“Every sect is a moral check on its neighbor.
Competition is as wholesome in religion as in commerce.”

—Walter Savage Landor

When English Protestants fled their native land during Mary’s reign, many of them ended up in John Calvin’s Geneva. Additional refugees found a home in other Reformed cities in southwestern Germany. Lutheran lands, by contrast, were far less hospitable to these English Protestants. Internal theological strife following the death of Martin Luther in 1546, as well as political and military reverses in the struggle against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, had left the Lutherans shaken and divided. They probably could not have offered asylum to the English, even had they wanted to.

When the refugees returned to England at the start of Elizabeth’s reign, they brought back positive impressions of the Reformed cities. John Knox, the Scottish reformer who had earlier contributed to Protestant efforts in England, said of Calvin’s Geneva that it was “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles.” Other Britons did not express their enthusiasm so extravagantly, but the warm welcome they had received from European Calvinists certainly influenced their own attitudes. As a result, the more advanced or “thorough” English Protestants strove for the same sort of reforms in England they had witnessed on the Continent. At least for these more self-conscious Protestants, England’s earlier theological eclecticism gave way to patterns more consistently Reformed.

The long-term ramifications of this historical episode have been immense. Reformed models from the Continent inspired the English Puritans in their struggle to carry out a further reformation of England and her church. These same Reformed models were also exported to the New World by the Puritans who founded Massachusetts and Connecticut and also exerted a compelling influence elsewhere in the American colonies. Their presence has loomed large in the whole course of American civilization. This explains why Lutheranism, which was the first Protestantism, has had little influence on the Protestant civilization of the United States.

On narrow theological grounds, this means little. The long history of Lutheran-Calvinist controversy has concerned details. In the universe of possible theologies, Luther and Calvin stand quite close to each other. Both drew heavily upon Augustine, both stressed the debilities of sinful human nature, both exalted the power of God and the work of Christ as central for human salvation, and both read the Bible as a book of God’s promises to rescue an undeserving humanity. It was not theology that separated the Lutherans and the Reformed as much as culture.

But on cultural matters, the differences were large and important. However much attention Luther gave to holiness of life, the center of his thought remained the redeeming cross of Christ. However much Calvin preached the cross, his message constantly returned to sanctified living. On the level of polity, these differences in tone and tendency became much more important. Luther was relatively indifferent to questions of church order because he knew how easily ecclesiastical propriety became spiritual pride. Calvin acknowledged the same reality, yet poured great energies into creating a truly godly church. Luther counseled restraint in politics. It was better to suffer injustice from the state than to allow passion for political reform to obscure the desperate condition of every human (ruler or ruled, tyrant or reformer) before the righteousness of God. Calvin never abandoned the centrality of Jesus (it was Calvin who popularized the picture of Christ as prophet, priest, and king). But the reform of politics was an activity that Christians, grateful to God for the gift of salvation, should pursue as part of the drive for holiness.

For American culture, it has made all the difference that Reformed rather than Lutheran attitudes have prevailed. In each of the three significant periods of American history—the colonial under the influence of the Puritans, The National under a more generally evangelical influence, and the modern under the sway of the secular—Reformed or Calvinistic patterns of culture formation have been the rule. Like the early leaders of Calvinism on the Continent and the English Puritans, Americans have moved in a straight line from personal belief to social reform, from passion for God and the Bible (or later, science and technique) to passion for the renovation of society, from private experience to political activity. With only infrequent exceptions, like Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 19th century and Reinhold Niebuhr in the 20th, there has been no “Lutheran irony” in America, no sense that precisely in our most valiant public efforts for God we run the risk of substituting our righteousness for the righteousness of Christ that arises only by faith, independently of works.

Reformed attitudes toward life in the world have had an immense effect on American history. Calvinistic convictions about living all of life for the glory of God led to the remarkable experiment of 17th-century New England where Puritans created the freest, most stable, most democratic society then existing on earth. In the 18th century the Puritan passion for public justice provided, if not the specific ideology, at least much of the energy for the American Revolution and the creation of a new nation. During the 19th century, Protestantism fueled immense labors of Christianization and civilization—subduing a continent, democratizing a people, evangelizing at home through revival and abroad through missions, reforming institutions, attitudes, habits, and social practices, and surviving a civil war that ended with the prohibition of slavery.

The encroachments of secularism on this Reformed legacy have changed the substance but not the form of public activity. When Science replaced Scripture and Progress elbowed God aside, the goals remained the same—all of life must still be reformed. Only the agency was different. It might be Education, opened to all as a means for solving The Nation‘s problems. It might be Science and Know-How—the Form and Demiurge of modernity. Most typically, the new god has been government. With Democrats who favored social legislation or Republicans who favored defense, only bigger was better. While modern Americans may differ in nearly every particular from their Puritan and evangelical ancestors, they still are deeply committed to working out their salvation, and the salvation of everyone else, through the control of public life.

It has been encouraging recently to see increasingly serious discussion of Reformed patterns of political involvement in contemporary America. The discussion needs to be sophisticated because the phenomenon is complex. Now at work in the “public square” are several groups whose purposes overlap and clash at a number of points. There are Christians who seek self-consciously to recapture earlier patterns of religious influence; anti- or a-religious people who want to order public life by “enlightened,” scientific, or secular goals; religious people (sometimes Protestant, but more often Catholic, Jewish, or members of other faiths) who want morality in public life but not traditional American Protestantism; and, drawn from each of the above groups, significant numbers who take seriously the reality of America’s religious, moral, and political pluralism.

Prominent in this recent discussion has been Pastor Richard Neuhaus, who has not only popularized a telling phrase with the title of his book, The Naked Public Square, but who also has done much to disentangle the knotty issues involved—through that book, through other writings, and through his direction of The Rockford Institute’s Center on Religion & Society in New York. Now as part of the work of the Center, Eerdmans has begun to publish Neuhaus’ “Encounter Series,” which besides Unsecular America also includes Virtue: Public and Private and Confession, Conflict, and Community.

The format of these books is the same. Neuhaus enlists several scholars to present papers on a central theme before a larger group of individuals who have some expertise in the subject. A day or two of discussion takes place over these papers. Neuhaus and his assistant, the Rev. Paul Stallsworth, then edit the papers, summarize, abridge, organize, and otherwise clean up a transcript of the discussion, and the whole is published.

Those who might have doubts about the format can rest easy. If Unsecular America is any indication, the process works. In this book the papers are stimulating: the English journalist Paul Johnson on the contribution of religion to America’s self-identity; Everett Carll Ladd of the Roper Center on what public polling tells us about the religious beliefs of modern Americans; George Marsden of Duke University asking the questions “Are Secularists the Threat? Is Religion the Solution?”; and Neuhaus himself on the critical role of religion for redefining the meaning of modern America.

Papers by Marsden and Neuhaus amount to point and counterpoint. The authors do agree that a modern secularity which ignores or despises religion harms society and betrays essential human nature. Marsden, however, questions the notion that a well-organized conspiracy of secular humanists has been orchestrating America’s recent history. He also wants proponents of religion in public life to reassure secularists and other ideological minorities that past American excesses in imposing explicitly Christian beliefs and practices will not be repeated in the modern effort to bring religious reasoning to bear on public problems. Neuhaus, while acknowledging the problems Marsden describes, is more concerned to drive home his twofold thesis: Holders of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs have every right to a civil expression of their views in public; modern secularists have no right to make the public square off limits for religiously inspired contributions.

In nearly 50 pages of discussion, commentators like Peter Berger, Steven Tipton (coauthor of Habits of the Heart), Edward Dobson of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and Theodore Caplow (a sociologist from the University of Virginia who has been heading up the Middletown III study of religion in Muncie, Indiana) enrich and expand the concerns of the papers. Although the discussion covers a multitude of topics, it keeps returning to the need for moral and religious undergirding for the public philosophy of a successful democracy. The participants disagree, and disagree in very interesting ways, on many of the sub-issues involved. Yet each of the papers, and almost every paragraph of the published commentary, contributes significantly to a better understanding of the perils that attend the application of religion to public life, the restraints that ,must be exercised when making such an application, but also the desperate need in the current situation for making such an effort.

As thoroughly as the participants at the Neuhaus conference on “Unsecular America” explore and refine Reformed approaches to American life, there is also an occasional “Lutheran” note as well. George Marsden at one point in the discussion, for example, ventured the opinion that “Sometimes the way that secularization advances is by the advance of religion. That is . . . there is a baptizing of worldly practice. From the perspective of traditional Christianity, the advance of religion might be a dangerous thing, and that would include civil religion.” Such comments remained unexplored at the conference, but they do raise the interesting question as to what a thoroughly Lutheran approach to religion in public life would look like. This, as it happens, is exactly what Douglas Frank has attempted in Less Than Conquerors.

Eerdmans is marketing this volume as a history book, but it could just as easily be sold as a biblical exposition or, if the category still existed, as a jeremiad. Frank too is interested in religion and the public square. But unlike most American commentators on the subject, past and present, his chief concern is religion. He is asking Luther’s sort of question: What happens to religion precisely at that point where the best, noblest, and most heroic attempts are made to shape a culture with Christian precepts?

Frank’s narrative thread is the story of American Protestant evangelicals from the mid-19th century to the present. Evangelicals dominated American life from the time of the Civil War until a host of forces—industrialization, urbanization, and the creation of a mass marketing economy—and ideas—from Darwin, Freud, and other post-Christians—created confusion in a once predictable society and “stole” American culture from the evangelicals. In response, evangelicals developed a series of compensating strategies to regain control of inner and outer worlds. Theologically, evangelicals turned to dispensationalism, a way of reading the Bible that emphasized neat, rationalistic, tightly organized interpretations of prophecy and its fulfillment. In Frank’s view, this was a system that allowed evangelicals “to bring history back under their control.” Spiritually, evangelicals nourished several varieties of perfectionist “Victorious Living.” The forces of evil might control the public realm, but through strenuous effort and self-discipline evangelicals could approach spiritual perfection in “the inner man.” Publicly, evangelicals turned to the revival as the surest means to win back America for Christ and, coincidentally, for the evangelicals.

By the mid-1920’s it became clear even to evangelical leaders that revivalism had not recaptured America. Yet conservative evangelicals, now called fundamentalists, did not abandon dispensational theology. Victorious Living, or revivalism. Rather these became the foundations for an alternative culture-in-exile, biding time as secret servants of the Lord until the End would come or, perhaps, until the times would change and the good guys might reemerge on top once again. And so, it seems, it has come to pass. Beginning in the mid-1970’s, the coinage of late-19th-century evangelicalism is circulating with renewed vigor in the American political economy. There is a new receptivity to the old faith. And again it seems—academic obituaries on the demise of religion in the modern world notwithstanding—that evangelicals might actually regain partial control of America.

Frank, who grew up in a fundamentalist parsonage, has a firm grasp on the relevant historical literature, both on narrow religious matters and more general American developments. The remarkable, even stunning power of this book, however, lies not in the story it tells, but in Frank’s interpretation. At every point he stands the conventional evangelical discourse on its head. Cultural domination, “calling the shots,” is not a good thing but a spiritual disaster. Power leads to idolatry and the absence of God. Cultural disorientation and weakness opens the way to the holy. The standard aspirations of American evangelicals to power and influence signal the end of the Christian gospel. The fatal turn, as Frank sees it, came early in the history of the United States when evangelicals compromised the gospel by using the Christian message as a means to promote themselves. In so doing, they perpetrated “the serious confusion of Jesus Christ and American culture.”

In making these charges, Frank takes great pains to define what he means by the gospel. Passages from Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul drive home his point that the biblical God asks for brokenness instead of power, weakness instead of self-sufficiency, despair instead of confidence. This biblical exposition is at its best on the book of Job, which Frank uses to indict the effort to predicate godliness upon wealth and influence.

The end of the 19th century emerges as the great lost moment in the history of the evangelicals. The theological conservatives had become disoriented from their failure to control the public square. Now, perhaps of all times, they were in the best position to hear the good news of the gospel—that God saves the weak that God rescues those who moan for the burden of their sins, that the Christian God helps only those who have stopped trying to help themselves. Alas, it was not to be, and evangelicals turned once again to power or its substitutes.

Less Than Conquerors is a disturbing and powerful book, nowhere more moving than when describing the continued evangelical propensity to pursue control. Frank suggests that by seeking to transform American life into their version of the Good—by following the pattern of Reformed public involvement—evangelicals, whatever secondary benefit they may have bequeathed to the republic, have forsaken the cross and compromised the Christian message.

Yet Frank is not calling for separation from the world. Too clearly does he know, in Solzhenitsyn’s memorable phrase, that the final line between good and evil runs not between individuals but within them. Rather he calls for the renewal of a religion that has been corrupted by its best intentions and the memory of its greatest triumphs. Not since Joseph Haroutunian’s history of theology in 18th-century New England, Piety Versus Moralism (1932), has there appeared such a forceful Christian analysis of an American Christian tradition.

Non-Christians may scratch their heads in bewilderment. At least with Neuhaus and his collaborators there is a recognized vocabulary and a comfortable set of assumptions. The American Way can almost be equated with the effort (no matter where it comes from on or off the religious spectrum) to build a civilization by the application of moral principle (no matter how loosely “moral” may be defined). The contributors to Unsecular America stand squarely in that tradition as they try to apply sounder moral principles in a sounder manner in order to increase the soundness of the republic. Frank, on the other hand, seems to be speaking an unknown tongue.

Christians, and perhaps some others, may yet hope that the messages of Unsecular America and Less Than Conquerors are not simply irrelevant or antithetical to each other. If the ultimate goal of a Reformed approach to culture really were the glory of God, as in principle it was for Calvin, and if the Lutheran message of the cross did not rule out public concern for the good of others, as in practice it did not for Luther, then it is at least conceivable that believers in the cross might act altruistically in public and that the Protestant Reformation might be reunited in these latter days of America’s history.


[Unsecular America, edited by Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) $8.95]

[Less Than Conquerors: How Evangelicals Entered the Twentieth Century, by Douglas W. Frank (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) $14.95]