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Interviews

Where We Are on the Map: George Marsden on Christianity in America

George Marsden


The 2016 Presidential election left many Christians in the United States asking the same question: What role, if any, should our Christian faith play in how we engage with public and political issues? In the midst of calls to “make America Christian again,” we need to reclaim an accurate perspective on how Christianity has historically shaped and been shaped by American life. For this, we turn to eminent historian George Marsden. Dr. Marsden earned his PhD at Yale University, and has taught at Calvin College, Duke Divinity School, and the University of Notre Dame. Today, we discuss his work as a historian, the place of Christianity in American history, and the goals of religious pluralism. 

Evan Rosa (ER):  Why don’t you start by telling us a bit about your scholarship and how you see your vocation as a historian?

George Marsden (GM): I’ve been dedicated to trying to understand Christianity in its American context, I think mainly with this question in mind:  What’s essential in the Christian heritage, and what are the traits of churches and individual Christians in America, and so forth, that are shaped more by a particular American experience? How do you sort those things out?

I see the historian as being a kind of guide to Christians, and a lot of other important kinds of things going on. I sometimes use the analogy of in Tolkien, in “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” You need people who read the maps and say what they’re doing.

They’re not in the front lines of the fights, but there’s a usefulness to say, “Here’s where we’ve been. We don’t know exactly where we’re going, but this will give us some help.”

ER: With that in mind, let’s talk about Christianity’s place in contemporary culture. That includes intellectual realms, political realms, and popular realms. What’s the significance of history for that discussion?

GM:  One significance, or one practical thing one can learn from the American experience, is that it’s very important that the United States was founded mostly by Protestants. They weren’t necessarily Christian, but they had a Protestant heritage. For a long time, Protestantism had a real privilege in American society.

American universities, in the 1800s, very often had clergymen as Presidents. They were essentially Protestant institutions and the like. That changed dramatically in the 20th century. We’re in a situation that is a sort of post-Protestant situation.

I think that the best response to that is not that we should try to make Protestantism the dominant religion in the culture and give us all the privilege again, but, rather, we should try to work out how can we develop a more healthy pluralism in which all religious groups are recognized in public life.

I think the tendency today is to want to marginalize all religious groups and say, “You can be any religion you want, just don’t bring it into the public domain. Don’t bring it into the schools or the universities, into politics or the like.”

I think you could say that everybody should be encouraged to bring whatever beliefs they have into the public domain, whether you’re religious or not religious.

ER:  We have this cultural awareness of diversity. Yet, we also have an understanding of marginalization. We push certain views to the margins of society.  Could you say something about the presence of multiple voices in American public life? What should pluralism look like?

GM: I think the good part of it is there’s good recognition today that everybody has a point of view. Early in my career, back in the mid 20th century, there was a lot of the idea that there would be a scientific view that everybody ought to agree on. Then other views were less good than that.

Today, we almost have the opposite problem. It’s almost anything goes. But in public life and in most universities, there isn’t much encouragement to think about exactly what the implications of religious faith would be or the religious point of view. People are encouraged to keep religion a private matter.

In fact, if you really believe in God, then that’s going to have a big impact on everything else that you believe. If you think of whatever your picture of reality is, if God is in that picture, then God is really central to that picture.

What you believe about marriage, what you believe about relationships, what you believe about politics, what you believe about economics–in all those things, there is some bearing of your belief in God on them.

It makes sense for religious people to reflect on what differences their religious beliefs make for the other things that they study. Actually, the thing that’s really peculiar is why people wouldn’t do that more if God is that important to their experiences. I think Christians should be encouraged to think about those things, and other people should be informed about their legitimacy. They should think: “well, religious people believe these things. Well then, right. We would expect them to be talking about them.”

ER:  In that sense, belief in God– theism–is a foundational belief. What makes our religious views so foundational, such that they have that chain reaction across the other many ways that we participate in culture?

GM: I think a religious commitment is a starting point. For example, I can start with the assumption that we live in a chance universe. Then, from that assumption, I have to explain everything else. I have to explain why people love each other, why I experience beauty, or what I like in terms of a chance universe.

If you have a religious belief, I think your reason for religious belief is that you’ve come to have a sense of God’s presence. You know something of God’s revelation, and you’ve responded to this. Then that becomes fundamental in shaping other things that you’re thinking about.

You don’t just see it as a chance universe. You don’t see morality as something people just happen to think up, but you think there really is a right and a wrong, for instance, in reality.

Everybody should be encouraged to bring whatever beliefs they have into the public domain

ER:  In other work, you’ve suggested that your approach to history helps destroy the illusion that we stand at the center of the universe. Can you comment on the danger of that perspective?

GM: The danger of thinking yourself as the center of the universe is not just an intellectual danger, but it’s also a personal danger. If you know other people who seem to think that they stand at the center of the universe, you probably don’t like them very well. It’s something to learn about yourself: you’re not the center of things.

Studying history is a way of learning that you and people like you are not at the center of history either, that there’s been all sorts of other beliefs and things that have gone on. It’s like visiting a foreign country: you come to understand that the things that you take for granted are not the way that things have always been.

Historical perspective gives you some sense that you shouldn’t absolutize what might be relative. On the other hand, your belief in God gives you reason to think that there are absolutes and the like, but you have, maybe, a historical study. You have some humility in how you think you understand those absolutes that you, as put in the Bible, see through a glass darkly.

You need recognize that that’s one of the conditions of being loving, that that’s in a chapter about the importance of love as a central Christian virtue. Seeing your limitations at the same time that you take seriously the truths you believe is a combination to work for.

ER: Can I ask you to dive a little bit deeper on that humility? I think plenty of people don’t necessarily associate the study of history with the intellectual virtue of humility.  How can we develop that virtue, and what will it get for us?

GM:  You get humility by understanding other people who might be better than you are or think of things differently than you do. You can learn those differences from the past. It’s helpful to put yourself in a perspective. Maybe, that’s a larger principle.

The first principle of putting yourself in perspective is to say, “Well, if God’s in the room, God’s at the center of the room.” The next thing is to say, “There’s a lot of other people. Not only now but in other times, and the more you appreciate their points of view, the more wisdom you might have on how to understand your own.”

ER: Part of the goal of the study of history is our own exploration and knowledge of ourselves. Can you comment about the nature of that being one of the end goals, maybe situating ourselves within the grand scheme of things and finding our place in the cosmos, our place in the course of human events?

GM:  One way to get self understanding is to realize we’re shaped. We believe the things we believe, not simply because we sat down rationally and believe them. We’re shaped by different traditions. You might be shaped by being an American. You might be shaped by being male or female. You’re shaped by living in California, or Maine, or Canada, or wherever.

All these things give you different ways of thinking about things. Then you get a perspective on what I often say to students, “What does our culture take for granted? What are the things that everybody takes for granted? Where did those beliefs come from, and how do we evaluate those beliefs better if we understand the origins?”

ER: In another part of your writing, you encourage us to “have a sense of humor and irony, but also tragedy and a sense for the paradox that man is.” What does that mean?

GM: I think that’s important. History helps you see that, often, things go wrong, or people’s best intentions will go wrong. Maybe the most classic example is Marxism. Marxism sets out to help the poor, but, in order to do it, you’re so dedicated to that goal that you forget all sorts of other goals.

Almost everybody has that dimension, that the things that we think about ourselves as our best qualities might be things that we’re proud of, we’re very successful, and people look at us. Nobody really admires our success the way we do. It’s helpful to have the perspective of saying, “Often, it’s your achievements that will be your downfall.”

Again, you can see that in other people. You think someone has been the most popular person around, but there’s also a certain kind of pride in that that, often, other people won’t want to appreciate.

The goal would be to say, “Where do we fail as well?” One goal is to hold what you hold with firmness but with a sense that you’re a limited creature. We know some things but we’re really, ultimately, limited. I think that’s just an important attitude that learning should lead to a sense of limits rather than learning leading to a sense of, “Well, I know everything,” and, “I know more than you do.”

ER:  I like the idea of limits helping to define us.. Could you say a little bit more about the virtue of knowing one’s limits?

GM: Everyone certainly needs to, I have to admit. It’s not the easiest thing to admit to yourself, but, again, I think it’s helpful if you look at what you would like in other people. People who think they know everything, or think they’re the best at everything, or best at whatever they do, you would like them to recognize their limits.

You should reflect on, “Well, what does that mean for me?” You can have a conversation with people better if you’re all recognizing that we’re not just trying to convince people that we know we’re right, but you’re also willing to listen to some extent.

ER: Let’s talk a bit about American Fundamentalism. Is fundamentalism’s tendency to shut down conversation in contrast to the sort of historical humility you’ve outlined?

GM:  I’ve studied a lot of the history of fundamentalism in America. We started around 1928, not quite a hundred years ago. Fundamentalism, basically, is a kind of Evangelical Christianity in which people are very militant about things. They think that there is a crisis and you’re in a state of war against evil and against wrong ideas and the like.

If you’re in a state of war, then there’s no compromise. Someone said about one of the early fundamentalists that he was always right in diagnosis and wrong in prescription. That is, fundamentalists are usually correct.

In my view, there are some things that are deeply wrong, but because they approach it as simply a warfare, they tend to turn things into black and white sorts of issues that might be more complicated than that.

On the one hand, I want to affirm that Christians are in a position to really take stances on what they believe, what’s right and wrong, that there is a revelation from God and the like. But then the human condition is always such that we tend to overestimate how well we understand things.

Then, if we think we understand things perfectly, and we also think, “Well, we have God on our side,” that becomes a wild card that you hold in your hand that nobody can beat you because you have God on your side.

What I want to say, from the study of fundamentalism, is that you can see how often, in the history of the church, people have overestimated. You’re thinking of two things and then overestimating how sure they can be about them or the implications of them.

The trick is to be able to really hold, in one hand, that there are some true things that you believe. On the other hand, do it with some flexibility. Do it with grace and taking into account other people’s perspectives.

Particularly within the church, you can see that God uses different kinds of beliefs and the like. You can learn from people who are different from you. Sometimes, fundamentalists are so narrow that they think the only kind of Christian is one who holds this list of beliefs that’s exactly like their own.

ER: Can you say a bit about the place of fundamentalism in the development of the Christian role in the public sphere?

GM: I think fundamentalism has done some very good things in keeping a place for Evangelical Christianity within American culture. Fundamentalists were very instrumental in making Evangelicalism one of the strongest branches of Christianity today.

It’s one of the most resilient, partly because churches developed from the people. It’s not coming from some authority from the top down. Fundamentalism has been valuable in that way. It can also be counterproductive in the culture.

I think you see that, particularly in the degree to which fundamentalists have been involved in politics in the last 30 years or so, there’s a tendency for fundamentalists to say, “We should take back United States and make it Christian again.” They overestimate the degree to which it ever was Christian in Colonial times, or the time of the American Revolution.

The United States didn’t have any higher percentage of Christians than it has today. There were lots of people who were nominally Christian, but an awful lot of people who were either liberal Christian or weren’t anything. They overestimate how Christian America was prior to bringing America back to a set of Christian standards.

I think what that does is sometimes cause reaction. I can see that in the mainstream universities that, on the one hand, there’s a very good case for Christian perspectives argued on high academic standards and the like.

But, a lot of people in the universities tend to assume that anyone that uses Christian as an adjective must be a fundamentalist and they must have a real conservative political agenda. They often resist Christians in the university, not on the grounds of the intelligence of what they say but, rather, because they perceive some background political motive that’s going on.

ER: What are the other factors besides fundamentalism that ushered in the downfall, the removal, the dismissal of Christian perspective in higher education?

GM: Part of the problem, in the first place, was that America was largely a Protestant nation. Again, often Protestantism was very thin, but Protestantism was the dominant religion. It was the dominant religion in universities. Say, in 1900 most universities, Yale, or Princeton, or places like that, were essentially Protestant institutions.

During the 20th century a number of problems developed. One is that those were, in fact, in practice, serving the whole public, and so the question of diversity developed. One good example would be in the mid 20th century, places like Princeton are asking, “Can we discriminate against Jews in applications?” It doesn’t seem that they should.

They have to become more diverse. The privilege for Protestantism, in general, tends to drop with a rising concern for diversity in public institutions.

The other really big factor pushing Christianity is the change in the intellectual culture, particularly the rise of Darwinism, naturalistic science that tended to explain everything in terms of purely natural causes. That came to be thought of as the highest intellectual standard.

A lot of people, by the mid 20th century, were believing that, as education advances, traditional Christianity will disappear, so the highest education institutions ought to be ones that are free from any religious reference.

In general, our culture adopted the way of dealing with religious diversity of saying, “We shouldn’t privilege any religion in public.” The easiest way to make sure that happens is everyone should regard their religious belief as a private belief.

It’s fine to have your own private beliefs. It’s even fine to, when you hit a homerun, point to heaven or something like that or cross yourself before you shoot a foul shot. That’s OK, but substantive religion should not be in public life. There’s pressure to privatize religion and marginalize it. I think that’s an overcompensation for the fact that one time Protestantism had probably undue privilege in the universities. As a way of correcting that, you privatize all religion. Public higher education is no longer a really good place for a substantial religious perspective.

What I’ve argued is if you’re really taking pluralism seriously, then you should say, “There should be a pluralism of secular perspectives, but then there should be also room for pluralism of various religious perspectives.”

There should be Evangelical Christian perspectives, Roman Catholic perspectives, Muslim perspectives, Jewish perspectives, and so forth. All should be regarded as equally legitimate. I think that’s a good way of understanding pluralism in public places.

The other kind of pluralism that we need is pluralism of institutions. There also should be private institutions that are strongly religious in character that can nourish particular communities, so that you have various religious communities that have institutions that will educate their citizens so that they can then feed into the mainstream.

ER: With this in mind, speak to that Christian professor of sociology, to the Christian professor of literary criticism, to the Christian author, to the Christian CEO.

What are the virtues of public discourse that they can develop that will advance the world to what you described, to a place of pluralistic understanding and acceptance of multiple perspectives?

GM: I think, first, people like that need to do their job well. I think they need to exemplify Christian virtues in the way they treat other people, including not just their friends but people who are different from themselves and the like. That combination can win people credibility so that they might listen to them.

Then I think the second thing would be to be thinking hard about what Christianity might mean in your particular profession, whether you’re a CEO, or a professor, or a politician, or whatever so that you can articulate well what it means.

If you get in a hearing and then you have something to say, then I think it would relate to traits of humility and being willing to listen to others, that, if you want to be heard, you have to allow others to be heard. If you’re taking a seat at the table, then you’re part of a table where there are other people. I think, with those traits, then maybe people would pay more attention.

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