American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon

By Stephen Prothero

(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr


If I’ve not said it enough already, I’ll say it again: the Lord has had a really interesting history, and this did not end in 33 AD! Prothero shares segments of that history which are likely unknown to many of us, or at least under-appreciated, not given the right contextualization.

A Catholic unacquainted with his own history might just scratch his head at the foibles of Protestants. But he’d be wrong to do so: he is not the Church; men err. Catholic history has been every bit as theologically messy, despite the fact that the depths of the errors of Catholics are providentially cordoned-off by the Magisterium – a Magisterium, though, that seems to recede into an infinite horizon at times. For every lily-livered Jesus Protestants have conjured up (Chapter 2), for every muscle-man Jesus (Chapter 3), every time they have wished to turn the Lord into a business man (pp. 104-8), or a hippie (126-42), or a socialist, we must reflect upon the misunderstandings and transformations that Catholics have effected. We have turned Our Lord into a Platonist, we have “unsexed him,” (to borrow a Shakespeare-ism), turned him into a Crusader, into Saturn, Jupiter, Apollo and Bacchus. So let’s bear that in mind and just enjoy this fascinating history…

But it does make you appreciate Tradition and the Magisterium! The religious history of the US is predominantly Protestant. Despite Mexican immigration, I think we are still a long way off from that ceasing to be the case. American Catholics have to recognize that – recognize how deeply their Catholicism has been influenced by Protestantism. It is one thing for the Church to teach Christ, how we listen is quite another matter. American Catholics have been deeply influenced by Fundamentalism and by liberal Protestantism. What about our idea of Christ? Which has played a greater role in the formation of the American Catholic idea of Christ – Aquinas’ Tertia Pars or Wesleyan hymnody?

History is never written with straight lines, the history of dogma especially. This is certainly the case in the US, since, in the words of the great historian of dogma, the Protestant Adolf Harnack, Protestantism knows no dogma but sola scriptura. Yet as Prothero makes clear, not even Scripture has limited the imagination of American Christians when it comes to Christ. In this history, ‘Jesus’ has been more important than the Bible.

Prothero’s thesis is that Jesus is deeply important to Americans. Can anything be more obvious? And yet, as he states, this has not always been the case. The Colonies were founded by Calvinists for whom the Father was all: “The Old Testament trumped the New, and Jesus the Son cowered in the shadow of God the Father.” (Prothero, p. 10) Why would we assume that people would always heed Augustine’s counsel that the Old is to be read in light of the New?

The history Prothero traces is one of extremes and radical oscillations. It is said that Catholicism is the religion of both/and. Sounds like a recipe for luke-warmness, and yet, in light of the either/or of the history of American Protestantism, as seen in this book, it is something for which we should be grateful. Prothero starts with the cheerless Calvinists, moves on to consider the rationalism of Jefferson, the emotivism of the ‘Second Great Awakening,’ on to the Industrial Age, the effects of the World Wars, the ‘60s, and beyond. It is a history of reaction and rejection: God the Father was too central, let’s put Christ in the center; it was too rationalistic under the Puritans and Enlightenment thinkers like Jefferson and Jonathan Edwards, let’s focus solely on sentiment; it became too feminine, let’s overdue the masculinity… Part of this, of course, is the historian’s need to tell a story in easy to digest pieces, but part of this is the subject itself. In order to tell a good story Prothero commits a few narrative blunders, as when he says that the victory of St. Irenaeaus’ four Gospel canon over Marcion’s single Gospel canon was “inexplicable.” (pp. 7-8) It wasn’t inexplicable at all, it simply cannot be explained according to the presuppositions the ruling script demands. Historians feel like they have to write in light of this script, as when he implies that the Crusades constituted a significant theological moment, alongside the Reformation. (p. 8) In the context in which it is used, ‘crusades’ just seems just kind of thrown out because people have heard of it and he wants his reader to feel intelligent.

But Prothero’s history is much more than pop-culture sound bites like this. Actually, he seems to have a real grasp of the subject at hand: he draws on various specialized sources, such as diaries, providing at times a quite perceptive reflection of the intimate thoughts and feelings of the people he is writing about. Nevertheless, he is guilty of the quintessential American intellectual sin: conceiving of America as a discrete entity. This is most apparent in his account of Thomas Jefferson (Chapter 1). His is a fascinating account, and yet Prothero never mentions John Locke once, nor any of the other Enlightenment thinkers who had profoundly influenced Jefferson. (He does tell us, though, that Jefferson wrote before David Strauss was even born! (p. 40)) One can get the idea that the only thing that ever mattered to American Christians was American Christians, which is quite simply and quite happily false.

All in all, despite its faults, this is a valuable history. This is a topic on which too few of us really have a grasp. The popular level on which Prothero presents it makes American Jesus a great place to begin to think about the American religious experience – an experience which continues to have profound implications for all of us today. I found Chapter Six – ‘The Black Moses’ – most disturbing. I guess, because it raises a whole host of questions and challenges that are anything but historical curiosities. The chapter on Mormonism (Chapter 5, ‘Mormon Elder Brother’) is fascinating, as are his many reflections on the importance of art for this history.

With everything, a grain of salt is required. This is a great place to make a beginning, but it does not settle anything. I welcome more studies like this: accessible, entertaining, about an important subject.

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