THE GOSPEL AND THE AMERICAN DREAM
By Dr. Bruce L. Shelley
A Book Review
John Ed Robertson
October 9, 1998
Although I picked up this book for 99 cents in a Christian book store clearance sale, I found it to be one of the most insightful analyses of American culture that I have ever read. Dr. Shelley is professor of church history at Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary, and he weaves together history and sociology to explain not only where we are as a nation, but also how we got there.
We have often heard that the United States were founded upon Christian principles and Biblical values, yet we know that many of the Founding Fathers were deists and freethinkers. How could they found a nation on Christian principles?
In addition, the juxtaposition of socialism and atheism in Communism has often caused some believers to associate free enterprise with Biblical Christianity. Although the two are not necessarily antithetical, American materialism is often far from the Biblical teaching on wealth and possessions. For example, shortly after Ron Sider wrote the book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, someone published a rebuttal entitled Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators. Only in America! How can we avoid an unbiblical mixture of capitalism and Christianity?
Dr. Shelley brings some much-needed clear thinking to this area. His basic thesis is that there have been four major traditions that have shaped American culture: the Biblical, the republican, the economic and the therapeutic. He presents them separately and then shows how the "American Dream" has elements of all four strands.
Quoting no less astute an observer than Alexis de Tocqueville, he writes: "Democracy more perfect than any of which antiquity had dared to dream sprang full-grown and fully armed from the midst of the old feudal society. (In this sense) the whole destiny of America is contained in the first Puritan who landed on these shores, as that of the whole human race in the first man." (p. 49). He also cites contemporary Puritan scholar Sacvan Bercovitch, who "argues that the Puritans established nothing less than the central tenets of what was to become our dominant culture". (p. 49)
Nevertheless, the Puritans have been victims of a lot of bad press in recent years, and "many people in America today would like to forget that the Puritans ever came to the New World". (p. 48)
These men were, by and large, rationalists who believed in the power of human reason to govern in a democracy. For example, Caesar Rodney of Delaware wrote:
"Every door is now open to the Sons of Genius and Science to inquire after Truth. Hence we may expect the darkening clouds of error will vanish fast before the light of reason, and that the period is fast arriving when the Truth will enlighten the whole world." (p. 51)
The Biblical and the republican traditions are fundamentally different in what they take as ultimate authority. For the Puritans, the ultimate authority was divine revelation, but for the republicans, it was human reason. Nevertheless, their shared love of liberty "brought the Biblical strands of American culture into an alliance with the republican strand. Revivalists cooperated with rationalists, the less-than-orthodox founders of the American republic, and provided much of the grass-roots energy for the American Revolution and the creation of a new nation" 9p. 51) "Many American evangelicals, steeped in the Biblical strand of culture, discovered ways to cooperate with the republican strand and thus helped to create traditional, morally-sensitive small-town America." (p. 60)
The separation of church and state in America therefore embraces two conflicting ideals. The custodial ideal comes from the Puritan vision of America, whereby the government is responsible for the spiritual as well as the physical well being of its citizens. The plural ideal, on the other hand, draws a critical distinction between public interests and private concerns. In this view, government is public, but religion (and morality) is private, and both are best served by a strict of "wall of separation" between them. The current controversy over President Clintons private behavior is an obvious manifestation of this clash in ideals.
Shelley cites the Scopes monkey trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925 as "a dramatic symbol of the shift in American culture from small-town America, under the rule of traditional Protestant morality, to urban America, under the faith in human progress and the love of individual rights". In other words, this was a fundamental turning point in the divorce between the Biblical tradition, which takes divine revelation as the ultimate authority, and the republican tradition, which takes human reason as its ultimate authority.
The economic tradition grew out of American faith in practicality and expediency, as manifested in the Industrial Revolution. Shelley argues that the two inventions that have the most affected American culture are the automobile and the cinema/television. The automobile destroyed the isolation of small-town America, and the cinema and television brought a picture of life far different than what people had experienced up to that point. Furthermore, "In urban centers, the traditional consensus of life in white, Protestant, moral-minded America was a thing of the past."
The therapeutic tradition says that the fundamental human need is not salvation but healing. It downplays the importance of commitment in the interest of self-actualization. It is as if the Declaration of Independence has been modified to say that our Creator has endowed us not only with the inalienable right to the "pursuit of happiness" but the right to happiness itself. Any call for self-restraint is suspect, because the ultimate goal is to be free to do exactly as I please. As the Sexual Freedom League has put it: "We believe that sexual expression in whatever form agreed upon between consenting persons of either sex should be considered as an unalienable right." (p. 67)
Dr. Shelley devotes much of the book to examining the impact on American culture of these four traditions and the interplay among them. He discusses at length the privatization of faith, where Christian faith is considered to be strictly a private matter and "one's religious convictions can have no effect on one's public decisions". There are undoubtedly some unfortunate historical precedents to justify this position. As Blaise Pascal wrote: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." (p. 79) Nevertheless, Shelley points out that "It is also true that non-religious regimes can be oppressive. Today the state poses a much greater danger than the church of upsetting the constitutional balance between republican government and religious freedom." (pp. 84-85)
He also examines the effect of these four traditions on values and on the educational system, as well as on more private concerns, such as success, work, family and love. He notes the irony of political correctness, although he never uses the term (the book was printed in 1989, before the term became popular).
"When a person no longer relies upon tradition or authority, he inevitably looks to others for confirmation of his judgements. Refusal to accept established opinion and anxious conformity to the opinions of one's peers turns out to be two sides of the same coin." (pp. 98-99) One has only to visit a public high school to observe the school uniforms imposed, not by the administration, but by peer pressure.
He concludes with suggestions for a thoughtful and balanced Christian response to the problems posed by the secularization and privatization of Christian faith that have resulted from the interplay among these four major traditions. He acknowledges the deep frustration felt by many Christians when he quotes John Neuhaus: "Hence millions of Americans have for a long time felt put upon. Theirs is a powerful resentment against values that have been imposed upon them, and an equally powerful sense of outrage at the suggestion that they are the ones who pose the threat of undemocratically imposing values upon others." (p. 95)
"The trick, then, is for Christians to work on two fronts simultaneously: in 'outreach' to the wider community and in 'uplift' of their common life in Christ. In brief, churches need to move into the open spaces in public life and to enlist deeper commitment from Christian believers." (p. 181) The church in the 21st century must distinguish a meaningful engagement of American culture in its outreach ministry and a distinctive Christian alternative to American culture in its worshipping community. It must break through the walls of isolation from American public life by the use of methods and ministries that make sense to secular-minded Americans. (p. 182) Assimilation by and isolation from the surrounding culture are constant threats to Christianity in a democracy." (p. 183) The churches' return to the meaning and place of moral values in private and public life may be their greatest contribution to a humane capitalism and a civil democracy." (p. 183)
Anyone who has served as a missionary in another country has had to sort through what is Biblical and what is cultural in his or her Christianity. Dr. Shelley's book is an excellent resource for those who are seeking to do the same thing while seeking to influence their own culture for the sake of the gospel.