“All the good the Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book [the Bible]. But for it we could not know right from wrong.”
—Abraham Lincoln

“The Cosby Show is the greatest teacher of morals in American society.”
—Sheldon Hackney,
president, University of Pennsylvania

“America was born a Christian nation. America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of the Holy Scripture.”

It is the kind of statement fully capable of causing Madeline O’Hair to check her pulse or Norman Lear to reach for his checkbook. Did it perhaps proceed from a pre-fall Jimmy Swaggart broadcast, or a North Carolina stump speech by Pat Robertson? Actually, it was Woodrow Wilson, on May 17, 1911.

One might quibble with Wilson’s “Christian nation” formula, but Wheaton College professors Roger Lundin and Mark Noll have collected considerable evidence for a solidly religious nation, what the subtitle of their book calls “four centuries of American piety.” The authors of Voices From the Heart are quick to add that the limitation of their work to “Christians who happened to live in North America” does not mean that Americans are more pious than other peoples, nor that America is “a new Promised Land.” (Belgians and Swedes who are content at home may rest easy.)

Here is an eclectic bunch indeed: John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Jonathan Edwards, Jean de Brebeuf, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, Walter Rauschenbusch, D.L. Moody, Thomas Merton, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, John Updike, and Virginia Stem Owens among others. The anthology includes letters, journal entries, sermons, poems, fiction, and historical documents such as Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation of a national fast. Some Jewish voices such as Will Herberg might have been included. They would certainly have been more representative of American piety than trendy Dutch priest Henri Nouwen. But the range is broad enough to provide a biopsy of the American soul. And as Tocqueville noted, America is a nation with the soul of a church.

Throughout the early selections, one is struck by the ease in which the subjects refer to the divine. This came as naturally as breathing not only to Puritan theologians and scribes such as Marie of the Incarnation but, as noted, to carpenters and farmers as well. There is sometimes a travail of soul, but also a clear sense of joy and certainly none of the modern squeamishness about death. “It is of excellent use,” says Roger Williams, “to walk often into Golgotha, and to view the rotten skulls of so many innumerable thousands of millions of men and women like ourselves, gone forever from this life.” For many moderns, especially those in the “social sciences,” this is morbidity or even a sign of mental illness.

But Voices From the Heart is not simply another collection of devotional writing, though many entries are most worthy of attention for that alone, as well as for their literary quality. Part of the authors’ purpose is to show that piety was the flywheel of social reform in America. Lundin and Noll are keenly aware that the Word Police in the media and academy have equated piety with self-righteousness and hypocrisy. The authors are at pains to show that “piety at its best is public as well as private. It embraces the lived world as well as the secret realm of the heart.” More important, “it can inspire a broad range of service to God and humankind as well as encourage a deeper personal religion.”

For the Puritans here included, the notion of “private faith” was a contradiction. Piety meant acting responsibly toward God and one’s neighbor. While the Puritans often failed in that regard, such failure hardly makes them unique. And they certainly knew that they would answer to a higher power for their actions, a sense of responsibility scarcely evident in, say, Jim Wright.

The selections by G.W. Offley, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln show that the fight against slavery had a religious motivation. Likewise, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” reveals the extent to which King’s Christian faith motored the civil rights cause. One could add the hospitals, schools, and orphanages founded by supposedly pie-in-the-sky religious types. Marxists are not known to build orphanages. And whoever wants the services of a Freudian must pay a steep price.

The authors comment that Melville “understood the predicament of humans who, try as they will, cannot escape God or the elemental forces of the world.” This seems the very thing that modern secular ideologists have attempted to do. They view the past as a chronicle of superstition and oppression, lasting until the advent of such enlightened persons as themselves. Their mindset is for the most part what Talcott Parsons called “America’s Fourth Faith”—the various denominations of materialist humanism. This effectively makes America’s New Class a deracinated bunch, at odds with the traditions of their own society, with consequences in both politics and the arts.

As Woodrow Wilson’s entry notes, “the Bible has stood at the back of progress” and was part of the nation’s “hidden roots.” In addition “every process of purification and rectification comes from the bottom, not the top.” Without a transcendent reference point or code of morality, how is liberal democracy, which depends on virtue, to be reinvigorated? Popular culture now has a didactic or even priestly function, but it can hardly do the job. In research for his book, The View From Sunset Boulevard, Ben Stein did not come across a single instance in which a television character was motivated by religious belief. Even the transplanted Amish of Aaron’s Way are, like the Huxtables, essentially nonreligious.

It also seems clear that a secular age will scorn private, religiously motivated philanthropy and call for an ever-encroaching state to perform its works of social righteousness. The state thus takes on a vicarious function, supplying an ersatz goodness. State compulsion replaces individual compassion.

As C.S. Lewis, Malcolm Muggeridge, and others have noted, any art worthy of the designation “great” must point to the transcendent. It seems clear that a loss of the transcendent vision is largely responsible for the dearth of great art. Unless of course one thinks that Sophie’s Choice, Bright Lights, Big City, or one of Steven Spielberg’s cartoons will fit the bill.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s entry includes a foreshadowing of the New Age movement, what a recent New Republic piece aptly called “Moronic Convergence,” and which seems to be an increasingly popular alternative to both a barren secularism and the traditional religious outlook that moderns find unacceptable. Wrote Niebuhr: “Every kind of cult seems to flourish. Every sorry Oriental religious nostrum is borrowed in the vain effort to give meaning to pointless lives and to impart a thrill to vacuous existences.” Whatever one thinks of those pious souls in this anthology, it cannot be denied that their lives did indeed have meaning and purpose. They were not “alienated.”

Novelist Frederick Buechner, also included in Voices, is undoubtedly correct that for many the language of faith is dead. But one can certainly take issue with his designation of the “post- Christian world.” In his Modern Times, Paul Johnson noted that “the outstanding non-event of modern times was the failure of religious belief to disappear.”

It is easy to see why those waiting for this great event are intolerant. As Chesterton noted, men are most motivated by their religion, especially when it is irreligion, and Mort Sahl observes that the trouble with being an atheist is that you get no days off. In the Soviet Bloc, religion shows no sign of withering away, in spite of vicious persecution spanning seven decades. In the West, neither a stifling consumerism nor a highly secularized educational system have been up to the task. Homo religiosus shows great resilience.

People who are openly religious, and who believe that their faith has certain nonnegotiables, are the most gentle and law-abiding sector of the population. No matter, the Idea Elite has slapped a scarlet F on them: “fundamentalists.” They are the last group which can be publicly defamed with impunity. If this be doubted, try taking one of the hysterical “religious right” scare stories such as Holy Terror or God’s Bullies and substituting “Jew” for “Christian” or “fundamentalist.” These attacks constitute the anti-Semitism of the New Class, which views religious people, especially outgoing Christians, as dangerous and even deviant.

For example, in a recent custody case in San Diego, the press reported the conflict between a “homosexual father” and a “fundamentalist mother” instead of between a homosexual father and a heterosexual mother. The religious beliefs of the father were not examined. Incredibly, the court subsequently spurned the mother and awarded custody of a 16-year-old boy to the homosexual lover of the father, who recently died of AIDS.

Another cliché denigration is “Ayatollahs.” But if the legal prohibition of some forms of immorality links “Islamic fundamentalists” and Jimmy Swaggart, then Marxists are the greatest ayatollahs of all, for their regimes are bastions of militant puritanism. Fox Butterfield recalls that a Western visitor to China asked what the regime did about homosexuals and was bluntly told: “We shoot them.” Behold, the real Moral Majority.

For those seeking an understanding of American fundamentalism, Duke University’s George Marsden has provided Reforming Fundamentalism, which should be read along with his earlier Fundamentalism and American Culture. In the new volume, Marsden examines the wider movement through one influential institution. Fuller Seminary in Pasadena.

A common perception of fundamentalists—and even of their spiritual cousins, the evangelicals—is that they are intellectually deficient. Interestingly, many of the key leaders charted by Marsden were men of enormous erudition, knowledgeable in Semitic languages and Greek, with earned Ph.D.’s from Harvard, Yale, and Boston University. Among them: Gleason Archer, Harold Ockenga, and Carl Henry. The European imports such as Geoffrey Bromily and Bela Vassady also boast the highest scholarly credentials.

To be sure, such erudition, and the desire for it, has not always trickled down to the pews, and Marsden does a thorough job on some of the anti-intellectualism, the wild prophetic schemes, and the petty moralisms that are still characteristic of fundamentalism. Its darkest side is also here revealed, what its victims have rightly called “spiritual totalitarianism,” or an “ecclesiastical police state”; the hairsplitting theological disputes and church-splitting fights, the blind anti-Catholicism, the secret meetings and denunciations. At its worst, fundamentalism might be described as an orthodox cult.

Standing alone, this all seems quite terrible, but in the words of a Les McCann song, one must ask, “compared to what?” Unfortunately, that is not part of Marsden’s purposes, though he does show that formerly “main-line” groups such as the Presbyterians could be as petty and divisive as anyone. But those who in the 1920’s decided that everything in Christianity was negotiable take a backseat to no one in obscurantism and outright buffoonery. They are much given to identifying the Kingdom of God with the Soviet Union, China, and various Third World gulags. Paul Hollander (Political Pilgrims) has done a good job documenting what Muggeridge calls a chronicle of “fatuous imbecility” unequaled in history. The fundamentalist won’t drink because he believes it harms the body; the religious liberal won’t eat California grapes because he believes this will promote social justice. The fundamentalist says “my country right or wrong.” The religious liberal says “your country right or wrong.” For every Bob Jones and John R. Rice there is a William Sloane Coffin and Robert McAfee Brown. Shallow calls to shallow.

Marsden comments that for many “a struggle with fundamentalism was a central event in their lives” and cites Garrison Keillor as such a person. Since Mr. Keillor has confessed to watching Jimmy Swaggart and sometimes sings hymns in public, there are probably better examples. It is entirely likely that behind many a glib skeptic or hostile television reporter is an aunt who sent tracts with birthday cards or lectured on the evils of rock and roll and premarital sex. The New Class is basically a reactionary class. If Jerry Falwell is for it, they are against it. But all is not bleak.

The movement Marsden charts is more properly called evangelicalism or neoevangelicalism. These people not only attempt the rather perilous task of living the Christian faith in a hostile and secular age, with the ACLU Religion Police on every hand, but are trying to find a middle ground between an unreflective fundamentalism and a moribund liberalism. They seem to be having some success, and this is surely a good development for the Christian church, for the country, and for what has been called the “conservative movement.”

In a recent review of Orthodoxy, a collection of articles from The American Spectator, Roger Scruton of the Salisbury Review noted that although most of the material was intellectually first-rate, orthodoxy was precisely what seemed to be lacking. Scruton lamented that many of the writers seemed to share the basic materialist presuppositions of their liberal-left adversaries.

The evangelicals surely have much to learn about political activism, intellectual life, and debate from movement conservatives. But the broader movement needs a conduit to the deeper American roots and traditions if it is going to be more than a transitory phenomenon. And a glance at Voices From the Heart shows that Marsden’s subjects, whatever their quirks, are rooted in a tradition reaching back not only to four centuries of American piety, but to times immemorial.


[Voices From the Heart: Four Centuries of American Piety, by Roger Lundin and Mark A. Noll (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans) $19.95]

[Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism, by George Marsden (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) $19.95]