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Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II.

Why Journalists Can't Write About Religion

By my best count, Mark Silk's new history of religion and politics in postwar America(*), which mentions the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. by name 21 times, refers to the Reverend James Albert Pike, flaky Episcopal bishop of California, 30 times. This is a little like writing a 400-page cookbook and devoting 150 pages to recipes requiring potato chips. And it is symptomatic of the disease that infects Silk's book and much of what is written about religion. The meaning of religion is ignored. I am afraid that, like the liver man seeing a really good case of hepatitis, I'm more interested in the disease than the patient, which at any rate will soon die in the bookstores.

To return to our original example, Bishop Pike was ordained into the Episcopal Church in 1946 and hired as chaplain at Columbia in 1949. He gave jazzy sermons, hosted a Sunday morning TV show, and was elected Bishop of California, where he was fashionably liberal (building a cathedral with stained glass windows of Thurgood Marshall) and dabbled in mild heresy, "hint[ing] at doubts about the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and Salvation Through Christ Alone." He later participated in a televised seance and promoted parapsychology before dying in the desert of the Holy Land where he was wandering around in the sun looking for a spiritual breakthrough. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. led a nonviolent "civil rights" campaign that won an end to segregation and voting rights for black people. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. So why is Pike more prominent in Silk's book than King?

The first answer seems to be that Pike wrote for The Christian Century, one of a half-dozen or so publications that Silk, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, constantly cites. (The others include the Jesuit weekly, America, the Partisan Review, Politics, and the New Yorker.) And he showed up posthumously on the literati radar screen, thanks to an "eviscerating" essay by Joan Didion. This probably compensated for his never having been actually connected to Harvard University, though that would certainly have been even better. Father Leonard Feeney, a heretic priest who operated for several years from that university's unofficial Catholic student center is mentioned by name 43 times, and his followers, the Feeneyites, five times. Both Feeney and Pike are, in their limited way, interesting--were Silk to write a history of modern American heresy he would have two chapters in the bank. But the reason they have been included here, I think, is their attachment to and separation from the religious-intellectual establishment that is the organizing principle of Silk's book. He, like most academics and journalists, wants to write about Religion, not religion. We read in the papers detailed accounts about what the Pope has to say about Poland, but not what he has to say about Paul. This tendency, as we shall see, distorts our understanding. Silk carries it to extremes. (But, of course, this kind of writing is also easier; it's far simpler to cite journal articles than it is to wrestle with the meaning of Galatians.)

In Silk's eyes, faith in America is a phenomenon best understood through the records of the National Council of Churches and its predecessors and in the pages of elite journals. Developments unskilled outsiders might think important in and of themselves--the rise of Billy Graham, for instance--Silk chronicles through the eyes of this establishment. We learn that The Christian Century was "warily noncommittal" about Graham in 1951 during a large Seattle crusade and, by 1952, "cold" toward his performance in San Francisco, but by March 1954 had had a "change of heart" and regarded him as "extraordinarily teachable and humble." What had happened? Graham had entered the sanctum of establishment Protestantism (New York City's Union Theological Seminary), spoken for 45 minutes, and spent half an hour answering questions. He impressed them with his sincerity, even leading one theologian to say, in the Union Seminary Quarterly Review, that he could probably "be used for highly constructive Christian purposes."

This theme is carried through to the bitter end. On the penultimate page, immediately after asking whether or not America might be in for a new Great Awakening, Silk pops the really hot question: Will Partisan Review spring to life with a symposium on a new, new, new failure of nerve? The reference is to two earlier Partisan Review symposiums about intellectuals and religion, but, believe me, you'd know what he was talking about if you had read the book.

The flaw in this method of historical research need hardly be described. It is a little like writing a history of American politics in the 1980s and restricting your research to the pages of The Washington Monthly and Human Events. The Washington Monthly and Human Events may well be fine publications, influential among their respective coteries, but it would probably be good, just as a backup, to talk to some actual politicians (or even voters) as well. Silk even proves that the religious Establishment swung little political weight. In the aftermath of the Six Day War, he reports, the former president of Union was "aghast at Israel's onslaught," The Christian Century said Christians would not "sign a blank check" in regard to the war, the National Council of Churches "struggled for neutrality"--and 346 of 438 senators and representatives agreed Israel should not withdraw its troops from the occupied territories without assurances of national security. Many of the congressmen donned "Dayan-like" eyepatches to show their support.

Junior high health class

So why does Silk care so much about this establishment in a book theoretically devoted to "religion and politics?" It's the deeply ingrained desire, I think, to avoid embarrassing discussions of belief and faith. Dogma shows up here a few times--Mr. Feeney's loony, single-minded devotion to the proposition extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church no salvation) and the Reverend Bailey Smith's 1980 announcement that God didn't hear the prayers of Jews. (The Reverend Smith is referred to 25 times by name.) These two excursions into "theology" are interesting to Silk because they represent rips in the institutional fabric of the Judeo-Christian establishment, papered over with meetings of the Anti-Defamation League and interfaith committees and by Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston taking tea at Harvard's Lowell House. But this fabric has little to do with the tapestry of American religion. The real issues--the ones that have broken into the political sphere repeatedly--have to do with content, with what the Gospels and the Scriptures say. This often makes scholars and journalists unhappy, for questions of faith remain largely taboo in their circles, but it's impossible to write a useful book on this topic that (to play our numerical game one last time) mentions The Christian Century on 20 pages and the Bible on four. It is like a junior high school health class about sex--you come away barely understanding the mechanics, much less the import. Religion concerns death and what happens in its wake, sin, forgiveness, reconciliation, the right life, selflessness, topics that are personal, political, and usually both.

Rethink their duties

The case of Martin Luther King makes this point. To Silk, a piece King wrote for The Christian Century's "How My Mind Has Changed" series is of prime importance. According to Silk, King wrote that he had begun his career as a thoroughgoing liberal but that reading Reinhold Niebuhr had tempered his optimism, though he had never succumbed to an "all-out acceptance of neo-orthodoxy," and indeed found himself in basic agreement with the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch, which he proposed to put into action with a "Gandhian satyagraha." King's remarks may well have been, as Silk says, "carefully calculated" for his clerical audience, but they do not get at the heart of his struggle. That movement was embedded in a theological notion--that we are all God's children. The struggle took as its motif a scriptural episode, the Exodus from oppression of the Jews. And though its methods were developed in large measure by Gandhi, there was no doubt about the Mahatma's principal source--the Sermon on the Mount. These are the fundamental reasons Martin Luther King's campaign worked. To a country steeped in these images, he was recognizable as Moses, and his life and death were an imitation of Christ's. "Turning the other cheek" resonated in our culture. He had a lever to move the conscience of the American majority. King's vast accomplishment lay not in ridding the readers of The Christian Century of "neo-orthodox misgivings" about his "neo-Social gospel." He changed the hearts of half the country.

Similarly, though less dramatically, both the rise of and the reaction against Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority (a reaction so complete that politicians in his home state wish fervently not to be endorsed by him) had much to do with the content of the Scriptures. Most of his followers sincerely believed fornication (to say nothing of secular humanism) led to eternal hellfire; most of the rest of the country sincerely believed that this was hypocritical. It wasn't that they didn't want him interfering in their libertine pursuits or that they feared he was damaging the Judeo-Christian balance in America, it was that they thought the Moral Majority wasn't moral.

In this same period, members of the establishment churches, in my view, did more than anyone else to prevent the Reagan administration from invading Nicaragua with their demonstration that such a move would result in massive protest--not the five-years-delayed protest of the Vietnam era but immediate and dramatic reaction from large numbers of Catholics and Protestants. These mainline denominations, especially American Catholicism, have shifted in the last several decades from pillars of the American establishment to independent actors--critics. Those bishops who think nuclear weapons might be morally defensible find themselves on the defensive, and many are those who find that old god capitalism an idol. This is not an injection of social activism into religion. It is an injection of religion--of Moses battling the Pharaoh, of the prophetic denunciations, of the parables and the Sermon on the Mount--into an institution that like all institutions tends toward conservatism. Though not as dramatic, it is comparable to the change in the Latin American Catholic church from a superstition-spreading, consciousness-dampening friend of the oligarchs into a strident advocate of the poor. These events are connected; the developing liberation theologies of the Third World have begun to sink in, convincing significant numbers of religious Americans to rethink their duties to human beings elsewhere.

In part this is an intellectual development--Gustavo Gutierrez's book A Theology of Liberation, which gave voice to the new Catholicism, will prove to be more important by far to the history of American religion than any document Silk cites. But it is an intellectual development that grows out of the reality of oppression (or opulence) and finds its meaning in concrete, physical action. Journalists would sooner accept pat and superficial sociological explanations--that concerns with social justice among American clerics and churchgoers are a fad explainable by trends in the secular society, a hangover from the 1960s, perhaps--than deal with dangerous ideas like, "Are we living too high?" or "Should I, myself, feed the hungry?" These sort of questions embarrass us, as they should.

One could conclude, as Silk seems to, that the rejection in the past year or two of the religious right helps prove that we don't need to worry about such things--that cooler heads have prevailed and "American religion [is] slouching back towards normalcy." But all along he was concerned only to look for "normalcy" (that is, what The Christian Century thought) and aberration (what Bishop Pike did). In the process, he misses what actually happened. (*)Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II. Mark Silk. Simon & Schuster, $19.95.
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Author:McKibben, Bill
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1988
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