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Dam(nation) and the American Prophetic Imagination: An Interview with Charles T. Mathewes

The “gotcha” clip of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermon played ad nauseum over every major media outlet this spring, in which he declared “God damn America!,” was not the anomalous blip on the historical, American religious radar screen the media might have you think. In fact, despite the histrionics of the press, such anxious prophetic zeal is well documented even from the early days of our nation. In that vein, The Other Journal’s Dan Rhodes recently had the opportunity to dialogue with Charles Mathewes about his forthcoming book, Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America’s Imminent Secularizations from the Puritans to Postmodernity, in which he (with co-author Chris Nichols) not only frames the current God and Country conversation in an important historical context, but asks questions about what theological motivations Christians might have for the various jeremiads which pronounce the impending doom of America.

The Other Journal (TOJ): You have a new book coming out with Chris Nichols, entitled, Prophesies of Godlessness. In the book you say that “in American history prophesies of godlessness are as American as American godliness itself.” Can you help us understand why and how these prophetic calls, lamenting the decline of American culture towards atheism or godlessness, have been so rooted in American religious culture and imagination?

Charles Mathewes (CM): I think there are two complicated sources for that, at least two, maybe more.

The first one is the religious heritage of most of the original Europeans who came to this continent, especially in the English colonies, the Puritans, and others as well in the southern colonies. Theirs was a very profoundly voluntarist religion, that is, it was a Christianity essentially based around the idea of a free and voluntary assent of the will, which was the foundation for religious faith. When you have a religion based around the idea of a fundamentally contingent affirmation of the will, there is always an anxiety about whether or not you are properly voluntarily affirming your religion. So there is always a question surrounding the contingency of the propriety of the faith and the future of the faith. That is one source internal to the particular religious traditions out of which the nation emerged.

The other source is related to the States themselves. We pointed this out in the introduction to the book. There is this wonderful quote by Stanley Cavell, in his Must We Mean What We Say?, that we quote in the Introduction to our Prophesies of Godlessness, where he basically says that before there was England—the United Kingdom—there was England, and before there was France—the Republic—there was France, but before there was the political constellation of the United States of America, there was no America. So America, in a weird way, is a profoundly contingent nation and feels its contingency in its bones. Think about the way the National Anthem ends; it ends with a question. In other words, how does America remain America? And because of this there has been profound anxiety about the continuity of America. Think about the French, the French I believe right now are on their fifth republic. Can you imagine a second American republic? That would be so existentially wrenching for people.

The idea seems to be here, anyway, that the notion of America itself, even while it is very strong, it is in some important ways very brittle, which also promotes a kind of concern about the moral future of America, especially since America is historically a civic republic, a polity that relies on a certain sense of moral virtue among its citizens for its sustenance. And Americans have had a hard time, for a long time, working through a picture of virtue that is not related in some sense to a picture of fighting, of struggle.

So those are the two fundamental sources that drive the anxiety about American religiosity.

TOJ: Do you think that those are in some ways deeply seated in the, for lack of a better way of saying it, Protestant origin of American religion?

CM: Absolutely, I think in some ways our work builds on the critique of a relatively famous book by Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad. Bercovitch’s point is that a lot of the political discourse in the culture actually is rooted very much in the Protestant heritages, especially the Calvinist/Puritan heritage of a lot of Americans. Josef Joffe, a German intellectual who also edits the German weekly Die Zeit, makes the point that originally in Europe there were both Lutheran and Calvinist Protestants, but by in large most of the Calvinists left. The Protestantism that is in Germany is a mostly Lutheran Protestantism. There are some Calvinists in Switzerland of course, and in the Netherlands and Scotland, but historically not that many. In fact, the majority of the Calvinists came to America. And it’s funny when you talk to European Protestants, their experience of Protestantism is very different from Americans’, and it’s because, effectively, the Calvinists left and came to the United States.

TOJ: Given that, this issue of our journal is on atheism and what could be termed as the rise of secularism. Within that context, could you talk about how you understand this phenomena? Obviously this is something that isn’t just happening now, so how do we understand this rise of secularism within America?

CM: One of the nice things about doing Prophesies of Godlessness was that it really educated me to some of the deep history of these tendencies. Two of the chapters in the book go back to people like Emerson and, of course, Jefferson, who is important to where I live here in Charlottesville, VA. These thinkers, while they were not what we would consider secularists of the sort that you would find in a humanist association, were in an important way engendering a more thorough deconstruction of ecclesial structures. In part, they thought this would accentuate and intensify other religiosities, but also they thought it would serve to secure the health of the future (in Emerson’s mind) and the polity (in Jefferson’s mind). And they proposed things that look a lot like what some of the secularists are proposing today.

More interestingly, at the end of the nineteenth century there was a much more vigorous and lively space for atheists in America. If you look at a work like Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers in which she reports this long and interesting history of people who actually made a lot of money going on lecture circuit in the 19th century, like present-day Christopher Hitchens, arguing religious points and everything. It is interesting to think about a culture then that seemed to have a larger sub-unit that was susceptible to thinking about atheism as something one could consider as a live option or at least something to be thinking about as an authentic arguing point. Now what happens in the 20th century that that goes away?

I think two things.

First of all, after WWI and then the Scopes trial, you get a more vocal fundamentalist wing of American Christianity and this atheism is forced to retreat for a while. That’s the story you get from George Marsden’s work on fundamentalism and Mark Noll’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. American religiosity became in some ways, like the rest of the nation, much more consensual. Although what happened in the 20th century that American religious historians don’t think about too much are Nazism and Communism, both of them in a complicated way were profoundly anti-Christian. So atheism in a complicated way gets tarred indirectly with Nazism and much more profoundly with Communism. Christianity, or the civic religion, becomes a central bulwark in the fight against totalitarianism.

Now, then what was happening structurally? What was happening to the intellectual culture if you believe people like Chris Smith and his colleagues in their book, The Secular Revolution, who I happen to believe is right on this, is that the intellectual culture becomes much more secularized, as does the structure of the society because structures are created by the intelligentsia or the elite. Hence, the structures of the society become much more secularized and the government is much more thoroughly managerial in its running.

After World War II, as other scholars have pointed out, the government takes over most of the social science obligations and social service obligations that the churches used to run. Also, the courts begin to move in a much more secularizing way, in part driven by people who seem to have read Tillich as well as the Niebuhrs in their education. You get all these positions from the 40’s forward that seem to be investing themselves in a certain Tillichian definition of religion, it seems to me. So really you get all this stuff that is all going on subsurface.

And again and again what you have happening are the structural contentions being put in place for a certain kind of much more efficiently secular system, even though the broader and overarching culture turns out to be composed of very anxious, civic-religion Christians, of the “God and Country” variety.

So what happens then is ’89 forward, with the collapse of the Soviets, the connection between atheism and anti-Americanism goes away. And then after 9-11, my god, suddenly it looks like atheism is not the main anti-Americanism at all.

So now this is why we are in a much different position than before. I don’t think that American culture is necessarily tied up with a certain kind of religiosity, but the international conditions which really held it thoroughly in place have declined precipitously in the last decade or so. So the example we gave of how American culture is still importantly religious is this wonderful essay we cited in our introduction called, “Atheists as Others” by Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis and Douglass Hartmann.1 It is a sociological study of the different kinds of attitudes people have toward certain questions, such as, “who would you like to have on your street?”; “who would you like as president?”; “who would you like to teach your children?”; and again and again you can be gay, you can be of another race, you can be a man or woman all of these things have become more acceptable than the one thing you cannot be: an atheist. Since the 1950’s it seems atheism has actually declined as a viable stance for a public figure to take. It’s fascinating.

TOJ: Now, in speaking to that, let me ask a kind of follow up question in regard to especially the way atheism, or at least secularism, is related to a certain intellectual group of people. Do you think in some ways the kind of prophesies of godlessness that you named, and decline narratives in general, are juxtaposed to narratives of progress that emerged during that time? Is that primarily where they tend to live on, as a debate between intellectuals? Is it a dialectic within the intellectual culture or something else?

CM: Yeah, I think so. But, I am not so sure I would call it “a dialectic”. I would say that for some people they are complementary, whereas for other people, they are deeply opposed. But I think that if you think about one important strand of modern thought that emerges out of, say in different ways, the French Enlightenment and the Scottish Enlightenment, it is that a more thoroughly worldly form of life is directly correlated with a kind of healthy and vigorous society that grows and develops and becomes more mature and disintegrated. The progress is very clearly related to a certain kind of godlessness.

Now in the 19th century it seems an alternative German theory gets going which is more supple on this and seems to imply a kind of, what some sociologist call, “structuration”. In other words, it’s not so much that secularization will happen, but that a different kind of differentiation will happen and religion can still have a healthy place. This is a Jeffersonian line of thought, but is found in Hegel too, while still within a largely secular system. So the problem there is that religion, as long as it plays nice with a certain vision of secularity, works well. Now, I think the best person in this tradition of thinking right now is a guy named, José Casanova. He is not unaware of the blatantly anti-religious dimensions to this, but he does not want to say that religion is going away or anything like that. Yet, his perspective is very interesting.

He points out that religion is not declining in the world—this is the Public Religions in the Modern World book—but that what is happening is that religions are turning into denominations. There are no more churches, there are only denominations. I think that that is a very insightful point. Even if you do get a certain kind of secularization in the state, it is not a godlessness. It’s just that religion becomes something that has to sit within a larger pedagogical schema. And you know my education, and I think your education too, suggests that religion doesn’t like that. Religion wants to be its own fundamental framing picture; and I think for good reason it wants that. Talk about absolute faith! It can’t necessarily be satisfied by playing nice in that way, nor should it.

TOJ: We are going to come back to that because I do want to ask you some questions about the Theology of Public Life, you’ve been a busy man as of lately. First let’s jump off in another direction. Could you frame for us some contemporary configurations of atheism? Are there different types of atheism? Is the atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens similar or dis-similar to that of, say, Žižek or some of the agonist political thinkers, i.e., Carl Schmidt or Derrida, which you have interacted with in some of your writings?

CM: I think that they are very different kinds of people, not in so much that they are not centrally bound in the way that they critique religion, although their critiques are very different, but more so in what they are affirming as part of that critique. So agonists, one of my favorite agonists at least on a religious message is William Connolly, who wrote a really interesting book called, Why I am Not a Secularist. His argument, in that book anyway, is that secularism is in itself a kind of society that has the same kind of unknowing, the same kind of dogmatic unknowing, that Nietzsche and others would have critiqued in certain kinds of religions. Now his critique of Christianity is not a critique that says I don’t ever want to talk to it, his critique is rather that this is a really interesting debate we can have as long as we understand the debate in a certain way. I actually think that the way he understands the debate isn’t bad.

Then there are people like Žižek, who, I confess, I think is really interesting and like the agonists in a certain way—although it’s not so much agonism as it is a kind of psychoticism or something, (I really don’t know what to call Žižek, apart from someone who I think could spend some time in the Betty Ford Clinic). Not because of any artificial substances, I think it is entirely generated by his own mind, he is clearly brilliant, but in the end a book like The Puppet and the Dwarf, it seems to me, in many ways is a warmed over kind of Marxism, of a certain broad sort of atheist liberation theology.

Then the people like Hitchens, or Sam Harris, or people like that strike me as—in another way someone like Mark Lilla though Lilla’s not nearly as naive about it as, say, Hitchens, or Dawkins, or Harris—naively relying on certain kinds of slogans from the Enlightenment. I take their critiques of religion, and I think they are very valuable. I think when you think about what they are trying to do, and people point this out, it seems like atheist fundamentalism. It is going back to the fundamentals, the problem with that is that you are not confronting why the fundamentals were so dissatisfying in the first place. That is the problem with them. There are very different ways of doing it. I think someone like Connolly or Žižek, when I have enough caffeine to understand him, or someone like Rom Coles, these figures are I think very interesting (though Lilla I am not so sure about—in attempting to understand religion in the contemporary world, he turns to Rousseau, Hobbes, those sorts of thinkers—I mean, he seems committed to interpreting the world and its problems through his graduate school comprehensive exam reading lists, which is not probably the way I’d recommend trying to understand things). Coles and Connolly—they’re the real deal.

TOJ: Which will then, I think, segue great to the next question. Though I do want to come back and ask you about the difference between a theology of public life and a public theology, which I know you have answered in other places but I would like for our readers to hear you answer the question. Before we do that, however, I know you’ve said that, in wrestling with the agonists, particularly, with people like Rom Coles, Carl Schmidt and some of these other political philosophers we’ve noted, you’ve learned a lot from their ideas around conversation. Yet, you also offer some criticisms of this type of thinking. Can you tell us with respect to your Augustinian view of politics, what both can be learned from them and what are some of the problems with the agonist discussion?

CM: Sure, I think that agonists are fantastic first of all in terms of identifying more microscopically the tensions and ambivalences—this is where they are also related to Derrida—that lie at the heart not only of subjectivity but of any particular view that we might want to put forward. A sense that they have is that it is always better to allow the ambivalences and ambiguities of our views to emerge and be confronted and to struggle with them, rather than let them be suppressed further from the surface. I think that is a very exciting and very promising thing compared to the ideas of many other political theorists, who want to offer a kind of picture of politics that is in some ways a kind of decision procedure that doesn’t allow a kind of residual sense of unfairness. It seems to be wonderful and admirable project, in place of the Rawlsian-liberal project, where these theorists insist on the idea of fairness.

My point, which the agonists handle wisely, is that fairness is never total and there are always going to be losers. In a way the problem with liberals that agonists jump on, the problem with a certain kind of liberal, with a Rawlsian liberal (I don’t want to say liberals in general because I think liberalism is a very heterogeneous thing)—the problem with a certain kind of Rawlsian liberalism (which is not even Rawls’s view, it is second generation Rawlsianism, and it is always the second generation that you have to worry about), is that they simply don’t have much in the way of resources to admit that there are losers, losers who could legitimately complain about the losses they suffer from any particular liberal consensus. The ideal that such thinkers—the Rawlsians, I mean—have is complete consensus, so they generate systems that seem really interested in denying dissent rather that acknowledging the legitimacy and existence of dissent.

So agonism is wonderful for that, for the political stuff, for the political debate for understanding the complexities of human psychology and dialogue. Agonism’s limitations, it seems to me, lie in its overly-pessimistic ontology, which I say in my book actually naturalizes a certain kind of violence. In this way I think someone like Milbank has some important points to make about this. They want to say conflict is inevitable and that seems to me to deny the phenomenology of conflict, which is the experience of the felt wrongness of conflict, the feeling you get, when you’re in it, that it is wrong. When we experience conflict, it seems wrong. But they want, at least implicitly, to deny that. Because of this, there are also, I think, some problems with the psychology it implies—a psychology that wants to suggest to people, again assuming that conflict is inevitable, that we need not really accommodate the possibility of a certain kind of integrity in human beings, it seems to me—the kind of integrity where that phenomenological experience of the felt wrongness of conflict tells us something important both about ourselves and about the nature of reality. They want to deny—or perhaps it’s better to say that they seem structurally compelled to deny—that peoples’ intuitions of this sort—profound intuitions, they seem to me—are either authentic, or authentically tracking the truth. That’s a major limitation.

TOJ: Right. It seems to me that that is interesting in regard to the role religion then plays in public life and to the extent that Rawls, or someone like Rorty, attempt to exclude all religion from public space and from public dialogue, it seems like the agonists in a certain way are opening public space to religious discourse and to beliefs and to serious concerns.

CM: That’s probably why I am not a secularist. Absolutely!

TOJ: Right! So, in this sense, what way do you see these theorists changing the public space in American politics or are they? Maybe not?

CM: It might be, I think, that what we have is a series of confidences that are very interesting. We have the kind of crisis of intellectual confidence, of a certain kind of political liberalism, of the academic variety right, of the Rawlsian kind and stuff like that. Sure, different things have happened to them, they have discovered that the world that they thought was coming about—both the secular world and the Democratic Party world—is not coming about and that has caused such a difficulty for them. Essentially, intellectually some of the most powerful work in political philosophy these days is actually being done by Christians reacting to the Rawlsian project in different ways.

So, it is a much more explosive, colorful religiosity that strikes me as permitting a certain kind of dialogue. But I also like to think that the great example of what went wrong with political liberalism, the great antidote that I love is the fact that, as Allen Hertzke wrote in this book, called, Representing God in Washington, where he argued that (it was a study about how different religious groups, you know, mobilize themselves to speak publicly in debates), the people who were most leaning to a liberal edict—that is, a restrained religious or faith edict—were actually the groups like Focus on the Family or the Family Values Commission. Even that language, “focus on the family”, is not explicitly theological. People talk all the time about the Reverend James Dobson, but James Dobson isn’t a reverend. He’s a doctor; he’s a medical doctor.

So you know what’s interesting is that what people discovered was that this idea of liberalism to restrain religious speech didn’t work at all. So, I think there is a way in which intellectually there is a new space for agonism. But, then also, I think culturally one of the advantages, in fact one of the advantages of the new atheist, is that the new atheists are around because people have realized, “hey, wait a minute, it’s okay for them to be atheist.” I think it is still quite shocking that in the public sphere the possibility of atheists has emerged again. And it’s quite nice, because it is a really serious religiously pluriform public culture. We now have, especially after 9-11, vibrant Muslim voices in America.

TOJ: Right, and that will lead us into the final question which is: given that background and kind of the culture that we find ourselves in, can you give us the difference between what you are trying to articulate as a theology of public life in opposition to a public theology?

CM: Yes, very chiefly I simply want to step away from what I think the Hegelian/Jeffersonian project of attempting to articulate a common source of moral values for an entire society wanted to do. I don’t know that we live in societies that have that kind of common core of moral values. I am not saying we live in a totally fractured or divided society. I think there are lots of people, there are lots of ways in which we share many overlapping conclusions about various commitments. Some of them I think are very, very profound. I don’t think they amount to a totally coherent integrated picture of the fundamental values that everyone in our society does, or more menacingly, should endorse. What I see, instead, is a much more complicated non-Hegelian human community, where the debates about what is important or what is valuable are going on all the time and many things are up for grabs.

I think that is ok. And in that situation what we need are not more attempts to try and articulate a kind of total uniform common-ground, but rather, we need people attempting to explain “why” from a particular perspective, or specific vernacular if you will. What we need, in fact, is a kind of, like I say in this book, vernacular, that is, we need different ways of going out and engaging each other. A theology of public life in several different ways is one instance of this sort of thing.

Most obviously, it is a Christian topic because I think Christians are the central people talking about theology these days. (To talk about Jewish “theology” or Muslim “theology” is at least to court mis-locating, in terms of genre, the central intellectual energies in those traditions.) And it is an attempt to understand how public life, which is a broad term meaning politics but more than politics, has a role in the divine economy. That’s what I try to do in the book. In the first part I talk in general terms about what and how Augustine’s work, which at start tends to be escapist and interior, turning you inside and turning you away from public engagement, something diagnosed as solipsism, actually is a rich theological resource from which to propose a way of living as a form of engagement with the world.

Then, in part two, I lay this form of life out, trying to talk more fully and thoroughly about how the theological virtues can and should be exhibited in public life in different ways. That’s what I am trying to do. Now all that said, I want to be very clear on this. There are a lot of people who talk about doing public theology. But there are two problems with it. One of which is I think the language of “public theology” can in itself be misleading. And also the tradition of public theology it seems to me has a problematic history that I don’t want to encourage people to have. But I have no problem with particular people talking about themselves as doing public theology or offering themselves as public theologians. It just depends on how you cash those terms out.


1 Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis, Douglas Hartmann, “Atheists as ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.” American Sociological Review 71(2):211-234 (April 2006).

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Charles T. Mathewes :
Charles T. Mathewes is the Associate Professor of Religious Ethics and History of Christian Thought at the University of Virginia. He is Editor of The Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2006-2010). His forthcoming book, Prophesies of Godlessness, will be out this July (Oxford University Press).
Dan Rhodes :
Dan Rhodes is Editor-in-Chief of The Other Journal. He is also Minister of Political and Missional Life at Emmaus Way in Durham, North Carolina, and the author (with Tim Conder) of Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community (Baker Books, 2009). He is currently a candidate for the doctorate of theology at Duke University Divinity School. He lives in Raleigh with his wife, Elizabeth.