I’ve mentioned Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity on this blog before and I’m sure I’ll mention it again. This is the book you need to read if you’ve ever wondered how Christianity got so screwed up in the United States. If you’ve wondered where goofy patriotic hymns originated, if you want to learn when Americans began to dislike creeds, confessions and church membership, if you’ve wondered about the origin of evangelical superstars, or if you want to learn about the source of the phrase “no creed but the Bible,” you must get this book. Hatch’s book is far too detailed to summarize here, so I’ll simply quote an insightful paragraph now and blog on it again some other time.
In chapter four, Hatch discusses the 19th century democratic, republican, and populist view of religion – that each man should approach religion and the Bible independently, freely, and as his own source of authority.
“[They] called for common folk to read the Bible as if mortal man had never seen it before. People were expected to discover the self-evident message of the Bible without any mediation from creeds, theologians, or clergymen not of their own choosing. This explicit faith that biblical authority could emerge from below, from the will of the people, was the most enduring legacy of [this] movement. By the 1840s one analyst of American Protestantism concluded, after surveying fifty-three sects, that the principle ‘No creed but the Bible’ was the distinctive feature of American religion. John W. Nevin [a German Reformed theologian] surmised that this emphasis grew out of a popular demand for ‘private judgment’ and was ‘tacitly if not openly conditioned always by the assumption that every man is authorized and bound to get at this authority in a direct way for himself, through the medium simply of his own single mind.’ Many felt that the exhilarating hope that democracy had opened an immediate access to biblical truth for all persons of good will. Americans found it difficult to realize, however, that a commitment to private judgment could drive people apart, even as it raised beyond measure their hopes for unity.”
I’m not against democracy, but I do believe Christians should be careful not to let democracy creep into the church (including hermeneutics, ecclesiology, theology, and so forth). Also, we should be self-critical: how have our own churches been affected by democracy? Does the will of the people rule our churches (songs, sermons, theology, worship) or God’s word given to the church? In what ways are our own churches more democratic than Christian? How can we exist in a democratic culture without letting it direct our churches? What steps can we take in our churches to become less democratic?
Again, I strongly recommend this book: The Democratization of American Christianity.