Thursday, December 15, 2016

Christopher Lane's "Surge of Piety"

Christopher Lane, a winner of the Prescrire Prize for Medical Writing, teaches at Northwestern University. A former Guggenheim fellow and a Victorianist by training, he has a secondary interest and specialization in 19th- and 20th-century psychology, psychiatry, and intellectual history, and has held Northwestern’s Pearce Miller Research Professorship.

He is the author of six books, most recently Surge of Piety: Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life. His other books include The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty and Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness.

Lane applied the “Page 99 Test” to Surge of Piety and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book appears near the end of a chapter on “The Peale-Hoover-Eisenhower Empire.” Its focus is the way religious conservatives in the 1950s set about turning Dwight D. Eisenhower into the nation’s “spiritual leader.” The Republicans fought a bitter, divisive primary in the 1952 presidential. Despite attending church only sporadically, Eisenhower decided to run on a faith ticket, with billboards proclaiming: “Faith in God and country; that’s Eisenhower—how about you?” He ended up securing the nomination and then a landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson, carrying 39 states. Once the election was over, Republicans looked to heal the party and bring the nation together by making religiosity the unifying issue. They promised “government under God,” recast the U.S. as “one nation under God,” and encouraged prominent ministers such as Norman Vincent Peale to baptize the newly elected Ike “God’s chosen leader for this time of crisis.”

Surge of Piety focuses on the role that Peale played in promoting the massive wave of religious sentiment that swept the nation in the 1950s, much of it orchestrated by his ministry and allies, and concentrated in the Congress, Pentagon, FBI, and White House. Opening in the Great Depression, the book draws on far-reaching but neglected archival evidence of Peale’s role as a hardline conservative activist when, politicizing his ministry, he repeatedly attacked FDR’s New Deal as “un-American” and Roosevelt himself as “indifferent to religion,” though the four-term president was in fact anything but.

After Peale was appointed minister to New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church, one of the oldest in the nation, he threw high-profile support behind Senator Joseph McCarthy in the latter’s crusade against “subversives” in the federal government. The book also brings to light Peale’s shared efforts with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to make “the godless tyranny of atheistic communism” appear the nation’s greatest existential threat. Through its rejection of communism and embrace of evangelical Protestantism, Peale preached weekly from his pulpit and opined in his phenomenal bestsellers, the nation would find both success and salvation. He also warned Americans, “The man who shows no interest in Christianity and fails to support it is the real enemy of our social institutions.”

One of Peale’s most lasting and least discussed legacies, the book brings to light, was his well-funded campaign to align religiosity with mental health, to make religious belief a prerequisite for individual and national prosperity. Though the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry, Inc., an evangelical organization he co-founded in 1953, Peale succeeded in making American medicine issue a “proclamation of faith,” turned what he called “religio-psychiatry” into a national movement, and persuaded millions of Americans that the solution to their and the nation’s problems were religious in character.

It will doubtless surprise a few that the man we often associate today with positive thinking and can-do optimism had such a dark history of public and behind-the-scenes activism. In the late 1920s and through the next decade, Peale even joined forces with hardline Christian nationalists, voicing as his explicit goal the ability to “generate [the] enthusiasm and vitality necessary for Christian world conquest.”

In the immediate aftermath to our own recent presidential election, when the political and cultural landscape seems yet more divided, we can only hope the nation will unify around policies and platforms that don’t repeat the turbulent, bruising history documented in Surge of Piety. As but one way forward, my Coda, “Faith as an Ongoing Force,” looks at strategies for reining in religious extremism while also acknowledging the complex ways that religious beliefs continue to shape our politics and society.
Learn more about the book and author at Christopher Lane's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Age of Doubt.

--Marshal Zeringue