Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America's Imminent Secularization, from the Puritans to the Present Day

Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America's Imminent Secularization, from the Puritans to the Present Day

Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America's Imminent Secularization, from the Puritans to the Present Day

Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America's Imminent Secularization, from the Puritans to the Present Day

Synopsis

Prophesies of Godlessnessexplores the surprisingly similar expectations of religious and moral change voiced by major American thinkers from the time of the Puritans to today. These predictions of "godlessness" in American society -- sometimes by those favoring the foreseen future, sometimes by those fearing it -- have a history as old as America, and indeed seem crucially intertwined with it.

This book shows that there have been and continue to be patterns to these prophesies. They determine how some people perceive and analyze America's prospective moral and religious future, how they express themselves, and powerfully affect how others hear them. While these patterns have taken a sinuous and at times subterranean route to the present, when we think about the future of America we are thinking about that future largely with terms and expectations first laid out by past generations, some stemming back before the very foundations of the United States. Even contemporary atheists and those who predict optimistic techno-utopias rely on scripts that are deeply rooted in the American past.

This book excavates the history of these prophesies. Each chapter attends to a particular era, and each is organized around a focal individual, a community of thought, and changing conceptions of secularization. Each chapter also discusses how such predictions are part of all thought about "the good society," and how such thinking structures our apprehension of the present, forming a feedback loop of sorts. Extending from the role of prophesies in Thomas Jefferson's thought, to the Civil War, through progressivism, the Scopes Trial, the Cold War and beyond, Prophesies of Godlessness demonstrates that expectations about America's future character and piety are not an accidental feature of American thought, but have been, and continue to be, absolutely essential to the meaning of the nation itself.

Excerpt

Christopher McKnight Nichols and Charles Mathewes

Imagine two scenes, each playing out many times over the last three centuries.

Scene 1: An American intellectual—a public figure—sits alone at his desk, writing to a correspondent. Both author and recipient are anxious about the American public order. The intellectual writes to comfort his colleague. Surely institutional religious organizations are declining, he writes; surely they are on their last legs. Soon they will decay into merely loose affiliations of more liberal-minded individuals. All we need do is wait, the man writes. The future, he firmly believes, belongs to us.

Who was that man? It was Thomas Jefferson writing in the 1820s; or perhaps Thomas Paine in the 1780s, Walter Lippmann in the 1910s, or it might have been Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1840s. It could have been Walt Whitman in the 1860s, or John Dewey in the 1930s. More recently still, such an intellectual skeptic might have been John Judis or Ruy Teixera, writing to recommend their wellregarded The Coming Democratic Majority, published in 2002.

Scene 2: A man—a renowned religious leader—stands before a crowd. The future looks grim, he says. Americans are losing their faith. Where has their deep reliance on the God of their fathers gone? Civic energies are atrophying. American character is decaying. We stand in the last days—of the republic, of the idea of America, of the vast gamble that was, and is, our ultimate mission. Unless we receive a miracle or make a concerted effort to change our current . . .

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