Friday, February 24th, 2012
How has Christianity shaped American culture?
This is one of the questions that we try to answer in our recent book, American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity. Featuring 22 essays written by a distinguished group of scholars, the book explores both the powerful influence of Christianity on American culture and the multiple forms of Christian expression in the United States. By focusing on the plurality of American “Christianities,” we hope to show that the diversity of American Christianities and the power of the Christian presence in American history are factors that need to be considered together. Even though American Christians have disagreed sharply over both theology and practice, there is hardly a feature of American life—including politics, foreign policy, literature, science, sexuality, gender, race, violence, pacifism, warfare, the media, and capitalism—that has not been influenced by some aspect of the Christian tradition.
At first blush, diversity of belief and collective social influence might not seem to go together. One might more readily suppose that a single, unified message would have greater social influence than a diverse, frequently contentious argument. But, a half-century ago, the American cultural historian R. W. B. Lewis explained how diversity and debate can powerfully shape a culture. Every culture, Lewis proposed, seems gradually “to produce its own determining debate over the ideas that preoccupy it: salvation, the order of nature, money, power, sex, the machine, and the like.”[i] From Lewis’s perspective, a culture achieved its characteristic form not so much through the ascendancy of one particular set of convictions as through debate about the meaning of these preoccupying ideas. American Christians have never been completely unified in their opinions, but their debates have revolved around a set of common issues that have never lost their potency: for example, the possibility of moral progress and the meaning of America’s claim to be a “city on a hill.”
Christians have infused American society with an extensive repertoire of stories, symbols, and ethical ideals that have been among the defining terms of American cultural debate. Over time, Americans have drawn selectively from this repertoire, combined its themes with economic and political values, and mobilized (or resisted) social reforms around the potency of its symbols. For centuries, for example, Americans have debated over whether the story of Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden means that women should be subordinate to men, and they have debated just as fiercely about what it means to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Many contested issues and questions in American politics—including freedom of conscience, the limits of institutional authority, and the sanctity of human life—have drawn their energy from longstanding controversies within the Christian tradition.
Despite their disagreements, American Christians have created informal coalitions with one another that have deeply influenced the nation’s identity. In the nineteenth century, for example, Protestant denominations put aside their theological differences in order to support Sunday laws and Prohibition, and more recently, Mormons, Catholics, and evangelical Protestants have been willing to overlook longstanding antipathies in order to join forces against abortion and same-sex marriage. Even if Christians have been too occupied with their own internal debates to recognize it, they have always occupied a privileged place in the nation, and they have often used their collective power to create or to resist change.
Dominance and diversity—these are not words that are usually associated, but in the case of American Christianity they belong together. A Christian accent frequently inflects American political debate, advocacy for social reform, and proposals for the renewal of public education, even when that accent is unrecognized or unacknowledged. As a result, the sizeable diversity of Christianity in America is not neatly contained under the steeples of its churches or the governing bodies of its denominations but has, in addition, extended out into other sectors of society. If Americans do not always recognize the Christian influence on their culture, it is because its omnipresence has made it virtually invisible.
This essay is adapted from the Introduction to American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity (University of North Carolina Press, 2011), ed. Catherine A. Brekus and W. Clark Gilpin.
 R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 1-2.