Protestantism and the decline of grace

The assumption now is that “gift requires a contrast” because it is implicitly assumed that for a gift to be received, the recipient must stand on an autonomous basis that does not depend upon any generosity — thus in the instance of the Creation, univocal self-standing of finite being permits a possessive appropriation of the initial gift of creation, when then allows the human creature to receive grace as a gift which she does not really need according to nature. Not accidentally, the assumed model here is of the property owner as the one who can alone receive gifts, because he already has all that he needs. The landless pauper, by contrast, can only receive “charity,” now reduced to modern “benevolence,” which is but the pseudo-gift of the guilty trying to render a belated justice in meager form under the guise of a dutiful generosity. Applied theologically, this gives us the notion that all human creatures are replete as regards nature, yet like indigent paupers as regards grace — since while the divine gift is “not needed” by nature, it is needed according to an inscrutable supernatural justice. Divine charity is now therefore reduced to something which “justifies,” in an extrinsic, imputed sense (whether we are talking about the Reformation or much of the Counter-Reformation), in such a way as to present God as being at once a benefactor to which we are beholden and yet also a landlord who must grudgingly “render justice” to the evicted.

John Milbank, “The Double Glory, or Paradox versus Dialectics: On Not Quite Agreeing with Slavoj Žižek,” in The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?, pp. 167-8

Race, Religion, and Conflict in the Gilded Age

During times of significant change and upheaval, humans tend to retreat into a tribal mindset that seeks protection in groups and places special emphasis on developing closeness with other people with whom they seem to have some obvious natural affinity. For example, according to The Barna Group, a California-based research organization, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, church attendance in the United States “increased by perhaps 25%” before returning to “normal levels.”1 Similarly, according to Scott Atran, an anthropologist who has studied extremist groups extensively, involvement with racist organizations and ideologies tends to be tied to the lack of a stable home, family life, and career.2 The Gilded Age was undoubtedly a time of massive economic and social upheaval. With the advent of industrialization, rural Americans flocked to the new and increasingly large industrial centers in America’s major cities. While 19.8% of the population of the United States lived in urban areas (defined as any area with a population greater than 2500) and 80.2% lived in rural areas in 1860, 39.7% lived in urban areas and only 60.3% lived in rural areas by 1900.3 Simultaneously, these same growing urban areas experienced a massive influx of immigrants, including a total of 13 million from the end of the Civil War in 1866 to the dawn of the twentieth century in 1900.4 As a result of these and other drastic changes in the American landscape and way of life, race and religion exercised an important role in the lives of Americans of the Gilded Age.

Race and religion are often intimately linked as both tend to be inherited. Although the very idea of “race is biologically incoherent,” the sets of phenotypes generally identified under that heading are heritable and readily recognizable differences between groups of people.5 Similarly, as with other elements of culture, children generally adopt the religion of their parents. This link between race and religion was readily evident during the Gilded Age which saw a significant uptick in the number of people coming to the United States from places such as Ireland, Italy, and Austria-Hungary, whose populations differed both ethnically and religiously from the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant mainstream of the United States.6 These ethnic and religious differences in combination triggered a backlash on the part of many native-born Americans. Prescott F. Hall, for instance, a leader of a group which sought to limit immigration to the United States to only Anglo-Saxons, insisted that America should “be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive” peoples rather than “Slav, Latin and Asiatic races, historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant.”7 Similarly and simultaneously, many Protestants protested against the changing religious landscape of America caused by the Catholicism many of these immigrants were bringing with them.8

As a result, many Catholic immigrants to America retreated into ethnic and religious enclaves where they could be around those of the same or similar language, culture, and religion. Rather than send their children to American public schools, in many of which teachers still read frequently from the Protestant King James Version of the Bible and led classes in prayers that reflected Protestant beliefs and practices, for example, many communities of Catholic immigrants chose to create parochial schools based around their local parish churches. In addition to the use of a curriculum which reflected the contents of their Catholic faith, many of these schools also taught in the languages of the immigrant communities which populated them in the belief that “language saves faith.”9

For their part, Catholics, including both immigrants and the subsequent generations born to them in the United States, also developed and engaged in actions motivated by their own sets of prejudices. This is particularly evident in the leading role that Catholics of the working class played in excluding Chinese immigrants, whom they saw as a threat to their economic wellbeing, from unions and in supporting anti-Chinese legislation by the federal government. The Knights of Labor, for instance, was at one point the largest labor organization in the United States and was headed during its heyday by a Catholic, Terence Powderly.10 In spite of its relatively welcoming membership policies, which allowed blacks and women to join, a rarity among labor unions, the Chinese were explicitly targeted for exclusion from its ranks and, in fact, the Knights advocated banning further Chinese immigration.11 The anti-Chinese movement in the West was also led by Catholic workers such as Dennis Kearney, whose followers adopted the slogan “The Chinese Must GO!”12

Nearly all groups, Protestant or Catholic, Anglo-Saxon or otherwise, held prejudices and fostered discrimination against blacks. While the Knights of Labor allowed blacks to join their ranks, most labor unions did not. Blacks, most of whom were freed slaves from the American South, were seen by others not only as economic and social threats but even as existential threats to white dominance and to the white race itself. Historian Richard L. Hughes has pointed out, for example, that the development of a concept of “blackness” that attached to those of African descent and that more often than not consisted of little more than caricatures and stereotypes, “contributed to the growing sense of ‘whiteness’ among an ethnically diverse population in the urban North and … to a sense of a unique, albeit problematic, American national identity.”13 In comparison with the idea, mostly imaginary, of an existential “other” in the black who differed substantially, comically, and seemingly in over-the-top and essential ways from anyone of European descent, the differences between a person of Anglo-Saxon ethnicity and another of Italian or Polish ancestry seemed to recede into insignificance.

During the Gilded Age, people from all over the world converged in the new urban and industrial centers of the United States. The differences they encountered in others in both appearance and thought along with the separation from family, from traditional ways of life, and from homelands were often bewildering and frightening. As a result, many Americans entered into a defensive posture in which they clung fervently to their race and their religion as defining features of their selfhood, often going on the offensive against perceived threats. Only after the period of crisis and upheaval had passed did America finally begin to become comfortable with and embracing of its new diversity, a process that continues still today.

Notes1 The Barna Group, (26 November 2001) (accessed 23 March 2013).

2 Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 233.

 3 Robert G. Barrows, “Urbanizing America,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 102-3.  

4 Roger Daniels, “The Immigrant Experience in the Gilded Age,” in ibid., 76.

5 Atran, 246.  

6 From 1866 to 1900, Irish made up 13% of immigrants to the United States and Italians and Austro-Hungarians made up 7.7% each. (Daniels, 78-9).

7 Prescott F. Hall, quoted in Daniels, 93.  

8 Daniels, 89.  

9 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 172.  

10 Kevin Schmiesing, “Brothers and Sisters of Charity: The Catholic Response to a Transformed World,” Christian History 104, 2013, 17.  

11 Eric Arnesen, “American Workers and the Labor Movement in the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Calhoun, 61.  

12 Daniels, 90.  

13 Richard L. Hughes, “Minstrel Music: The Sounds and Images of Race in Antebellum America,” The History Teacher 40:1 (Nov. 2006): 29.

Catholic and Protestant obscenity

It is worth pointing out that the mention of bodily function is likely to be more shocking in a Protestant than in a Catholic culture. It has often seemed to me that the offensive language of Protestantism is obscenity; the offensive language of Catholicism is profanity or blasphemy: one offends on a scale of unmentionable words for bodily function, the other on a scale of disrespect for the sacred. Dante places the Blasphemous in Hell as the worst of the Violent against God and His Works, but he has no category for punishing those who use four-letter words.

The difference is not, I think, national, but religious. Chaucer, as a man of Catholic England, took exactly Dante’s view in the matter of what was and what was not shocking language. In “The Pardoner’s Tale,” Chaucer sermonized with great feeling against the rioters for their profanity and blasphemy (for they way they rend Christ’s body with their oaths) but he is quite free himself with “obscenity.” Modern English readers tend to find nothing whatever startling in his profanity, but the schoolboys faithfully continue to underline the marvels of his Anglo-Saxon monosyllables and to make marginal notes on them.

John Ciardi, note on Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, The Inferno, Canto XXI (pp. 112-3)

America as the political wing of the Reformation

There is no question that Republicanism was in part an expression of the hopes and fears of native-born Protestants. As Benson points out, the Whig-Republican view that the state should have broad powers to regulate the economic life of the nation had important moral implications as well. Reform movements such as temperance and anti-slavery, which proposed to use state power to attack moral evils, appealed to New England Protestants because of their tradition of “moral stewardship,” what one historian calls their “zeal for making others act correctly.” According to Clifford S. Griffin, this attitude stemmed from the Calvinist tradition that there was a moral aristocracy on earth, whose duty it was to oversee the moral conduct of others and remove sin from the world. The Yankee followers of the Republican party felt this mission particularly threatened by the waves of immigrants, mostly Catholics, who poured into the country in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Moreover, as Will Herberg has observed, perhaps the only cement which has bound American Protestants together has been their fear and hatred of Rome. Many Republicans made it clear that they shared this traditional feeling and considered the United States a part of the world Protestant community. “American civilization,” said George William Curtis, “in its idea, is historically, the political aspect of the Reformation. America is a permanent protest against absolutism …” The Catholic Church to these Republicans represented tyranny, while Protestantism meant liberty. Anti-slavery, said the Massachusetts radical E.L. Pierce, was merely a reflection of the general principle of liberty and equal rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence. “It is the principle,” he continued, “which sustained the States of Holland, when they bade defiance to the tides of the ocean, the rage of the Inquisition, and the colonial power of Spain.” Similarly, John P. Hale and other Republicans opposed the annexation of Cuba not only on anti-slavery grounds, but because the Cuban population was largely Catholic and the American system of government could “only be maintained … on the principle of Protestant liberty.” For men like Hale, American democracy was not a historical accident — it sprang logically from the fact that the early settlers had been Anglo-Saxon Protestants. “The people made this government, and not the government the people,” wrote Charles Francis Adams, and he believed that an influx of a different people, schooled in the traditions of absolutism, would undermine American institutions.

Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War, pp. 227-8