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The Christian Right in Context: Building a Christian America

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There have always been Christians who have resisted religious pluralism and diversity and have sought to transform this nation of religious freedom into a nation dominated by Christian conviction and practice.

Thanks to the First Amendment, however, they could not achieve that objective by coercion or the force of law. So time and again they used the only means they had at their disposal: the power of persuasion. And in the world of American religion, persuasion meant revivals -- often massive revivals that aimed to convert the entire American population.

Three of these massive revivals mark the course of American history. The first was the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. The second was the Fundamentalist Movement in the early 20th century. And the third was the Christian Right that flourished in the waning years of the 20th century and that continues in a somewhat altered form today.

It is impossible to understand the role of the Christian Right in American culture unless we first understand its two predecessors: the Second Great Awakening and the Fundamentalist Movement.

In this second article in this four-part series, then, we will ask how the Second Great Awakening and the Fundamentalist Movement sought to transform the United States into a distinctly Christian nation and, in that way, paved the way for the Christian Right of our own time.

The Second Great Awakening

Truth be told, it is only partially correct to say that the Second Great Awakening sought to Christianize the Republic, for its bedrock, fundamental goal was to transform the United States into a thoroughly Protestant nation: Catholics were not part of the equation.

The Second Great Awakening ran for roughly 30 years, from 1800 to 1830, and by the time it had run its course, it had thoroughly protestantized the American nation. Now, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and members of other non-Christian religions -- not to mention atheists -- were widely regarded as distinctly second-class citizens. In fact, many now viewed allegiance to the Christian faith, embodied in a Protestant denomination (it made no difference which one) as part and parcel of American patriotism.

But to its great credit, the Second Great Awakening also launched a variety of significant social reforms. They clearly based those reforms on the biblical vision of the kingdom of God, a vision that enjoined feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and standing in solidarity with people who were marginalized and oppressed.

In 19th-century America, no one fit the description of "the marginalized and oppressed" more fully than African American slaves, and it is difficult to imagine the abolition of slavery coming as early as it did apart from the extraordinary social impact of the Second Great Awakening.

While working to abolish slavery, participants in that revival worked on behalf of many other social causes including prison reform and the creation of common schools throughout the nation.

Of the three great efforts over the course of American history to Christianize the American nation, only the Second Great Awakening built into its agenda a passion for social justice.

Obviously, we must acknowledge that the Second Great Awakening was clearly exclusive in terms of religion, but its passion for social justice meant that it was profoundly inclusive in terms of race, gender and ethnicity. And precisely for that reason, many Americans saw precious little difference between the concerns of the Founders for the "unalienable rights" for "all men," and the concerns of the Second Great Awakening for equity and justice in the social arena.

In that way, the religious values of the Founders and the religious values of the Second Great Awakening coalesced to create what most Americans of the time agreed was the core meaning of America: liberty and justice for all, even though the practice of that ideal was incomplete and deeply flawed.

The World Out of Joint: the Rise of Fundamentalism in the Early 20th Century

The second great attempt to Christianize the nation -- the Fundamentalist Movement -- emerged at the end of the 19th century but flourished in the early 20th century when the world seemed badly out of joint to people wed to the ideals of Christian America.

The problem those people faced was that new and powerful forces now undermined the Christian civilization that the Second Great Awakening had put in place.

Fundamentalisms, wherever they appear around the globe, typically emerge in response to crises that throw the world out of joint, and in America in the late 19th century those crises were many and profound.

First, ethnic and religious pluralism exploded exponentially between 1865 and 1900 when at least 13.5 million immigrants settled in the United States. They hailed from Germany, Austria, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Bohemia, Poland, Russia, Romania, Croatia and other European nations, and by and large they were either Catholic or Eastern Orthodox -- traditions altogether foreign to the Protestant America that had been created over the course of the 19th century.

Second, the industrialization that occurred both during and after the Civil War contributed to unthinkable levels of grinding poverty in cities throughout the northern part of the United States. With their backs against the wall, the working poor organized labor unions to protect themselves from the predatory practices of the Barons of Industry and other capitalists. But advocates for "Christian America" rejected these efforts of the working poor and found the unions as threatening as the immigrants themselves.

And third, a radically new world view, predicated on evolutionary assumptions, now began to undermine both the ideal and the reality of a "Christian America." Historians often call that worldview "modernism."

Darwin's theory of evolution stood at the heart of the modernist perspective and, from the perspective of many Christians, severely threatened the traditional understanding that God had created humans in His own image.

To make matters worse for many orthodox Christians, many biblical scholars of the late 19th century rejected the traditional notion that God had simply spoken the biblical text into existence and argued instead for a distinctly evolutionary view of the Bible's origins.

These scholars, often called "biblical critics," now argued, for example, that a variety of authors over a period of many centuries had written sections of the book of Genesis. Then, perhaps hundreds of years later, an editor pulled those sections into the Genesis text that appears in our Bible. Many orthodox Christians felt that this sort of evolutionary reading of the Bible severely compromised the traditional understanding of the Bible as divinely inspired by the spirit of God.

And finally, if Darwin had applied evolutionary understandings to the biological world, and if biblical critics had applied evolutionary understandings to the text of the Bible, a new school of psychology now applied evolutionary understandings to God himself. Sigmund Freud was in many ways the apex of those new understandings that had their genesis in the early 20th century.

Freud argued in his book, The Future of an Illusion, that God was much like Linus's security blanket, created by our primitive ancestors for protection in the face of sickness, death and natural calamities. Clearly, Freud argued, the idea of God has evolved to meet humanity's needs, but since humanity has now matured, we should act like mature people and dispense with such childish understandings.

With traditional understandings of humanity, the Bible and God all under assault in these ways, it must be obvious that the notion of "Christian America" was in jeopardy as well. The Fundamentalist Movement therefore emerged in the early 20th century as the second of the three great attempts in American history to Christianize the American Republic.

But the Fundamentalist Movement differed from the Second Great Awakening in many respects.

First, while the Second Great Awakening led into the future and sought to create something new -- a democracy that worked in harmony with the will of God -- the Fundamentalist Movement essentially sought to defend the gains of the past.

Second, if the Second Great Awakening was in sync with the spirit of its age and therefore built on the widespread belief that the kingdom of God could actually be built in this new nation, the Fundamentalist Movement rejected the spirit of its age and the driving force of late-19th and early-20th century America: the findings of modern science.

Indeed, if the Second Great Awakening had fought for the abolition of slavery, fundamentalists fought for a nation free from Darwin's theory of evolution. If the Second Great Awakening had fought for prison reform, fundamentalists fought to defend an inerrant Bible. And if the Second Great Awakening had fought for the creation of common schools throughout the nation, fundamentalists fought to free those schools from scientific theories that failed to conform to a literal reading of the biblical text.

Third, while the Second Great Awakening had been marked by a profound sense of optimism over the nation's future, the Fundamentalist Movement was marked by pessimism and a deep sense of foreboding that the Christian America of the past might never be recovered.

And because pessimism and negativity were so central to the Fundamentalism project, Fundamentalists devised a premillennial escape hatch that assured them of victory in the life to come even if Modernists won the battles on this earth.

But in the context of this analysis, the most important difference between the Second Great Awakening and the Fundamentalist Movement had to do with the way religion can either unite or divide a society. In the first installment of this series we noted that "to the extent that religion provides a nation with a widely agreed-upon sense of meaning, to that extent it provides the glue that binds the nation together."

Because the Second Great Awakening was so thoroughly in sync with the optimistic spirit of its age and built on the great sense of promise that most Americans felt their nation embodied, and because it embodied a passion for justice for marginalized people, it captured the heart of the nation and easily blended with the Founders' belief that all men are created equal and endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

On the other hand, because it rejected the scientific spirit of its age, because it was so dour and pessimistic, because it focused so completely on the past, and because it typically failed to embody a concern for social justice, fundamentalism was ill equipped to provide the religious glue that could bind this nation together.

No wonder, then, that in 1925, the Scopes-Monkey Trial forced the Fundamentalist Movement to retreat from America's public square.

The old nursery rhyme, "Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; and all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty together again," provides a helpful way to think about the rise and fall of fundamentalism in the early 20th century.

In this case, Humpty is Christian America that sat on the wall built by the Second Great Awakening. But a great earthquake rumbled through the land, toppling Humpty from his perch and smashing him into a million pieces. Like all the king's horses and all the king's men who tried to put Humpty together again, the Fundamentalists also tried. Lord knows they tried! But the world had changed, and when they failed to reconstruct Humpty, the larger nation forced them to beat a hasty retreat from America's public square.

That is the history we must understand if we wish to grasp the meaning and significance of the Christian Right today.

In the third of this four-part series of articles, we will ask exactly how and why the Christian Right fits into this much larger story -- a story defined by the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century and the Fundamentalist Movement of the early 20th.

This four-part series is based on Richard Hughes' book, Christian America and the Kingdom of God (University of Illinois Press, 2009), and will continue with two more installments. Hughes is Distinguished Professor of Religion at Messiah College.

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