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Religious Uncertainty, Revisited

By April 22, 2016 2 Comments

Predicting the future: we know we can’t do it, but we do it anyway. We have to. “Invest at this rate and your 401 will be alright for your retirement x years from now.” “If Trump is elected president, America will go down the tubes this way; if Hillary, that.” Vital matters, demanding response and action. Yet, how do we know? Arctic ice seems to be melting faster than the gloomiest global-warming scenarios have predicted, while the inviolable Moore’s Law about the exponential increase in computing power seems to be running out of gas. Errrr, silicon. We have to plan, we gotta act, but how do we know?

I’m not keen on having doubts about the probable size of my retirement pot, but in fact I take heart from surprises that turn up on other fronts. This may come from my main teaching and research field being U.S. religious history. Theologically, we do affirm that the Spirit bloweth and listeth and all. But it’s also downright astonishing how things can actually turn out. I was reminded of that, teaching a class on the aftermath of the 1960s this week. Think about it: did anyone predict, at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration on January 20, 1961, that twenty year hence the same spot would be occupied by Ronald Reagan? That the progressive dawn heralded by the well-spoken young man from Massachusetts would give over to the conservative noon—or midnight—or the old smooth-talking actor from Hollywood? And did anyone predict one-twentieth of the tumult and the shouting and the riots and the assassinations and the cultural revolution and the wars that came in between? Some of the civil rights triumphs were a reasonable bet, but their succession by the black power movement? Sure, some nice little surrogate wars here and there around the globe, but half a million American troops in Vietnam?

The religious part of these tides and times were even less predictable. The death of God theology first reappeared in JFK’s inaugural year, so the infamous Time magazine cover story on the subject five years later might have been a rational projection. But the rebirth of the gods in radical forms thereafter—who foresaw that? Krishna Consciousness and Nichiren Shoshu and 3HO and the Jesus People. The Late Great Planet Earth as the best-selling book not of a year but of a decade. Jerry Falwell, who responded to the climactic civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 by denouncing clergy who took part in politics, forming the Moral Majority as a phalanx to usher Reagan into the White House. The Roman Catholic Church, opening the doors and windows at Vatican II early in the 1960s only to see masses of priests and nuns and laity walking out by the end of the decade. It was all unforeseen, and often quite stunning. As priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley mused about the new vernacular mass, “Catholics stopped speaking in tongues just when everybody else started.”

The surprises can happen the other way, too. It was quite conceivable to draw the line from evangelicals’ crowing about God having chosen George W. Bush for the manly conquest of evil in 2001 to their split stream into the sewers of Trump and Cruz fifteen years later. But few, very few, either in the church or the media drew the calculation. Likewise with the exodus of Millennials from the megachurches designed to charm them in their childhood and youth. If secularization theory came a cropper in the wake of the Sixties, it may be back with a vengeance with the rise of the Nones today. Or not. Who knows?

Honest now, as Barack Obama strides away from the White House nine months hence, who do you think will replace him? Now jump ahead to the same date in 2037—not who, precisely, but what sort of person with what sort of policies and what coalition of supporters will be stepping up then? Which stars will dominate the religious skies, and where will they preside? How will they communicate, and what? From the perspective of 2057 it will all seem obvious and inevitable, but from our own place, right here and now, it’s obviously not. Which raises incentives to hope and action, not?

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Gerry says:

    We have it on good authority that by 2057 most marine life will be extinct and white Americans will be a minority — a big one but still a minority. A new Augustine will be needed to deal with the unprecedented civilizational and planetary crisis. Material realities do not jibe well with the predominant metanarratives. Inexorable growth and progress, apocalypses code and hot, inevitable redemption that is always now/not yet — these are inadequate to deal with a crowded lifeboat where there’s a gun, a knife, and a jug of water.

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