Monthly Archives: July 2014

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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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?