The Religion of America III: Decline and Fall

As we have seen, the American Civic Religion was a disparate and amorphous thing — vaguely “Christian” as the Supreme Court decreed, and buttressed by the three pillars of the republic: the family, the church (of whatever kind), and the public school — wherein generic prayer and morality were offered up. Several things began to chip away at this arrangement. The first if these was the Modernist-Fundamentalist split in the mainline Protestant churches.

Traditionally, of course, American Protestants, whatever else they were, had claimed to be Bible believers. To be sure, the Unitarian split within New England Congregationalism had created a denomination that was on its way out of Christianity altogether. But by the 1880s that trajectory was far from complete, and the vast majority of Trinitarian Congregationalists had reaffirmed their “orthodoxy” in the light of the schism. In that decade, however, the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible developed by Protestant European scholars that had led many of them to deny the miraculous elements therein came to America. Its effect on American Protestant denominations was polarising, to say the least. Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Congregationalist, Lutheran — all were torn between Modernists, who denied and Fundamentalists who affirmed such points of revealed religion as Biblical inerrancy, the literal truth of the Creation account in Genesis, Christ’s miracles, the virgin birth, His bodily Resurrection and physical return, and His substitutionary atonement on the Cross. The latter party derived their name from these doctrines, which they dubbed the Fundamentals. By the 1920s, the mainline Protestant denominations — to which America’s elites belonged, and which guided much of the practise of the National Religion, had fallen into the hands of the Modernists. Their strongholds were such places as New York’s Union Theological Seminary (which in time spawned a seemingly endless procession of such theologians as Harry Emerson Fosdick, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Henry Sloane Coffin) and the Divinity Schools of the Ivy League. The Fundamentalists formed smaller denominations of their own.

The doctrinal flexibility of the Modernists had one major advantage; it allowed them more completely to assimilate the Catholics and Jews into the American religion. These had served the Stars and Stripes loyally during America’s adventure in World War I and were understandably even hungrier for acceptance by the mainstream than they had been before. Fortunately, the leaders of Protestant America were more accepting than they had been. The Great Depression drew them in ever further; while “extremists” such as Fr. Coughlin on the one hand and Dorothy Day on the other questioned it, “mainstream” figures such as Msgr. John Ryan — the “Right Reverend New Dealer” — the Bishops’ spokesman on social affairs, mobilised most Catholic opinion behind the New Deal. This great coalition was strengthened even further by the shared privations and horrors of World War II.

The aftermath of the War saw what is remembered by many fondly as the apogee of both Americana and its accompanying Faith. If, as we have seen, the president traditionally played the role of High Priest, Dwight David Eisenhower excelled at it. Opening his first inaugural speech with a prayer he penned himself, the victorious soldier-turned-politician thus beseeched the Creator: “Almighty God, As we stand here, at this moment, my associates in the Executive Branch of government join me in beseeching that Thou will make full and complete our dedication to the service of the people in this throng and their fellow citizens everywhere. Give us, we pray, the power to discern clearly right from wrong and allow all our words and actions to be governed thereby and by the laws of this land. Especially we pray that our concern shall be for all the people, regardless of station, race or calling. May cooperation be permitted and be the mutual aim of those who hold to differing political beliefs, so that all may work for the good of our beloved country and for Thy glory. Amen.”

Ten days after the inauguration, Eisenhower was baptised at Washington’s National Presbyterian Church — the only president ever to be christened while in office. Devout River Brethren (a Mennonite offshoot), Eisenhower’s parents did not believe in infant baptism — and later became Jehovah’s Witnesses. But their son, having pursued a military and then political career decided he needed to join a denomination when he was elected. That accomplished, he and Mamie became regular worshippers at National and at St. John’s, Lafayette Square — as noted earlier, the “church of the presidents.” During his eight years, Ike attended the first National Prayer Breakfasts, proclaimed the first National Day of Prayer (he advised Americans to go to church, but went golfing himself), and encouraged both the addition of “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and the adoption of “In God We Trust” as the national motto. He constantly invoked religion against Godless Communism, and sought the counsel of Archbishop Sheen, Norman Vincent Peale, and most especially Billy Graham, who became America’s unofficial presidential chaplain from that time until almost his death.

Impressive as all of this public religiosity appeared to be — and doubtless sincerely held — it had a few fatal flaws. As remarked in an earlier instalment, much as Ike loved the idea of God and prayer, he was not overmuch concerned with dogma. As he remarked a month before his inauguration: “And this is how they [the Founding Fathers] explained those: ‘we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator…’ not by the accident of their birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but ‘all men are endowed by their Creator’. In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.” This political religion, as noted, depended upon a moral consensus to survive. Ironically, that was about to shatter; the agent of the change was to be that very instrument of government which we saw in an earlier instalment proclaiming the United States to a be a “Christian” nation: the Supreme Court.

By two decisions, Engel v. Vitale in 1962 and Abington School District v. Schempp the following year, SCOTUS banished the generic Protestant and latterly Theist prayers which had been a feature of American public schooling. They then began reordering the moral life of the nation: with Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 they ruled that States could not ban the sale of contraceptives to married couples; their mandate in 1972, Eisenstadt v. Baird, extended this to all Americans. The reasoning in that case was recycled by our wise legal shamans a year later with Roe v. Wade, which opened the ongoing torrent of infant blood which continues to be shed. All of this was done against the background of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the Counterculture. No-Fault divorce exacerbated the decay of marriage and the rise of couples electing to live in sin. The ever-helpful black-robes of the Supreme Court struck down all remaining sodomy laws in 2003 with Lawrence v. Texas, followed up in 2015 by Obergefell v. Hodges, by which Their Honours found that Same-Sex Marriage was secretly concealed within the Constitution.

As we know, the result of this has been the creation of two Americas — one post-Christian, the other an unstable coalition of disparate groups — whose views of both the past (e.g., Confederate heroes or Columbus) and the present are utterly irreconcilable. When 9/11 occurred, there was a brief show of unity and flags were seen everywhere. But this passed very quickly. Given the progressive de-Christianisation that has taken place even in the symbolic sphere (SCOTUS’ search-and-destroy mission for images of the Ten Commandments in Courthouses may well be remembered), the question presents itself: Why have such things as “In God We Trust” and Congressional and Legislative prayers been left intact? These have been described as “Ceremonial Deism” and thusly defined by Mr. Justice Brennan: “…I would suggest that such practices as the designation of ‘In God We Trust’ as our national motto, or the references to God contained in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag can best be understood, in Dean Rostow’s apt phrase, as a form a ‘ceremonial deism,’ protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.” That is to say, they are permissible because they are meaningless.

While this is true, it means in essence that the American Civic Religion — despite its continued invocation by both of the warring American nations (and its actual belief by a large chunk of one of these) — has lost its major function: acting as a spiritual glue for these United States, an animating philosophy. The problem, of course, is that like a body without a soul, this nation cannot long survive without such a philosophy. In our final segment, we shall look at the opportunity this situation offers the Church — if Catholic Americans are willing to accept it.