Protestants in Hollywood

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

Protestants in Hollywood
By Angela Thompson

The rise of mass consumerism in the early 20th century helped fuel the success of the film industry and its influence on culture. This rise of consumerism directly challenged the ever-decreasing Protestant influence that had been around since the birth of the United States. Along with the decrease in Protestant unity, Catholics and Jewish people flooded into cities creating a more pluralistic society. Immigrants also highly enjoyed films, especially silent ones because they transcended the language barrier. At this time, Protestants still believed that the church should be the moral authority for Americans.

Film reflected this ever-changing culture. People saw it as a means of escaping from traditional Victorian high-culture. Also, films were a form of escapism that took people away from the dreariness of everyday life. During this time people started spending more money on entertainment and less on church. [6]

Since the beginning of film, Protestants have been present either in the protest, reform, or acceptance of different movies.


The rise in film history parallels with the fall of Protestant influence on American culture. Until the 1930s most film censorship was done locally. Hollywood during that time was allowed to explore whatever it wanted to in film, and it did. [6]

Protestants during this time became concerned about the content popular movies showed. By 1920, many Protestant agencies had formed protests against certain movies and favored state control of censorship. On the other side, some feared that a united Protestant Hollywood would result in a massive censorship than any before. Protestants felt misrepresented in Hollywood and felt that Jewish and Catholic people had those inside the industry to take care of them. [6]

In the early 1920s, various Protestant groups started creating legislature to censor films. Only four states had legislated censorship- Pennsylvania, Kansas, Maryland, and Ohio. In 1921, the Federal Council of Churches (an association of Protestant denominations) asked Dutch Reform Church member Lee F. Hanmer to research whether government action or voluntary public education was the best route to take in promoting films. He concluded that audience demand was the cause for immoral movies. [6]

In May 1921, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church issued a statement that some in Hollywood were not intending on making clean movies and called for a nationwide campaign for local censorship. Films for Sunday school began being produced. Churches tried to arrange deals with film distributors in the New York area to show films. Clergy had hoped for sold out sanctuaries but found that church-oriented films weren’t very popular. [6]


William Hays

William Hays

In 1919, Williams Hays was brought on as head of the film industry’s public relations. He had been formal Postmaster General in the Harding administration and was a Presbyterian elder. During this time Presbyterians were claiming that Hollywood was anti-prohibition, made fun of marriage, made light a woman’s virtue and didn’t respect the Sabbath. Protestants had hoped that they would be able to use Hays to get power in Hollywood. After he became president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), Hay’s first order of business was setting up a public relations committee. The Committee on Public Relations became a means of discussion between producers and religious organizations.

With Hays in office, he first tried pressuring filmmakers to obey a production code that, at the time, was used more as a guideline. This voluntary code, Hollywood thought, would be the answer in preventing government censorship. Though there is a common misconception that all old films are clean cut and moral, many films before the enactment of the Hollywood Production Code addressed issues such as sexuality, drugs, adultery, child abuse, etc. [3]In 1934, after a release of what many considered morally questionable films, the code was put into effect and for the next thirty years, films had to be approved with the code in order to be distributed. [5]

1940s & 1950s

In 1945 many of the largest denominations and interdenominational agencies came together to form the Protestant Film Commission to be the “voice of Protestantism in Motion Pictures.” The commission’s first executive was Paul Heard. He had previously overseen the production of U.S. Navy films in Hollywood. They decided that they wanted to eventually produce films. However, the plan ended up being only moderately successful.

Protestants wanted as strong of an influence on Hollywood as Catholics did at that time. The PFC did not want to be a “protesting agency,” instead they wanted to be used for consulting and offering reviews. In 1947 it was announced that the PFC would open a West Coast Office (WCO) in order to represent Protestants in Hollywood. The PFC stated that it was against censorship, but instead wanted to work with the producers. The Hollywood Reporter claimed that this was the Protestant version of the Legion of Decency (a Catholic organization fighting against objectionable content in Hollywood). It was quickly realized that the WCO had little ability to thoroughly review scripts and that producers by no means had to follow their recommendations. As the number of scripts the WCO received declined, their subject matter became more and more controversial.

This changing script material came from a massive change that was happening in all Hollywood during that time, which was the end of the studio system. This change led to many more independent and foreign films being easily available to the public. At the end of the 1950s around sixty-five percent of movies distributed by the studios were independently produced. The rise in TV also helped fuel this change in that families were content to stay at home and watch shows instead. [6]

1960s & 1970s

In 1960 a report came out from the National Council claiming that the media’s assumption of the purpose of life was to attain “material advantage, power and pleasure” through rivalry and the manipulation of others. They felt that the Protestant church had a role in fighting these assumptions. First, was to build a relationship with like-minded people in Hollywood to help address the issues. Second, to pursue a program in media education for churchgoers to become more knowledgeable about how to encourage the making of better movies.

In 1962, The Catholic bishops’ Episcopal Committee for Motion Pictures, Radio, and Television released a statement saying their desire for a voluntary age-classification within the movie industry. To many in the industry this was considered shocking. Protestants were very reluctant about this idea and saw it as further Catholic influence on Hollywood. The president of the WCO at that time, George Heimrich, answered the question of “who’s going to do the classifications,” but do it on behalf of Protestants. This was due to many fears that by only having Catholics in charge of age-classifications, they could avoid discriminating film reviews.

Jack Valenti

Jack Valenti

In 1966, Jack Valenti, former assistant to President Lyndon Johnson became the third president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA, formally known as the MPPDA). At that time, many felt that certain production code associations were becoming too strict and ridiculous about which movies they had been banning. Valenti felt that a major policy change needed to occur within the MPAA. In 1966 he got rid of, as he put it, “the foolish constructions of the Hays Code.” He felt that the code was simply a form of censorship and wanted no part of it. Valenti, still warned the film industry to still make an effort of self restraint, similar to the feelings of his predecessor, William Hays, had stated many years before. [1]

Another major issue during this time that came back into view was the prospects of having a film classification system. In 1968, film industry leaders held a private meeting for final approval of a new rating system. The MPAA brought about four ratings and copyrighted three less restraining ones: General, Mature, and Restricted. The film rating ‘X’ was not trademarked and could be used by those not in the MPAA as a way to designate films not suitable for those less than sixteen years old.

Soon, other organizations stated their support for these new ratings and recognized, though artists still have freedom of expression in film making, parents and society could protect the growth of their children into responsible adults. Though the initial ratings system had its flaws and concerns from others, Valenti encouraged Catholics, Protestants, and Jews to attend appeals boards, but wouldn’t allow them to vote on major issues. [1]

1980s-Present Day

In 1981, Warner Bros. used an evangelical marketing firm to help promote the studio’s new movie Chariots of Fire. Many saw, that though it was a non-Christian film, it still had a powerful Christian message and ended up winning the Oscar for Best Picture.

Universal announced a new film by Martin Scorsese (a Catholic), called Last Temptation. Many Protestants were disturbed by the film’s message and story. In 1988, right before the movie’s release evangelicals across the country organized a protest at Universal Studios that had upwards of 25,000 people. They felt that anti-Christian stereotypes needed to come to an end. Jerry Falwell, a popular televangelist at the time felt the film would cause “a wave of anti- Semitism.” [6] Many felt that the movie portrayed Jesus as “just another Jewish troublemaker.” [1]

Today, there are many Christian ministries that work in Hollywood. Larry Poland, an evangelist, is the leader of Mastermedia, an organization that builds relationships with those in Hollywood and teaches them the Gospel. Poland claims that he has even led the vice-president of a major network to Christ. [2]

Though they realize that Christian films are still not in the majority, these companies and individuals encourage Christians to pray and use wisdom in the case of any protests that come up. One Christian interdenominational blog, Institute for Christian Renewal, states that many Christian-produced movies are amateur and a turn-off for young viewers and claim that only watching those won’t work in changing the culture.

The recognition of violence, sex, and immortality within pop culture has “pushed” many Protestants into the corner of that culture and many feel they are finally stepping out as an active voice against secularism. For many Protestants, radical changes in the past inspire hope that soon a new revival will occur within the film industry and that family friendly, Christian based films will one become the norm.[4]

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Protestant Ideals and the Know-Nothings

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

Protestant Ideals and the Know-Nothings
Eddie Evans

Most Americans are acutely aware of the increasing Spanish populations in the southwestern United States. The inclusion or exclusion of this group is a platform issue for major political candidates. Even those of a more inclusive mindset debate the benefits that they should receive and the extent to which they can participate in American democracy. American Protestants of the first half of the 19th century were asking similar questions due to the arrival of Irish Catholics and other western European immigrants. This essay will examine the basis of nativist thought in America, and look at how the most famous nativist political organization, the Know-Nothings, was so influential.

History of Nativist Thought

Nativism is a response to increasing cultural pluralism that has repeated throughout American history. To better understand the environment in which 19th century Nativist groups flourished, one must go back to the Colonial Period and the Puritan establishments. In his 1992 article, sociologist Michael W. Hughey points out that both inclusive and exclusive values were fused in the sociopolitical systems of the Puritans. The democratic ideals of open government, egalitarian democracy, and the unalienable rights of man were cornerstones of Puritan republican government. However, these rights were not for everyone. Women and religious minorities were seen as “unsuitable” to uphold democratic and Protestant ideals, and therefore were excluded from practicing in the open form of government.

One specific religious minority that was seen as “unsuitable” was Catholics. In colonial Massachusetts, while Catholics were tolerated in communities, their Protestant neighbors could drive them out if they did not uphold certain moral standards. Even the morally suitable Catholics could not hold positions of public power since they did not belong to the state affiliated church.

The implicit link of Protestantism and democracy only became stronger during the revolutionary period. In the French and Indian War, “the battles were interpreted as cosmic contest between God and Satan.” Protestants believed that “Satan’s French Papist legions were committed to religious and political tyranny.” Since the Protestants and America prevailed “surely Liberty must be the cause of God.” This belief was confirmed a few decades later when the colonists defeated the British in the Revolutionary War. Hughes claims “liberty was thus elevated to sacred status and identified with the Kingdom of God, which in turn was identified with the American Republic.”

In the New Republic, Protestants continued to uphold their religious and political values. It is at this point that Hughes coins the term “Americanism”, to describe the entanglement of Protestant and Democratic values. Never before in history had a nation been built upon ideals more than geographic boundaries, and Americanism was this principal ideal.

As the Republic grew, it became increasingly difficult to orchestrate these ideals in every facet of a functioning democracy. John Adams confessed, “he never understood a republican government and no man ever will.” Hughes points out that throughout John Adams’ political career, politicians struggled to with the manifestation of Americanism in specific policies. Instead of defining “Americanism” explicitly, it became easier to define Americanism as what it is not. Groups that have, at some point, been labeled “un-American” include: Mormons, Jews, Freemasons, communists, and most important for our purposes, Catholics.

Political Landscape of Antebellum America

Preceding the Know Nothing party was a two party system composed of Democrats and Whigs. The rivalry between the two parties was known as the Second Party system. Southern farmers made up a large portion of antebellum democrats. They opposed government spending and wanted to keep intervention at a minimum. The Whig Party consisted largely of pro-business New Englanders (the decedents of the puritans) who wanted to see government regulate morality while still favoring market interests.

The collapse of the Whigs has historically been attributed to different opinions among party members about slavery. However, not all share this view. Historian Bruce Levine feels that “the Whigs disappeared in the early 1850’s because they failed to echo with sufficient force and unanimity the antiforeign and anti-Catholic sentiments of their native-born Protestant constituents.” Further evidence that slavery was not the most decisive factor: old Whig voters appreciated the creation of a party “whose focus was on Catholics, immigrants, and unresponsive politicians, not the slavery issue.” In this failure of the Whigs, rises the Order of the Star Spangled Banner and the Order of United Americans. They will form a political alliance and become nicknamed “Know-Nothings” because of the secrecy of their leadership. When asked to explain their political views or agendas, members would simply respond, “I know nothing.”

Early Political Momentum

1854 in New York City marked the first time a Know-Nothing affiliated candidate received significant attention. Lawyer and nativist, Daniel Ulmann received over 25% of the votes in New York City and State and was named a congressman. In fact, that year, over half of the New York congressmen aligned themselves with Know-Nothing principles. The group was growing, and fast. In 1846, The Order of United Americans had 2,000 members in New York City alone. By 1851, that number had grown to 7,000. By 1855, there were 30,000 men officially initiated the organization.

A Leader Rises

The Order of United Americans (official name for the Know-Nothings) most prominent member was Thomas R. Whitney. From a middle class background, Whitney was the son of a New York City watchmaker and followed in his father’s trade. During his apprenticeship, he inherited a disciplined work ethic and had access to his father’s wealthy network of clients. One of who was important Whig member and OUA charter-member, Mayor Harper. Whitney joined the OUA, and quickly gained recognition for his energy and work ethic. He attended a national nativist convention in Philadelphia in 1845 and became the editor of republican and nativist magazine, The Republic. In 1856 Whitney published his most influential piece of Know-Nothing literature, A Defense of American Policy.

The Know-Nothings’ America

The aforementioned 400-page Know Nothing Bible is an insightful look into the collective minds of the leadership of the organization. Interestingly, Whitney’s ideal America sounds very reminiscent to the Puritan society. Whitney and the Order believe that men “are entitled to just such privileges, social and political, as they are capable of employing and enjoying rationally. Since human beings exhibited this capability to differing degrees, they were naturally entitled different rights and privileges.” This is re-manifestation of Hughey’s theory about American democracy; a mixing of democratic and Protestant ideals that are simultaneously inclusive and exclusive.

The Puritans took this idea for granted. They had the privilege of establishment and few religious minorities to challenge their dominance. Whitney and other Know-Nothings were not in the same circumstance. Irish Catholic immigrants were arriving in massive numbers and flexing their political muscles. Unlike the Puritans, Whitney is acutely aware of the problems that exist while trying to promote both nativism and democracy. He writes, “I take direct issue with democracy. As I understand the term, I am no democrat. If democracy implies universal suffrage…without regard to the intelligence, the morals, or the principles of man, I am no democrat.”

Whitney’s character attacks could fall on any non-white, non-Protestant person living and working in America in the 1860’s. However, nativists had the harshest disdain for Irish Catholics. The vast majority of Irish immigrants brought their Catholic religion with them. In the eyes of a 19th century Protestant, Catholics were “hierarchical, philosophically monarchical, virulently antirepublican, aimed to subvert self government and individual freedom everywhere.” In other words, it is inconceivable to be both Catholic and democratic at the same time. This is a standard, Protestant critique of Catholicism that can be traced back to the Reformation, and the narrative was only strengthened in Colonial America.

Catholicism was not the only concern Know-Nothings saw in the Irish immigrants. The Irish were crammed into the poorest urban centers where they worked the most undesirable, and unskilled jobs. Overpopulation and crime were only a few of the side effects of the deplorable living conditions in major American cities such as New York. This led to the Irish being branded as “lazy, thieving drunkards, poor material for either a labor force or citizenry.”

The nativist groups that were able to gain so much momentum eventually declined due to the emergence of the Republican Party and the Civil War. Irish Americans were able to prove their allegiance to the nation by fighting in the war, and this helped alleviate some of their struggles. Though the Know-Nothings have long vanished, the nativist thought that fueled their rise to power still remained in America. Whether it was the Red Scare, or our current Spanish immigration policy, one can find remnants of the sociopolitical nativist background dating back to the Puritans.

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Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright on the Historical Jesus

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

The Influence of Marcus Borg and Nathan Thomas Wright on the Protestant View of the Historical Jesus
By Kristen Hatton

643Who was Jesus Christ? The Bible tells the tales of his life, describes all the lessons he taught, and the miracles he was able to perform. In the lives of present day American Protestants these stories are very important and are central to the teachings of the religion. They are taught starting at a very young age and can be recited by most members. With the rise of science and technology, some disagreements surrounding the life of Jesus have started to arise. The historical Jesus has been an attempt by scholars to reconstruct his life based on the texts of the Bible and the context of the time period. Throughout these studies, called higher criticism, different scholars have published works describing their interpretations of the historical Jesus. Have these scholars been able to influence the opinions of modern American Protestants on the historical Jesus?

Higher Criticism

Higher criticism can be defined as “restoring the original words of a text from manuscripts that have altered them.” Many of the religious scholars who have devoted their time and efforts to these studies often view it as a science in itself. The divide amongst scholars surrounds the idea of biblical inerrancy.

Biblical inerrancy refers to the belief that the Bible, in its original manuscript, is the inspired word of God and is free from error. Those who believe in it see the stories in the Bible as accurate, historical events. The opposition is that the Bible contains errors from the different authors and scribes. Which side of the divide scholars have joined often determines their opinions on the historical Jesus.

The New Testament Controversy

The New Testament of the Bible has been of particular interest to those who study higher criticism. This part of the Bible is made up of manuscripts from different authors and their accounts of Jesus’ life. Those who believe in biblical inerrancy see this part of the Bible as factual. Other scholars are hesitant because there are discrepancies between interpretations of the same events. It is possible that scribes made errors when copying these certain parts of the Bible. Or, perhaps the authors wanted to convey different messages. Their view is often that the version of the New Testament that we possess can’t be seen as completely accurate.

Marcus Borg vs. Nathan Thomas Wright

1892105Throughout this essay I will be looking at the differing opinions of Marcus Borg and Nathan Thomas (NT) Wright on the Bible and specifically the historical Jesus. Both are religious scholars and prominent figures in the Protestant community. NT Wright is an Anglican who represents the conservative side of Protestantism. Marcus Borg identifies as Lutheran and expresses more liberal views.

These two men are friends despite their theological differences and wrote a book presenting their opinions called The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. The book is divided into eight parts starting with methodology followed by Jesus’ teachings and actions, death, resurrection, divinity, birth, second coming, and relationship to Christians. How Borg and Wright view the above areas will be discussed as well as the impact their beliefs have had on others.

Views of NT Wright

NTWright071220The methodology of Wright points to the Bible as being the “inspired word of God.” In another one of his works, Scripture and the Authority of God, Wright says “Inspiration is a shorthand way of talking about the belief that by his Spirit God guided the very different writers and editors, so that the books produced were the books God intended his people to have.” In his view even though there were different writers and editors of the New Testament and we don’t have the original texts, it is still the inspired word of God. The events can be seen as historically accurate because these are the accounts that God wants his people to have. So when reading and interpreting the Bible it should be taken in its literal sense.

When looking at Wright’s view on the life of Jesus Christ he accepts all events that are described in the New Testament. And although many Christians struggle with the truths of the Bible, in his opinion “the only appropriate stance is silence before the mystery of God.” Wright believes that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem. He argues that the fact that Matthew and Luke were able to produce such similar accounts on separate occasions gives credibility. He believes that Jesus saw himself as the messiah and knew about his death throughout his entire life. Jesus “believed himself called to do and be what, in the scriptures, only Israel’s God did and was.” Looking at the resurrection of Christ, Wright sees him as physically returning to Earth in his human form.

Views of Borg

160Borg, on the other hand, is more critical of the Bible and doesn’t think it is appropriate to view in a literal sense. He still finds the Bible to be an important part of the faith that has value, but just for different reasons than Wright. He explains that the gospels “are a mixture of history remembered and history metaphorized” that is “powerfully true but in a nonliteral sense.” He applies this concept to his view of the events of Jesus’ life.

Borg expresses that the portrayal of the birth of Jesus by Matthew and Luke are different because neither of them are historically factual and they had different reasoning’s for producing their books. Unlike Wright, Borg believes Jesus didn’t view himself as the Messiah or divine throughout his lifetime. This is a view that was taken on by “post-Easter Christians.” He also doesn’t believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus stating that after his death, ‘Yes, the post-Easter Jesus is a divine reality—is indeed one with God.’” Meaning that he did not come back in his human form as the Bible portrays, he simply became one with God in a spiritual sense. He goes on further to express that Jesus was not the Messiah by saying he was not always prophesized to die for our sins. He died instead because of, “his role as a social prophet who challenged the domination system in the name of God.” He often expresses that many of the stories that revolve around Easter were ‘created’ by people to promote certain morals and ideals to live by.

Reactions to Wright

There are Protestants today who support the conservative views of Wright, while others are not convinced by his arguments. When reading through the book, some claimed Wright included too many historical supports. One review states, “Wright tends to be more of the historian, immersed in details and less apt to reach large theological conclusions.  It often feels as if he “beats around the bush,” considering the minutiae of the data and making careful limited judgments based on it.  The result is that he seems indecisive, even obscure at points.”

Another reviewer also saw this emphasis on history to lessen his credibility, “Wright might be placing too much emphasis on historical accuracy as the basis for a faith stance that needs to remain grounded in the substance of something hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” To this Protestant what you learn and your faith should be more important than the history involved.

Some reviews, on the other hand, saw Wright to be convincing and supported his conservative views of Biblical Inerrancy. “Ultimately I think Wright came out ahead in the debate as his assumptions seemed to be more rooted in post-Exilic Judaism while Borg focused too much on ‘history metaphorized.’”

Reactions to Borg

Just as observed with Wright, Borg had those who supported his views as well as critiques. One blog post described his opinions as, “vague and wishy washy…” and continued to say “I still get irritated at the lack of conviction and certainty that I encounter. It is part of my make-up. I want to know what the truth is and plant my flag there.” These Protestants prefer historical facts, the ‘metaphors’ of the life of Jesus that Borg puts emphasis on don’t satisfy them.

Supporters of Borg’s arguments don’t see the benefit in putting so much historical emphasis on the Bible and view his way of thinking as spiritually enlightening. “…this way of looking at things does not suggest, as some might think, a lack of faith and a weakening of the human/God relationship, but simply a new perspective that can greatly deepen the relationship.”


One reviewer ends by saying, “Regardless of your faith outlook you will find yourself challenged and ypu might just find yourself thinking about Jesus from unexpected angles. After all, isn’t the whole point to come to know Jesus more fully?”

Throughout research on the influence of these two scholars, many reviewers seemed to be sympathetic to both views even if they didn’t agree completely. They saw the value of the book in showing the different opinions on the historical Jesus, but didn’t appear to be swayed by either scholar. They seemed to stick with their previous views and just enjoy reading the opposing views of Wright and Borg.

Protestantism today is often very individualistic, and this emphasis on the study of the Bible supports that phenomenon even more. The influence of these authors on the general public was not as prominent as I hypothesized it would be.

In conclusion, Borg and Wright did not seem to influence American Protestants to join their side of the historical Jesus divide. The individual opinions seemed to already be set, and although they are engaging in individual study by reading this book, it seems to be more just out of interest in the subject as a whole.

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Protestant Influence on the Contemporary American Diet Culture

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

Protestant Influence on the Contemporary American Diet Culture
By Charles Getz

Have you ever wondered why so many Americans are obsessed with dieting? Even though the United States is the 2nd most obese nation on earth, many Americans spend a great deal of money on diets and health programs each year. Have you ever wondered why this phenomenon exists? Is it our culture? Our religions? Our fascination with celebrities? One could think of many possible reasons. If analyzed, the American interest in diet programs can be closely linked to the Protestant teachings that helped shape the ideals of our nation and its history.


Since European colonists traveled across the ocean in search of a better life in America during the Colonial Period, Protestants have been the dominant religious group. Of the first thirteen colonies, a total of nine had Protestant establishments. As a result of this prevalence, it can be argued that Protestant ideals have helped shape the values and norms in the United States today.

Beginning with the Constitution, principles such as freedom of the individual and the right to pick your own religion can be traced to Protestant teachings. The ideas of liquor laws, book clubs, and competition in sports are part of our culture which can all be linked back to Protestantism.

For many years Americans have been obsessed with their outward appearance and have attempted to perfect their bodies. This has resulted in countless dieting books, videos, and programs. Such a commitment to one’s body could not be any stronger than it is today. According to Marketdata Enterprises, Inc., there were 108 million dieters in America in 2012. Those dieters were expected to produce a weight loss market that reached $66 billion in 2013. Clearly, this proves Americans are dedicated, or at least hope to be, to having a fit and healthy body.

It can be argued that this idea of perfecting one’s body is a result of the heavy Protestant influence in America. They believe in maintaining a healthy body and soul to honor and worship their God. As a result, Protestants have gotten into the dieting industry and have created quite an impact. In her book Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity, R. Marie Griffith points out that the largest Protestant dieting program of all time written by Gwen Shamblin, The Weigh Down Diet has sold millions of copies and is available in seventy countries. Hundreds of thousands of Americans take part in diet programs like Shamblins today, and millions of American Christians have turned dieting into a religious duty. (1)

The remainder of this essay will consider such questions as: What about these diet programs makes them Protestant? Can they be closely linked to teachings in the Bible? Has Protestantism influenced dieting culture as a whole or has it created a separate one?

Dieting from the Beginning

Long before dieting was a fad in America, Protestants have been using scripture and prayer to shape their bodies. This form of dieting is known as devotional dieting and it involves the pursuit of “bodily fitness as a vehicle for developing close, satisfying relationships with a beloved whom they aim to please through obedient self-discipline.” (24) Griffith suggests that “What marks religious diet culture as devotional is the addition of expressive relationships with sacred figures such as God or Jesus, accompanied by the belief that the human body’s fitness affects such relationships in direct and indirect ways.” (24) For Protestants, the goal is to create this “satisfying relationship” with their God and savior.

One of the earliest ways Christians focused on their body to worship their Lord was through fasting. By abstaining from food, they attempted to prove their strong sense of discipline and focus on their relationship with their God. Early Protestants such as Martin Luther and John Calvin were two well known theologians in support of abstinence. Luther urged fasting “both to curb distracting physical desires and to take care of the body so that it might minister to others’ needs.” (24) Calvin was more of a strict supporter of fasting “as a necessary discipline for appeasing God’s wrath.” (24)

In America, early Christians reframed fasting as a way to shape their appetites as well as form a devotional relationship with their God. “From these practices emerged an array of historically influential and resonant modes for enacting spiritual control over bodily desire.” (25)

Dieting Culture Today (Protestant)          

Marie Griffith suggests the contemporary Christian diet culture we see today found its beginnings in the post WWII America. It was then that Christian dieters began to desire disciplined lives to obtain a relationship with their God and form a group of holy people pleasing to him, rather than focusing on individual pleasures.

At this time books like I Prayed Myself Slim by Deborah Pierce, a southern Episcopalian, and Pray Your Weight Away by Presbyterian minister Charlie Shedd gained great popularity in America. They key to these diet books, which can be noted in their titles, was prayer with God. (162)

Along with prayers, Pierce’s book included a month long diet program that held to a strict calorie count. Prayer was then used to fight off the urges of consuming more calories. These prayers, Griffith explains, were “set to liturgical cadences and meant to be repeated throughout the day for humility, recollection of gluttony as sinful, and strength to overcome it.”(162)

Shedd’s book spoke of fat as sin, encouraging readers to weigh themselves and declare each pound they were overweight as sin. If they could see the fat (or sin) they could take care of it with prayer and self discipline. He promised his readers weight loss through “sustained prayer, devotion to the Bible, and faith in thinness as a sign of sanctity.” (163)

It should be pointed out that these Protestant programs do fall in line with traditional Protestant teachings and can be backed by verses in the Bible. In Shirl James Hoffman’s book Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports it is pointed out that “The Bible speaks of the body as one of God’s highest creative acts that, in some inexplicable way, reflects the Creator’s image.” He goes on to write “the Bible also condemns harmful gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins (Proverbs 23:1-3), describes the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, and urges believers to glorify God in their bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).”

Another aspect of the Protestant diet programs which made them more popular was that the authors linked the Christian aspects to other secular diet programs of the time. While prayer was the key to success, secular activities of the day also played an important role. Important aspects of health such as exercise and healthy nutrition were included in the programs which made them even more attractive to the people attempting to lose weight.

One of the most popular Protestant diet programs of contemporary times is the Weigh Down Workshop created by Gwen Shamblin, a nutritionist and fundamentalist, in 1986. It is the largest devotional diet program ever and by 2000 it was offered in thirty thousand churches, seventy countries, and sixty different denominations. At first the diet program was secular until Shamblin made it explicitly Christian in 1990. (177)

Shamblin said she asked God for guidance and took the Weigh Down Workshop to churches. After publishing her first book, The Weigh Down Diet in 1997, Shamblin gained great popularity and success. Her book quickly reached sales into the millions and she was given great media attention from companies such as CNN and ABC.

Like previous Protestant diet programs, Shamblin taught the important of prayer in losing weight. What made her diet so different is that she did not believe there were good and bad foods. She only wanted people to eat less.

Dieting Culture Today (Mainstream/Secular)

It is no secret the dieting industry in the United States today is a very successful one. With 108 million dieters in 2012 and revenues approaching $66 billion for the year 2013, it is clear Americans hold quite an interest in their physical well being.

While most of the secular dieting programs do not explicitly suggest the use of religion in losing weight, many bring up the topic of spirituality. These programs teach the usefulness of meditation, mindful exercise, and the spirituality of food to their readers.

Griffith reports that prominent public figures “such as Oprah Winfrey and Norris Chumley enduringly preached the necessity of harnessing spiritual forces for the purpose of weight loss.” Also, books employing spirituality like “Think Yourself Thin: The Visualization Technique That Will Make You Lose Weight Without Diet or Exercise” by Debbie Johnson and Daily Word for Weight Loss: Spiritual Guidance to Give You Courage on Your Journey by Elaine Meyer have gained great popularity.

This method of using spirituality and the mind to lose weight can be connected to the Protestant diet programs which also teach in such ways. While it may be unfair to suggest that these programs have been created as a result of the Protestant programs, there are certainly points that suggest Protestant teachings have helped to shape them. In the future, it will be interesting to see whether the Protestant diet culture and the mainstream diet culture in the United States become more or less similar.

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How would Smith have decided Hobby Lobby?

That’s the question I’m wondering as I watch the unfolding of this latest turn of events in American religious freedom jurisprudence. It’s one of those impossible-to-answer hypotheticals, of course, but here’s the deal:

In 1990, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling in the case Oregon v. Smith (henceforth Smith), authored by Justice Scalia. At issue in this case was whether or not the state of Oregon was obliged by the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause to create an exemption in its anti-drug laws for the religious use of peyote. Scalia and the four other justices who joined his ruling threw out earlier precedents (well, Scalia denied he was doing that, but it looked that way to lots of other people, including the four justices who dissented from his logic) to argue that government is simply not obliged to provide religious exemptions for generally applicable laws. To admit a constitutional right to religious exemptions, Scalia argued, would open the door to anarchy in a society as religiously diverse as ours.

Lots of people were alarmed by the Smith decision, across the political spectrum. That led Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which legislatively reinstated the pre-Smith judicial test that Scalia’s ruling had overturned. In other words, Congress required state and federal governments to submit their laws to a standard of strict scrutiny when it came to their effect on religious practice: laws could not impose a substantial burden on people’s religious practice without a compelling state interest. Simply put, government had to show a really good reason not to allow a religious exemption to a law. Of course, whether or not government had such a reason would be subject to dispute on a case-by-case basis (the specter of anarchy that Scalia had invoked in Smith.)

Eventually the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had the constitutional right to hold the federal government to the RFRA standard, but it didn’t have the power to impose that standard on state governments. So RFRA now applies to federal laws but not to state laws. (Some states have responded to this latest ruling by voluntarily passing their own versions of RFRA.)

Hobby Lobby’s appeal for a religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act was based on RFRA; Justice Alito’s ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby was therefore also based on RFRA. And there’s where my historical hypothetical comes into play. What if there had been no RFRA? What if the Hobby Lobby case had had to be decided by the logic of Smith?

In 1990, Scalia argued that people are not entitled to religious exemptions to generally applicable laws. In 2014, Scalia joined the Alito majority in granting such an exemption to Hobby Lobby. Now certainly Scalia could fend off accusations of hypocrisy by arguing that RFRA had tied his hands. I still believe, he might tell us, that the “free exercise” clause doesn’t entitle Hobby Lobby to a religious exemption. But, he might continue, Congress has passed a law–RFRA–that requires me to judge Hobby Lobby’s case by a different standard.

Still, I can’t help but wonder (by which, of course, I mean “suspect”) if, in the absence of RFRA, Scalia and other conservative Catholics would have found some clever way to give Hobby Lobby its exemption, even under the rule of Smith. Smith, as a peyote-use case, was a natural cause célèbre for libertarians. Hobby Lobby is a natural cause célèbre for religious conservatives. As I’ve observed elsewhere, the argument in favor of a “compelling state interest” standard for claims to free religious exercise–that is to say, the argument against the principle laid down by Scalia in Smith–is increasingly being heard from religious conservatives concerned to roll back secularism. Scalia and other conservative justices have likewise shown themselves to be concerned about rolling back secularism, at least when it encroaches on Judeo-Christian privilege. So: absent the convenient “out” afforded by RFRA, would Scalia and like-minded conservatives on the Court have applied the rule used to deny peyotists a religious exemption in 1990 to likewise deny Christian conservatives the religious exemption they sought in 2014?


Protestant Influence on Television Censorship Regulation

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

Protestant Influence on Television Censorship Regulation
By Mary Jane Leveline

“There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.”
~Mark Twain

mjl001No matter how much we try to deny it, the lure of the forbidden fruit, regardless of what it is, causes controversy, if not within ourselves, within some sanction of society. This is especially true in the United States where Protestant values are permeated throughout the fabric of our origins as a nation. Scripture governed morality warns of the fall of man if given over to unbridled desires. Prowling like a lion in search of fresh prey is sin after man. These beliefs have led to a governing society with arms that reach into the entertainment industry through censorship and regulation.

Censorship Defined

mjl002Let’s begin by defining censorship so that we can see the relationship that Protestant values lend. Censorship, as defined by the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU), “is the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.”

Censorship Committees and Support

The Federal Communications Committee (FCC) was established to regulate the airwaves. In the 1950’s television came under scrutiny of the FCC as appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt in the attempt to limit socially harmful conduct caused by people’s exposure to sexually explicit or violent material, and to prevent children’s exposure to a variety of material that may harm them. This came about during a time in our nation’s history where Protestant values were the moral norm. This new medium began pushing the boundaries of moral acceptability. The mainstream Protestant groups used their influence to shape the regulations regarding what was allowable to be viewed over the airwaves and enter the American home.

The Voice Behind Censorship

mjl003As Heather Hendershot puts it well “the difference between censorship and regulation is tightly bound up in the ideological process of constructing nationalism and patriotism”. Nielson ratings became a measuring stick for family television that consisted of white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant families.   As the fabric of the United States changed spurred by the 1960’s, so did Americans’ views on where they stood in light of their religious views and affiliations. Gone were the days of Protestant dominance as new ideas about religion and ideologies began to gain ground.

The Beavis and Butt-head Experience

mjl004Religious organizations have supported the FCC in its efforts to keep the airwaves clean. Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson, a prominent Protestant vocalist, has been a strong advocate for quality censorship. Dobson’s fears are that television violence will shape the behavior of American children. The show that created this alarm was the animated program “Beavis and Butthead”; a show that targeted adolescent youth. If you have not seen it, I am sure you have at least heard of it. The adolescences depicted are sarcastic rebellious teens that show no initiative to participate in anything that isn’t self-gratifying. They are lazy, disrespectful, and engage in self-deprecating and dangerous stunts. From the Protestant perspective, their antics go against everything that defines a morally upstanding, socially conscious American. By continuing to push back against the growing liberal influence in media, groups associated with the Religious Right work to keep America as the ‘city on a hill’.

Pushing the Envelope

mjl005Before Focus on the Family and other conservatives brought Beavis and, his faithful counterpart, Butthead, to the forefront, television has been regulated for offenses that are now considered mainstream acceptance. Examples of this start with Sylvester and Tweety in the Saturday morning cartoons in the 1942 episode “The Tale of Two Kitties”. Tweety is considered to be ‘too naked’ as he was originally drawn without feathers. The creator, Bob Clampett, counters the criticism by writing in to the script sarcastic comments against the Hays office of the censorship bureau.

Religious Consults

The timeline continues on with shows like “I Love Lucy” when the word “pregnant” can’t be used on air in 1952. After talking to religious authorities from the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths it was agreed upon that the word ‘pregnancy’ could be used in a sit com. The Judeo-Christian leadership consults show the powerful impact that religious moral views still held in American culture.


“A Really Great Show” Gets “All Shook Up”

mjl008“The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956 quickly focuses in on a close up of Elvis’ face when the infamous pelvic gyrations begin to go into full swing; all in hopes of not over stimulating the American viewers watching. By 1966 the censors are still doing their jobs of caring for the moral high ground of the viewer as belly buttons are covered in daily serials like “Gilligan’s Island”, “I Dream of Jeannie”, “Star Trek”, and others.

Pushing Back Against the Protestant Views of Morality

The Civil Rights Movement and the Sexual Revolution start breaking down the Protestant influence in the United States. Television is not immune. The ideology of individualism and the growing cultural influences take a stronger foothold. Lines become crossed with lessened resistance by the mainline churches who held the political power to push back. The evangelical churches were too weak to have the influence needed during this tumultuous time of change in our country’s history. This is the time when the slopes becomes very slippery for the Protestant foothold in many aspects of the American culture.

Reining It In

In efforts to accommodate a growing medium, regulators worked with networks to create schedules that would take into account the viewing audience. Still recognizing the pressure from Protestant values that are engrained in the society, Family viewing hours were developed to promote viewing that contained values that a family could sit down and watch together in 1975. Prime time was considered 8:00 p.m. hour. Shows that had more adult content were viewed in a later time slot after the children had been put to bed.   Saturday morning viewing became time for young children to watch television safely with cartoons, puppets, and animals adventures scheduled in those viewing slots. These efforts continue to reinforce family values and moral codes on America’s airwaves. Depending on the time of the viewing gave parents the sense of what was considered allowable viewing for their children. This policy was overturned in 1977 and the family hour ended though many networks still honor the prime time slot as family viewing and hold to the practice. The fact that family viewing hours were established shows the Protestant’s lessening influence on the medium as a whole.

What’s All the Fuss?

mjl009In today’s world the ideas of seeing a bared naval, hearing a toilet flush, even viewing the inside of a bathroom, or watching lovers roll in the sheets on television doesn’t seem a reason to pause. Alfred Schneider, a thirty year veteran of TV censorship, chronicles the battles between networks and the censorship bureau as to what can be viewed, how it can be viewed, and when it can be viewed. In days past you never heard a toilet flush, or even saw the inside of a bathroom. The Dick Van Dyke Show is still the iconic show used to depict the non-sexual relationship of spouses by creating separate bedrooms for each. We now view commercials that are more explicit than what would ever be considered from the 1940’s through the 1970’s where Victoria’s Secret would still be kept.


mjl010Some would wonder after researching censorship since television’s migration if there is still a need for regulation and censorship from the FCC? Times continue to change! With the onslaught of cable channels, public television, and other non-regulated venues, the regulations for the broadcasting companies under the FCC rule has loosened considerably. Today it is common to view increasing sex and violence on television. Research continues to study the effects of television violence and promiscuity on society. Results are dependent on the group originating the study as to societal impact. In an effort to regulate and inform concerned viewers of content a Television Ratings Guide.

Repercussions and Relevance

mjl011What happens when the content violates the laws? Fines! Large ones! Remember the 2004 “wardrobe malfunction” during Super Bowl XXXVIII? That blunder cost the network a fortune. The FCC fines were $550,000. It didn’t stop there. The NFL had to reimburse $10 million in sponsor refunds. The network was also out the time it took to deal with over 500,000 viewer complaints. These numbers reflect the relevance that the FCC still holds in protecting American values. This view is not to be an advocate of the FCC or be its opponent. It is to merely show the relevance that the organization holds in the American culture based on the Protestant values during the founding of the United States. This is reflective in the ideology that America considers herself a leader in policing morality.

That’s a Wrap

mjl012Television has gone from censoring animated naked birds (Tweety), pregnant stars of leading serials (Lucille Ball), married couples sleeping arrangements (The Dick Van Dyke Show), belly buttons (I Dream of Jeannie), terminology from ‘water closet’s’ (Jack Par) to the ‘seven dirty words’ (George Carlin), conservative Americans have exercised their Protestant values in trying to protect morality on television. The evolution of television has created great strains on both sides of the fence. The conservatives have had to release some of the tight reigns with the liberal push for freedom of speech and expression, the development of cable and public television stations that are under different regulatory laws, and the loss of dominant political power that they once held. As the conservative Protestant power continues to be challenged by the growing liberal world view the evolution of television has gradually pushed the envelope where censorship is concerned. The law of diminishing returns leads to the conclusion that censorship and regulation will never be able to restrict to the level of the early FCC. As long as there are liberals and conservatives, there will be a need for a regulatory source that will continue to evolve to try to accommodate that balance between demand and democracy.

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Compromise and the Religious Moderate

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

American Protestants Respond to Secularization: Compromise and the Religious Moderate
By Kyle Bush

The history of the United States of America is one of its settlers–of religious refugees in search of freedom. The discussion of how that religious freedom would come to play itself out in the formation of a fledgling nation would set many a man’s blood to boil in its time.

After the boil would come the spill, as America’s religion (protestant Christianity) would soon tie in to its revolution, and later, it’s Civil War. Many political leaders of that time were hell-bent on creating a Christian nation, but the argument of how to do so would split the State–and the protestant church in America–in two.

Over time, the split grew to a chasm, with mainline and evangelical Protestants fighting for political power in a Christian dominated culture. There are several times in American history where the conflict reaches a climax, the latest being during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. While similar tensions exist today, they are less tight, as Protestant Christianity is holistically conforming to the post-modern society it has created.

I set out to research this essay with one question guiding my efforts; where do the ties between political and religious (mainly, protestant) affiliations in America stand today? However, a seemingly simple question, at least as it seemed to me in my naivety, led to many more questions needing answers, and a very broad essay topic.

I have looked at the history of the relationship modern and fundamental Christians have had with each other, as well as the political affiliation each interest group has traditionally displayed. I’ve examined the levels of activism each “side” has illustrated throughout the United States’ maturation.

One of the challenges I ran into was finding sources both current and pertinent to my topic. But what I have come to conclude is this–it is difficult to ascribe a political group a religious affiliation, or inversely, a religious group to a definitive political affiliation. The theme of individualism, seen throughout Protestantism, has the final say.


Nine of America’s original thirteen colonies employed a state church, with multiple denominations represented. As the Revolutionary War began, and the colonies began to unionize, there was a decision to be made about the freedom of and from religion. The founders, when drafting the constitution, “realized both the uniquely religious underpinnings of American identity, brought forward by the justifications for most early settlements in America, and their desire to create a nation centered on equality, freedom, and common values of virtues,” according to Lippy’s The Encyclopedia of Religion in America.

Ushered forward by the work of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, religious freedom was secured for America in its newly formed constitution. However, while religious freedom had been instilled as a right to U.S. citizens, the cultural influence of protestant Christianity was equally as strong.

In Religion and Politics in America, Fowler would ascribe this to the Puritan Temper. As emigrants leaving England, this religious group settled in to the New World with the hope of establishing a “pure” nation of their own. Their beliefs and culture pervaded the American culture and continues to do so today:

The Puritans bequeathed to Americans strong civic institutions, a sense of national mission, and a reformist impulse that continues to American society and political culture.

As the United States was being molded, it was subjected to this widespread “reformist impulse.” However, how to carry out the national mission would be much disputed, and Protestants would slowly divide into conservatives and liberals, both religiously and politically.

The Religious Right

The right side of the political spectrum is generally referred to as conservative, but how that word is interpreted varies greatly. To those that share the conservative beliefs, they see themselves as standing for something and point to what they see as flaws in liberalism. The Right is passionate about right-to-life advocacy (or the overturning of Roe v. Wade), promote fiscal conservatism, and fighting to keep same-sex marriage illegal.

Conservative Evangelicals tend to side here politically, fearing that the rise of modernist, liberal Christianity will eventually dissolve Protestant influence in America completely. As Fowler eloquently suggests:

As modernity advances, secularism spreads in its wake, eroding the social and cultural significance of religion. With religion’s gradual decline, theorists conclude, we can expect to see religious involvement in politics decrease in the long run.

Evangelicals see mainline, or liberal, Protestants as too passive; if one claims to be a Christian, how can he/her sit back while their country is riddled with disbelief and modernity?

The Religious Left

The left side of the spectrum (liberals) takes a different approach to the relationship between religion and politics. Policies that limit choice (or freedom) are seen as against God; free will is a gift, and those who have it should not be penalized or marginalized for believing differently. The righteousness of God should not be imposed on the nation’s citizens; rather, citizens should choose to receive it.

In his book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right, Lerner diagnoses America with a certain stupor brought on by, as he claims, the Religious Right. He continues to speak on the oppression of the political Left by the Right, whom he accuses of acting antithetically of their bible-based beliefs. Lerner writes, “there is a radical split between the caring that gets shown on the personal level and the hostility some of the Religious Right manifest toward those in wider society who do not share their political beliefs.”

Liberals are puzzled by the opposition from conservatives at government funding for the needy, as generosity is a seemingly apparent virtue in Christianity. Other issues they are passionate about include healthcare, affirmative action, and environmental protection.

The Compromise

In his book Moral Politics, author George Lakoff spells out most of the qualms that the Right has with the Left, and vice versa. For example, he points out that liberals don’t understand how conservatives can support capital punishment but advocate against a woman’s right to abort. Inversely, the Right does not understand how liberals claim to support the welfare of children, but vote for the rights of criminals (which include kidnappers, sexual harassers, etc.).

The Religious Moderate has emerged in recent decades as a response to such questions, and is the result of an overarching compromise between the religious right and lefts. For the sake of furthering the protestant influence, conservative and liberal Christians are slowly lowering their weapons in order to find agreement in mission and regain political power as one holistic proponent of Christianity.

This has led to compromise–as a result, we see more “progressive conservatives,” as well as “traditional liberals.” America is witnessing a turn from argument to discussion on these issues, with vehemently held pillars on each side being laid down to find more inclusive alternatives. An example of this thinking would be a voter who considers themselves politically liberal, but socially conservative; one who votes for the legalization of marijuana, but crusades against its recreational uses.

This individualistic thinking, which is a uniquely protestant trope, has decreased the polarity of the conservative/liberal divide for the sake of the national mission described by the Puritan Temper. President Barack Obama summed up this mission, combined with the present political context, in his 2006 speech at Sojourners:

If progressives shed some of their biases, we might recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country…We might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of American renewal.

Return to Mission

In short, America was born of religion. Protestant emigrants arrived from Europe in hopes of settling and creating a “chosen” land. With this hope (and the diversity amongst settlement groups) came the ideal that the people must have the freedom to choose their belief system- thus, the first amendment.

Furthermore, the freedom of religion allowed for freedom from religion, and protestant forces were made uneasy. The question arose as to how to fix the spiritual crisis of disbelief in the Christian God. How to answer that question became a major stumbling block in Protestant America’s mission- to advance the kingdom of God.

The protestant Church in America began to split–those who were more modern, and advocated choice, became the liberal, mainline, leftist Christians. Those who desired to impose Christian values into politics became the conservative, evangelical Right.

As the divide grew to a chasm, both sides began to lose power, as America itself became more secular. Modernity is often a symptom of this, and as the nation developed, it began to move away from religious politics.

In response, the Protestant American Church has begun to compromise with itself- as President Abraham Lincoln said, “A nation divided cannot stand.” As a result, we see the individual religious moderate emerging- whose political/religious affiliations are more loosely defined than most of those the past three centuries–quietly crusading for the sake of the Protestant national mission.

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Protestant Influence on the Klan, or Not?

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

Protestant Influence on the Klan, or Not?
By Arissa Bryant

tumblr_inline_mhqdulUHCN1qz4rgpAs college students, we are extremely familiar with Greek Life. We tend to associate fraternities with Greek letter adorned chapter houses and huge alcohol abundant parties. However, fraternities haven’t always been about the beautiful sponsored houses and raging party scene. One of the earliest fraternities formed is now known better as the Ku Klux Klan. The founder, Colonel William Joseph Simmons actually envisioned the Klan as the ultimate fraternal lodge

The Ku Klux Klan is a uniquely different kind of fraternity.

The Ku Klux Klan is debatably the most prominent and feared group to make its mark in the history of Civil Rights. They are mostly symbolized by the wearing of white, pointed hoods and the burning of crosses. While many know to associate the Klan with the image of the burning cross, many don’t know the actual extent of Protestant influence on this group of individuals.

Background of the Klan

“Beginning in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan organized to advance the interests of native-born, white, Protestant Americans and to restrict the rights and freedoms of individuals the organization chose to exclude by virtue of their racial, ethnic, or religious identities.”

William Joseph Simmons

William Joseph Simmons

Founded by a white, former Preacher named Colonel William J. Simmons, the Klan struggled for support in the beginning but eventually began to thrive and spread across the nation thanks to the strategic thinking of its most prominent leaders. These leaders would stop at nothing to get the membership and support they desired, using money, advertisements, public-speaking events, etc. to increase their numbers. Less than 6 years after the birth of the Klan, the organization was estimated to have 500,000 members in forty-five states.

One doesn’t usually think to associate a religion like Protestantism, known for its love and open arm teachings, with the Ku Klux Klan, a group historically associated with strong racism, hate and violent crimes. However, with a closer look at this group the Protestant influence is quite apparent.

Protestant Influence

Slavery caused a divide between American Protestant churches that began in 1838 with the Presbyterian Church. The divide continued on into the Methodist episcopal and Baptist denominations in 1844 and 1845. In each sect, the northern faction condemned slavery while the southern branches praised it. The racist gospel was then drilled into generations of white southern children.

In Michael Newton’s book “The Ku Klux Klan”, he noted that both versions of the first Klan’s prescript opened with a statement averring that all Klansmen ‘reverently acknowledge the Majesty and Supremacy of the Divine Being, and recognize the Goodness and Providence of the Same’. For many Klansmen, there was no doubt that they were acting in God’s favor. In fact, Lambert said in his book “Religion in American Politics” that members believed that as a part of the organization, they were helping to “defeat the enemies of ‘true’ Christianity and restore morality”.

Naturalization Ceremony

Naturalization Ceremony

Traces of Protestant influence is not only seen in the earliest prescripts but also in ceremony of becoming a Klansmen, better known as the ritual of naturalization. Kelly Baker describes the ritual process in his book, “Gospel According to the Klan”. The ritual is concluded with the pouring of water on the new inductee’s shoulders, head and the throwing a few drops in the air symbolizing his/her dedication ‘in body, mind and spirit’. The usage of water holds resemblance to the Christian ritual of baptism, which symbolizes the act of giving your life to God. In a Christian baptism, a person is usually submerged in water to represent the act of giving their lives to Christ or being ‘born again’.

Protestant churches were an important potential source of not only members but also resources. Klan members are documented to have done various things to win favor from Protestant congregations, including various visitations and monetary gifts to prominent congregations. This attention did not go unnoticed however. In Rory McVeigh’s book, “The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan”, he noted that “in return for the Klan’s support of Protestant churches, Klan leaders expected (and received) endorsements from Protestant clergy.” These endorsements weren’t always in monetary form. In exchange for their support and or membership, clergymen were offered free membership, complimentary subscriptions to Klan publications, and the promise to actively promote the supremacy of Protestant Christianity

Protestant influence is clear in the movement’s song selections. “Onward Christian Soldiers” was actually one of the Klan’s favorite anthems. With lyrics such as “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before. Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe.” A huge initiation or naturalization ceremony in Pueblo, Colorado ended with the singing of “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”. Opening with the lyrics “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love”, both of these songs are Christian hymns that show the Protestant manner many Klan events followed.

Protestants have always been known for their ability to attract new followers. This is an ability that the Ku Klux Klan seemed to have in common. “Simmons made use of his fraternal ties to recruit new members and, drawing upon the skills that he crafted as a circuit-riding preacher, used fiery religious oratory in public-speaking engagements to motivate the audience members to join his new organization” . These huge engagements were similar in appearance to large Protestant revivals, complete with religious language and high emotions. The Klan definitely didn’t shy away from the media to spread the word about their organization. “Colonel Simmons strategically placed advertisements for his new organization in the Atlanta Newspapers, alongside promos for showings of ‘The birth of a Nation’” . Protestants also frequented the media with Christian ads being heard consistently on radio stations.

National recognition was a goal of the Ku Klux Klan’s from the very beginning. Like Protestantism during the Great Awakening, the Klan hoped to spread like wildfire. Also, like Protestantism they aimed to promote the organization as attractive to many, not some. Simmons even solicited members by labeling the organization as a “High Class Order for Men of Intelligence and Character”. What man wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

On The Contrary

While, the Klan claimed to be an order created by God, there were many Christians who begged to differ. In the same speed that their number of supporters grew, so did their number of contenders. A big opponent to the religious claims of the Klan was actually a previous member named Henry Fry. Baker mentions Fry in his book, explaining his many complaints against the Klan. In a letter of resignation to the order, Fry denounced the Klan’s ritualistic work as an insult to all Christian people in America.

Fry believed the Klan’s ritualistic practices to be offensive to his Christianity which was extremely sacred to him. In his opinion, the Naturalization process made a “mockery and parody” of the Christian holy rite of baptism. The fact that a members did a Baptism-like procession to give their life to an organization such as the Ku Klux Klan sickened him.

One thing the Klan became extremely well known for is their secrecy. Nothing quite Protestant like about that. However, even though the Klan had a knack for secrecy, most of its officers are known, but this is because of public statements or illegal actions that propelled them into headlines (not really choice). The Klan was often referred to as the invisible empire. The Protestant religion is more about visibility than secrecy.

Ku Klux Klan Meeting in 1920’s, Washington D.C.

Ku Klux Klan Meeting in 1920’s, Washington D.C.

Some might even argue that the Ku Klux Klan is more Catholic-like than Protestant-like. The wearing of the white hooded robes could be compared to the wearing of robes by Catholic priests. They had large ceremonial meetings in which leaders spoke their beliefs onto the members. This importance of and frequent occurrence of ceremonial like gatherings is a huge part of the Catholic faith.


While many look at anyone in or supporting the Ku Klux Klan as sinners, full of hatred, they see themselves as the total opposite. They believe they are the only true Christians, with every seemingly evil act they commit being in his name. Looking at the number of ministers, preachers and congregations in support of the organization, it’s not hard to believe that the Klan had some sort of religious affiliation. Not to mention, their many Protestant-like practices including the reliance on gospel music and the revival like public events. While the Protestant influence is clear, so is the abundance of contradictions. This includes their claim to not be a racist organization and their declaration of minorities as their enemies. These many contradictions brought controversy, and like many controversial groups they had their fair share of opponents, a number of which happened to be Christian ministers. Nonetheless, recognizing the fact that the founders and countless members of the Ku Klux Klan believed they were doing their duties as Christians opens up a whole new realm of thought on the history of Civil Rights.

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The Christ Figure of Superman and the Protestant Gaze

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

The Christ Figure of Superman and the Protestant Gaze
By Keelan Jamison

There seems to be a dominance in Western story telling in trying to display the messianic or Christ figure. The Christ figure can be found in multiple stories and especially in film. If we were to look at the most recent representation of Superman in Man of Steel there is a clear story telling of the Christ Figure which follows the same tropes while there’s also some gaze theory happening as well in what I would like to call the Protestant Gaze.

According to Catherine Albanese, a professor of Religious Studies, America has a sense of sacred stories, or a creed in narrative form. A creed is something which gives people a basic sense of their human condition. To basically say that certain narratives or stories give a meaning for American citizens to share. American Protestantism mostly shares a belief set of individualism (a sense of self-reliance and self-worth), higher law (belief that God’s law trumps human law), and millennialism (mostly pre-millennialism which is a belief that Jesus will return to save us before the end of the millennium).

With the Christ figure is where doom has been brought about to the world when all of a sudden an unknown figure appears to bring about peace or a better world. The figure tends to be a bit mysterious at first and there also seems to be this idea of a sacrifice from the figure that helps bring about peace. Also this figure tends to take a pre-millennialism action which basically means the world was doomed unless this figure comes to save it.

The Man of Steel as the Christ Figure

The most recent adaptation of superman being the Man of Steel there is this obvious sense of a Christ Figure taking place in the film. Clark Kent is “out of this world”, he will “save it”, and it tends to follow a certain Christ like path. He was the first natural born of his species in centuries, he comes from a no name town in Kansas, he has revealed his powers, but doesn’t want to grab attention to himself, he doesn’t reveal himself until he finds it necessary, he’s about 33 years old, and he’s there to save all of humankind even if it means to go against his own people (that being General Zod).

Throughout the film though we don’t just see a powerful Christ Figure, but also a struggling Christ figure as well. He struggles to figure out what’s the right thing to do at what time and when should he then reveal his powers? There seems to be this set of morals that Superman must figure out for himself yet he does get a better idea and guidance when he finds a Kryptonian Scout space ship and finds his father’s consciousness which then tells him his origin and the capabilities or powers he holds.

Where much of the question of sacrifice comes in is when General Zod invades Earth and asks for them (people of Earth) to bring forth to him Kal El (Superman or Clark Kent). Superman has trouble over whether or not he should give himself up for the fate of humanity because although he doesn’t trust General Zod he also has some issues with trusting humanity as well. Superman does though in fact give himself up/reveals himself to the public and is then taken by General Zod. Much of the film is then taken in the form of action pack scenes and then the eventual last conflict between General Zod and Superman. They fight it out until Zod begins to threaten civilians with his laser eyes which then Superman decides to snap General Zod’s neck and in effect kill him which in turn Superman has just killed the last of his people for the sake of humankind.

What makes this protestant is the fact that there seems to be this sense of no matter what actions we may take Superman is still our guiding light to a better world. Only Superman can save us and help bring peace to the world. There’s this pathos of only through Superman (Christ) alone can we be saved. There’s an emphasis of higher law as well since Superman does go against certain rules, like when he saved the bus full of kids which in turn revealed his power, because it was the right thing to do. A sense of a higher morality exists. There’s also this protestant pre-millennialism placed where the world was in shambles until Superman came to save the day.

The Protestant Gaze

Gaze theory is the idea or view of how something is being looked at. So for example with the male gaze there is this view that females are always just objects to be looked at for the male viewing pleasure. The gaze usually can happen in three forms as well with camera, character, and audience. The camera and character gaze can be easily distinguished for we can tell if we were meant to look at something or someone from the eyes of the character or not (not being the camera), but with audience it’s much more subtle. The audience gaze tends to be more of an inner response of the audience (those viewing) towards what they may be seeing.

Now then with an obvious Christ figure narrative taking place in Man of Steel there’s also this cinematography aspect that takes form in what I would like to theorize as the Protestant gaze. The film does tell a story of a Christ Figure, but there is also some Christian imagery that takes place to showcase this as well. One of the most obvious times a Protestant Gaze may be occurring is when a character does the Christ pose. The Christ pose being like Jesus crucified.


There are two Christ poses with the first pose happening in the beginning, he is in the water, and the second time he is in space. The film nearly stopped it’s pacing just to have us gaze at super man with his arms out in the crucified Christ pose which we take in a camera gaze form, but us as the audience feel or sense the Christ figure when looking at these two scenes. The placement for these scenes almost signify as if Superman is saving us from the depths of the Earth while also saving us in the Heavens. As if Superman is everywhere or always present to protect us.


Possibly another obvious scene in where Superman is a Christ Figure and the Protestant Gaze is occurring is when he is in the Church. This is a vital scene as well within the movie since Clark Kent is questioning whether or not he should give himself up to General Zod. He is looking for guidance to this question of whether to sacrifice himself and of course behind him is a glass window pane depicting Jesus praying to God on a rock.


Where the Protestant Gaze occurs here is we can clearly see the glass window of Jesus praying to God and it may be Jesus asking God for guidance. We see Clark Kent looking for guidance of whether to give himself up to Zod and almost as if looking for an answer. It’s this depiction of Clark Kent next to the glass window depicting Jesus do we then equate Clark Kent as Jesus.

Although the previous scenes are very obvious images of Christ, the one scene where I feel as though a protestant gaze is taking place is when Lois Lane follows Superman into the Kryptonian Space Scouter. She comes into contact with a robot like thing which then zaps her which she then proceeds to scream in pain and fear until Superman runs to her to calm her down. Where she then calms down is when she looks at Superman. When she looks at Superman we then see through her gaze the face of superman. There’s then this gentle mood that takes over the screen and we are left with looking into the face of Superman or the Christ figure.

The scene with Lois Lane being saved by Superman is very similar to a scene we would see in renaissance art depicting Jesus. The painting Christ Healing the Paralytic by Palma Il Giovane is a good example of a scene where we would see Jesus healing. By comparing the painting and the saving Lois scene it grants a good comparison of the two figures. Because we can see the similarities with both scenes we can then see the Christ figure and of course when we look through the eyes of Lois we see the Christ Figure. It is here where the Protestant Gaze is most prominent.


So with that Man of Steel is an obvious example of the Christ figure which takes a prominent role in our societal narratives especially with the pre-millennial Christ Figure. Because of the gaze we take upon the character of superman this influences our notion of Superman being a Christ Figure and gives us a certain way of not only telling Superman’s story, but also gives us the ability to gaze upon Superman as if he were Christ.

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The Supreme Court’s Protestant Influence

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).

The Supreme Court’s Protestant Influence
By Sara Garrett

In America we value our freedom of religion and trust our government to protect that freedom. Whenever our freedom is in question we leave it to the Supreme Court to interpret our constitution and tell us exactly what our freedoms are. However when looking back through some of our court cases that the Supreme Court has ruled on we can see ways that in some ways they have been influenced by Protestant values that are prominent in our society.

During different time periods in our country the way the Supreme Court has made decisions that accommodate Protestant values. Then on the other hand there have been times where the Supreme Court has made decision that reject these values taking a separatists approach when it comes to church-state relations.

Late National Period

In the late national period we see that the supreme courts ruling shows signs of our countries Protestant values. Through the Supreme Court’s decision on a few cases it shows that they have tried to accommodate some typical Protestant values. An obvious example of this is the case of Reynolds v. United States (1878). In Reynolds v. United States the court rules that the laws banning polygamy are constitutional and this ruling still stands today. Even though by popular opinion polygamy may be viewed as a very negative thing, however it clearly states in the bible that polygamy is a sin. So we can see that the Supreme Courts decision is rooted in Protestant values of marriage and that polygamy wrong and as Americans is not something that we want to condone.

Another example of the Supreme Court making a decision that favor protestant values is the cases of Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925). In this case Oregon had passed a law that tried to eliminate parochial schools by making it mandatory for children to attended public school or state recognized private schools. The court decided that the law was unconstitutional and stated that parents have the right of liberty therefore they can choose which school to send their children too.

Pierce v. Society of Sister shows that when the state tried to prevent children from going to Protestant schools but the court did not allow that that. The Society of Sisters was concerned with parents’ rights to send their children to parochial schools and through the Supreme Courts decision that right was protected.

These cases are just two examples of ways we see the Supreme Court accommodating to Protestant values. They are supporting Protest values in education by protecting parents right of making sure their children can have protestant educations. They also do not allow polygamy, which is something that is clearly against Protestant values.


In this time period there is a shift in the court. While the Supreme Court is still accommodating to Protestant values they are also more accommodating to other non-protestant religions. We see this in a few cases like Cantwell v. Connecticut and Everson v. Board of Education.

In the case of Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) we see the court has become more accommodating to non-protestant religions. This case in particular deals with Jehovah witnesses. Cantwell was going door to door with pamphlets about his religion and was charged with soliciting and breach of peace. When brought before the Supreme Court the court found that Cantwell’s actions were protected by the first and fourteenth amendment. The courts decision reflects them being more accommodating to non-protestant religions

During this time period we also have the landmark case of Everson v. Board of Education (1947). The reason this case is considered to be a landmark case is because it is the first time the Supreme Court made the Establishment Clause binding to states.

In Everson v. Board of Education New Jersey students attending non-public (mostly catholic schools) are given reimbursement for students taking public transportation to school. The case was brought to the court by a New Jersey taxpayer; the courts decision was that the reimbursement was constitutional. The opinion of the court stated, “Since we hold that the legislature may appropriate general state funds or authorize the use of local funds for the transportation of pupils to any school, we conclude that such authorization of the use of local funds is likewise authorized”

In both of these cases we can see that the Supreme Court is trying to be accommodating to all religions. They are trying not to place limits on Protestant values in society as well as some values of other non-protestant religions.

1955 and beyond

In this last time period there is a dramatic shift in how the Supreme Court now handles cases dealing with the free exercise and establishment of religion. Up until now they had been very accommodating to Protestant values but starting in the late 1950s we see that their decisions have changed. The Supreme Court starts to take a very separatists approach. They do not want to mix religion and government and this means not as much support of Protestant values in their decisions. We can see that through their decisions on some of their most well known cases.

The first case that reflects the Supreme Court separating Protestant values in their rulings is Engel v. Vitale (1962). Engel v. Vitale is another landmark case because it bans prayer in public schools. In this case we see the court taking a separatist approach to their decision. In the past they had tried to be more accommodating to religions, there for still being able to have protestant values be apart of that accommodation. However, with Engel v. Vitale even though the prayers in school were voluntary prayer and government written the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to have these prayers in public school.

This is a very significant case because we see that through this decision school are no longer allowed to have prayer in them. While many Protestants wanted to have prayer in schools the court ruled against it showing that there is not an as significant Protestant role in the court.

Lemon v Kurtzman (1971) is another very significant case. The reason this case is so important is because in the decision the court made a test, The Lemon Test, which explains the requirements for legislation regarding religion. This is a three-fold test, which are:

  1. “The government’s decisions must not result in an “excessive government engagement” with religious affairs’. (Also known as the Entanglement Prong)
  2. The government’s legislative action must minimally enforce or inhibit religious practice (also known as the Effect Prong)
  3. The government’s implicit action is required to maintain a secular legislative agenda (also known as the Purpose Prong)”

Now when any case regarding religion is brought before the court they use this test to see if the governments action is constitutional or not. If one of the 3 folds is violated then the act is rule unconstitutional.

This is only another way the Court has less of a Protestant influence. The court has a set way to handle cases regarding religion so that there will be no disparities between religions and the governments support of it. There is no way now the court can show favoritism over certain religions once they start making test like these.

Roe v. Wade (1973) is one of the most famous cases to go before the Supreme Court. This case deals with the issue of abortion. This case does not deal with religion however it does deal with values that play a significant role in Protestant religion. In the courts decision they claimed that abortion is a fundamental right, meaning this is a right that belongs to all human beings. This is something that not only upset Protestants but other religious groups as well. The Court really does not take Protestant values into consideration at all. This is a clear example of how separate they have made religion and politics because the Protestant values to do influence this case at all.

It is clear that the Supreme Court has changed the way they rule on establishment and free exercise of religion cases. They are not being as accommodating and have very much shown that they want strongly enforces the separation of church and state.


America is a country that was founded for freedom and one of those freedoms is the freedom of religion. America is also a country founded by Protestants. Through out history we have seen the Supreme Court try to balance the influence of Protestant Values and the freedom of religion. They have been accommodating for a long time and now we see that there have been great efforts and decisions made to make sure that religion and government are separated and that there is religious freedom for all religions in America and not just Protestant religions.

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