same digestive biology, and most people can appreciate or detest sweet, salty, sour, and bitter in their varying presentations. The difference between cultures and across times seems to lie less in discovering the broad continuum of available gustatory experience and more in locating within that continuum what is normal.

In the same way, although pre-revolutionary sexual tastes have long acknowledged that people often depart from monogamy and sometimes deviate from the physical intercourse that defines biological sexuality, across the world and across the centuries heterosexual marriage has defined sexual normalcy.

The culinary revolution has proven to be unhealthy for us. It is unhealthy physically. Americans are obese. Americans gorge themselves on french fries and spray cheese. We are a nation of hyperlipidemia and other metabolic disorders. Thankfully, the pharmacological revolution that partially brought us to this place is partially delivering us from it, urging us to chase down our bag of Ruffles with forty milligrams of Crestor so that we might live longer.

We are less effective at combatting the unhealthy psychology of our relationships with our food. We have this array of food choices because we were dissatisfied with our limited fare, but now that we have so many options, we are less satisfied than ever. The villages of the Casamance where everyone eats rice seem not to know the phenomenon of the picky eater. Where the food revolution has been the most successful, there you will find anorexia and bulimia. Beyond the domain of the culinary revolution, a toxic relationship with food generally involves actual toxic food, or perhaps a toxic lack of food.

The problem has become so prevalent that remediating it has become something of a cause clbre. Morgan Spurlocks film Supersize Me documented the deleterious health effects of a fast-food diet. Michael Moores Food, Inc. addressed supermarket fare as well. Michael Bloomberg declared war against the Big Gulp in New York City, and Michelle Obama has resolved to harry vending machines from the land, so to speak.

Although it may be difficult for social conservatives to look at Michael Moore and Michelle Obama and to discern in them a beacon of hope, perhaps we ought to try harder. Perhaps the fate of the culinary revolution can tell us something hopeful about where the sexual revolution is heading.

Like the advent of fast food, frozen food, processed food, and super-sized food, the sexual revolution has been and is a public health disaster. Consensual vaginal intercourse rarely sends anyone to the Emergency Room. In contrast, Naomi Wolf reported a dramatic rise in anal fissures among female college students caused by a pornography-fueled spike in the practice of anal sex. ER doctors face new challenges in removing a bewildering array of rectal foreign objects. STIs thrive in a hookup culture. A society that once labored and innovated in order to limit fertility now spends more than four billion dollars each year (as of 2009) to battle infertility, a problem that has increased in direct proportion to the use of birth control to delay childbearing beyond the timeframe when our bodies would have us to conceive.

In the realm of the sexual revolution, psychological dysfunction and physical dysfunction are difficult to differentiate. The scourge of Internet pornography has led to widespread inability to derive pleasure from sexual intercourse, or even to accomplish it. Some physical problems arise out of psychological problems. What once required only a man, a woman, and moonlight to bring pleasure now requires a ten-billion-dollar-a-year industry of pornographic films, sex toys, and pharmacological assistance. I submit to you that people arent shelling out ten billion dollars every year because they are already so satisfied with their sex lives. Although survey after survey reveals that sexual satisfaction is greatest among happily married couples, the sexual revolution has produced successive generations that delay or avoid marriage more and more. Research reveals that those who wait longer to have their first sexual encounter have happier sex lives as adults, but the average age of the first sexual encounter is going down, not up. The sexual revolution is creating, not curing, sexual dissatisfaction.

So, how much time will pass before culture and government acknowledge that casual sex has served us no better than fast food? At what point will a real sex movement arise in parallel to the real food movement that is awakening today? Will future filmmakers and First Ladies embrace the vision to break the sexual revolutions hegemony over populations that it has disserved for too long? I dont look for these things to happen in the near future, because doing so would require liberals to admit to social conservatives that we were right all along. The data make me a short-term realist and a long-term optimist. As we wait for that time to arrive, Christians ought to adopt the following strategy:

First, we ought to do all that we can to achieve a healthy biblical sexuality within the church so that it might serve as a winsome alternative to the growing sexual dissatisfaction around us. Healthy biblical sexuality may be no more commonplace inside the church than it is beyond its membership. Churches ought to work to replace pornography, infidelity, non-monogamy, cohabitation, and voyeurism with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control as applied to marital sexuality or even to embraced celibacy.

Second, we must ground our public stance on sexuality in our concern for others rather than our concern for ourselves. Frankly, if we will practice the things mentioned in the previous paragraph, the sexual revolution will be powerless to harm our marriages and our families. We need not worry about ourselves. We ought, however, to treat a world dallying about with the sexual revolution not as threats about whom we are worried but as the threatened for whom we are worried.

Third, we need to worry less about what will make us seem popular today and more about what will make us seem prophetic on that coming day when the sexual revolution is seen for the disaster that it is. Advocates for the sexual revolution will often point to the failures of churches during the era of Jim Crow. What they fail to note is that those churches who failed during that era did so not because they were so stubborn in resisting the demands of the culture but because they were so cowardly in capitulating to them. Christianity did not create racism; too many Christians were simply too namby-pamby or given to rationalization to have the backbone to stand up against it. Culture will turn against the sexual revolution and the anguish it is creating. When it does, those who refused to capitulate to the totalitarian regime of pornographic sexuality will be vindicated.

Fourth, we ought to have enough faith in Gods sovereignty to recognize that the rapid acceleration of the sexual revolution may be less the defeat of His Kingdom than the mysterious work of His hand in history to bring more quickly the day when our friends around us will regard with distaste the fleeting season of sinful pleasures for their recognition of the stinging betrayal that always comes next. Perhaps the depravity of those around us means that our culture can only come out of the sexual revolution by going through it to the bitter end.

That the sexual revolution will not endure forever is no surprise. Previous sexual revolutions have suffered the same fate. The worship of Baal and Asherah gave way to the Pharisees. The Victorian Era came into being because people were fed up with the sexual profligacy that preceded it. Neither prudism nor pornography rises to fulfill Gods design for us as male and female. Christians preserve and proclaim the only lasting revolutionthe gospel revolution. Let us be careful not to adulterate it with manmade revolutions made of lesser stuff.