Molly Worthen, historian at UNC-Chapel Hill who studies 20th-century evangelicals (and has a keen grasp of theology qua theology, has an essay on the culture wars in the New York Times op ed section that starts with St. Augustine, mentions the “exhausted majority” from the Tribes of America study and ends up by suggesting the tribalization of American culture (my term, not hers) might be bridged in much the same way the historical animosity between Catholics and Protestants was bridged in the last half of the 20th century.

I’m not so sure about that last but — seems to me like the most hateful Protestants united with anti-abortion Catholics against a common enemy — but it bears thinking about. Certainly, a whole range of the older ethnic animosities have lessened over the same period, so abortion isn’t the only factor. But the culture wars aren’t exactly bringing in the New Jerusalem.

Thought-provoking, anyway, especially as I’m rethinking my “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden” paper and struggling with the conceptual framework. I think I want to come back to it.

St. Augustine comes up in Worthen’s lede, as does an implicit comparison between our times and the fall of the Roman Empire:

President Biden tends to hammer on the theme of national unity, often in theological terms. On Memorial Day, he described the ongoing battle for the “soul of America,” a conflict between “our worst instincts — which we’ve seen of late — and our better angels. Between ‘Me first’ and ‘We the people.’” In January, in his Inaugural Address, he quoted St. Augustine: “A people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.”

That line appears in “The City of God,” in a chapter that laments the fate of a people who drift from heeding their better angels to obeying their inner demons — like denizens of the Roman Empire, which “declined into sanguinary seditions and then to social and civil wars, and so burst asunder or rotted off the bond of concord in which the health of a people consists, history shows,” St. Augustine wrote.

Over the past six months Mr. Biden has been warning us, in his frank and ecumenical way, that Americans have become a bunch of idol worshipers. He’s right. We have transformed political hatreds into a form of idolatry. A team of researchers analyzed a range of survey data and concluded that “out-party hate” now seems to shape American voting decisions more than race or religion do. “The foundational metaphor for political sectarianism is religion,” the researchers wrote in the journal Science last fall, based on “the moral correctness and superiority of one’s sect.” Political hatred has become Americans’ animating faith, a chief source of existential meaning.

That study in Science magazine, by the way, was by Eli J. Finkel et al. on “Political Sectarianism in America.” I’ve blogged about one of the coauthors and linked to it HERE, and I plan to use it as I expand my immigration paper.

Worthen suggests younger evangelicals might be open to dialog on cultural issues, and that dialog in turn might lead to the dialing down of sectarian hatred cited in the New York Times headline. She citing a project headed by Eboo Patel, the founding director of Interfaith Youth Core, that brought together students from Oberlin and an evangelical Protestant college in Michigan,

I’m convinced (well, I’m trying to convince myself) that most Americans are like Ms. Lewis [an evangelical program participant]. They are tired of the culture wars; they want to understand and get along with people different from themselves. It’s true that a zealous few turn political ideas into inerrant dogmas because they seek the sense of community once offered by traditional religion and because they crave ideological surrogates for the doctrines of original sin, predestination and divine justice — that perverse blend of control and victimhood that tempts humans when the prospect of taking real responsibility becomes too frightening.

But a much larger proportion of Americans want their sense of free will back. They belong to what More in Common, the organization I mentioned earlier, calls “the exhausted majority.” The consistent theme in my conversations with young religious believers on the left and the right is their yearning for the freedom to escape political tribes. Their refusal to be bound by the habits and fears of their parents’ generation echoes the special role that young Americans played in the détente between Catholics and Protestants two generations ago — and maybe the history of interfaith conflict has something to teach us about rebuilding working relationships between Republicans and Democrats.

When today’s hatreds seem ineradicable, it’s heartening to remember how far Americans have come since, say, 1960, when John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign prompted evangelical Protestants to organize a media blitz warning voters that a Catholic president would be a pawn of the Vatican, that fecund Catholic families were taking over the country and that patriotic Protestants shouldn’t let charges of anti-Catholic bigotry keep them from sounding the alarm. “Are we moving into an era of Roman Catholic domination in America?” Harold Ockenga, a prominent evangelical pastor, asked in a rousing speech several weeks before the election. “Will there be a denial of rights, freedom and privileges for non-Roman Catholics?”

Although a casual anti-Catholic prejudice persists in some circles today, many Americans greeted the Catholic faith of our 46th president with a collective shrug. Over the decades, a complex series of socioeconomic, cultural and ideological shifts smoothed the way for Protestants and Catholics to recognize one another as fellow humans capable of cooperating in the democratic process and even merging their families. Young lay believers contributed at least as much to interfaith understanding as bishops and theologians did. Protestants and Catholics funded by the G.I. Bill sat next to each other in college classrooms after World War II; they marched side by side in the civil rights movement; they worshiped together in the charismatic renewal movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when Pentecostal-style revivals swept all Christian denominations and made a special impact on college campuses.

It’s crucial to see that young Catholics and Protestants were not merely emissaries of inevitable generational change. In the interfaith friendships they made, the spouses they chose despite their “ethnic” last names — in the innumerable small, compassionate interactions that distinguish a thriving civilization from a crumbling one — they made deliberate decisions to reject the prejudices and assumptions of older generations.

As hopeful as this sounds, and as much as I identify with the “exhausted majority,” I worry that one of the things that brought Catholics and evangelical Protestants together was the anti-abortion movement. To what extent was Protestant animosity toward Catholics replaced by a joint animosity toward secular Americans and a (mostly) unacknowledged animosity toward women?

Molly Worthen, “Is There a Way to Dial Down the Political Hatred?” New York Times, June 11, 2021


When I was checking out Molly Worthen, I came across a very interesting podcast transcript on the RTN [Road to Now] website at Brigham Young University. This blurb gives a summary of what she talks about — including some thoughts on historiography I want to digest further:

In this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, historian Molly Worthen joins us to discuss her new book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Evangelical Christians comprise nearly 25 percent of the population of the United States, and although the tradition has produced a number of outstanding scholars, Evangelicalism has a reputation for promoting anti-intellectualism. Having examined the last 70 years of Evangelical history, Worthen is specially situated to talk about ongoing negotiations between faith and the intellect performed by religious believers. Is it possible to be a religious believer and also an intellectual? How have changes in the academic world impacted Evangelical faith? Can a historian employing secular tools provide an in-depth though sympathetic study of religion? These and other questions are the focus of this episode.

One thing I’m pretty sure I want to use is this, on writing with empathy:

I think that the historian’s primary task is empathy. That is getting into the mind of the person you’re writing about, whether they are your twin, or whether this is a person separated from you by centuries, by an ideological gulf. Whether that person is Mahatma Gandhi or Adolf Hitler. I don’t care. Your job is empathy, your job is to get into that person’s world view and figure out what makes them tick. So as a historian I try my best to describe what I understand to be the world view of the people I’m writing about, but then I do step back and I analyze that in my own framework, which they may not share.

But there’s more. I want to come back to it.

“Molly Worthen on faith and the intellect in American Evangelicalism,” interview by Blair Hodges, RTN Theology, Maxwell Institute Podcast, Brigham Young University, May 9, 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s