Prayer in America
Subject: Professor Catherine Brekus
Interviewer: Alison Rostankowski
The segments included in this interview* excerpt were recorded in August 2006, as part of Prayer in America, a look at the history of civil liberties in America and the controversy surrounding the USA PATRIOT ACT. The documentary is a production of The Duncan Entertainment Group, Iowa Public Television is the presenter and flagship affiliate for the PBS system. Catherine Brekus is Associate Professor of the History of Christianity, Divinity School, University of Chicago.
(* This transcript has been edited due to length.)
What impact has prayer had on American history?
There are different kinds of answers to that question. There's the personal dimension and then there's the public dimension. On the personal level you can find examples of people throughout American history who are responding to personal crises or, major public events in prayer so that when we read peoples' diaries, when we hear people reflecting on their lives, people from the 17th Century or the 19th or 20th centuries, they will reflect on how in times of crisis or in times of need - we're calling on God in prayer.
There's also the public level which is that Americans have come together on many different occasions in civic ways to pray together collectively. That I would put under a different category. There's the personal prayer, the way that people make meaning in their ordinary lives, and then there are moments when people feel the need to come together as a nation to collectively call on God for national blessings.
Is there anything particularly unique about the American prayer experience that might distinguish it from other countries? Because, after all, everyone prays.
I think the first thing to say there is that there are some things that are distinctive about American religion and I think that those things probably have influenced American prayer as well. A lot of sociologists have noticed that when we compare statistics from America and other countries, that many more Americans than Europeans, for example, say that they pray, say that they go to church, say that they believe in God.
There's some extraordinary percentage of Americans today who say that they believe in God, more than 90% and there are more than 40% of people who claim to go to church regularly, although sociologists always debate this data because people tend to say what they want people to think about them rather than what they Sociologists have argued that there are various reasons for this heightened religiosity in America. Most take it back to the early 19th Century and actually the creation of The Constitution and the First Amendment. In early America church going was required. Everybody had to go to church, had to pay taxes to the church establishment. So, for example, if you were growing up in Massachusetts, whether or not you were a full church member or whether or not you had come forward to say that you believed that you had been saved, you had to pay taxes to support the church establishment.
When the nation became a nation after the American Revolution, churches were disestablished and the First Amendment guaranteed that there would be no national establishment of religion and that people would be free to worship as they pleased. The result of that was sort of a free market of religion. And, um, there are huge numbers of new denominations that emerge in the early 19th Century.
When people aren't satisfied with the church that they're going to, they just create a different church that they like better. So there's been this splintering impulse in American religion where there are now huge numbers of Saxon denominations and people seem to be more interested in religion when it's not coerced, when they have the freedom to choose where they want to worship and how they want to worship.
So I think there is something distinctive about American religion, that there's this very pluralistic marketplace. In terms of American prayer, I think this pluralism has meant that it's a very crowded prayer environment. You have a multiplicity of kinds of praying, you have people praying in different ways, you have people praying to different conceptions of God.
There are huge theological differences between different groups in American religious history and that's meant that this has been a very pluralistic place to pray and prayer has been part of this larger marketplace of American religion.
Another interview subject said, "If you're American, you're more or less Protestants." What do you think about that statement?
This has been a real dilemma, I would say, for religious groups outside of the Protestant mainstream. Protestants have been the dominant religious tradition in America since the founding. Most of the original settlers who came to America in the 17th Century were Protestants, Congregationalists, Puritans in New England, Anglicans later Episcopalians in the south and then, Quakers and Presbyterians in the middle colonies.
So there's a strong Protestant tradition that influences early America and even though there's a small group of Catholics that settles in Maryland in the 17th Century, they're really outnumbered by this very large group of Protestants. This continues into the 19th Century so that when you count up the number of people going to church, there are many more Protestants than Catholics or members of other religious groups. Jews, for example, are a tiny, tiny minority in America then and today.
And so religious traditions coming into this American environment, have to find a place for themselves and a culture that's dominantly Protestant. And what I think that has meant most pressingly for a lot of religious groups is that they have to reckon with a kind of Protestant individualism. So, for example, when we think about Protestants in relationship to Catholics in the 19th Century, Protestants really prized the whole idea of a priesthood of believers, that the way one should relate to God is as an individual in individual prayer. You do not need a priest to mediate for you. You could speak to God directly.
For Catholics the image that was much more important to them was the mystical Body of Christ, not the priesthood of all believers. So they imaged all members of the church as pieces of one larger body and the idea was that everybody was working together for the common good and that you had to approach God collectively and you approached God through an intermediary figure, the priest, and that you were also surrounded by a whole invisible community of saints who you could also speak to.
So the focus for Catholics was much less individualistic, but in an American environment what's prized is individual choice, a sense of making a personal choice to be a believer, not coming into a community through tradition. So this creates problems for different religious communities. There's been a very strong strain of individualism ever since the 19th Century.
In fact, the word individualism was coined by Alexis De Touqville when he visited America in the 1830s. He was looking around trying to figure out how to describe what he saw and he came up with this new word individualism, to describe what he saw not only in churches, but in the larger culture. So I think that all religious groups, Jews, Catholics, members of eastern religions have had to reckon with an American kind of individualism and this has sometimes been corrosive for their traditions.
How have American prayers changed over time?
I think one of the things that's so comforting about prayer or reassuring about prayer is that prayer seems to be a stable form so it gives us the sense that we're connected to the past and it's a sort of illusion of stability that when I pray or someone else prays that we're doing something that people have done across history so that there's something universal about prayer.
This is a very comforting thought that in the midst of all this change that we experience all the time that there's something stable at the core of history, which is this unchanging desire to communicate with God. Now, there's something to this, but what the focus on the stability of prayer misses is that even though the form of prayer has remained the same, the content of prayer has really changed. American theology has gone through many transformations since the 17th Century. So to give you an example, in the 17th Century when people prayed, they imagined God in Calvinist terms as a sovereign God, a God who stood way far above history and who looked down on his creation, but who had decided everything that would happen before any of us were born.
So in the Calvinist scheme of predestination, God has decided even before I'm born whether I'm going to be saved or damned and knows everything that's going to happen to me and has decided everything that's going to happen to me so that there isn't really a whole lot of scope in that understanding for human agency. I, of course, am going to petition God for things as a Puritan in the 17th Century, but I'm going to have the sense that God already knows how it's going to turn out and there's really nothing that I can do that's going to change God's mind. And because of the Puritan Calvinist sense of original sin, they would argue that there's really nothing that anyone can do to please God. God only chooses some to be saved out of God's own mercy and grace, not because of anything good in human beings.
So someone praying to that sort of God who's imagined is very distant from the world, who has created the world to demonstrate his glory is doing something different than someone who imagines God as a friend, who is intimately interested in your own striving and who could be affected by human agency. So I think the theological changes here are immense and if we just think about people praying, we think they're doing the same things, but in terms of what they're actually saying to God in prayer or expecting from God in prayer it's something different.
This is a very contemporary shift here from this kind of looking up to God on high to almost God is my best friend Is that a kind of contemporary manifestation? And if so, why did it come about?
I think it really began in the 18th Century and then in the early 19th Century. The way that I try to get students to imagine this is that if you could draw a picture on the board and you could draw the center of the universe, for early American Protestants, the center of the universe would be God's glory and they believed that God created the world in order to demonstrate his glory.
So there are things like the damnation of particular sinners or suffering, which might matter to individuals, but that suffering might, in some ways, serve the larger purposes of God's glory. In fact, that's a way that a lot of ministers explain the whole concept of hell that this is a demonstration of God's power that hell exists. And so this isn't really a problem in early American theology. I mean, it is a problem for the individual who's afraid that he or she might go to hell, but it's not a problem the way it is today in how could a good God allow this suffering or how could a good God send people to hell? The whole theology was built around the idea that the universe was designed so that God could demonstrate God's glory.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries there's a shift and explaining this is difficult, but if we then go back to the blackboard and draw the center of the universe, what's going to be at the center in the early 19th Century is human happiness. And Protestants will now say God created the world to make humans happy. And when that happens, a lot of the doctrines that had been accepted like eternal hell fire, the possible damnation of infants, the whole idea of election, that some people could be saved and some people could be damned not because of anything they did on their own, that suddenly becomes a problem and there's a real shift in theology so that people are now seen as possessing more free will, more agency.
So there's really a shift in the way people imagine the whole purpose of the universe. Now, explaining why this happens is difficult. It seems to be connected to what historians have called the enlightenment. There are new ideas about human goodness that emerge in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are many enlightenment philosophers who question the idea of a sovereign God who would punish people, and decide that some people would be damned even before birth. It also seems to be connected to economic changes that the 18th Century when all of this is changing is a time when the market economy is growing, when the first stirrings of capitalism are beginning, and there seems to be a shift in theology that accords with this shift in the economy so that people have much greater freedom economically to choose what to buy and then how to represent themselves to the world according to what they buy so that you can buy the latest silver from England and say something about yourself or you can buy the latest silks and portray yourself another way. So as there's greater economic choice and people are able to portray themselves in different ways there also seems to be a greater influence on one's ability to choose one's salvation.
Could you share maybe one or two some examples of some early American prayers?
Sure. In the 18th Century when Puritans prayed, they were particularly focused on accepting God's will. So sometimes when I think about the difference between what people might pray for today and what people prayed for then… I have had many friends, for example, who in the midst of tragedies or some horrible thing has happened to a family member they'll find themselves pleading in prayer with God, please, God, don't let this happen. I'll do anything. I will, um, go to church more often. I will, ah, be more charitable. So they make all sorts of promises.
In the 18th Century this would have been seen as presumptuous and as sinful because of the idea that what one had to do was to accept God's will and that nothing that anybody could do could please God. God is above being pleased by human actions so it's not gonna matter to God if you say I'll start going to church all the time. God isn't going to save you for that. Um, so when you hear the prayers of early Americans, they focus much more on accepting whatever God decides to give them.
So there are some prayers that we have that exist from Jonathan Edwards, his congregation. Edwards was a leading minister in New England, in North Hampton, Massachusetts in the 1740s, and he allowed his congregates to tell him what they wanted him to pray for in the pulpit so that there'd be a time of sharing where. He would call upon the entire congregation to pray for someone in need in the congregation. So people wrote down their prayers on little slips of paper and handed them to him. We have these prayers because Edwards saved the pieces of paper. He was a voluminous writer and paper was quite expensive and so he actually wrote some of his manuscripts and sermons on the back of these prayer bids.
Here's one from a woman and her children. "The widow, Lydia Wright, and her children desire the prayers of this congregation that God would sanctify his holy hand to them in taking away her husband and their father by death. They desire prayer that God would cause this affliction to work for their spiritual good." There are many prayers that echo this theme of God, please sanctify this suffering for my good. Please make me a better Christian through this trial that I am experiencing. People certainly also pray to be spared from something and they also prayer in gratitude when God had granted a petition, but they're always focusing on God's will being done, that what they have to do in prayer is to accept that whatever they want they have to bring their hearts into accord with what God wants for them.
Can you talk briefly about some of the ways the Exodus story has been interpreted and why it has so much resonance to so many different religious groups as we kind of move through history?
The people who are most attracted to the Exodus story, of course, are slaves who are given a partial understanding of the Bible by slave holders but who pick up enough about the story of Moses and the story of the Israelites that they really identify very strongly with the Israelites and see themselves as being in the same position as the Israelites in Egypt. This is really very ironic and tragic because Americans have identified themselves for so long as being a sort of city on a hill or a redeemer nation or a new Israel and the reality is that at the same time that white Americans were identifying themselves as a new Israel, there were enslaved Africans who were identifying with the old Israel, the Israel in captivity, the Israel in bondage.
So this story of Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage into the promised land becomes incredibly important for enslaved people hoping that the land of Canaan is coming and that there is going to be a day of jubilee for them. So you find many references to Moses in narratives of ex slaves.
In fact, there are some slaves who almost seemed to conflate Moses with Christ. Christ becomes a Moses-like figure, Christ is going to be leading them out of bondage, that three's a sort of double-ness, about Moses and Christ together.
We have a wonderful collection of interviews that were recorded, from ex slaves in the 1930s. The Works Progress Administration sent interviews out to talk to people who had been slaves and they talked extensively about their religious lives and many of them, referred to their identity as the Israelites in captivity and remembered praying for a Moses to come redeem them.
Harriet Tubman, for example, who's the founder of the Underground Railroad, she becomes identified as Moses because she is taking so many people to freedom. So people who are trying to help slaves often take on this sort of Moses-like character in their imagination.
You mentioned earlier this notion of suffering and this becomes incredibly important obviously to slaves. How do we find that or how is that conveyed in prayer practices of the slaves?
For slaves suffering is a daily reality. When you read through these narratives of ex slaves, so many of them recount times when they were beaten, when they saw other people beaten, when they saw family members beaten and were helpless to do anything to save them. So there's an intensive sense of suffering and I think an identification with the suffering Christ on the cross.
The Christian story, in some ways, is perfectly made for people who are suffering this intensely because it's ultimately a story about someone who suffers, but who is redeemed and so slaves are identifying with Christ's suffering body on the cross and hoping for redemption.
Did the slaves have any kind of unique forms of prayer or spiritual expression?
The most unique creation that comes out of slavery is the spirituals. The spirituals are beautiful and this is a kind of prayer. There are many many spirituals that seem to emerge from within the slave community, spirituals that are still sung today. Some of them reflect this Exodus theme. There's the famous spiritual, "Go Down Moses,Let My People Go".
Slaves are trying to worship separately from masters so there are many slaves who recount meeting secretly at night so that they could worship and pray the way that they wanted to. Those meetings are sometimes broken up. When you read slave narratives, they always refer to the patrollers who are whites who want to make sure that there aren't any illegal gatherings of slaves. Many slave owners were especially nervous about large gatherings of slaves after the Nat Turner rebellion. Nat Turner was a slave who claimed that he had received divine messages from God. He portrayed himself as a prophet and he believed that he had been called to lead a rebellion, really a revolution against white slave owners. He managed to gather a group of people around him and they did, in fact, kill a fair number of whites before they were finally captured and all of them were either hanged or transported out of the country. This rebellion makes slave owners very nervous and so because Tuner was a religious figure, a prophetic figure, they become especially worried about slaves having access to the Bible and also slaves meeting in secret to worship because they now see those meetings as potentially revolutionary. So slaves have to create a sort of separate space for themselves to worship because what they're asked to do in white services is to listen to endless variations on the theme slaves be obedient to your masters.
We have some what to me are just chilling sermons that white preachers gave where the theme over and over again is slaves have to be obedient. There's one from an Anglican clergyman from the 1760s named Thomas Baken where he actually told slaves that their masters were God's overseers and that they owed their masters complete obedience because their masters were standing in for God. And so there were very, very limited places where they could resist masters, only if masters asked them to kill someone else, for example, but otherwise they were supposed to do the master's will as if they were obeying God. So faced with this message slaves tried to carve out their own space for worship and they create their own indigenous leadership. There are black preachers who become known in the slave community and they nurture their own distinctive kind of spirituality.
There are many historians who argue that the black church becomes the most important organization for newly freed people, that as soon as slaves are freed the first thing that they do is to create new churches and there are hundreds and then thousands of new independent black churches that emerge after slavery. I think the depth of some slaves suffering comes out in their prayers, the ones that we know about that have been recorded. So, for example, we know the story of a woman who after her daughter was beaten very badly by her master and she, of course, could do nothing to protect her daughter, she offered a prayer that was really a kind of curse and this is this is what she remembered praying:
"Oh, Lord, hasten the day when the blows and the bruises and the aches and the pains shall come to the white folks and the buzzard shall eat them as they're dead in the streets. Oh, Lord, roll on the chariots and give me back - and give the black people rest and peace. Oh, Lord, give me the pleasure of living 'til that day when I shall see white folks shot down like the wolves when they come hungry out of the woods."
What's surprising is how many slaves were able to approach their masters after freedom in a spirit of forgiveness. I think this shows how much they had taken to heart the Christian message of forgiveness. So there's one man who remembers how mean his master was. He describes him as the meanest man God ever created and this is what he told an interviewer in the 1930s:
"He whipped from about 3:00 in the morning until 8 and 9:00 at night. It was awful to hear the poor slaves crying. Oh, pray, master. Both men and women were whipped alike. I held one man to be whipped and saw him beat to death. I don't know how many he beat to death, but I came near being killed myself."
Yet afterwards he claims that he was able to forgive this master not because he thought what the master had done was okay, but because he didn't want that sort of hatred in his own heart.
There's another slave who encounters his former master on the street and the master approaches him and says do you remember how I used to beat you? And the slave says I do. And the master says can you forgive me? And the slaves says I can forgive you. I'm a better person than you are and I can't go to heaven with that hatred in my heart.
Coming out of the Civil War we get this movement towards the Social Gospel -and it seems that this is a place where the prayer really starts to take center stage. So how exactly was prayer used in the Social Gospel?
The people involved in the Social Gospel Movement wanted more than social reform. There were many Protestants before who had argued that it was a Christian's duty to be charitable, to give money to the poor, for example, but the people involved in this Social Gospel Movement wanted something more. They wanted to make God's kingdom visible on earth. Now, they weren't so optimistic that they believed that they could completely achieve this. Walter Rauschenbusch, for example, is famous for saying the kingdom of God is always but coming. But he did think that Christians had a duty, an obligation, that they were called by God to bring the world into as close of a conformity as possible to what God would want in a heavenly kingdom. So they were completely committed to reforming social structures. They didn't just want to help individuals, but to change the whole economic system, the political system to make it possible for humans to thrive. Rauschenbusch, for example, is known for many of his anti-capitalist teachings. He, described capitalists as the tick class and argued that they were engorging themselves with the blood of laborers and enjoying the fruit of someone else's labors.
It seems that suddenly many women are able to enter the public realm in terms of prayer practices at this point. What is it about the Social Gospel that allows women to start venturing into this realm and using prayer for the reasons you've just described?
Well, there are many women who identify with this desire to transform societal structures. Many women who are interested in extending the suffrage to women see the Social Gospel as a way of realizing God's purposes for women, as well as for men. So Francis Willard, for example, who's a fairly well-known Social Gospel activist who becomes involved in Temperance is also involved in the Women's Suffrage Movement, her slogan actually, and she begins as a Temperance activist, but then adopts the slogan, "Do everything." And she believes that Temperance by itself is not enough, that there'd have to be a whole lot of other kinds of reforms, including women's suffrage, including dress reform, this is when women were still cinched into these very tight outfits, labor reform.
So there are a number of women who become public activists on behalf of Women Suffrage, on behalf of Temperance. We have, I think, a somewhat skewed vision of Women Suffrage activists as being anti-religious. I think this probably comes from stereotypes of the contemporary period when supposedly now - and I don't think is true now either, but supposedly now feminism and religion are somehow contradictory movements.
In fact, there are many feminists who are motivated by religious concerns, but this was true in the 19th Century as well. So some of the early Women's Rights activists were people who believed that they were going to bring about God's will, that it was actually God's will that women, as well as men, have the vote and that sexual equality was something that God had wanted, but that people had somehow subverted.
So when you read the documents, for example, from Women's Rights conventions in the 19th Century, you'll often find women using religious language or calling for prayers to happen at these events. Women's Rights activists actually tend to speak in two languages. There's one language that is meant for public consumption, for government bodies, and that's a sort of constitutional, political language. But then when they're on their own, when they're at Women's Rights conventions and they're speaking to one another, they're often reflecting on themselves as agents of God's cause. For example, there's one Women's Rights activist who claims that what she's trying to do and these are her words is to restore the divine order to the world. So by giving women the vote she thinks that she is trying to do God's will.
So there's a religious element in the Women's Suffrage Moment and the Women's Christian Temperance Union, of course, they identify themselves explicitly as Christians, those women are often barging into saloons and actually praying for people on the spot.
The Women's Christian Temperance Movement grows out of something called the Women's Crusade in the 1870s. It started in Ohio and what happened is that a group of women, a large group of women, about 80 or 100 of them, decided they wanted to close down the saloon in their local town. And so what they did is they started with a prayer in church and then they literally marched through the streets in double rows and they had a Temperance Pledge that they wanted the saloon keeper in town to sign. And they came into his saloon and when he refused to sign the Temperance Pledge, they basically had a sit-in and they sang hymns, and they prayed aloud, and what really hurt peoples' business is then when a man would come in and wanted a drink, they would write down his name so that they were keeping records of who actually came into this saloon. These sit-ins were always supposed to end with the saloon keeper surrendering. There was a kind of, almost ritualized action where if the women could finally convince the saloon keeper to sign the pledge, what would happen next is he would surrender to them and then he would roll out all of his barrels of alcohol into the street where they would be split open and all the alcohol would flow out.
I think the most famous story of an episode like this comes from a small town in Ohio, Hillsborough, Ohio, where a group of women did not initially have very much success with the saloon keeper. His name was Charles Van Pelt and when they show up at his saloon, he absolutely refuses to sign this pledge. And so they begin praying and they pray that the Lord will baptize him with the Holy Spirit. And at that point he decides to baptize them and he throws a bucket of dirty water on them. Then he throws a bucket of beer on them and they leave. This news spread all over, they show up the next morning, he greets them with a bloody ax and then he's put into jail for threatening them with bodily harm. This story spreads all over, he becomes known as the wickedest man in Ohio and finally seems to decide and this seems to be more of financial motives than religious ones - he seems to decide that it's gonna be better for business for him to become a sort of Temperance activist because no one's coming to his saloon anymore. And so he makes a big production out of surrendering to these women and rolling out the barrel of alcohol into the street and repenting publicly as these women are praying over him and the church bells in town begin ringing.
So, there are wonderful stories that come from the Women's Crusades and the Women's Christian Temperance Union where they really use prayer as a kind of of weapon. The year before Francis Willard becomes the president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union she had her first experience in one of these crusades where she was in Pittsburgh and she accompanies a group of women who march into a saloon and a woman opens up the Bible and reads aloud a psalm. Then they sing "The Rock of Ages", which, of course, the customers don't like. The customers are not happy that there are a group of women with Bibles singing to them. And then she kneels down, as she describes, in the sawdust and begins a long prayer that the saloon keeper will sign the pledge and that all the people in the bar will be converted and won't drink anymore.
I think it's very hard for these men who are standing in bars to resist when a group of women show up, all of whom are dressed very modestly carrying Bibles, singing, who shame them, in some ways, into leaving the saloon. And because the entire Women's Christian Temperance Crusade is built around this slogan for home, for nation, for God, it's framed as these men are in a bar when they should be doing something for their families, where they should either be working, but they certainly should not be spending their hard-earned money in a bar instead of being at home with their families.
How is prayer still used as a tool of social protest in maybe a more contemporary setting?
I think that the most contested movements of our time often have prayer at their center. So when we look at anti-abortion rallies, people are praying publicly, for example. When we look at protests against things going on abroad, you see people praying publicly, praying against genocide, for example, praying against child labor or child prostitution so that prayer is seen as not only a way of personally communicating with God, but publicly expressing one's hope for the future, one's discontent with the way that things are and prayer has really been a very potent weapon.
Where does Rick Warren fit into this paradigm? He told us that the Social Gospel was basically Marxism.
Well, I think the difference between contemporary Evangelicals - and I'm not sure I can speak specifically to Rick Warren, but the difference between contemporary Evangelicals and the Social Gospel Movement is that Evangelicals have been much more individualistic so that they think the way to save the world is to save one sinner at a time and the way that you're going to create lasting change is to convert people, whereas the Social Gospel people believed that sin was not only in individual, but sin was actually embedded in the social order.
So a lot of these figures, in fact, were socialists or had Marxist leanings because they want to change the entire economic order, the entire political order because they think that that order is sinful. So they're calling for structural change in a much more radical way than Evangelicals today who tend to be more individualistic. And it's not that Evangelicals don't want to help people in need, but they think the best way to do that is not through any sort of bureaucratic solution or structural change, but rather, your heart has to be turned and if your heart has not been turned, if you don't have a personal relationship with Jesus, then all the social change in the world is not going to matter. So they focused much more on converting individuals.
But Warren is an interesting figure because he has committed himself to donating such large amounts of money to Africans that, in some ways, one could link him to the Social Gospel, but I guess he doesn't want to be.
So prayer has become part of the accepted American method of working for social justice. Is this maybe one of these unique American characteristics?
That's an interesting question. I think to know the answer to that I'd have to know more about how social protest happens in other countries. It certainly is a defining feature of American political protest today that one way to make your voices heard is to pray publicly, but whether that happens elsewhere I'm not sure.
I think it's particularly successful in the American context because so many people claim to believe in God that when you see large numbers of people assembling and praying together that that really makes an impression on a nation that claims to be a nation that has a special relationship with God. I think there's a civil religion underlying some of this.
At the same time, we've got the social gospel, we see the emergence of the Gospel of Prosperity or Gospel of wealth. How and why does it emerge and where does prayer fit in?
The Prosperity Gospel has different roots. Today's Prosperity Gospel definitely has roots in the Pentecostal Movement, which dates back to the early 20th Century. A lot of Prosperity Gospel preachers are known as word faith preachers. They're people who claim that if you speak your desires out loud that you can, in a sense, create your own reality.
That, if you say out loud, and it's important that you say these things out loud - if you say out loud that you want a car that God will give you a car. Their thinking behind this is that God called the world into being through speech, that God says let there be light. And so what these, word faith preachers are trying to do is to sort of imitate that and to say that humans have this kind of God-like power that they can call into being their own reality, including wealth so that if they want more money, they have to speak it and they have to ask for it. And if they have enough faith, these things will be granted to them. This is a completely different kind of theology than what I was discussing earlier where you have early Americans who are always saying not my will, but God's will be done so that they're asking God for things, but always within the framework of knowing that God might refuse. God answers prayers sometimes by not answering prayers is what they believe. It's possible that when your child dies, for example, that that was suppose to happen.
The people who are preaching a Prosperity Gospel tend to describe anything bad that happens to you as being somehow a product of a lack of faith because you should be able to create your own spiritual reality and you should be able, if you have enough faith, to get the things that you want. One of the things that people like, Benny Hinn do is to ask people to send them money as a demonstration of faith so that if you really have faith, you will send me $1,000 and that will prove to God how much faith you have and you will then get $100,000 back. A lot of these Prosperity Gospel preachers are, in fact, very prosperous and they are driving Mercedes and Rolls Royces and the people who are buying their books and listening to them on television are very impressed by this display of wealth and they - they want to be like them.
One of the other roots for the Prosperity Gospel really comes from new thought. New thought is a sort of amorphous Movement that emerges in the late 19th Century. It has some connections to Christian Science, but goes in a different direction. There are new thought practitioners in the late 19th Century who argue that you can think you're way to a different reality, that your mind has power, your thoughts are magnetic. There's a kind of quasi science going on here about electrical impulses coming from your thoughts or magnetic fields coming from your brain that are affecting the world around you. New thought people said it was possible for you to think your way to health, for example, or later some claim that you can think your way to wealth. And so the Word Faith Movement, the Pentecostal preachers are drawing partially on Pentecostalism, but I think also on this other context that isn't a sort of traditionally Christian one of new thought that suggests that you can alter reality by your thoughts.
A very popular exemplar of this right now is this book called "The Secret", which has been featured on Oprah Winfrey and apparently thousands of people are buying this and it's actually not a new concept at all. It's really coming from the late 19th Century New Thought Movement that the way to improve your life is to change the way that you think. It's really another variation on the power of positive thinking.
Is there any difference between a Russell Conwell in the 1900s talking about the acres of diamonds over and over again and Bruce Wilkinson talking about the prayer of Jabez?
You know, I actually think that the Prosperity Gospel has a long history in America beginning in the late 19th Century and it makes sense that it would begin there. This is the era of the robber barons, of the Rockefellers, these people who are amassing enormous amounts of wealth and there are many people who want to imitate that and who then try to harness religion to that end. So the Prosperity Gospel isn't really anything new, but I do think that it's become more popular in the past couple of years, partially because people like Joel Osteen have such a huge media empire and they're reaching people not only through television, but through the Internet and through books, and so there are many, many people who are tuning into those shows or reading these books and thinking that what God wants is for them to be rich. This is a completely different message than what someone like Water Rauschenbusch would have said in the early 20th Century where he would have said to be a Christian is to identify with the suffering, to identify with the poor, that Christ is most present in poverty, that Christ came for the poor, that Christ himself was poor. There are now Prosperity preachers who are claiming that Christ and his disciples were actually rich and that Christ and his disciples want us to be rich.
They sometimes quote a passage from Paul where Paul says that Christ came in poverty to make us rich. Most interpreters of the Bible would interpret that to say Christ came to make us rich spiritually. Christ came to enrich our lives. But Prosperity preachers take it literally and say no, Christ came to literally make us rich.
Is there anything on that topic - because I think it's an important one, that you would add?
Maybe just to reiterate that the kind of prayer that's going on is very different. The form of prayer might look very similar to what was taking place in earlier centuries, but the late 19th Century marks a transformation in the content of some of these prayers where it's very unlikely that anybody in early America or anyone before about 1870 would be praying to God to make them rich. They would have thought this would be sinful and presumptuous and they also would have assumed that they had to conform their will to what God wanted for them. The anthropology behind the Prosperity Gospel is a very high anthropology. In other words, they have a very positive view of humans as being almost like little Gods. Benny Hinn got into trouble a few years ago by actually referring to humans as being like little Gods and people said well, you can't say that. It's not Christian. But I think that that, in fact, is what lies behind some of this theology. The whole idea is that we have the capacity, a sort of God-like capacity to change the world around us, that we are not dependent on anybody else and we're not dependent on a sovereign God. We can make our own reality.
What is the connection from the Evangelical or maybe the revival experience and then this notion of forgiveness?
I would say not only for Evangelical Protestants, but for Catholics and I suspect for probably members of most other denominations forgiveness is a very important virtue. The idea is that you can't approach God in the right spirit if you're filled with hatred, if there's somebody that you want to destroy. Now there are certainly people who've prayed for the destruction of others. There are many prayers in American history that are not benign. Prayer is not necessarily a benign force. There are people who have wished ill on others and have prayed for terrible things. Slaves owners, for example, praying for the perpetuation of slavery.
But, I think there's a core in the Christian message that leads toward forgiveness, that the message of the Crucifixion is the forgiveness of sins. And ordinary Christians feel as if they have to recapitulate that in their own lives, that just as they have been forgiven despite their own sinfulness, they need to forgive others. This is a very hard thing to practice. Early in churches in the 17th Century and in the 18th Century when people are quarreling, they don't come to the Communion table, for example. If you're having a fight with someone else in the congregation, you are not supposed to come up and take communion as a body with others, not until you've rectified that breach. They imagine it's like a division in the larger Body of Christ that your conflict has created. Not until you have overcome that are you welcome back at the Communion table.
These kind of beliefs I think run through American Christian communities. It's a very hard discipline, especially for people like slaves who feel as if they are called to forgive their masters, but who have suffered terrible cruelties at their hands, but who feel as if they can't have a loving personal relationship with God when they're so angry.
In the United States that there's almost this kind of therapeutic aspect to prayer in America. What are its historical roots?
In the late 19th Century there are a number of liberal Protestants who begin thinking about prayer in a different way. In a world of Darwinian Science of evolution where people understand better the the laws that seem to govern the universe, there are a lot of intellectuals, not ordinary people, but intellectuals who begin wondering about the effectiveness of petitionary prayer, is it possible to actually change God's will through prayer. And there are many Protestants, academics, intellectuals who argue no, and they then reframe prayer into something else and they say the good of prayer is not that it changes God's mind about something or forces God to intervene in the world, but rather that it changes your own heart, that it brings you into a closer relationship with God so that the affect of prayer is less on God than it is on you.
And I think you can see some of the roots of this therapeutic understanding of prayer in this move toward imagining prayer as less beneficial in terms of communicating with God than in just making your own heart better, thinking more about your own desires, getting rid of your own hostilities. So there's a longer trajectory of this, but there are many ministers, I would say, from the 19th Century onward who recommend prayer as a kind of therapy, that if you're angry, if you're upset that you can bring your burdens to God in prayer and be relieved of them.
Where does Mary Baker Eddy fit in to the paradigm you're describing?
There are new thought people who are influenced by her, but new thought goes in a somewhat different direction. They don't necessarily deny the existence of matter. They still believe that people can influence the world around them with their minds. But Eddy is actually really an idealist. She believes that the world is a sort of illusion and that what really exists is a larger spiritual whole that we can call into being by getting in touch with that reality within us.
This is an idea of a much more imminent God rather than a transcendent God. Instead of a God who's far above us, God is actually within us and we can access this God through the power of our thought and we can change the world around us. So because of her own experiences with illness and because of her distrust of doctors and in the late 19th Century doctors were not very sophisticated so there was reason to distrust doctors and some of their cures for women, in particular, were horrendous.
There's a famous book by Charlotte Perkins Gillman called "The Yellow Wallpaper" where she recounts how her doctor said that she was suffering for hysteria and so the cure was for her to lie in a dark room 24 hours a day. No reading. Nothing else. So you can understand why Mary Baker Eddy rejected the traditional medicine of her time in favor of a cure that she could enact herself simply through thinking.
So this is why Christian scientists don't trust doctors, this is why they say that if you're ill, you can actually heal yourself. And this is, I think, where the hard part of Christian Science theology comes from - if you haven't been healed it's because of a defect in your faith. So I think what people find difficult about this theology is that it lays the blame on you for any sort of suffering that you might be experiencing.
One of the other areas the documentary is exploring is civil religion. How would you define this term?
When we talk about American civil religion, what we mean is the idea that somehow America has a special divine destiny, that America is a nation that has been specially chosen by God. There are really two forms of civil religion; one that seems America as a kind of exemplar, America is a city on a hill, to borrow the biblical imagery, a light onto the nations. This is a sort of passive image of America, an America that is supposed to exhibit particular virtues to the rest of the world.
There's another kind of civil religion, which I think has disturbed more people, which is more interventionist, and that's that America has been given this special gift of freedom and Americans have a divine destiny to spread that around the world. And this is where you hear some justifications for American imperialism and for interventionism.
So when we talk about civil religion, we're really talking about this idea that somehow America is special. We can actually trace it back to the first Puritans who arrived in Massachusetts Bay in 1630. There's a famous sermon given by John Winthrop on board the Arbella on the way to New England where he tells people that they're going to a promised land and that they will be a city on a hill, that all the eyes of the world will be on them.
Now, the part of that speech that's often forgotten is that at the end he gives them the warning that Moses gives as the Israelites were entering the promised land, which is that if they break the covenant, if they don't live up to God's hopes for them, that actually they will suffer dire consequences, they'll suffer the wrath of God.
But what is preserved for most Americans from this idea of America as a city on a hill is not the threat of divine punishment, but only the promise of divine blessing. So there are certain events in American history that take on a special sacred meaning. There are many Americans who tend to think of the revolution in religious terms. This is the birth of American freedom. In fact, there are Evangelical Christians who argue that the Constitution was actually divinely inspired.
There's a famous story and it turns out that it's mostly a myth, but there's a famous story that in 1787 when the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked and they were having a terrible time coming up with a document that everyone would agree on that Benjamin Franklin stood up and he suggested that everyone there break from what they were doing and spend some time in prayer. That if they prayed that God would help them and they could overcome their difficulties and they could rely on divine guidance.
This is a story that's often been retold. It begins in the early 19th Century. There are writers who claim that their response to Franklin's invocation was that actually the Constitutional Convention broke for three days and that they prayed and they fasted for three days and the fact that it's three days is significant because, of course, this is the number three like the three days before Jesus' resurrection. They fast and they pray for three days and at the end of that time they come back and they write the Constitution with God's help with no controversy whatsoever. This is a story that's often been retold. You can find it on Evangelical Christian websites today, you can find it in textbooks, but it actually turns out that it's apocryphal. There's a piece of it that's true.
Benjamin Franklin did, in fact, stand up and ask people to break off deliberations and pray. This is recorded in James Madison's notes on the Constitutional Convention. But Madison claimed later that actually Franklin's motion was tabled and that they actually did not break for three days to pray. So at the time even that Madison was alive the story had begun circulating and he was trying to discount it.
But there are still people today who believe that the Constitutional Convention called on God's help and that the Constitution should be understood as a divinely inspired document. So it's a special document that shows God's will for Americans and God wants that model to be exported to the rest of the world.
This is a place where this sort of faith in America's special destiny has been joined really to a sort of Evangelical Christian commitment to create something, which is even stronger than a sort of American civil religion, but really represents a joining of American nationalism and Protestantism.
Well you mention this language of freedom and how that becomes embodied in this notion of this chosenness within civil religion. And, obviously, a lot of times that notion of freedom comes along with war. So throughout American wars, be it Revolutionary War, Civil War, maybe even today's war, how is prayer used in this fashion?
During the revolution the patriots often called on God and claimed that they were fighting God's cause. In fact, Harry Stout's first book is about the religious language that infiltrates revolutionary rhetoric in New England. So there were many patriots who claimed that they were fighting against England because they were on the side of God, that actually England was trying to destroy America's special covenant with God.
This continues into the Civil War where you have tragically both northerners and southerners claiming that God is on their side. Abraham Lincoln is probably the one measured voice in all of this where he refuses to see either side as God's specially chosen. In fact, he refers to America as the almost chosen nation, which is a rebuke to this idea of civil religion as America as the chosen nation and he points out the irony that both northerners and southerners are praying to the same God for completely different results.
But this idea that Americans have a special commission from God, that they are called to spread their particular political view, elsewhere has been present in really all wars that I can think of. It was certainly there in World War I where supposedly Americans were fighting to make the world safe for democracy. And, democracy really is America's civil religion. There's a very strong American commitment to freedom and I think you can say that this is what people from different religions in America share, that even though you have Catholics and Protestants and Hindus and Buddhists who imagine God differently, they all share this sense that America has a special destiny as a nation that is supposed to spread freedom around the world.
Now, there are dissenting voices. There have always been dissenting voices and they continue in our current war. There are some people who are very disturbed by this use of religious language to justify war, but I think there's a dominant tradition of joining this sort of civil religion to the enterprise of war.
Maybe on the flip side of that, because you talked about public protest and this public way of coming together often in prayer to demonstrate, how has it been used lately from peace groups or peace activists?
There are many peace activists who assemble publicly, who pray publicly as a protest against the U.S. government. One of my favorite stories about this is Dorothy Day who was the founder of the Catholic Workers, a rather petite, unassuming-looking woman, but great strength of character and she began holding protests against nuclear drills in the wake of World War II where it was actually required that people would prepare for the advent of nuclear war and there were these drills that people were supposed to participate in. Dorothy Day thought the whole idea of preparing for a nuclear war was sinful, that the government should not be contemplating nuclear war, that the government should be destroying nuclear weapons instead of amassing them. And so she calls people together in prayer in the center of New York. The first couple times she's arrested and she's actually taken off to jail, but after a couple of years there are thousands of people who join her and they end up just leaving her alone. So it becomes a very effective form of protest.
This might be cliché to say really but does it starts to emerge in the public consciousness during Vietnam?
That's a good question. When I think about in Vietnam you have the Berrigan Brothers who are burning draft cards in public, but I think we could probably trace public prayer back further into the 19th Century. For example, in anti-slavery rallies where you have people gathering together to protest against the injustice of slavery where they are offering prayers as a group, praying for the hearts of slave holders to change, for example, praying for freedom for slaves.
Right after 9/11, why did so many millions of Americans feel that need to kind of publicly gather and pray together? You didn't see this kind of public prayer form around the British So how do you account for those differences?
I think that we can understand that mass gathering in Yankee Stadium as an expression of American civil religion. But what people were doing when they gathered together was reaffirming their belief in the goodness of America, in their belief that God does have a special destiny for America. There really wasn't an attempt at that gathering, an interfaith gathering to take religious differences seriously.
There are various denominations that are represented, there are various faith traditions, but really people come together not to understand the way a Hindu prays, for example, or the way that a Buddhist prays or what the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant might be, but rather to come together with other Americans to reaffirm their belief that America is, in fact, a chosen nation and that their faith in that was still strong.
So I understand that gathering as more sort of civic event, I guess, than a religious one. It's religious in the sense of civic religion, but I don't think that people there were very attentive to religious differences or really cared much about religious differences that would bother them a lot in other settings. Now, of course, there were some people who were bothered. There was this the Lutheran speaker who got into trouble with his denomination because he had worshiped with people who were not Christian, but I don't think that most of the people who participated in that service were really thinking about it in terms of religious worship, in terms of what they do every Sunday, but rather in terms of reaffirming their faith in the nation.
Let me read to you, something from Jim Moore's book and get your reaction to it. "Prayer affords an opportunity to recognize how Americans, despite their diversity, are unified in their spirituality with one another and with a higher being and that Americans today must understand prayer as a unique and unifying force." And I wonder how you'd respond to that.
I think the prayer that takes place in gatherings like the one at Yankee Stadium that sort of prayer is a unifying force. The prayer that takes place in celebrations of American civil religion is unifying because what people are stating there is really their faith in the nation. But I think if we look more broadly at American prayer and think about the diversity of religious traditions in America that we also have to acknowledge that prayer has been a force for disunity. It sometimes has led to violence.
Prayer reflects all the tensions and contradictions in American life so that when people gather together on these civic occasions, they're thinking mostly about what unites them. But when they're in their own religious communities, they're actually practicing religion in very different ways and often prayer has been a very divisive force.
In the 19th Century, for example, Protestants thought that Catholic prayer was superstitious. Protestants objected to Catholics saying the Rosary, for example, or Catholics praying to Virgin Mary as the Virgin Mary is a sort of intercessor or Catholics praying to the saints. They thought all these things were a sign that Catholics were not true Christians. Catholics have slandered Protestants in the same way.
So prayer has often revealed the tensions between religions. Although we'd like to think that everybody who's praying is doing the same thing, the reality is in terms of the way that people are imagining God, the way that they're imagining what they're doing is really quite different. So that I hope that in the larger scheme of things we're all doing the same thing, but that's sort of a theological issue and not a historical one.
But when it comes to what people are actually doing on the ground, the way people pray, what they're praying for is very different. So I guess I don't see prayer as a unifying force, necessarily, except in these civic occasions where the whole point of the occasion is to bring people together to reaffirm a common American identity. But Americans who are linked together by a nation are also separated by some fairly strong religious differences and differences that really matter to people, differences that are not superficial.
The thesis of Jim Moore's book, as I understand it, is he argues that the social, economic, and political look of the United States, its very development would have been totally different if it wasn't for prayer. Is that an argument you can agree with?
I think that there are a number of people, not all Evangelical Christians, from various backgrounds, but certainly Evangelicals are prominent among them who would like to say that what has made America a great country is that Americans are a prayerful people. And this relates to some of the controversies going on right now about prayer in public schools. There are a lot of people who are afraid if there isn't prayer in public schools that I guess Americans will pray less and then America will not be as good of a nation because the strength of the nation comes from prayer. This, to me, is a sort of theological viewpoint about the success of the American experiment that I think it reflects a faith that America is somehow fulfilling a special, divine destiny.
And so what Moore does in his book from the very first pages is to show various people praying, from the very first people in the conquest of America, some of whom were really not appealing figures. Let's just say that. People who are known for raping and pillaging, but they're praying, while they're doing this.
What he does in his book is to show you people praying throughout history and to then suggest that prayer has been a unifying force and that prayer has also been the reason for the nation's cohesion and perhaps the nation's success. As a historian, I don't think you can make that sort of argument. There's no empirical evidence. Let's put it that way. You can't say that God has answered Americans' prayers in any sort of objective way. Of course, there are all kinds of people who've done experiments to measure prayer and these are absurd, but there will still be people and always be people who want to measure whether prayer actually does anything.
I think we can say that religion has been a very powerful force in shaping American culture in many ways. Religion is crucial in the Anti-Slavery Movement, for example. It's crucial in the Temperance Movement, which we discussed earlier. It's impossible to understand the Civil Rights Movement without understanding the religious convictions that motivated the people who rode on buses and sat on lunch counters and allowed themselves to be sprayed with fire hoses.
So that in order to understand American history, I think we need to take seriously the religious convictions that people have held and the way that religion has shaped -particularly Protestant religion has shaped the public order. For example, I think what's interesting is that Reverend Martin Luther King, in recent surveys a lot of people don't know that he's a reverend. I think some of his religious identity has gotten rubbed off him. I think this is probably because he is joining, actually, the other figures in the pantheon of heroes in American civil religion and as that's happening, he's becoming less distinctive of a figure and more of a sort of universal one.
But to understand King or Fannie Lou Hammer who was a Civil Rights activist in the 1960s, I think you have to pay attention to this very strong faith they had that they had been called to God, called by God, called even to suffer on behalf of this cause of black equality. There's a famous story that Martin Luther King tells of standing in his kitchen and being ready to give up. He had been threatened with bombing, someone had threatened to bomb his house. He, was always living in fear that somebody was going to harm him or his family and it turned out those fears were completely justified. And he was ready to give up. And he recounts how he prayed and asked God to guide him and he claims that he actually hears a voice telling him to persist and that this is the turning point for him, that he now knows that he is doing what God has asked him to do. And so he is motivated by these very strong religious convictions.
My favorite quote from King is that "The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice" and this is where he, in some ways, is influenced by the Social Gospel. He doesn't believe that we can create the kingdom of God on earth, but he does think we can come closer to approximating it and that's what he's trying to do.
How do we get to that emotional element of really helping an audience understand that emotional power of prayer and how it impacts people? Why do over ninety percent of Americans pray?
I actually think that, if I can make a claim about human nature that all humans have some sense of incompleteness and how you explain that or how you respond to that can vary. But I think what prayer does is to give people a sense that they are communicating with some wholeness, that they are filling their gaps, that somehow the things that they need are out there somewhere and that through prayer they can become more fully themselves. So that it might be that they're praying in a time of suffering. It might just be that somehow they feel as if they're not the person that they want to be, that they're dissatisfied somehow or they think they can be better or they want more from themselves. And they turn to their faith and something greater than themselves, some wholeness that's out there.