Catholics in St. Anthony, Idaho, 1909

I was leafing this morning through Orbis Books’ documentary history The Frontiers and Catholic Identities, when my eye was caught by a reference to St. Anthony, Idaho, the little town where I spent my elementary school years. (My parents moved us out of St. Anthony at the right time to leave me with happy Lake Wobegonish childhood memories of the place rather than hellish hicktown junior high memories. Sorry, St. Anthony–you are what you are.) The historical document having to do with St. Anthony was part of Father Alvah W. Doran’s account of a 1909 missionary tour he made on the coincidentally named St. Anthony Chapel Car. Here’s what he had to say about his stop in the town of St. Anthony:

We could not omit this town, however much work our shortness of time compelled us to leave undone this trip in Idaho. The honor of the Chapel Car’s patron saint constrained us to preach his religion to a community as ignorant of it as they were of how their town received its good name. There are a handful of the very best kind of Catholics here, and the foundations have been dug for a church. We trust that our work will raise it above ground-level soon. St. Anthony, pray for them! [...] At this place the opera-house had been lately burned but the Mormons granted the use of their meeting-house. Thursday evening the Mormon choir had a rehearsal, and then remained to sing at our services. (The Frontiers and Catholic Identities, pp. 125-126)

I would guess that the church whose construction he refers to is the same little Catholic church that was standing in St. Anthony when I lived there–and which is still standing there: Mary Immaculate. Here are some photos from the church’s website.



The last time I visited St. Anthony, over a decade ago, the church had installed a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe out front–a sign of the times. I knew already (from a Mexican immigrant family I met while volunteering as a medical interpreter at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City) that St. Anthony had experienced an upsurge of Latino residents.

I can’t imagine that the Mormon church I attended while living in St. Anthony is the same one Fr. Doran preached at in 1909, though I wonder if it might have stood on the same site.

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500 Years of Religion and Empire


I’ve completed the syllabus for one of the courses I’m teaching this semester. Although this is a first run, which will need revising in future semesters, I’m very pleased with how it turned out, which is code for “I’m feeling a bit vain.” (Which in turn is code for just plain “I’m feeling vain.”) If nothing else, I think the syllabus is pretty to look at–I certainly enjoy looking at it.

The most important thing is that this syllabus represents a new approach, for me, to teaching an “intro to American religions” course. My theme this semester is “religion and empire,” which I’m using to construct a new kind of grand narrative for U.S. religious history, a more geographically expansive narrative than is conventional. I’m not aware of a textbook on this subject, so I pulled together a collection of short historical documents as readings–that was a lotta effin’ work. Click the link to admire the results with me.

REL 101D Fall 2014 Course Policies and Schedule – Duffy


Protestant Christian Values in Country Music

This is the last 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 Christian Values in Country Music
By Zachary LeCompte

When you listen to country music what do you hear? Or more importantly what don’t you hear? While you may say, “I hear songs about trucks, girls and farms”, would you believe me if I said one could also include “I hear a Christian parable”? Would you believe me if I said that in country music, we can see Christian themes and ideas reflected in both the lyrics of the songs and the music videos released by popular country artists? Do you believe that this would be possible in a culture where you seem to be encouraged to suppress religious expressions in order to achieve mainstream success?

Religion In Mainstream Music

As detailed in William Romanowski’s article “Evangelicals and Popular Music”, located in the publication Religion and Popular Culture in America, if popular artists want to achieve mainstream success they have to be willing to suppress or minimize the religious influence of the songs. That is to avoid using overtly religious lyrics that may go against the general population’s idea of what popular music should sound like. This can be credited to our cultures increasing secularization, as well as the increasing tendency to avoid explicitly religious expressions to avoid offending those of different beliefs.

And according to Campbell et al. in Media and Culture, country music is the most popular radio format in the United States. That is there are more country music radio stations than any other music format and only talk radio has more across all formats.

So on one had we see Romanowski say that popular music has to be secularized and on the other hand we see Campbell et al. say that country is the most popular music form, and yet we see Christian themes in country music. Themes such as individualism and pre-millennialism; Individualism being the focus of the individual’s personal relationship with God and pre-millennialism being the idea that Jesus will return to earth and bring a period of peace and the return of the kingdom of God.

Protestant Themes In Country Music Lyrics

Rich Tiner states in his article “Positively Country” from the periodical Christianity Today, “Non-Christian listeners are getting tired of some of the messages in mainstream country”, showing that many have begun to notice this trend. Tiner goes on to define two kinds of country music that contain theses messages or themes. The first is “positive country” or “implicitly Christian, conveying Biblical values but not necessarily a gospel message” which tends to find its way to mainstream more often. The second is “Christian country” or “overtly Christian with an explicit gospel message” which is often less welcomed on the mainstream stations but enjoys great success on its own.


One perfect example of individualism is the radio single from artist Thomas Rhett named “Beer With Jesus”. This song received ample airtime and peaked at number 19 on Billboard’s US Country Airplay. The song paints of picture of what Rhett would ask if he were to garner some alone time with Jesus. In the chorus Rhett sings, “Do you hear the prayers I send, what happens when life ends? And when you think you’re comin’ back again?” Within these words we can see distinctly Christian messages like praying to Jesus, the idea of an after life and the return of Jesus to earth.

Later he asks, “What’s on the other side? Is mom and daddy alright? And if it ain’t no trouble tell them I said hi.” Again we see the idea of an after life. However, now we also see the idea that if you believe in God, you will go to heaven to be with Jesus when you die. This is portrayed when Rhett asks if Jesus could tell his deceased parents that he said hello, implying that Jesus would see them upon his return to heaven.

Another example of individualism is Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel”. This song enjoyed success across the board, peaking at number 1 on Billboards US Hot Country Songs and number 4 on Billboards US Christian Songs. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Country song as well as and Academy of Country Music Award for Single of the Year and a Gospel Music Association Award for Country Recorded Song of the Year.

The song tells the story of a young woman driving to visit her parents in Cincinnati when she loses control of her car. After it comes to a stop she decides to pray and to devote herself to Jesus, asking him to “take the wheel” of her life. We see here the Christian message of prayer as well as the idea that one should devote their lives to Jesus and leave their lives at his mercy.

Another song that carries a Christian theme of individualism is the 1948 Hank Williams song “I Saw the Light”. This song was discussed in the article “Preaching and Country Music” by Lamar Potts from the publication Journal for Preachers. In the song Williams talks of how he lived a life of sin, unwilling to accept change until one day he let Jesus in and it changed his life. We see this in the opening verse:

I wandered so aimless life filed with sin, I wouldn’t let my dear savior in, Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night, Praise the lord I saw the light.

The song also presents the idea of good vs. evil, which is very prevalent in Protestantism in several ways. The first is the more conservative view of the battle of living life morally and spiritually holy and avoiding a life filled with sin. The second view of good vs. evil is more of a liberal view of society trying to combat the evils that plague the community as a whole and trying to eliminate evils such as poverty, oppression and injustice.

In this case the view is more conservative, and focuses mainly on the narrators life and experiences. It is for this reason that the song is a good example of individualism.


Ted Olsen of Christianity Today points out in the article “Johnny Cash’s Song of Redemption” that the country legend had more that one hit that carried a Christian message. Perhaps the best example of this is his song “The Man Comes Around”. It was one of the most successful songs from the back half of his career, selling 500,000 copies before his death.

The songs centers around a main theme of the end of the world, and more specifically the apocalypse as described in the book of revelation. The song opens and closes with two spoken verses from the book of Revelation, one introducing the first horseman of the apocalypse and the other introducing the last horseman.

Open: “And I heard as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying come and see and I saw, and behold a white horse” – Revelation 6:1-2

Close: “And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts, and I looked and behold, a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” – Revelation 6: 7-8

We also see many other allusions to the Bible in the lyrics of these songs such as “Then the father hen will call his chickens home” as well as “It’s Alpha and Omega’s kingdom come”. Both of these lines stick to the songs pattern of using biblical references to illustrate its story. And it is the use of these references we see not only a Christian influence, but also more specifically a pre-millennialist Protestant influence.

Christian Images In Country Music Videos

We also see Christian messages portrayed in music videos for songs. One music video we see a Christian messages in is Carrie Underwood’s “See You Again” video. Throughout the video we see crosses on the screen in a variety of places. One in an elderly widows living room, and another at a cemetery. We also see make shift crosses left made from debris left after a deadly tornado.


We also see messages written near sites of tragedies. One shot shows a wall that is spray-painted with, “God Bless Sandy Hook”, referring to the school shooting. Another shows a heart with the message, “keep faith Moore, OK” in response to the deadly outbreak of Tornadoes. We also see a tombstone flash on the screen with the inscription “God heals all wounds”. In addition, we also see people raise their hands towards the sky, as you would see one doing in church or in prayer on multiple occasions.

Perhaps the strongest Christian image we see is a video clip of a father and a son being baptized together during a church service. By placing this clip in the video for the song, “See You Again”, it is implied that the father and the son will eventually meet again in heaven now that they have accepted the Lord as their savior.

Another example of a country song having Christian messages portrayed in its music video is the video for “Hurt” by Johnny Cash. This video actually contains clips of a reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus as well as other images. Some of the other images include a portrait of Jesus and an arch with a golden cross on top.

Other music videos we see Christian messages in include the video for Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” and Eric Church’s “Give Me Back My Hometown”. In Keith’s video we see a soldier praying and kissing a crucifix necklace as he prepares to go into battle, showing the importance of prayer and faith in God to protect you from your enemies.

In Church’s video we see many of the scenes at a cemetery where we see many crosses throughout. We then see the burial plot the main character is visiting, which has a cross placed at the head of the plot and a minister standing and reading from a Bible. The minister is praying for the soul of the deceased to be accepted to heaven.


What’s the Explanation?

In a culture that is increasingly secularized, and promotes silenced religious expressions in mainstream music, how is it that we can see such distinct messages make it into mainstream airplay? It may have to do with the fact that despite the increasing secularization, we are still a nation with a strong heritage of Christianity in our culture as well as a strong Protestant influence in today’s culture. And due to this influence, many Americans are still accepting of Christian expressions.

Another reason could be that Christian culture had a large influence in the southern United States, a region also known as the “Bible Belt”.


The Christian influence in the “Bible Belt” is important because the region is the “home of country music” (Nashville, Tennessee) and also produces a large number of country musicians, especially from Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Therefore, the personal beliefs of country musicians, and listeners may also contribute to the tolerance of Christian messages in the music.

But regardless of the reason, country music shows us that the American culture may not be as opposed to religious expression as it seems. It shows that the culture is still tolerant of Christianity. Not much unlike “moments of silence” replacing moments of prayer. We see the secularized context, but we still understand the original Christian concept. And while many still view it as a moment to pray, or exercise their faith, we allow it because it isn’t demanding our participation nor forcing us to alter our beliefs. This is similar to Christian themes being shown in country music, because while they are there, they don’t dominate the landscape. There are plenty of secular country songs to balance out the tone of the music.

In fact we even see this balancing demonstrated inside the genre of country music. Positive country, as described by Tiner, serves as the more toned down, or modest version for mainstream stations, whereas Christian country tends to be more vocal and dominating, therefore being marginalized for niche audiences.

So while religious messages may not be supported in mass, from time to time, they are still welcome in moderation. And this shows us that Protestantism has shaped American culture to be tolerant of religious expressions in mainstream culture, as long as they don’t dominate the landscape.

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Evangelical Protestants and Secular Conservatives Form a Political Alliance

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).

A Rocky Relationship: Evangelical Protestants and Secular Conservatives Form a Political Alliance in Spite of Ideological Differences
By Matthew Durot

If you are at all like me, a 22-year old college senior with a merely casual interest in politics, it is unlikely that you have given much thought to the complex inner-workings of the Republican Party. However, if you paid any attention to the most recent presidential election, I would assume that you are at least vaguely familiar with a group commonly referred to as the Religious Right. Berated by Democrats and embraced by Republicans, the group appeared to command the media’s constant attention.

Lacking any historical frame of reference, it seems logical to assume that the Religious Right’s relationship with the Republican Party has been longstanding and mutually beneficial. However, as you will soon find out, the series of events that strategically bound these two allies together occurred more recently than you might think. Furthermore, despite their public expressions of commitment to the alliance, each party has suffered a series of disappointments that have led them to reconsider their support of one another.

Origin of the Alliance

For the first hundred years of the Republican Party’s existence, an alliance with the white evangelical Protestants that make up the current Religious Right was unfathomable. As Robert Booth Fowler points out in his book Religion and Politics in America, “the traditional Republican party promoted business interests” and had been responsible for ending slavery. This legacy placed it at odds with a group primarily made up of poor southerners. Furthermore, Fowler notes that “evangelicals long viewed with distaste political participation, which they saw as an engagement with the sinful world from which god wished them to abstain”.

The 1960’s counterculture was viewed by evangelicals as a threat to their traditional values.

The 1960’s counterculture was viewed by evangelicals as a threat to their traditional values.

However, this all changed with the arrival of the countercultural 1960’s. A postwar increase in affluence described by Fowler resulted in the movement of many evangelicals to cities and suburbs where they could no longer avoid what they saw as an “increasingly secular and intrusive culture that threatened their traditional values”.This led evangelicals to mobilize politically through a series of successful grassroots movements. Among the most significant achievements of these campaigns was the defeat of a 1977 gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida.

Having suffered consecutive electoral defeats in 1974 and 1976, the Republicans took notice and sought to embrace this energetic and previously unaccounted for demographic that made up 35% of the American population (Gallup Poll).

Compromising on Priorities

In his book Religion and Politics in the United States, Kenneth D. Wald describes how secular Republican strategists “offered assistance in the form of financing and political infrastructure to the emerging leaders of the evangelical conservative movement”. In return, these leaders were expected to “embrace a more comprehensive conservative program”. Although traditional social issues remained the priority of evangelicals, they agreed to dedicate their resources to a wide array of secular conservative causes. In order to justify this arrangement to their followers, evangelical leaders framed initiatives like increased defense spending “as a way to keep the nation free for preaching of the gospel”.

Together, the allies would launch what Wald describes as a “a full-frontal attack on big government as a threat to traditional religious and economic values”. Having, at least in principal, entered into this mutually beneficial alliance, the parties set out to retake America from their liberal opposition.

The Elections of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush

Republican candidate Ronald Reagan consults with Jerry Falwell, founder of evangelical political organization the Moral Majority

Republican candidate Ronald Reagan consults with Jerry Falwell, founder of evangelical political organization the Moral Majority

During the 1980 presidential election, the Republican Party’s efforts to appeal to its new constituency were on full display. According to Wald, “the leaders of the GOP granted considerable symbolic recognition to the Religious Right, featuring the group at its national convention and adding to its platform a constitutional amendment to restrict abortion as well as legislation to legalize prayer in public schools”. In return, the Religious Right mobilized for the GOP’s candidate Ronald Reagan, “encouraging pastors to sign up churchgoers to vote and to impress upon them the necessity to express their religious convictions in the polling booth”.

Due in large part to the unprecedented number of votes cast by evangelicals, Reagan went on to win the presidency in a landslide. The fact that evangelicals were so united in their support of Reagan is symbolic of their newly steadfast commitment to the Republican Party. After all, Reagan who is described by Fowler as “a divorced Hollywood veteran and intermittent churchgoer” had been opposed by an evangelical in Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Evangelicals remained politically active throughout Reagan’s successful reelection campaign as well as that of his successor George H.W. Bush. During his first campaign, Bush gave limited emphasis to conservative cultural themes. However, facing reelection with a struggling economy, Wald observes that “Bush pushed evangelical’s pro-family agenda much more aggressively”. Although he would go on to lose, Wald argues that Bush’s defeat can be attributed primarily to “the concern of moderate voters about the Christian Right’s capture of the party”. Therefore, it should not be viewed as an indication of diminishing evangelical support, but instead a sign of the group’s influence within the GOP as perceived by both party elites and the American public.

Unfulfilled Promises While in Office

Despite twelve consecutive years with a Republican White House, the Religious Right failed to secure any significant policy reform. In his article “Dead Wrong”, conservative columnist David Frum argues that many within the Republican elite viewed the Religious Right as nothing more than “a nuisance to be managed.” Evangelicals could not have been fully aware of these ulterior motives purportedly held by many of their supposed allies. However, Wald argues “it was clear to them that neither Reagan nor Bush had made social conservative issues clear priorities of their administrations”.

The proposed amendment to legalize prayer in public schools was voted down in the Senate. Additionally, a tuition tax credit championed by evangelicals for religious schools was never implemented. Yet the Religious Right did not turn away from the Republican Party. Instead, Wald argues that they reasoned their failed efforts had merely been the product of an American political system “whose fragmented structure and multiple centers of power were designed to resist radical policy change”.

A Change in Strategy

Ralph Reed, Executive Director of the Christian Coalition, is featured on the cover of Time Magazine

Ralph Reed, Executive Director of the Christian Coalition, is featured on the cover of Time Magazine

Having experienced the difficulty of achieving major policy reform at the national level, the Religious Right underwent a significant strategic shift in the years that followed. According to Wald, many leadership positions previously held by ministers were turned over to “seasoned political operatives recruited from secular conservative organizations.” Under the direction of these campaign veterans, newly created organizations such as the Christian Coalition were able to expand their outreach and fundraising capabilities through streamlined networks of local chapters and churches.

However, while these new leaders proved to be valuable from an operational standpoint, their secular influence was increasingly pervasive. All of a sudden, expansion had become the top priority. In an attempt to garner votes from outside of the evangelical community, Wald notes that the Religious Right “modified its agenda to include a broader set of issues appealing to other religious and secular conservatives”. Similarly, the language with which evangelical groups communicated their message was fundamentally altered. In his book The Evolving Politics of the Christian Right, Matthew C. Moen argues that in order to avoid alienating this new target audience, religious messages were disguised and replaced with “the liberal language of rights, equality, and opportunity”.

By placing the secular conservatives in power, the Religious Right risked losing its own identity. Having done more than their fair share to promote the alliance’s success, evangelicals expected to be repaid for their loyalty this time around.

The 1994 Midterm Elections

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich outlines the Republican’s “Contract with America”, for which the Religious Right lobbied enthusiastically

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich outlines the Republican’s “Contract with America”, for which the Religious Right lobbied enthusiastically

Despite how you may feel about this secular shift in evangelical politics, there is no denying that the new leaders of the Religious Right transformed the movement into a well-oiled political machine. Wald notes that “during the 1994 congressional election, the Christian Coalition alone distributed thirty-five million voter guides and made telephone calls to three million voters”. Such efforts played a pivotal role in a sweeping Republican takeover of both houses of Congress. However, in what was becoming a recurring nightmare for evangelicals, these elected representatives again proved unreceptive to their needs once in office.

The Religious Right had lobbied aggressively for the Republicans’ “Contract With America”, which Wald describes as “a legislative program emphasizing secular policies such as welfare reform and a balanced budget amendment”. However, in spite of their support for the plan, evangelical priorities such as “a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration” were absent among the legislation ultimately enacted. Furthermore, major components of the Religious Right’s own “Contract with the American Family, including traditional calls to restrict abortion and shield Christian schools from state regulation” were repeatedly put off by the Republicans and ultimately ignored.

According to Wald, this was the last straw for many of the movement’s most influential activists, prompting them to call for “an evangelical retreat from politics”.

George W. Bush: One of Their Own

President George W. Bush speaks at a gathering of fellow evangelicals

President George W. Bush speaks at a gathering of fellow evangelicals

This may very well have signaled the end of the Religious Right’s alliance with the Republican Party had it not been for the candidacy of George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential election. Frank Lambert’s book Religion in American Politics argues that “in George W. Bush, the Religious Right found a born-again Christian who, unlike Jimmy Carter, spoke their language and subscribed to their views.”

According to Wald, Bush was not shy about declaring “that he regularly talked to God for political guidance”. Furthermore, Lambert notes that in addition to his belief in “the right of religious groups to a fair share of public funds”, Bush framed his policy in distinctively Protestant terms. For example, in promoting the War on Terror following the attacks of 9/11, Bush described America as a nation “called on a mission to root out radical Islam”.

If there was ever a candidate well-suited to promote the interests of the Religious Right, George W. Bush was certainly it. In spite of their past dissatisfaction with the GOP, evangelicals proved willing to give the Republicans one more chance. According to Fowler, Bush would go on to win the presidency “in large part thanks to a surge in conservative religious voters”.

Abandoned By Its Golden Child

President Bush looks on as his pro-life candidate, Samuel Alito, is sworn in as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

President Bush looks on as his pro-life candidate, Samuel Alito, is sworn in as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

During his Presidency, George W. Bush, made a concerted effort to provide evangelicals with what appeared to be unprecedented access to power. Wald notes that “in order to signal to evangelicals that his candidates belonged to pro-life churches, Bush made opposition to abortion a litmus test for Supreme Court appointees”. Furthermore, he “appointed a large number of evangelical stalwarts and approved their appointments of fellow activists to lower-level positions”. According to Wald, the evangelical presence within the Bush administration was so pronounced that it led Jimmy Carter to “alarmingly announce the Christian Right’s capture of American public life”. However, evangelical support for Bush would eventually sour.

Reflecting on his time in office, evangelicals found that like Reagan and his father before him, the younger Bush had not made their goals a priority. Wald argues that “secular goals central to the GOP agenda got all of the administration’s resources and generally secured legislative approval”. Meanwhile, Bush gave only a “half hearted effort to cherished goals such as faith-based federal programs and the ban on gay marriage”. These policies were either victimized by severe compromise in Congress or were voted down all together. The candidate who had provided the Religious Right with so much hope ultimately proved to be as disappointing as his predecessors.

Future of Evangelical Politics

Decades of disappointment with the Republican Party have left many evangelicals questioning their involvement in politics altogether. Whether due to a system resistant to radical change or an abusive ally concerned only with electoral gains, the Religious Right has been largely unsuccessful at accomplishing its social goals through the political process. Furthermore, in his book What’s the Matter With Kansas, Thomas Frank argues that by aligning themselves with the Republican Party, “less affluent evangelicals have effectively promoted economic policies that further undermine their life chances”

Additionally, Wald notes that many evangelicals worry “involvement in politics, an inherently messy business, has compromised the integrity of evangelicalism”. In addition to the secular influence examined previously, a number of infidelity and corruption scandals involving evangelical politicians have angered a religious group for whom morality reigns supreme.

Does the GOP Even Want the Religious Right?

On the other hand, its experience with the Religious Right has a faction of the Republican elite wondering if an alliance with conservative evangelicals might no longer be in its best interest. In fact, Wald argues that many within the party have long opposed the courting of a group whose agenda contradicts their libertarian stance on social issues. These same Republicans attribute the party’s recent string of defeats to the alienation of its traditional base in response to an increasingly intrusive social agenda. Despite the size of its evangelical constituency, the Republican Party cannot obtain a national majority with the support of the Religious Right alone. The question is, can the GOP survive without it?


Having become increasingly integrated into mainstream American society, it is no longer possible for evangelicals to abstain from the political process that dictates how they live their lives. Furthermore, the Republican Party simply cannot afford to lose the support of a religious group that as recently as 2012 made up 39% of the American electorate (Pew Research Center). Therefore, in spite of their growing disillusionment with one another, it is likely that evangelicals and secular conservatives will continue to co-exist as a political alliance moving forward.

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How Protestants Tried and Failed to Influence Television

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).

How Protestants Tried and Failed to Influence Television
By Stephanie Garber

Television has been part of American culture since the mid 1940s. It quickly replaced radio and became a staple in homes across the country. Families would sit around the tube and watch programs together. The shows that were on back then promoted values that lined up with what Protestants believed. They saw television as an opportunity to get faith into homes quickly and efficiently. Despite their best efforts, Protestants had little to no effect on the development of American television.

vg392842Growing up, I remember watching VeggieTales on Saturday mornings and thinking it was the greatest show of all time. Vegetables singing about Jesus and hairbrushes, what could be better? Every episode ended with, “God made you special, and he loves you very much!” I was raised on shows like this and I didn’t understand the religious aspect at the time because I was so little. There were plenty of other blatantly Christian shows on TV and since my childhood they have become more and more rare.

Shows that were not openly religious also portrayed Protestant ideals. Every night at nine o’clock my family and I would watch an episode of I Love Lucy before bed. One night I asked my mom why the main characters, Lucy and Rickey, slept in two twin beds instead of one big one, she said, “Back in the 50s when this was on TV they didn’t like to show couples going to sleep in the same bed.” This was true because back then American values were still Protestant values and that meant not promoting sex on television.

Since then Americans have gotten farther away from these values and so have TV shows. Protestants tried in the beginning to keep TV clean and “wholesome” but scandal and competition eventually lead to the downfall of Christian TV. Some people these days would go as far as to say that most TV now is antireligious.

fkb079183In the mid 1940s the television set because commercially available and Protestants saw an opportunity to put Christian shows on the air. They thought they could air shows focusing on God and good morals and it would reinvigorate people’s faith and get them to go to church again. This worked at first and shows like Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, Bonanza, The Wonderful World of Disney, and many others came about in the 50s. A lot of them were very successful and lasted into the 80s.

All of these shows portrayed wholesome family lifestyles and had strong Protestant values like work ethic, strong family ties, abstinence and so on, but television quickly became a way to spread material that was not Jesus friendly across America. Elvis’s gyrating hips had everyone in an uproar, as did shows that question protestant morals rather than reinforce them. Programs that highlight comedy and musical acts became very popular and the Protestant community saw that they needed to step it up a notch.

After failing to keep television a clean space to spread the good word, Protestants decided they could still use TV to at least get the word out through televangelism. TV evangelists were very popular. Big names like Jimmy Swaggart were extremely successful. A People Magazine article on Swaggart form 1988 said he had tree houses and owned a private Jet. Televangelists helped to organize American Christianity by building audiences composed of many different ethnic, regional and religious backgrounds. A person does not have to be literate to watch TV. These evangelists could reach a lot more people than they could through Christian pamphlets and newsletters or once a week sermons.

Televangelism worked in the beginning but it brought about the problem of mainline versus evangelical Protestants’ battle for airtime. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) made television stations give time to things that would help better the communities called “sustaining time.” One way they could do this was to give time to religious programming. The stations gave preference to the mainline Protestants in the Federal Council of Churches and made everyone else (Jews, Catholics and Evangelicals) pay for it.

Evangelical Protestants were upset because they had to spend money to get their programs on TV. At one point NBC refused to sell airtime to religious programming other than the Federal Council of Churches. The National Association of Evangelicals formed in 1942 and tried to counter the influence of the Federal Council exercised on religious broadcasting.

When that did not work televangelist Pat Robertson bought a bankrupt station and devoted more than 50 percent of his time to religious programming. This station was the first of its kind. This is where shows like The 700 Club started.

Eventually, in 1960, the FCC made a decision that commercials could be used as free time not just religious programming so TV stations started making everyone pay, not just the Evangelicals, Catholic and Jews. This really made mainline Protestants mad because they were use to getting their airtime for free. Evangelicals, however, did not care because they were use to paying for it.

After the FCC opened up sustaining time to everyone in 1960 all religious groups that wanted to have airtime were able to get it.

These days there are still some Christian stations but they are not very prominent. Trinity Broadcasting Network is the biggest one and it mostly plays The 700 Club and live sermons.

All in all televangelism ends up dying out because some major scandals take place.

sw128605One of the biggest and most well known televangelist scandals happened in 1988. Jimmy Swaggart was one of the most prominent TV preachers. He had around 8 million people tuning in to hear him preach until word got out that he had committed transgressions that were not accepted in the Protestant church. He had been preaching on living a moral life and preaching against adultery when his followers found out that he had cheated on his wife of 35 years with a New Orleans prostitute. This was not the only scandal televangelism had to deal with. Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, and Bob Larson also all had moral failures. Listening to these people preach on TV and then hearing about their indiscretions made a good majority of their audiences tune out.

Some of these men have been forgiven by their listeners and followers and are back on TV, but these days televangelism is not what it used to be. Shut-ins and elderly people are the main audience for it today. It was not bringing anyone to church or to Christ. The magazine Christianity Today states that the numbers of viewers and contributors have dropped by almost three-fourths compared to its peak in the 80s.

Most people had a major problem with the hypocrisy of the TV ministers. They spoke on purity and abstinence and then went against everything they had said. One 47-year-old woman member of Swaggart’s Assemblies of God Church said in the 1988 article in People Magazine, “How could he stand up there in the pulpit and preach against adultery and promiscuity when he was doing that kind of thing all this time? I think he ought to stay out of the pulpit.”

csi552984Hypocrisy is still an issue in TV today. The book Small Screen, Big Picture brings out some interesting arguments of how television today can be viewed as antireligious. Some people say that CSI is portrays religion in a negative light because the lead character, Grissom, was once a Christian but doesn’t hold to it anymore because of the hypocrisy that comes along with it. He did not just talk about Christianity though. One episode centered on Monks and another around Buddhists.

CSI is not the only major show that addresses religion. The hit televisions series House centered on an angry man who was an open atheist. In multiple episodes he would comment on how there was no God and that anyone who believed opposite was an idiot. In one particular episode House and a comparative religion major go head to head because he tells her that the only reason she believes in religion is so that she can feel good about herself at the end of the day.

House, CSI, Law and Order being antireligious along with shows like Family Guy and South Park openly making fun of religion is why the Protestants lost a lot of their weight in television. Most secular shows that bring up religion make fun of it of portray it in a negative light. TV these days really contradicts older shows like I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver in this way.

In 2014 Protestants have little to no say what goes on television. All of the Protestant values they fought so hard to preserve have fallen to the wayside and the “troublesome material” they were trying to keep off the air shows up on most shows. In fact TV is almost antireligious. TV shows portray religion in a negative light. Shows like Family Guy and South Park openly make fun of religion and frequently have Jesus as a character on their shows.

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Protestant View on Immigration Reform Debate in America

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 View on Immigration Reform Debate in America
By Allie Serna

Immigration reform is an issue that almost everyone in the United States has an opinion on. In the last thirty years, changes in federal immigration policy have created an unprecedented rise in the number of immigrants admitted to this country every year (Federation for American Immigration Reform). Issues surrounding immigration policy are complex and opinions on it can be difficult to determine. For example, the “Protestant view” on immigration policy is a difficult concept to pin down. There are many factors to consider when explaining how Protestants feel about immigration, but by reviewing how the group feels about past race relations and looking closer at specific denominations of the group, a conclusion can be reached.

What is Immigration Reform?

Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) is the notion that Congress needs to conduct a review and change the entire immigration system to better reflect the needs of The United States and that of immigrant families.

  • creating legal avenues for people to enter the United States
  • allowing people already here to earn the opportunity to adjust their status
  • addressing the multiyear backlogs in family and employment based immigration
  • creating and implementing a smart border security and enforcement regime that respects core principles of due process

These are just some of the issues brought up during conversation about comprehensive immigration reform. According to a Gallup poll in June of 2011, 43% of Americans believe that immigration to the U.S. should be decreased, 35% believe that it should be remain at its present level, while only 18% believe that it should be increased. (Federation for American Immigration Reform) The question is, however, what is the Protestant view on comprehensive immigration reform.

Protestant View

One way to determine how Protestants view race relations in the form of immigration policy is to look at past feelings and opinions on issues like it. One particular example that this issue can be compared to is the civil rights movement in the 1960s. During this time Protestant groups were generally supportive of the efforts and made it a point to become involved with furthering the movement. Some particular ways Protestants did this were joining protests and demonstrations, advocating for the rights of African-Americans, and the creation and involvement of Black churches (Lambert). Many Protestant denominations use the scripture ideology of ‘love thy neighbor as thyself” when looking at immigration issues. Just as Protestants responded positively to reforming the issues surrounding race relations in the 1960s, so too do many Protestant denominations desire to help immigration reform in present day.

Protestantism is a large Christian faith with thousands of denominations with different ideals. To claim that there is one single “Protestant view” on immigration reform is oversimplifying and generalizing the subject. To truly understand how Protestants view immigration issues, it is necessary to look at some of the largest and well-known denominations.

 American Baptists

During October 2013 the American Baptist Home Mission Societies and American Baptist Churches USA attended the Church World Service’s Global Summit on Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C. At this summit, the American Baptist’s stance on immigration reform could be clearly seen with its input. At one point during the summit, ABCUSA General Secretary A. Roy Medley recited a prayer that called upon legislators to have the moral courage to empathize with the poor and immigrant. The prayer also asked that legislators’ hearts be filled with compassion and courage to bring freedom for immigrants (ABCUSA). From this event and its accompanying prayer, the American Baptist view on immigration reform is definitely positive.

Episcopal Church

In New Jersey and New York on Ash Wednesday of 2013, a faith-based, community and immigrant rights groups held an entire day of actions aimed to repent the sins of immigration policy. In attendance was presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori who shared her view on the topic of immigration policy. During the vigil she stated “Citizens of these United States share some responsibility for those undignified and unjust practices, and our prayer today must be that hearts and minds are opened to the need for justice.” Also during the event, a call for a transformation of the system into a humane one was brought up. Bishop Schori stated that an immigration reform that focused on discerning the difference between people who enter the United illegally to do harm and those who enter illegally because of the long, complex system the United States currently has in place. From this event, it appears that Episcopal Church has a positive view for immigrants who enter the country for harmless purposes. (ENS staff).

 United Methodist Church

On its website, the United Methodist Church has an entire page dedicated to its views on immigration policy. On the webpage, it describes how the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act severely restricted the opportunities of immigrants. The page then goes on to say that this particular law has not worked and that the current immigration system is broken. One statement on the page urges local congregations “to oppose unjust local and state ordinances that seek to deprive undocumented persons of basic social services including the access to adequate housing and protection under the law” (Call for Comprehensive Immigration Reform – The United Methodist Church). The motto of the United Methodist Church is “open hearts, open minds, open doors.” The statements put forth by the church follow this ideology by calling for the just treatment of foreigners in the United States.

 Presbyterian Church USA

As early as April of last year, the Presbyterian Church in the United States was actively supporting a bill for comprehensive immigration reform. In an address about comprehensive immigration reform, Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, claimed that “our church and country have been built by new immigrants who have worked in partnership with those already here. We want to continue this legacy so that others may be blessed as we have.” (Parsons) It seems that while the Presbyterian Church is interested in helping immigrants, it is also interested in recruiting new members into the church. The Presbyterian Church is also interested in family unity as a cornerstone of their beliefs. Because of this, it is focused on maintaining family unity as the foundation of their immigration policy. (PC(USA) OGA)

 Evangelical Lutheran Church of America

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, like all other Protestants, draws heavily on scripture when looking at debatable issues. The Church uses the Bible and “the experiences of Lutherans in America as an immigrant church in a country of immigrants. The basic themes are grounded in the call to welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35) together with the commitment to justice that advocates for fair and generous laws.” (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)

 National Association of Evangelicals

Immigrants are the fastest growing part of the evangelical church in America. Most immigrants are strong supporters of traditional family values and traditional family values are a cornerstone of evangelical beliefs. The National Association of Evangelicals turn to scripture as most Protestants do and state that “discussion of immigration and government immigration policy must begin with the truth that every human being is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28).” Because of this particular passage and others in the Bible, they believe that immigrants are made in the image of God and have value that can contribute to the betterment of society. In October 2009, the National Association of Evangelicals Board of Directors passed a resolution supporting comprehensive immigration reform; and in June 2012, the National Association of Evangelicals joined the Evangelical Immigration Table. The Evangelical Immigration Table is a broad coalition of evangelical organizations and leaders advocating for immigration reform consistent with biblical values. (Immigration 2009)


While the “Protestant view” on immigration policy is a seemingly difficult concept to pin down, after analyzing the ideology of a few different denominations, it is mostly clear how Protestants view immigration policy. It is surprising to see all the support for positive comprehensive immigration reform from the various Protestant denominations- at least in policy. This is because it is common for Christian persons to identify with the political right. Because of this trait it could be seen that these Protestants may side with their political party’s views and oppose comprehensive immigration reform. However, when focusing on family unity, scripture passages, and recruitment for their church, Protestants support comprehensive immigration reform at least in policy. During the 1960s civil rights movement, Protestants aided in settling race relations and helped African Americans gain rights. Many denominations (including mainstream and evangelical Protestants) have similar views on immigration reform, and that is that all people, including undocumented people, deserve respect and dignity.

Works Cited

ABCUSA. “American Baptists Continue Immigration Reform Advocacy Efforts.” American Baptist Churches USA. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

“Call for Comprehensive Immigration Reform – The United Methodist Church.” The United Methodist Church. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

ENS staff. “Episcopal Church joins immigration-reform push.” Episcopal News Service. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

“Immigration.” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.

“Immigration 2009.” Immigration 2009. National Association of Evangelicals, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.

“Immigration Issues.” Home. Federation for American Immigration Reform, n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.

Lambert, Frank. Religion in American Politics: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2008. Print.

“Office of the General Assembly.” PC(USA) OGA. Presbyterian Church (USA), n.d. Web. 09 May 2014.

Parsons, Gradye. “Addressing Immigration Reform: A Statement from Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly.” Presbyterian Church (USA). Presbyterian Church (USA), 18 Apr. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.

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Protestant Roots in the Founding of America

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 Roots in the Founding of America
By Jesse Bowman

The Common Foundation of Our Nation

What kind of nation are we? This question could go in many different directions, with many different focus points. Think about the “America experiment”: We are a blend of numerous cultures, a home to many peoples, and a face to diversity. So the question at hand, then, is how America is classified as a nation. What qualities exist within this country that distinguish it?

Although there are a vast array of cultures and beliefs that have influenced America over the years, it is clear that certain values and beliefs are embedded into this nation’s heritage. Americans proudly claim to be “we, the people”, endowed with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. There is no doubt that ideas such as these will never leave the U.S. culture. The founding of this country has roots that still hold strong today.

But where do such ideas arise? This question is still heavily debated today in scholarly circles. For some, these ideas are embedded in the Protestant religion. The Bible contains references to life, freedom, and joy that could certainly be connected to such ideas. However, others believe these ideas are connected with the Enlightenment and thinkers such as John Locke. Far from religious, the Enlightenment produced thoughts and theories that provoked such foundational doctrine.

Protestantism’s Role in Our Roots

The first answer to this question gives rise to another question of how much of a role religion (especially Protestantism) played in the “roots” of the United States. At the time of the nation’s independence from Great Britain, Protestantism dominated in the religious culture by far. This sheer fact already made the job of the founding fathers much more difficult: In terms of the construction of government and foundational documents, how could they find agreement without compromising a (religiously) free country?

Throughout this class, we have looked at the effects of Protestantism on American history and how it has shaped the society as a whole. When we look back even further in history, we find that Protestantism arose as a result of those religious groups breaking off from the Catholic Church. Protestantism has been in America even longer than the nation of the United States, and it was easily the most popular religious practice by the time the United States had arisen.

I wish to take a look at the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson, specifically. Both of these are important when considering how we got to where we are today, and I want to dive into exactly what Jefferson was thinking as he wrote this Declaration. Did he intend for the nation to be entirely theistic or Protestant with his inclusion of “Creator”, or did he merely try to satiate the vast majority of Americans who identified with Protestant beliefs and values? Regardless, the impact of this document and this person are nothing short of vital in the creation of the country we have today. And it is important to remember that these questions are not detached from the interests of the authors: We will have to sift through much opinion and interpretation.

The Declaration: Religious or Secular?

One argument present in my readings is that the Declaration of Independence is neither wholly Protestant (nor wholly Judeo-Christian). Rick Fairbanks, the author of “The Law of Nature and Nature’s God”, tells us that “except in the weak sense of psychological independence, Jefferson’s Declaration is not based on Judeo-Christian principles” (pg. 552). He claims that Thomas Jefferson did not write this document to strictly align with the popular views of religion at the time; therefore, it should not be read as if it were.

Yet at the same time, Fairbanks holds that the Declaration did not intend an entirely secular document either: “However, the Declaration is not a wholly secular document; it contains a deep tension between naturalistic and theological commitments” (pg. 552). He realizes that if he claims this document not to be religious, neither can he claim it to be secular. Rather, he analyzes what he calls the “deep tension” of two very different commitments. Thomas Jefferson was not a Protestant, and in writing the document he wanted to instill beliefs and ideas into the nation that were not solely of this religion. But he knew that he had to get the document to pass in the light of a Protestant majority.

Voluntarism vs. Intellectualism

Fairbanks then dives deeper into these two “commitments” to explain what he means. He refers to what is known as the Euthyphro dilemma: Is an idea good because God (or the gods) command/support it, or does God (do the gods) command/support an idea because it is good? It is important to consider this in the light of this document because this lets us know more about Thomas Jefferson’s intentions. There are two takes on this dilemma: One is “Voluntarism in natural law”, and the other is “Intellectualism”.

If we claim Thomas Jefferson to be a “voluntarist”, then we view the inclusion of such ideas as life and liberty in the light that he believes these ideas to be good because they are God’s. In this sense, Fairbanks argues, the Declaration would be much more theistically inclined, because Thomas Jefferson would see God as vital for the moral survival of the country. However, if Thomas Jefferson were to be seen as an “intellectualist”, then these ideas take on a much more secular identity. Rather than being connected to religious ideals, Jefferson would have been more influenced by the Enlightenment and cultural influences of that nature.

In his work, Rick Fairbanks argues that Jefferson is indeed an intellectualist. He sees the tension between voluntarism and intellectualism as a parallel reflection between the tension of naturalism and supernaturalism. And Thomas Jefferson is well-known for the famous “Thomas Jefferson Bible”, in which he removes all pages that claim Jesus did supernatural things. Rather, he focused on Jesus as a great moral teacher whose teachings were essential for a society to flourish. Such ideas as life and liberty, then, would not be based on a spiritual and supernatural sense of eternal life or freedom, but on concepts of freedom that relate more to intellectualist concepts. Clearly, Fairbanks would say, Jefferson holds that such moral criterion is superior to more abstract, supernatural beliefs about these concepts.

Misreading the Declaration?

Another argument I came across in my research deals with the idea that the Declaration of Independence has been misread as a pro-Protestant document. In his article “Reading/Misreading the Declaration”, writer Barry Bell presents us with his beliefs that the “the language of the Deistic, enlightened, ‘common sensical’ Jefferson” is being interpreted “as though he were a modern Isaiah and the Declaration as an evangelical sermon” (pg. 73). Bell holds that it is a misinterpretation of the Declaration of Independence to think that it is a Protestant document (or wholly Protestant, similar to Fairbanks’ argument).

He goes on to support his claim by describing a sermon by a preacher named Peter Whitney titled American Independence Vindicated given in 1776. In this sermon, Whitney claims the Declaration to be written in alignment with the freedom of the Bible, and he would say that Jefferson wrote this document with reverence for Protestantism. Bell, as expected, refutes this argument by arguing that Jefferson’s inspiration came not from any mode of Protestantism, but from the Enlightenment and thoughts of similar thinkers. He completely abhors the use of the Declaration as a religious support, because that was not its intention.

Jefferson’s Intentions

Many, many more arguments and interpretations of Jefferson’s intent and agenda in the Declaration of Independence exist. As I searched through various sources and arguments, I formulated my own opinion concerning Jefferson and the Declaration. From what I have researched, it seems apparent to me that Jefferson did a balancing act. He was a Deist, and although that means he believed in God, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he would support Protestantism specifically. Yet he included “Creator” for a reason; aside from personal conviction, he knew he had to appease

In agreement with Fairbanks, I also found Thomas Jefferson to be an intellectualist. He saw the Bible as a central guidance of morality and lawfulness in a successful society. In his personal Bible, Jefferson cuts out all the miraculous works of Jesus (literally) and focuses specifically on his moral teachings. Hence, I believe his agenda not to be particularly religious, because he might see such a document as the Declaration as more important than any personal religious motive.

I also found much evidence about the influence of Enlightenment ideas on Thomas Jefferson’s thought process. One of the most significant influences came from the popular thinker John Locke, who even preceded Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” with his own similar unalienable rights. This, too, could reveal a more “common-sensical” root to Jefferson’s intentions.


Although I have formulated my own opinions, I invite and challenge you to do the same. This isn’t merely a debate over an irrelevant historical occurrence; this document continues to affect the way we live today. If our nation views Jefferson as more enlightened, then that will impact the way in which we view religious separation and the cultural heritage of the nation in general. If it is more theistic, then perhaps the nation should take into account what that would mean for the country as a whole.

The Declaration, to this day, remains open to interpretation. Thomas Jefferson and the other influential founding fathers clearly had certain agendas (whether intentional or not), and as a result, there is a vague sense of what constitutes as public expression of religion. How would a different interpretation of such documents as the Declaration of Independence affect the nation we live in today?

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Ramadan etiquette?

I encountered an etiquette issue yesterday which for me, at least, was a first: Should you eat in front of someone who’s fasting during Ramadan?

The situation arose because I was at a luncheon being held as part of the Study of the U.S. Institutes, a State Department-sponsored program that brings foreign scholars to the US to learn, in this case, about religion in American society. I found myself seated next to two Muslim scholars. Because of the Ramadan fast, they weren’t partaking of the luncheon, but they were sitting with me because I was supposed to be fielding questions they had about American religion.

As soon as I realized that they weren’t eating, and why, I didn’t feel comfortable eating while we talked–so I just talked. Eventually a server started removing untouched salad plates. I told him to leave mine–I’d eat it later. At that point, my conversation partners urged me to go ahead and eat. So I took some bites of salad and drank a little bit, but I left the main plate alone when it arrived. The server brought it to me boxed, actually, unsolicited.

After a while, the Muslims in the group left to attend Friday prayers at a local masjid, at which point I ate my boxed-up meal while chatting with folks who had remained behind.

A different religion-and-food etiquette question that’s poked at me periodically for a few years: Was it wrong of me to order an entree with bacon when I was taken out to eat on the tab of a Jewish studies seminar I used to work for?

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American Protestant Work Ethic Compared to Islam and Japanese 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).

American Protestant Work Ethic: As Compared to Islam and Japanese Culture
By Ian Marker

America has become a business icon leading the way in production and entrepreneurship. The Protestant theory called the Protestant Work Ethic and is widely believed to be the start of how work has been conducted in America through its years. This stems from that of the countries work ethic, which, traditionally, is known to be based upon Protestant Christian ideas. Humans in other area of the world have a work ethic as well, whose background has not been traditionally Protestant. It is these comparisons and contrasts that will be discussed in the content of this article.

The differences presented between each culture provide contrast to that which is not American. Through this article, we will look at how the history of Protestant Work Ethic has affected America working culture today. Then, We will compare this ethic to that of countries which are not historically Christian such as Japan and Turkey.

American Working Background

The American work ethic is based on that of the original theories of how protestant should spend their money. The grounds for Protestant work ethic strain from theological perspectives based on Scripture, mostly the book of Genesis, and Calvinists views of work.. Weber contributed the theory of Protestant work ethic, which brought about development of capitalism and industrialization.

The Calvinists who first inhabited the North East area of the country were escaping religious tension from within the English Kingdom. The Calvinists called themselves Puritans when settled in America. Calvinists believed that money was something that was good when used to drive work. It was right to go to work, work hard, and make money based on the work done. They thought that this act was good in moderation and paved the way for a natural capitalism.

Portrait Of Max WeberA man by the name of Max Weber wrote on his accounts of how the Protestant groups viewed work and money. He saw how money was being used to stimulate the economy inside small communities in groups such as the Calvinists. He was on the side that believed Calvin and Martins’ theories about capitalism was a positive attribute to man.

The Protestant work ethic, over the decades had degraded along with the overwhelming sense of American secularism. This notion of can be seen as a change to that of the “American Dream” which includes working hard to be successful and prosperous in life. This dynamic of Protestant capitalism has been somewhat degraded into a more socialized union while in parallel; America has become a more secular nation.

The main points in what consist of the Protestant work ethic in American culture is that one works to fulfill the work for their family. It is good to earn money and make a modest pay. This system fits into the capitalist society that the American market is based on. The Bible makes reference however, that Man should not get greedy or exceed that of what they may need in life. This stresses the idea of moderation and its goodness in society.

Islamic View of Work

In the Middle East, Islam is an intrinsic part of life and has played a significant role in establishing a religious work ethic. While Muslims share the hard ethic of Protestant culture, there are some differences to their beliefs that differentiate them from the Christians. Though both traditions emphasize a hard work ethic, Islam encourages a life of individual struggle, while Protestants believe God will provide for you regardless of your situation.

Like Protestant beliefs, Islamic work ethic prides individual effort. The Quran states that “man can have nothing but what he strives for” Those who work hard receive approval of Allah and are viewed as successful members of society. The Quran also states that humans should search across the globe for their livelihood. If the place where they reside does not offer enough opportunities for work, they should move elsewhere to seek their fortune.

In Turkey, Islam is a major aspect of culture and has influenced the work ethic of many people. A 2002 study done in Turkey presented data based on work ethic and how it was improved based on religion. The study showed that the people who were more religious were seen to have more ethical work practice that those who had no religious affiliation.   This is because Islam provides an all-encompassing structure on how one should live their life. Like Christianity, it provides a set of morals that can easily be applied to the business setting to create a productive environment.

Where Protestantism and Christianity differ is their acceptance of assistance.   Christians generally believe God will provide those who are suffering for. Muslims, on the other hand, reject the idea of relying of Allah for sustenance. While good work will receive praise, they are expected to achieve that success by their own means. Muslims do not view accepting charity in a positive way. Though it is one of the five pillars of Islam that all Muslims must donate a portion of their income to charity, those who accept help for others are viewed to be of a lower status and begging is not considered a means of livelihood.

The Quran talks of how those who are employed are to be only the best in their work. There is also dignity in labor as stated in the Quran 40:13. The idea of the Islamic jihad suggests that life is perpetual struggle. By this reasoning, then, Muslims must continue to work all their lives. While Protestants generally accept it is enough to provide for their family, Muslims will never truly achieve success, as they must continue to work on order to fulfill their duty to jihad.

Buddhists’ Views on Work

Japan is a country where Buddhism is the most prevalent religion in their society. Besides this however, there are also many spirits that are spoken of to encourage work ethic. An article on Japanese workers provided information on how ethic was based off of a Japanese spirit. This spirit focused in on: Hard work, happiness, and mature social identity. Through these points a worker could know that they were working hard and bettering themselves in the process. Also, they want to do the best they can for their bosses.

In an article from Christena Turner explains how great it is to have a job. These workers come straight from high school to work in the industry they are recruited from. There is one account where a worker is so incredibly hard on herself about working to the best of her ability and beyond. In the same account, it is said that two of the girls quite because the hard and long work process. The worker who saw the others leave wrote in her journal about the two quitting and she felt that it were her duty to make up for their slack. This mind set towards work ethic is incredible and works well to involve workers to better their individual selves. The Spirit told to the worker is a significant cause to what ethic is needed to keep working in their environment. It produces a very large amount of output by many individuals creating a work ethic that is very strong.

Buddhist views also affect the Japanese working community. Buddhist views are against materialistic gain in a way to enter Nirvana with oneself. Through this, business culture takes the form of a simple and non-violent arena where economy and businesses stay small. This ethic encourages a form much different from that of Protestants because of how each view what they are working for. It is clear that Japan utilizes the idea of having a strong faith is important to all aspects of work. It progresses the working process and more is accomplished because of it. It is also driven by the Buddhist and rich cultural histories views of money and materialism. Compared to Protestants, Japanese work to provide only enough to survive in the world as simplicity is key. Protestants see earning money as something they have personally earned because of their hard work. The contrasts in this being that the Japanese are working to survive and are driven by their spirit.


Although there is work ethic present in each of the three examples of religion presented in this comparison, yet the differences between that of Protestants, Muslims, and Buddhists are significant and unique to each section. Protestants work for their families to live happily and praise God’s giving nature with capitalist backgrounds as seen in Weber’s theories. Muslims work from a sense of needing to work out of morality. They feel it is required of men to struggle and ben challenged while they work. This is different still as compared to the Japanese culture of work, where simplicity and strong spirit drives work ethic. The Protestant work ethic is a highly debated and reviewed topic. Religion scholars along with sociologist have spent over a century trying to uncover where and if it still exists in America. With all of this focus on the Protestant work ethic other nations are focused on less but can be argued to have a more interesting reason behind their meanings.

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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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