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Michael P. OrsiOctober 08, 2007

Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian Americaby By Matthew Avery SuttonHarvard Univ. Press. 416p $26.
The term American exceptionalism means that the United States plays a unique role in historythat, in fact, God has specifically designated our nation to fulfill his purposes.

This idea has provided a rationale for American public policy, both foreign and domestic, ever since the Mayflower Compact. It has been used to justify our wars, our immigration policies and much more. And it has been central to the messages of various religious leaders who have gained prominence throughout our historyfrom Jonathan Edwards in the 18th century and Henry Ward Beecher in the 19th right down to Jerry Falwell in the current era.

One leading exponent of this exceptionalist notion was Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), a Protestant evangelist who became particularly important in American religious life during the first part of the 20th century. She is the subject of Matthew Avery Suttons new book, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America.

Sutton, assistant professor of history at Oakland University, Rochester, Mich., offers a panoramic view of McPhersons life, and contends that her legacy is nothing less than the revival of Christian fundamentalism as a major force in American politics. McPherson joined Pentecostal enthusiasm with the traditional tenets of creedal Christianity, creating a juggernaut that continues to command the attention of politicians. Contemporary Americans will be familiar with its more recent incarnations, the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition.

McPherson began her career as a revival-tent preacher, but soon solidified her movement in the Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The locus of her ministry was the 5,000-seat Angelus Temple she built in Los Angeles. Her religious teaching was often in the context of a theatrical presentation, with herself as the prima donna in a cast worthy of a Broadway production. Her charismatic personality energized the social and political outreach of her organization, which began as an ecumenical ministry but eventually became a denomination in its own right. Active in California politics, and later in the war effort, she tirelessly promoted a type of spiritual populism often referred to as the religion of America.

Central to this understanding of faith is the philosophy of pragmatism, whose goal is to assure Americans psychologically of their essential righteousness and their special closeness to the heart of God. Hence, the exceptionalist idea of America as the New Jerusalemthe shining City on a Hill. The premise rests on dubious biblical exegesis, but it finds a prominent place in the religio-political discourse of those who adhere to it.

McPherson drew on such ideas and on the imagery suggested by them. She was constantly pairing Americas primary civic icon, the flag, with the pre-eminent religious symbol, the cross (a combination of visual elements that decades later would become a fixture of Jerry Falwells Old Time Gospel Hour). She also anointed some politicians with virtual messianic status, as exemplified in her support of Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt (later evangelicals would do the same with Ronald Reagan).

History is replete with examples of religious cults joined to state aspirations, from the pietas of the ancient Romans, to the claims made on individual conscience by modern totalitarian regimes. Over and over again, national symbols have been sanctified and leaders deifiedall to enable kingdoms and nations to enhance their power over their citizens.

True religion, however, demands a separation of church and state, since no political system can ever be perfect. And herein lies the danger of aligning religion with politicians and national interests. To use St. Augustines dichotomy, the City of God must act as a superego for the City of Man. Proclaiming that Gods will coincides with civic rule cheapens religions moral worth and, in the end, sells out to mammon.

The cult of personality that surrounds some religious leaders imposes high expectations and concomitant pressures. McPhersons experience illustrates, in particular, how the dangers of greed and self-promotion can become great temptations for Christian superstars and often grease the skids for a fall from grace. The scandals with which her name was associated (divorce; financial impropriety; allegations of sexual misconduct, lavish lifestyle and charlatanism in physical healings; and finally, a fatal drug overdose that was ruled accidental) are indications of falseor at least underdevelopedspirituality.

Numerous challenges were leveled at McPhersons religious integrity, especially by Robert P. Schuler, a Methodist pastor who recognized the self-serving egoism and adventurism in her ministry and became her nemesis. (In our day, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Ted Haggard showed similar individualism and materialism that often underlie religious life in America.)

It would be wrong to allege that everything wrought by McPherson and others of her ilk is bad. Her outreach to the poor, for example, (especially her food pantry) was an outstanding example of Social Gospel initiative during the Great Depression. It was, in many ways, a precursor to the work of todays Christian ministries that provide invaluable service to the nation by aiding the poor and giving witness on immigration, health care reform, war and many other critical issues.

Once religion takes on a temporal agenda, however, it opens itself to being coopted by the state, blurring the line between faith and mere partisanship, with true religion the ultimate loser. The life of Aimee Semple McPherson provides abundant examples of the reasons for caution.

Sutton gives somewhat less attention to the core questions about how religion can be manipulated for political expediency than he does to McPhersons impact on the politics of her day, evangelical Christianity, feminism, charity and social service, politics and the media. Nonetheless, this book is a timely warning for modern religious leaders seeking a place at the table as the 2008 election looms.


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