Examining America’s Political Pulpit

Examining America’s Political Pulpit

Matthes argues for the power of the pulpit—or what she labels “sermonic influence” on political and cultural life. Such an influence, she demonstrates, has proven especially notable during times of national crisis: it is here that Protestant sermons have resonated with the greatest force.

In her new book, When Sorrow Comes: The Power of Sermons from Pearl Harbor to Black Lives Matter, Melissa M. Matthes argues for two claims. First and most fundamentally, that Protestant ministers should assume a more active public role addressing political and legal affairs, and that, in doing so, they should be met with greater acceptance as national and community leaders whose guidance truly matters. Second, that Protestant clergy espousing theological liberalism provide the greatest opportunity to enlighten public discourse and strengthen the common good.

Her work succeeds admirably on the first score, but is open to a more ambivalent assessment on the second.

The Public Power of the Pulpit

Matthes centers her work on American Protestantism and justifies her limited purview on the “cultural dominance” of Protestantism in the United States—a position of demographic preeminence still evidenced by how the majority of the religiously self-identified are some form of Protestant, and that over 80 percent of African Americans number themselves as Protestant Christians.

From this Protestant-centered perspective, Matthes argues for the power of the pulpit—or what she labels “sermonic influence” on political and cultural life. Such an influence, she demonstrates, has proven especially notable during times of national crisis: it is here that Protestant sermons have resonated with the greatest force. This is so because, despite the secularization of American culture, many Americans still look to the country’s most prominent confession, especially for consolation in moments of collective crisis and in the aftershocks of largescale national tragedies.

In defending the public role of Protestant ministers, Matthes makes her stand against the claims of some strict separationists like Andras Sajo, who argues that “social, political, and legal arrangement[s]” must “not allow considerations based on the transcendental or the sacred.” Matthes argues that when the nation wrestles with tragedy, ministers should be listened to by citizens and policymakers alike, with their messages taken as sources of politically relevant insight. This follows, she argues, from the first principles of democratic legitimacy. If the people wish religious inspiration to guide their personal and public response to collective tragedy, the people have every right to have just this; to deny it would be to reject in Richard Parker’s lofty words that “here, the people rule.”

We can add to her arguments the recognition that, in times of crisis and grieving, there would be something coldly indifferent about a strong separation of church and state in the way Sajo recommends. If people seek comfort and guidance from religion in times of tragedy, to demand that they have only an aesthetic comfort, without any cognitive guidance—to say that they may lose themselves in dirges and requiems but take no heed of the sermons accompanying them—is to give cold comfort, indeed.

Having shown that religion still plays a powerful role in the limited arena of collective sorrow, Matthes argues that an opening is forged for seeing Protestant religiosity in a more positive light outside times of national tragedy. This positive influence is disclosed, she maintains, in the way the faith engenders a concern for those in need and on the margins of social and economic life. Specifically, she says religion can promote the common good apart from crises because it can speak so helpfully to just what Sajo and others say must remain the province of secular political advocacy: human rights and human progress.

In taking this stand, Matthes responds to the counterargument that, once re-affirmed in the public square, public religion with its diversity of sects might exacerbate existing social tensions. Theological disagreement, she contends, does not negate the positive contributions of religion to the common good. A diversity of ministerial voices can actually serve to stimulate the American people to greater reflection. Her point seems to be that serious debate about the implications of the transcendent truths religion advances witnesses to the seriousness of truth and transcendence in a way that can provoke our increasingly “apatheistic” age—an age indifferent to the claims of religious transcendence—to concern itself with the truth of the matters these ministers debate. Even when expounding differing theologies, therefore, the Protestant pulpit proves its value by stimulating us to enter into a state of mind “where seeking the Truth is a lifelong project.”

A Genealogy of Political Religion

Notwithstanding this recognition of the value of pluralism, Matthes’s work argues that a particular kind of theology should exercise the greatest influence on public life. The liberal theology that underwrote the homilies delivered by mid-century liberal Protestants following the tragedy of the Pearl Harbor attack should be recovered, deepened, and deployed as a religious witness in the United States today.

Matthes develops this claim by providing a fascinating survey of American Protestant sermons delivered in the wake of nationally salient crises: not only the Pearl Harbor attack, but also the assassination of JFK, the assassination of MLK, the 9/11 attacks, and the Newtown massacre. She appears to present this review as a social science exercise, but that approach seems inconsistent with the logic of her project. The samples of sermons she reviews are far too few to serve the purpose of a positivist social science exercise. Instead, the project appears much more to be a selective culling of sermons that advance what she sees as distinct theological types—and an argument for the superiority of one such theological position.

Her work, if not fully described as such, is more akin to a genealogy in the Nietzschean sense. As Allan Parson remarks, for Nietzsche, genealogy is “arrived through processes of exclusion and inclusion” by which our pressing contemporary needs shape our conceptualizations of past events. Genealogy, for Nietzsche, is “not to be thought of as purely historical,” but as the construction of a stage on which values are placed in contention, even as we make use of selected specimens from the “long hieroglyphic record” to build our accounts.

Matthes’s genealogy starts in the Alpine heights of mid-century liberal theological promise. Protestant theology by the early 1940s had liberated itself from the Fundamentalists—a bruising battle quite truculently fought throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and from which liberalism clearly emerged triumphant, as large numbers of traditionalists were driven out of the mainline denominations. This triumphant theology still remained vigorously Christian in self-identification, but gone were notions of special divine providence, or of God working through the course of human events.

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