159 Secularizing America


            In the 1960s, there was significant cultural ferment as Pope John XXIII “opened the windows of the church” to the modern world and orchestrated the Second Vatican Council, alleged devotees of Dietrich Bonhoeffer  (no doubt misrepresenting him) called for a “religionless” Christian fully attuned to the needs of the world, and Harvey Cox celebrated the “Secular City” as the only forum for a vibrant church.  Perhaps unconsciously, these religionists joined hands with various secularists who, for a century, had emerged as the architects and arbiters of culture.  Traditional, orthodox Christianity, especially, was portrayed as a remnant of the Middle Ages, when faith, not reason, prevailed, and it was widely assumed that truly enlightened, reasonable people would become secular humanists. 

That picture must be re-evaluated in accord with a recent publication by Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, who has edited a valuable collection of essays, The Secular Revolution:  Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life (Los Angeles:  University of California Press, c. 2003), that illuminate one of the singular developments of the past century.   Secularism has indeed triumphed in many sectors.  But we’ve been misled, says Smith, about the process that facilitated this triumph.  Secularism displaced religion–helped along by some within the evangelical establishment–as the entrenched worldview of the nation’s elite institutions not because it is a necessary component of a technologically sophisticated and progressive people.  Rather it was brought about by a committed band of skeptical, agnostic, liberal rebels, who plotted to re-make America in their own image.  They gained control of the “knowledge-production occupations” and promoted “materialism, naturalism, positivism, and the privatization or extinction of religion” (p. 1). 

            Until the last quarter of the 19th century, Scriptural Protestantism, rooted in a “Scottish Common Sense Realist epistemology and Baconian philosophy of science” (p. 25) largely shaped America.    “On the broadest scale, the Protestant establishment maintained that Christian virtue, free market capitalism, and civic republicanism were working together to beget a civilization higher than humans had ever known–begetting perhaps the kingdom of God” (p. 26).  By 1880, however, a new view had gained a foothold.  Generally “progressive” and “secular” in nature, champions of this position wielded “science” as club with which to drive religion into carefully circumscribed ghettos.  By the 1930s, “the Protestant establishment was in shambles” (p. 28).  Ordinary believers still populated church pews.  But the universities, newspapers, and judiciary had largely turned secular. 

            This took place, Smith argues, because a self-anointed elite seized control of the nation’s power centers.  William James, speaking to the alumnae of Radcliffe College in 1907, summed up the attitude:  “‘We alumni and alumnae of the colleges are the only permanent presence [in America] that corresponds to the aristocracy in older countries.  We have continuous traditions, as they have; our motto, too, is noblesse oblige; and, unlike them, we stand for ideal interests solely, for we have no corporate selfishness and wield no powers of corruption. We ought to have our own class-conscioussness.  “Les Intellectuels!”  What a prouder clubname could there be than this one?'” (p. 41).  William James and John Dewey, with their respective versions of pragmatism, hugely influenced 20th America–James reducing religion to psychology and Dewey driving it from the schools. 

            The secular elite embraced Kant’s revolutionary Enlightenment dictum:  “Dare to think!”  By which they meant:  think for yourself without restraint.  They particularly embraced the positivism of Auguste Comte, with his “religion of humanity” and sociological “science.”  Herbert Spencer’s naturalistic Social Darwinism also attracted Americans such as William Graham Sumner and Andrew Carnegie, whose philanthropy often included blatantly anti-Christian provisos.  Indeed, the more pernicious aspects of evolution were social rather than biological in nature.  Scores of young Americans studied in German universities, absorbing their “historicism, idealism, theological liberalism, higher biblical criticism, and the ideal of academic freedom as autonomous rationality” (p. 57).  Introducing these ideas into America, establishing their dominance everywhere, became the driving motivation of the secularists–Les Intellectuels!

            Smith traces this story in his essay, “Secularizing American Higher Education.”  For roughly 700 years higher education had flourished, in the West, under the auspices of Christianity.  America’s colleges, prior to the Civil War, clearly continued this tradition, providing a solid education for their constituents.  Radicals intent on transforming them infiltrated the colleges, however, and by 1900 a new zeitgeist reigned.  Rather than respecting the religious commitments responsible for founding the colleges, the new class sought to remove religion from the curriculum and relegate it to increasingly rare chapel services.  Prestigious presidents–Charles Eliot at Harvard, Andrew Dickson White at Cornell–pushed the levers of power to secularize their institutions.  A new academic discipline, Smith’s own sociology, was particularly committed to this process, with virtually all the leading professors quite hostile to religion. 

            Generally speaking, these secularists worked subtly within religious institutions to slowly subvert them.  As Smith shows, they camouflaged their endeavors, seeking to beguile the religious folk who supported the colleges.  What they said in public was often quite different from what they said in their “scholarly” writings, lectures, and work within the schools.  As one of the leaders of the discipline of sociology, Edward Ross, said, “The secret order is not to be bawled from every housetop.  The wise sociologist will show religion a consideration . . . [and] will venerate a moral system too much to uncover its nakedness'” (p. 125).  Yet of the 170 general sociology textbooks published between 1880 and 1930, an overwhelming majority clearly sought to destroy “one moral and epistemological order” (p. 115), Christianity, and establish a secular counterpart.  The texts routinely embraced the views of Comte and Spencer, Darwin and Nietzsche.  Religion, as a purely personal emotional endeavor, might be tolerated.  But it could make no claims to knowing objective truth about anything important. 

            Kraig Beyerlein focuses on the role of the National Education Association in his fine essay, “Educational Elites and the Movement to Secularize Public Education.”  We who routinely observe the NEA in action at the Democratic National Conventions, as well as in local electoral campaigns, should not be surprised at its strongly secularist stance.  Early established (as the National Teachers Association in 1857), to promote “common Christianity” in the schools, the NEA by 1880 had changed, moving within a decade to prevent the schools from conducting religious activities.  This turn followed an intense power struggle within the association, as those responsible for its founding sought to maintain its pro-Christian stance.  Beyerlein quotes eminent educators–many of them clergymen–in the ’70s and ’80s to show how thoroughly Christian were the nation’s public schools.  But as these men aged and were replaced by younger secularists, the NEA changed rapidly and a “new orthodoxy” was installed.  “Only vestiges of the old religious system remained” (p. 193). 

            Eva Marie Garroutte has a short essay, “The Positivist Attack on Baconian Science and Religious Knowledge in the 1870s.”  She carefully studied Popular Science Monthly and Scientific American, journals for the intelligentsia in that era.  Before 1880, America’s leading scientists, such as Yale’s Benjamin Silliman, were frequently devout Christians who approached their studies from a Baconian and Scottish Common Sense perspective, envisioning their work as a “sacred science,” marvelously compatible with the Scriptures.  They worked inductively, eschewing unwarranted hypotheses, committed to drawing universal truths from particular facts.  Ultimately, there were “laws discovered by induction [that] were understood teleologically as descriptions of the mediate intervention of the divine in the world” (p. 198).  The Bible too, said Charles Hodge, was a compendium of facts that, inductively studied, led to an accurate understanding of God.

            This approach to science was overwhelmed by the “positivist attack” Garroutte describes.  Promoting Spencer, Darwin, and Huxley, the new class of intellectuals worked to spread “the gospel of naturalism.”  Cornell University’s Andrew Dickson White helped lead the assault, with his famous (if deeply flawed History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.  The positivists shrewdly attacked language, insisting (in the nominalist mode) that there is no real bond between words and the realities they describe.  Horace Bushnell had earlier anticipated this cleavage, arguing that religious language could never depict religious truths with any precision.  One could never take anything in the Bible “literally.”  Thus as the Darwinian controversy escalated, the positivists insisted that the Bible’s version of creation was purely poetic.  Consequently, the “religion-friendly science” of the 19th century was replaced by the religion-hostile science of the 20th. 

            Reducing religion to psychology, a la William James, was a powerful part of the secularization process.  As the astute Yale historian H. Richard Niebuhr noted, reducing Christianity to psychology was a “‘sterile union’ resulting from the revolution introduced by William James and his followers'” (p. 270).  In Keith Meador’s judgment, James’ religious teaching “is finally a threadbare version of pious Christianity, for James was, as he aptly characterized himself to a friend, ‘a Methodist minus a Savior'” (p. 292).  Though James’s Varieties of Religious Experience is warmly supportive of the phenomenon, he basically espoused a pious humanitarianism devoid of any doctrinal content.  The reality of sin never troubled him.  We are, by nature, in need of healing, not forgiveness.  To the extent preachers assure us that “‘God is well, and so are you’” (p. 292) all is well!  To move from James to the “I’m OK, You’re OK” pabulum of the ’60s–or the “self-esteem” educators’ frenzy of the past two decades–easily illustrates the power of his thought. 

One of the men supporting this move was Charles Clayton Morrison, long-term owner and editor of The Christian Century.  His story is evaluated by Keith G. Meador in “‘My Own Salvation’:  The Christian Century and Psychology’s Secularizing of American Protestantism.”  Sadly enough, by 1939 Morrison had come to lament this process, writing an essay, “How My Mind Has Changed,” and declaring:  “I had baptized the whole Christian tradition in the waters of psychological empiricism, and was vaguely awakening to the fact that, after this procedure, what I had left was hardly more than a moralistic ghost of the distinctive Christian Reality.  It was as if the baptismal waters of the empirical stream had been mixed with some acid which ate away the historical significance, the objectivity and the particularity of the Christian revelation, and left me in complete subjectivity to work out my own salvation in terms of social service and an ‘integrated personality‘” (p. 269).  Few statements that I’ve read more powerfully depict the trajectory of mainline Protestantism in the 20th century!

            Morrison was reared in the revivalistic atmosphere of his father’s preaching, within the Disciples of Christ denomination.  After alternatively pasturing and attending college, Morrison graduated from Drake College in 1898 and headed for the University of Chicago to do graduate studies in philosophy under John Dewey and George Herbert Mead.  Along the way he embraced higher criticism, evolution, and the Social Gospel, which proved to be central tenets of his creed.  Darwin, he thought, was the 19th century mental giant who had freed man from ignorance.  Thus he wrote, in 1910:  “If there is any word which is especially dear to all modern liberals it is the word evolution.  We have never seen a liberal who is not an evolutionist” (p. 280).  This is important, because “it is Darwin’s theory of evolution that undergirds almost every psychological theory since the nineteenth century” (p. 284).  G. Stanley Hall, along with his teacher, William James, one of the most influential psychologists of that era, noted that as a student he discovered Darwin’s theory and rejoiced to know that “‘all worlds and all in them had developed very gradually and by an inner and unremitting impulsion from cosmic mist and nebulae . . . while all religions, gods, heavens, immortalities, were made by mansoul'” (p. 284). 

So theology must adjust to the truth of evolution, which for Morrison meant discarding anything supernatural in its claims.  Thus it is Jesus the very human teacher, not the eternally-begotten Incarnate Son of God, that matters.  Religious dogma must be tossed in the trash barrel of history.  Only empirically based, scientific studies–especially in the realm of psychology–can be trusted as authorities for living well.  As James declared in his influential The Principles of Psychology, “Psychology is the science of the mental life” (p. 283).   Self-realization, mental health, social service and genial good cheer should be the true Christian traits.  G. Stanley Hall wrote a two volume study of Jesus, titled Jesus, The Christ, in the Light of Psychology wherein he basically reworked “Ernest Renan’s The Life of Jesus, so that Jesus is not the one in whom Christian believe, but the one with whom Christians believe” (p. 288).   In accord with W.F.D. Schleiermacher’s Liberalism, Hall adjusted attractive elements of the Christian message to his psychological world view. 

Now enters John Dewey!  Influenced by Hall and James, Dewey deeply influenced America’s educators–including religious educators!  Pastoral care in 20th century, ironically, was deeply shaped by Dewey’s 1916 classic, Democracy and Education.   No longer, said Dewey’s acolytes within the seminaries and churches, should we worry ourselves with questions such as the existence of God.  What matters is how our idea of God affects our lives.  If our idea of God enables us to live more productively, it’s true enough for us.  Indeed “‘that conception of God is truest which aids most in guiding, ennobling, comforting, and strengthening man in his devotion to moral ends'” (p. 295).   Theology becomes psychology, preaching becomes therapy, pastoral care becomes counseling. 

All of these trends were celebrated by C.C. Morrison in The Christian Century.  Psychological texts, the works of James, Hall, Dewey, et al., were regularly reviewed and promoted in its pages.  In the midst of it all, Morrison seemed strangely oblivious as to what was really happening.  The allegedly Christian publication seemed remarkably akin to various secular magazines.  By 1939 he realized that much that constitutes Christianity had been deleted from his journal’s pages.  The Social Gospel he’d energetically promoted between WWI and WWII–espoused by the likes of Jane Addams and Henry Emerson Fosdick, featuring the routine support of labor unions, women’s suffrage, prohibition, and pacifism–seemed increasingly vacuous.  A decade later, Morrison declared that the secularization process he’d promoted throughout most of his life had robbed the Church of her riches.  Embracing the “modern culture” had been the “undoing of Protestantism.”  Rather than energetically critiquing the secular society, liberalism had critiqued Christianity!  Morrison concluded, sadly enough, that by embracing “Dewey’s language of ‘adjustment,’ the Darwin-inspired language of ‘progress,'” Protestant Liberalism had resulted in “an accommodation to psychology whose final result was the secularization of American public life” (p. 303). 

            The law, too, was deliberately secularized, as David Sikkink makes clear in “From Christian Civilization to Individual Liberties:  Framing Religion in the Legal Field.”  Following the Civil War, under the influence of law school professors, the legal profession moved away from its traditional grounding in the natural law.  Earlier judges had freely utilized biblical sources and moral reasoning in deciding cases.  A new elite insisted on a “case law” approach more “scientific” in nature, and religion was often labeled “sectarian” and thus somewhat irrelevant in the courtroom.  Then, as the 20th century dawned, this approach faded and there was a rapid shift “from general religion to civil liberties.”   Judges like Felix Frankfurter and Oliver Wendell Holmes increasingly insisted on “making” rather than merely “interpreting” the law. 

            Holmes was especially influential in this transition.  While a student at Harvard, he embraced science (without any God) as his religion.  Darwin’s theory especially affected Holmes as a student.  He also served valiantly as a soldier and saw some of the worst fighting in the Civil War, becoming quite cynical regarding mankind.  Back in Boston, he joined an elite intellectual circle–the “Metaphysical Club–that included Charles Peirce and William James.  Embracing their pragmatism, Holmes published The Common Law in 1880 and quickly moved up through the judicial system, ultimately becoming a United States Supreme Court justice.  Holding that the law is whatever the courts decide it to be, without any higher grounding, he rigorously abolished many of the legal traditions that had guided jurists for more than a century.  The popular notion–often labeled “sociological jurisprudence”–that the Constitution is a “living document,” constantly changing as judges apply it to new situations, comes directly from Holmes.  

            In these essays, and others that I’ve not discussed, there is great attention to detail.  Hundreds of footnotes and bibliographic citations make this an eminently scholarly collection.  Basically written for sociologists–and occasionally getting overly absorbed in intra-mural quibbling about various theories of secularization–the book nevertheless rewards careful reading.  What’s clear is that a self-anointed elite has waged an intense war for more than a century, determined to take charge of the most powerful cultural institutions in America.  By changing the very nature of education, religion, science, and law, they have greatly changed American society.  But, these essays make clear, they won their victories neither through evidence nor argument.  They basically worked within various institutions until they had the power to impose their views.  And thus they have secularized America. 

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