Christianity and American politics, with Matthew Bowman [MIPodcast #82]
What comes to mind when you hear the term “American Christians”? Most people today think of the so-called Religious Right, a loosely knit group of conservative Christians who oppose legal abortion, favor gun rights, and hail Ronald Reagan as one like unto Moses. Matthew Bowman’s latest book is a wake-up call, reminding us that there’s no such thing as American Christianity. There are Christianities, ranging from conservative to liberal, all over the political spectrum.
In this episode we’ll complicate the simple story and try to find out who gets to decide what counts as Christian in the United States. Matthew Bowman talks about his latest book, Christian: The Politics of a Word in America.
Matthew Bowman is Associate Professor of History at Henderson State University. He is the author of The Mormon People, and a new book called Christian: The Politics of a Word in America from Harvard University Press.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. What comes to mind when you hear the term “American Christians”? Most people today think of the so-called Religious Right, a loosely knit group of conservative Christians who oppose legal abortion, favor gun rights, and hail Ronald Reagan as like unto Moses.
Matthew Bowman’s latest book is a wake-up call, reminding us that there’s no such thing as American Christianity. There are Christianities—ranging from conservative to liberal, all over the political spectrum. In this episode we’ll complicate the simple story and try to find out who gets to decide what counts as Christian in the United States. Matthew Bowman joins us to talk about his latest book, Christian: The Politics of a Word in America from Harvard University Press.
Stick around at the end of the episode for our review of the month. You can send questions and comments about this and other episodes to me at email@example.com.
BLAIR HODGES: Matthew Bowman, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
MATTHEW BOWMAN: Thank you. Glad to be here.
HODGES: I should let people know that I know you, I’ve known you for a long time, so I’ll call you Matt. I think you’re okay with that!
BOWMAN: Sounds good.
HODGES: We’re talking about your book Christian: The Politics of a Word in America. Christian. That’s a bold title, Matt. So the subtitle clarifies, but I want to hear how you arrived on just the word Christian as the title.
BOWMAN: Sure. This came out of events during the 2012 presidential election and more of the sort of Religious Right and its presence in politics for a long, long time. I’ve noticed many people will say there’s a sort of Christian position on “Y,” or this person is the Christian candidate running for office. I had always thought and I had been trained in graduate school to think of Christian as being a word that doesn’t have a clear common definition. There are a lot of different groups that call themselves Christian, and these groups disagree about what it means to be a Christian.
What is fascinating to me about the times we live in is that there’s a presumption, I think, in the media, in news discourse, that if someone calls themselves a Christian that you know how they’re going to vote. You know who they’ll vote for. You know what their politics are. They care about abortion, they care about gay marriage, they probably care about smaller government—although I don’t think there’s any obvious connection between any of those and the word “Christian” itself. So what I wanted to do was unpack this word and think about the many different ways that it’s been used and the arguments about what precisely it means to be a Christian in politics in America.
HODGES: Did anybody at the publisher give you a hard time about search algorithms? Just to have like one word as you’re typing “Christian”—
BOWMAN: Oh, no, actually the publisher loved the title. I had one person who worked at the press who told me that they thought they’d publish it just based on the title alone.
HODGES: Oh, cool. So as you said it’s basically about the competing ways that different people deploy the label of Christian in service of, or as a reflection of, their political preferences in particular. You say that part of what inspired this book were some discussions that you had with LDS historian Richard Bushman and also researcher Jana Riess, these are two scholars who have done work on the Mormon tradition. What did those discussions look like?
BOWMAN: Well you know the conversations we had there were about whether or not Mormons could be considered Christian. This was in 2012 when Mitt Romney was running for president when there was a lot of talk about whether or not Mormons were Christian.
Of course many many Evangelicals who had been accustomed to supporting Republican politicians had a lot of agony over whether or not they could support Mitt Romney. You saw some Evangelicals say they could even if they did not think he was a Christian; they liked his policies. You had other Evangelicals who were very suspicious of voting for a Mormon for president. So it was in conversations about that phenomenon that the genesis of this book was born.
HODGES: It’s interesting because the epilogue itself, that’s where the epilogue takes place is the curious situation from the 2012 election. You say it was strange not just because Romney was being questioned in terms of his Christianity, but both of the main candidates. They were both self-professing Christians but they had to spend time convincing other self-professed Christians that they really were Christian.
BOWMAN: Yes, exactly. That election was actually the first thing I knew I wanted to write about when I began thinking about this book, because of that dichotomy that you lay out so nicely.
HODGES: Yeah, people questioning whether Barack Obama was a Christian, people questioning whether Mitt Romney was a Christian. This discussion was not new. These discussions actually have a really long history, as your book shows.
BOWMAN: Yes, certainly. I think both of these men were appealing to earlier strains of Christian thought in America. They were both trying to position themselves within this sort of capaciousness of this word in ways that had been done before. So I think they both thought they were doing something that had been done many, many times before. Both of them of course ran into problems.
HODGES: So the book Christian: The Politics of a Word in America, it’s not a comprehensive history. Instead of being comprehensive and trying to sort of trace the entire discussion down through American history you take a series of case studies. You zoom into some case studies. We’ll talk about a few of these. We don’t have time to talk about each one of them, but we’ll talk about a few of these case studies that draw out particular aspects of the conversation that focus on one element of the argument about what Christian is. Who can be a Christian, what Christian politics look like.
Your first case study concerns the presidential election of 1872. So we’re going back in time quite a bit. The Civil War is already in the rear view mirror for the country, but the nation is still heavily divided about how Reconstruction should happen. So what the country would look like without slavery. So set the stage here a little bit.
BOWMAN: Yeah, certainly. This is a not very remembered election. It was—
HODGES: People don’t remember 1872?
BOWMAN: No, no, not at all. Ulysses Grant is running for a second term in office and he’s challenged by a few people. Of course he’s a Republican. He’s sympathetic to this group called the Radical Republicans who were the people really pushing a very thorough Reconstruction. They’re the ones that want to go in and change the South.
HODGES: So this is quite different from like the current Republican party, we should point out.
BOWMAN: Certainly. Yes. The Radical Republicans had for the previous several years used the military to occupy the South. They had passed a number of constitutional amendments trying to eliminate slavery and trying to ensure the right of black men to vote, and they wanted to root out this kind of culture of slavery. They had been in the South for a long, long time. However by 1872, as you know, the Civil War had been in the rear view mirror for seven years now, and there was increasing discontent about how the Radicals were doing this. So Grant found himself challenged by a number of different people.
HODGES: Within his party.
BOWMAN: Within his party. Certainly. I look at two alternative candidates for the presidency in some specificity. Horace Greeley, who had long been sympathetic to the Republican party but who accepted the nomination of the Democratic party for president, and then attracted a kind of break-away faction of Republicans, and also a woman named Victoria Woodhull, who has the distinction of being the first woman to really kind of mount a very public campaign for the presidency, and this is of course decades before a woman could actually vote in federal elections like this. But she mounted a campaign as well and attracted a lot of attention.
I use these three candidates as ways to think about three different ways of thinking about what it meant to be Christian.
HODGES: Yeah. Because each of them wanted to plant that label, Christian. How were they different from each other? Victoria Woodhull is especially a fascinating character.
BOWMAN: Yes, she absolutely is. Victoria Woodhull is a spiritualist. She is a medium, that is she channels the spirits of the dead, she claims people will speak to spirits of the dead. Now this seems of course odd to us today, and it would have seemed odd to many people then, but spiritualism was much more present in national culture than it is now. Spiritualists were a known quantity. They were considered rather eccentric, but there were a lot of them. Some people took them seriously.
HODGES: Would it be sort of akin to like people who believe in conspiracy theories about vaccines or something today? They may be in the minority but there are enough of them to—
BOWMAN: Certainly. Astrology, this sort of thing.
HODGES: So there’s enough of them, and she represented that.
BOWMAN: Yes. People would have heard of Spiritualism and understood what this is about, even if they did not believe it. She did have some fairly prominent followers. Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was a scion of a very, very wealthy family, was one of her supporters. She was also very involved in the women’s movement and had connections with people like Susan B. Anthony as well, for instance.
But she mounts a campaign for the presidency and she calls herself a Christian, a Christian spiritualist calling for human equality. This was one of her major platforms. She had long been an advocate of course for the women’s right to vote and she saw that as a Christian position.
HODGES: See that sounds great, but how would other Christians hearing someone saying human equality is a buzzword that other Christians would say—
BOWMAN: Certainly. And she was very socially radical in ways that at the time would have been very alarming to people.
HODGES: Like what?
BOWMAN: The thing that most alarmed people was her advocacy for what she called free love. What that would have meant to people at the time was well she said, “I have the right to love whom I choose. If I love someone I’m not married to I have the right to be with them. I can leave my spouse if I want to. I can take multiple partners if I want to.” She was very public about—
HODGES: And she was arguing from within her brand of Christianity as well, not just her—
BOWMAN: Certainly. She said this was a Christian position because Christians believe in love after all, and we should be driven by the law of love.
Now other candidates, the people supporting Ulysses Grant for instance, found Woodhull absolutely intolerable. Grant’s form of Christianity, which was as much that of his followers as him, there was a number of—
HODGES: Yeah, he wasn’t particularly devout himself.
BOWMAN: He wasn’t very vocal about it. He had been raised in a fairly strict Methodist household. He retained a lot of that kind of impulses, but he was not a vocal religious believer throughout his life. His followers, his supporters, wrote all sorts of campaign biographies for him, touting him as the heir to this classic Christian tradition in America—
HODGES: What were the values of that tradition?
BOWMAN: What I call, I call it Christian Republicanism. This is a sort of Christianity that is very Protestant, descended really from Puritans, this New England strain of Christianity that was very ethical and stressed personal rectitude and personal discipline and personal probity and piety. So Grant was held up as this man who would not swear, this man who frowned at dancing, this man who was absolutely incorruptible personally.
HODGES: So not very free love oriented?
BOWMAN: No. Not at all.
BOWMAN: And certainly his people found Woodhull just absolutely aggravating.
The third candidate here was a man named Horace Greeley, who was a newspaper editor who had long supported Republicans, who had been sympathetic to Abraham Lincoln, but who—
HODGES: Visited Utah at one point with Brigham Young.
BOWMAN: He did. Yes. He was a journalist so he traveled around the country doing these sorts of things. He was nominated by the Democrats for the presidency in 1872. He’s also endorsed by a faction who call themselves the Liberal Republicans. These were people who actually shared a lot of similar values with Grant’s supporters, this sort of Christian Republican ideal, but they had grown very suspicious of Grant’s government.
There was certainly a fair amount of corruption happening in Reconstruction. This massive new government apparatus that was in the South and trying to reform the South was at times taken advantage of.
HODGES: Like you could give big money contracts to people to do things—
BOWMAN: Certainly. Cronyism, absolutely. Nepotism, all sorts of stuff like that. These Liberal Republicans found that just really, really distressing and they blamed Grant for allowing this to happen. They were really suspicious of the concentration of power.
HODGES: Yeah, this is like small government stuff. They don’t want big government apparatus, federal government, too much corruption involved for them.
BOWMAN: Precisely. They see these large intuitions as being really amenable to that sort of corruption and facilitating that sort of corruption even in some senses. So many of them will say the Christian thing to do here is to attempt to reconcile the country.” The Christian thing to do is to be against the kind of corruption that they saw in Grant’s government. So they went to Greeley. They saw in Greeley someone who they called, and he was called in newspaper articles, “the Christian candidate for president.” The man who is for forgiveness, and for reconciliation, and against kind of dividing the country that they thought Grant’s government was doing.
HODGES: So there are the three competing Christianities coming at a head during this election. One of the things that you talk about throughout the book makes an appearance here is this idea of materialism. It’s kind of a word that was used as a boogeyman type word. So today people might hear about the rise of secularism as something that’s frightening or scary. At this time this materialism was becoming a bugbear. What’s going on with that?
BOWMAN: Well materialism is secularism in a sense.
HODGES: We got a new name for it.
BOWMAN: Precisely. At the most theoretical level, materialism philosophically speaking is the belief that nothing exists but the tangible world around you. The sort of spiritual world with God and angels and all that sort of stuff doesn’t exist, what exists is stuff you can sense and that you can touch.
Now in terms of my book, Christians invoke this word over and over and over again. It means whatever the opposite of Christianity is. So for people like these Liberal Republicans, if Christianity is this sort of human sentiment of forgiveness, this human sentiment of reconciliation, materialism are these large impersonal institutions that crush individuality.
HODGES: Like welfare systems included in that?
BOWMAN: They could be, certainly. Now other Christians might say a welfare system is very Christian because in a welfare system people are helping other people. But some Christians might say a welfare system is a faceless bureaucracy that reduces people to numbers. So materialism might be big government, it might be big industry and big business. Materialism might be a love for wealth and a love for money and a love for consumer pleasures. Anything that is anti-spirituality.
Now for Christians this is particularly distressing because the real theme I trace Christianity through the book with is this notion that human beings are special. Human beings are not like the rest of the creation. Human beings are not like animals. They have special rights, special abilities—
HODGES: They’re made in the image of God.
BOWMAN: They’re made in the image of God.
HODGES: Given dominion.
BOWMAN: Right. And therefore politics should respect that. Now what it means for politics to respect that is hotly debated. Some Christians might say this means abortion is wrong because human beings are made in the image of God. What other Christians might say is that the government needs to do more to care for the poor because they are made in the image of God. For all of these groups though this idea becomes attached to the notion of democracy.
HODGES: Would all three of these candidates, Grant, Greeley, and Woodhull, would all of them condemn materialism and then accuse each other of being guilty of materialism?
BOWMAN: Precisely. All of them would find some way in which their opponents are materialistic. So Greeley would say Woodhull is indulging her sinful pleasures of the flesh and that’s materialism, this pursuit of physical pleasure. Grant is sitting astride this massive corrupt bureaucracy, and that’s materialism. Grant would look at Greeley and say, “You are the prisoner of Southern interests and these rich plantation owners in the South, and that’s materialism.” So the accusation, just like the word Christian, the accusation has multiple faces.
HODGES: How was race and gender coming into play at this stage in the game, 1872?
BOWMAN: Well certainly African Americans have lots of opinions about how Reconstruction should go, as you might imagine
HODGES: It affected them most of course.
BOWMAN: Yes, precisely. Many of them are staunchly on the side of Grant because most of them are in the South. Most of them are looking at the plantation classes as being the kind of proponents of materialism. There certainly is a long history as a people, like Frederick Douglass would say, of white people in the South treating black people like objects. That is, treating them like material things, not as human beings.
HODGES: And that’s materialism.
BOWMAN: Precisely. Indeed Frederick Douglass says that white slave holders in the South are atheists, even if they don’t know it because they are rejecting these principles of Christianity. So they are staunchly on the side of Ulysses S. Grant. They see the Reconstruction effort as not as being materialism but as being an attempt to implement these Christian ideas of human equality.
HODGES: What would they say about some of the accusations about corruption in the process? Like if someone said, “Yeah, of course you favor Grant because number one you’re a beneficiary of it and you’re overlooking all these other corruptions” or what not? What was the response to that?
BOWMAN: Well you know for many of them they would say what was happening is that for the first time black people are able to participate in politics. If black people are getting these sorts of government contracts, well that’s a long time coming. That has not happened. And indeed for some Southerners, for some Southern Democrats in particular, when they spoke of corruption what they meant was black people are getting elected to office, black people are getting government jobs. They found that intolerable.
HODGES: What about gender? We mentioned a little bit with Woodhull already, but where were women at on the spectrum?
BOWMAN: Certainly. Well you saw an interesting separation in some ways. Some of Woodhull’s most vehement accusers were women. Women who were heirs to this kind of Christian Republican tradition and who had very clear ideas about how women should live.
HODGES: Respectability, civility, yeah.
BOWMAN: Precisely. And the notion of motherhood. For them Woodhull was just flouting all of these conventions.
HODGES: In a public sphere talking about free love.
BOWMAN: Yes. Having multiple partners, all of that sort of thing. So she is accused by women and by men as well of stepping out of what a woman’s place should be.
HODGES: Were there suffragettes who also were annoyed by her for that reason? It seems that some women would be advocating for the vote and say, “You’re not helping us. You’re kind of hurting the cause.”
BOWMAN: Some were, particularly Susan B. Anthony. Susan B. Anthony was a woman of great rectitude, a woman who very much believed in a lot of these ideas of moral probity. She found Woodhull a kind of circus sideshow in some ways and someone who was as detrimental to the cause as helpful to it.
HODGES: So how’d the election turn out?
BOWMAN: Grant won. It was not particularly close. Greeley actually died only a few weeks after the presidential election was over. Woodhull left the United States. She went to England and spent most of the rest of her life in England.
HODGES: Yes. So this is the first case study that you talk about in the book.
We’re talking today with Matthew Bowman. He’s an associate professor of history at Henderson State University. He’s the author of The Mormon People, a book he wrote a few years ago. His new book is called Christian: The Politics of a Word in America from Harvard University Press.
Alright, so that’s case study number one. Let’s look at case study number two. Your next study of Christian political rhetoric focuses on the early twentieth century, around World War I and World War II. By now you say that Liberal Protestants have come to dominate American government and culture. So give us a sense for what Liberal Protestantism was and how it came to dominate American culture.
BOWMAN: Yeah. You can draw some connections I think between this original story of the 1872 election and what is happening here. Many of the arguments that took place in the 1872 election about the relationship between religion and ethics, the relationship between religion and power, are really rehearsed here. What comes out of that kind of Grant Christian Republican tradition is by the 1880s and 1890s especially this sort of ascent into Liberal Protestantism.
Liberal Protestants are a very interesting group of people. They believe very much in progress. They believe that God’s will and God’s hopes for humanity are revealed through history, that as we see for instance progress being made in the medical field, progress being made for them in the spread of democracy around the world, that is God’s will.
HODGES: Science and technology as well?
BOWMAN: Science and technology, absolutely. All of these things are showing God working. So they’re optimists too. They’re also very much then fans of the United States. They believe that the United States is standing at the peak of human civilization, that the achievements of democracy, science, technology, literature, the arts, in the United States show what God wants humanity to become. They often are very dismissive of what they see as rigid orthodoxy, the notions of biblical literalism for instance, a kind of strict reading of the Book of Genesis and creation stories.
HODGES: Six day creation of the earth and stuff. Yeah.
BOWMAN: Precisely. They tend to think of the Bible being metaphorical as much as anything else. It depicts God’s relationship with humanity rather than God’s absolute truth. So they think then that religion is the product of evolution and that we see kind of humanity rising from this what they would call kind of primitive ritualistic paganistic religion through Judaism through Christianity through Roman Catholicism to Protestantism to they themselves.
Thus they say the kind of highest level of religious development is a religion that very much cherishes individual liberty, that prizes human dignity, that teaches ethics and social virtues, and that all of these things are more important than rigid adherence to any particular Christian doctrine or another.
HODGES: So for these Christians their faith in Christianity was intimately tied up with their belief in how political systems should work. I’m thinking for example of William James. He talks about the religion of democracy. What were the components of that?
BOWMAN: Yes. That’s a wonderful phrase, isn’t it? James is one of these people, one of these kind of Liberal Protestants, or, as we might call some of them, post-Protestants, people who denied any adherence to any denomination but who still were really marked by a lot of these ideas. Like James many of them believe that democracy is the logical government that a Christian society would have because they read Christianity as prizing the dignity of the individual, the importance in equal rights, and really freedom, the liberty of individuals to pursue their own interests, their own talents, their own gifts. Democracy then is the government that can best facilitate these sorts of things.
So when they say that democracy is the Christian form of government they mean it quite literally.
HODGES: This is old argument too, I’m thinking John Milton made similar arguments in terms of why free speech was important, or why free exercise of religion was important because there could only be virtue in something freely chosen with other options.
BOWMAN: Yeah. This is why I use this phrase, “post-Protestant,” and even if these people would not consider themselves believers anymore in a strict kind of literal sense, they’re still really marked by these Protestant ideas, as you say that Milton also holds. This is very, very Protestant even if they don’t acknowledge that.
HODGES: And most of them were white as well so Liberal Protestants came to believe that the very progress of civilization itself hinged on the advances of European and then American faith, in this type of Christianity. Your book sort of shows that history to them proved that they were right, but that’s why Germany around the time of the World Wars caused such a problem.
BOWMAN: Yes. And you know this is this notion I’ve spoken of a moment ago, this idea of progress. They believe in progress very much. They are inheritors of kind of Darwinian notion in evolution as well, or Darwin as interpreted by people like Herbert Spencer, that the best society, the society they have now is the product of this development through Europe. Christian Europe, well what was called Christendom is kind of Roman Catholic Europe, through a Protestant Europe, and they saw this link between the rise of Protestantism with the reformation and the rise of democracy in Europe.
What scared them then about Germany during World War I in particular was that Germany appeared to them a reversion. Germany had reversed this development. So they’re looking at Germany of course through these lenses of America and Britain in the war when Germany is somewhat demonized of course by the nations fighting against it, but through these lenses they saw a Germany that had descended into militarism, a Germany that had embraced a kind of Authoritarian militaristic government, and that really scared them because Germany was also the nation that had brought them the reformation. Germany was the nation that was the most probably economically and scientifically advanced country on the face of the earth at that point in time. How could then such a nation fall into this kind of authoritarian, militaristic, materialist regime? This is a problem they really spend a lot of time grappling with.
HODGES: In one of the ways that they did, there was a group of intellectuals, a group of academics at Columbia University. They’re looking at this problem and they think hey we need a remedy here. What can we do as academics? Well, we can educate Americans about our heritage. We can stave off the kind of corruption that happened to Germany by instilling in people these values. So we see a rise in what is called world civilizations courses.
BOWMAN: Or we should say western civilization courses.
HODGES: What’s the difference there? How is western coded in that?
BOWMAN: Exactly. The course they invent at Columbia drives from this course called war issues which the Wilson government had tried to put into various universities. Columbia stuck with it. Even when the war was over they still taught their students this course called contemporary civilizations. It still is required, even to today, of Columbia freshmen. They spoke of it as being a course on the western civilization. That first word is important because they saw the sort of society and government they had created in the United States, a liberal democracy, a largely Protestant nation, that was dominated by this kind of liberal Protestant elite. They believed that was not an accident. That was the product of hundreds and hundreds of years of historical development through the west, the west being Europe, and particularly Western Europe.
HODGES: And particularly white people as well.
BOWMAN: And particularly white Europeans. If you yourself or any of your listeners took a western civilizations course in college you know how this course goes. It begins in Egypt and the Far East just long enough for Christianity to emerge, then it moves to Europe and emphasizes first Catholic Europe, that being Italy and France, then it moves to England and then to the United States.
The emphasis of the course follows that trajectory because that is the trajectory that these Columbia educators believed had led to their nation, their Christian Protestant democratic nation. So they thought it was very important for Americans to realize this so they could avoid what happened to Germany.
HODGES: And you say that the course as developed at Columbia University focused on three main components. Number one, the formation of human nature. Number two, the creation of the west, which you just kind of talked about, but that also ties into the idea of religion as a private phenomenon. And then the third component was the problems of today.
BOWMAN: Yes. So in each one of these they’re trying to teach their students first, as you say, about what human nature is like. There’s a lot of time spent on religion in this section of the course and the education given to students in this way really emphasizes this kind of Protestant idea. It talks about religion as being something that evolves from primitive rituals to a mature Protestant faith that focuses on ethics and the individual.
When the course deals with the problems of today it looks at all of these materialist challenges that these Protestants perceived in the world. German militarism, the problem of industrial technology and industrial society, and it tried to educate students in how can we preserve these Protestant Christian values in this sort of society that to them was becoming increasingly militaristic.
HODGES: Just like in our last case study, this particular brand of Christianity had competitors as well. The Columbia University vision wasn’t the only one on the offer. So there are others who tried to deal with the anxieties of this age in different ways. You talk about Howard University as a place where competing visions were offered. Howard University is a historic black institution. Talk a little about that.
BOWMAN: In the 1920s Howard University was really entering a kind of golden age of its intellectual life. Many, many important black intellectuals, black thinkers were becoming faculty members there, many would go on to be influential in other ways. People like Benjamin Mays who has been called the father of the Civil Rights Movement taught at Howard for a while. I look at some others in this chapter as well.
What is interesting about many of these people is that many of them are actually sympathetic to these Liberal Protestant ideas. They tend to be in their own faith, in their own private lives Liberal Protestants, believers in this kind of religion of ethics and personality rather than a religion of dogma or ritual.
However they very, very much take exception to the assumption that people at Columbia made that this kind of religion was inextricably bound to Europe and to this kind of white civilizations rising in Europe. Instead they actually turned it upside down in some ways and argued that no in fact what we saw in the rise of “western civilization” was the degrading of these ideals, because of course it was these western European countries that created some of the largest slaveholding civilizations in human history.
HODGES: So how did it shake out between these groups? What was the heritage of these efforts at Howard? And you talked about the heritage of the efforts at Columbia. We still see some courses being taught that are the descendants of this.
BOWMAN: Yes. I did not do this at great length, but I think it could be done that if a historian of education were to try to trace western civilization courses at universities all over the country they would go back to this Columbia course. So that course was very, very influential.
At Howard though you saw other courses being offered. You saw an increasing push at Howard in the first three or four decades of the twentieth century to educate students in the history of Africa, in the history of black people, in such a way as to show that these Liberal Protestant ideals actually emerged in African civilizations, not simply in kind of white western Europe.
So one of the most important educators of this type at Howard was a man named William Hansberry, who had studied at Harvard for quite a while. He offered many, many courses in African civilizations going back to the ancient world, and he argued over and over and over again that those civilizations actually exemplified Christian virtues. He focused specifically on Ethiopia, which of course became Christian in the first few centuries after the life and death of Jesus, and he argued that when Rome was falling and when Roman Catholicism was emerging in Europe, Roman Catholicism which to Hansberry was a religion of ritual and authoritarian control, on the other hand in Ethiopia you saw a civilization that was very Liberal Protestant. That was tolerant in difference, that welcomed refugees, that cared for its poor.
So they were offering not really an alternative vision of what Christianity was, but an alternate vision of how that Christianity could come to be that involved the world’s peoples of color.
HODGES: Yeah. So sometimes the difference between Christian and the label Christian have to do with political policies and approaches and in other cases it had to do with histories and how particular perspectives came to be, or how civilizations and peoples are indebted to the past in certain ways, or why greater inclusion is necessary because of histories and this.
BOWMAN: Yes. Absolutely. And this is one of the arguments in the book I think is that you cannot look at Christianity simply as an abstract set of ideas. It is always tied to history. It is always tied to politics. It is always tied to how we structure our societies, not simply to connect theological arguments.
HODGES: That’s Matt Bowman. He’s associate professor of history at Henderson State University. We’re talking about the book Christian: The Politics of a Word in America.
Matt, one thing that your book does a good job of exploring is the fact that even among people of the same faith, big differences can arise. Another case study that you talk about then is Catholics in the era of Roosevelt and how they tried to define Catholicism and Christianity and proper American government in radically different ways, and they were all Catholic. So let’s talk about a few of those Catholic examples.
I picked a few out from that chapter. John Ryan, Charles Coughlin, and Dorothy Day. Each of these were Catholic individuals, but each of them had different visions of even what Catholicism Christianity looked like. Start with John Ryan.
BOWMAN: Certainly. Of course the problem all of these people are struggling with is the Great Depression. This massive economic catastrophe that had afflicted the United States and each one of these individuals you bring up is offering a different solution to that and trying to fix this economic crisis in a different way. All of them offered solutions that they said were based on their Catholic beliefs and their Catholic faith. In a sense all of them were right, however as you point out, they disagreed with each other about how this could best be accomplished.
John Ryan is a very interesting figure. He’s probably, or he perceives himself to be the most orthodox of these three. Ryan was a professor at a Catholic university. He was also a Roman Catholic priest. He eventually was given the title of Monsignor, which is a title of kind of high honor in the Roman Catholic Church. Ryan, I speak of him as being very much a medievalist. This is in contrast to these ways of thinking of the people at Howard and the people at Columbia were thinking. They’re rooting their Christianity in different histories. For Ryan, Ryan can look back to the middle ages to this world in which in Europe at least the Roman Catholic Church was ascendant and which society he said was organizes organically, and that’s a really important word for Ryan and for other Catholics. The notion that society is not made up of discreet, independent individuals, which of course is a real Protestant virtue, but rather that society is made up of mutually interdependent groups.
HODGES: That was the dark ages, right? Or the middle ages?
BOWMAN: For Protestants, right.
HODGES: Exactly. And John’s saying, “Well actually no, this way that society is structured there has benefits that we could gain from.”
BOWMAN: Yes. And he’s looking at Protestants and saying, “Look, you guys caused a depression. The problem that’s happening in the United States right now is rampant greed, selfishness, individualism. So we need a society that’s structured much better, a society that recognizes mutual interdependence and mutual obligations with each other. That’s the kind of society that will get us out of the depression. That’s the kind of society that will prevent future depressions.”
Ryan was very much a supporter of Roosevelt. He believed the New Deal was kind of baby steps towards that kind of society.
HODGES: So he wanted even more than what the New Deal—
BOWMAN: Yes. He thought the New Deal is a good start, but ultimately society would have to go much further to get to this kind of economic system that he was envisioning based on the mutual exchange and mutual obligations of the middle ages.
HODGES: So he supported FDR. I can’t remember. Was he the one that actually worked with FDR?
BOWMAN: He campaigned for FDR.
BOWMAN: Yes. And he would appear frequently on radio shows speaking out in favor of FDR. FDR consulted with him to some degree. He was a priest of course so bringing him in and giving him some sort of official role in the administration would have been very politically problematic.
HODGES: Yeah. Catholics were still really looked askance at by Protestant establishment.
HODGES: So Charles Coughlin is the second figure. He agreed with John Ryan that Christians should support using the state to address these problems, but he thought that FDR was just doing it wrong.
BOWMAN: Yes. Coughlin is also very fascinating. He was extremely charismatic. He had a very, very popular radio show. He did not have any sort of high appointment, he was merely a parish priest in Michigan, but his radio show garnered him millions and millions of listeners. There are reports that at the peak of his fame in the mid-1930s he was receiving more mail than Franklin Roosevelt was. He attracted a very very wide audience.
Ryan could not stand Coughlin. Ryan was a serious economist and a serious student of history. Ryan had written multiple books. Coughlin was very much kind of flying by the seat of his pants. Coughlin argued that Roosevelt was in the pocket of big business. He argued that in order to fix a depression the government had to attack what Coughlin said were the “muddied elites of society.” Then there were governmental and business powers in America that were taking money away from the poor, taking money away from the middle classes, and then to solve the depression then what we needed to do was to go after those big powers and redistribute this money. Ryan thought this was childish, that this did not evidence a very thorough understanding of either Catholic doctrine or really economic theory. But Coughlin insisted that his positions were truly Christian.
While Ryan would invoke Papal Encyclicals and talk about Thomas Aquinas, Coughlin simply invoked the Bible and said things like, “Christ turned the money changers out of the temple. We need to go after the money changers. The early Christians had all things in common. We need to take money away from the elites and redistribute it among the poor.” So he used Christian language and Christian rhetoric, but in a way that [Ryan] found utterly insufficient. However, this meant that Coughlin’s message was in many ways broader than Ryan’s. More people could listen to it and easily grasp the points he was making. It’s fascinating I think that many, many, many of Coughlin’s listeners were Protestants who did not care he was a priest.
HODGES: That’s really interesting. Dorothy Day’s the third figure here. Her position was kind of like forget the state. So tell people a little bit about Dorothy Day’s background and how she fits in here as a Catholic.
BOWMAN: Dorothy Day is marvelous. Dorothy Day was a Catholic convert. She became a Roman Catholic in her young adulthood and she’s very, very drawn I think to the kind of mystical and aesthetic qualities of Roman Catholicism. She was a socialist initially and she brings many of those concerns to Roman Catholicism. She’s interested in Roman Catholicism because it teaches some of these ideas that Ryan was enunciating about mutual interdependence and the need for everyone in the society to care for everybody else.
She eventually adopts this theory called personalism, which stressed that the human personality is pinnacle. The human personality is the key of Christianity and if we are to help each other we have to recognize each other as individuals. We need to treat everyone as a person fully formed by God, equal to you, equal to everybody else.
So as Dorothy Day begins combating the depression then she is also suspicious of the state because she draws on these old fears of materialism, these old fears that a government bureaucracy could never give aid according to this personalist ideal. A bureaucracy is impersonal, a bureaucracy is mechanical, a bureaucracy views people as problems to be solved.
So instead Dorothy Day opens a series of what she called “Homes of Hospitality” where she and her associates would take in the poor and care for the poor individually. She starts this Catholic Worker Movement which calls for people to go out and personally give aid to others. These last for decades. By the 1950s and 1960s she’s protesting nuclear armament in the Vietnam War and still engaging in this kind of voluntary poverty and working to uplift the homeless and to uplift the poor.
HODGES: And you said Coughlin was kind of drawing mainly on the Bible. John Ryan was much more interested in Catholic history and Papal Encyclicals and Thomas Aquinas and theory and this. What about Dorothy Day? What was she drawing on?
BOWMAN: Dorothy Day is drawing on this idea of personalism, which is a sort of Catholic theology that’s emerging in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. She’s very influenced by a man named Peter Marin, who was kind of a poet and sort of traveling wise man who lived also in voluntary poverty and who came to her when he heard about the Catholic Worker Movement and began teaching her about these sort of personalist ideas. So it is very Catholic in a sense, but it’s not the kind of high theological Catholicism of Ryan. It’s kind of a more sort of mystical Catholicism she’s very influenced by.
HODGES: Yeah. It’s a really useful chapter to look at these differences amongst Catholics. I couldn’t help but think about things like comparing Mitt Romney to Harry Reid, people from different political parties within Mormonism. What was kind of your takeaway from this chapter about the use of the term Christian within even the same denomination?
BOWMAN: Yeah. Well that’s the thing is that I think every religious denomination has factions within it. There are multiple ways to be a Catholic, there are multiple ways to be a Mormon, there are multiple ways to be a Protestant, because each tradition is capacious, and each tradition has different thinkers, different ideas, different concepts in it that can be picked up and reconfigured in a variety of different ways. So these kinds of debates over what it means to be a Christian happen both among denominations but also within.
HODGES: Yeah. It’s a fascinating chapter. So that chapter’s kind of covering the time of the Great Depression. Another case study talks about the anxiety of Christian anti-communism. Debates about the proper role of government just kept getting fiercer. If there were big debates during the Great Depression about how the government should work it would only become more intense with the rise of communism. Talk about that chapter a little bit.
BOWMAN: Yeah, so what you see I think in the 1940s and 1950s with the emergence of the Cold War is something of a shift, whereas prior to the 1940s you would see people like these academics of Columbia who are very suspicious of Roman Catholicism because they see Roman Catholicism as being tyrannical. We mention this also when we spoke of John Ryan and the fact that he could be an advocate for Roosevelt but it would have been difficult for Roosevelt to bring him into the administration.
By the 1950s the polls rather shift and Christians in America start to think about the fate of their religion in the world as being a choice between Christianity, and atheism because of course the Soviet Union, which was officially atheist had emerged as a world power. In 1949 China becomes communist and you see another massive nation with millions of people in it that is also officially atheist.
So Christians begin to speak in the ’40s and ’50s about something called Judeo-Christianity, this kind of tradition that brings together Judaism, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and they start to emphasize that all of these traditions really share values, that the arguments they were having before about the difference between Roman Catholic Christianity and Protestant Christianity are not as important as this great confrontation between monotheism and atheism.
So they begin there very much to emphasize that democracy depends on this monotheism. Democracy depends on this Judeo-Christian tradition. Of course we saw already how Columbia did a lot of groundwork to set that up. The real enemy now is atheism.
HODGES: And the right and the left Christians both would say they feared this rise of communism and this atheism, but they had different anxieties about it which was really interesting. You talk about how the right was more afraid of hedonism and the left was more afraid of authoritarianism.
BOWMAN: Yes. What we’re seeing here in the rise of the Soviet Union is of course this old terror of materialism again. The Soviet Union is a materialistic nation. The Soviet Union is tyrannical because it is materialistic, but as you see these Christian thinkers start writing about this as you say they see different versions of this materialist threat, and you’ll see a lot of them kind of coming out. People like Joseph McCarthy of course who uses all sorts of language of hedonism to attack his enemies. He fears overt sexuality, he fears femininity, he fears homosexuality, and he labels these things as being decadent. It’s not a mistake that for many, many Americans homosexuality could lead to communism because it was perceived as that sort of decadent materialist physical temptation.
HODGES: Destruction of classic morals and things like that.
BOWMAN: Precisely. So these kind of gender anxieties are bound into this as well, but of course at the same time the other materialist threat is this threat of tranny, is this threat of dictatorship and control.
HODGES: McCarthyism maybe?
BOWMAN: Well which the Soviet Union certainly exemplifies, which there’s a lot of anxiety about as well. What’s interesting is there’s a lot of prominent conversions to Roman Catholicism in this period I think. People like Clare Boothe Luce, who was a congresswoman who I speak about who becomes Roman Catholic soon after the end of World War II because she had seen this sort of devastation and destruction of the war. She was really scarred by the atomic bomb among other things. She found in Roman Catholicism this kind of haven for the valuing of human dignity and human identity that she feared was really fading in a world that was increasingly threatened by military power.
HODGES: So how did that shake out? You say that a sort of Cold War consensus started to emerge amongst Christians who maybe previously wouldn’t have wanted to consider each other as Christian.
BOWMAN: Yes, certainly. The great alliance here is between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and this is a period in which it becomes less and less of an issue to be Roman Catholic, and certainly the election of John F. Kennedy really exemplifies that. The nation’s first Roman Catholic president who to many Americans simply seemed a defender of western civilization, a defender of Christian civilization, a defender of this Cold War consensus, and Kennedy certainly positioned himself in that way. In the famous speech he gave at Houston to a group of Protestant ministers who were afraid of a Roman Catholic, Kennedy said, “Look, essentially I’m defending all the same ideals that you are. I am, like you, a Christian.”
HODGES: Yeah. Mitt Romney ended up giving a similar speech decades later.
BOWMAN: Precisely. And drawing I think very consciously on the same kind of set of common ideals, this Christian Republican notion that Christianity enables democracy, Christianity promotes civic virtue, and those things matter more than what particular type of Christian you might be.
HODGES: Yeah, and this speaks to the issue of religious freedom in terms of its limitations in terms of who it excludes. I think it’s really important for people to realize that Judeo-Christianity is a concept emerged largely to address political fears. Today it might have lost that connotation to a lot of people, we just think of people who believe kind of in God and they both have this Bible.
HODGES: Monotheism, right. But there is a monotheistic global faith that’s excluded from that, it’s Islam.
BOWMAN: Yeah, because I think it is easy because in part of the things that Columbia University did in this contemporary civilization course, it is easy for us to think of Judaism and Christianity as being essentially a part of the same “civilization.” Islam has never been part of that. In part because of its geographical positioning, in part because of its dominant ethnic identity, its linguistic differences, it is not imagined in the same civilization for reason that may ultimately seem trivial.
HODGES: Yeah. So any talk of religious freedom that doesn’t address that issue then is bound up in the identity politics of the west.
So that’s Matt Bowman. He’s associate professor of history at Henderson State University. We’re talking about the book Christian: The Politics of a Word in America.
So as the Cold War died down, Matt, a number of Supreme Court cases were decided that made Christians begin to feel really beseeched, like the Christian heritage of their country was being lost. This was happening at the end of the Cold War, but it’s still echoing today. So just for a moment talk about what those cases looked like and how it affected the definition of Christian.
BOWMAN: Sure. Well we’re talking here about two cases, Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp. They were in 1962 and 1963. What these cases do is remove the Bible as a source of devotional reading in public schools. The Bible still could be studied as a text, but it was not to be read in a devotional way in the classroom. The other case banned school prayer, officially sanctioned school prayer. That case was targeted at a prayer that the New York State Board of Regions had imposed on New York public schools, which was a very, very kind of generic, we might even say Judeo-Christian sort of prayer. It did not mention Jesus, it simply talked about human dependence on God.
HODGES: So it’s like a George Washington type prayer.
BOWMAN: Sort of, yeah. The author of our freedoms, that kind of thing. You say this made some Christians I would qualify feel as though their civilization was under attack. There was a lot of actually dissent initially at the time about whether or not these cases were bad or not. Some prominent Christian leaders actually said that New York prayer was not even really Christian, so who cares if it’s gone? But it certainly though made other Christians feel as though this sort of western civilization, this Christian civilization which had given rise to democracy and ensured human liberty was being challenged.
Now it’s still being challenged by materialism, but the materialism now is secularism. What they often call secular humanism, which means essentially the same thing as materialism had meant to Christians during World War I.
HODGES: Why do you think the term changed? I’ll give you my theory, and this could be cynical of me, but materialism talked about removing God from the equation or even disbelieving in God and focusing on the material world, which could then lead to excesses of luxury and inequality and oppression, but talking about wealth and equality can be kind of uncomfortable for people who have wealth. So is that a cynical view to say it makes sense that the term switched from materialism to secularism because materialism included the component of inequality and concerns over wealth?
BOWMAN: It could. It certainly could. I think also you see also the term secular obtaining more prominence I think in academic literature, and especially in a bunch of books in the 1940s and 1950s about the sort of threat of institutions, the threat of big business, they use the term secular as well. So I suspect there may be some of that component to it. And also to make one more point I think as well by the 1950s and 1960s the voices in the public square kind of advocating for secularism had emerged, which would have been kind of unthinkable a hundred years prior when people like Robert Ingersoll were somewhat more marginalized.
HODGES: Interesting. So that kind of covers the case studies that I wanted to talk about. I want to remind listeners that the book talks about a few other case studies as well. The book is Christian: The Politics of a Word in America.
Before we go, I want to get to what I think is maybe an understated crux of your study. It’s something that you don’t draw out explicitly a lot, but I think it’s lurking in the background the whole time. It’s this idea of this political tail-wagging, the theological dog, and how to address that question because it becomes apparent that different Christians are drawing on their faith to formulate political positions. They’re also drawing on their political positions and going back to their faith to find reasons for that.
That wasn’t really the theme of your book, but I think it’s one of the threads throughout it though, and I’m just interested in your thoughts about that phenomenon and how it plays out in the public sphere today.
BOWMAN: Sure. This reminds me actually of what I thought was a pretty bad New Yorker article from 2012 of all things commenting on the vice presidential debate in 2012 between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. This columnist said that he was horrified that Paul Ryan would say, “I think abortion should be illegal because I’m a Roman Catholic,” which was not precisely what Ryan said, but to paraphrase roughly. The columnist said that that is the answer of a Mullah, referring to the kind of leaders of the Taliban.
That seemed to me profoundly ignorant because I don’t know that the separation that you’re drawing there is actually a real thing. I don’t know that we can separate the religious and the political that easily and say the religious side of the see-saw is going down and so the political side is going up. I think for many of these people and indeed for many believers today the two are somewhat inseparable. When we talk about the separation of church and state in America what we tend to mean is I would like the state to do the things I want it to do with reference to religious denominations. You cannot simply separate the two that easily, even that notion of separation of church and state implies that the two have something to do with each other.
Indeed one of the arguments I’m making throughout the book is that for many of these people from the Liberal Protestants at Columbia all the way to Roman Catholics, all the way to the people I talk about at the very end of the book about which are in fact the Religious Right, none of them are making that separation. They might say they are, and indeed some of the people like Robert Bellah are advocates of what I call civil religion in the 1970s would talk about the separation of church and state but they’re not actually making a separation. They’re simply saying, “I want religion and the state to be related in a certain way,” which is different.
HODGES: They would say like adjust your language to appeal to the most broad based. Like if you came and say, “I oppose abortion because I’m a Roman Catholic,” that’s maybe going to appeal to some Catholics but not to others. So you can personally oppose it on those grounds but find a language to express it and a justification for it that appeals to a broader base.
BOWMAN: But you may still be doing it because you’re Catholic. So what we’re really talking about when we talk about separation of church and state I think is what precise relation do you want the church and state to have. There’s always going to be a relation, as long as we are a country made up of people of any sort of religious belief from Southern Baptists to New Age people to believers in astrology, and all of those people are going to have some political theology. They’re all going to think about politics in some way, so the argument is not whether church and state should be separated, it is what configuration of that relationship do we want?
HODGES: I wish we had more time to talk about that, but people who are interested in the topic can start with the book Christian: The Politics of a Word in America by Matthew Bowman. That’s from Harvard University Press.
What are you working on right now, Matt? What have you got going?
BOWMAN: I’m doing two projects right now. One is a study of Mormon correlation and some of these same issues. I’m interested in the notion of the secular and the ways in which correlation in the Mormon church is read as secular or religious.
I’m also working on a cultural study of alien abduction in the 1960s that I think is a really kind of interesting window into the cultural transformations and political transformations really that the country saw that decade.
HODGES: Yeah, I’ve talked to you a little bit about it elsewhere. I’m really excited about both of those projects.
BOWMAN: Me too.
HODGES: So great. Matt, I really appreciate you taking the time to visit with us today.
BOWMAN: Yeah, happy to do it. Thank you.
HODGES: Thanks for listening to another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I wanted to let you know you can read episodes of the podcast at our website, mi.byu.edu/mipodcast. We’re going through the back catalogue and trying to get all of those transcribed as well.
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