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Examining America's Political Pulpit

In her new book, When Sorrow Comes: The Power of Sermons from Pearl Harbor to Black Lives Matter, Melissa M. Matthes argues for two claims. First and most fundamentally, that Protestant ministers should assume a more active public role addressing political and legal affairs, and that, in doing so, they should be met with greater acceptance as national and community leaders whose guidance truly matters. Second, that Protestant clergy espousing theological liberalism provide the greatest opportunity to enlighten public discourse and strengthen the common good.

Her work succeeds admirably on the first score, but is open to a more ambivalent assessment on the second.

The Public Power of the Pulpit

Matthes centers her work on American Protestantism and justifies her limited purview on the “cultural dominance” of Protestantism in the United States—a position of demographic preeminence still evidenced by how the majority of the religiously self-identified are some form of Protestant, and that over 80 percent of African Americans number themselves as Protestant Christians.  

From this Protestant-centered perspective, Matthes argues for the power of the pulpit—or what she labels “sermonic influence” on political and cultural life. Such an influence, she demonstrates, has proven especially notable during times of national crisis: it is here that Protestant sermons have resonated with the greatest force. This is so because, despite the secularization of American culture, many Americans still look to the country’s most prominent confession, especially for consolation in moments of collective crisis and in the aftershocks of largescale national tragedies.  

In defending the public role of Protestant ministers, Matthes makes her stand against the claims of some strict separationists like Andras Sajo, who argues that “social, political, and legal arrangement[s]” must “not allow considerations based on the transcendental or the sacred.” Matthes argues that when the nation wrestles with tragedy, ministers should be listened to by citizens and policymakers alike, with their messages taken as sources of politically relevant insight. This follows, she argues, from the first principles of democratic legitimacy. If the people wish religious inspiration to guide their personal and public response to collective tragedy, the people have every right to have just this; to deny it would be to reject in Richard Parker’s lofty words that “here, the people rule.”

We can add to her arguments the recognition that, in times of crisis and grieving, there would be something coldly indifferent about a strong separation of church and state in the way Sajo recommends. If people seek comfort and guidance from religion in times of tragedy, to demand that they have only an aesthetic comfort, without any cognitive guidance—to say that they may lose themselves in dirges and requiems but take no heed of the sermons accompanying them—is to give cold comfort, indeed.

Having shown that religion still plays a powerful role in the limited arena of collective sorrow, Matthes argues that an opening is forged for seeing Protestant religiosity in a more positive light outside times of national tragedy. This positive influence is disclosed, she maintains, in the way the faith engenders a concern for those in need and on the margins of social and economic life. Specifically, she says religion can promote the common good apart from crises because it can speak so helpfully to just what Sajo and others say must remain the province of secular political advocacy: human rights and human progress.

In taking this stand, Matthes responds to the counterargument that, once re-affirmed in the public square, public religion with its diversity of sects might exacerbate existing social tensions. Theological disagreement, she contends, does not negate the positive contributions of religion to the common good. A diversity of ministerial voices can actually serve to stimulate the American people to greater reflection. Her point seems to be that serious debate about the implications of the transcendent truths religion advances witnesses to the seriousness of truth and transcendence in a way that can provoke our increasingly “apatheistic” age—an age indifferent to the claims of religious transcendence—to concern itself with the truth of the matters these ministers debate. Even when expounding differing theologies, therefore, the Protestant pulpit proves its value by stimulating us to enter into a state of mind “where seeking the Truth is a lifelong project.”

A Genealogy of Political Religion

Notwithstanding this recognition of the value of pluralism, Matthes’s work argues that a particular kind of theology should exercise the greatest influence on public life. The liberal theology that underwrote the homilies delivered by mid-century liberal Protestants following the tragedy of the Pearl Harbor attack should be recovered, deepened, and deployed as a religious witness in the United States today.  

Matthes develops this claim by providing a fascinating survey of American Protestant sermons delivered in the wake of nationally salient crises: not only the Pearl Harbor attack, but also the assassination of JFK, the assassination of MLK, the 9/11 attacks, and the Newtown massacre. She appears to present this review as a social science exercise, but that approach seems inconsistent with the logic of her project. The samples of sermons she reviews are far too few to serve the purpose of a positivist social science exercise. Instead, the project appears much more to be a selective culling of sermons that advance what she sees as distinct theological types—and an argument for the superiority of one such theological position.   

Her work, if not fully described as such, is more akin to a genealogy in the Nietzschean sense. As Allan Parson remarks, for Nietzsche, genealogy is “arrived through processes of exclusion and inclusion” by which our pressing contemporary needs shape our conceptualizations of past events. Genealogy, for Nietzsche, is “not to be thought of as purely historical,” but as the construction of a stage on which values are placed in contention, even as we make use of selected specimens from the “long hieroglyphic record” to build our accounts.

Matthes’s genealogy starts in the Alpine heights of mid-century liberal theological promise. Protestant theology by the early 1940s had liberated itself from the Fundamentalists—a bruising battle quite truculently fought throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and from which liberalism clearly emerged triumphant, as large numbers of traditionalists were driven out of the mainline denominations. This triumphant theology still remained vigorously Christian in self-identification, but gone were notions of special divine providence, or of God working through the course of human events.

True to this view, most of the mainline Protestant clergy at this time whom Matthes surveys refused “to theologize” the shock of the Pearl Harbor attack. That is, it could not be seen as itself carrying any special theological message beyond what all acts of violence suggest—that our world is in need of major reform. “God had nothing to do” with the attack and the resulting war, and the best sermons “had nothing about national loyalty or American patriotism” in the sense of a theological call to battle. All that Americans were called upon to do was to carry on, remaining loyal to the example of Christ, while staying a bit distrustful of government-led warfare, even as they concede that wars mark the imperfect condition of the world.

Matthes next moves to the assassination of JFK. The Protestant sermons she examines responding to this tragedy represent a decline in theological quality. Calls to make America worthy of such a great leader as the fallen JFK were intoned across the country. The mid-century Pearl Harbor sermons had implored Americans to undertake such worthy social change, but only after a period of reflective introspection. This reflection on the scarred human condition, however, had largely been dropped by 1963.

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Matthes argues—in a fascinating section deserving of a book-length exposition of its own—occasioned existential despair among some African American clergy, most of whom were theologically conservative. As their conservative faith shattered at the death of this great man, they looked to theologies that were more similar to self-help philosophies rather than transcendent Christian conviction. One detects here a bit of the liberal ministers’ conceit that conservative theology is brittle whereas theological modernism allows the faith to adapt: had only African American ministers made their peace with liberal theology, their faith would have better survived the tragedy of King’s assassination.  

In the sermons surrounding 9/11, Matthes detects a special poison. Gone was any sense of introspection, gone was the call for Christian reform of our own society, gone was the hesitancy to “theologize” the tragic events, and gone was a wariness of state power. Thanks in part to the rise of evangelicalism, these sermons sought to read into the attacks a specific call by God to the American people. And in what Matthes sees as its own tragedy, the ministers sought to define 9/11 as a call for Christianity to serve the state in a crusade for righteousness against a devilish other, losing the vision of an America in need of its own reform.  

The bitter fruits of the post-9/11 mistakes of Protestant leaders were on display in the national response to the Newtown massacre. This response saw not only the content of sermons decline but also their public importance. Due in part to the embarrassment the faith suffered by its attachment to misguided wars, Christian membership suffered decline and delegitimation, such that when Newtown came, few people looked to ministers or heeded their sermons. In response to Newtown, what served to unite Americans was only collective ceremony—the performance of a national ritual, delivered by a political leader, President Obama, whose words came to be “evacuated of theology.” She speculates that many ministers by then “had already conceded defeat” in terms of their ability to speak with power to the broader culture, and so their sermons became littered with “contrived answers” that were too often “filled with platitudes.”

From this genealogy we derive the conclusion that the World War II ministers had much the better response to national and collective tragedies. But Matthes does not stop here. Better still would be an even more theologically liberal response to contemporary and future tragedies, as well as the pressing issues that face us apart from times of collective sorrow.  

The Social Justice Gospel

What we need today appears from her account to be a theology more deeply open to a sense of doubt and mystery, one willing to live with unexplained pain, and to embrace humility with introspection and critical self-examination. The theology she would endorse embraces some kind of transcendence—but one wrapped in mystery, unwilling to “theologize” or to accept any pat answers, displaying a willingness to live in ambiguity, and to allow pain to enliven thoughtful reflection.

This position’s theological vagueness permits it to rely to a substantial degree on insights from the pre-Christian classics, especially the wisdom she sees in the tragedy of Antigone. Indeed, Antigone is for her as helpful as the Bible. It is a starkly anti-government piece, teaching refusal to give any political ruler control over our responses to human mortality.

Although Matthes’s favored positions are presented as ones that have resisted political capture, liberal theology is not a pure witness, wholly independent of political forces, speaking its truth to the pharaohs and imperators of the secular age.

Yet the Bible is still important to her position, stirring us after we mourn and sojourn in our sadness to have hope, though hope of a particular kind: the hope that through the wrongs humans have done can emerge a prophetic call to social justice.

Perhaps most importantly, her position sees the pulpit’s power in its being a place that always separates the faith from governmental capture so the faith can stand as an external critic of governmental power.

It’s is an arresting claim. But it’s also one of ambivalent value.

First, although her favored positions are presented as ones that have resisted political capture, liberal theology is not a pure witness, wholly independent of political forces, speaking its truth to the pharaohs and imperators of the secular age. We must not be blind to churches and church missions that have changed their views in considerable part to receive state funds or to be graced with the state’s approbation. Religious adoption agencies that now adhere to theologically flexible positions redefining conceptions of the family, for example, are often flush with state funds, while many theologically traditional adoption agencies reel or shutter.

Liberal ministers who rally to causes such as unrestricted access to abortion can be garlanded with state praise—and awarded community development grants—while some conservative Christian voices are now branded as unfit for public spaces. We cannot be so naïve as to reject that among a number of the faithful, incentives can shape one’s behavior, and, ultimately, one’s faith. Whatever one thinks of social issues, we can suspect that in many instances we are witnessing not a Christian faith, bold and free, speaking truth to secular power, but the Leviathan dictating terms, and doling out benefits to a lesser party.

Second and relatedly, although Matthes focuses on the need for the church to be free of political capture, it is not only governments that can commandeer the faith. Influential definers of public culture can as well. Indeed, the church in many ways has been captured by the culture. The new social gospel movement we see in terms of social justice advocacy is often based on a new kind of gospel, one that has been shaped, as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni applauds, by the cultural forces of contemporary “enlightenment”:   

our debate about religious liberty should include a conversation about freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to and can jettison, much as they’ve jettisoned other aspects of their faith’s history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.

Christians are not immune to the allure of fashionable shapers of public enlightenment, often men and women of great wealth, pontificating from the glen of Napa Valley or the slopes of Davos, Switzerland. The wealth, glamour, and prestige of the titans of the saeculum can ensnare even men and women of the very strongest faith. One might even suspect that something of this sort occurred, to some degree at least, with one of Matthes’s own ministerial heroes, Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick. An influential mid-century theological liberal, Fosdick worked closely with oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, and eventually accepted a high chair in the chancel of a towering cathedral to theological liberalism—Rockefeller’s petro-dollar-built Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan. Students of American Protestantism in the post-War period would be quite naive to assume that the temptations of the Upper East Side millionaires had no influence on the emergence of liberal theology. 

What we need, therefore, is a watchfulness not just against the state attempting to use religion for its own purposes, but also against cultural and economic elites who might seek to do the same.

In any case, the churches that have changed from a traditional theology to a liberal faith—through whatever influences—have not proven especially successful. The liberal Protestant mainline, in fact, is in utter disarray, while, on one account, the only churches not declining are conservative evangelical ones. Although no faith community is perfect, the mandate of Matthew 7:16 still compels: judge by the fruits. By this standard, it’s just not clear liberalism has born a fruitful harvest.

Lastly, there is no reason that more theologically traditional views cannot serve the goals of racial and social reconciliation that Matthes so prizes. Within the Gospel—without recourse to a contemporary-gospel or a gospel-for-those-who-doubt, but just within the Gospel without hyphen—one finds all the sustenance one needs for building a better world: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” Arguably, it is not an embrace of ultimate mystery, but a confidence that scripture is the word of the Living God that can most consistently stimulate positive social change.  

In all, Matthes’s survey of Protestant sermons in times of crisis, if read as a genealogy defending one set of theological values, is less than entirely persuasive. Despite these challenges, her profound and graceful book provides an appealing vision, backed by distinctive and compelling arguments, for a future where faith is much more central to American public life.