By Bart Gingerich (@BJGingerich)
Future historians will probably remember 2013 as a turning point in public prayer. No doubt controversy will rage on a topic so political. And I don’t mean the partisan dismissal of Louie Giglio for his stance on sexuality; I refer instead to the introductory prayer by Myrlie Evers-Williams. A former Democratic Congressional candidate and the widow of civil rights luminary Medgar Evers, she is the first woman and layperson to offer the inaugural invocation.
Many lovers of religious license savored the hyper-inclusivity of Evers-Williams’ supplications. At first her speech directly addressed America itself; only later into the invocation did she invoke the “Almighty.” Indeed, the civil rights leader seemed to be lecturing the American people as a motivational speaker. She encouraged her listeners to seize “the opportunity to become whatever our mankind, our womankind allows us to be.” Evers-Williams expanded the theme of self-actualization by noting that “everyone is included” and by petitioning the President to “rule in favor of the diversity of our people.” She praised “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” carefully excising “under God.”
Several of the invocation’s statements came from Christian origins. Evers-Williams channeled the Sermon on the Mount when she declared, “May all your people—especially the least of these—flourish in our blessed nation.” Picking up a metaphor from the Epistle to the Hebrews, she labeled American ancestors as “a great crowd of witnesses.” All this was petitioned in the name of Jesus as well as “the name of all who are holy and right.”
Other portions of the prayer sounded more mystical. In her praise of past generations, Evers-Williams hoped, “May their spirit infuse our being.” “Let their spirit guide us as we claim the spirit of old: ‘There’s something within me that holds the reins/There’s something within me that banishes pain/There’s something within me I cannot explain/But all I know, America, there is something within. There is something within!” she finally concluded.
Those familiar with America’s religious heritage realize that these beliefs are nothing new to the United States. They perfectly represent Transcendentalism, which stands as the quintessential American heresy alongside Mormonism. Whereas Mormonism ends with spiritual progeny engaged in a project of intergalactic Manifest Destiny, Transcendentalism promises the wistful flower child all the splendor of Rousseau’s state of nature. The restraints of society hinder the individual from achieving happiness. Yankee thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and Walt Whitman hoped to transcend the limits of authority in order to find what Emerson called “an original relation to the universe.”
The Transcendentalist movement would have been impossible without its great predecessor, Puritanism. As a dissident sect of Protestants, Puritans were dissatisfied with the Church of England. They wanted an authentically “pure” religion that worried most about the interior matters of intentions, predestination, and rational theology over mystical sacraments and iconic church art. Among the first rebels against this theological rigidity were the Unitarian Universalists, who denied the doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the existence of Hell.
From this unorthodox branch sprouted the Transcendentalists, who incorporated elements of English and German Romanticism. They were also influenced by the insights of Immanuel Kant, the biblical criticism of Frederick Schleiermacher, and the skepticism of David Hume. The Transcendentalists did not believe in God per Judeo-Christian standards; they held that there was a cosmic Oversoul that enveloped all of nature. As Emerson famously asserted in Nature, “Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball — I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me — I am part or particle of God.” These pantheistic notions fueled Thoreau’s famous attempt to live in isolation at Walden Pond.
The Transcendentalists believed that man was basically good—he has no depravity and his nature is not “bent” in any way by a Fall. Only noxious society causes problems. Thus, many Transcendentalists started utopian societies that ended in failure. Others highly favored activism and practicality. They much preferred social improvement over the exacting theological dogma of their Puritan forbears.
Moral guidance does not come from natural or special revelation; instead, it originates from a deep inner light — one’s own insight into the “Universal Being.” Even contemporary thinkers in American liberalism like John Rawls allude to a feeling deep down inside the heart — an innate inner control — that guides the moral sensibilities of human beings. And it is here that we see Evers-Williams conform most clearly when she claims that “there is something within!”
The intercessor probably did not intend to spout the mantras of 19th century romanticism. By her references to spirituals and Biblical tropes, Evers-Williams tried to harness Southern black Christianity, albeit in a non-traditional post-MLK form. However, she removed the Incarnation, setting Christ on equal footing with “all who are holy and right.” This fails the Christian orthodoxy test, but still falls well within the pale of traditional American civil religion. More crucially, Evers-Williams removed a sense of sovereign Providence, a longtime staple for public expressions of faith. Such language denotes a powerful God deeply interested in human affairs. Instead, the inaugural supplicant preferred misty “infusions of being” and “something deep within.”
This is what Americans do when they invent religion. They do not turn outward to divine order but inward to individualistic realization. Cosmic Oversouls, self-help, and a progressive mythos can be found even today in scientology and The Secret. Most Americans are not militant secularists. Instead, they set themselves up as their own spiritual authorities freed from creed, canon, catechism, or confession. In other words, they are heretics — generally warmed-over Transcendentalists.
Again, these actual opinions are not new. The new development is that they have been featured on the highest platform of American civil religion. Neo-Anabaptists no doubt rejoice that the nationalized semi-Christian civil religion may be replaced by an ambiguous monotheism or airy pantheism. But some conservatives of all religious stripes will yet wonder what this brave new world shall bring in the coming decades. Before, there had always been a mainline Christianity to rein in such spiritual outliers like the Transcendentalists. As Ross Douthat has so keenly noted, the old congregations along the Main Streets of America have emptied out. Now there is no nonpartisan mainstream Christianity to give a sense of commonly-held truths. Democratic liberalism dares to demand goodness without truth. By the look of things, it may well have the chance to prove its hypothesis.
The following article is also available on the Institute on Religion and Democracy and website.