The Decline of Something Called “Religion”

Stories of Decline


Perry Miller’s exhaustive intellectual histories of Puritan theology were published back in the 1930s and 1940s, and did a lot to revitalize and rehabilitate the Puritans (what? You didn’t know that Puritans have been rehabilitated?).  One of Miller’s primary narrative structures – one he shared, interestingly enough, with his subjects – was the declension narrative: that is, early Puritanism of the 1620s and 1630s shared, as Miller put it, “almost unbroken allegiance to a unified body of thought, and that individual differences among particular writers or theorists were merely minor variations within a general frame.”  It was the later generations, seduced by capitalism and disrupted by immigration that surrendered the early Puritans’ allegiance to covenant and community and the city upon a hill.  Miller seems to believe this, and certainly the sermons of Puritan ministers in 1680, 1690, and even those who survived into the eighteenth century share that idea.


Some of Miller’s most recent critics – particularly David Hall – have argued that Miller suffered from an overly narrow definition of “religion” – that is, sure, the Puritans were in decline if you defined being “Puritan” as adhering to a particularly specific and detailed set of beliefs and practices.  But even if your local Puritan worthy was feeling skeptical about predestination and warming up to the Half Way Covenant, out back the kids were drawing astrological signs in the sand and his neighbor was healing the sick with urine and rye cake, and who’s to say that this wasn’t “religion” too?


And, of course, this keeps happening.  It’s convenient to blast Europe for being secular and having churches with more tourists than worshipers.  But Buddhism is exploding in Europe – among Europeans as much as among immigrants – though it’s fair to say that many Europeans practice an eclectic, ad hoc form of Buddhism, similar to the American embrace of yoga and meditation.  But is this not ‘religion’?  Similarly, it appears that around 20-25% of Europeans believe in reincarnation of some sort.  Forty percent of Turks do. Three quarters of Croats believe in angels, as do forty percent of Britons. The US comes in at just above the British, below the Croats.  Back in the 1980s, 44% of British people regularly read astrology columns.  Is this religion?

Forty or fifty years ago it was popular among sociologists to argue that the world was getting more secular, and pointing to the rise of professionalized, bureaucratic institutions that functioned according to scientific data to prove it.  Yet clearly, even in Europe, religious practices continue to thrive, even if the form of religion was simply morphing.  Most elite Americans – those who write books and newspaper columns and the like – have traditionally assumed that “real” religion should be like that of the Puritans – that is, rigorously ethical, spiritual, and eschewing much reliance on esoteric ritual or objects in favor of personal contemplation of the divine.  This is, perhaps, why the continuation of religious practice in Europe seems to escape many of us who assume that religion is something you do in church.

But there’s a flip side too – observers of Mormonism, including many academics, have constructed a Mormon declension narrative. Modern Mormonism, institutional, regularized, and correlated, is often assumed to be secularized, corporatized, and thus, somehow, less “religious” than early Mormonism was.  But of course this critique is as limited as that of Europe: it partakes of the mid-century sociological reading that precluded overlap between modern bureaucracy and religious practice; it also assumes that “religion” is something that one can’t do in a bureaucratic institution.  With the Europeans on the one hand and Mormonism on the right, Puritan definitions of religion seem to be narrowing indeed.

God Gives US TV Sets To Please Our Eyes and Gladden Our Hearts: Two Mormon Views of the Prosperity Gospel

Here’s a brief transcript from a filmstrip intended for Mormon audiences, “The Lord’s Laws of Prosperity.” It’s undated, but the LDS Church Library places it in the mid-1960s.

Narrator: Certainly it is within the province of the Lord to bring prosperity to anyone he considered worthy of it….

Man: Is he talking about spiritual prosperity or temporal prosperity?

Narrator: (Chuckle) I’d say both.  He says The good things of the earth.”  I’m sure the Lord requires that we acknowledge his hand in all our blessings.  That he blesses us with houses and food and clothing and even automobiles and TV sets.  All things in the earth are his … “All things which come of the earth in the season therefo, are for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and gladden the heart.”

Man: That takes in almost everything.  Cars, television, books, movies, they all come originally from the earth.  They certainly please the eye and gladden the heart!

And here is a roughly contemporaneous excerpt from an essay by Hugh Nibley, one of Mormonism’s best gadflies of capitalism.

What we read about in the Book of Mormon is the “Nephite Disease”—and we have it! We should be glad that we do not have the much worse diseases that infect some other societies, and that there is greater hope for us. But diabetes if neglected can kill one just as dead as cancer—after all, the Nephites were terminated. We can be most grateful, therefore, regardless of how sick others may be, that God in the Book of Mormon has diagnosed our sickness for our special benefit, and prescribed a cure for us … “it must needs be that the riches of the earth are mine to give; but beware of pride, lest ye become as the Nephites of old.” (D&C 38:39.) There it is in a nutshell: it is the fate of the Nephites, not of the Lamanites, Greeks, or Chinese, that concerns us; and that doom was brought on them by pride which in turn was engendered by the riches of the earth.  (Since Cumorah, 354)

It would be easy to simply contrast Nibley and the filmstrip here and to celebrate Nibley for being critical of the filmstrip’s undiluted and garish enthusiasm for the most mundane symbols of postwar American consumer capitalism.    But Nibley (though perhaps not the filmstrip) is more complicated than that, because, despite many lefty-leaning Mormons’ attempts, the Book of Mormon does not present a simplistic critique of wealth.  In several places, the book denounces people who (like ‘Man’) are overtly enthusiastic about getting gain and luxuriate in riches – but the book also promises that such wealth is in fact a gift from God.  This is the famous Book of Mormon pride cycle: God blesses the righteous with material prosperity, and they then promptly descend into pride and sloth and get defeated in battle.

This is not to say, however, that the book celebrates “righteous” wealth-getting – rather, it offers an image of wealth as an accidental byproduct of being righteous.  The book then cannot be read as an endorsement of capitalism either.  Rather, the economics of the Book of Mormon are spiritualized, supernaturalized, abstracted from our present assumptions of cause and effect enough that they serve poorly as a textbook of social construction.  The Book of Mormon’s writers live in a world in which God’s power has more to do with wealth – though not, perhaps, poverty – than one’s own talents.  It calls us to live in that world too – and such a feat of religious imagination will always be difficult.

Mormons as Christians; Christians as Mormons

In the nineteenth sixties and seventies, an “anti-cult” movement emerged in America, assailing religious movements like Krishna Consciousness and the Children of God and Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple with the word “cult.”  The anti-cult movement was secular, and as such attacked these movements in secular language: it popularized concepts like ‘brainwashing’ and ‘deprogramming,’ warned that such religious movements were not really religious but rather elaborate means of self-gratification erected by charismatic leaders who wanted to exploit the young, and generally made the word ‘cult’ a symbol of a dangerous, suspect, clannish, and authoritarian pseudo-religions. [Read more...]

Ghost Stories

I’m revisiting Judith Richardson’s Possessions: the history and uses of haunting in the Hudson Valley as I start thinking about nineteenth century spiritualism for a new book project, and this time I’ve been struck by her emphasis on place.  The tangled and broken landscape of the Hudson Valley, full of cliffs and culverts and sharp bends in the river, makes for an ideal habitat for the unquiet dead. But just as powerful is the cultural landscape, marked since the seventeenth century with the sudden rise and fall of cultures and peoples, so rapid that the monuments and homes of previous generations still stand: the Dutch landscape silently accusing the British and Native Americans still lingering in the spaces between American-built roads and factories.

Jared Farmer’s wonderful On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American landscape is a ghost story, in a sense, exploring the long afterlife of the Native American tribes the Mormon settlers clashed with in the minds of contemporary Utah Mormons – but equally true, it’s a ghostbusting story, recounting how those Mormons domesticated, rehabilitated, and laid to rest their memories of that clash.  The Mormons even invented a ghost, in a sense, the fake Indian princess Timpanogos, whose entirely typical (for a ghost) behaviors – wailing in the night, mourning her lost love – are decidedly harmless. [Read more...]

Review: Russell Banks, Cloudsplitter: a novel.

Partway through Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks’s ambitious fictional account of John Brown’s adult life, our narrator, John’s third son Owen, reflects that his relationship to his father is analogous to Job’s relationship with God.  That is, God is, well, God, just like John Brown was John Brown, and the status entitles this looming divine presence to behave as he will, and Job or Owen must simply follow, because one does not question the divine.   As Job says, in chapter 42:

I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . .  5I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

This is hard stuff; the sort of religion that Americans today often describe as “Old Testament,” lingo that has become a sort of shorthand for a God who is hard and demanding, a God whose behavior might today be characterized as human rights violations, a God who seems to care more about righteous behavior than self-esteem.   However much a distortion of the actual Hebrew Bible this is, believing in this sort of God takes the sort of iron-willed faith that many Americans today recoil from instinctively. [Read more...]

The Pope’s Conservative Reasons for Saying Nice Things about Atheists


Every Wednesday morning, the pope celebrates a Mass and holds a public audience.   It is routine for popes to offer a homily at these occasions – a brief exhortation to his audience that normally follows uncontroversial and tedious paths: do good, attend Mass, or so forth.  We had little reason to suspect that Pope Francis would be all that different.  After all, he was widely reported to be a theological conservative, a “conventional choice” for the papacy, not that different from his predecessor Benedict.  But Pope Francis has surprised.  He has turned these historically low-key events into discussions that range far beyond simply religious topics.  At his inaugural homily, he called for protection of the environment.  At his Easter Mass he denounced materialism and violence in the Middle East.   And last Wednesday he stated that even atheists could be saved.

[Read more...]