Piety and Secularism in America

Clergyman and author, REINHOLD NIEBUHRwas ordained in 1915 and has been professor of applied Christianity at the Union Theological Seminary since 1930. Over the years, in his lectures as in his books, Dr. Niebuhr has carried on an intellectual crusade against the complacencies of an age of reason.


THE coexistence of the “godly” and the “godless” of traditional piety and modern secularism has been a characteristic of Western civilization since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The rise of modern science created a rift in a traditionally Christian civilization and generated a “secular” spirit, which was denounced by the pious as heresy and which was welcomed by the “enlightened” as the harbinger of a promising future for mankind, as the guarantor of every private virtue and public justice. Neither party was able to annihilate the other as simply as it had hoped. Western civilization thereupon became the realm of very interesting forms of interpenetration and coöperation, some advertent and some inadvertent, between piety and secularism. But in no nation has this coexistence brought more unique results than in our own. For here we are, in the twentieth century, at once the most religious and the most secular of Western nations. How shall we explain this paradox?

Let us begin by defining our terms. We are “religious” in the sense that religious communities enjoy the devotion and engage the active loyalty of more laymen in America than in any other nation of the Western world. We are “secular” in the sense that we pursue the immediate goals of life, without asking too many questions about the meaning of life and without being too disturbed by the tragedies and antinomies of life.

Our secularism is of two varieties. There is a theoretic secularism which dismisses ultimate questions about the meaning of existence, partly because it believes that science has answered these questions and partly because it regards the questions as unanswerable or uninteresting. There is a practical secularism, which expresses itself in the pursuit of the immediate goals of life. Our detractors in Europe and Asia think that our practical secularism expresses itself in “materialism” — that is, in the pursuit not of happiness but of comfort and physical security against all the hazards of nature and of history. If there should be a measure of truth in this charge, it would add a peculiarly ironic note to our contest with Communism. For we profess to be “godly” and the Communists are philosophical materialists, who think that piety deflects men from seeking the obvious goods of life successfully. But our “godly materialism” has been immeasurably more successful than their “godless” variety. One must hasten to add that not our piety but our secular and scientific proficiencies have greatly contributed to our superiority over the Communist pursuit of happiness.

Actually, our detractors are not quite right in accusing us of materialism. Our passion has been technical efficiency. We have been able to give ourselves to technics with greater abandon than any other nation. We are uninhibited by the traditional restraints upon the technical enterprise which obtained in European nations, including the first industrial nation of Europe, Britain. This passion for technical efficiency, together with the natural resources of a richly endowed continent and the advantages of a single continental economic unit, has given us a cornucopia. We are not displeased with the fruits of this cornucopia. They were not, however, the first concern of our enterprise. That was efficiency. We are somewhat embarrassed by the fact that we are the first culture which is in danger of being subordinated to its economy. We have to live as luxuriously as possible in order to keep our productive enterprise from stalling.

IF RELIGION has not only survived, but gained a new relevance in this secular environment, this curious development must be partly attributed to the limitations of both a theoretic and a practical secularism. A theoretic secularism is inclined to hold the pursuit of happiness as the final meaning of life. This pursuit of happiness easily degenerates into the pursuit of comfort and security. But a culture which gives itself wholeheartedly to these ends is bound to discover the limits of this frame of meaning for the life of man.

Not all, but many, forms of secularism try to comprehend human life in a too simple frame of meaning. They may not equate happiness with comfort and security, but they usually do not appreciate those dimensions of human striving in which joy and sorrow are curiously blended and achieve, not happiness, but fulfillment. American secularism, following the French Enlightenment, makes much of the “dignity of man.” But it is usually oblivious to the “misery of man,” which is equally, with his dignity, the undoubted fruit of the unique freedom which distinguishes him from the brutes. For the same freedom which makes man historically creative also gives him the capacity to be destructive and lifts him above natural vicissitudes to contemplate the vanity and brevity of life with melancholy. This glorious human creature undoubtedly dies as the animals do, but he is anxious about his life and his death. All the advances in medical science offer no cure for senility, nor materially alter the brevity of human existence.

To the misery of human frailty and brevity one must add the perplexities of a guilty conscience. They cannot be eliminated simply by living a “blameless” life, for our responsibilities involve us in guilt. No one anticipated in the nineteenth century that the responsibility of saving our civilization would involve us in the guilt of risking an atomic war. We do much evil in order to do good. Furthermore, there are forms of guilt which cannot be reduced to the proportions of neurotic guilt, subject to psychiatric ministrations. There are of course forms of neurotic guilt feelings which require psychiatric attention.

It is because a philosophy of the enlightened mind and a civilization of great technical power cannot solve these ultimate problems of human existence that the frame of meaning established by the traditionally historic religions has become much more relevant to the modern man than seemed possible a century ago. There is in these religions a sense of mystery and meaning which outrages the canons of pure rationality but which makes “sense” out of life.

Our national culture was not only more completely devoted to the promises of nineteenth century culture (the so-called “century of hope”) but it was more efficient in fulfilling the prescriptions for happiness than any other nation. The reaction to unfulfilled hopes is correspondingly more obvious. This is particularly true because we are subject not only to the perennial antinomies and tragedies of life which our enlightenment and our technical efficiency have not been able to overcome, but also, as a nation, to frustrations in the days of our seeming omnipotence which we did not foresee in the days of our national weakness and innocence. We are less the masters of our fate in this day of American power than we were while we were still being rocked in the cradle of continental security. The whole drama of history is evidently more mysterious and meaningful, even as individual existence, more filled with beauty and terror, than the secular philosophies anticipated.

The nontechnical cultures of Asia and Africa will naturally regret the premature religious resignation which contributed to their technical backwardness and will try to achieve a more rational understanding of the complexities of life and a more adequate technical conquest of nature. But we have traveled that path of progress almost to its limit. The religious quest of ultimate meanings was therefore bound to gain new relevance among us.

These facts do not, of course, preclude the possibility that the religious revival in our day may contain elements of rather frantic pursuits of the secular ends of success or power and represent religious versions of secularism. In the current debate between piety and secularism it is always well to bear in mind that neither piety nor enlightenment is as simply the guarantor of either private goodness or public virtue as the proponents of each side contend. The coöperation between secularism and piety has been fruitful on the whole because each side possessed more common virtue than the opponent was willing to admit. Partly, each side had a unique virtue which prevented the other side from pursuing its characteristic virtues so consistently that they degenerated into vices. The democracy of the whole of Western civilization, including our own, is obviously the fruit of such cooperation.

Genuine piety sets up an authority for the individual conscience which prevents the state or the community from becoming an idolatrous end of human existence. Religious faith makes a rigorous affirmation, “We must obey God, rather than men,” in opposition to all tyranny. But, unfortunately, piety develops its own idolatries by claiming a too simple alliance between the divine will and human ends. The soberness of a secular pursuit of immediate ends and a tolerant appreciation of the fragmentariness of all human viewpoints is necessary for the “limited warfare” of parliamentary democracy. This spirit of tolerance and the contrasting spirit of fanaticism may each be the fruit of either religious piety or rational enlightenment, contrary to the assumption of each side that the evil fruit is the product of the other side and the good fruit the characteristic consequence of our own world view. It is as rare an achievement for the pious man to be charitable as for the rational man to be reasonable. Both achievements depend upon the recognition of the limited character of each one’s vision of the truth.

Another religious reaction to a secular civilization has been developed in an unusual degree in America. Technical civilizations create great urban centers in which the individual is in danger of losing his identity in the crowd gathered together by technics but lacking the virtues of genuine community. Some of the current popularity of religion in our nation is undoubtedly due to the fact that religious congregations have been able to establish integral communities in the impersonal and technical togetherness of our urban centers. In these communities, the individual comes into his own as a person and lives in an environment of faith in which the vicissitudes of his existence are understood.

It is interesting that Americans are a more urban people than Europeans. They do not require roots in the country as do most Englishmen. It is also interesting that this urbanness has increased, rather than diminished, loyalty to the religious communities, though it was previously assumed that religious faith flourished on the countryside and withered in the sophisticated city. This did not prove to be so in America. The reason was probably that religious faith was, in more ways than one, used as an antidote to the simple meanings and fulfillments of a technical culture.

Two very different types of religious congregations, both uniquely American, contributed to the vitality of religious loyalty in our nation. And both also contributed to the uniquely American religiosity, which was at once more vital and more secular than European religion. The one was the sectarian church and the other the immigrant church. The sect church represented an exclusive religious community in Europe, emphasizing voluntary membership, lay responsibility, and a critical attitude toward all the traditional “means of grace” in the church — the sacraments, liturgies and theologies, and professional ministers — and an emphasis upon religious immediacy and personal religious “experience.” The radical sect, whether individualistic or socially radical, always remained a minority group in Europe as compared with the churches of inclusive membership, frequently living under direct state auspices. In America, this sect conquered the frontier. Its religious immediacy and the mobility of its quasilay leadership (the Methodist circuit rider, for instance) were suited to the frontier. On the frontier, the sect became the dominant church in America. The traditional churches remained in their urban settings. But in less than a century, the sect churches colored the religious climate of the whole of America. In a sense, every church became a sect, at least in terms of emphasis upon lay responsibility and integral religious fellowship. The Methodist and Baptist churches are numerically the dominant churches in America. Most of them have grown respectable and only show vestigial remnants of the charismatic power by which they conquered the frontier.

But the same sect which revitalized religious life in America also secularized religious faith and prompted the criticism of European Christians, even to this day, that American faith is secularized. What validity does this charge have? Over a century ago Tocqueville, that perceptive French observer of the American scene, affirmed that the evangelical preachers of the American frontier were highly pragmatic in their exposition of their religion. They did not envisage “eternal felicity” as the end of the religious quest, he said, but rather commended religion as an aid in the pursuit of worldly ends such as “prosperity" and “civic peace and righteousness.”

This disavowal of “otherworldliness” will seem very natural to American observers even today; but it was, unfortunately, accompanied by the frontier’s rather sentimental “thisworldliness” — that is, by the hope that the frustrations of life as known in the Old World would disappear on the frontier, where “liberty and equality” seemed for the first time realizable ideals. Thus, the Enlightenment and evangelical Christianity were merged on the American frontier, and the result was that note of sentimentality which has characterized both political and religious thought in our nation ever since. “If one compliments an American,” declared Tocqueville, “on the virtues of American life, he will take the compliment for granted and enlarge upon the vices and corruptions of European nations.”

The heaven of evangelical Christianity and the utopia of the Enlightenment were blended on the frontier. But utopia was uppermost in the imagination of the frontier. And it was an achieved utopia, not a future one. America was a kind of kingdom of God. The final spiritual fruit of this frontier religious sentimentality came a century later when the “social gospel” thought the problems of life, including those of a technical civilization, would be solved if only people could be persuaded to love one another. The recalcitrance of human nature, expressed in Saint Paul’s wellknown confession, “the good that I would do, I do not do; and the evil that I would not, that I do,” is obscured in this sentimentality, and all the hard problems of achieving justice in a community of self-seeking men are made easy by these hopes. Thus a great thinker of the social gospel could say at the beginning of this century: “The impulse to give justice is evangelical; but the impulse to get justice is not. There is an ominous desire to get justice which reveals that we have lost confidence in spiritual forces.”

A dissipated evangelicalism relied on love, while the Enlightenment relied on reason, to achieve utopia on earth. But both the secular and the religious version of utopianism denied the real problems of human existence and expected dreams to turn into reality cheaply. That is why the religious revival in America is only partly a reaction to disappointed secular hopes and is partly a religious expression of those same hopes. Nothing could illustrate the bewildering confusion of secularism and religiosity in our nation more vividly. Perhaps we are so religious because religion has two forms among us. One challenges the gospel of prosperity, success, and achievement of heaven on earth. The other claims to furnish religious instruments for the attainment of these objectives.

THE other unique American religious force which made a community for the individual in the anonymity of the urban center was the church of the immigrant. America was refashioned by the hordes of immigrants which came to our shores in the latter part of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century. They brought their churches along with them. These churches were anchored in a culture in the land of the immigrants’ birth. But in the American environment they became exclusive and without organic relation to the American culture. They generated much more lay activity than in Europe and became fellowships which performed the function of guarding the immigrant against the anonymity of an urban and strange culture and of preserving something of the Old World culture, including the language of the immigrant.

According to the thesis of Will Herberg’s sociological analysis, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, the immigrant church proved a very ready instrument both for preserving and for adapting the culture of the immigrant to America. For the church became the means of his self-identification without a too obvious connotation of foreignness. The church was recognized as part of the “American way of life” and yet it was reminiscent of the culture of the home country. The immigrant church was therefore popular for other than purely religious reasons. In a different way than the sectarian church, it pursued religious interest for essentially secular reasons and became another instrument for the curious mingling of secularism and piety in America.

It must be added that the members of these immigrant churches were attracted to America partly by its free institutions but mostly by its economic opportunities. These immigrants were first employed as poorly paid workers in our expanding economy. But in time many of them rose into the managerial and owning class. Their religious faith did not inhibit them from pursuing the goals of economic well-being with absolute devotion. It may have actually supplied the discipline by which the economic activity could be more successfully engaged in. Thus the immigrant church, together with the sectarian church, was at one and the same time a refuge from a secular culture and a resource for the uninhibited pursuit of essentially secular ends of life.

Thus the religion of the immigrant achieved the same relation to secular ends, in a few generations, which required a century of development in New England, where the original Puritanism was transmuted into the “Yankeeism” of the New England businessman.

If this analysis of the unique relation of piety to secularism in our own nation is at all correct, it becomes apparent that we are more religious and more secular than any other nation not by accident, but by the effect of definitely ascertainable historic causes peculiar to the American experience. If the results are extravagant, it is always possible to console ourselves that the interpenetration of piety and secularism in our culture has been more creative in the political sphere than in the economic realm. In the political sphere the secular devotion to immediate ends, and the religious apprehension of ultimate authority beyond the realm of the political order, have saved us from both the authoritarian politics of traditional piety and the totalitarian politics of a consistent secularism, as developed historically from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution.

In our economic life we may have extravagantly pursued the immediate ends of life with such consistency that religion tended to become both a refuge against the anonymous social togetherness of an urban society — a balm for the inevitable disillusionments in which the rational and the technical “pursuit of happiness” is bound to end — and (occasionally) a pious version of the secular pursuit.

The striking contrast between the relatively creative interpenetration of secularism and piety in our political life and the comparatively uncreative relation between the two in our economic life deserves a closing word.

We have seen that political democracy depended upon both piety and secularism, each contributing its characteristic insights to the organization of a free society. Secularism furnished the immediate and proximate goals of justice and prevented religion from confusing immediate with final goals of life and thus developing its own idolatries. Piety gave the individual a final divine authority which enabled him to defy tyrannical political authority.

In the realm of economics, on the other hand, an efficient economy was the product of a secularism which began by regarding happiness as the final end of life, continued by substituting comfort and security for happiness, and ended by regarding efficiency as an end in itself. The idolatry which substituted a means to an end as the final end of existence has tended to vulgarize our culture. Piety has not essentially challenged this vulgarity or futility. Sometimes it has provided asylums of fellowship for the victims of the cult of efficiency; sometimes it has been a resource for further efficiency; and only occasionally it has challenged the inadequacy of these immediate goals as containing the final goals of life and a fulfillment of the meaning of human existence.

Our gadget-filled paradise suspended in a hell of international insecurity certainly does not offer us even the happiness of which the former century dreamed. Only when we finally realize the cause of these disappointed hopes can we have a truly religious culture. It will probably disappoint the traditionally pious as much as the present paradise disappoints the children of the Enlightenment.

In that event piety will have recaptured some of the characteristic accents of the historic religions, which in their traditional form may have regarded historic existence too much as a “vale of sorrows” but which had the virtue of knowing that there could be no complete happiness in human life, because a creative life could never arrive at the neat harmonies which are the prerequisite of happiness. They knew that all human virtue remains fragmentary and all human achievements remain tentative. They knew that the meanings of life are surrounded by a penumbra of mystery and that life’s joys and sorrows are curiously mingled. The great historic religions, in short, were rooted in the experiences of the ages, so that they could not be deluded by the illusions of a technical age.