One of the more interesting books that have come my way of late is Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America’s Imminent Secularization, a book edited by C. Mathewes and C. McKnight Nichols (no relation). If the title doesn’t interest you, perhaps this line will: “In American history, prophesies of godlessness are as American as American godliness itself” (6). Paradoxically, alongside this worrisome fear that the country was about to fall into apocalyptic doom is the liberal vision that America was about to reach its real vision of losing its religion. This book fascinates me.
What do you think of preaching that warns of imminent or national doom? Or, of imminent or national good days to come?
So, we’ve got two groups in this country: Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Walter Lippmann, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, John Dewey, John Judis, and Ruy Teixera — the first group. The second group: Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, Edwards Amasa Park, William Jennings Bryan, Hal Lindsey, Jimmy Carter, Jerry Falwell, Christopher Lasch, Robert Putnam and Ann Coulter. Each thought the end was imminent; each thought their prophesies — either of the goal of a liberal country denuded of its religion or the demise of godliness by growing secularization or modernity — were about to come to pass.
These two themes are as American as apple pie. The book has eleven studies of these themes, and the approach is to take snapshots of these themes through specific people.
The study makes one wonder if apocalyptic warnings or the dream of a liberal (secularized) culture might not be “verbal games” people play to persuade others to join them in their own vision. The study makes one wonder if biblical apocalyptic and prophecy deserves renewed consideration in light of such cultural scripts. Why say this? America, according to many historians, is no less religious now than it was during the Puritan era. Anyway, the prophesies have not really come true — either way.
I grew up in a world haunted by these two visions. Sundays could be like experiencing Revelation first hand. Every autumn our church staged a prophecy conference. The potent warnings were vivid and scary — I remember one preacher telling us with near certainty that the Lord would return before 1971 or 1973 since the “fig tree” and the “one generation” predictions would be fulfilled by then. I suppose one can grow numb to preaching like this, but when you’re about 10 or 12 years old it can be fierce and fearsome stuff. It was a good time to get saved so you can be on the right side of that awful demise we were about to face. The cynical distance of these words are borne of experience: the preachers were all wrong, but they were as American as godlessness and godliness. This series on the book above will help explain these themes.