It takes a certain level of self-deception to be a lukewarm evangelical. Intense piety is in the tradition’s DNA. The need for not only a conversion experience but a life in which the gospel is internalized and alive and demonstrated in the world has given evangelicalism an impressive vitality.
Nostalgia is inherently selective. At some level we understand that the past we idealize has its flipside—that religious traditions in their heyday, for example, were perfunctory as well as inspiring, and that small-town life was oppressive as well as intimate.
Your fundamentalist grandmother is unwittingly abetting a tyrannical conspiracy. That neighbor down the street with his bumper stickers and ichthus accessories may not be a Nazi-style ideologue, but he could be a theocrat on the sly.
The Book of Job feels unnecessarily long, but we tolerate the repetition because the final payoff is powerful. Along the way, the arguments against Job form concentric cages of folly, cant, common sense and basic theology, and Job must either accept being their prisoner or stage some kind of personal break.
To counter the pervasive influence of religion in our mountain hometown, my father once loaned me his copy of Mark Twain’s satirical Letters from the Earth. A decade later I encountered Twain’s barbed commentary on a famous line from the Sermon on the Mount.
Literature is a greater rival to religion than science is because both religion and literature seek the same kind of good. Science proposes explanations of the physical world, but literature, in its most persistent form, evokes and then presses hard at deep human dilemmas.
"In my time,” one of Saul Bellow’s characters muses, “parents didn’t hesitate to speak of death. What they seldom mentioned was sex. We’ve got it the other way around.” No American novelist has written more candidly and aggressively about both than Philip Roth.
As the defining crisis in American history gathered momentum and became civil war, ministers in both the North and the South spoke with authority, even defiance, about the overriding purposes of God. The impact was sobering. Precisely at a time when Protestant influence on national values had no real rivals, America collapsed into a war over the decisive moral issue of the day.