Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 10, 2008
Religious right isolated from mainstream
- WCR photo by Glen Argan
Yale graduate student Molly Worthen says young evangelicals want to affect culture.
By GLEN ARGAN
Western Catholic Reporter
The religious right is a uniquely American phenomenon with a 400-year history, says a Yale University religious studies graduate student.
While early evangelical Protestantism in Canada was at least as radical as that in the United States, the movement took different directions in the two countries following the American Civil War, Molly Worthen told a forum on Faith and Politics Nov. 4.
New ideas were slow to filter down from evangelical leaders to their followers in the U.S., Worthen said. But in Canada, because of closer ties with Britain and a smaller flock in this country, new strains in biblical scholarship in Germany quickly made their way into the understanding of evangelicals.
As a result, Canadian evangelicals were less isolated and less alienated from mainstream life than their American brothers and sisters.
Worthen gave a public lecture entitled Jesus for President attended by 60 people and sponsored by the U of A’s Interfaith Chaplains Association.
A 27-year-old doctoral student in religious history at Yale, she has researched the Old Believers Orthodox sect in northeastern Alberta and has also published a 350-page book, The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost.
In her talk, Worthen traced the roots of the religious right back to the arrival of the Puritans in the U.S. in the early 17th century.
The Puritans saw their outpost in America as “a city upon a hill” that would be an example to their British homeland. But similar thoughts were held in Canada among early French Catholics, British Protestants and eventually the United Empire Loyalists.
But after the Civil War, people in the U.S. had to reconstruct their sense of what it meant to be American, she said. There were different ways of doing that and even today there is no unified civil religion in the U.S.
There is, however, a common religious identity based around sacred texts such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, holy days such as the Fourth of July, and a totem – the American flag.
The rise of that civil religion received “a shot in the arm” with the rise of godless communism, Worthen said. In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower said the American government made no sense unless it was based on religious faith, even though he didn’t care what faith that was.
Eisenhower had the U.S. put “In God We Trust” on its money and added the phrase “one nation under God” to its Pledge of Allegiance.
Meanwhile, the evangelicals had become a dominant force, especially in the South, after the Civil War, she said. By the 1920s, a distinct fundamentalist movement, with an emphasis on self-isolation and militant opposition to mainstream culture, had arisen.
Protestant revival meetings tended to encourage black and white thinking that pitted secular liberals against religious conservatives, she said.
The Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 reinforced that sense of isolation and in the 1930s, the fundamentalist movement fell apart. However, the network of fundamentalist schools and other institutions remained.
In the 1960s, the religious right began to coalesce around the presidential candidacy of Republican Barry Goldwater, Worthen continued.
In Canada, 1925 was the year the United Church was founded, spelling out a different approach of religious cooperation and unity, she said. There was also a different dynamic in this country with the dominant place of Anglicanism in English Canada and the strength of Quebec Catholicism. Canadian leaders knew religious strife could tear the country apart and they encouraged sensitivity to minority religious rights.
Worthen noted the growth of “values voting” in the U.S. Voting for someone who shares your life values is reasonable. But values voting has led people to vote for someone who is most like themselves. The country is losing its ability to distinguish between a good leader and someone “who is most like me,” she said.
Religious right in decline
The religious right is now in decline in the U.S. and the emergence of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin comes from a model of the old school of evangelical political involvement, she said.
Young evangelicals are disillusioned with political action and are turning toward involvement in the culture to make their mark, Worthen said. They are forming closer ties with Roman Catholics to affect the culture and want a longer-term effect on society than can be found through politics.
Evangelical involvement with society now has many strains, she said. Nevertheless, the new American president will not simply be able to toss aside the evangelical culture that emerged in the last 30 years.