Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Democratization of American Christianity - Nathan Hatch

Having summarized several aspects of Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart last October, I want to turn briefly to Nathan Hatch’s work in Democratization of American Christianity which should help to create a better vista of how our current doctrines and practice are be compromised by individualism.

Hatch attempts to show how the democratic spirit of early America set the tone for the American church as it took on the spirit of the age. This democratic spirit emerged in three profound ways. First, American’s rejected the traditional separation between clergy and laity where power and virtue was transferred from the educated elite to larger body of individuals.[1] Apart from the well educated elite and tradition, individuals were free to explore their “spiritual impulses” thus defining faith for themselves.[2] Filled with democratic hope, Christianity was to become a liberating force for all people from authoritarian structures.[3] From these beginnings, Hatch says that three tendencies emerged for American Christianity: 1) mingling of diverse and contradictory sources, 2) fragmentation, and finally inversion of authority.[4] American religious experience mirrors what was taking place in the name of equality and freedom both at a national level and within its constituents by the systematic and simultaneous raising of the common individual by casting off oppressive authority and placing that authority into the hands of each person.[5] A largely untrained people became the prime interpreters of scripture, now taken from the oppressive hands of educated clergy revealing a populist common-sense or self-evident hermeneutic.

[1] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 9.
[2] Ibid., 10.
[3] Ibid., 11.
[4] Ibid., 35.
[5] Ibid., 10.