Religious Awakening in McCarthy’s America

On the Genesis of Modern Protestant Funda-mentalism in the United States

(Last modified 2007)

Since 11 September 2001, the links between external threats, the inner-societal search for identity, and religious awakening have become the focus of intensive debate in the United States. In this setting, the American evangelical movement has undergone a process of re-newal—a phenomenon that warrants historical analysis.

Of the various possible explanations for the patriotism and politicization now so characteristic of American evangelicals, interpretations that refer to the long history of the American nation’s founding myth as well as others that focus solely on the much more recent rise of the religious right since the 1970s prove inadequate. Instead (so the argument presented in this work), the decisive phase in the history of American Protestant fundamentalism’s transformation—which resulted in the highly visible and politically charged brand of evangelicalism we now know today—is definitely a development of the twentieth century. Moreover, this transformation began long before the ascent of the religious right. The success story of the Religious Right is not based, as has often been assumed to date, on a religious overreaction to the liberal tendencies of the 1960s. Instead, the emergence of the contemporary Religious Right is rooted solidly in a transformation process that commenced in the 1940s and 1950s and was considerably influenced by World War II.

In that phase—so a key hypothesis underlying this study—religion and society were success-fully reconciled, thanks to shifts in the attitudes of Protestant fundamentalists towards gov-ernment, citizenship, and political participation. Parallel to these changes (and this idea marks the second focus of the study), religious practice and forms of public performance that utilized the mass media and elements of popular culture began to merge. These two processes have meant that the political impact of religion on public life has increased substantially in the twentieth century, which has in turned resulted in fundamental changes in the realm of religious experience. Since the early 1940s, the formerly exclusive Protestant fundamentalism of the period around 1900 gradually became the transformed, modernized and politicized brand of evangelicalism that emerged because its proponents adapted their arguments and practices to the normative consensus of the modernized American society in which they lived.

(The project was conducted at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research from January 2005 to March 2007; work on the study will be continued outside of the Institute)