March 16, 2009
— Martin E. Marty
Virtually every church newsletter, denominational web-site, religious periodical, or other medium, disseminated in print or electronically, makes some reference to the economic situation in which all classes of Americans find themselves today. Local congregations' offers of spiritual sustenance, community-sharing burdens, and hopes are still among the main and best things they do, as well as providing counseling, tips, and sometimes guidance to non-church organizations and experts who may be of help. These concern issues of joblessness, home foreclosures, and other devastating reality in 2009.
When religious commentators or commentators on religion look at the theme, their observations tend to follow one of three lines. Those who are instinctive and ideological supporters of "unfettered" free markets report on and predict trends that will deprive churches of part of their mission as government is increasingly involved in health, education, and welfare programs. Churches (and synagogues, et cetera) will be worse off than before the crunch and the crash. A second set advocates to religious organizations that they do more and better than before with works of mercy (and justice), taking initiatives to help make the best use of enhanced governmental initiatives. In a sense, they say, thank God for government, secular organizations, and others who help feed and heal. The third set takes a long view, asking churches to reexplore their traditions (e.g., Catholic social teachings which support the common good.)
It is too soon to know how this recession-depression will work out for religious institutions and ideas. While watching and waiting, I decided to do what so many do: compare today to the Great Depression of the 1930s. I had explored religious roles and responses in my The Noise of Conflict: 1919-1941, the second volume in my Modern American Religion (University of Chicago, 1991). If we repeat in any way -- but who says we will, or must? -- what happened then, there is not a lot of cheer to be spread. I particularly relied on Samuel C. Kincheloe's 1937 Research Memorandum on Religion in the Depression, an extensive, judicious, realistic survey done for the Social Science Research Council by a Chicago Theological Seminary (then Congregational) professor. Like so many other secular and mainstream Protestant analysts, he did not pay much attention to what was prospering when nothing else was: fundamentalism.
Some leaders hoped and prayed for religious revivals, none of which erupted. "There has been much emphasis on the belief that what society needs is religion," Kincheloe reported, and I observed, "but society evidently did not think so." Money problems limited church efforts to serve the poor, whose numbers grew exponentially. At the same time, deep believers within all congregations and denominatins "did not fall away from faith merely because of economic trauma." The Christian Century editorialized, with a view on the past: "Did people not address this Depression religiously because for once they did not think it occurred under the providence of God? The editorial conclusion: this may have been "the first time men have not blamed God for hard times." If that was true in 1935, it seems to be true today, too. There are accusers, accused, and commentators on all hands today, but one seldom hears that all the dealings, many of them now seen as greedy at best and criminal at worst, were anything but the results of individual and corporate folly and corruption. This time again, citizens can't blame God for getting them into this, and are trying to find God-ly ways to get out of it...together.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.