"So . thus it is, that natural men are held in the hand of God over the pit of hell," thundered America's most famous theologian, Jonathan Edwards, in 1741. "They have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell." For Edwards, God is great, humans are meek, and our only recourse is to accept the arbitrariness of his inscrutable grace.
Much ink has been spilled about whether "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is typical of the theology of Jonathan Edwards. There is no doubt, however, that Edwards, even when he speaks in far more rapturous language about the wonders of the divine, paints a picture of religious believers as a people apart-their eyes focused not on the mundane world around them but on the ultimate judgment that awaits them. From his day to ours, that image has shaped the ways in which we argue over faith. Fed up with the sinful character of American life, evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and other adherents to strong forms of religious faith have withdrawn from the dominant society, choosing to live in subcommunities of their own, to send their children to schools entrusted to teach the truth of their tradition, and to vote for candidates pledged to uphold and support their values. So visible are they, so strong do their convictions appear to be, and (especially in recent years) so palpable has been their influence over public policy that the spirit of Jonathan Edwards, or others like him, seems very much alive in the land.
If strong religious believers view secular society as the enemy, at best to be converted and at worst to be ignored, liberal and secular Americans are only too happy to agree that the faithful are indeed a breed apart. Deeply entrenched religious truths, they routinely insist, are little more than dogmas reiterated without examination and self-criticism. When believers refuse to engage the culture, their opponents dismiss them as fanatics, frustrated people rendered insecure by the dilemmas and opportunities of modernity. When they do mix with everyone else, especially by trying to demonstrate the wonders of their faith, they are called sectarian, their efforts at witnessing requiring constitutional restraints designed to protect the privacy and dignity of their targets. Yes, Jonathan Edwards remains alive and well in America, skeptics of religion are likely to conclude, but that is cause for concern, not celebration. Like Edwards himself, who certainly had his authoritarian side, strong believers, in the skeptics' view, can easily turn into petty tyrants, invoking divine authority to limit the freedom of those they fear.
Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer; if they were singing the famous gospel hymn today, they would say that the old-time religion is no longer good enough for them. Talk of hell, damnation, and even sin has been replaced by a nonjudgmental language of understanding and empathy. Gone are the arguments over doctrine and theology; if most believers cannot for the life of them recall what makes Luther different from Calvin, there is no need for the disputation and schism in which those reformers, as well as other religious leaders through the centuries, engaged. More Americans than ever proclaim themselves born again in Christ, but the lord to whom they turn rarely gets angry and frequently strengthens self-esteem. Traditional forms of worship, from reliance on organ music to the mysteries of the liturgy, have given way to audience participation and contemporary tastes. Some believers are anxious to witness their faith to others, but the tend to avoid methods which would make them seem unfriendly or invasive. If Jonathan Edwards were alive and well, he would likely be appalled; for from living in a world elsewhere, the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else.