Prophesies of Godlessness

Paul Harvey

My friend Kevin Schultz has a chapter in an intriguing-looking new book from Oxford University Press: Prophesies of Godlessness: Prediction of America's Imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day, edited by Charles Mathewes (the editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion) and Christopher McKnight Nichols.

The book traces the idea that American thinkers have always predicted the imminent secularization of America, from the jeremiad tradition to Thomas Jefferson to Robert Ingersoll to Clarence Darrow to the Fundamentalists to modernization theorists to Pat Robertson. Each chapter focuses on a different era and different thinkers. Kevin's chapter is on the Monkey Scopes trial and the rise of liberal Protestantism in the 1920s. The chapters all are connected by focusing on the various repetitive scripts that predict the imminent death of god in America (either gleefully or woefully). Of the book, Mark Noll writes, The authors reveal much about secularization, but much more about why predictions about the effacement of religion have been so central in American national life.

In a graduate class last night, I rediscovered the problem of having students historicize issues/problems that resonate in contemporary politics; usually what happens is that the students want to discuss the contemporary politics of something, rather than the historical roots of how the issue has come to be conceptualized in the first place (this in reference to a discussion of Mae Ngai's Impossible Subjects, a book covering immigration and the creation of the concept of "illegal alien" from 1924 - 1965; inevitably, if somewhat irritatingly, the discussion quickly landed on contemporary immigration controversies, and once there never landed back again on the actual subject of the book). The result can be class discussions that resemble "Crossfire" rather than a graduate seminar. In a number of religious history classes, I've encountered this as well when discussing the kinds of themes discussed in this book. That is to say, concepts of the religiosity or the "declension" of America usually lead students immediately into espousing opinions about whether "we" (whoever that is) are "more" or "less" religious than "we" were at some undefined point in the past. Anyway, I look forward to using this book in some future class, as another experiment in trying to induce historical thinking against the strong undercurrents of presentism.


John Fea said…
Paul: Great point about the "presentism" of our students. I am constantly trying to get my students to think historically. I just got the Mathewes book in the mail and look forward to reading it. And good luck with the lectures at Mercer. I am looking forward to reading them when they come out with Georgia.