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Irony of Ironies: Evaluating the Moderns

by George Marsden

George Marsden is the Francis A. McAndrey Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 15, 1987, p. 359. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Book Review: Modern American Religion (Vol. I): The Irony of It All: 1893-1919 by Martin E. Marty (University of Chicago Press, 385 pp., $24.95.)

One of the striking features of the late decades of the 20th century is the extent to which we are still recapitulating the debates of the century’s first decades. This is the more remarkable when we realize that from our perspective American cultural leadership at the turn of the century was incorrigibly Pollyanna-like in its moods. Yet we are still discussing many of the very issues that arose out of that 19th-century atmosphere of seemingly limitless faith in humanity’s ability through science and native virtue to unite the race and achieve indefinite progress. Certainly political thought has not advanced much. During the 1980s many have puzzled as to how we got a president whose theoretical positions seem straight out of an early-century five-and-dime. But the alternatives are, broadly speaking, of the same vintage. Our options have not changed much since the 1912 election which featured Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt. William Taft and Eugene Debs -- except we have fewer options.

In American Christianity, our dependence on the agendas set early in the century is even more striking. And again this dependence is the more notable because in some respects the dominant religious tones of the two eras seem so different. The optimistic spirit that produced the prohibition effort, for instance, seems quaint to us, and we are more alert now to racial and gender discrimination. But think of how many of today’s issues took their shape during the turn-of-the-century decades. The social gospel, the relationship of Christianity to socialism and Marxism, the problems of modern warfare, nationalism and imperialism are standard themes. Ecumenical Christianity is still a commonplace ideal and a rare reality. Problems of relating biblical criticism and modern philosophies to Christian tradition are still in a state of flux that would seem familiar to an early-century theologian.

Most surprising in its persistence is the conservative side of American Protestantism. Rather than politely disappearing as most of the early trend-setters predicted, turn-of-the-century varieties of conservatism have actually become more vigorous than their allegedly more modern counterparts. Biblical inerrancy is debated in America’s largest denomination with the same vigor, and in almost the precise terms, that it was in the 1890s Charles Briggs trial. Creation and evolution are being argued even more energetically now than then, and in 1987 have been before the Supreme Court. And what are the most distinctive features of today’s American religion? Mostly movements that took shape within the past century -- pentecostalism, the holiness movement, fundamentalism and dispensational premillennialism. And in odd ways, these groups have taken over much of the agenda of the old social gospelers, presenting us with programs for Christianizing America. At the rate things are going, they will soon be talking about the 21st century as "the Christian century."

In the light of these continuities, we welcome a comprehensive account of this formative era from the peerless historian of American religion, Martin E. Marty: It is titled Modern American Religion (Vol. 1) : The Irony of It All: 1893-1919 (University of Chicago Press, 385 pp., $24.95) In this first volume of a projected four-volume history of American religion in the 20th century (the legend has already arisen that the last volume will be completed on the day he retires) , Marty looks at the impact of modernity on a breathtaking variety of American religious groups and individuals. He knows enough in detail about their mutually contradictory claims and pretensions to regard them with a slightly bemused attitude. He sees irony, accordingly, as the most appropriate theme.

Marty follows Reinhold Niebuhr in describing his outlook as one of "humane irony." This motif, he says, is especially appropriate to the early 20th century because illusions of innocence were so common then. Moreover, we can now see that many idealistic efforts of the period produced results that were the opposite of what the actors intended.

Perhaps the central irony is that already mentioned: the groups that were expected then to lose to the powers of modernity look today like winners. Marty notes concerning this period most often described as liberal, modernist or progressive that, ironically, this was also the era in which virtually every enduring and vital American religious conservatism was born." Other ironies might have been observed at the time. Religious modernists who were attempting to save Christian credibility in the secular intellectual climate were not often taken seriously by secularists (of course, those potential secularists who were impressed by modernism were modernists, not secularists) Even the secularists in America, like John Dewey, were typically not God-killers, as were many in Europe, but promoted secularity by blending it with new forms of religion. Conservative ethnic leaders often argued that separateness from dominant American culture was essential to internally uniting their group; but every ethnic group was sharply divided over this very issue. Religious ethnics in modern America often wanted to become fully American at the same time they were avoiding being modern, not entirely recognizing that it was a package deal.

In the meantime, America’s prominent opinion shapers, both modernists and progressives, were talking endlessly of a cosmopolitan vision of a mutually accepting people producing a united culture, but were segregating and excluding nonwhites from their midst and opposing immigrants who were not from northern Europe. The social gospel was especially ironically flawed on such fronts. Walter Rauschenbusch in one address linked Anglo-Saxons with "princely stock." In 1912 he approved every plank in the Democratic Party platform save one -- that calling for women’s suffrage. Marty, who usually remains cool, is especially critical of the social gospelers, whom he describes as "vague on program, weak on detail, generally out of touch with laborers, [and] inept at politics." The crowning irony of this irony-filled era Marty effectively saves for the book’s climax: this age filled with ecumenical rhetoric was also a great age of civil religion; hence with World War I, warfare became the great ecumenical event. "America was losing its innocence in an effort to reclaim the purity and innocence that came with its founding." It was using the most divisive instrument of warfare to bring wholeness to the world. "What missionaries would not accomplish, war might."

These are marvelous insights. Yet this great volume has its flaws. The chief is that it has literary difficulties, as Marty, true to form, was the first reviewer to point out. At the end he adds a "conclusion" which is actually an extraordinarily thoughtful reflection on whether the theme of irony has succeeded in holding the narrative together. Marty does not say it has not, but he does tell us that, having asked himself the question regarding the three future volumes, "Am I ready to ‘go’ with this ironic vision?" he has answered No. Marty identifies the problem exactly and, if I may dare say it, it is a classic irony of a strength turning out to be a mixed blessing. The strength is that Marty has covered a plethora of material. He defines religion broadly enough to include helpful accounts of major American thinkers in history, philosophy and the social sciences. He covers also the varieties of modernist theologians, many ethnic groups who tried to stay sheltered from modernity, the major denominational types, all sorts of countermodernist movements, and groups that sought to restore wholeness through physical or psychological therapies, ecumenism, social Christianity or patriotism. Each of these topics has many subtopics, so that typically the story of each has to be confined to from two to five pages.

The problem is, as Marty points out, "amid hundreds of religious groups and thousands of events and movements" how to sustain a narrative. This problem becomes acute for anyone writing American religious history once we give up the idea of a mainline Protestant center. An interpretation must hold things together. Without such a strong interpretation in this volume, we get something of the feeling that we are being guided from room to room of a sizable art gallery. The guide is skillful and offers insights in every room. He also provides a valuable taxonomy, classifying every work and person around the theme of their reactions to modernity. If it were high art we were looking at, this might be enough. But one cannot produce high art in three-or four-page narratives. So we need an interpretive center that provides a plot. The motif of irony does not quite do that. When applied to such a wide range of topics it becomes diffuse, with a different twist each time it appears.

Marty notes that he has purposely attempted not to overinterpret, not to force complex events into distorting molds. That again is a virtue. But we are left with the feeling that this first volume is underinterpreted. In the next volume, "conflict replaces irony as the major theme." That may solve the problem, though conflict is also so universal that the narrative will need a center. We can hope, though, that in the light of the whole, this first volume will turn out to look like the first few hundred pages of a Russian novel in which massive skill is required just to get all the characters properly on stage.

We can get at the ironic flaw in this volume as it stands on its own if we compare it with Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, from which Marty borrows his theme. Three differences must strike us. First, Marty knows more history than Reinhold Niebuhr ever dreamed of. Niebuhr, largely self-educated, read a few American history books and was ready to go. Not knowing too much is a great advantage in creating a historical plot, especially for someone like Niebuhr who had a fine sense for what was significant. Second, Niebuhr’s narrative has a clear center. It is the American establishment, whose collectively pretentious self-perceptions are filled with lessons for a later day. Marty also justifies using the theme of irony for the early 20th century because of the unusual pretensions of the establishment leadership of that era, but he wants to avoid even vestigial versions of such pretensions that would keep mainline Protestants on center stage, as they are in traditional American religious histories. The result of such evenhandedness is that the theme of irony loses much of its unitive potential. When it finally does make a climactic appearance in the closing chapters on ecumenism, the social gospel and war, it is effective -- but it has been offstage too long.

Finally, and most importantly, the great difference between this book and Niebuhr’s is theological. If there is any major irony in this valuable and insightful volume, it is that it dwells on a putatively Niebuhrian theme of irony without talking about original sin. Granted, Marty is writing not theology but history (and Niebuhr was using history to write theology). Nonetheless, even as a historical matter, the question of original sin was one of the grand issues of the turn-of-the-century era, arguably its greatest divide. Indeed, it was various denials of original sin, or various affirmations of natural human potentials, that produced much of the era’s optimism, and hence many of the ironies. Many of the religious countermoderns, on the other hand, were asserting a more pessimistic version of the unaided human condition, and hence the need of more radical divine corrective. Ironically, to be sure, many of these countermoderns combined the traditional doctrines with their own versions of optimistic Americanism so as to undercut their own theological affirmations.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the 20th century is that it has been the century whose most enlightened thinkers thought they could do without the concept of sin, especially original sin. Inheriting 19th-century philosophies that were optimistic about human nature, early 20th-century moderns refined and canonized them. It is this trust in human nature that produced the now seemingly hollow political philosophies for which we nonetheless still contend. By denying original sin, moderns, who often prided themselves on their empiricism, were denying a point of traditional Christian doctrine for which there is immense contemporary evidence. When neo-orthodox writers pointed this out in the middle decades of the century, many listened for a time. Now, however, the impact of that lesson seems to be fading.

Such themes, though suggested by this volume and probably not far from Marty’s own evaluative framework, remain implicit in it. Perhaps it would seem overly didactic to spell them out, or too much an intrusion of private judgments into a work directed to the public domain. Nonetheless, no less an "atheist for Niebuhr" than Perry Miller, in his great volumes on the New England Mind, stated baldly that what he admired about the Puritans was that they faced directly the realities of the human predicament. The way the Puritans qualified and implemented this fundamental insight was strewn with devastating ironies. Still, by starting with the frankly stated premise that the problem is the flawed human character in a mysterious universe, Miller was able to highlight the universal aspects of even so eccentric an experience as that of the Puritans.

Marty has produced a truly impressive work, far more balanced and fair than a more highly interpreted account would be. It is masterful in its balance. That is the truly good side of what this review has turned into an ironic flaw. This book is well worth reading. Because he has avoided imposing a strong central interpretive plot, it does not read like a novel; but it does not read like a textbook either, which is to say that it is quite palatable, especially if taken at a careful pace. It is an authoritative and remarkable compendium, often framed in the words of the participants and informed by a voluminous array of historical scholarship. It is filled with wisdom, and each brief narrative is worthy of close attention. Only Martin Marty could have written so comprehensive a volume with so much authority and insight.

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