Anti-Intellectualism and the Creation of National Myths

By: Dale M. Coulter
Thursday, September 19th, 2013

NwswkPopulism.jpg-550x0At the dawn of the 1960s Richard Hofstadter was in his prime as a historian. A recipient of a Pulitzer for his book, Age of Reform, he had been part of an elite group of thinkers who were attempting to re-shape the national discourse in the United States. Among these thinkers were Lionel Trilling and Reinhold Niebuhr. Like all historians, Hofstadter admitted that he wrote for the present and that his efforts were in the service of a larger vision of American democracy.

It took him seven years to write his next book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.  It was a deeply personal work, a kind of thinking man’s guide to populist rage in which Hofstadter took on middle-class America for what had happened during the Eisenhower years (1953-1960).

The era had been launched by Arthur Miller’s indictment of McCarthyism in The Crucible. It would end with Hoftstadter’s indictment of Midwestern populism and evangelical revivalism as hostile not only to intellectuals, but to the life of the mind itself.

Hofstadter set out to construct a new national narrative for America, one that would find its way into the work of Robert Mapes Anderson who studied at Columbia during the 1960s and into the work of Mark Noll who utilized Hoftstadter to foist blame for the scandal of the evangelical mind upon those belonging to the Holiness-Pentecostal movement. It was, in short, the creation of a new National Myth.

From Arthur Miller to Richard Hofstadter

When Miller composed his play about the witch hunts in Salem, Massachusetts, he was reacting to statements like Michigan Congressman George Dondero’s comment about the 1948 bill against Un-American activities.

In highly-charged rhetoric Dondero claimed “the world is dividing into two camps, freedom versus Communism, Christian civilization versus paganism.”

The House Committee on Un-American Activities had been in operation since 1945 and accusations and counter-accusations were in the air. 

Miller wanted to recast the debate by placing it in a dramatic framework set in a fictionalized account of a historical event in America’s past.

Having come through those debates himself, Richard Hofstadter set down to deal with the forces that led to them in the first place. In the opening lines of Anti-intellectualism, he made it clear that the book was a response to the conditions of the 1950s. He wanted to understand the forces that created McCarthyism and the way they constantly challenged the intellectual establishment.

From his perch at Columbia, Hofstadter surmised that the McCarthyites were populists with their Republican Midwestern values. He aimed to drive a wedge between intellectualism and egalitarianism, cultural elitism and middle-class populism.

Evangelical revivalists were simply another brand of populism and therefore part of the problem rather than the solution. These revivalists were the obstacles of American pluralism with their sectarian identities and their use of apocalyptic imaginary.

There was no effort on Hofstadter’s part to understand the role the same apocalyptic and prophetic imagery had played in launching the Civil Rights movement during the same decade. No effort to understand how holiness rhetoric was bound up with an egalitarian vision that called for the unity of the races.

Social Deprivation and Robert Mapes Anderson

It was Hofstadter’s Columbia that Robert Mapes Anderson entered when he received his MA in 1962 and PhD in 1969. It was at this same Columbia that Anderson would choose as his dissertation topic the social history of early pentecostalism, later published as Vision of the Disinherited.

Anderson followed Hofstadter’s lead in arguing that pentecostals essentially could not cope with industrializaton and urbanization in America.

Pentecostalism was largely a movement of the poor and their protest against the economic advances in America, which they felt left out of. Their turn to tongues and apocalypticism were simply forms of escapism and coping mechanisms.

Pentecostalism promoted a “vision of the disinherited” that pacified its members and turned them away from social protest.

In this way, Anderson sought to confirm Hofstadter’s claim that evangelical revivalism was part of the problem in American discourse, not the cure. They were a problematic feature of American life.

A new national myth was beginning to form.

Scandalizing Noll’s Scandal

When Noll set out to write The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in the early 1980s, he needed to do two things.

First, he needed to correct Hofstadter’s effort to trace anti-intellectualism among evangelical revivalsts from the First Great Awakening forward. In short, he needed to vindicate the Puritan vision.

Second, he needed to find a way to affirm Hofstadter’s original indictment of evangelical revivalism. In light of the recent work of George Marsden, he had a ready-made target. The problem was the forms of evangelicalism that came out of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy.

Who were they? Holiness spirituality, pentecostalism, and premillenial dispensationalism.

When you follow Noll’s language closely, his indictment seems to be that evangelicals should have followed the Puritans in attempting to create a comprehensive system of life (a world view).

They should have followed Abraham Kuyper who grounded cultural engagement in recognizing that there is no neutral ground for scholarship and then launching a Reformed vision that encompassed every area of life–Cultural Calvinism.

Instead, like Hofstadter before him, Noll claimed the problem with evangelical revivalism was its activist, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian ethos.

In an important sense, Noll’s work provided the capstone of an effort to construct a national narrative about the presence of evangelical revivalism and its contribution to the larger republic. Noll saved Puritanism by sacrificing pentecostalism.

A new historiography is called for, then. Pentecostals and members of the holiness movement have the numbers. This is the time to correct this new narrative that still haunts our national discourse, driving political wedges between parts of both movements. It’s time to scandalize the scandal.

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Thursday, September 19th, 2013 at 8:43 am and is filed under Church History, Faith & Culture, Renewal Studies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Anti-Intellectualism and the Creation of National Myths”

  1. Scott Pryor says:

    Yet, surely there was a significant strain of anti-intellectualism in the non-Mainline Protestant churches in the first half of the 20th century? On your terms the historian’s first mistake was to divide that world of such “outsider” American Christians into (only) two camps: Fundamentalist and Evangelical. Second would be the relegation of Pentecostal/holiness folk to the Fundamentalist box. Dualities ease the task of the historian where a finer-grained analysis might be more informative but I’m not convinced that the Noll/Marsden duality is wrong for the period under discussion. I would be pleased to find learn of Pentecostal/holiness intellectuals in America but pointing to their social activism isn’t enough.

    • Scott,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I have a post coming out next week that gets at your question a little. For now, I’ll say that one of the primary questions is whether one can be a populist and make an intellectual contribution. Hofstadter’s attack was against populism while Noll says his is against activism. It’s the same either way in my view.

      An irony of Noll’s critique is that he lifts up the Benedictines and other monks in the Middle Ages for their “serious contemplation of God.” So, Bernard of Clairvaux who preached a sermon in Paris to the students that they should leave school and convert (= become a monk) is an example of an intellectual. Bernard the populist preacher who led at least three charges against university teachers, one against Gilbert de la Porree and two against Peter Abelard. No one would say Bernard did not make a contribution to the spirituality of the church, so if he counts as making an intellectual contribution through contemplation of God, then why exclude someone like A. W. Tozer who was operative in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s? He was Christian Missionary and Alliance, wrote over 20 works AND received an honorary doctorate from Wheaton of all places. As you may know, the Christian Missionary and Alliance was the church of former Presbyterian A. B. Simpson and was part of the Higher Life Movement, which is a movement Noll explicitly mentions as part of the problem. It seems a little ironic to claim Benedictines in the cause of the life of the mind and then ignore a spiritual writer like Tozer.

      So, one question is whether you can be a populist in America and make an intellectual contribution.