Sunday, December 23, 2007

American Religious History (part five of six)

Following the ‘active Christianity’ angle was the progressive movement. There was less of a religious emphasis and more of a political one, but it shared many of the same goals. Most of these are even drawn from America’s protestant churches. This movement started to die down in the 1920s. They tended to return to their respective parties. Some have argued that Roosevelt's New Deal was what the progressives were about, but other historians argue that it is nothing like what the mainstream progressives wanted. As a result, their lasting influence is somewhat debatable.

At any rate, when the progressive movement died down, the active Christianity folk start drifting away as well. Also, the measures aren't perfectly successful and many people were giving up on the goals of ‘active Christianity.’

Then came The Fundamentals. Written as a refutation of the Social Gospel, The Fundamentals were a series of books written by hand-picked theologians that two millionaire brothers felt best represented American religious thought. An added motivation for these writings was the impending First World War. After all, the Great War to end all wars that will (ideally) bring an age of peace and understanding sounded a whole heck of a lot like Armageddon followed by God’s Kingdom on Earth. In this great final battle America was simultaneously Babylon and God’s chosen country, and it was therefore especially important that the nation stay on track.

The Fundamentals were especially critical of historicism, that the Bible is not verifiably historically true. Evolution was especially threatening, since scientists were claiming that they could prove Genesis did not happen as described. It is generally thought that most fundamentalists today haven’t read The Fundamentals, nor have the people who attack them. Even people at the time did not read these books, but their impact was widespread.

Prohibition, for example, was a deeply religious movement for many people. The Anti-Saloon League took issue with saloons as places where drinking, gambling, smoking, prostitution and other assorted immoralities ran wild. The League wasn’t a persuasion organization, nor were they particularly interested in people believing that these places were dangerous. They were a political action committee, determined to influence legislation for the sake of American Christian morality.

Many of the concerns present when The Fundamentals were published are still pressing controversies today. Fundamentalists are still fighting the inclusion of evolution in public school curricula. The Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee was the classic test case for this battle, and the environment in which the trial took place bears elaboration.

William Jennings Bryan (three time Democratic candidate for president) had always made a big point of attacking Evolution. He ‘conceded’ that if schools are going to teach Evolution, they need to teach what most taxpayers believe as well. Put them on equal ground. He also pointed out that the Germans were the biggest proponents of evolutionary theory, and we all know they were trying to destroy civilization. It was largely thanks to his trips and lectures everywhere that Tennessee passed a law stating that Evolution was not to be taught in public schools.

The city fathers of Dayton decided that they could get media attention for their little town by being the first city where this law is contested. They went to Scopes and asked if he'd be willing to have someone bring charges against him for teaching evolution if they gave him a lawyer.

Unfortunately for the city fathers their trial did not just garner local media attention; it got national attention from people who, unlike them, actually cared. Bryan attached himself to the prosecution team. People like the ACLU and Clarence Darrow took up Scopes' defense.

The facts were thrown out, because everyone knew that he knowingly violated a law. If the law is found in line with the Constitution, then sure. He's guilty. This is no longer about whether he's guilty or innocent. They weren’t debating that at all. They were debating evolution! The trial went way out of control, and once the lawyers start cross-examining each other over evolution, the judge stops the silliness and finds Scopes guilty.

HL Mencken set the tone for how fundamentalists are viewed even today because he came out of Dayton disgusted by those backwoods, inbred, ignorant rubes. Because the scientific, educated elite wanted to believe this, it was popularly accepted by them whether it was totally fair or not.

After this, the fundamentalists got a little tired of fighting, even though they won the Scopes case. They began to pull back from engaging in high-profile public assault and trying to argue their worldview in public. Being exposed to scrutiny is rough, and they decide to stop worrying about it. Separatism is so much easier.

Meanwhile, even moderate churches faced big problems when the USA’s social climate started to undergo a series of rapid changes. The Civil Rights Movement (led by a Baptist pastor who spoke mainly in religious terms to other religious Americans) was extremely divisive, as was the Vietnam War (which found many pastors out protesting instead of behind pulpits). Not all congregations survived these stressors, and the mainline Protestant churches began to face a decline in membership. The decline is so notable that many scholars don’t even feel comfortable calling these denominations ‘mainline’ anymore.

The Episcopalian church is a good example of this. In the face of rapid social changes, the Episcopalian church has tried to stay on the reforming, moderate, forward-thinking edge, with dubious results. After their support of the Civil Rights Movement, they found themselves condemned as ‘white devils’ by the Black Power Movement, which came as a surprise. Then came disputes over the ordination of women and the status of homosexuals within their congregation. Only days ago an Episcopalian diocese voted to secede from the church over the issue of homosexuals in churches and even (God forbid) in the clergy itself.

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