Science in Christian Perspective



The American Way of Life and 
Scriptural Christianity'*


From: JASA 12 (September 1960): 74-80.

It is the purpose of this paper to present a gestalt view of the American way of life within the frame of reference of its culture as we find it projected in the social organization of the American people. This presentation will be based on a fourfold comparative study of American Christianity.

A historical comparison will be drawn in order to determine the lines along which the pilgrims and the successive waves of immigrants have built in the new world the kind of religious values and the type of society in which they have believed.

A contemporary cultural profile will be presented offering specific as well as a more general characterization of the American society and its religious climate, as it becomes easily apparent both to the Americans and to the non-American world.

From a study made by the writer in the area of religious acculturation an attempt will be made to portray those traits in the American culture which have affected most significantly the submerging new religious groups and cultures coming to our shores.

Then, an attempt will be made to interpret in the light of the Scriptures--on one hand-the developments in the American religious culture which represent in a fuller measure the Scriptural ideals for a "divine society," and-on the other hand-to show the tendencies of departure from the Scriptures, as the spiritual climate of America becomes influenced more and more by old erosive forces which bring decay and newer damaging philosophies and theologies which tend to reduce the power and the vitality of evangelical Christianity in America.

Finally, the writer would like to conclude this paper with a projection into the future of American Christianity, the alternatives which are being chosen

* Paper presented at the Fourteenth Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, June, 1959, Chicago, Illinois.

** Dr. Trutza is Professor of Missions and Urban Church at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois.

and the ends to which they lead, as we can see these developments in the light of history.

The writer is very much aware that the nature and the extent of such a paper will impose serious limitations upon the treatment of this subject and that an adequate discussion cannot very well be contemplated here. Recently I heard a story which describes very well the way I feel. In approaching this subject I feel something like the two cows which saw a milk truck passing by and bearing in large letters the words, "homogenized, pasteurized vitaminized." As it passed one said to the other, "It makes one feel so inadequate." To treat an area so comprehensive within the limits of this paper giving sufficient attention to all the factors considered, will be an impossible task. We will be forced to mention only, rather than to discuss, many peculiar cultural traits for the purpose of presenting the broad configurations of the religious cultures we have chosen.


It is an undisputed fact that our cultural roots go back to Europe. Every aspect of American history, every phase of American life, bears testimony to this fact.1 To understand, therefore, the religious culture of America it will be necessary to examine the religious situation in England and other European countries which contributed so significantly to, the peopling of the new world.

The first colonists came from the British Isles. They made the largest part of every colony. It is, therefore, of interest to us to know the religious situation in England, Scotland, and Ireland. "From these countries came the Puritans, the Cavaliers, the Quakers, the Catholics, and the Scotch-Irish. Out of these groups came Congregationalism, the Established Church, the English Catholic Church, the Baptists,

1. Will Herberg, Pro testant-Catho lic-Jew, An Essay in American Religious Sociology. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1956, p. 18.

the Friends. and the Presbyterians. "2 These were the most important of the colonial churches. After them came the Dutch and the German elements in the middle colonies who were, not far behind in numbers and in influence. From these groups came the Reformed churches, the Lutherans, besides the Mennonites, the Dunkers, and the Moravians. At the time of the Revolution, the "Anglo-Saxons" constituted at least 75 per cent of the 3,000,000 whites who together with about three quarters of a million Negroes made up the new nation. They were predominantly Protestant and from the very beginning they gave a Protestant direction to American religious life.

The largest number of immigrants came in -the next century. Over 3,5,000,000 men and women came in three huge waves, stretching over more than a hundred years. By the time the great migrations were past they reduced the British- Protestant element to less than 'half the population. Thus linguistically, ethnically, and religiously the Americans had become the most heterogeneous people on earth.

Behind them all the newcomers left a continent whose economic, social, political, and particularly religious climate they considered to be unfavorable and unhealthy. What was true at that time and what continues -to be true now, even though in a lesser degree -about the religious climate of Europe? Have the Pilgrim Fathers, the Puritans, the Separatists, and all the -religious dissenters succeeded in building in the new world a new Christianity, a different Christianity from the one they have known in Europe? 'What are the traits of the religious culture they left behind?

"The keynote of the New Testament is that all external observance of the law is worthless unless it is based on the obedience of the heart,"3 says George M. Stephensen in his book, The Puritan Heritage. One general characterization of the European Christianity is to be found in theemphasis which is placed upon form. Rigid religious rituals, devoid -of meaning, automatically performed, transform the clergy into religious robots, the believers into superstitious practitioners, and the churches into empty tombs.

As a European, reared and educated in Europe, and having visited Europe twice in the last four years, in each trip traveling through about fifteen countries, I have had the opportunity to observe the spiritual barometer of Europe in country after country. The empty churches speak too eloquently for one of the many reasons why people do not attend church: exaggerated religious formalism. Abbe G. Michonneau, the author of Revolution in a City Parish, speaking about church absenteeism, says: "Our contention that these souls are 'Christifiable' but not 'Ecclesiasticable,' should not cause any apostle to become discouraged; it merely points out the proper approach."4

Another trait of the European Christianity is the concept of the Parish church, a church not separated from but identified with the world. Once more Abbe G. Michonneau, speaking about the Catholic Christians of France ' in a Parish church situation, says: ". - - if we wish to restrict the title of Christian (and we are not saying 'good Christians') to those who have the Faith, to those to whom Christ is a reality, we must have the courage to stand by the opinion of 'France, a Mission Land,' and that the mass of the working class is pagan. Not because they do not practice the Faith, but because (and the evidence is so clear on this point that we are amazed -at any discussion of -it), their mentality is pagan and completely foreign to the Christian spirit, indifferent to our creed, and careless of the demands of our moral code."

The comers to our shores left in Europe a Christianity in which the church and the state unitedly conspired against the sacred rights and freedoms of the individual. Freedom is dependent on the right to dissent. When there is no separation of church and state, individuals as well as religious groups are not treated as equals before the law. Persecutions and restrictions of all forms are used to bring about conformity; the outcome is stagnation, degeneration, regress-spiritually, politically, economically, Those suffering under such conditions look toward other lands where they can begin life again with better hopes for a better future.

But, the Christian culture of Europe was not in -the past end is not now characterized only by exaggerated religious formalism, the application of the concept of a parish church and union of church and state. There are other features which must -be mentioned here. These features are: intolerance toward other religious faiths, -authoritarian overbearing attitude of ecclesiastical leaders, the role of observers rather than of participants of laity a passive laity, lack of vital religious -experience in the individual Christian, lack of evangelistic zeal, absence -of missionary interest, separation of religion from daily life, Scriptural illiteracy among laity and clergy, an extensive churchianity which has reduced significantly the meaning of intensive and vital Christianity.

There are, certainly, positive aspects which should be offered here for a complete picture of the religious culture of Christian Europe. There is a real value in every religion which serves as integrator and stabilizer of human personality. The value of any religion is relative and is determined by the historical factors which shape the culture of any given place and time. History can prove also how damaging certain religious creeds can be when they do not favor the welfare of every man and his free development and

2. William Warren Sweet, The Story of Religion in Ameri ca. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1960, p. 1.

3. George M. Stephensen, The Puritan Heritage. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952, p. 11.

4. Abbe G. Michonneau, Revolution in a City Parish. Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1956, p. 7.

5. Ibid., p. 1.

progress. The characterization of European Christianity as portrayed above shows a deviation from Scriptural Christianity which led Europe to continuous persecutions, wars, devastations, and spiritual degeneration. Is it a wonder then that millions left Europe and turned toward America, the Promised Land?


Have the Pilgrim Fathers, the Puritans, the Separatists, the newcomers of later years, been able to establish in the new world the foundations of a purer, truer, better, and higher form of Christianity? Can we speak about the American Christianity as being different from the Christianity from which it emerged? What are the structural components of American Christianity? What is the profile of the American Christian? Such questions are not easily answerable.

S. Angus reminds us that "the briefest review of Christianity must convince us that it has not been always the same. It has ever manifested continuity through change. . . . It has shown permanence through countless mutations.6 . . . Christianity has contributed to the making of every age, and every age has contributed to the making of Christianity as an historical movement. . . . Christianity, like every great movement of the human spirit under divine inspiration, has to live and move in a given environment, upon which it reacts and from which it also suffers reaction.7  

In the new social and political climate of America, the newcomers, inspired by higher ideals and hopes in life, have been able to establish the foundations of a new Christianity, truer to the Scriptures, and freer and more dedicated tothe redemptive work of Christ in the building of a new humanity.

As over against the religious formalism of Europe, the American Christians show a perennial eagerness to free themselves from the heaviness and coldness of dead formand have developed greater simplicity, spontaneous freedom, and wider lay participation in the worship services of the church.

American Christianity has emphasized the need of Christians to turn from tradition back to the Bible, to turn  from, sacramentalism back to an experiential Christianity, to turn from clericalism back to the universal responsibility of all believers-back to the priesthood of all believers. The American Christians have given themselves to the transformation of a Sunday religion into an everyday religion, have given themselves to the task of the separation of church from the world (as it is clearly indicated in the wide acceptance of the concept of "gathered church" and in the existence of such a great diversity of Christian denominations) and to the task of winning the world to Christ. The American Christians -have emphasized activity over against pious mysticism; and, in a dynamic culture in a fast changing world they emphasized the need for change and progress in contrast to the restrictive spirit of conformity of the established churches of Europe.

The American Christians have fought for a complete freedom of the individual in the church and in the state and for the separation of church and state and have been able to build the freest society and the highest standards of living in the history of man.

The American Christians have de-emphasized Christian fetishism, the worship of sacred objects, pilgrimages in sacred places, and have called the followers of Christ to worship Him in spirit and truth. Preaching has won an honored place in Christian worship in America while the chanting of the Gospel has come to be looked upon as an imported, strange, exotic, religious ritual. Evangelism and Missions have come to be considered in America as two modes of genuine demonstration of the real life and power of a true church of Christ while the European churches from times immemorial have lost their meaning of Evangelism and Missions.

A portrait of some general features of American Christianity against the background of Europe= Christianity was attempted here. While there are some smaller Christian groups in Europe which will not be able to recognize their image in the profile presented here it is not too difficult to identify these negative features with the vast majority of Christians and Christian churches, particularly in continental Europe. When we look to the American features and colors in this portrait we are forced to recognize configurations and shades which depict quite great variations from time to time, from place to place, and particularly from religious group to religious group. In general we cm say, however, that these positive traits persist in our Christian culture while one will have a difficult time to recognize them in the ~Christian culture of Europe.

Have the Christians of America succeeded in building a new and different Christianity in the new world? To this question I believe that we can give an emphatic yes!

Ronald E. Osborn in the fourth chapter of his book, The Spirit of American Chrilstianity, provides eight characteristic expressions of American religious culture.

"Our Christianity," says Dr. Osborn, "is the product of obedience to God and searching of the Scriptures on the part of earnest men and women living in the peculiar American environment. 118

6. S. Angus, Essential Christianity. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1939, p. 12.

7. Ibid., p. 15.

8. Ronald E. Osborn, The Spirit of American Christianity. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1958, p. 83.

Dr. Osborn analyzes the characteristic expressions of American Christianity under the following headings: activism, the prominence of preaching, the ministry of friendship, lay leadership, the continuity of a living faith, the spirit of independence, the concern for human welfare, and "Simple Faith."

We have talked up to -his point about the Protestant Christianity of America. In the general picture we should be able, however, to look to a growing non-  Protestant population in the United States and to a characterization of its religious culture as compared with European Christianity.

In terms of a Spenglerian dichotomy we can think 'of the non-Protestant Christianity and the Protestant Christianity of America as being approximations of two characteristic types: the Appolonian and the Faustian. We realize how difficult it is to present too vastly different religious communions in the form of two ideal constructs. For a very general presentation of the spiritual and psychological structure of the two great faiths this typological approach may serve profitably the purpose. A closer analysis of the two religious systems will convince us of the evident high degree of correlation between the non-Protestant and Appolonian ideal construct and the Protestant and the Faustian ideal construct.

"The Appolonian man conceived of his soul as a cosmos ordered in a group of excellent parts. There was no place in his universe for will, and conflict was an evil which his philosophy decried. The idea of an inward development of the personality was alien to him, and he saw life as under the shadow of catastrophe always brutally threatening from the outside. His tragic climaxes were wanton destructions of the pleasant landscape of normal existence.9 This picture seems to portray quite vividly the American non-Protestant and the European Christian.

The Protestant culture might be thought of as fairly Faustian. "Man's existence is as a force endlessly combating obstacles. His version of the course of individual life is that of an inner development, and the catastrophes of existence come as the inevitable culmination of his past choices and experiences. Conflict is the essence of existence. Without it personal life has no meaning, and only the more superficial values of existence can be attained. Faustian man longs for the infinite and his art attempts to reach out toward it."10

The preceding characterizations of the American religious culture show some great variations as well as some unifying features giving it an "overarching sense of unity." In the words of Will Herberg: "A realistic appraisal of the values, ideas, and behavior of the American people leads to the conclusion that Americans, by and large, do have their 'common religion' and that that 'religion' is the system familiarly known as the American Way of Life.""

"The American Way of Life is,of course, anchored in the American's vision of America. The Puritan's dreamof a new 'Israel' and a new 'Promised Land,' in the New World, the 'novus ordo seclorum' on the Great Seal of the United States reflect the perennial American conviction that in the New World a new beginning has been made, a new order of things established, vastly different from and superior to the decadent institutions of the Old World."12

"The American Way of Life is individualistic, dynamic, pragmatic. It affirms the supreme value and dignity of the individual; it stresses incessant activity on his part, for he is never to rest but is always to be striving to 'get ahead'; it defines an ethic of self-reliance, merit, and character, and judges by achievement: 'deeds, not creeds' are what count, The American Way of Life is humanitarian, 'forward looking,' optimistic."13

Some of the "val~ues" embodied in the American Way of Life are listed by Dorothy Canfield Fisher in her book, Nerviont Tradition. She mentions: "individual freedom, personal independence, human dignity, community responsibility, social and political democracy, sincerity, restraint in outward conduct, and thrift. With some amplification-particularly emphasis on the uniqueness of the American 'order' and the great importance assigned to religion-this may be taken as a pretty fair summary of some of the ,values' incorporated in the American Way of Life."14 Will Herberg adds: "It should be clear that what is being designated under the American Way of Life is not the so-called 'common denominator' religion; it is not a synthetic system composed of beliefs to be found in all or a group of religions. It is an organic structure of ideas, values, and beliefs that constitutes a faith common to Americans and genuinely operative in their lives, a faith that markedly influences, and is influenced by, -the 'official' religions of American society. Sociologically, anthropologically, if one pleases, it is the characteristic American religion, tindergirding American life and overarching American society despite all indubitable differences of region, section, culture, and class."15

Of crucial importance is the new attitude of Americans toward religion. "The,object of devotion in the American religious culture is 'not Godbut religion.' ... The faith is not in God but in faith. We worship not God but our own worshiping," says Herberg.16

9. Peter G. Trutza, The Religious Factor in Acculturation, A Study of the Assimilation and Acculturation of the Rpumanian Group in Chicago. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago, 1956, p. 152.
10. Ibid., pp.
153, 154.
11. Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, p. 88.
12. Ibid., p. 93.
13. Ibid., p. 92.
14. Ibid., p. 94.
15. Ibid., p. 90.
16. Ibid., p. 98.

While one will be willing to go along with Herberg a part of -the way, accepting his analysis and description of the faith and worship of the American people, it will be difficult to reconcile this -diagnosis with the facts that more than 95 per cent of the American people profess to believe in God according to a number of recent polls17 and that church attendance is breaking all past records.

For the purpose of discovering the effects of the interaction between the American religious culture and a submerging immigrant culture the writer used as a sample, for intensive interviewing, 100 Roumanian Orthodox and Roumanian Baptists living in Chicago. The study was made in the year 1954-55. Some of the objectives of this study were:

a. "To establish whether or not each of a number of religious cultural traits is held mainly and significantly by males or females, Baptists or Orthodox, or those with the higher assimilation scores as over against those with the lower assimilation scores.

b. "To establish whether or not certain specific religious cultural beliefs and practices have been weakened or strengthened among either males or females, Baptists or Orthodox, or the more assimilated or the less assimilated as a result of movement from Roumania to the United States.

c. "To describe probable differences in the complexes of cultural traits, the religious traits in particular.

d. "To describe the social organization of several bilingual Baptist and Orthodox churches with a view of pointing out significant similarities and differences.

e. "To establish the extent to which Rounianians have adopted American customs and folk practices with a view of pointing out factors in both the American and Roumanian scenes that facilitated the adoption."18

We regarded the Roumanian Orthodox pattern as distinctly E uropean since it originated in Europe and was the religion characteristic of a European country. The attempt was made to appraise the extent to which respondents had moved away from the most usual European Orthodox attitudes toward patterns repre sented by American Protestantism.

We found the Orthodox to favor formalism and the Baptists to oppose it. Both Baptists and Orthodox were found to be significantly in favor of less authority for the clergy; the majority, however, was much heavier among Baptists than among Orthodox, the Baptists coming closer to the American pattern. Concerning church discipline, and assuming that the right to censure individual church members is part of the American pattern, the Orthodox will be here at variance with the pattern. Both Baptists and Orthodox felt it unadvisable to belong to as many church organizations as possible. The majority among Orthodox was much heavier than among Baptists. In this respect also, the Baptists show greater closeness to the American pat-tern than the Orthodox. Baptists feel strongly that separation of church and state should be adopted by all countries. A slight majority of Orthodox, however, showed less favorable attitudes toward such separation in all countries of the world. The majority of Baptists and Orthodox did not feel that historical argument was important for the purpose of proving the veracity of one's faith. The majority was much heavier among the Baptists than among the Orthodox. In the case of the Orthodox this finding indicates an interesting shift from the European to the American pattern. In Roumania it was held that the truth of Orthodoxy could be unquestionably proved by history and that no other proofs could be necessary or satisfactory. The Orthodox here have, therefore, taken an interesting step in the American direction.

Indication of a significant shift is found in the attitude of the Orthodox concerning the freedom of the individual to determine the course of his own religious life, showing that the Orthodox have moved away from the European toward the American pattern. Again, American Protestantism does not favor holy days dedicated to saints. Roumanian Orthodoxy is highly favorable to such days. A slight majority of Orthodox disfavored the observances of such days in America, indicating once more an interesting shift in opinion from the European to the American pattern. The vast majority of Baptists held that religion should be mixed into daily life. A strong majority of Orthodox disfavored such mixture. The great majority,of Baptists favored dynamic, aggressive Christian action. The great majority of Orthodox disfavored this. Baptists show themselves in line with the American and Orthodox in line witlithe European pattern regarding singing in church. By a heavy majority Baptists favored missionary work and the Orthodox did not. Similarly the majority of Baptists held that laymen should take greater responsibility in church work while the Orthodox did not hold so. Baptists favored also women taking such responsibilities. Orthodox disfavored women having interest in church work.

American Protestantism de-emphasized the ornate churches while the European pattern favored them. That Orthodox should show here the same pattern as the Baptists in the United States indicates an interesting shift from the European pattern. Both Baptists and Orthodox in about the same degree show themselves to disfavor aloofness and to favor greater social mixing on the part of clergymen, the Orthodox shift indicating highly significant change. The majority of

17. Ibid., p. 104.
18. Peter G. Trutza, The Religious Factor in Acculturation, pp. 2, 3.

Orthodox still favor prayer for the dead, indicating their adherence to the European pattern.

It is evident that few of the respondents realize the extent to which their attitudes had changed during the years of residence in the United States.

We have amassed here some evidence that would seem to support Warner's thesis that a culture is essentially religious and would also seem to support a corollary to that thesis that individuals whose religion corresponds with the religion of the dominant group are more ready attitudinally to fit into the main values of the culture than are those whose religion differs from the religion dominant in the new country. 19

Of great value to us will be a study which will endeavor to measure the impact upon the American religious culture of all the non-Protestant and non-Evangelical influences which have affected and continue to affect today American Christianity. The magnitude of such a task will require specialists, tools, techniques, controls, beyond the limits of today's knowledge. American Christianity is changing continually other religious faiths and is being changed continually by other religious faiths. Without change there is no progress but not all change is progress. This is true in the spiritual realm as well as anywhere else. We can be sure that some changes and in all probability, serious changes, are effected in -the American religious culture under the influence of Christian non-Protestant faiths.

Now is the time to ask ourselves: What are the developments in the American religious culture which represent in a fuller measure the Scriptural ideals for a "divine society"? When we speak of a "fuller measure" it is our purpose to point out the fact that there are differences both in quality and in degree between various societies and cultures and that there are clearly distinguishable differences between various Christian communions.

"If the American Way of Life had to be defined in one word, ',democracy' would undoubtedly be the word, but democracy in a peculiarly American sense," says Will T-Terberg. "On its political side it means the Constitution; on its economic side, 'free enterprise'; on its social side, an equalitarianism which is notonly compatible with but, indeed, actually implies vigorous economic competition and high mobility. Spiritually, the American Way of Life is best expressed in a certain kind of 'idealism' which has come to be recognized as characteristically American.20 The American Way of Life is a political democracy, a societal democracy, an economic democracy, an educational democracy, a spiritual democracy which finds at iits core the dignity, the rights, the freedoms, and the responsibilities of every member of human society.

The Scriptural ideals of the American Christianity are expressed in the spirit of tolerance, in the right to differ, in the multiplicity of religious denominations, in the spirit lof independence, in evangelistic fervor and missionary interest, in the ministry of friends-hip, in concern for human welfare, and in individual freedom and human dignity. These Christian ideals have become a part of the American spiritual heritage because a large enough number of Christians in this country have believed in the private interpretation of Scriptures and in its corollary-the priesthood of all believers, and in the necessity of spiritual regeneration based on a vital experience with Christ-salvation by faith.

Present trends and developments in the American religious culture indicate clearly that there are potent forces and influences which tend to reduce the power and the vitality of evangelical Christianity in America. Once rnore, without discussing them-for reasons of brevity we will need rather to list such trends and developments.

The nonconformist and inner-directed American Christians are becoming fast conformist and other directed. Individualism is retreating in the presence of unionism, collectivism, and authoritarianism. Simplicity of worship is slowly modified and replaced by impersonal, cold formalism. The fast urbanization of America poses serious consideration of the merits of the concept of "parish church" over against the merits of the concept of "gathered church." Highly technically trained ministry and the complexities of modern urban life predispose laity to adopt a passive role in their religious life. Rationalized indifference is taking the place of tolerance when we think about the spiritual condition of  other people. The Bible is sold continually in larger numbers but is being read with decreasing and more superficial interest. The worship services are majoring in minors and minoring in majors as the "sermon" loses its significance and other services in the ministry are pushed to the front. The meaning of conversion and of church membership is not any more the same as twenty-five, fifty, or one hundred years ago. The horizontal fellowship wins wider acceptance with increasing disconcern for the vertical fellowship. John C. Bermett speaks about the Protestant churches as tending "to be clubs held together by feelings of congeniality. Even some denominations have this characteristic ... it is also true that American churches are class churches"21 Some of them losing their contact with the working classes.

The alternatives which are being chosen are weakening the spiritual and the moral foundations

19. Ibid., pp. 285-91.
20. Will Herberg, Pro testant-Catholie-Jew, pp. 91, 92.
21. John C. Bennet, Christian Ethics and Social Policy. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1956, p. 96.

upon which was built, in the past, in this oountry, the most dynamic form of Christian faith and witness.

To the above trends when we add -the damaging effects of some current philosophies and theologies we become gravely aware of the perils American evangelical Christianity will face tomorrow.

God in His providence provides opportunities for spiritual awakening and rejuvenation. They are the hope for a purer Christianity and a better tomorrow.

We cannot forget the words of Christ as we think about American Christianity: "Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned? It is neither fit for the land, nor yet for the dunghill; but men cast it out. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear."22 We pray that American Christianity will never lose its flavor. We pray that American Christianity will become in the future even more than it was in the past the light of the world, just as Christ said: "Ye are the light of the world, A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid."23

22. Luke 14:34, 35. 23. Matthew 5:14.