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

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Prophesies of Godlessness explores 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is a collection of essays with resonating insights about today's public dialogues. From Jefferson through Lincoln to today's evangelicals, America's historic struggle to achieve Godliness acquires depth and complexity in the hands of these fine scholars." —Joyce Appleby, Professor Emeritus, Department of History, UCLA

"This outstanding book offers discerning essays on a perennial phenomenon: Americans think the nation is becoming more secular, which leaves some rejoicing and some in despair. The authors reveal much about secularization, but much more about why predictions about the effacement of religion have been so central in American national life." —Mark A. Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor, History Department, University of Notre Dame

"Prophesies of Godlessness is a new angle of vision on the history of religion in America. People often worry that society is turning away from religion, but these essays show that this worry is itself one of the oldest and most durable parts of our religious story. The authors help us look at our traditions with more awareness of how they have changed, more confidence in their future, and more realism about our own predictions." —Robin W. Lovin, Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

"Under the brilliant editorship of Mathewes and Nichols, this chronologically arranged and thematically linked collection of essays looks at a tradition that extends from Puritan Jeremiads to modern-day prophecies of doom. The result is an illuminating tour of American intellectual history that startles, provokes, and engages." —Foreign Affairs

"There are many things to recommend about this book, but perhaps the most valuable aspect is the way it makes coherent and usable the debate over religion in American life. ...The editors have done an admirable job sustaining that easy intellectual flow in their relevant and scholarly book." —Journal of American Studies

"Each essay makes useful and intelligent points about religious and secular perceptions of the growth of godlessness. Indeed, by calling attention to thinkers' similar fixation on opposite sides of belief, the book highlights a curious and underappreciated feature of religious and intellectual life in the United States."—The Journal of American History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195342543
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 9/8/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Mathewes is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, where he specializes in Christian theology and ethics, comparative religious ethics, and religion, politics, and society.

Christopher McKnight Nichols is a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He specializes in United States intellectual, cultural, and political history from the late nineteenth century through the twentieth century.

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Table of Contents

Introduction Prophesies of Godlessness Christopher McKnight Nichols Nichols, Christopher McKnight Charles Mathewes Mathewes, Charles 3

1 Puritans and Revolution: Remembering the Origin; Religion and Social Critique in Early New England Wilson N. Brissett Brissett, Wilson N. 21

2 The Early Republic: Thomas Jefferson's Philosophy of History and the Future of American Christianity Johann N. Neem Neem, Johann N. 35

3 The Romantic Era: Emerson's Churches of One Matthew Mutter Mutter, Matthew 53

4 The Civil War: Redeemer President and Warrior Prophet: Abraham Lincoln, William T. Sherman, and Evangelical Protestantism Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh Hsieh, Wayne Wei-siang 75

5 After the Civil War: Auguste Comte's Theory of History Crosses the Atlantic Andrew Witmer Witmer, Andrew 95

6 The Gilded Age and Progressive Era: Mastery, Modern Doubt, and the Costs of Progress Christopher McKnight Nichols Nichols, Christopher McKnight 113

7 World War I and After: Godlessness and the Scopes Trial Kevin M. Schultz Schultz, Kevin M. 137

8 The Thirties to the Fifties: Totalitarianism and the Second American Enlightenment David Ciepley Ciepley, David 155

9 The Sixties: Secularization and the Prophesies of Freedom Slavica Jakelic Jakelic, Slavica 175

10 The Seventies and Eighties: A Reversal of Fortunes Joseph E. Davis Davis, Joseph E. David Franz Franz, David 191

11 From 11/9/1989 to 9/11/2001 and Beyond: The Return of Jeremiad and the Specter of Secularization Joshua J. Yates Yates, Joshua J. 209

Conclusion: Prophesies, in Retrospect and Prospect Christopher McKnight Nichols Nichols, Christopher McKnight Charles Mathewes Mathewes, Charles233

Index 241

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