The Religious Music Without the Words

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.

The following essay appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 56-59. Used by permission.


Protestant cultural dominance has given way to a bland secular voice that offends no one but also fails to provide a religious worldview to help shape public discourse.

If it is true, as G. K. Chesterton said, that the U.S. is a nation with the soul of a church, then why is it so difficult to use explicit religious references in public discourse? That question was at the center of a recent conference at which more than 200 people assembled under the auspices of the Center for the Study and Religion and American Culture to discuss "public religious discourse and America’s pluralistic society." It would appear, as conference speakers suggested, that this nation’s spiritual nature has been forced to hide under a secular shield, its traditional religious rhetoric muted to protect sensibilities in a pluralistic society. But history is difficult to ignore. Randall Balmer of Columbia University suggested that the most effective oratorical style in contemporary politics is strongly influenced by the evangelical Protestant tradition. The style and cadences of 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century preaching, with its call for change and its insistence that the world is divided into good and evil, provide the "music" whenever effective political rhetoric is employed.

It is the evangelical preaching tradition, not the high-church tradition emphasizing sacrament and liturgy, that has shaped American communicative style, Balmer argued. This has left us with a political rhetoric that is simplistic, dualistic, populist, and charged with calls to repentance. But it is the style, not the content, that has survived from the nation’s initial Protestant worldview.

William F. Buckley once observed that anyone who mentions God more than once at a New York dinner party won’t receive another invitation. Specific words from the Christian or Jewish traditions are considered inappropriate in public forums, most participants at this conference acknowledged. Yet such religious "music" is at the core of our society; it is part of who we are as a people. With the arrival of pluralism and the need for tolerance, that music survives only in a denuded form of moral discourse that has little connection with its original source.

In one sense, the music lives in our civil religion—in our celebration of sacred days, sacred places and revered leaders. But the words to the music have lost their rootedness in the ultimate. Drew history professor Leigh Schmidt observed how Christmas celebrations have been secularized. Examining personal diaries, newspaper reports and advertisements from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Schmidt noted the way Christmas was once celebrated in department stores like Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, which featured hymn-singing and elaborate religious symbolism that turned the store’s cathedral-like central area into a commercialized version of a church. Today the emphasis is on non-Christian Christmas symbols. The baby Jesus has given way to Frosty the snowman and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.

Pluralism required this shift. Until early in this century Protestants controlled public discourse, leaving minority faiths and people of no faith without a voice. In recognition of these minorities and as an expression of tolerance and openness, the Protestant control has given way to a bland secular voice that offends no one but also fails to provide a religious worldview to help shape public discourse.

Still, as Balmer argues, political rhetoric and cultural style cannot escape their parentage. Consider the style of some of our presidential candidates, who have employed what Balmer describes as the major components of the evangelical preaching tradition: the appearance of spontaneity, a cadence that appears to be leading toward an altar call, the reduction of complex problems to a simple delineation of good versus evil. Ronald Reagan had the style. George Bush does not, though he can approximate it in 30-second sound bites (and did so with devastating effect against Michael Dukakis, one political figure who does not share the evangelical style). Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown both have the style, though in different ways. Clinton can be a preacher who connects with his audience (especially in black churches) through biblical passages. Brown can be the angry prophet denouncing the privileged, a frontier evangelist pointing the finger of condemnation at the sinful establishment.

This Protestant heritage has bequeathed to us, in short, a dualistic and populist style. But now the words are politically correct only if they reject all signs of the Protestant past. At its worst, that past reflected imperialism, patriarchy and exclusivity. At its best it formed the nation’s soul and moral core.

Later in its series of conferences the center will solicit papers on the role of the media in shaping the expression of religion in public discourse. But the media issue found its way into these discussions in a paper by Janet Fishburn. Another professor from Drew, Fishburn was a member of the task force that wrote the study on sexuality for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) which was widely debated in the media and at the church’s General Assembly. Fishburn said that the task force had tried to use "expressive" language in dealing with sexuality—not sex, as it was invariably termed by the media—but that this language was converted by the secular media into a dualistic, simplistic and moralistic language that treated sexual relationships as if they were being entered on a police docket. As a result the committee’s attempt to be pastoral was perceived as an abandonment of traditional moral standards. The committee wanted to deal "expressively" with evolving forms of sexuality, but it did not find the language to do so. It also found little support for its effort within the church, which was not prepared to distinguish between normative moral statements and statements of pastoral care, especially when that nuance was ignored by secular reporters in search of a good story.

Fishburn acknowledges that the committee should have anticipated the outrage the report prompted not only in the church but also in the communications industry, which has assumed the role of guarding national mores, even as it profits from publicizing moral infractions. Indeed, judging by the reporting on the presidential campaign, it seems that in the absence of any substantive public debate on morality among religious leaders, media representatives have emerged as the new priesthood in our culture: they demand confessions of misconduct from public figures and then determine the seriousness of the sin and the degree of penance required for the sin to be forgiven.

Claremont philosophy professor John Roth suggested that one way of restoring moral and ethical dialogue to public discourse would be to speak in a poetic or lyrical mode—close to what Fishburn described as an expressive mode. But as Fishburn and her committee discovered, the secular media make it virtually impossible to use that mode of expression.

Still, the task must be undertaken. As Robert Sollard wrote recently in the Chronicle of Hiqher Education (as cited by Roth), "Much has been written about the loss of ethics, a sense of decency, moderation and fair play in American society. I would submit that much of the loss is a result of increasing ignorance, in circles of presumably educated people, of religious and spiritual worldviews. It is difficult to imagine, for example, how ethical issues can be intelligently appreciated and discussed or how wise and thoughtful decisions can be reached without either knowledge or reference to these religious or spiritual principles that underlie our legal system and moral codes."

An ethical system requires a living tradition for constant revision and sustenance; cut off from that source, the system loses its force. Which is why we must find a way to engage in public discourse that will reflect the "religious or spiritual principles that underlie our legal system and moral codes."

We are left with an increasingly frustrating dilemma: a nation with the soul of a church has lost its way, but its traditional manner of speaking of ethics and values is considered politically incorrect. We must search for a language with which to address this predicament, without giving undue preference to any segment of our pluralistic culture. It is a problem with no easy solution.