July 31, 2008


Camp meeting, circa 1839, courtesy of wikipedia.

The theme this week at Goat Rope is a paradox of the American religious experience: while the US is among the most religious and religiously diverse countries in the world, many residents measure pretty low on surveys of religious literacy--both of the religions they profess and of those they don't.

One thing that may have set the tone for this was the popularity of revivalism on the American frontier, of which the Second Great Awakening of the first half of the 1800s is a prime example. As the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote,

Long before America was discovered, the Christian community was perennially divided between those who believed that the intellect must have a vital place in religion and those who believed that intellect should be subordinated to emotion, or in effect abandoned at the dictates of emotion...under American conditions the balance between traditional establishments and revivalist or enthusiastic movements drastically shifted in favor of the latter. In consequence, the learned professional clergy suffered a loss of position, and the rational style of religion they found congenial suffered accordingly. At an early stage in its history, America, with its Protestant and dissenting inheritance, became the scene of an unusually keen local variation of this universal historical struggle over the character of religion; and here the forces of enthusiasm and revivalism had their most impressive victories.

Of course, given the hardships of farm and frontier life, this kind of religion provided relief from toil, a chance to socialize, and a welcome form of entertainment. Abraham Lincoln, who was pretty unorthodox in religious matters, enjoyed such spectacles while growing up. He once said "When I see a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees."

The effects of the Second Great Awakening can still be felt in El Cabrero's neck of the woods. I remember many conversations I had growing up about religion with people for whom religion was preaching and who suspected educated clergy to be instruments of the devil. They believed every word of the Bible, even if they were a little hazy on what these might actually be.

As Stephen Prothero notes in Religious Literacy, this religion of the heart was a marked change from the kind that prevailed before when the nation was founded:

As has been noted, religious faith and religious knowledge were inseparable in the colonies and the early republic...But early Americans didn't just know Jesus; they knew the Sermon on the Mount (often by heart). They believed, as the Reverend John Lathrop of Boston's Second Church wrote, that "the connexion between knowledge and faith, is such, that the latter cannot exist without the former."...All that changed, however, with the rise to public power in the early nineteenth century of a new form of Protestantism called evangelicalism. By the end of that century a lack of elementary knowledge of Christianity would constitute evidence of authentic faith. What for generations had been shameful--religious illiteracy--would become a badge of honor in a nation besotted with the self-made man and the spirit-filled preacher.

The triumph had unintended consequences:

In the name of heartfelt faith, unmediated experience, and Jesus himself, they actively discouraged religious learning. To evangelicalism, therefore, we owe both the vitality of religion in contemporary American and our impoverished understanding of it.

LEAVING A RECORD...DEFICIT. President Bush will leave his successor the biggest one yet.

THAT'S JUST SWELL. The US has reassured Israel that it might whack Iran. Here's more on the subject from Scott Ritter.

LOSING TIME. This doesn't show up on official unemployment statistics, but millions of American workers have had the hours of work cut.

IF "SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN" RAN HOROSCOPES, here's what they would look like.

OLD SCHOOL COMPUTING. This is an interesting look at an ancient Greek computational device. Where did they plug it in?

HYPERION TO A SATYR. A professor from El Cabrero's alma mater Marshall University will write a biography of George W. Bush. The author, Jean Edward Smith, has previously written 12 books, including a prize-winning and bestselling biography of FDR--peace be unto him. The contrast between the two is mind boggling.


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