A Glimpse at the Future

Last month one of the three remaining Shakers died. In this era of religion unawareness, not many Americans, I expect, could identify this dying religion. The Shakers aren’t the Quakers—we like to give religions we don’t understand pejorative monikers—they are a group that grew out of the Friends but that had important differences. Shakers believe, especially, in celibacy. It had to grow through conversion since Shakers could not reproduce biologically. At their height there were about 6000 of them—the number of Twitter followers of a fairly successful humanities professor, I suspect. They were hard-working and their brand of furniture endures beyond the life of the sect. The official count of Shakers worldwide now stands at two.

This little bit of news saddened me. Not that I’ve ever been tempted to join the Shakers—it would be a bit of a stretch for a family man—but I’ve always admired countercultural groups. Like many religious sects of the late eighteenth century, the Shakers were millenarians. That is, they believed in the imminent second coming of Christ. Given this belief, biological reproduction wasn’t really necessary. In fact, it was counter-productive. Like so many of the slumberers of the Great Awakening, the Shakers eventually settled in upstate New York. Since their lifestyle was different, they had to form their own communities. The last community is in Maine. When the last two Shakers go to their reward, barring a miracle, the denomination will be extinct.

life_of_the_diligent_shaker

The Shakers were distinctive for yet another reason as well. They were open to, and often defined by, female leadership. This might be expected in a world where men have difficulty controlling themselves in mixed company. Catholic monasteries locked men in without women. To agree to live in a mixed gendered community but without mixed gendered relations took a dose of will power that borders on the saintly. The Shakers won’t be the only religion to have gone extinct, when that happens. Religions, like organisms, grow, thrive, and die. This little group had a disproportionate impact on society. Those who watched Michael Flatley throwing his body across the stage to the haunting joyfulness of the Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts” likely had no idea that the world owed one of its most beautiful melodies to a group of people living celibate lives in the woods of Maine. The Shakers’ unique contributions to the weird and wonderful world of religion will be missed by at least one.


Don’t Know Much

Pennsylvania does not come immediately to mind when “big states” are mentioned. When you have to drive the breadth of the state, however, you start to get a sense of the beast. Despite its abundant natural beauty, Interstate 80 manages to keep it to a minimum, so driving home yesterday we listened to the first disc of Kenneth C. Davis’s A Nation Rising in audio-book format. Mostly known for his Don’t Know Much About — books, Davis is a popular historian with a sense of what makes the past interesting. I can’t speak for the entire book yet, but the unabridged reading of A Nation Rising certainly was an educational experience for the first hour or so I’ve heard. The book focuses on the initial fifty years of the nineteenth century (1801-1850) in the United States. Of particular interest to me is the religious angle. In the introduction Davis states that it will become clear how the concept of America as a Christian nation is a myth. Other than my usual objection to “myth” being equated with falsity, this premise does look very interesting.

Stepping back before the nineteenth century, Davis spends several minutes (which I assume translates to several pages) describing the ancestry of Aaron Burr, one of America’s bad-boy politicians of the period. Burr was a grandson of the reformed minister Jonathan Edwards and this circumstance leads Davis to recount a bit about the Great Awakening. The first major religious revival on American soil, the Great Awakening spread throughout the States in the 1730s and ‘40s, setting the reputation of the young nation as a bastion of Reformed Christianity. Although many denominations became involved in the show, the origin and orientation of the Great Awakening was Calvinistic. Reacting against enforced Catholicism in much of Europe, many colonials flocked to America to practice their stripped down, Bible-based, generally intolerant religion in the New World. Particularly interesting in Davis’s rendition is George Whitefield. Viewing the preacher from hindsight that includes a distorted religious view of American history, Davis notes that Whitefield was as much performer as preacher.

Trying to figure out the next hot trend

Whitefield was an Anglican priest who helped set the mold for John Wesley’s success in bringing what would become the Methodist Church to America. “Whitefield pioneered the development of multiplatform marketing strategies,” using the media and staged events to draw attention to his evangelistic efforts, according to Davis. Whitefield knew that religion alone could not sway the masses. They had to be entertained. Davis notes that even the Tea Party has corollaries in early American history. What the mainstream has been slow—perhaps too slow—to realize is that entertainment works. In casting the die for American spirituality, preachers like Edwards and Whitefield knew the value of the gripping sermon vividly illustrated. The antics of many Tea Partiers reveal that they learned the lesson well. Showboating will garner more votes than substance any day. How else can we explain Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono, Jesse Ventura, and Arnold Schwarzenegger? This is America’s truest legacy: entertaining with religious faith will take you where intellectual depth just can’t go.

I will have to wait for another car trip to hear more of Davis’s interesting perspective on American history, but in the meantime I wonder how long it will take intelligent Americans to catch on. Don’t Know Much About History is a frighteningly prescient title for those who continue to ignore religion as a political force.


Cheating God

Anyone engaged in education long enough will eventually encounter cheating in one form or another. Social psychologists have suggested that whether one believes in God or not has little bearing on moral behavior. A recent report in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion demonstrates that belief in God does not effect cheating by undergraduates. Among those that believe in God, however, those that believe in an angry, punishing God cheat less than those who believe in a loving, forgiving God. An explanation of the study may be found at Medicalexpress.com.

Someone's watching you

Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” it seems, is the bane of cheaters. The Great Awakening chased along the heels of a wrathful deity baying “believe or else!” Those believing in a nicer God are more apt to take liberties. The interesting corollary of this finding is that it does not divide believers along denominational lines but rather along personal outlooks on God’s kindliness. Nobel pagans and fearful believers share a strong moral center.

An informative follow-up would be a study to determine how many believe in a loving versus a wrathful God. From such data we might be able to extrapolate who is more likely to cheat on taxes, spouses, or any other big-ticket items in the economy of our society. Given the number of high profile spouse-cheatings among televangelists and Christian politicians, one thing seems clear: belief in a friendly God willing to look the other way is in no danger of extinction any time soon. Oh, and please keep your eyes on your own paper.