Religion in a revolutionary society (1974) | ARCHIVES

Religion in a revolutionary society (1974) | ARCHIVES


Man: The American Enterprise Institute presents
the Distinguished Lecture Series on the Bicentennial of the United States. Our host for this thought-provoking series
is Vermont Royster, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with the Wallstreet Journal and
Professor of Journalism and Public Affairs at the University of North Carolina. Vermont: I’m Vermont Royster with another
in the American Enterprise Institute’s Series of Distinguished Lectures on the American
Bicentennial. For the 200th Anniversary of the United States,
the AEI has invited some of the nation’s leading scholars to discuss the American Revolution
and how the goals and accomplishments of that revolution still affect us all today. AEI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution
located in Washington D.C. Its goal is to promote public discussion of
the major issues of our time. The Distinguished Lecture Series is a major
part of this program. Today’s lecture is delivered by Dr. Peter
L. Berger, Professor in the graduate school of Rutgers University. Dr. Berger is generally considered to be America’s
leading sociologist of religion. Today’s lecture is being delivered from the
historic Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia just across the Potomac River from Washington
D.C. Built with native stone between 1767 and 1773,
Christ Church represents an outstanding example of pre-revolutionary architecture in American
churches. Today, the revolutionary theme is augmented
by members of the U.S, Army’s Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. [00:02:02] [Music] [00:02:23] Throughout the years, many great men in American
and world history have worshiped here at Christ Church. George Washington was a regular member of
the church. In fact, church records say that Washington
purchased pew 60 for 36 pounds, 10 shelling shortly before the outbreak of the Revolutionary
War. It is said that on one Sunday morning in 1774,
Washington stood outside the church surrounded by members of the congregation, most of whom
were his personal friends and advocated the colonies withdraw their allegiance from King
George III. Washington said that he would be willing to
fight to uphold the independence of the New Land. In later years, Christ Church continued to
attract distinguished persons to its services. During the period of World War I, the services
here were attended by such personages as President Woodrow Wilson, Marshall Foch from France,
and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. During the period of the World War II, services
here were attended by President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the
Earl of Halifax. Still later, services were attended by Presidents
Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson. At Christ Church today, Dr. Peter Berger will
speak on religion in a revolutionary society. He is introduced by the rector of Christ Church,
The Rev. William Sydnor. Rev. Sydnor: The place of religion in the
life of our nation is a significant factor in proving our past and in examining our present. Few people are more capable of setting the
religious life of present-day America in its proper perspective than Dr. Peter Berger,
who is looked upon as America’s leading sociologist of religion, it is appropriate that this scholar,
teacher, author assessed for us the place of religion in a revolutionary society. It is an honor for me and a privilege to present
to you, Dr. Peter L. Berger. Dr. Berger. Dr. Berger: Thank you very much for his very
kind introduction. The title of this address as it was given
to me by The American Enterprise Institute implies a formidable assignment. No less, I suppose, than an overall assessment
of the place of religion in contemporary America. I have some reservations about the adjective
“revolutionary” being applied to American society. But minimally, it refers to something very
real in that society, namely, its quality of rapid and far-reaching change. This quality, of course, makes my assignment
all the more difficult, it is a source of constant embarrassment to all commentators
and forecasters. Just look at what happened to the most celebrated
diagnosis of our situation during the last decade. Harvey Cox published his best-selling beatification
of the new urbanism just before everyone agreed that American cities had become unfit for
civilized habitation. The proclamation of the death of God hit the
cover of “Time Magazine” just before the onset of a massive resurgence of flamboyant supernaturalism. More recently, those who were betting on the
greening of America led the Democratic party to one of its biggest electoral defeats in
history. And just now, when Daniel Bell has impressively
proclaimed the coming of post-industrial society, the energy crisis makes one think that we’ll
be lucky if we manage to stay around as an industrial society. Perhaps the only advice one can give to the
sociological prophet is to write his book quickly, and then go into hiding. Or alternatively, to be very, very careful. This is not a book, but I intend to be careful. This means, among other things, that I cannot
spare you some pedantic distinctions, qualifications, and less-than-inspiring formulations. An assessment means some sort of answer to
the question, “Where are we at?” To try this, it helps to find a date in the
past with which to compare the present moment. If one wants to make rather sweeping statements,
one will likely pick a date far back in history like 1776 or the Reformation, or even the
late ice age, as Andrew Greeley did recently in his book on secular man. His thesis being that “The basic human religious
needs and the basic religious functions have not changed very notably since the late ice
age.” The credibility of the thesis clearly hinges
on one’s understanding of basic. Taking seriously my own warning, to be careful,
I propose to take a much more recent date, 1955. This happens to be the year in which an important
book on American religion was published. Will Herberg’s “Protestant, Catholic, Jew.” More importantly though, the mid-’50s were
years just before a number of significant ruptures, both in the course of American religion
and of American society generally, ruptures incidentally, which nobody predicted. It is a convenient date with which to compare
the present moment. In attempting to meet my assignment, therefore,
I will concentrate on two questions, “What was the situation of American religion about
1955, and what has happened to it since then?” Let me make a side comment here. Since this period has, of late, become the
subject of intensive nostalgia, I should add that my choice of date is non-nostalgically
motivated. I was wonderfully young at the time, and I’m
all too susceptible to reminiscing about my youth in the rosy glow of memories. I’m quite sure that I and my contemporaries
had no notion then of living in a particularly rosy time. It is probably inevitable that we look back
on the time of our youth as some sort of golden age. I imagine that this was the case with individuals
who were young during the Black Death or the invasions of Genghis Khan. There is a temptation to project one’s own
decline since then to the society at large. The temptation is to be resisted. In other words, the comparison I intend to
make is not necessarily odious. But before I start comparing I must elaborate
one very essential distinction, that between denominational religion and civil religion. Denominational religion refers to what most
people mean when they speak of religion. The bodies of Christian and Jewish tradition
as these are enshrined in the major religious organizations in this country. Denominational religion is the religion of
the churches. The plural of the last word is very important. There are many churches in America, and for
a long time now, they have existed side by side on the conditions of legal equality. Indeed, Richard Niebuhr suggested that the
very term “denomination” be defined on the basis of this pluralism. A denomination is a church that at least,
for all practical purposes, has come to accept coexistence with other churches. This coexistence was brought about in America
by unique historical circumstances which were not intended by anyone and which, at first,
were only accepted with great reluctance. Later on, a virtue was made out of the necessity
as religious tolerance became part and parcel of the national ideology as well as the basic
laws of the American republic. Let me say that I regard religious tolerance
as a virtue indeed. It is all the more interesting to recognize
that its original attainment was unintended. I incline to the view that most moral achievements
in history have this character of serendipity or if I may put it in Lutheran language, the
virtue comes from undeserved grace. Let me also say in passing that I think that
such a point of view is very much to be recommended in a period of national self-congratulation
as apparently, we are about to enter. Civil religion refers to a somewhat vaguer
entity, an amalgam of beliefs and norms that are deemed to be fundamental to the American
political order. In the last few years, the idea of an American
civil religion has been much discussed in terms proposed in an influential essay on
this topic by Robert Bellah. But both the idea and the phrase, and to date,
this essay. Herberg, for instance, discussed very much
the same idea using a slightly different terminology. The general assumption here is that the American
politics not only bases itself on a set of commonly held values, that is true of any
human society, but that these values add up to something that can plausibly be called
a religion. The contents of this religion, of course,
are some basic convictions about human destiny and human rights as expressed in American
democratic institutions. Gunnar Myrdal, in his classical study of the
Negro in America, aptly called all this the American Creed. The proposition that all men are created equal
is the first article of this creed. Now, an obvious question concerns the relationship
between these two religious entities. Different answers have been given, and I can
claim no competence in the historical scholarship that we’ll have to adjudicate between them. Thus, to take an example of recent scholarly
debate, I cannot say whether the civil religion of the American Republic should be seen in
an essential continuity with the Puritan concept of the covenant, or whether it should be understood
as the result of a decisive rupture with Puritanism brought about by the Deist element among the
Founding Fathers. Be this as it may, it is clear that the two
religious entities have had profound relations with each other from the beginning. Nor is there any doubt that crucial ingredients
of the civil religion derive directly from the Protestant mainstream of American church
life to the extent that to this day the civil religion carries an unmistakably Protestant
flavor, a point always seen more clearly by non-Protestants than by Protestants. People are always more likely to notice unfamiliar
flavors. Thus, for instance, the codification of the
rights of the individual conscience in the American political creed loudly betrays its
Protestant roots, even when. perhaps especially when it is couched in denominationally
neutral language. I think it is important that unlike some of
the major democratic ideologies of Europe and Latin America, democracy in the United
States was not hostile to the churches. The separation between church and state in
the American Constitution did not, until very recently, imply that the state must be antiseptically
clean of all religious qualities, only that the state must not give unfair advantage to
one denomination over another. In other words, the assumptions underlying
the separation of church and state were pluralist rather than secularist. It is no accident that there is no adequate
American translation of the French term laique. And again, until very recently, there was
no widespread demand that the American polity should become a lay state in the French sense. Indeed, a good case can be made that church/state
relations in this country had the character of a pluralistic establishment. Or as it were, officially accredited denominations
were allowed to share equally in a variety of privileges bestowed by the state. Exemption from taxation and opportunity for
chaplaincy in public institutions are cases in point. Just which groups were regarded as officially
accredited, of course, was subject to redefinition. Put differently, the beneficiaries of the
pluralistic establishment have been an expanding group ever since the system was inaugurated. First, there were added various less-than-respectable
Protestant bodies such as the Quakers, then Catholics and Jews. Finally, groups completely outside what is
commonly called the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The struggle of the Mormons to obtain accreditation
marked an interesting case in this process. Recent court decisions on what, if my memory
serves me correctly, was actually called the religious rights of atheists, as well as recent
litigation by Black Muslims, marked the degree of expansion of the system to date. Vermont: We’re listening to Dr. Peter L. Berger
discussing religion in a revolutionary society. In just one moment, Dr. Berger will continue
his lecture from Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia. Many photographs and drawings still exist
that document Alexandria’s historic past. This is Sea Captains Row where sailing men
lived when Alexandria was a thriving port city. The Friendship Firehouse is one of the nation’s
oldest. George Washington was said to have been a
number of a fire brigade, and Washington often danced with his wife Martha to the music of
an orchestra playing here in the ballroom of the famous Gadsby’s Tavern. And this is how the site of today’s lecture,
Christ Church, looked nearly 100 years ago. In Christ Church today, Dr. Peter Berger has
been discussing the distinction between civil religion and denominational religion in America. Dr. Berger: Historically, then, denominational
religion and civil religion have not been antagonistic entities in America. Their relationship has rather been a symbiotic
one. The denominations enjoyed a variety of benefits
in a pluralistic establishment, the existence of which was not only fostered by the state
but solemnly legitimated by the civil religion to which the state adhered. Conversely, the civil religion drew specific
contents and, in all likelihood, general credibility from the ongoing life of the denominations. Nevertheless, each entity has had a distinct
history, with different forces impinging on the one or the other. Any assessment of the contemporary situation
must allow for this distinction. Keeping this distinction in mind then, let
us go back to the period around 1955. What was the situation at that time? As far as denominational religion was concerned,
the market was bullish indeed. These were the years of what was then called
a “religious revival.” All the statistical indicators of organized
religion were pointing up. Church membership reached historically unprecedented
heights. Most significantly, or so it seemed then,
it was younger people, especially young married couples, who became active in the churches
in large numbers. The offspring of these people crowded the
Sunday schools, and there was a veritable boom in religious education. Church attendance was up, and so was financial
giving to the churches. Much of this money was very profitably invested,
and the denominational coffers were full as never before. Understandably enough, the denominational
functionaries thought in terms of expansion. “Church extension” was the phrase constantly
on their lips. There was an impressive boom in church building,
especially in the new middle-class suburbs. The seminaries were filled with young men
getting ready to swell the ranks of the clergy. Perhaps they were not the brightest and the
best among their peers, but they were competent enough to fulfill the increasingly complex
tasks required of the clerical profession in this situation. In the bustling suburban church plants, a
very common term at the time, this often meant a bewildering agglomeration of roles, adding
to the traditional religious ones such new roles as that of business administrator, educational
supervisor, family counselor, and public relations expert. The religious revival affected most of the
denominations in the Protestant camp, and it affected Catholics and Jews as well. It seemed as if everyone was getting active
in his respective religious preference. By the way, an etymological study of this
term derived from the consumer market would be worth making some day. It was important, therefore, that all of this
took place in a context of, apparently, solidifying ecumenism and interfaith amity. The Protestants within the mainline denominations
were going through something of an ecumenical orgy. There was a number of church mergers, the
most significant of these, long in preparation, being the union between the Congregationalists,
on the one hand, and the Evangelical and Reformed on the other in the United Church of Christ. The formation of this body in 1957 was widely
heralded as a landmark in the movement toward Christian unity. Quite apart from these organizational mergers,
there was a plethora of agencies concerned full time with interdenominational relations,
ranging from the still quite young National Council of Churches to state and local councils. While some of these grouping engaged in theological
discussion, most of their work was severely practical. An important task was the one formerly called
“comity,” spelled C-O-M-I-T-Y, and recently rebaptized as church planning. Especially on the local level, it meant that
church expansion was based on research and on agreements between the denominations not
to engage in irrational competition with each other, and particularly not to steal each
other’s prospective members. The religious market, in other words, was
increasingly parcelled out between cartel-like planning bodies. No antitrust laws stood in the way of these
conspiracies to restrain free competition. And beyond all these formal processes of collaboration,
there was a broad variety of informal acts of rapprochement, intercommunion, exchange
of pulpits, interdenominational ministries in special areas, and so on. In retrospect, it has become plausible that
at least some of this religious boom was deceptive. Even then, there were quite a few individuals
who questioned how religious this religious revival really was. There were several factors that had very little
to do with religious motives proper. High social mobility with large numbers of
people moving into the middle class and believing that the old nexus between bourgeois respectability
and church membership still held. High geographical mobility, with migratory
people finding in the churches a convenient symbol of continuity in their lives. The postwar baby boom, with parents feeling
rather vaguely that Sunday schools could provide some sort of moral instruction that they themselves
felt increasingly incompetent to give their children. There are data showing that very frequently
it was the children who dragged their parents after them into the churches, rather than
the other way around. As a result of these factors, there was a
good deal of what might be called invisible secularization. In the midst of all the boisterous activity,
the deepening erosion of religious contents was widely overlooked. The religious revival in the denominations
was paralleled by an equally impressive flowering of the civil religion. These, after all, were the Eisenhower years,
aptly characterized by William Lee Miller, in a famous article in “The Reporter” magazine,
as “Piety along the Potomac.” Indeed, it was Eisenhower himself who made
statements that could be taken as crystalline expressions of the mid-’50s version of the
civil religion, such as this one, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply
felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” The political relevance of this faith, deeply
felt and seemingly devoid of content at the same time, was expressed in another Eisenhower
statement, “America is great because she is good.” One may call this patriotic religion or religious
patriotism. Either way, the content was America, its political
and social institutions, its history, its moral values, and last, not least, its mission
in the world. The rhetoric of the national government during
these years was full of such religio-political formulations. Except for a very small minority of anti-Eisenhower
intellectuals, this rhetoric seemed quite in accord with the mood of the country. Despite some shocks, notably the McCarthyite
hysteria and the less-than-victorious ending of the Korean conflict, this was still a mood
of national self-confidence if not complacency. There was still the afterglow, as it were,
of America’s great victory in World War II, a most credible conjunction of greatness and
goodness. The postwar American empire was going well,
with American soldiers mounting the battlements of freedom from Korea to Berlin. The Cold War, if anything, deepened the affirmation
of the virtues of the American way of life as against the Communist adversary, not the
least of the latter’s evils was its ideology of godless materialism. The economy was going well, the dollar was
king, and American businessmen, as well as tourists, circled the globe as emissaries
from El Dorado. Even many of its intellectuals were celebrating
America then even if, as it later turned out, some of the celebration was subsidized by
the CIA. I do not want to exaggerate. I am not suggesting that there were no tensions,
no doubts, in this mood. But compared to what happened later, this
period impresses one in retrospect by the apparent unbrokenness-intactness of the American
creed. Just as the imperial cult of classical Rome
was sustained by the unquestioned veneration of the familiar shrines in innumerable households,
so the American civil religion drew its strength from the daily matter-of-course enactment
of the virtues of the American way of life by innumerable individual citizens. I would not like to be misunderstood here. I am not saying that there was more morality
in the ’50s than there is today. I am saying that such morality as was practiced
was taken for granted in a different way. The American virtues and the virtue of America
as a society were still upheld in the mind of the country as self-evident truths. I suppose that such assurance may well be
characterized as innocence. To a remarkable degree, this rather grandiose
self-image of America was reflected in the way that America was viewed by foreigners,
not the least by the two major enemy nations of World War II. Vermont: From inside Christ Church in Alexandria,
Virginia, we have been listening to Dr. Peter L. Berger. He’s been discussing religion in a revolutionary
society. In just one moment, Dr. Berger will continue
his distinguished lecture for the American Enterprise Institute. One of the most famous members of the Christ
Church was General Robert E. Lee. As a child, Lee lived within a block of this
church. And on April 21, 1861, Lee attended services
here, and then met with several friends from Richmond. They persuaded Lee to take command of the
army of Virginia, a post that eventually led to his selection as Commanding General of
the Army of the Confederacy. Today at Christ Church, Dr. Peter Berger has
been discussing the events of some hundred years later, the status of religion in America
in the 1950s. Dr. Berger: If that was the situation in 1955,
what has happened since? To summarize the change, I’ll take the liberty
of making reference to my own first published book, “A Sociological Critique of American
Protestantism” published in 1961. In this book, when describing the notion that
the world is essentially what it is supposed to be, I used the phrase “the okay world.” I argued that religion in middle-class America
served to maintain this sense of the world being “okay.” I still think this was a fair description. The change since then can be conveniently
summed up by saying that more and more people have come to the conclusion that their world
is not “okay,” and religion has lost much of its ability to persuade them that it is. In terms of denominational religion, the changes
have differed greatly by class. The Protestant groups, drawing most of their
membership from below the upper middle class, have continued to grow, some of them in a
dramatic way. They have very largely remained untouched
by the crises and self-doubts that have lacerated the higher class brethren. Their theological fundamentalism has been
modified here and there, and their organizational style has been modernized. As far as an outside observer can judge, their
self-confidence as upholders of evangelical truth has remained largely unbroken. The picture is very different in the mainstream
denominations. By the mid-1960s, the religious revival was
clearly over. All the statistical indicators started ebbing
or even pointing doubt. Membership attendance, financial giving, and
logically enough, church expansion. As budgets became leaner, the denominational
and interdenominational organizations were forced to cut down on programs as well as
staffs. Seminary enrollments stayed high, but there
was widespread suspicion that the automatic exemption of seminary students from the draft
had much to do with this, a suspicion that appears to be born out in what is happening
in the seminaries now. The market for denominational religion, in
short, was becoming bearish. Not surprisingly, its amicable management
through ecumenical cartels seemed less and less attractive. There appeared a marked reluctance to engage
in further mergers, characterized by some observers, perhaps euphemistically, as a resurgence
of denominational spirit. The organizational mood became one of retrenchment. More deeply, the 1960s were characterized
in mainstream Protestantism by what can best be described in Gilbert Murray’s phrase as
a “failure of nerve.” The best-known theological movements seemed
to vie with each other in the eagerness with which they sought to divest the churches of
their traditional contents and to replace these with a variety of secular gospels such
as existentialism, psychoanalysis, revolutionary liberation, or avant-garde sensitivity. The “death-of-God” theology was perhaps the
grotesque climax of this theological self-disembowelment. At the same time, the church functionaries,
increasingly panicky about the fate of their organizations, tended to jump on whatever
cultural or political bandwagon was proclaimed as the latest revelation of the Zeitgeist
by their so-called opinion leaders. As was to be expected, all of these efforts
“to make the church more relevant to modern society” had the effect of aggravating rather
than alleviating the religious recession. Those church members who still felt loyalty
to the traditional religious contents were bewildered if not repelled by all of this,
and those whose membership was motivated by secular considerations to begin with, often
felt that such commodities as personal growth or liberation or raised consciousness could
be obtained just as well and less expensively outside the churches. The major consequence, unintended, needless
to say, of Vatican II, seems to have been to effectively spread all these Protestant
miseries through the Catholic community. The failure of nerve has become ecumenical
too. At the same time, American Judaism and the
American Jewish community, in general, have been driven by a variety of causes into a
much more particularistic and defensive posture than was the case when Herberg announced the
arrival of a tripartite American faith. Just as there was good reason to doubt that
the religious revival of the ’50s was caused by some sort of mass conversion, so it is
unlikely that the subsequent decline is to be explained by sudden spiritual decay. My own tendency is to think that secularization
has been a long-lasting and fairly even process and that nothing drastic happened to the American
religious consciousness either after World War II or in the most recent decade. What happened rather, I think, is that the
quite mundane social forces that made for the religious revival so-called, subsequently
weakened. Most important, the linkage between middle-class
status and church membership weakened. Something, by the way, along those lines,
took place in England in the wake of the World War I. In consequence, the previously invisible secularization
just became much more visible. If you like, secularization came out of the
closet. The inability of the churches to confront
the emerging skeleton with a modicum of dignity almost certainly contributed to the devastating
effect. So much for denominational religion. The changes that have taken place in the civil
religion, I think, were due partly to the aforementioned changes in denominational religion,
inevitable in view of the symbiotic relation between the two, and partly as a response
to extraneous developments in the society. To some degree, it can be said, the American
polity has become more laique in recent years, and I suspect that this is largely due to
the more openly acknowledged secularism of that portion of the college-educated upper
middle class that finances what it considers good causes, in this instance, the cause of
pushing secularist cases through the courts. The Supreme Court proscription of prayer in
the public schools was the most spectacular of these cases. It was an exercise in extraordinary sociological
blindness, though it appears that those who advocated it have learned absolutely nothing
from the outcry that ensued. The same laique trend may be seen in the rigid
resistance to any allocation of tax funds to church schools, in threats to the tax-exempt
status of religious institutions, and in current discussion of various forms of chaplaincy. More importantly, a militant secularism today
comes dangerously close to denying the right of the churches to attempt influencing public
policy in accordance with religiously based morality. The abortion issue illustrates this most clearly. Again, I doubt whether the tendency of the
courts to go along with the secularists has terribly profound reasons. Most likely, it can be explained very simply
in terms of the parties attended by federal judges and the magazines read by their wives. I assure you that I intend no disrespect to
the judiciary. Actually one of our more cheering institutions,
but I am too much of a sociologist to believe that its decisions are made in some judicial
heaven sublimely detached from the context of its members. Thus, there has been to be a threat to the
old symbiosis between denominational and civil religion in America. There has been a more dramatic threat coming
from much larger events in the society. Vermont: Dr. Peter L. Berger has been discussing
the recent developments in the status of religion in the United States. In just one moment, he will continue. From before the American Revolution until
the early 1800s, the churchyard at Christ Church served as Alexandria’s burial ground. Several tombstones dating back to 1771 can
still be seen by the interested visitor. By 1815, the churchyard was no longer used
as a cemetery, but following the Civil War, the remains of 37 Confederate soldiers were
interred here, and a memorial stone is still on public view. Inside Christ Church today, Dr. Peter Berger
is discussing an internal threat to America that some say is the gravest since the Civil
War. Dr. Berger: It has often been said in the
last few years that the legitimacy of the American political order faces the gravest
crisis since the Civil War. Even after making proper allowance for the
propensity to exaggerate on the part of professional social critics, the diagnosis stands up under
scrutiny. To be sure, there are important class and
regional differences. What is perceived as doomsday by readers of
“The New York Review of Books” may seem a less than overwhelming nuisance to the reader
of a small-town newspaper in Kansas, and there is hard evidence to the effect that there
continue to be large masses of people whose okay world has not been fundamentally shaken. Yet few people have remained untouched by
the political and moral questioning induced by the headline events of the last decade. The continuing racial crisis, the seemingly
endless fiasco of the imperial adventure in Indochina, the eruption of chaos on campus,
and finally the shock of the Watergate revelations. I doubt if these events, singly or even in
combination, are ultimate causes of the crisis of the American political creed. I think it is more plausible to see this crisis
rooted in much more basic tensions and discontents of modern society and to understand the aforementioned
events as occasions for the underlying difficulties to become manifest. It may then be said that the civil religion
has been affected by a double secularization, it has been affected by the secularizing processes
in the proper sense of the world. The same processes that have come to the fore
in the area of denominational religion. But it has also undergone a secularization,
so to speak, in quotation marks, that is weakening in the plausibility of its own creed, quite
apart from the relation of this creed to the several churches. Put simply, the phrase “under God,” as lately
introduced into the Oath of Allegiance, has become implausible to a lot people. But even without this phrase the propositions
about America contained in the oath have come to sound hollow in many years. That is the measure of the present crisis. However prudent one may want to be with regard
to the tricky business of prediction, it is just about inevitable in an assessment such
as this to look toward the future. What are some plausible scenarios? In looking at the future of denominational
religion in America, a crucial consideration will be how one views the further course of
secularization. In the last few years, I have come to believe
that many observers of the religious scene, I among them, have overestimated both the
degree and the irreversibility of secularization. There are a number of indications that, to
paraphrase Mark Twain, the news about the demise of religion has been exaggerated. Rather, I’m impressed by the intrinsic inability
of secularized worldviews to answer the deeper questions of the human condition, questions
of whether, whence, and why. These questions seem to be ineradicable and
they are answered only in the most banal ways by the ersatz religions of secularism. Perhaps, finally, the reversibility of the
process of secularization is probable because of the pervasive boredom of a world without
gods. This does not necessarily mean, however, that
a return to religion would also mean a return to the churches. It is perfectly possible that future religious
resurgences will create new institutional forms and that the existing institutions will
be left behind as museum pieces of a bygone era. There are two propositions, though, of which
I feel fairly certain. First, any important religious movements in
America will emerge out of the Judaeo-Christian tradition rather than from esoterica imported
from the Orient. And second, the likelihood that such revitalizing
movements remain within the existing churches will increase in the measure that the latter
return to their traditional contents and give up their self-defeating attempts to transform
these traditions in accordance with the myth of modern man. The scenarios for the American civil religion
hinge most obviously on one’s prognoses for American society at large. Only the most foolhardy would pretend to certainty
on this score. But one thing is reasonably certain, no political
order can stand a long process of delegitimation such as the one we have been going through
of late. There is only a limited number of possible
outcomes of such a crisis of legitimacy. One, perhaps the most obvious one, is that
the society moves into a period of general decline, marked both by intensifying disturbance
within and by a shrinkage of its power in the world outside. Not much imagination is required to see what
such a decline would mean internationally. A second possible outcome is a termination
of the crisis by force, by the imposition of the traditional virtues by the power of
the state. It hardly needs stressing that democracy and
freedom, as we have known these, would not survive such an Augustan age in America. The third possibility is a revitalization
of the American creed from within, a new effort to breathe the spirit of conviction into the
fragile edifice of American political institutions. This possibility depends above all on political
and intellectual leadership, of which there is very little evidence at the moment. The future of the American experiment depends
upon a quick end to this particular scarcity and upon the emergence of an altogether new
unity between political will, moral conviction, and last not the least, historical imagination. I’ve tried here to sketch a picture, not to
preach a sermon. The social scientist, if he is true to his
vocation, will try to see reality without reference to his own hopes or fears. Yet it must be clear that I do not view this
particular scene as a visitor from outer space. On the contrary, I find myself deeply and
painfully involved in it. As a sociologist I can, indeed must, look
at the religious situation in terms of what a colleague has aptly called “methodological
atheism.” At the same time, I am a Christian, which
means that I have a stake in the churches overcoming their failure of nerve and regaining
their authority in representing a message that I consider to be of ultimate importance
for mankind. I suppose that a phrase like “methodological
subversion” would fit the manner in which, again of necessity, the social scientist looks
at political reality. With some mental discipline, then, I can try
to describe contemporary America as if it were ancient Rome. But I cannot escape the fact that I am an
American citizen and that the future of this society contains not only my own future but
that of my children. Even more importantly, I happen to believe
in the continuing viability of the 18th-century vision and in the promise implied by that
oath. In my own case, first taken freely and of
my own volition as an adult. Both for the religious believer and for the
citizen, the assessment that I have tried to make translates itself into tasks, practical
and political tasks. The elaboration of these tasks clearly would
require a different format from the present one. In any case, that was not my assignment this
evening. Thank you. Vermont: You have been listening to Dr. Peter
L. Berger discussing religion in a revolutionary society. Dr. Berger says that America is now going
through a period of weakening moral values, and that the future of our society is in some
danger. This lecture has been one in a series presented
by The American Enterprise Institute representing several different points of view on the American
Revolution and its meaning for us today. If you would like a copy of Dr. Berger’s lecture
or copies of the entire series, write The American Enterprise Institute. That’s AEI, Post Office Box 19191, Washington,
D.C. 20036. Until next time. This is Vermont Royster, and thank you for
joining us.

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