The Democratization of American Government


One of the great books on the history of Christianity in America is Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity, which I think I’ve mentioned around here before.  It didn’t propose anything really new, but it did an excellent job of following a particular thread that had only been examined piecemeal, before.

Anyhoo, that thread is, as Hatch’s title makes plain, the continuous shift of religious authority in American Christianity away from clergy and church officials, and the claiming of that authority by the laypeople, regardless of their lack of theological education (or any other kind) or “qualification” for religious leadership.  Increasingly,  traditional clergy could no longer direct what went on in churches, or what doctrine was acceptable; the rank and file did it for themselves and told the clergy to go jump in the lake.

Often quite literally.

Increasingly, no one person could speak authoritatively for or to America’s churches.  There was no “one voice.”  Religion became a marketplace of ideas — everyone put their own ideas out there, and whichever one found the most buyers became doctrine.

It looks to me like a similar thing is happening in the American government, albeit quite selectively.

Joe Wilson trying to shout down the president during an address to Congress has a lot in common with Christian revivalism.  And Republican politicians going around announcing their own foreign policy, or intentionally undercutting the president’s, does too.  I mean, used to be, it was recognized that America, like any country, needed to have a single voice when dealing on the international stage, and that voice was the president’s.  S/he is both the head of state and the commander-in-chief, after all.

But no more.  Republicans have overturned that traditional authority, very like American Protestants did to the clergy and episcopacy of their churches.

It should be noted that conservatives overturning traditional authority is a deeply bizarre thing to contemplate.

But, of course, they did no such thing during the Bush administration.  None of them went to other countries and announced their own foreign policy.  John McCain didn’t go to Iraq and undercut Bush before the surge brought that war closer in line with McCain’s own views.

But this, too, parallels the religious phenomenon.

The revivalists didn’t overturn all religious authority.  Just the ones that were keeping them from doing what they personally felt was right.  They threw the clergy and episcopacy overboard, but kept patriarchy and, of course, the Bible as extremely powerful authorities; the latter an authority from which no deviation was allowed, and of which no criticism or questioning was permitted.

Anyhoo, I was just struck by that parallel when I read the TPM article I linked to above.  I’ll shut up now.


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