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Nowhere has the principle of the separation of church and state become such a matter of such general, almost dogmatic significance as in American Christianity, and nowhere, on the other hand, is the participation of the churches in the political, social, economic, and cultural events of public life so active and so influential as in the country where there is no state church.
    -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Protestantism Without Reformation

Ranging across the whole continent and covering Catholicism as well as Protestantism, Mr. Noll--a professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College--here presents an eminently accessible history of North American Christianity that is thorough enough to satisfy the curious but short enough not to overwhelm. He concentrates especially on four elements peculiar to the United States and how they gave Christianity here its distinctive form: space, race and ethnicity, pluralism, and the absence of confessional conservatism (instead America is characterized by general cultural liberalism: "populism, individualism, democritization, and market-making."). Together these elements somehow combined to create a Christianity that endures as a central part of American life and even politics, while the European homelands of most American immigrants have become increasingly secular. Mr. Noll helps us to understand how this may have come to pass.

Here's just one example of the consistently fascinating analysis he provides:
For the United is not enough to note that early settlement was Protestant; it is also important to note the kind of Protestantism that prevailed. The earliest American Protestants were predominantly from the British Isles rather than from the Continent. They were also more likely to be Reformed (that is, Calvinist) than either Lutheran or Anabaptist. In the famous phrase of the German sociologist Max Weber, these Protestants practiced a "this-worldly asceticism." Like the medieval religious, they practiced asceticism, or the disciplined organization of all life and attitudes for the glory of God. But unlike the monks and nuns of the Middle Ages, these Protestants thought that discipline for God should be exerted in the world. Family life, business practices, political decisions, management of leisure time--all such concerns should be pursued with religious seriousness. Thus
it was that, as these Reformed Protestants came to America, they were seeking not a private space to be religious but a free space for their religion to transform. Later contributions by Protestants to American democracy, capitalism, individualism, and voluntary associations all sprang--sometimes for good, sometimes for ill--from the character of the sixteenth-century Reformation. That notion, of the integral difference between a religious but free space as opposed to a private space for religion, by itself opens the way to real insights on how religion has stayed so centrally positioned in the American public square.

In the end, drawing on his own analyses and the works of folks like de Tocqueville, Bonhoeffer and Hartmut Lehmann, Mr. Noll concludes that the freedom that those earliest Christians sought and the public nature of their religion has played a key role:
When religious freedom of the sort reflected in the American Constitution was joined to voluntary religious activity rooted in revivalism--but then moving on with revivalistic zeal to religious organizations, social reforms, self-help groups for therapy, and many more community causes--the result has been religious vitality fully engaging the middle classes, large segments of the lower classes, and a significant portion of the upper classes, of a sort unknown in Europe.
He is not without ambivalence about this fact, noting that the universality and diversity of religious belief and the interaction with the worldly political sphere must result in some diminishment of Christian integrity--diversification inevitably means folks will move away from various doctrines, even those that are quite central to Christian revelation--but he seems to remain hopeful that the very openness of American culture implies an openness to the gospel. Indeed, as we look around the rest of the West, much of it now certifiably post-Christian, this openness to faith is no small cause for hope that Christianity will remain vital and vibrant here in the no longer quite so New World.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Mark Noll Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Mark Noll
-Mark Noll (Wheaton College, History Department)
-ESSAY: AMERICA’S TWO FOUNDINGS (Mark Noll, December 2007, First Things)
    -ESSAY: The Christian History Timeline: Passing the Torch (Mark Noll, Winter 2003, Christian History)
    -ESSAY: 'The Almighty Has His Own Purposes': In times of war, whose side is God on? (Mark A. Noll, Belief Net)
    -ESSAY: Minding the Evangelical Mind (Mark A. Noll, January 2001, First Things)
    -ESSAY: We Are What We Sing: Our classic hymns reveal evangelicalism at its best. (Mark A. Noll, July 12, 1999, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: The Gift of Humility: Christianity has made a difference by surrounding the use of power with humility (Mark A. Noll, 12/06/1999, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: History Wars I: Some Recent Battles (Mark A. Noll, May/June 1999, Books & Culture)
    -ESSAY: History Wars II (Mark A. Noll, July/August 1999, Books & Culture)
    -ESSAY: History Wars III: Allies? (Mark A. Noll, Sep/Oct 1999, Books & Culture)
    -ESSAY: History Wars IV: A Peace of God? (Mark A. Noll, Nov/Dec 1999, Books & Culture)
    -ESSAY: A Peace of God? (Mark Noll, Nov/Dec 1999, Books & Culture)
    -ESSAY: The Gospel According to Martians (Mark Noll, March 3, 1997, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: The Lutheran Difference (Mark A. Noll, February 1992, First Things)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Bookshelf: The American Revolution (Mark A. Noll, Books & Culture)
    -REVIEW: of Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus (Mark Noll, BeliefNet)
    -REVIEW: of The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism. By Ronald L. Numbers (Mark Noll, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of The Missionary Movement in Christian History by Andrew F. Walls (Mark Noll, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham (Mark Noll, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, and the Triumph of Anglo-America. By Kevin Phillips (Mark Noll, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture. By R. Laurence Moore (Mark Noll, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards. By Gerald R. McDermott (Mark Noll, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of (Mark Noll, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of Gods and Generals (Mark Noll, Books & Culture)
    -INTERVIEW: THE AMERICAN EVANGELICAL MISSIONARY IMPULSE: Interview with Prof. Mark Noll, Wheaton College (Religioscope. 29 June 2002)
    -INTERVIEW: "Serious faith ...careful learning": An e-mail exchange with the historian Mark Noll (Joshua Friedman, October 2000, The Atlantic) -ROUNDTABLE: Science and Faith (PBS)
    -SYMPOSIUM: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: A Symposium (First Things, March 1995)
    -ESSAY: The Opening of the Evangelical Mind: Of all America's religious traditions, the author writes, evangelical Protestantism, at least in the twentieth-century conservative forms, has long ranked "dead last in intellectual stature." Now evangelical thinkers are trying to revitalize their tradition. Can they turn an intellectual backwater into an intellectual beacon? (Alan Wolfe, Octobber 2000, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of The Old Religion in a New World by Mark A. Noll (Philip Gleason, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of The Old Religion in a New World by Mark A. Noll (Elesha Coffman, Christianity Today) -REVIEW: of America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln by Mark A. Noll (Martin E. Marty, Books & Culture)
    -REVIEW: of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark A. Noll (Herbert Schlossberg, Religion & Liberty) -REVIEW: of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Philip Blosser, The New Oxford Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark A. Noll (Andrew S. Kulikovsky, Hermeneutics)
    -REVIEW: of American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction. By Mark A. Nol (Ralph C. Wood, First Things) -REVIEW: of American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction, by Mark A. Nol (David Martin, Books & Culture)

Book-related and General Links:

    --Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Library of Congress)
    -ETEXT: Faith & Freedom: The Christian Roots of American Liberty (Benjamin Hart, A publication of the Christian Defense Fund)
    -ESSAY: Whatever Happened to Christian History?: Evangelical historians have finally earned the respect of the secular academy. A few critics say they've lost their Christian vision. Hardly. (Tim Stafford, 3/23/01, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: Is Religion Dangerous for America?: The Supreme Court's Liberals Think So. (Ronald J. Pestritto, July 1, 2002,
    -ESSAY: The Republic's Debt to Religion: The Free World shouldn't turn its back on its Christian heritage (ROBERT L. BARTLEY, April 16, 2001, Opinion Journal)
    -ESSAY: Dangerous waters: Will the U.S. nurture an Islamist Iraq? (Paul Marshall, National Review Online)
    -REVIEW: of Separation of Church and State, by Philip Hamburger (Thomas G. West, Claremont)
    -REVIEW: of God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics By Paul Marshall (Robert Monahan, America)
    -REVIEW: of God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics, by Paul Marshall, and Islam at the Crossroads: Understanding Its Beliefs, History, and Conflicts, by Paul Marshall, Roberta Green, and Lela Gilbert (Ken Masugi, Claremont Institute)
    -REVIEW: of SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE by Philip Hamburger (Darren R. Walhof, Law and Politics Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The American Myth of Religious Freedom, by Kenneth R. Craycraft, Jr. (Joseph Baldacchino, HUMANITAS)
    -REVIEW: of The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century. By Robert Benne (Janet Marsden , First Things)
    -REVIEW: of Religion in Colonial America, by Jon Butler and Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776, by Jon Butler (A.G. Roeber, Books & Culture)