The history of the world over most of the past four centuries has been shaped decisively by the exploits of English-speaking people. First English then British then American power has been more economically productive and militarily and strategically successful than any other. A decisive factor in this history of success is that both the British and the Americans came from a culture that was uniquely well positioned to harness the titanic forces of capitalism as they emerged on the world scene. The British and Americans have proved better able than others to tolerate the stress, uncertainty and inequality associated with free-market forms of capitalism, and have been consistently among the best performers at creating a favorable institutional and social climate in which capitalism can thrive.
That achievement has in turn placed Anglo-American society at the forefront of technological development. Both countries have had the deep and flexible financial markets that provide greater prosperity in peace and allow government to tap the wealth of societies for greater effectiveness in war. The great business enterprises that take shape in these dynamic and cutting-edge economies enjoy tremendous advantages when they venture out into global markets to compete against less technologically advanced, poorly financed and managerially unsophisticated rivals in other countries and cultures.
This aptitude for capitalism has at least some of its roots in the way the British Reformation created a pluralistic society that was at once unusually tolerant, unusually open to new ideas, and unusually pious. In most of the world, the traditional values of religion are seen as deeply opposed to the utilitarian goals of capitalism. The English-speaking world, contrary to the intentions of almost all the leading actors of the period, reached a new kind of religious equilibrium in which capitalism and social change came to be accepted as good things. Indeed, since the 17th century, the English-speaking world for the most part has believed that embracing and even accelerating economic, social, cultural and political change fulfills their religious destiny.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Anglo-American world synthesized its religious beliefs with its unfolding historical experience to build an ideology that has shaped what is still the dominant paradigm in the English-speaking world, the deeply rooted vision of the way the world works that lies behind the physics of Sir Isaac Newton, the political economy of Adam Smith, the constitutional theories of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and the biological theories of Charles Darwin: that of the self-regulating dynamic equilibrium.
While many of these thinkers were not particularly or conventionally religious, their belief that order arises spontaneously from the play of natural forces is a way of restating some of the most powerful spiritual convictions of the English-speaking world. The idea that the world is built or guided by God in such a way that the unrestricted free play of extant forces creates an ordered and higher form of society is found virtually everywhere in the Anglo-Saxon world. It makes people both individualist and optimistic, and it has produced the “Whig narrative”, a theory of history that sees the slow and gradual march of progress in a free society as the dominant trend in not just Anglo-American history, but in all of history.
Revelation and Reform
The idea that the roots of Anglo-American success are to be found in large part in religious culture runs sharply against the grain of modern historical analysis. The idea that enlightenment implies secularization is widely and deeply rooted, and the notion of civilization as a tragically necessary choice that inevitably cuts mankind off from the deepest elements in its nature was one of the most common tropes in both the 19th-century Romantic movement and 20th-century intellectual discourse. It is also a notion that has been proven as wrong as it is common: The countries that are in most respects the most thoroughly modernized by any definition that rests on economic and technological progress—19th-century Britain and the United States today—are significantly more religious than most.
The key to the ability of the Anglophone world to advance so far “West”, culturally speaking, and maintain its lead position in the global caravan is therefore not that it has been more secular than other societies. On the contrary, dynamic religion—religion that is open to change and that accords change a positive role in its sacred narrative—explains Anglophone ascendancy. Dynamic religion infiltrated and supplemented static religion in the religious life of the Anglophones. It showed that the great visions that light up the Western sky and drive us to pull up our stakes and move on stir human souls to the depths, just as do those mystic chords of memory that bind us to the past. Religion and myth are not always conservative. The mystic of progress is as god-seized as the mystic of tradition. Socrates was as pious as his executioners, if not more so.
At first glance, the religion of the Anglo-American world seems neither particularly interesting nor admirable: flexible to the point of drab, pragmatic to the point of inconsistency and calm to the point of boredom. These are, however, its chief virtues. It took a dexterous sort of flexibility, pragmatism and enforced calm to save England from bitter civil wars during the latter half of the 17th century and well into the 18th. Millions of English people accepted drastic changes to the governing religious and political philosophies of their national establishment in those years. While there were significant outbreaks of violence, English and then British society never again descended into the anarchy and bloodshed of the civil war of the 1640s.
That flexibility and pragmatism was instrumental in making the greatest event of those years, the Glorious Revolution, as peaceful as it was. Pragmatism—worldly, cynical, tolerant—enabled Britain to develop a new kind of political society, one far better than any other at coping with the stresses and demands of an emerging capitalist system.
Yet this was not secularization. Despite the exhaustion that followed the battles of the British Reformation, the new society that emerged had changed its connection to religion without severing it. A deep Christian faith continued to shape both popular and elite attitudes in Britain for almost two centuries after 1688. The United States and other colonial offshoots from Britain like New Zealand and Australia remain significantly more attached to traditional religion than most European countries. The persistence of religion in so much of the Anglo-Saxon world seems related to its ability to coexist with, and even thrive on, a kind of skepticism that is fatal to static religion.
Signs of a strange new attitude toward religious dogma in the English tradition are not hard to find. “There was never anything by men so well devised or so surely established which in age and continuance of time hath not been corrupted”, wrote the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, in 1538. With a few changes that sentence survived to become the opening words of the preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. It remains today in the prayer books of the Anglican Communion.
This is an oddly modern-sounding opening to a Reformation religious document, but it is not the only confession of uncertainty to be found in that book. All the churches have erred “not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith”, say the Articles of Religion—for centuries the definitive statement of Church of England doctrine. The Church of Rome, like all the other ancient Christian churches—Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem—had gone wrong. Indeed, the Church of England itself had gone wrong. During the two centuries following Henry VIII’s break with the old religion, “official Christianity” in Britain changed doctrine almost as often as it changed sovereigns. If that isn’t pragmatism, pray tell what is?
Slightly reformed under Henry VIII, radically reformed under Edward VI, Catholic again under Mary I, uneasily mixed under Elizabeth I—the Church of England’s doctrines and practices have continued to shift with every passing wind from the age of the Stuarts to our own times, and it will presumably continue to change. The heresy of today is the orthodoxy of tomorrow, and perhaps the heresy of the day after that.
For the purposes of politics, this is praiseworthy, but in the Christian tradition, this is scandalous. Christianity is about revelation, about God breaking into history with a definite message. Yet here are the fathers of the Anglican Church plainly stating that the truth about God is unknown, perhaps unknowable. Does this mean that God tries and fails to reveal himself? The churches of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and medieval England thought they had Eternal Truth; they did not, say the Anglo-Saxon divines. The kind of certainty that these churches claim for their beliefs is not, Cranmer wrote hundreds of years ago, what God intends for us to have.
What is interesting about this declaration isn’t just that the Church of England made it so early. It is that the Church took the news so phlegmatically. If no church and no book can tell us the infallible truth about God, why go to church and why read the Bible? For that matter, why do good and abstain from evil? Obviously, not everyone questioning these certainties reacted so calmly. Dostoyevsky’s characters lose their faith in absolute moral order and murder their landladies. French skeptics see through dogma and become militant, anticlerical atheists. Diderot longed to see the day when the last king was strangled with the entrails of the last priest. Others have thought that, without a basis in absolute religion, no social order can stand. We hear these same worries today from neoconservative intellectuals who fear that without some kind of absolute, detailed and unchanging moral code we are slouching toward Gomorrah.
This fear has deep roots in human nature, but does the historical record bear it out? The English reformers may have lost any assurance that they possessed absolute truth, but they had no doubts about the need to maintain order. Even in later years when the English church grew milder, it still didn’t lose its spine. Its faith was defined in the Thirty-nine Articles, and until well into the 19th century those who refused to sign them could not take university degrees. In the 1930s, the church that granted Henry VIII two divorces and forgave him for two more spouses beheaded forced his descendant, Edward VIII, to renounce the throne before he married Wallis Simpson. Prince Charles was forced to apologize to the former husband of the Duchess of Cornwall before he could marry her. The English bishops of Edward VIII’s day were far more skeptical than Thomas Cranmer about the doctrines they preached, and by the 21st century it was difficult to imagine an opinion that would force a well-connected English divine to renounce a bishopric. But doctrinal uncertainty is one thing, an unseemly royal marriage quite another.
That is how church leaders treated the rich. They were no less prepared to discipline the poor. The rulers of England, though deprived of the comforts of an absolute faith in an unchanging religion, nevertheless managed for four centuries to impose order on their society. Deprived of the comforts of an absolute or closed philosophy, poor Nietzsche stared into the abyss and groaned with sick, fascinated horror, “Nothing is true and everything is permitted.” That hasn’t been the Anglo-Saxon way. English bishops faced this truth and saw not the slightest reason to leap into any abyss, philosophical or otherwise. “To be sure, in theory nothing is true and everything is permitted”, yawn the English divines with the gulf of relativism gaping beneath their slippered feet. “Now, should the Alleluia be omitted after Gospel readings in Lent? And where is that girl with the cucumber sandwiches?”
Somehow, the choice between faith and unbelief did not appear as starkly to much of the English-speaking world as it did elsewhere. The English-speaking world managed to reconcile a pragmatic and skeptical approach to history and philosophy with profound religious faith and a sense of God’s providential care. That seems to be why the chasm between religion and secular modernization that raged in 20th-century Europe, and rages still in much of the world, was never as deep in the English-speaking world.
From Dogma to Dynamo
Two ideas in creative tension have coexisted for half a millennium in the Anglosphere. On the one hand, God exists and reveals His will regarding moral rules and religious doctrines to human beings; on the other hand, human understanding of these revelations remains partial, and very much subject to change.
It was thanks to this tension that, as its social evolution speeded up, the English-speaking world managed to move from an essentially static religious condition, in which a stable equilibrium was periodically shaken by episodes of religious dynamism, to a dynamic religious system anchored by persistent elements of stasis. The emerging religious structure of the English-speaking world had two outstanding features that made it particularly suitable for the growth of dynamic society. First, there was a pluralistic and multipolar religious environment, with many different denominations and theological tendencies existing side by side. And second, much of British religion, though not all, was dominated by theological formulations that were more responsive to dynamic than to static religion.
The peculiar religious evolution of the Anglosphere doesn’t seem to have happened as the result of any grand plan. It was rather more an accident—that or Divine Providence, depending on one’s tastes. To make a long and highly literary story short, by the end of the 17th century, England’s many Protestant sects recognized that no single one of them could reasonably expect to occupy the ground of the old Catholic Church. Each could still believe that it possessed the full and only gospel truth, each little chapel could glory in the knowledge that beneath its humble eaves were gathered the earthly representatives of the One True Church of God, but this was a primacy that the world-at-large would never acknowledge.
Milton was one of the first to grasp the implications of this plurality, arguing to Parliament in 1644 against government censorship of books in a famous speech, Areopagitica, named for the hill in Athens where the judges met and where St. Paul once taught. Noting that censorship was prevalent where Catholic prelates sought to impose orthodoxy through the power of the Inquisition, and reminding his audience that he, Milton, had met Galileo, “grown old a prisoner of the Inquisition” in Italy, he urged Parliament to allow free inquiry and free publishing. Truth is revealed in a process, he said, so our knowledge of God must necessarily change over time. Moreover, our knowledge grows over time: We will know more tomorrow than we do today. Truth grows when “God shakes a kingdom with strong and healthful commotions. . . . For such is the order of God’s enlightening his Church, to dispense and deal out by degrees his beam, so as our earthly eyes may best sustain it.” Change in religion was not a necessary evil, but a necessary good.
Milton himself seems to have thought a new final synthesis would emerge in time and that the chaos of progressive discovery and revelation would come to an end. But already it seemed clear, as a practical matter, that the only way to be faithful to God was to be open to religious change and new thinking: dynamic religion, not static, was needed as the basis for life. The search for truth through scripture led to the open seas, not to the safe harbors and estuaries the original reformers sought. Change was beginning to be seen as a permanent, necessary and even sanctified element of true religion.
The idea of dynamic religion, the positive acclimation to the idea of change, launched a fascinating debate in the English-speaking world of the 17th century. It rotated around the interplay of three elements: scripture, tradition and reason. It came to an apex, if not exactly a conclusion, in a reliance on what Edmund Burke called “convention.” Scripture, tradition and reason each had its place and each had its devotees, but all of them went wrong if pressed too far. You should respect the scriptures and defer to them, but not interpret them in a way that leads you into some weird millenarian sect or absurd social behavior. You honor tradition, but you do not press it so far that it leads you into the arms of royal absolutism or papal power. You employ the critique of reason against the excesses of both scripture and tradition, but without pressing reason to the point of ranting against all existing institutions, eating roots and bark for your health, or, much worse, undermining the rights of property of the established church.
One can picture John Bull scratching his head and slowly concluding that one must accept that there will always be nuts in society: Bible nuts, tradition nuts and reason nuts, or fundamentalists, papists and radicals. This is not necessarily the end of the world, because to some degree they cancel one another out. The fundamentalist zealots will keep the papists down and vice versa; the religious will keep the radicals in their place. And the competition among sects will also prevent the established church from pressing its advantages too far or forming too exalted an idea about the proper stature, prestige and emoluments of the clergy. Behold the dynamic equilibrium at work.
The result of all these offsetting forces, John Bull came to believe, was what he wanted all along: common sense and compromise. He wanted reasonableness, which is emphatically not the same thing as reason. Perhaps it would be a bit higgledy-piggledy from a theoretical point of view, but John Bull was very tired of the theoretical point of view by then. More than once he had let himself be persuaded by clever chaps with their books and their systems, and he regretted what it had led to. This pragmatism was not merely an abstract idea; it was the approach that, after the Glorious Revolution, shaped Britain’s core political institutions. Indeed, juggling scripture, tradition and reason, the English-speaking world blundered its way into an increasingly open society in which religion was constantly adjusting to the demands of social and economic change.
Pluralism Above All
The religion of an open, dynamic society is not necessarily Christian, and it is certainly not always orthodox, but Anglo-American society was never completely secular and is not so now. Far from being an obstacle to the modernization of British and American society, religion became a major actor in an intensifying and accelerating process of social change and capitalist development. Constant transformation became accepted as the normal and desirable state of human affairs. As Anglo-American religion became more dynamic and less static, it also tended to become more intensely felt.
Adam Smith still gives the best description of the role of religion in an open society. Smith, whose personal religious views seem to have been much closer to those of Edward Gibbon than John Milton, argued in The Wealth of Nations that religion, even fanatical religion, is necessary to the health and happiness of society, and that free competition among religions is the best way to achieve the benefits of religion at the lowest possible cost.
In Smith’s view, there are two systems of morality, and therefore of religion, in any society. The common people, who live on an economic knife-edge, cannot afford to indulge themselves. He wrote:
A single week’s dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman forever. . . . The wiser and better sort of the common people, therefore, have always the utmost abhorrence and detestation of such excesses, which their experience tells them are so immediately fatal to people of their condition.
Most new sects and religions, according to Smith, have their roots among the poor, and new sects are usually marked by the stringent moral rigor they impose.
The common people need the support of a strong religious community, especially when they join the great capitalist migration from the countryside to the city. In the country, the poor workman has a reputation to uphold: He is known by all, and the community judges him according to his acts. This pressure encourages people to fulfill the responsibilities of their allotted role in the traditional world of the village. In the new condition of the city, however, the workman has less certainty about his role. He needs more than ever to maintain personal discipline and resist the temptations that have always been found in cities. The small religious congregation—the sect—replaces the social discipline of the village community.
While the manners and morals of such sects can often be, for Smith’s taste, “disagreeably rigorous and unsociable”, it is precisely their rigor and regularity that makes them effective: “In little religious sects, accordingly, the morals of the common people have been almost always remarkably regular and orderly.”
Religion thus no longer opposed the modernization process; it provided the psychological and social support that eventually allowed tens of millions of bewildered, hopeful, frightened peasants to find a place in the teeming cities and crowded industries of the new capitalist world. At the same time, the rise of capitalism, while destructive of religious ideas firmly based in the realities of village life, does not subvert religion in general but can lead to a new era of religious revival—and sometimes to fanaticism and fundamentalism. Indeed, Smith’s argument implies that an acceleration of capitalist growth could lead to a dangerous increase in the power of religious fanaticism—that the open society could boomerang and generate a reaction strong enough to impose a new religious dictatorship. Religion could shift back to opposing society’s Westward march.
Well aware of this danger, Smith provides steps governments can take to restrain fanatical religion. A generally high level of education, he believed, should reduce the ability of a superstitious and fanatical clergy to impose narrow ideas on the rising generation. Government should also promote public amusements as an antidote to the gloomy fantasies of religious enthusiasts, and encourage the public performance of plays that mock the wiles and shortcomings of the clergy.
In an aside full of meaning for American history, Smith also notes that the danger of religious dictatorship is much less likely where a multitude of religious groups already exists. The danger of theocracy exists when a large and established church, supported by the government, can impose conformity on dissenters. When society is divided into many religious groups, with no group able to call on government power to enforce its pretensions against its rivals, society will not dissolve into dueling fanaticisms; rather, the small sects will move toward something like a religious consensus based on increasingly moderate principles. “The teachers of each little sect”, he wrote,
finding themselves almost alone, will be obliged to respect those of almost every other sect. The concessions they would find it both convenient and agreeable to make to one another might in time reduce their doctrines to that pure and rational religion, free from every mixture of absurdity, imposture or fanaticism, such as wise men have in all ages of the world wished to see established.
Smith would not have been surprised to find that this paragraph is a reasonably accurate summary of two centuries of American religious history.
Smith saw a virtuous circle in which religion helped human beings cope with the new demands of life in an open, changing society, and in which the operation of the open society made religion continually more fit for this purpose—and less fit to lead a reaction in favor of closed-society principles. If the history of the Anglosphere is indeed any guide, it appears that the most vigorously open society, the society that presses hardest and fastest Westward, is a religious society. To the degree that a secular society—one in which religion has been effectively marginalized—is shaped by reliance on reason rather than on the complex dance of conflicting elements that characterized the Anglophone powers at their various apogees, it is likely to be less open and dynamic than one that acknowledges more fully the irrational elements of the human psyche. The “scientific” societies of the communist world, boasting of their objective grounding in rational and scientific truth as discovered by Lenin and Marx, were considerably less flexible than the Western societies they opposed. There was less freedom in France under Robespierre and his Reign of Terror than under the less systematic and less “rational” revolutionary governments that preceded it. The ideal rational Republic Plato proposed would have been much less free and open than the messy Athenian democracy he hoped to eliminate.
Hence pluralism, even at the cost of rational consistency, is necessary in a world of change. Countervailing forces and values must contend, for without constant disputes, controversy and competition among rival ideas about how society should look and what it should do, the pace of innovation and change will slow as forces of conservative inertia grow smug and unchallenged.
This is one of the reasons the Anglophone world outpaced its continental rivals, most notably France. In France there was no multiplicity of sects like that found in Britain. Besides a small leavening of Huguenots and Jews, there were only the Catholic Church and the Enlightenment. Catholic France remained too fixed in the past—philosophically, institutionally, socially—to provide the framework French society would have needed to beat Britain in the race to the West. Secular, Jacobin France also had its rigidities, fixed perspectives and propensities to resist change rather than embrace it. The struggle between these two visions of French society propelled France to the West, but never at the speed the English traveled. Indeed, the Westward progress of any society may well reflect the degree to which many different worldviews, interest groups and subcultures find expression in its politics. Homogeneous and bipolar societies seem to be at a basic disadvantage, doomed to play catch-up in a world in which the leaders win disproportionate rewards. The social model based on the British Enlightenment and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 reflects a broad and deep pluralism that the political paradigms based on the French Enlightenment and the Revolution of 1789 lack.
The fact that the Anglosphere emerged from the British Reformation with an ability to tolerate and even welcome the conflicts, tensions and radical uncertainties of an open society helps explain the English-speaking world’s capacity to cope with the risks and stresses of capitalist society, even as they have posed obstacles for much of the rest of the world. Capitalism requires that people stop looking to conserve the past and instead fix their hopes on the future.
On a broader scale, a capitalist society is one in which the creative destruction of the market is constantly reshaping basic institutions. We are always saying goodbye to something we love, always leaving our fathers’ homes for an unknown future. This is true of individual entrepreneurs, who must risk losing the wealth they currently have in the quest for more; it is more broadly true throughout a changing society. Semper eadem was the motto of the feudal world: Always the same. The church, the state, the law, the dynasty: Every institution derived its authority from its antiquity. Semper reformanda is the motto of capitalism: Everything needs to be remade, over and over again. The older a machine, a firm, a factory, a product, a social compact, an idea or a technology, the more suspect it is.
At the same time, there must be room for nostalgia and resistance to change. There must be religious voices denouncing godless secularism and calling mankind back to eternal principles, even as they denounce one another for heresy. Human society must be torn between strongly felt ideals, because no one ideal can hold all the answers. Open society must be secular and religious, dogmatic and free. “Doxies” of all kinds must find a place there and be cherished; yet the conflict and catfights between them can never end.
This is how the social and economic dynamism of capitalism confirmed rather than challenged religious beliefs and affections. And if Britain created the synergy between dynamic religion and capitalist success, America has extended it. In both cases, one Biblical image and narrative led the way: that of Abraham.
American individualism, freedom of conscience and debate, pluralism, democratic opposition to natural and social hierarchies, community institutions, and a deeply grounded practice of democracy are all historically rooted in the Protestantism that shaped early American culture. One additional element needs to be stressed: The degree to which the individualistic basis of Anglo-American religious experience links the religious life of the individual to a God who reveals Himself—as He did to Abraham—in the changes and upheavals of life, rather than in its stabilities and unchanging verities. This understanding has had a profound effect and continues to exercise a powerful force on the English-speaking world today. It has given, and still gives, direction to its spiritual striving and self-understanding, which has helped ensure that, over succeeding centuries, individuals and society as a whole continue to devote their full energy to the exploration and development of the possibilities of capitalist society.
The connections between capitalist values and the dynamic Protestant religious culture that shaped the modern English-speaking world run deeper than the mechanisms Max Weber identified just over a century ago. Yes, it is true that Calvinists sublimated fears about salvation into habits that promoted discipline—that being good somehow transmuted into doing well. But Protestants also came to believe that living in communion with God and experiencing the hope of salvation meant cooperating with, and even furthering, the waves of social change unleashed by capitalism on the English-speaking world. Increasingly, dynamic religion would become the only true religion for English speakers. Religion not only had to tolerate change; it had to advance it.
The key theological reference point for this transformation of values was the patriarch Abraham. The significance his story assumed in Anglo-American religion has roots deep in Reformation theology. Martin Luther’s interpretation of Pauline theology put the figure of Abraham front and center. In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul stresses that Abraham’s faithful initial response to God’s call was the basis for salvation. Thus this narrative became, in the eyes of Luther and his followers, the bedrock of the core tenet of Protestantism—sola fide, or justification by faith alone.
As Protestants saw it, Abraham’s faith—his willingness to leave his home and family in obedience to a call from God—became the foundation for God’s redemption of the human race. Without a doubt many Protestant converts from Catholicism were sustained by Abraham’s example; they too believed they were abandoning their fathers’ beliefs to answer a higher calling. The new sense of faith as a journey that required the abandonment of the familiar became a central idea in the religious and devotional literature of the time. The wildly successful Pilgrim’s Progress is the story of how a Christian forsakes the comfortable, conventional religion of his family and community to follow a call. Next to the King James Bible, this was the most common book in English homes well into the 19th century. Next to the Bible, it was the book most commonly owned by the American pioneers.
Abraham’s faithful response to God’s promise is a deeper and more positive force than the fear that drives Weber’s Calvinist analysis. The Calvinist is running in fear from a hideous fate, but the follower of Abraham is reaching out toward something positive—a transcendent call that bespeaks a reality far richer and more rewarding. Embracing change itself becomes a sacrament. Moving from the known to the unknown brings one closest to God. Change is no longer a necessary evil that must sometimes be endured; it now has religious sanction, and to embrace change is to encounter the meaning of life.
Where Weber, like European Enlightenment thinkers, saw progress in terms of rationalization and the disappearance of the numinous from ordinary existence, for the individualistic Anglo-American Christian, the “personal relationship with God” is a powerful and effective link with the realm of the transcendent that does not wither or fade in the face of the modernizing and rationalizing processes of capitalist society. On the contrary, the experience of transcendence may become increasingly important to a population facing growing uncertainty in a world of accelerating change. The more the world changes, and the more the believer changes in response, the closer he or she comes to God. Ecclesia semper reformanda: The church and the world are always in need of renewal and change.
The pull of these values has not been limited to orthodox Protestants. Indeed, it is precisely this “Protestant principle” of progressive change that led men like Ralph Waldo Emerson beyond even the very capacious boundaries of the Unitarian faith. In a real sense, change itself—understood as a progressive response to a call whether from God or some inner, higher self—can become an object of worship in the English-speaking world.
As American religion in particular became more personalized and emotional, its identification with Abraham’s faithful response to change only deepened. From the time of Jonathan Edwards in the early 18th century to the revivals of our own day, the Great Awakenings of American history have focused on the idea of God’s call. In the Kentucky revivals at the turn of the 19th century, when strong men and pioneer women fell to the ground and shook, and in later revivals, when thousands knelt in tears on the tent floors as Dwight Moody preached and Ira Sankey sang, or when the fires of the Holy Spirit fell on the ecstatic worshippers at the Azusa Street church in Los Angeles in the early 20th century, millions of Americans felt a personal call from God to leave the familiar worlds and ideas of their past and journey toward something unknown.
In some cases, such as the Mormons, it was a literal call to imitate Abraham and move to a new promised land. In others, it meant leaving established churches for fledgling denominations. Almost always, the Great Awakenings have come at times when Americans were either engaged in or preparing for moments of great change. The astonishing outpourings of enthusiasm that followed George Whitfield’s progress across the colonies and the Great Awakening of Jonathan Edwards helped prepare the way for the American Revolution. The Kentucky revivals that followed were instrumental in the creation of a frontier society and a new kind of democratic lifestyle independent of the strictures and conventions of the East.
Today’s religious revivals in the South, too—and not just the South—come at a time when old patterns of life based on segregation and farming have been replaced by very different conditions. Overall, just as the proliferation of small sects helped the transplanted countrymen of Adam Smith’s Britain adjust to new social patterns and work rhythms in the cities of an industrializing economy, so did the revival meetings, circuit riders and tiny wilderness churches help Americans adapt to a succession of dramatic and rapid changes.
The belief that every Christian must have a personal, Abrahamic experience of God’s call has for more than three centuries been strengthening its hold in American life. American Protestants stress the importance of a personal decision for Christ and a personal relationship with God. In the American context Christianity is less and less a matter of family or ethnic identity, and ever more a matter of personal choice. We must all be Abraham now.
This is a truly revolutionary way of conceptualizing religion. Historically, religious identity has largely been an aspect of a broader social and ethnic identity. One is Greek Orthodox or Hindu, because that is the faith into which one was born. The mobility of American religious life, with frequent movement mostly among the major Protestant denominations, but also beyond and across these boundaries—combined with the increasingly individualistic nature of American theology and piety—has dramatically changed this picture. Religion today is increasingly part of a self-constructed identity for Americans. It is perceived as a response to a call, an inherently dynamic religious orientation, even if the doctrines embraced are venerable.
The cultural impact of this orientation goes far beyond the pulpits and the pews of American religion. The widespread American belief that each life is a kind of project to be planned, that one has a unique dream which must be pursued through all hardships and reverses, all testify to the power of the Abrahamic archetype in the American mind (consider the ease with which Americans move hundreds and even thousands of miles in pursuit of opportunity or fulfillment).
This Abrahamic concept of a calling strengthens and intensifies the influence of Weber’s “Protestant ethic”, even as it extends its influence from the sphere of individual and family life into the broader society. As the Weberian Calvinist grimly works and saves, he or she generates the cash and the work habits that will make capitalism grow. The Abrahamic believer, convinced that God is leading the way to an unknown future in a new land, is ready to accept not only the personal but also the social consequences of capitalist life. Are the old folkways and habits passing away? Have strip malls and townhouses sprung up in the meadows and forests where one played as a child? Are gender roles melting and changing even as new immigrant groups fill the land? Is the old industrial economy of union labor and stable employment mutating into something mysterious, complex, dynamic and new?
For the soul grounded in static religion, such changes are hard to accept. For the dynamic believer, change is both a sign of progress and an opportunity to show the crowning virtue of faith. To struggle for change and reform is not to oppose the religious instinct, but to give it its fullest expression. Whether they were struggling to build businesses, change social institutions to reflect the new requirements and possibilities of a capitalist system, or simply accustom themselves to the accelerating juggernaut of change, millions of Anglo-Americans over the centuries were not trapped in a Pascalian vicious circle. They really did see something transcendent in their lives; they really did believe that they were struggling toward God. And to the degree that fulfillment comes from making a journey of faith, they didn’t just seek God. They found Him.