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Prophesies of Godlessness

nichols1Prophesies of Godlessness:Predictions of America’s Imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)


Prophesies of Godlessness, co-edited and co-authored by Christopher McKnight Nichols and Charles Mathewes, explores the surprisingly similar expectations of religious and moral change voiced by major American thinkers from the time of the Puritans to today. These predictions of “godlessness” in American society — sometimes by those favoring the foreseen future, sometimes by those fearing it — have a history as old as America, and indeed seem crucially intertwined with it.

This book shows that there have been and continue to be patterns to these prophesies. They determine how some people perceive and analyze America’s prospective moral and religious future, how they express themselves, and powerfully affect how others hear them. While these patterns have taken a sinuous and at times subterranean route to the present, when we think about the future of America we are thinking about that future largely with terms and expectations first laid out by past generations, some stemming back before the very foundations of the United States. Even contemporary atheists and those who predict optimistic techno-utopias rely on scripts that are deeply rooted in the American past.

This book excavates the history of these prophesies. Each chapter attends to a particular era, and each is organized around a focal individual, a community of thought, and changing conceptions of secularization. Each chapter also discusses how such predictions are part of all thought about “the good society,” and how such thinking structures our apprehension of the present, forming a feedback loop of sorts. Extending from the role of prophesies in Thomas Jefferson’s thought, to the Civil War, through progressivism, the Scopes Trial, the Cold War and beyond, Prophesies of Godlessness demonstrates that expectations about America’s future character and piety are not an accidental feature of American thought, but have been, and continue to be, absolutely essential to the meaning of the nation itself.

Reviews and endorsements:

“Under the brilliant editorship of Mathewes and Nichols, this chronologically arranged and thematically linked collection of essays looks at a tradition that extends from Puritan jeremiads to modern-day prophecies of doom. The result is an illuminating tour of American intellectual history that startles, provokes, and engages.”

-Walter Russell Mead, review in Foreign Affairs

“Each essay makes useful and intelligent points about religious and secular perceptions of the growth of godlessness. Indeed, by calling attention to thinkers’ similar fixation on opposite sides of belief, the book highlights a curious and underappreciated feature of religious and intellectual life in the United States.”

-D.G. Hart, review in the Journal of American History

“This is a collection of essays with resonating insights about today’s public dialogues. From Jefferson through Lincoln to today’s evangelicals, America’s historic struggle to achieve Godliness acquires depth and complexity in the hands of these fine scholars.”

-Joyce Appleby, Professor of History Emerita, U.C.L.A., author of Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination.

“Prophesies of Godlessness is a new angle of vision on the history of religion in America. People often worry that society is turning away from religion, but these essays show that this worry is itself one of the oldest and most durable parts of our religious story. The authors help us look at our traditions with more awareness of how they have changed, more confidence in their future, and more realism about our own predictions.”

-Robin W. Lovin, Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics, Southern Methodist University, author of Christian Realism and the New Realities

“This outstanding book offers discerning essays on a perennial phenomenon: Americans think the nation is becoming more secular, which leaves some rejoicing and some in despair. The authors reveal much about secularization, but much more about why predictions about the effacement of religion have been so central in American national life.”

-Mark A. Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor, History Department, University of Notre Dame, author of America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln

“There are many things to recommend about this book, but perhaps the most valuable aspect is the way it makes coherent and usable the debate over religion in American life. . . . I was greatly impressed by how well these essays hung together and spoke to one another. . . . the editors have done an admirable job sustaining that easy intellectual flow in their relevant and scholarly book.”

-Raymond J. Haberski Jr., review in the Journal of American Studies

“Prophesies of Godlessness, an unusually well-coordinated multi-authored volume … goes considerably beyond th[e] familiar story by paralleling such evangelical anxiety with the optimism of liberal figures who likewise predicted the coming demise of conventional Christianity and looked to a brighter day when more enlightened beliefs would prevail. The chief historical puzzle, the editors suggest, is that despite Americans’ perennial religiosity, so many spokespersons from so many eras from both the religious right and the skeptical left have agreed that traditional religion as they knew it was about to disappear.”

-George Marsden, review in the Journal of Church and State

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