Moral Therapeutic Deism, 1920 Edition

I’m reading Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt right now (God bless Project Gutenberg!), and am finding a lot of wonderful descriptions of Middle America from the early 1920s that still pertain today.

And lest anyone think Moral Therapeutic Deism is somehow solely the creation of troublesome and godless liberals following there cultural and social tumult of the 1960s, this description Lewis writes of George F. Babbitt’s religious views pretty well encapsulates just how familiar — and rooted, and conservative — that faith truly is in American culture:

If you had asked Babbitt what his religion was, he would have answered in sonorous, Boosters’-Club rhetoric, “My religion is to serve my fellow men, to honor my brother as myself, and to do my bit to make life happier for one and all.” If you had pressed him for more detail, he would have announced, “I’m a member of the Presbyterian Church and naturally, I accept its doctrines.” If you had been so brutal as to go on, he would have protested, “There’s no use discussing and arguing about religion; it just stirs up bad feeling.”

Actually, the content of his theology was that there was a supreme being who had tried to make us perfect but presumably failed; that if one was a Good Man he would go to a place called Heaven (Babbitt unconsciously picture it as rather like an excellent hotel with a private garden), but if one was a Bad Man, that is, if he murdered or committed burglary or used cocaine or had mistresses or sold non-existent real estate, he would be punished. Babbitt was uncertain, however, about what he called “this business of Hell.” He explained to Ted, “O course I’m pretty liberal; I don’t exactly believe in a fire-and-brimstone Hell. Stands to reason, though, that a fellow can’t get away with all sorts of Vice and not get nicked for it, see how I mean?”

Upon this theology he rarely pondered. The kernel of his practical religion was that it was respectable, and beneficial to one’s business, to be be seen going to services; that the church keep the Worst Elements from being still worse; and that the pastor’s sermons, however dull they might seem at the time of taking, yet had a voodooistic power which “did a fellow good—kept him in touch with Higher Things.”

Yes, Lewis is writing satire. But his satire of bourgeois mores and bourgeois faith is not far off. This is American Christendom, in its banal entirety, from roughly 1870 to about 1962. No one should condemn the young today for their failure to believe in anything substantial. For the most part, their parents, grandparents, and great-parents didn’t either.

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